Read Me A Story, Find Me A Topic, Get Me a Question

Using Children’s Books to Help Students Select Research Topics and Questions
by Dr. Reba Wissner

I’ve been trying a lot of new things in the classroom recently and, for some reason, I always do a lot of this experimenting with my graduate bibliography class (all MM performance students) before I try things with my undergraduates. I keep a lot of children’s books on underrepresented composers and performers in my office and one day, before the class session when we were due to discuss how to choose a research topic, I looked over at the children’s books on my shelf and had one of those ideas that I just had to experiment with. I had been planning a run-of-the-mill introduction to choosing a research topic for that class session but looking at the shelf of books gave me an idea I could not pass up. Children’s books are great for a variety of activities because they’re short, fun to read, easily digestible, and won’t take forever to read in class—but they are also grounded in research and have lots of embedded themes that are relevant to adults. This idea turned into a fun “how to choose a research topic” exercise that occurred in one 75-minute class.

Before this class meeting, we already discussed what the students wanted to write about for their research paper, including how to determine what makes a good research topic and research question. By this point in the semester, they had read chapters one (“Introduction) and three (“Getting Started: Creating a Research Question”) from Lynne Rogers, Karen Bottge, and Sara Haefeli’s Writing in Music: A Brief Guide, and chapters one (“What Research Is and How Researchers Think About It”) and two (“Defining a Project: Topic, Question, Problem, Working Hypothesis”) of Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, ninth edition.

We started class by discussing the basic ideas of what Rogers, Bottge, Haefeli, and Turabian said about finding a research question, and we looked at this handout on selecting a research topic before moving on to the exercise. The students chose a children’s book from a selection of ten that I brought from my office. They then read the book they chose. I asked them to extract one big topic and five subtopics as they read. For some students, this was challenging—not because they couldn’t do it, but because they had to limit themselves to these six identified topics. We then mapped them on the board and discussed them. We also considered how they could translate one of these topics into a good research question. For this last part, students used this handout as a guide for writing research questions.

The photos in this blog (below) show the topics my students identified. (Ignore the giant squiggle next to the word pipeline: that was me demonstrating how the research process usually goes and that it’s rarely linear. These diagrams are shared with students’ permission.) From the books that I brought to class and laid out on the table, the students chose Dancing Hands: How Teresa Carreño Played the Piano for President Lincoln by Margarita Engle (in pink marker), Song in a Rainstorm: The Story of Musical Prodigy Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins by Glenda Armand (in black marker), and Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite by Anna Harwell Celenza (in black marker written on staff lines). (Note that there were only three students enrolled in this class.) As it turns out, the students selected books based on topics of interest to them, which made it easy for them to extract topics and research questions.

Slideshow of images from Dr. Wissner’s exercise.

After they shared what they came up with, they then did the same with a topic they were interested in pursuing for their paper. We then tried to formulate a research question for that topic. They said it was much easier to think about potential research topics and subtopics after working backwards and using children’s literature to do so. The students really enjoyed the exercise because it gave them a chance to delve deeply into thinking about topics and themes in a work of literature that seemed on the surface to be light and entertaining. They said they thought it would be easy but was actually more challenging than they anticipated.

While this worked well for my graduate students, it could easily be beneficial for undergraduate students enrolled in courses that require research. Depending on the level, length, and size of the class, you may need to spread this lesson over two class meetings, but the results, which I have seen in my students’ research questions and theses, have made it clear that what started out as an experiment has turned into a teaching tool I’ll definitely continue to use.

Reba Wissner
Columbus State University