After sequestering myself in my home office for nearly four hours on a Saturday morning—using headphones and a closed door to counteract the distractions of domestic life—I emerge, over-caffeinated but relieved, announcing to my wife and daughters that I’ve graded 10 research papers, my quota for the day.

“How were they?” my wife asks.

“OK. One of them was really good,” I say.

Only one this time, but it really was good. The student’s research question was whether the U.S. should consider a national minimum drinking age (MDA) of 18, considering the seeming futility of enforcing the current age of 21. While dangerously close to some of the topics I refuse to allow students to write on anymore—abortion, legalizing marijuana—she made the topic her own. Her first exposure to the topic was a 60 Minutes episode she’d watched online in which a chief of police, a former college president, and the parents of a college student who had died of alcohol poisoning all (surprisingly) argued in favor of lowering the MDA. These voices, she acknowledged, had shaped her original position. But after doing her own extensive reading, an interview, and exploring her own family’s experiences with alcohol, her position shifted completely. She not only ultimately argued that the MDA remain 21 in every state, but also offered ideas regarding other cultural and educational changes that could help promote responsible alcohol consumption, that the law itself was just one piece of a much larger puzzle.

What had made this paper shine while 9 of the other 10 melted into indistinct mediocrity? Was it her accurate use of MLA citation style, her effective quoting and paraphrasing of source material, her catchy lead, clear thesis, and thought-provoking conclusion? Not entirely. A number of the other papers shared these characteristics, and many were well-organized and generally well-written at the sentence and paragraphs levels. But they lacked something else: a spirit of genuine inquiry. The writer clearly learned something new through her research process. Moreover, at some point in the process the writer stopped thinking about the assignment’s scoring rubric and allowed the purpose she had discovered through her inquiry to guide her writing.

We all engage in authentic inquiry in our daily lives—from the most quotidian endeavors like seeking the right app to best color-enhance one’s photos, to the more eccentric, like how to vermicompost without making one’s house smell like a barn. But what these quests have in common is that the researcher genuinely wants to know, and we hunt with true interest until we do know. We have at our disposal more tools than ever before to enhance inquiry in our daily lives, yet we writing teachers often struggle in our practices to inspire successful, authentic research writing from our students. How should we teach so that we can emerge from our grading sessions inspired by passionate research writing—writing valued by both reader and writer? How can we convince students that research writing is a skill that has value beyond just earning a good grade on their current assignments?

These are difficult questions, and as a result many high school writing teachers continue to read uninspired, formulaic research papers that simply do not justify the resources we’ve invested into their creations. Veteran writing teacher James Strickland explains: “Almost no one is happy with the resulting ‘term’ papers, so-called because the projects usually take an entire term to complete. Students worry whether they have enough sources; teachers worry whether the paper has been plagiarized. The thesis that the paper argues is usually one that neither student nor teacher is invested in, and the result is, whether anyone admits it or not, often simply an exercise. The real reason for research—inquiry—can become lost in the process of trying to teach the method and the form.” (25)

I couldn’t agree more. While those of us who grew up in the pre-internet days marvel at how today’s technology has made research process so much easier in terms of access to source material, many of the core impediments to good research and good writing remain the same as they’ve always been: inadequate contextual background, an absence of higher level thinking, and inauthentic inquiry.

Good writing teachers fight against these impediments, always aiming beyond them. While John S. O’Connor states the purpose for teaching research-based writing should be “to cultivate a mind driven by inquiry, a mind that refuses to foreclose on complicated truths by settling for facile answers,” he laments that research taught in many English courses often does the opposite because the “dominant essay form remains the thesis-support model in which students demonstrate the validity of a proposition (usually one they held before beginning their writing) as though it were simple syllogism” (174). In other words, rather than truly delving into a research topic with an open mind, our traditional models of research writing encourage students to seek sources that primarily support an opinion they already held and ignore sources that might contradict it. Quoting a William Zieger essay, O’Connor argues that the typical thesis-driven essay tends to produce a “logically exclusive, linear progression to a pre-determined end,” creating a piece of writing that is more monologue than dialogue, constructing an imagined audience as “the enemy” rather than “co-inquirers” (175). The temptation to fall into binary oppositional argumentation rather than open minded inquiry is ever present. Most of us can recall with little difficulty engaging in this type of writing ourselves.

I’m reminded of a high school research paper I wrote my junior year on the death penalty. As a teen I was very opposed to capital punishment. The whole concept of killing to punish killers just seemed hypocritical to me, and in my Current History course I’d read a few articles in Newsweek that confirmed two beliefs I had formulated through years of overheard discussions and television news commentary: one’s race and income level often determined the quality of defense received in court, and more than one innocent person had been wrongly convicted of a crime and put to death by our court system. After finding myself grounded for two weeks due to some typical adolescent shenanigans, I dove into my paper and handed it in a week early. I received an A- and was pretty proud of my work, but in all honesty, this “research” paper was not a product of genuine inquiry. I was the poster boy for O’Connor’s lamentation: I had predetermined my thesis and main points before starting the research process, cherry-picking sources to support an opinion I already held, giving scant attention to anything opposed to it. Not great inquiry. I could have written nearly the same paper without source material at all. I had fallen into that common habit of students who are asked to engage in research within the genre of persuasive essays, especially persuasive essays on perennial issues.

I don’t blame my teacher. She might have been more insistent that I develop more legitimate counter-arguments or steered me toward a different topic, but I suspect she was more concerned with teaching me how to write a research paper than how to engage in genuine inquiry. A recent college graduate, she taught the research process in good faith, in the tradition she had been trained in, one that she believed would prepare me for college. As Strickland explains, we’ve created a “farm system” (25), training masses of students from middle school on how to write persuasive research papers that might one day get them to the big leagues of a master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation, despite the fact that so few of our students follow those paths to the big time, despite the fact that other types of research-based assignments are able to foster the same inquiry and research skills the typical research paper assignment aims to foster.

In exploring alternatives to the traditional research paper, I’m not declaring the research paper dead or obsolete in itself but rather highlighting the undesirable effects of the strict fidelity many high school teachers feel to teaching it. As Gloria E. Jacobs writes, the research paper is, if nothing else, just one format with which one can explore, develop, and showcase features of academic literacy, “such as summarization and analysis, the use of quotations and citations, transitions, the use of organizational structures such as argument . . . claims or thesis statements, the gathering of evidence to support the claim or thesis, and interpretation of evidence in light of the claims being made” (244), which clearly all have merit. Yet I argue that our students might benefit from our leaving the traditional research paper behind—or at least casting a broader net in our research writing curricula—because myriad other ways exist to teach inquiry, critical thinking, and effective writing that are potentially more engaging and more efficient—ways that embrace the developing modalities of electronic media, that expand research writing standards to genres beyond the traditional expository or persuasive research paper, allowing student interests, personal experiences, future plans, and creative passions to influence the topics, formats, and audiences they identify, ultimately fostering original writing and authentic inquiry.

After all, every teacher of writing ultimately wants students to engage in authentic inquiry, not simply regurgitate the ideas of others. We want students to draw their own conclusions about the world around them. Wendy Bishop relates these wants by reflecting on the work of Scott Russell Sanders, who describes writing classrooms as “sites of growth and staging areas for maturing thinking. Because life is difficult to pin down yet still yields insights when we examine it” (269). Separating from our marriage to traditional research paper may do more to promote authentic inquiry, inspired research, and original writing—our true goals—than the typical persuasive or expository research paper assignment. This process can begin in shorter, more informal assignments and later manifest itself in longer, more creative, multimodal projects.

Small Steps: Promoting a Culture of Inquiry
Borrowing ideas from Bill Martin’s “occasional paper” assignment is a small but potentially transformative way to encourage students to view their lives and experiences as worthy topics of writing and inquiry and consequently promote a classroom culture that values such inquiry. Martin describes his “O.P.” assignment in his English Journal article, “A Writing Assignment/A Way of Life.” Martin’s secondary students are expected to present a short paper to their classmates at least once every six weeks. The topics are completely occasional in nature. The length requirement is loose—about a page and a half. The assignment asks students to explore occurrences they experience or observe that might otherwise be dismissed as routine, unimportant, or even mundane. Martin explains how one student, for example, wrote about being winked at by a stranger, which led to a broader reflection on what it means to be winked at, different types of winks, winking in the past, and distinguishing between true winks and unintentional wink-like motions. (Can you imagine how a 16 year-old Jerry Seinfeld would have killed in this class?)

These assignments are not your typical AP research work, but they can lay a foundation to build upon later. The O.P. is Informal in tone, never handed in, and requires no sourcing or documentation. However, it must be typed/written and read from during their presentations. Martin explains, “No comments are made on how to improve it; there is no discussion of word choice or development. But the occasional paper is, I am convinced, one of the most successful and powerful ways of improving student writing” (52). Why so powerful? Because students are inspired to look at the world—all of it—as potentially interesting, meaningful, and worthy of further inquiry. The papers are supposed to be easy to write; they are given a grade for successful completion without the aid of a detailed rubric. The class is encouraged to ask the author questions and discuss related ideas following each O.P. presentation.

The O.P. is clearly a fun assignment, but it’s more than just that. One can imagine the silliness that the O.P. assignment could inspire, and all high school teachers know the value of laughing with your students in piquing their interest. In addition to humor, the O.P. assignment really does promote the development of a critical eye, a desire to observe, ask questions, and bring these observations and questions into writing. Martin reports, “students tell me that once they begin writing O.P.s they continually think to themselves as events happen or thoughts occur that ‘I should write an O.P. about this.’ Students who have graduated two or three years ago come back and tell me that they still write O.P.s” (53), well on their way, perhaps, to being observant, inquisitive, life-long writers.

Creative Nonfiction: Expanding our Conception of Academic Writing
While an O.P. promotes inquiry and writing, it is only a springboard and certainly not something that would in itself satisfy the Common Core Standards for research writing which ask students to, among other things, “conduct short as well as more sustained research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question) or solve a problem; narrow or broaden the inquiry when appropriate; synthesize multiple sources on the subject, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.” But springboards such as occasional papers are not so far away from other nontraditional but more academic research writing in other forms, including creative nonfiction.

John S. O’Connor argues that creative nonfiction—rather than thesis-driven persuasion—can lead to more authentic, inspired inquiry and writing, and he urges teachers to consider using assignments like occasional papers as the natural starting points for research, rather than the more manufactured starting points common to persuasive papers (174). In This Time It’s Personal: Teaching Academic Writing Through Creative Nonfiction, O’Connor describes a variety of creative nonfiction subgenres that he has used as vehicles for teaching academic writing: memoir, travelogues, op-ed essays, media analysis essays, and oral histories, among others. Each of these touches on elements of the Common Core Standards for research writing, but one of O’Connor’s assignments has the potential to satisfy the CCS completely: The Exploratory Essay, a research-driven creative nonfiction assignment blending multiple creative-nonfiction subgenres.

O’Connor describes his Exploratory essay as a “hybrid of personal writing and research” (177), asking students to begin by choosing three topics that define them. These topics could be anything, but typically involve activities students are committed to, passions they have. In the brainstorming stage, students are encouraged to write “Why?” questions on their potential topics. Here are some examples:

• Why do I enjoy playing poker for money?
• Why does my grandmother have dementia?
• Why do I care about so much about physical beauty, even after I stopped competing in beauty contests?
• Why do I bomb (spray paint) public spaces?
• Why do I stutter? (178)

Students are informed that they will need to use research on their topics, including an interview with someone who is also interested in or involved with their topic in some way. Students will write narrative scenes about their topics, memories of their personal experiences with it, focusing on specific related moments and character development. Finally, students will explore a number of organizational models with which to synthesize and blend the different genre pieces they’ve produced—the personal narrative, the research, the interviewing—and demarcate sections where efforts to mix the genres are not successful (177).

O’Connor’s assignment ultimately asks student writers to take a larger role in organization, in organically creating an organizational model rather than following a generic outline as so many conventional thesis-driven research papers do. In a backward style approach, Mack points out that research-based multi-genre projects like O’Connor’s “place the burden on the student to author a coherent, unified whole out of dissimilar pieces of writing” (97), thus inspiring originality and decreasing the likelihood of wholesale plagiarism due to the individualized topics and unique segments of such assignments. I agree and argue that this “burden” is potentially liberating. This liberation from restrictive organizational models can be seen in returning to Martin’s Occasional Paper as a potential launching pad for academic research. One can imagine the many research-oriented directions his student’s O.P. on winking might lead to. Winking is a form of nonverbal communication, and nonverbals are interesting in part because these signs and connotations vary from culture to culture. Nonverbals also contain semiotic risk because of possible incongruities between the intended signal and what may be perceived as signified. An exploratory essay on winking might ultimately be about the benefits and dangers of intentional and unintentional nonverbal communication, incorporating narrative regarding a personal experience with winking, an interview with a psychologist specializing in nonverbal communication, and additional source material used for an analysis of nonverbal strengths and weaknesses of political candidates during a debate (e.g. Sarah Palin’s winks, Joe Biden’s eye rolls, etc). Which segment will come first? Will the narrative elements be engaging enough to successfully frame the entire piece by placement in the introduction and conclusion? These choices are entirely the individual author’s.

Assignments like O’Connor’s Exploratory Essay not only have the potential to produce strong, unique academic writing—as evidenced by the full-length examples of student essays O’Connor includes in his book—but they also provide other educational benefits because the assignment itself fights against a common misconception identified by Kerry Dirk’s research on the perceptions of students enrolled in first year college composition courses who “often do not grasp how much the context of writing determines what genres are required.” Dirks finds, “students often come into the university with the belief that good writing is the same in every discipline” (4), which we teachers know is not true, yet we often foolishly expect students to be able to easily transfer mastery in one academic genre to another. By allowing a broader range of research-based writing assignments acceptable under the umbrella of “academic” writing, we can help avoid the confusion that so often results later in college as a result of having taught, as Dirks contents, explicitly or implicitly, “that a research paper looks like A and fail to suggest that a research paper might also look like B, C, D, E, F, etc” (5). Exploring additional multimodal and multi-genred alternatives in research writing may also help in that regard.

Additional Genres: FAQs and New Multimodal Genres
One alternative genre I’ve had success with in the secondary writing classroom is the FAQ, a unique genre that lends itself to effective mastery of writing expository paragraphs and incorporating sources material. These smaller, research-based writing tasks produce manageable products students are already familiar with. Frequently Asked Questions have had a presence on the internet since its inception, so students in my experience typically already know both what the acronym FAQ stands for and that the purpose of FAQs is to inform as clearly and concisely as possible.

While teachers can assign FAQ assignments in a number of research writing tasks, such as a note-taking exercise on an article one is reviewing as a part of a larger research project, I have completely replaced the traditional research paper with an expanded series of FAQs on a research topic in my 11th grade Humanities English 11 course. My decision to make this curriculum change was inspired by Strickland’s English Journal article “Just the FAQs: An Alternative to Teaching the Research Paper” in which he argues that FAQ genre allows teachers and students to focus more directly on inquiry and source usage because the assignment itself is smaller in scope. Strickland explains, “[i]nstead of requiring students to write a paper in fifteen weeks that proves a thesis, we might better focus on teaching inquiry that is organic, developing and changing as the researcher wonders and learns” by creating FAQs (23).

Like O’Connor, Strickland asserts that one hindrance to teaching and facilitating effective inquiry has been the “wedding . . . of inquiry-based research with thesis-driven persuasive writing” (23) because we expect students to master effective research methods while simultaneously overloading them with concepts such as thesis statements, claims, counterargument, and paragraph transitions, resulting in inauthentic inquiry: “Rather than trying to teach research to support a thesis, perhaps the time has come for a divorce, for teaching rhetorical argument as a separate, shorter assignment with fewer cognitive demands. This might encourage students to stay open to possibilities that emerge as links to future inquiry,” Strickland continues (23). Simply stated, juggling fewer items at a time can lead to better performance and a more sound mastery of the core inquiry and research-writing skills we would have our students gain. This approach is also a more efficient use of time. My Humanities 11 research project has shrunk from 8-9 weeks to 4-5 weeks in length after adopting the FAQ approach.

My FAQ assignment asks students to complete a polished FAQ containing 6 questions and answers that will be helpful to an audience of their peers having little to no knowledge of their topic. This American literature-based class’s curriculum includes related subjects such as philosophy, religion, and the history of popular music. I provide students with a list of 70-80 possible topics relating to the scope of our class for the FAQs, although students are also welcome to propose their own topics. After settling on a topic, students engage in preliminary research and complete an annotated bibliography, after which we begin exploring the art of effective question writing.

I want students to engage in higher-level thinking as they write and answer their FAQs, so I introduce them to Bloom’s Taxonomy and apply Bloom’s cognitive domains to the process of writing questions. 3 of the 6 questions students ultimately answer in their projects must inspire answers written at the top three levels of the original Bloom’s Taxonomy: analysis, synthesis, and evaluation (Armstrong). Before answering any questions, students must submit their questions to me, identifying the Bloom’s level and briefly explaining why they believe that question would inspire an answer at the level they’ve identified. Here’s an example of a proposed question from a student working on a recent FAQ on Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement:
Question: What significant differences can be seen between the Movement at its founding and the Movement today, and has it evolved or regressed?

Level 5 and Level 6 (synthesis and evaluation): I will need to compare and contrast the Movement at different time periods and draw my own conclusions regarding whether changes have been progressive or not.
The two weeks later, the student’s answer to this question looked like this:

The Movement has evolved and expanded in a positive way in the 80 years since its founding. “The movement stays true to many of the tenets set down by Day and Maurin, but as time passes, priorities shift,” reports Karen Kirkwood from U.S. Catholic Magazine. Core values and missions have been retained, but the types of ministry have changed in order to fit a changing society and world. For example, there are now several Houses of Hospitality in the Southwest that focus on helping undocumented immigrants. These did not exist eighty years ago because illegal immigration wasn’t such a large issue. Continuing to resist violence and injustice remains an integral part of the Movement. Today, Catholic Workers fight for the rights of the unborn, those on death row, victims of human trafficking, victims of generational poverty, and other peoples marginalized by society (“Non-Violence & Resistance”).

While one can imagine a much longer and more detailed answer to the student’s question, this student chose to answer the question in just one paragraph (the assignment asks for 1-2). The student answered the question clearly, incorporating a quote and a paraphrase from two sources, and the answer does exemplify characteristics of Bloom’s synthesis and evaluation levels.

FAQs also easily allow for additional modalities. I’ve required students to save their FAQs as web pages, with hyperlinks from their list of questions to their answers. I’ve incorporated requirements regarding links to images or streaming audio/video. I’ve also required students to submit one copy to me and post another to our class wiki. They must then read and comment on at least three other FAQ submissions, which is much easier for them to do with 6-question FAQs than with longer, often more muddled, persuasive research papers.

The FAQ’s smaller, more focused scope has raised eyebrows with more than a few high-flyer type students who immediately compare this to a 7-10 page research paper assigned for an AP history course and think the FAQ clearly asks less of them in terms of academic rigor. But what they fail to initially realize is that less is sometimes more in terms of critical thinking and good writing. As one student said after completing her spring 2013 FAQ, “I thought the FAQ would be easy. But writing good questions is harder than it seems at first. Answering some of my questions well in just one or two paragraphs was tough too.” Word count was never a problem for this gifted, hardworking student, but writing concise paragraphs with a clear focus was. The FAQ challenged her to do this. Research by Langer and Applebee on different types of writing assignments and the type of critical thinking they inspire supports the value of smaller-scope inquiry. They found that while “fewer ideas are considered” in more focused analytical writing assignments, such as FAQs, “they are dealt with in more complex ways” (135) and tend to be retained better over time compared to larger scope assignments that focus more on summary of source materials. So differences in assignment format and length can be deceptive in terms of intellectual rigor.

While FAQs look very different in form than the traditional research paper, they are not nearly so different in appearance as some of the multimodal projects described by Gloria E. Jacobs in her article “Developing Multimodal Academic Literacies among College Freshmen.” Jacobs defines multimodal Writing as projects using “more than one semiotic form simultaneously” and that “multimodal authorship involves mixing modes in ways that the modes inform one another and the reader through juxtaposition and flow” (245). Jacobs’s research with college freshman given multimodal research assignments with a theme-based learning community class concluded that student videos incorporating music, recorded narration, smaller video clips, and text contained the same academic literacies traditional research papers aim to foster and measure: “Specifically, an introduction, definitions, a statement of the significance of the topic as well as a clear thesis statement or claim, transitions, summaries, clarifications, examples, a critical stance or opinion, rhetorical questions, a conclusion, and citations” (247). While years have passed since online course delivery systems and the growing number of students and teachers preferring to write, read, and grade online began to expand the term “paper” to something far beyond the physical, a video research “paper” is indeed a significant step further in that direction, yet potentially no less academically rigorous or legitimate than its traditional printed counterpart.

We are bound to teach writing—and research-based writing—not just because of the Common Core Standards, but because it’s worth it. While the problem of managing our paper loads persists, so does the fact that research supports what we writing teachers know by experience: Writing facilitates learning like no other educational task at our disposal. Langer and Applebee summarize this thought well in processing their study of high school curriculum and the effects of writing assignments on learning and knowledge integration:
[T]here is clear evidence that activities involving writing (any of the many sorts of writing we studied) lead to better learning than activities involving reading and studying only. Writing assists learning. Beyond that, we learned that writing is not writing is not writing; different kinds of writing activities lead students to focus on different kinds of information, to think about that information in different ways, and in turn to take quantitatively and qualitatively different kinds of knowledge away from their writing experiences. (135)

Langer and Applebee also found that short answer writing tasks, whether for homework or tests, rely primarily on knowledge level thinking only—often simply transcribing answers for homework or relying on simple recall memory for testing situations. By contrast inquiry-based analytical writing—including the type explored here, whether in the form of life writing incorporating research, memoir that connects with course material, FAQs and other multimodal writing assignments—requires students to engage in writing tasks in which “ideas are linked and understanding reconstrued” (135), ultimately leading to deeper thinking and stronger retention of information.

So we continue to assign and grade research writing assignments because, as Kelly Gallagher reminds us, “writing often leads us [and our students] to ideas we didn’t even know we had” (116). While the traditional research paper will live on in one form or another, it is being joined by a multitude of other acceptable research writing genres and formats. Writing teachers at both the high school and college levels would do well to embrace the evolving concept of “research writing,” to value and incorporate elasticity in their approaches, and be willing to invest the time and energy to incorporate new writing genres, media, and modalities into their curricula. The assignments we choose to present our students will tacitly convey the fact that the conception of legitimate research writing is evolving, but in preparing students for future research and writing tasks we must also explicitly inform students that there is not just one acceptable formula or format for research writing across or even within the various academic disciplines at the secondary or college level—that form and format are dictated by the specific writing activity at hand. Moreover, we must provide ample opportunities for students to engage in diverse research writing tasks and trust the core skills we are fostering in our students through these opportunities can transfer to the next level or format with reasonable guidance, whether in college or life outside academia.

Works Cited
Bishop, Wendy. “Suddenly Sexy.” College English. 65.3 (2003) JSTOR. Web 01 June 2013.
Common Core State Standards Initiative. “English Language Arts Standards.” Common Core Standards. National Governors Association & Council of Chief State School Officers. 2012. Web. 23 May 2013.
Dirk, Kerry. “The ‘Research Paper’ Prompt: A Dialogic Opportunity for Transfer.” Composition Forum 25. (2012) 1-16. ERIC. Web 8 June 2013.
Gallagher, Kelly. Writing Like This: Teaching Real-World Writing Through Modeling & Mentor Texts. Portland, Maine: Stenhouse Publishers, 2011. Print.
Jacobs, Gloria E. “Developing Multimodal Academic Literacies Among College Freshman.” Journal of Media Literacy Education 4.3 (2012): 244-255. Web 10 June 2013.
Langer, Judith A. and Arthur M. Applebee. How Writing Shapes Thinking: A Study of Teaching and Learning. Urbana, Ill: National Council of Teachers of English, 1987. Colorado State University: The WAC Clearing House. Web. 13 June 2013.
Mack, Nancy. “The Ins, Outs, and In-Betweens of Multi-Genre Writing.” The English Journal. 92.2 (2002). JSTOR. Web. 30 May 2012.
Martin, Bill. “A Writing Assignment/A Way of Life.” The English Journal. Vol. 92.6. (2003) JSTOR. Web. 01 June 2013.
O’Connor, John S. This Time It’s Personal: Teaching Academic Writing through Creative Nonfiction. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2011. Print.
Strickland, James. “Just the FAQs: An Alternative to Teaching the Research Paper.” The English Journal. 94.1 (2004) 23-28. Web. 24 Mar. 2013.

Appendix A–Occasional Papers

At least once every nine weeks, you will have the opportunity to present an Occasional Paper to your classmates. An Occasional Paper (O.P.) is a short essay or written exploration inspired by an occasion, by something that happens in life, something you experience, something you notice—anything, really, that occurs and inspires you to think.

Here are some examples of “occasions” that might inspire an Occasional Paper:

• You are driving home from school and get a text while driving. Your paper describes this and explores the idea of choices regarding safety, being social, etc.
• You attend your grandfather’s retirement party and begin to think about aging, what he’ll do next, how he may struggle with not being identified by his job anymore, how we identify ourselves in general, and how you imagine you might feel at that point in your life.
• You are watching a baseball game on TV, and the manager gets ejected from the game for arguing and kicking dirt on home plate. You begin to think about the reactions this causes: the home crowd loves it; his team seems unaffected; his wife is likely embarrassed, etc. This leads you to wonder about the purpose of protest, what issues are worth standing up for, what issues might not be.
• You are snapped at by a customer at work. You feel you did nothing wrong and were mistreated. Your O.P. could briefly describe that experience and then explore any of the following: professionalism, kindness, what people would think if they could read our minds, ways to deal with difficult people, etc.

Think of the occasion that inspires your O.P. as a springboard that launches you into bigger ideas. An occasion might appear insignificant at first, but it can lead to much more interesting related ideas. Your tone can be casual, and you need not follow any specific format.

Each O.P. is worth 30 points. To earn full credit you must do the following once per quarter:

• Write or type an original O.P. inspired by a recent occasion. (approximate length: 300 words or more).
• Present your O.P. by reading it to the class and answer any questions your classmates or teacher might have afterward.

Do you have a specific deadline other than presenting at least a quarter? No. Your “deadline” should be determined by your life and the events or occasions that inspire your O.P. As the poet Maria Rainer Rilke states in Letters to a Young Poet, write about that “which your own everyday life offers you,” for your own life provides more than enough material to explore ideas that are engaging, entertaining, and meaningful.

Appendix B–The Creative Nonfiction Research Project: The Exploratory Essay

Most school writing is thesis-driven: a claim is made and evidence is found to support that claim. This is especially true in “research” papers, where sources are often consumed to “prove a point.” This is perhaps useful to polemicists but not to writers interested in discovery.

This approach to writing clearly runs counter to everything we’ve studied this year, so we’ll approach our next essay as a hybrid of personal writing and research—but not in the service of a predetermined conclusion. Rather, we will care about exploration.

THE TOPIC: Start by picking three topics that define you: subjects you care about, sports/activities you participate in, issues/problems you are confronting. I’m happy to help you choose a topic once you’ve made a tentative list. NB: These topics should come from major activities in your life and should relate to major themes therein.

THE RESEARCH: You’ll need to read outside sources on your topic—books, stories, essay, articles. The number and length of these will differ from topic to topic. I will give you a list of resources and books that might be helpful after you choose your topic. In addition, visit the library, consult librarians, and search databases such as ProQuest, Questia, and CQ Researcher.

A second part of your research is an interview you’ll conduct with someone else who is interested in the topic you’ve chosen. Preferably, this personal should not be someone you know well or someone with whom you’ve already spoken on the topic.

THE PERSONAL: Write a scene or two about your personal experience with the topic. As we’ve discussed all year, pay special attention to focused moments and character development.

THE ORGANIZATION: We will explore a number of different organizational strategies. Since we’re using several different writing genres here—interview, written texts, personal story—we’ll work on blending sections where we can and demarcating segments where blending doesn’t work.

Appendix C–FAQ Research Project
FAQ Project Description:
This research project will allow you to engage in a valuable “real life” research task that will also help prepare you for the sort of scholarly research you can expect to encounter in college.
The Purpose of Scholarly Inquiry and Writing:
The purpose of scholarly research has always been to add to the knowledge base of other scholars and students. In other words, you are not just learning for yourself. The goal is to take what you’ve learned, make new connections, and share that knowledge with others.

This project will ask you to . . .
• choose a research topic from the list provided by your teacher,

• engage in research utilizing a variety of media including our school’s subscription databases,

• create an annotated bibliography following MLA guidelines to show you’ve evaluated your sources for quality and authority,

• write a series of higher level Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about your topic,

• utilize your sources and your own analytical skills to answer each of your FAQs in 1-2 well developed paragraphs,

• become more familiar with the MLA documentation style to cite your sources appropriately in your FAQ answers,

• use and cite a minimum of four separate sources—two of which CANNOT be conventional websites—in your FAQ (Wikipedia is off-limits),

• complete a polished FAQ containing 6 questions and answers (1-2 paragraphs each) that will be helpful to a general academic audience,

• submit one copy of your completed FAQ to your teacher for assessment and post another copy to your class FAQ wiki for other students to read and learn from.

Appendix D–Sample FAQ

Sample FAQ
Note to Students:

The following is a hastily constructed FAQ to use as an example while creating your own. I created it from a paper I did on gangster movies years ago in graduate school. While some of the theory is a little “out there” for high school students, I think you’ll be able to get the idea of what I’m looking for in this project. Remember we’ve discussed determinism, free will, and Calvinism already, and we have explored flawed attempts at the American Dream as well.

I wrote seven FAQs; your FAQ will only include six.
7 FAQs about American Gangster Films, Free Will, and The Funeral

1. What does the question of Determinism vs. Free Will will have to do with the genre of gangster movies?

The issue of free will verses determinism is deeply imbedded in the tradition of the gangster genre. Stanley J. Solomon, author of Beyond Formula: American Film Genres, suggests that there is a “fatalism implicit in the genre” that can “promote our sympathy and pity” for the gangster character, a “doomed hero” who “could have been something better had he lived in a better world” (164). The implication here is that the gangster’s environment essentially causes him to live his life of crime, that his environment limits—or perhaps negates—the possibility for him to choose an alternate course in life. In short, he’s a character who has the skill, intellect, and ability to choose freely, but who is trapped in a deterministic environment, and this captures our sympathy and attention.

2. What is uniquely American about American Gangster Films?
Characteristics unique to American culture include a focus on the family (most often an Italian immigrant family) and the use of capitalism to achieve the American Dream. There are a couple of twists however. These “family values” often entail breaking the law, and “the use of capitalism” is more often an exploitation of capitalism. The gangster’s family is the motivating force fueling his rags to riches quest for success. The gangster’s business is a family business, and he learns the rules and codes of the business from his family. And the business of the family is, ultimately, to protect and take care of the family.

According to John Hess in his analysis of Godfather Part II, the means by which gangsters ensure their family’s security and values is through their manipulation of capitalism. They see a necessary connection between financial power and success through the capitalist system and the insurance of their family values. Gangsters also appear to believe that “the family is the last apparent refuge against the . . . alienation of human activity under capitalism” (82). Family is all he can count on in the world; hence, it is the primary thing the gangster seeks to protect.

3. How does religion play a role in the gangster’s ideology (belief system)?

In American gangster films, the gangster’s behavior and belief system reflect a Puritan Calvinist theology, which condemns the gangster in three important ways. According to Edward Mitchell, the first condemnation is that under a Puritan belief system, we are guilty from the start because of original sin. The second condemnation is one of helplessness, for “election [salvation], if it comes, is an action initiated by God over which we have no influence.” And third, “we are inescapably moral agents . . . we cannot escape the onus of choice even if that choice is ontologically meaningless” (160). Essentially, the gangster believes that he indeed has free will, but he also believes that he also has no hope of escaping from his natural state of degeneracy and making the correct moral choice without the grace of God.

Consequently, the gangster believes he is completely subject to the will of God regarding his moral success or failure. Religion, ironically creates a convenient excuse for the gangster to commit immoral acts because he can simply blame God for denying him the grace required to utilize free will and make the right choices.

4. I’ve never heard of The Funeral. Who wrote it, who directed it, and what’s it about?

The Funeral was written by Nicholas St. John and directed by Abel Ferrara. The plot centers on a gangster family in 1930s Brooklyn. The youngest of the three Tempio brothers, Johnny (Vincent Gallo), has died. The film focuses on what may have led to Johnny’s death and the actions his brothers take to find and punish Johnny’s murderer after his death. Johnny was shot to death under dubious circumstances; no one is completely sure about the identity and motivation of the shooter. Regardless, Johnny’s death is immediately assumed to have a connection to the family “business,” and the two remaining Tempio brothers are committed to discovering that connection.

5. How does one’s family and environment limit free will in The Funeral?

The eldest Tempio brother, Ray (Christopher Walken), has his fate as a gangster and killer sealed by his environment at a startling young age. Through a flashback we learn that Ray committed his first murder at age 13. At his father’s bidding, Ray shot a man because that man stole from Ray’s family. His father informs him that he must kill this man because his father says, “life doesn’t allow enemies to live side by side forever.” He puts all the responsibility of ensuring the safety of the family upon Ray by saying that if Ray doesn’t shoot him, he will allow the man to go free which he says will result in the man’s returning to kill them. 13-year-old Ray pulls the trigger.

Ray’s initiation exemplifies how at some point the gangster chooses to value the family structure and loyalty above anything else, and he commits an act of immorality—he dirties his hands, crosses the line—as a means of ensuring these values. Robert Warshow, author of “The Gangster as Tragic Hero” says that by the time we first meet the gangster, “he has already made his choice, or the choice has already been made for him,” which prohibits us from asking whether or not the gangster could have chosen otherwise (131). This is certainly true for Ray. What free will does a 13 year old really have in this situation?

6. In what way is biological determinism present in The Funeral?

The middle brother, Chez, has his fate determined not only through a concern for his family but by his family biology as well. He is biologically limited because of his inherited mental illness. Chez’s father suffered from mental illness and killed himself. Chez shares that mental illness, and everyone–including Chez–knows as much. As a boy he overheard two mobster guys talking at his father’s funeral and commenting on what a disgrace his father was–killing himself with a shotgun and leaving a wife and three young boys behind, betraying the family, ignoring family loyalty. “What a sin” one of them says.

At one point, Chez’s wife asks him to go to Europe with her to a treatment center where they take care of the mentally ill, and the cure rate is the highest in Europe. “No one will know why we went there,” she says. “I don’t like the thoughts you have about me,” he says. She responds, “I just want you at peace.” He says, “If God wanted me at peace, he would see to it himself. You know who’s in peace? My father is in peace. Is that what you want for me?” Chez acknowledges the likelihood that his fate will mirror his father’s, that he too will become a suicide. Yet what seems odd is that Chez appears to want—or at least accept—this fate, without even trying to explore a means to avoid it. His free will has no chance against the biology that nature has given him.

7. How does religion play a role in the characters’ ideologies in The Funeral?

Religious ideology’s deterministic power is apparent when Ray’s wife, Jean, confronts him about his plan to seek vengeance on Johnnie’s killer. She pleads with him not to, arguing that shooting Johnny’s murderer is pointless because nothing can bring him back to life. In response Ray delivers a theological rationalization:

You wanna get deep on this . . . ? All them Catholic scholars say everything we do depends on free choice, but at the same time they say we need the grace of God to do what’s right. Now if I do something wrong, it’s because God didn’t give me the grace to do what’s right. Nothing in the world happens without his permission. So if this world stinks, it’s his fault. I’m only working with the tools I’ve been given.

Despite the fact that Ray cites Catholic scholars when Puritanism is a more accurate source, his point is clear. The gangster admits that he is a sinner, that he may have “chosen” to sin, but that his fate was actually determined by God’s denying him the strength not to sin. So his actions are–conveniently and oddly–both determined and self-justified.

Works Cited
The Funeral. Dir. Abel Ferrara. Perfs. Christopher Walken, Vincent Gallo, Chris Penn, Annabella Sciorra et. al. VHS. Hallmark Home Entertainment, 2001.
Hess, John. “Godfather II: A Deal Coppola Couldn’t Refuse.” Movies and Methods Volume I. .Ed. Bill Nichols. Berkeley: U of California P, 1976. Print.
Mitchell, Edward. “Apes and Essences: Some Sources of Significance in the American Gangster Film.” Film Genre Reader. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. 4th ed. Austin: U of Texas P, 1993. Print.
Solomon, Stanley J. “The Life of Crime.” Beyond Formula: American Film Genres. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1976. Print.
Warshow, Robert. “The Gangster as Tragic Hero.” The Immediate Experience. New York: Atheneum,1971. Print.

Appendix E–A Multi-Modal Research Assignment

The NPR 100 Project
Because one of the focus areas for our class is the history of popular music in American, and because there is too much 20th century music for use to cover in whole-class units, we are going to utilize the NPR 100 list of the most important musical works of the 20th century to guide us. Here’s the list’s description from NPR’s web site:
Throughout the year 2000, NPR® presented the stories behind 100 of the most important American musical works of the 20th century. These special features covered music from a wide variety of genres—classical, jazz, rock ‘n roll, country, R&B, musical theatre and film scores.

Students will use Photo Story for their projects. Photo Story is a digital storytelling program available free through Microsoft. You can use it to make Ken Burns-like documentaries, with narration and background music. I’ll model how to use it in class, and I think you’ll find it easy to learn. Your goal is to create a visually pleasing 6-8 minute long Photo Story video that will teach your classmates why the musical work you chose is important enough to make the NPR’s list of 100. If you have a Mac or iPad at home and would prefer to use iMovie, feel free, but beware that our iPad access at the high school can be limited, so you’ll want to reserve an iPad from the Media Center in advance of our scheduled work days or bring your own device from home.

Your first task for the Humanities 11B Music Project is to explore the NPR 100 list and become familiar with some of the works. You can click on mp3 links allowing you to listen to the works, and you can also click on program links allowing you to listen to the short radio stories NPR produced on each work to build general background. Once you’ve decided on a work to focus on for your project, go to the NPR 100 Sign-Up wiki and claim your choice before someone else grabs it.

On the next page, you’ll find three options for your videos, along with requirements for each option. If you choose an album or a musical theater production, you may work with a partner. If you chose an individual song, you will work alone. Whichever option you choose, you are required to incorporate your own voiceover, digital graphics, text, and imported music in your Photo Stories. You may also import video clips.

NPR 100 Options and Expectations

Presentation Option A: An Album
Report on an album from the list. Focus closely on two songs.
Provide background on the artist/artists.
– Illustrate the cultural and/or artistic significance of the album–both then and now.
Why is the entire album important? How did the album influence music in its genre? How was it shaped by American pop culture? How did it influence it?
– Expose your classmates to the work first-hand by incorporating the song into your video. You may also include other related songs from the era/artist.
– include effective graphics in your video.
– Write a script for your Photo
– Use paraphrase, quotes, and summary from your research in your script.
– Record your own voice to narrate the video.

Create a “Works Consulted” page, in which you indicate the sources of information you used when putting together your presentation. This page should follow MLA guidelines.
Drop your completed Photo Story and a copy of your voice over script in the shared folder on the Public Drive prior to your presentation date.

At the end of your script, include a file explaining which partner did what for the project. I want to see equal effort and time for equal grades.

Presentation Option B: Individual Song
Report on a song from the list.
Provide background on the artist/artists.
– Illustrate the cultural and/or artistic significance of the song–both then and now.

How did the song comment on or reflect American culture? How did it influence its genres or music as a whole?

– Expose your classmates to the work first-hand by incorporating the song itself into your video. You may also include other related songs from the era/artist.
– include effective graphics in your video.
– Write a Script for your Photo Story.
– Use paraphrase, quotes, and summary from your research in your script.
– Record your own voice to narrate the video.

Create a “Works Consulted” page, in which you indicate the sources of information you used when putting together your presentation. This page should follow MLA guidelines.
Drop your completed Photo Story and a copy of your voice over script in the shared folder on the Public Drive prior to your presentation date.

Presentation Option C:A Musical Theater Production
Report on one musical theater production from the list. Focus closely on two songs from the musical.
Provide background on the artist/artists.
– Illustrate the cultural and/or artistic significance of the production–both then and now. How did this influence American musical theater? How did it reflect or comment on American culture?

– Expose your classmates to the work first-hand by incorporating songs from the musical into your video.
– Include effective graphics in your video.
– Write a script for your Photo Story.
Use paraphrase, quotes, and summary from your research in your script.
– Record your own voice to narrate the video.
Create a “Works Consulted” page, in which you indicate the sources of information you used when putting together your presentation. This page should follow MLA guidelines.

Drop your completed Photo Story and a copy of your voice over script in the shared folder on the Public Drive prior to your presentation date.

At the end of your script, include a file explaining which partner did what for the project. I want to see equal effort and time for equal grades.

Learn more about Jeremy Corey-Gruenes on our Contributors page

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