Adrienne Jankens

"Good learners, like everyone else, are living, squirming, questioning, perceiving, fearing, loving, and languaging nervous systems, but they are good learners precisely because they believe and do certain things that less effective learners do not believe and do." -Postman and Weingartner (31)

I-Search Lesson Plans

Walking through the I-Search Project

Introductory Homework:

To introduce students to the I-Search project, I ask them to read two introductory texts: Macrorie’s chapter describing the I-Search and Postman and Weingartner’s chapter “What’s Worth Knowing,” from Teaching as a Subversive Activity. I hope that these two texts will engage students in thinking about what questions are meaningful to them, and about how the pursuit of inquiry can be tied into a writing project in a different way. I also ask them to read the project description.

Then, I ask students to write the following post for their blogs:

Read and annotate the Postman and Weingartner and Macrorie texts. Then, compose a paragraph that explains your understanding of Postman and Weingartner’s and Macrorie’s arguments. At the end of the paragraph, pose a question about one or both texts. Then, develop a paragraph or paragraphs exploring your ideas for Project 2. Post your response on your blog under an appropriate title.

Here’s an example of an engaging student blog post: Hussein’s Reading Response 4

Day One:

Our classroom initiation to the project starts with a discussion on students’ perceptions about the difference between an I-Search and a traditional research paper. This discussion asks them to draw from their prior knowledge and experience as well as Macrorie’s description of the project.

Here are some student notes from that initial class discussion:

  • Research paper: starts with a claim, evidence follows the claim, shows results, written in third person, follows a certain structure, using secondary research
  • I-Search paper: starts with a question, builds toward a claim, describes both process and results, first-person, subjective, personal connections to process and findings, looser structure, primary research

Then, we worked on brainstorming. This semester, I created a brainstorming sheet to support students’ thinking about what they KNOW and what they WANT to or NEED to know about various aspects of the discourse communities they participate in. Initially, I used just Swales’ six characteristics of discourse communities as a heuristic, but during class, we added Gee’s “saying-(writing)-doing-believing-valuing” combinations. I gave students about 10-15 minutes to work through the sheet while I answered individual questions (in the second class session that we did this activity, I asked students to reserve their questions for whole-class discussion, so everyone could benefit from the discussions).

After some time spent on the brainstorming sheets, I asked students to take out a piece of paper and write a potential research question or (at least) the discourse community they are interested in researching on the top (I took this activity from Michael Stancliff’s “Exploring Topics: Rationale for a Class Exercise” in Strategies for Teaching First-Year Composition, edited by Roen et al). I explained to students that we would pass the sheets around the room, and they were to write down the first idea, question, piece of information, or suggestion that came to their minds when they read the question/topic. I suggested that this kind of brainstorming helps us move beyond the ideas we are focused on, to see other possibilities, and also gives students ideas about what other students are pursuing (and I have had great success with it each semester I’ve used it). We start by passing papers one to the left, and just keep going until everyone has his/her paper back. It takes about thirty minutes. I participate, too, which helps me see what students are thinking about. When everyone has their papers back, I ask them to review the comments, marking those that they want to come back to, and writing down anything else that comes to their mind while we’re in the moment.

Then, I gave students their next homework assignment: do a lot of thinking, and come to the next class session with your potential I-Search question written down.

Day Two: 

Picking up the previous class session’s chat about the differences between the I-Search and traditional research genres, I asked students to read a sample student essay with these questions in mind:

  • What are the important writing moves the student makes to convey her research process and findings to the audience?
  • How do we see an I-Search paper as shaping up differently than a research paper?

The two classes’ discussion responses to these questions can be seen here.

Then, I asked them to do some freewriting on their own questions:

  • What do I know (or think I know) about this topic?
  • Why do I want to know the answer(s) to my question?

These questions represent the first two sections of Macrorie’s I-Search paper, and will make up the introduction of students’ drafts. In this freewriting moment, I want them to start thinking about motivation, especially. This personal connection or interest to the topic is one of the criteria I ask them to use when we move on to test the viability of research questions in a workshop session.

I showed students a set of questions on the blog they could use to test whether their potential I-Search question(s) would get them off to the right start. We used these questions to talk through several student example questions. I asked students to volunteer their questions, I wrote the questions on the board, and as a group, we used the heuristic to help us work through and revise the research questions as needed (we spent about a half hour doing this, and worked through about five questions).

Then, I gave students their assignments for the next class:

  • Read Merriam (available on BB); write Project 2 introduction and bring hard copy to class;
  • Reading Response 5 due to blog by class time: Read and annotate the Merriam texts. Then, compose a paragraph that explains your understanding of how you would apply the research strategies Merriam describes in your composing of the I-Search paper (Project 2). Post your response on your blog under an appropriate title.

Here’s an example of an especially insightful student blog post: Sarah’s Reading Response 5

Day Three

To begin class, we spent some time looking at the introduction of student-sample-red-robin-i-search, to revisit the three main components of an introduction: what I know, what I want to know, and why I want to know it. I asked students to identify the moves the writer made in her introduction, and then to pose questions or offer insight on the construction of the introduction. From there, we moved into small group discussion (groups of 4). I suggested the groups organize their discussion time as follows (though I also asked them to decide as a group what would work best):

  • Spend ten minutes reading each other’s introductions.
  • Spend ten minutes talking to each other about what needs clarification or explanation.
  • Spend ten minutes talking to each other about the research methods you will pursue in the I-Search paper.

The thirty minutes worked in most cases (some groups needed more time, some less), but because their work was still largely in the conceptual stages, they had a lot to talk about with each other.

After groups talked with each other, I moved on to talk them through a Prezi about how to organize the body of the I-Search.

Finally, one of my students from last semester came to talk with the class about her experiences writing the I-Search paper. I hoped this would give students some insight into the time management and dispositional aspects of the project. She spoke for about five minutes and then took questions. Students were especially interested in knowing how she decided who to interview and how she organized her interview material in the body of the draft. She shared her blog link with the class so they could see her process work on the project.

Days Four and Five

To give students time to begin researching and writing, I hold assigned ten-minute conferences with students during class time for two days. I ask students to bring any writing and notes they have done so we can talk about their plans and questions.

Day Six

In a class discussion, students generated a list of questions they would like to ask about their I-Search drafts. We used these to guide peer response discussions in groups of three.

Here is the list of questions they generated: Questions about drafts

After peer response, students submitted drafts to me for feedback.

Day Seven

We opened this last day of class time spent on the project with a discussion of two I-Search papers from previous semesters in light of the I-Search rubric that was developed by my Fall 2013 classes. I asked students to read the papers, and then talk in small groups about how they would evaluate the essays based on the rubric. As a class, we discussed the features of the essays that they saw falling into the “Excellent” column of the rubric. Then, I opened the floor to questions about their drafts.

From here, we moved on into a workshop session on their papers. I asked students to first look at a couple of things:

  1. I asked students to re-read the drafts they submitted to me and then read my feedback before asking me any questions about it. I suggested to them that my feedback would make more sense if they first reviewed the draft, because my comments would be in context.
  2. I asked students to look at Writer’s Help tutorials on integrating quotations and the use of pronouns supporting point of view–two issues I saw across drafts.

I moved around the room to conference briefly with students while they worked.

Finally, I reminded students of the tuning-in reflection due that evening, reviewing the directions. In this assignment, students work through the following tasks and write a blog post:

  • After you have completed a pretty solid draft of your I-search essay, set it aside for a while (a day, or at least several hours). Come back to it when you have a quiet space to work in. Read your essay aloud once or twice. As you read, think about things like . . .
  • Does it sound the way you want it to?
  • Does something sound brilliant? Strange? Why?
  • If something is not like you want it to be, what do you plan on doing about it?
  • Does the essay sound like you? Academic you? Informal you?
  • What was going on while you wrote your draft that might have influenced your writing?
  • What other things are you thinking about or noticing while you read and hear your draft?
  • You will listen for and pay attention to these and other things while you read. Then, after you have read your work aloud a few times, or while you are reading it, spend time writing about  the things you heard or noticed while you read, your reactions to these things, and what, if anything, this will do for your revision process.
  •  After writing this reflective section, consider how you can make ties between what Elbow and/or Fulwiler write, and what you experience as you look at, read, and reflect on your draft. Write a paragraph making these connections between one or both of these texts and your experience examining your draft.

From this point, students have one week to revise and submit their final versions of Project 2: the I-Search.

Post-Project Reflection

Students respond to the following prompt as they consider what influenced their composition of the I-search project and as they reflect on their development as a learner in a composition course. It is submitted with their final draft of the project:

Reflect on the process of working through your I-search project. In the course of writing the I-search paper, you wrote about your research decisions and reflected on your discoveries regarding your research question. Ultimately, you were left with some answers and some more questions to follow up on.
Now, think even more about what influenced your choices over the course of writing the project and what influence you may have had on others’ writing processes through your participation in class discussion, peer response, and responding to others’ blog posts. Think through the questions below, writing about whatever seems relevant.

  • Can you cite any class discussion moments as particularly influential for your writing? If so, what was your role in these class discussions? For example, were you an active participant? A question-poser? A responder? A listener?
  • Were discussions with the teacher influential in writing your I-search project? If so, what questions did you ask that ultimately helped you understand the project or helped you make key decisions in your writing? What teacher comments, suggestions, or questions helped you think about key aspects of the project?
  • Did your reading of classmates’ blog posts or drafts influence your writing? In what ways? Do you have a sense that reading your posts or drafts helped someone else make choices in their writing? In what ways?
  • Did something else you read (either something assigned in this class, from your research, or from your own reading or other courses) help you make key connections for how to write the paper? In what ways?
  • Then, explore how you would describe your understanding of your role as a learner in this class, at this point. That is, what does it mean to you to be a learner in the composition classroom? What factors are causing you to see your role in this way?
  • Please also address the following: What learning objectives do you feel you have completed through working on this assignment (the I-search paper) and how does your writing in this paper show evidence of accomplishing these objectives? (Include this evidence in your reflection.)


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