The 21st Century Research Project: Literacy Instruction on Steroids

As an education major in the 20th century, I was schooled in four components of literacy instruction: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. These were foundational. They still are. In today’s world, though, additional literacies, sort-of ‘sub-category’ literacies, are vital as well. Depending on your source, there’s visual literacy, media literacy, and multimedia literacy. Add digital literacy, technological literacy, and (my favorite) information literacy. Clearly, these overlap; but the implication is obvious: today’s teachers have a lot of ground to cover in preparing their students to be fully-literate adults!

Sixth-grader Samie argues that smoking be banned in public places. Her great preparation and depth of research earned her a perfect score on the project!

Sixth-grader Samie argues that smoking be banned in public places. Her great preparation and depth of research earned her a perfect score on the project!

In the traditional or ‘old school’ research project, students read and write. They choose a topic, find information (remember the 100 notecards?), organize that information, and write a paper. The best research projects today, however, require students to practice both traditional and 21st century literacies–so much so that I call these projects literacy-instruction-on-steroids!  Great teachers are adept at designing projects through which students get to delve into every named aspect of literacy, and more.

Mr. Gutwein used the topic of pizza to demonstrate the mapping app Popplet for his students.

Mr. Gutwein used the topic of pizza to demonstrate the mapping app Popplet for his students.

Here’s an example: In their recent unit on persuasion, Aaron Gutwein’s sixth-graders at Riverside Intermediate first chose their own topics (all were current issues). They conferenced one-on-one with Gutwein, who guided each student to formulate a ‘big idea’ and direction for research. Students did lots of deep thinking as they sought information, mapped out arguments, gathered feedback, tweaked their plans, again sought information—over and over in a recursive process of multi-layered literacy instruction. Students used digital tools to access and organize information, and to build creative presentations. They shared their findings with peers.

Some key results of the project:

  • A deeper understanding of current issues, along with their nuances and complexities.
  • An understanding of how and where to find valid information, and what it means to make evidenced-based claims.
  • And, of course, practice in literacy skills, both the old and the new.