Developing Authentic Voice through Saturation Research Writing

A long time ago, I taught New Historicism Literary Criticism for Of Mice and Men and Romeo and Juliet to my ninth-grade students. Since New Historicism aims to study a piece of literature through a cultural context, I assigned my students to write biographies on Steinbeck and Shakespeare. After priming activities and schemata building about the time era in which the stories take place, I was hoping for biographies that dug deep into a cultural time and how those times shaped the authors. Instead, what I received was a glorified timeline.

Author Biographies:

William Shakespeare was born in 1564 outside of London, England. He married Anne Hathaway and had three children.

His first play was Romeo and Juliet. There is controversy that he stole the play from an Italian author who wrote it centuries earlier. He went on to write many more plays and died in 1616.

He coined many words that we still use today and theatres across the country still perform his works.

He died in 1616.

John Steinbeck was born on February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California. He lived through The Great Depression and worked many odd jobs to survive.  

There is a belief that he worked on many ranches and that is how he came up with his idea for Of Mice and Men.  

He grew up with three sisters and in 1919 went to Stanford College but eventually dropped out. That is when he started working at different jobs.  

(Figure 1: A sampling of what the biographies looked like from my ninth-grade English Honor students.)

After two years of these biographies from students who I knew were much more skilled, much more capable, I knew I had to make a change in how I approached our school’s required biographical writing paper. 

Around the same time, 2003, I took a graduate-level course at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania entitled “Reading in the Secondary Classroom.” Our required text, The English Teacher’s Companion, by Jim Burke, included a chapter that focused on writing biographies. The recommendation, two-fold, was to have students only focus on one-to-three significant moments of the person’s life and to write in first person point-of-view as if they were that person.

Intrigued, I decided to try this out with my print journalism students, a class that was a mixture of grade 9-12 students and all levels. Up to this year, every year my students had given an oral presentation on a journalist. Every year, even with my advanced senior and junior students, the presentations began the same way: reported name, reported birthdate, reported place of birth. I could tell the students followed a templated pattern they learned in their earlier educational career.

The textbook recommendation, known as the Saturation Research Paper, did not go into much more detail, but it did have the first two paragraphs of a student model written by Alyse Rome about Harriet Tubman that has since been published on the Docest.com website in 2018. I shared these paragraphs with my journalism students. 

It was 1849, the year I got my freedom. Mind you; it wasn’t given to me. The only thing Master Ed and Miss Susan ever give me was a sore whippin’, an’ I’s got scars an’ calluses all over my stocky black body to show for it (Petry 5). It weren’t many a poor Negro slave that got freedom given to him. Lord no. He had to go on out and run to catch his freedom. Run faster and farther than he ever did from master’s whip. Faster and farther than he’d ever pray he’d run agin. And that’s just what I did, that night in 1849 (Humpherville 129).

I had reasoned this out in my mind, after hearin’ those forbidden stories whispered agin and agin, quietly around the fire – stories of the slave revolt brought on by Nat Turner (Jackson 121) and of the   runaways ridin’ to freedom on the Underground Railroad. I figured they was one of two things I had a right to: liberty or death. If I could not have one, I would have the other. No man should take Harriet Tubman alive. I should fight for my liberty as long as my strength lasted; and when the time came for me to go, the Lord would let them take me (Sterling 60). 

                                                                                                                        (Rome, 2018)

After reading together in class, we discussed its narrative elements and how they could incorporate these same elements in their writing. Besides discussing the narrative elements, we looked at how the student author used citations to show what ideas and paraphrasing she took from 

other texts. The following are a couple of my former students’ first sentences from this new form of biography writing known as the Saturation Research Paper.

“I sat on the hard bench of my jail cell, not sure when I would get out or if I ever would, but one thing I did know is that government corruption should not be tolerated, and it is my job and all reporters’ jobs to write the truth.”  ~J.M., Grade 10, Paper about John Peter Zenger

“I’m not scared, I told myself over and over, as I stepped through the doors of Blackwell Asylum. I worked as a sweatshop worker to help women; I can be an insane patient if that is what it takes to do the same.” ~B.C., Grade 9, Paper about Nellie Bly.

“My place is in America, my place is in your home, but my place will never be in just one home with my wife.”  ~ J.S., Grade 11, Paper about Charles Kuralt.

(Figure 2: First Sentences from my print journalism students in the 2003-3004 school year.)

I continued this assignment with my students until the end of the 2010-2011 school year. Each year, I would continue to use the beginning of the Harriet Tubman student model and one of my student’s papers from my first year.

Now, nearly two decades later, as I reinvestigated this type of writing for my history students, I found an online Teaching English as a Second Language Journal site, an article written by Johansen Quijano Cruz for the Center of Multidisciplinary Studies in Puerto Rico. Cruz’s article on teaching the saturation research paper includes the following six steps: Preparation, Saturation, Choosing the Significant Moment, Writing, Polish, and Present. (Cruz, 2008).

In the past, I showed my students the models and discussed elements, but I never thought about how to break them down. I gave my students a timeline of when the paper was due, and that was it. Now, since my current students need more step-by-step instructions, the following steps would be given in a more scaffolded assignment, with research and drafts due on specific dates.

Step one: The Preparation Process. In this step, the students choose a historical figure and spend time gathering information about the figure. Decide what type of style you want the students to use and take time to teach or reteach Chicago, MLA, APA, or another style you or your school may use. For this type of paper, I prefer Chicago since I found the parenthetical citation of other formats take readers out of the story. Chicago formatting allows a reader’s focus to maintain on the story. Depending on the subject being taught, students do not have to only focus on historical figures; they can choose to write about someone who is still alive. If they choose, encourage them to reach out to the person. 

Step two:  The Saturation Process: The students will read, absorb, and take notes. If you have specific guidelines they follow for where and how they keep source information and notes, you will want to make sure your students use methods they are already familiar using. If it is the first time they do any research writing, you will want to create mini lessons on how you want them to keep their notes. I have students who still prefer index cards, others who use a worksheet template with three notecards per page, and others who use online notecards with my teacher subscription to Noodletools.

Step three: Choosing the Significant Moment: After the students have saturated themselves with their historical figure’s life, they need to choose a significant event in that person’s life and determine what emotions are present to create a voice that will carry through the paper. Examples of significant moments include John Peter Zenger’s arrest for libel charges in 1734, Kesey’s job as a night orderly in a psychiatric hospital, and the first time George Washington witnessed how the Native Americans fought against invaders. The events chosen should be something that changed them in some way, whether that be a belief system or their career trajectory. In narrative terms, the events would be known as the catalyst or inciting incident that propels the person into a new path. I have used graphic organizers to help students define significant moments, describe the emotions involved, and how that inciting incident led the character to a significant life-changing moment or decision.  

Step four:  Writing:  This is the part where the students write their drafts, insert their quoted evidence, and revise. In this step, the students use their notes to write and find an authentic voice for their subject. An idea for a whole classroom activity is to give students time to present their person and their person’s moments with the class, either as a whole group activity or in a group setting. Giving students a chance to discuss events with their peers can also help them find the right voice. It is best to have a model example; I continued to use Alyse Rome’s model on Harriet Tubman or a volunteer student’s paper to model how evidence will be injected into the first-person narrative style of this report. The first draft is peer-reviewed, the second draft is read by the teacher, and the third draft is ready for polish.

Step five:  The Polish:  This is when the students finalize their papers by proofreading, double-checking style requirement, and double-checking for any needless words that could be omitted or checking for awkward sentences that need to be fixed. A great way this works is to list needless words such as that, started to, in this paper, seem, really, on the board, and any other important element you want the students to double-check. Then group students into three or four. Have multiple color highlighters and have one reader just focus on searching out certain elements and highlight those with one color. One example is every time the word that is used, one reader will highlight it blue; then another reader will focus only on typos or spelling mistakes and highlight those in another color, and so on. Giving each person something specific to look for in the final proof doesn’t overwhelm them.

Step six:  Present to class. This step is optional. 

There are ways to modify the paper. One is to have the students take the person and the event out of place and time. An example of this is George Washington in a war room as he witnesses the military using drones to attack areas. Another is to have their character be a spectator to the event, such as the first time Amelia Earhart stepped inside a plane. If they are artistic, they can create a graphic novel but still use the event and quoted evidence. Finally, they can use story mapping programs like Northwestern University’s Knight lab programs that work in conjunction with Google programs.  (Mago Torres | magiccia & Hannah Barton, 2021)

Since I was reinvestigating the saturation paper and teaching U.S.  History, in which I am not certified, I had my U.S. American tenth graders, who were working in pairs creating a two-day presentation on different time eras, practice how saturation writing will help them synthesize information for one of the historical figures they had already been studying for several weeks.

I jumped right into the assignment the way I began twenty years ago instead of using the six-step approach for two reasons. One, I wanted to see if there would be any different results since I was working with a general history class instead of higher-level English and journalism students. Secondly, since my students had already been researching a historical time frame for a couple of weeks and completed annotations and graphic organizers for their research, I knew they would already have a background on a historical figure. 

I asked students to name some of the historical figures from their research. Most named the president at the time; some named other prominent figures. Since at this point, my students should have already been saturated with important details about the figure they chose, I had them take twenty minutes to do a bit more research and write the beginnings of a biography on the figure they chose. When asked how the biography should be completed, I told them to think back to how they had been previously taught. My goal was to see how they naturally began a biographical sketch.  

Once the twenty minutes were up, I asked my students if anyone wanted to volunteer to share their first paragraphs. The first paragraph of every student’s paper incorporated the name and date of birth. After my students shared their work, I asked them how they would feel if they read over a hundred papers that began the same way. Once we got past the “I will never be a teacher” and “I hate reading” remarks, the students admitted they would get bored and not know how to grade even with a rubric.  

At this point, I explained to my students I would give them another half an hour to dig a bit deeper into one or two significant moments of their person’s life and to rewrite the beginning of a saturation research paper. I went over the saturation research prompt (included) and modeled ways to start the writing from a piece of my personal writing on a historical figure from the late 1600s.

The following examples are some of my students’ beginning sentences from their first biographical sketch and then their rewrite as a saturation research paper.

Original

Rewrite

“William Jefferson Clinton or Bill Clinton served as the 42nd president of the United States of America from 1993-2001. Clinton was born August 19, 1946, as William Jefferson Blythe III. He later took his stepfather’s surname Clinton. Before coming president, he served as the Arkansas State Attorney General from 1976 to 1978. In 1978 he ran for and won the position of governor of Kansas.”

“I am a criminal. I am a fraud. I am a scoundrel. I have known this for most of my life, as most politicians do. Over the many years of my service to America, I have discovered that a politician’s job is not about loyalty, courage, or morals, but a game in which we strategize to hide our sins. I have failed that game. I sit waiting for a trial convicting me of sexual assault.”

(Figure 4:  Bill Clinton by Sophia R. Grade 10)

Original

Rewrite:

“Sandra Day O’Connor served on the Supreme Court as the first female supreme court justice in the United States. She was born on March 26, 1930, in El Paso, Texas, and throughout her childhood lived there with her grandmother., since at the time education for women was much better in El Paso than in other parts of Texas. Her education from there on out consisted of her excelling in school and graduating early at 16 to attend Stanford University.”

“People have asked me if it was stressful. If my heart was pounding or if my mind was racing a million miles a minute. My answer? No. This is what I had been waiting for almost my entire life; just me, the Chief Justice, who at the was Chief Justice Warren Burger, and the eyes of America and history itself watching me with my hand on the bible, swearing to serve my country.”

(Figure 5:  Sandra Day O’Connor by Brigid S. Grade 10)

Original

Rewrite

“Woodrow Wilson was the 28th American Democratic president of the United States. He served his time from 1923 to 1921 serving through WWI. He was born in 1856 in Staunton, Virginia. His full name is Thomas Woodrow Wilson. When the Civil War ended, he moved to Georgia from South Carolina because of all the destruction the war had caused. It was said that Wilson was dyslexic and did not read until he was ten.”

“As I sit on the hard bench of this horse-drawn cart, watching as the horse uses all his might to pull my family and al our belongings through the wreckage of the aftermath of war, I can now read the signs of hate since my reading skills have improved. Signs of hate and signs of people abandoning their homes in search of something new. I think to myself, someday, I will make this country better.”

(Figure 6:  Woodrow Wilson by Ethen C. Grade 10)

Original

Rewrite:

“Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) was America’s 32nd president. He was born on January 30, 1882 and died on April 12, 1945. He served as president from March 4, 1933, to April 12, 1945, the day he died. He passed just as soon as he was starting his fourth term in office, and he remains the only president to serve for more than two terms. He was first elected in 1933 and beat Hoover by a landslide.

“I walk onto stage and hear the crowd screaming my name. They are tired and they are hungry. But they are still using what energy they have to scream my name. I feel a sense of guilt and pressure that I’m not sure I can handle. What if I disappoint them all? They need a president who will. Listen to them. I see a woman in the crowd, she is skin and bones, and she is holding a baby who has no idea what kind of world is surrounding them.

(Figure 6:  Franklin D. Roosevelt by Frankie H. Grade 10)

Original

Rewrite

“Born in 1908, on the 4th of November, Joseph Raymond McCarthy was quite the powerful individual. Raised in Appleton, Wisconsin, McCarthy grew up to serve in the U.S. Senate as a politician representing his home state. McCarthy was a political force to be reckoned with, dominating the U.S. political climate in the early 1950s. The man dominated through his impeccable charges of communist subversion within government’s highest circles.”

“I am a hero. Many people may disagree with that statement, but I know with all of my heart that what I say is no falsehood. What I’m doing is for the greater good, for the sake of my country. We are being faced with an evil, the evil of communists infiltrating our home and pretending to be one of us. When I joined the senate, I did so to protect my country, my home from any threat that may try to bring it harm.”

(Figure 7:  Joseph McCarthy by Grayson C. Grade 10)

While reading the beginning of the saturation research writing, I noticed that the students were bringing in those first-person elements and, as a result beginning to world-build and create ideas.  

The Saturation Research Paper teaches students to synthesize information in ways they have not thought about before. In the original writings, the students are regurgitating information they read but not feeling the emotions or ideas; in the rewrites, the students found a voice that puts the reader in a moment and thus transports the reader to time and place.

The students finished the last several steps of writing and polishing. Due to time constraints in the history class, I did not take the time with my students for a longer peer review or individual council with me, but after the first day, the students had a week to finish writing and then a day in groups to peer review. The next class, the students turned in their papers. I discovered through reading that some students took time to digest their historical figure and use the research they had already completed to create a story with voice and visual elements and some different perspectives through dialogue instead of a list of facts. Other students took the papers in a completely different direction and began creating actions that never occurred in history.  

I learned that the next time I do this activity, I need to give directions before any research is completed and add a step where historical accuracy is fact-checked. I do not see this as a part of the teacher’s job, but instead could be added in as a class lesson on fact-checking. This could be used with a graphic organizer (adding a column to the one I attached) for resources used for the significant event. These events could be fact-checked on the graphic organizer as a first step, and then another graphic organizer created for the peer reviewer to note information that needs to be double-checked

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