What About Student Research?

by Sandra F. Doran Ed.D.
Founding Head of School

“Shouldn’t students be doing formal research? Don’t we need to prepare them for academic work in college?” This question was recently posed in response to our class, “Writing for Real Audiences.” And, of course, the answer is a resounding YES! How much more real can you get than doing research for a cause that matters?

The problem I see with the way research is traditionally taught in school is that we eliminate the most important step.

All research has to start with a human interest story.

Why else would it matter? What is the point of research, but to tell the story of something or someone that demands notice?

If students hear the stories of marginalized people, unnoticed causes, unjust actions, they will have a reason to research and to write. They will collect and organize information in order to make a difference.

Case in point. My sister, Dale Slongwhite, attended the Environmental Justice Summit in Orlando when her daughter was a student at Barry University Law School in 2009. As she sat and listened to the stories of the pesticide contamination of Lake Apopka and the efforts to restore vegetation and animal life, one question kept resounding in her head. “What happened to the people?”

She learned of alligators with two heads, massive bird deaths, and flowers that wouldn’t grow. But what about the people—the farmworkers who did the backbreaking labor to grow and harvest the food that would literally feed our country for decades. What happened to them? How did the pesticides affect them?

Dale couldn’t rest until she found out. She drove to “the other side of town,” just miles from her own home, and began meeting people whose stories she would never forget. Dale was so horrified by the injustices done to the farmworkers that she decided to write a book so the world would know what they had experienced. For years, she delved into the research.

In order to tell a human interest story, you need a backdrop. Dale’s book, Fed Up: The High Cost of Cheap Food, published by the University Press of Florida in 2014, not only chronicles the gripping personal interest stories of farmworkers who “worked tirelessly to plant, harvest, pack, and ship produce all over the country while enduring scorching sun, driving rain, pesticide spraying, rats, injuries, substandard housing and low wages.” It also contains an enormous amount of factual information on such scientific and historical topics as endocrine disruptors, antinuclear antibody testing, the Permanent People’s Tribunal, the Zellwood Drainage and Water Control District, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, DDT, toxaphene, and dieldrin. . .

In short, Dale immersed herself in the history of Apopka from 1880 to the current day, became an expert on the effects of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, delved into research on the Apopka vagrancy law which made it illegal for African Americans to live or own businesses north of the railroad tracks, and reported on literally thousands of facts that she herself had previously not known.

She conducted research because it mattered. Without the research, the story would lack substance.

I believe that our students will far exceed our expectations for research and writing when they encounter human interest stories that grip their hearts and minds.

Imagine if it had been a group of students who had encountered the Apopka farmworkers. Some might have researched the science of pesticides. Others might have delved into the treatment of African Americans in the mid-forties in Apopka. Others might have looked at Florida state law. And still, others might have looked into current requirements for Medicaid and Medicare as it impacts the aging farmworkers today.

Every human interest story has many threads. When you start with the story, the research becomes the natural response to discovering the context which has created the present reality.

As a school community, it is our job to provide a culture that provides rich experiences, haunting questions, and feelings of indignancy. We need to move students off-center. Disturb their world. Propel them to action. Because the knowledge they have encountered cannot be left on the table.

Research for the sake of learning how to footnote will never captivate a student. But learning how to footnote so that you can tell the world that Apopka farmworkers still receive no social security benefits after decades of backbreaking work, limerock mining is shattering the lives of people in Pasco County, and a young man down the road with Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis is dying because there are not enough organs for transplant. . . will ignite passion in a teenager.

So we start with the story. The facts, the research, will fall into place. Writing for real audiences? That’s what keeps us working until we get it right. That’s what keeps us accountable to excellence.

At North Tampa Christian Academy, a Tampa private school, the faculty, staff, and families work as a team. Our service-oriented approach builds Christian leaders who think deeply, choose wisely, create beauty, and use their dreams to solve problems. Want to learn more about what makes us different? Contact us today.