"Foreword: To Teachers of the I-Search Paper: A High School View"

by Joyce Moore

Is it possible to really engage high school students in the process of investigation, discovery, research, and analysis? How do we avoid the mistakes of the past that produced warmed-over encyclopedic accounts submitted by students in the name of research? Where is the magic? Why did they lack passionate engagement?

Having arranged several writing workshops with Ken Wachsberger, author of Transforming Lives: A Socially Responsible Guide to the Magic of Writing and Researching, in which he provided a liberating, sequential, and engaging approach to writing that captivated the minds and hearts of high school teachers, I am convinced of the I-Search process’ value as another developmental pathway to academic, technical, and professional writing competency.

Students can never rise above the level of instruction provided by teachers when there is reluctance by teachers to demonstrate, model, and clearly explain the unlocking of ideas, questions, extrapolations, and creative imaginings in a flow of writing that satisfies like pure water from a mountain stream.

Chapter 2, titled “Tell It Like a Story,” addresses the connection between lived life and written life by enabling students to plumb the deep, personal interest elements of their topics. This real-life interest hook catapults students to a research level that provides unabashed motivation to follow leads, ask questions, formulate hypotheses, search for answers, and engage discovery in a way that centers them in a universe that reflects the meaning of life. This life narrative takes shape from the inside out.

Engaging high school students at the level of self-interest also provides a cultural link to the ancient past when the need to communicate spawned hieroglyphics—using pictures and symbols as words—but is now fast forwarded to the twenty-first-century competency of creating meaningful text through words as pictures that provoke additional images of meaning.

The concept of life transformation through writing is one that is not lost on a trained theologian, minister, and educator who virtually lives in the pages of biblical narrative, historical accounts, psalmic poetry, the gospels, and instructive epistles to shape my responses to life and meaning. These ancient writings with their fresh, contemporary applications have the effect of making incursions into the terrains of my intellect, will, and emotions so that I am continuously moving from faith to faith, strength to strength, glory to glory, and victory to victory as the words of the Master Teacher direct and compel me to investigate the meaning of my life in the context of His life.

Investigating three areas of contemporary life is the basis of the I-Search paper: career search, major purchase, and personal growth. Clearly, these are young adult issues that have a direct application to adulthood; students should grow through these searches as they transition to independent adulthood. In other words, these are life and lifestyle searches. Investigations that support and undergird life decisions are always instructive.

Grasping the I-Search process is grasping the big picture. In chapter 5, “Writing the Introduction,” Ken Wachsberger provides the following insights:

In writing an essay in the past you may have been told to write the introduction after completing your body so you would know how narrow or broad to make it. Not so with the I-Search paper. When writing your introduction, shoot higher than you possibly can accomplish in one semester, for two reasons. First, because this work is so important to you, you probably won’t be able to answer all your questions in one semester anyhow; but still you need to explore the parameters of the larger issue so you know what you’re getting yourself into. In other words—get the big picture.

How supportive this approach seems to be of the search for meaning. Victor Frankl, in his landmark book, Man’s Search for Meaning, describes his personal search while imprisoned in a concentration camp:

This book does not claim to be an account of facts and events but of personal experiences, experiences which millions of prisoners have suffered time and again. It is the inside story of a concentration camp, told by one of its survivors. This tale is not concerned with the great horrors which have already been described often enough (though less often believed), but with the multitude of small torrents. In other words, it will try to answer the question: How was everyday life in the concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?

Searching for meaning and answers is a distinctly human enterprise that gives life its ultimate meaning. The search never ends.

Joyce L. Moore is Director of Curriculum for High School English at Detroit Public Schools.

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