76. Research

I was never good at research. No teacher ever taught me how to do it. I have a sister who’s great at it. A brother who’s great at it. Daughters who are great at it (they got that from my ex-wife, not from me). Every year, I taught children a little bit about research, but I was never more than a step ahead of them. The research skills I taught the third graders in my final class, from 1993-94, were all the research skills I knew, and luckily, their parents helped a lot. I was very impressed with the work they did, but I’m very glad nobody asked to see some of my research. There isn’t any I’d want to show anyone.
My introduction to research was similar to my introduction to football. It was assumed that I had already learned it, and I was told to do it. So football, to me, meant standing across from someone who was supposed to knock me over when the coach blew the whistle. And research meant going to the library, finding books and articles all about the same subject, and keeping them all near me as I wrote about the subject.
I wrote a paper about the Green River Ordinance, a law forbidding door-to-door peddling in the town of Green River, Wyoming. I think it was the best research I’ve done, but my teacher gave it back to me, telling me that it lacked historical context. With an extra week to rescue a project that had taken a month, I turned it into a history of peddling in the United States. I kept showing it to my teacher to make sure it was coming out okay. But as I worked, I had a growing conviction that I had no idea what I was doing.
Not knowing how to do research, or not believing that I knew how, did not get in my way very often. A few times in college, I got some bad grades. Mostly, I took courses that did not involve research. When there was writing to do, it was usually the kind you’re reading right now. Once in a while, I’d refer to something I’d read, but it was already at the top of my head; it wasn’t the result of research.
It’s hard to teach what you’ve never learned. Somehow, in my twenty-fifth year as a teacher, I think I outdid myself in helping children learn to do research. But I still feel that I could have done better. There is something about the process that has to be taught better. I don’t think I’m alone among teachers in my insecurity about research. I think it’s been a gap in schools for a long time.

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