How Eminem and Wikipedia Help Me Teach Students About Research Papers

I was walking down the hallway of school one day, sort of half-humming and half-singing a song that had been stuck in my head all morning. A 7th grade student I don’t know (I teach 8th Grade) stopped me in the hallway and said “Hey! That’s Eminem! You can’t sing that! You’re too old!”

I chuckled to hide my bruised self-esteem before explaining to the young lady that the song “Lose Yourself” came out my freshman year of college and that Eminem is older than I am.

She of course didn’t believe me so I gave her the classic teacher line of “Look it up” and went back to my classroom. It was my plan period and I was trying to figure out how I was going to help my students understand the purpose of citations in their research paper. They had just started an interdisciplinary research project that the Language teacher and I were working on together. Since the start of the project, we had noticed a variety of issues.

     1)Some students never cited sources. Rarely were they trying to pass off the work as their own, they just didn’t understand what needed citation and what didn’t.

     2)They were struggling with summarizing a source and using it to support their point, so they tended to just copy/paste huge chunks of text.

     3)Proper citations were alien to them. They just copied and pasted the link to wherever they got their information from. Occasionally, they would give the title of the book if their source was hard copy (which was rare).

     4)The difference between a reliable source and an unreliable one seemed lost on them. We had a lot of MySpace pages, Facebook pages, even Yahoo Answers type websites cited as fact.

     5)Most of my students had never read any professional research, so the format was lost on them. Furthermore, they had no desire to read any. It’s not like there’s a lot of University’s doing research into the things that really excite them, and even if there were, research is typically written at a level that is difficult for them to digest easily.

EminemPerformingThe 40 year old Eminem, performing in 2011. Borrowed from Wikipedia Commons. It occurred to me then, how to remedy this problem.

When my students walked in the next day, I had Eminem’s Wikipedia page pulled up on my projector. Students were immediately remarked excitedly (or sarcastically) that “we’re learning about Eminem today”. I shared with them my story about the 7th grade girl telling me I’m too old to be singing Eminem, to which they (painfully) agreed. When I insisted he was ten years older than I am, they didn’t believe me.

“Why not?” I asked.

 They pointed out that I’m not exactly the world’s foremost expert on Eminem, why should they believe what I say on the topic? I’m just an old guy singing a song. Most agreed, I was not a creditable source. Likewise, when I showed them his age on Wikipedia, they were aghast before quickly saying “Yeah, but teachers always say Wikipedia isn’t a reliable source!”

“No?” I asked. I then showed them the footnotes, which they’d always ignored, and that it revealed Eminem’s birthday was taken directly from his official website. They agreed this was a creditable source and even noted that if his official website was going to lie it would make him appear much younger than 40, which to an 8th grader, this is “over the hill”. (One student remarked, “I don’t care, he’s still hot.”)

We then proceeded to spend some time reading through the page. I showed them that his first album came out when I was a junior in high school and his most successful albums came while I was in high school or college. We talked about why certain pieces of information were cited with footnotes while others were not. Students were able to find some sources that they deemed very reliable (mostly interviews he’d given with reputable news outlets) and others that were perhaps not as dependable. We discussed primary vs secondary sources, and I showed them that while Wikipedia itself may not be the best of sources for their own research work (since it is open source) I showed them that it is a FANTASTIC place to go if you’re looking for sources by using the references at the bottom. Plus, it provides a solid model of what a research paper should look like, at a readable level for middle school students. We talked about how websites with user generated content aren’t reliable by themselves, but that they can occasionally provide direction on where one might go to find creditable sources on a topic.

Light bulbs went off around the room as students began to see what their own research should look like, at least in terms of formatting, citations and creditable sources. “So, you want our papers to look like a Wikipedia page?”

I hesitated, but agreed. We’d work out the finer points later.

When a student asked about the formatting of the references, noting that there was more information there than just a link, we discussed why citations were formatted in a particular manner. I showed them the website bibme.org and encouraged them to use it while formatting their research papers. 

When students went back to work on their own papers the next day the quality was much improved. There was still some work to be done in summarizing sources and using it to support their own writing, but at least they had a vision for what their work should look like.

This next year, I think I’m moving this lesson to the first week of school. I may require my students to cite EVERYTHING they turn in this year, even if it means citing my in class lectures or their own textbooks. The move to Common Core State Standards has made it preferable for Social Studies and Science teachers to support Language Arts classes as much as possible within the areas of Non-Fiction reading and writing. Having my students draw information from a source, use that source in an appropriate manner, and cite their information will be one way in which I can contribute to this. Not to mention the fact that I believe this is a skill with significant importance going forward in their academic careers. Not to mention it provides a fair amount of critical thinking in the process as they evaluate the validity of a source or argument.

I may be too old to sing along with Eminem in the hallways of school, but I’m not too old to recognize an awesome opportunity to connect with students, laugh a bit, build some relationships and teach a little non-fiction writing in the process.