The first time I let my students choose their own topics for a research paper, my logic was simple: I wanted the assignment to Captivate them. The decision turned out to have far-reaching consequences, however—effects quite beyond anything I had intended or imagined.
First, there was the astonishing influx of information. Teachers understand the importance of getting to know “the whole child,” but often that’s easier said than done. When I heard paper proposals, I instantly learned who idolized LeBron James, who was a dedicated breakdancer, who was teaching himself to repair computers in his spare time. Perhaps most interesting was the student who kept begging me to choose a topic for her. How’s that for psychological insight?
Then there was the challenge of defining a topic, itself a valuable process. One student set out to write a five-page history of ancient China, providing a ready-made lesson on scope and focus for the whole class. Another was determined to expose the inherent evils of capitalism, sparking rich dialogue on the attainability and desirability of objectivity in writing. And in the end, every one of their topics earned my approval in some form or another. Ever investigate the media’s various portrayals of Rihanna’s fraught relationship with Chris Brown? It’s not a trivial exercise.
The experience also liberated me unexpectedly. Empowering students, recognizing their expertise—these are much more than ways of bartering power for engagement. They are also means of sharing the burden of teaching. It can be immensely enjoyable, not to mention instructive, to say to a student, “I have no clue how nuclear weapons have changed military strategy, and it’s not my job to know, either. This time, it’s all on you.”
Most delightfully, I found that in trying to Captivate my students I had allowed them to Captivate me. By the end of our research project I was a well-informed citizen on issues from gang violence to Puerto Rican statehood. I could cite cutting-edge research on the effects of sleep deprivation, fast food, and marijuana. I could discourse confidently on the development of the iPod, the life of Nikola Tesla, and the history of film. I could even hold forth on a number of common plastic surgery procedures.
It probably goes without saying, but the second time I had my students choose their own research topics, I had a whole lot of reasons for doing so.