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#80. I-Search Paper

Reading/Writing, level: Middle
Posted by Jean M. Davis (jean_davis@gorham.k12.me.us).
Gorham High School, USA

January 1997

Dear Parent/Guardian,

Your teenager is about to begin a major writing project, an I-search paper, for English class. The I-search concept comes from Ken Macrorie's The I-Search Paper, 1988. Its premise is intriguing: rather than ask students to RE-search, from books, what has been searched already (and researched, and researched) why not help them to discover the excitement of initiating their own search of a topic, one which truly interests them? And why not challenge them to rely on people, not books, as sources?

My freshmen have selected a rich variety of topics for past I-searches: racism, television journalism, helping the hungry, Maine's maple syrup industry, careers with computers, scuba diving, drug and alcohol abuse, teenage mothers, UFO's, eating disorders, how divorce affects families....Any topic is suitable as long as the student is sincerely curious about it.

We will follow this schedule:

February 3: Topics due. I will share examples of previously successful, well-written I-search papers. Also, with the class arranged in one large circle, we will spend a couple of days with each student sharing his/her topic with his/her classmates. This activity generates much enthusiasm and gives the searchers several good leads.

One day/week during February and much of March: In-class work on the project. Interview questions need to be prepared; questionnaires need to be written and mailed; interview notes need to be transcribed; thank you notes need to be written. (All material to be mailed out must be approved by theteacher.) During February-March students may share with the teacher and classmates early drafts of their papers. (The paper is written as the student conducts the search. There is no need to wait until completing the entire search before starting the writing!) Note: I urge students to use a word processor. This makes the writing task much more manageable. This classroom has a Macintosh Powerbook which students may sign out to take home.

March 24: The I-search paper is due. It should be contained in a two-pocket folder. One pocket holds all memorabilia from the search (rough drafts of letters sent, letters received, interview notes, pamphlets, business cards....) This pocket also holds early drafts of the paper. The other pocket holds the finished product. Its format should be as follows:

I. An introduction explaining the topic searched, why the student selected it, what he/she knows about it before beginning the search, and what he/she hopes to learn. This portion is written as the student starts the project. Its value is approximately 10% of the paper. II. The story of the search and findings: who was contacted (and why and how), how the contact reacted to the interview request, the atmosphere of the interview, what was learned from the interview. Students are urged to show the personality of the interviewee. The student should also report dead-ends, unwilling contacts, disappointing avenues, as well as unexpected gold mines. Roughly 75% of the paper. III. Conclusion: How does the student feel about what has been learned? Has her thinking changed? Has she made any unanticipated, secondary findings concerning the topic itself, herself, or people in general as a result of this search? Roughly 15% of the paper.

Note: Face-to-face interviews are the most challenging and most productive; therefore, they receive the most credit. Telephone interviews are second-best; mailed questionnaires should be used only when the first two options are impossible, or to supplement the search. Criteria for evaluation:

1. Evidence of effort:Did the student truly reach out to others, or did he sit at home, mail out two or three questionnaires, and tally the responses? I have been impressed by students who have sat in an airplane's cockpit at Portland Jetport (and, recently, even given an unexpected aerial tour of southern Maine), interviewed top-level executives in Portland-area businesses, job-shadowed a farmer for an entire day, volunteered for a day at a local veterinary hospital, interviewed Kenny Rogers at the Civic Center before a concert, traveled to central Maine to interview a couple who had had an "encounter" with a UFO. 2. Thoroughness of search: There is no such thing as an "unsearchable" topic as long as the student refuses to be defeated by a dead end. Instead, he redefines his topic and continues his search. Students should have a MINIMUM of three face-to-face contacts and at least five contacts in all in order for their paper to be accepted for evaluation. 3. Effectiveness of the actual paper: Does it contain the required sections? Is it presented in a thorough, interesting, well-written manner? The final draft should be highly polished with no misspellings, fragments, run-ons, or grammatical errors.

These remarks taken from students' papers show why the project is worthwhile, beyond its giving each student an assignment to which he can be truly committed:

"I started this search as a Corvette fan, but now I'm a fanatic." "While I was interviewing Mr._____, he received a telephone call. He told his secretary he could not take the call just then because he was busy being interviewed." "Mr. Grosfeld (US Olympic coach) sent me his reply in only one week. I thought this was kind of him because he's busy between coaching at Southern Connecticut State University and making public appearances." "Kenny Rogers' secretary telephoned my home. She said Mr. Rogers was impressed with my letter and would be happy to give me an interview before his April concert at the Civic Center." "As I walked away from the Senior Citizens' booth, I heard one lady whisper to the other, 'He seems like a nice young man, doesn't he?'"

Of course this project develops writing and speaking skills, satisfies (or merely whets) curiosity, builds self-confidence, and makes for good reading. I suspect, however, that its most valuable product is the respect generated between teenagers and adults.

I realize the I-search project makes demands on parents, particularly in terms of chauffeuring. For this I apologize, because I'm sure your schedules are already full.

If you have any questions or concerns, please call me at the high school (xxx-xxxx). I am free from x:xx to x:xx am, and after x:xx p.m.

Thank you.

Sincerely yours,

(Mrs.) Jean M. Davis
English teacher