National Writing Project

The Research Paper: Engaging Students in Academic Writing

By: Cindy Heckenlaible
Date: March 2008

Summary: A teacher of high school freshmen engages her students in writing their research paper—and eliminates plagiarism—by having them write a historical account in first person.


Editor's note: In the following article, high school teacher Cindy Heckenlaible voices her frustration with the traditional research paper, suggesting that she is not alone in this aggravation. Indeed the possibilities of plagiarism, the likely gutting of student voice, and the general discontent students feel when embarking on a project for seemingly no other reason than the instructor's insistence that "later, you'll need to know how to do this" leave many teachers searching for alternative ways to teach the important skills the research paper requires.

And, in fact, many teachers—like Heckenlaible—have found less conventional ways to cover the same vital ground. As far back as the 1970s Ken Macrorie was experimenting with the I-Search paper, a form that allows students to choose their own topics on subjects important to them, encourages them to use primary sources, and requires that they interview at least one expert on their subject.

Building on Macrorie's work, other teachers have found ways to bring more authenticity and greater pleasure to the research paper. For instance, Dixie Dellinger, a teacher-consultant with the UNC Charlotte Writing Project who also served on the NWP Advisory Board, had her students make up surveys and polls, analyzing what they found (see Alternatives to Clip and Stitch: Real Research an Writing in the Classroom). Tom Romano, a frequent speaker at National Writing Project sites, describes the "multi-genre paper" in which students use their research to create fiction and nonfiction pieces as well as other documents (see Romano's books for more).

Other teachers ask students to write family histories as a way of understanding the nature and methods of historical research, or nudge them to supplement their research with costume, dance, photographs, art, and film.

All these and similar efforts share with Heckenlaible's Living History the likelihood that students will be much more prone to engage with their research and writing and much less prone to cut, paste, and plagiarize from other sources.

I do not think I am alone when I admit to fellow English teachers that I do not look forward to teaching the research paper to my freshman high school students. Each year I taught the required research unit, which has included the I-Search as well as the traditional research paper, I was frustrated with the outcome. Plagiarism, the use of random facts, disorganization of the paper, and student apathy topped the list of problems.

I believe in the importance of teaching research, but my experience has led me to this conclusion: teachers of younger secondary students need to break away from the traditional research paper and turn to alternatives to engage students in the process while teaching research skills.

The Problem

Whether it's blatant or unintentional, plagiarism occurs far too frequently.

Effective research begins with locating valid information. But to be truthful, my students' research skills are mediocre at best when locating information on the Internet, and almost nonexistent when searching for print sources.

Another pitfall each year is the widespread plagiarism. Whether it's blatant or unintentional, plagiarism occurs far too frequently. Even with careful instruction and clear models, only a handful of students prove to be effective at giving credit to their sources, at incorporating borrowed information in their papers seamlessly, and at incorporating their own thoughts or drawing conclusions based on their research.

The Living History Project

During the summer of 2004, I attended the Dakota Writing Project (DWP) Summer Institute, held in Vermillion, South Dakota. It was here that another fellow, Mike Larson, introduced me to his alternative to the traditional research paper. For this project, which Larson called The Living History, his students combined research and history to create a written description of a historical event as if they (their narrators) had taken some part in or witnessed the event as it happened.

The paper was to be written in first person and approached from the perspective of the character, real or imagined, recalling the event in the past tense. One restriction was that the character could not be a major player in the event.

At first I was somewhat skeptical, as I am sure many who read this may be, about whether I could break away from tradition, meet the required standards, and work this assignment into my tightly packed curriculum. The more I listened, however, the more I saw the potential.

Within the parameters of Mike Larson's ninety-minute demonstration, I was given a taste of what this writing experience would be like for my freshman students. Each of us in the institute was given one of four topics; mine was the fall of the Berlin Wall. Prior to his demonstration, Larson had asked each of us to research and gather facts about our topic.

After Larson presented an overview of this assignment, we collaborated with others in our group who shared the same topic. Our task was to compare and pool our resources, allowing us to add additional information others had found to our own research. Then each of us was asked to take the information and embed it into a first-person narrative of someone who had lived through our particular event.

Suddenly a news report I remembered hearing during the time the Wall actually fell came to mind, and I decided to use it as the basis for my story. The report told of an East Berlin woman who made it a point to cross the Wall to meet the West Berlin baker she had seen set up his shop every day from her apartment window for the past twenty-three years. She, I decided, would be the jump-off point for my narrator, and with that I began to write.

I could envision my students having fun doing this exercise while incorporating the essential skills of a researcher.

While my initial paper was quite short, owing to time constraints, I really enjoyed the experience and felt it was loaded with potential to use in my own classroom. I could envision my students having fun doing this exercise while incorporating the essential skills of a researcher: choose a topic; find credible sources, both print and online; locate facts related to the event and take notes; organize information; analyze and determine which data would be useable and which would not; synthesize the information in a written format; credit information; create a "works cited" page.

Bringing It to the Classroom

The transition to this new format, however, was not immediate. I knew I would have to plan carefully to execute it well and meet my students' needs. In a graduate course I was taking, I had the chance to develop an extended version of the Berlin scenario, so I was able to face my class with a model for what I hoped they would do.

To expedite the process, I provided students with a topic list including both traditional and contemporary events in history that I thought would excite their interest: The Beatles' first tour of the United States, Disney World's opening, Columbine, 9/11, D-day, and the sinking of the Titanic were just a few. By far the most popular topics from the list were Columbine and famous military battles. Titanic and 9/11 were strong contenders, too.

Students also had the freedom to select their own topics if the topics fit the assignment's criteria. I was pleased with the unexpected and highly engaging topics they submitted: the burning of Rome, the first basketball game ever played, the beheading of Louis XVI, the destruction of Pompeii, and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ among them.

The students had equal success with both traditional historical topics and more contemporary historical events. Allowing them the choice to veer away from topics with a more traditional place in historical research was essential to their engagement in the process and ultimately contributed to the success of their research and writing.

Choosing a Narrator

I conjectured that a big part of students' success with this project would be determined by their choice of an appropriate narrator. So with Larson's permission I used one of his worksheets to help kids select the point of view from which to tell the story and determine how that choice would ultimately influence the information that could and could not be included.

The worksheet asked key questions: What is the narrator's age? Why is the person telling the story? What was he or she doing just before the event happened? How does the person feel about the event? And what has happened to the narrator since the event took place?

During my instruction, I also had students assist each other by brainstorming—both in small groups and as a class—potential narrators for each student's selected topic. It was exciting to listen as they discovered the possibilities. The table below gives a small sampling of the ideas students generated during these sessions.

Topic Narrators

a teacher or a student in the library
a student in the science class or in the cafeteria
a police officer
a substitute teacher
a parent, sibling, or friend of one of the shooters
a janitor
a reporter


an American soldier
a commander
a soldier on a U-boat
a German soldier defending the position

Jackie Robinson breaks into the majors

a teammate
a spectator
a reporter
the pitcher
an umpire


a Japanese citizen of Hiroshima
a Japanese child
a Japanese resident of a nearby community
The pilot flying the plane
The soldier who dropped the bomb

Including Facts

Following Larson's lead, I required that students include a minimum number of facts in their story—I settled on twenty. Further, I wanted students to realize that while their story was original, the information they used was not their own. So I had them include endnotes crediting the sources of their facts. This not only taught them about documentation; it also made it much easier for me to monitor the number of facts they included.

Carrying Out the Project

When I initially announced that we would begin our research project, the usual groans of despair filled the room. However, after I explained that I intended to try something different, the mood changed. I heard murmurs of "Sweet," "Cool," and "Awesome"; some students even clapped when they heard that they could be creative and still be involved in research. In my nine years of teaching, that was a first!

The engagement my students demonstrated with this assignment was evident in the quality of their stories. Even more revealing was the quality of the insights they shared in the required cover letter. The combination of researching and creating an original story was very appealing to them. I had successfully achieved one of my goals: engaging students.

Many shared Lawrence's perspective: "When you write a story from a first-person view, you get attached to it because it's yours, and if you really get into it, in your mind you have experienced it."

Aaron's Story: The Invasion of Normandy

Some shining examples of quality research resulted. Perhaps the best paper came from Aaron, who not only chose to write about the invasion of Normandy, but also took an unusual slant by using a German soldier as his narrator. He explains,

I chose to take the viewpoint of a German soldier for this topic because I had never seen it done before; most of the time, when this topic is chosen, people chose to take the Allies' viewpoint. An Axis narrator seemed unique and offered a more challenging perspective to write from. I had to find facts that the German defenders would be concerned with, not facts that would have been significant to Allies alone.

His account begins when a German soldier intercepts portions of a radio broadcast of what he believes to be a speech by General Eisenhower rallying his troops for the upcoming battle.

The radio operator was saying "It sounds like they're planning an invasion. They aren't serious, are they?"

"It wouldn't matter if they were," said Rudolf, our battalion's staff sergeant. Of anyone in the 352nd Division, he was by far the most confident about the strength of the Atlantic Wall and its designer, Oberbefehlshaber Rundstred.

"They'll never pass all the hedgehogs and tetrahedrons we've scattered around; they'll scuttle any ship that gets too close. And that big barbwire mound. They'd have to get past that! And if they did, well, they'd still have to get past those trenches outside, then up 30 meters up the cliffs. They don't stand a chance."

At that moment there came the muffled sound of an explosion in the distance; Rudolf fell silent. It came again, and again, closer and closer. A second later, the entire bunker was shuttering under the impact of what had to be a bomb. What was going on?

We made our way into the bomb shelter on level ground. My entire battalion was down there. We were trapped. We waited for hours while the bombs continued dropping. Akaim managed to get a radio working; we received reports that this was happening all along the Wall.

It had to be about five in the morning before we noticed the barrage had stopped. We were so relieved. About a half an hour after we had resurfaced Rudolf gave a sudden intake of breath. He handed me the binoculars and directed me towards the horizon. I dropped the specs over the side of the bunker out of shock.

There were ships.

Aaron goes on to relate the eventual defeat of the German army. His narrative is loaded with facts that include the designer of the wall, the weaponry, the landscape, the German trench system along the beach, known as Widerstandnesters, and the time frame.

One specific fact Aaron uncovered really sticks out to me as an example of "stuffing" his account with detail that was accurately researched. He discovered that a pair of Ranger scouts disabled the artillery at Point du Hoc with thermite grenades that melted the mechanisms used to fire the guns, rendering them useless. As the narrator's situation deteriorates, this is how he relays this information:

The radio sounded off behind Akaim. As he checked it, his faced paled. "Point du Hoc has fallen," he said quietly. "The Americans sent their 1st Ranger's Division to take the Point."

"What happened?" cried Haans over the gunfire.

"Two scouts melted the firing mechanisms with thermites," said Akaim.

"We had received intelligence that the Rangers were planning something, so we moved the artillery back off the cliff. It didn't matter, though. The guns are useless, and the scouts have disappeared."

Zhiyun's Story: The Trail of Tears

Some students came upon intriguing and significant historical problems as they researched and developed their narratives. Zhiyun wrote about the Trail of Tears, the Indian removal that took place in the 1830s. One problem she encountered was that many of the first-hand accounts she found were very biased. She explains,

As I started to research, I realized that most of the first-hand accounts came from an American point that was severely slanted against the Indians. I realized that there were very few accounts from white men sympathetic to the Indians. Thus, my narrator was born. He was to be a soldier directly involved in the removals but with a pro-Cherokee point of view.

Here the narrator, who is awaiting his own hanging, explains to the audience his reasons for killing two American soldiers in an attempt to save an Indian family from a savage beating:

On our way there, I uncomfortably noticed the surrounding chaotic round-ups; screaming mothers begged troops to let them find their children while bayonets ruthlessly slashed and jabbed all unmercifully. That night I happened to encounter a pitiful Cherokee family of four being struck and prodded with bayonets by soldiers.

. . . . Around lunch time, Scott called for the troops to gather for an execution. An Indian attempted to escape with his family, but they were captured by pursuing troops; the Indian and his two sons were immediately sentenced to death. The nastiest surprise came when their fellow Cherokee were forcefully made to enlist in the firing squad. Some soldiers started to roar with laughter at this humiliation. I, however, was too petrified to even move. Helplessly, I watched as the Indians were executed one by one to the wailing and lamenting of their friends and family.

While the voice of the narrator is not as prominent in this example as in some of the other papers, the depth of research is clear. In addition to historical facts, Zhiyun found information that documented the human side of this tragedy. One of her sources described how an Indian was executed for trying to escape, and she used that incident as the catalyst that drove her narrator to a breaking point. She also learned that the soldiers used bayonets if the Cherokee did not follow orders.

Use of the First-Person Narrator

While some papers, unlike these two, fell short of including significant facts, most students successfully developed a narrator for their written accounts. Many commented that they had gone through a series of ideas for their narrator. As they considered the possibilities, they discovered that the facts they chose were dependent upon who their narrator was.

Relating history through a fictionalized account meant they had to analyze the information using unconventional methods. For example, twelve students wrote about Columbine. As I read each paper on this incident, I noted the information that each had included related directly to the student's choice of narrator.

Helen explains her process this way: "Some of the challenges I faced were trying not to say this person got shot and this person did that, when in all reality, one person probably didn't see all of it, especially if it happened in a different room."

She, like most others, had successfully recognized that her "participant" was not omniscient; the narrator's physical location and/or relationship to the killers directly affected what information they could or could not include. This was especially evident when I read Lynn and Kate's papers.

Lynn's narrator was near Mr. Sander's room so her focus was his murder. The narrator, hidden in the janitor's closet, witnessed the events unfold through a crack in the door. She described the killing as the teacher tried to intervene, but her details stopped when the shooters entered the library doors:

When the gun made another awful holler, Mr. Sanders hit the ground. . . . The boys entered the library and I ran out of the closet, I tried to stop the blood, but he was gone. Closing his eyes, I ran toward the doors. Two final gunshots sounded and it was over.

Unlike Lynn's narrator, who ended her story at the library doors, Kate's narrator was located in the library. This account began when a student frantically entered the room screaming at them to hide because some kids had guns in the hallway:

 I was reading through my study guide when a girl dashing through the big library door caught my attention. She was screaming hysterically. Between gasps she forced out words. "There's . . . there's . . . there's kids holding guns in the hallway. Everybody . . . everyone hide. Quick!"

Kate's narrator goes on to relate the series of events which led to Cassie Bernall's murder. Both of the students had chosen the same topic, yet their papers were vastly different. This occurred repeatedly with the papers written on this topic. I was curious to know how this might be related to the research they conducted.

Higher-Order Thinking

Both of the students had chosen the same topic, yet their papers were vastly different.

When I examined the notes, however, I found that most students basically had the same information, so I concluded that they had to sift through their facts and evaluate them to determine their relevance to their narrator's point of view. Without realizing it, these students were engaged in higher-order thinking.

Other students used very clever writing techniques that allowed their character to learn and share information he or she had not personally witnessed. Some writers used conversations heard later to flesh out what the character could not have known as the event unfolded. Other characters relied on live radio or television reports to fill in the gaps. In almost all cases the students blended the information in a believable way that didn't interfere with the progression of the story or make the reader think, "Oh, they tried to stick a fact in here."

What my freshmen had previously not been able to accomplish in a traditional research paper—blending information seamlessly—they proved capable of doing with this form of writing. Allison explained, "Instead of being forced to write down fact after fact, you incorporated the facts in, so it's like a fact scavenger hunt."

Other Learning Outcomes

I was pleasantly surprised to discover other learning outcomes as well. Grace commented that she was sure she would remember the information she gathered. Shelly commented that she learned more because she had to actually put herself there.

One young man, Joe, was both proud and moved by what he had accomplished: "I knew I had a great story with specific facts when it seemed so real that I believed this as an actual story being told by a [participant]. It brought tears to my eyes." Knowing Joe as I do, I did not question that he was emotionally moved by his story.

One further benefit: the first-person narrator form eliminated plagiarism. It's impossible for students to cheat, since the Internet can't give them a paper using their specific narrator. So students have no viable way to cut and paste others' work and pass it off as their own. What a breath of fresh air!

I cannot leave my readers with the impression that everything my students wrote was wonderful. Struggling writers still struggled. A few did not come close to the desired outcome. Even so, a much higher percentage of students than in previous years turned in a paper at the end of the unit.

What I noticed too was that a number of the average writers produced better work than the writing I had previously received from them—I think because they were interested in what they were doing.

Long-Term Benefits

I can emphasize how originality leads to greater satisfaction for both the writer and the reader.

Although I didn't anticipate them, upon reflection I have discovered three key learning opportunities directly related to students' experience using a first-person narrator.

First, this project provided a basis for understanding the first-person, non-omniscient narrator in literature. In my classroom students read several pieces of literature that are greatly impacted by the author's use of a first-person voice. Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado"and Dickens's Great Expectations immediately come to mind. Next year I want to lead our discussions in a new direction, perhaps connecting their role as a first-person narrator to the literature we read. It will be interesting to see if their experience helps them bring a new perspective to the text.

Students also engage higher-order thinking when they consider how point of view impacts our understanding of history. After all, history as it happens affects us all differently, and students can use this method to look beyond the textbook for an in-depth study of world events.

I also see this assignment as a positive way to open discussion on plagiarism. Because students had to tell their story as a first-person narrator, removing the possibility of plagiarism from their finished product, they generated a successful piece of writing using their own words. In fact, I can emphasize how originality leads to greater satisfaction for both the writer and the reader.

This writing accomplishment is a great confidence-builder, showing students that they don't need to rely on the words of others, either because they do not trust themselves to find the right words or because they want to take the easy way out.

After this experience, I can honestly say that I will look forward to this unit next year. I will definitely introduce it earlier in the term so it forms a solid base for learning throughout the year in literature studies and writing. I'm sure I'll continue to tweak a few of the logistics, but overall I expect the project to stay as it is.

Professional Commentary

When Larson began his presentation, he noted research he had done to support his choice to move away from the traditional research paper for his younger students and replace it with the Living History assignment. Key data he found include that of Robert Root-Bernstein, a scientific historian. Root-Bernstein states,

What is wrong, of course, is that students have learned to copy paths of reasoning worked out by others, but not to recreate or create for themselves a line of reasoning on their own. Their acquired skills are the skills of forger or plagiarist, not those of the artist, writer, or inventor. They have not been taught to think for themselves. (Quoted in Kirby and Kuykendall 1991)

This project, I believe, fills that gap. It gives kids the opportunity to expand their thinking and invent their story in a way that personalizes the experience for them. Justine sums it up:

I actually had fun doing it. It was interesting to figure out a perspective and narrator for our story. We didn't have a plain paper with a bunch of facts; we had a story that we got to figure out how to write. It was a challenge but a very fun one. Thank you for finding a new way to interest people in writing a research paper.

I say, Thank you for embracing the opportunity.


Kirby, Dan, and Carol Kuykendall. 1991. Mind Matters: Teaching for Thinking. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann

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