In the months leading up to Christmas vacation, Westtown’s library was a buzz with students researching topics that included House of Cards‘ Frank Underwood, Gossip Girl and Quentin Tarantino. Questions were raised about ambition, loyalty and whether it is better to have wisdom or power. All of these questions, topics, and inspirations swirled through the senior class as they pursued their individual research projects related to Shakespeare’s Othello. Their research yields a major paper and is a relatively new rite of passage for our students. It lives within our well established three divisional information literacy curriculum.
Beginning in Lower School, students learn to focus on a topic, ask questions of their topic, find credible sources, evaluate those sources, create a narrative, and share what they have learned with others. These skills are learned within the context of projects in their academic subject areas in developmentally appropriate assignment. Younger students work from a pre-chosen set of resources and topics to research African animals or aspects of the rain forest, or modern Native Americans. For them telling about what they have learned in presentations, reports, or class museums is entirely appropriate. By middle school students are beginning to create thesis driven products and explore a wider universe of resources. Their research might serve the needs of their interests in building a windmill or understanding the Syrian Refugee Crisis. The end product of these research based projects might be an 8th grader’s pitch to an angel investor interested in funding the best solution to a human problem. It could be a 9th grade student’s 30 second Public Service Announcement video on the dangers of a particular drug. Tenth grade students create monologues related to the Civil War and video presentations on one of the first Ten Amendments. All these projects are grounded in teaching research and information literacy. In twelfth grade the end product is the formal research paper.
The goals of the Othello papers are to have students practice at the highest level possible the research skills they have been learning for the past several years from within a variety of subject areas; to write a thesis driven paper that uses other scholars’ research and writers’ opinions to support the student’s own thesis; to learn about the sorts of sophisticated databases they will encounter in college; to understand the importance and use of an annotated bibliography; and to work closely with our librarians so that students learn what a librarian can do to help them with their work. In writing their 7-10 page paper they are expected to quote extensively from the play, demonstrate critical thinking skills, write with interest and power, and build an argument that successfully defends their thesis.
Four years ago the capstone research project lived within the school’s upper level history electives. While this project served us well for a number of years, a shift to semester length history courses meant that we could no long guarantee that all of our students would have this valuable learning experience. The English Department embraced the research project and placed it in our first semester senior English course “Writing with Power.” The first two thirds of this course explore the essay in several different forms. Students then read, watch, and discuss Othello; they finish the semester with the research project. While students living through the project express the whole gamut of possible reactions to the project from stress and exasperation to excitement, pleasure and satisfaction, we have data to suggest that this project serves our students well in college.
Every year we survey our young alum, graduates from the past eight years. We ask them questions about their sense of how well prepared they are for the reading, writing, and research they are encountering in college. We are seeing a small but noticeable bump compared to older graduates in the two years of students who participated in the Othello project. More of these most recent grads report feeling well prepared for the research they have been asked to do in their college courses. While we can’t trace direct causation without further research there does seem to be a correlation between the Othello paper and the greater sense of preparation. This project continues to affirm our belief that information literacy, including primary and secondary source research, is best taught within the context of compelling, grounded in student directed topics and projects. The deep learning about Othello, the complex ideas being explored and the skills being perfected all serve to justify the time given over to this single text.