Though we might imagine that giving students choice opens a beautiful rainbow-colored door through which they can’t wait to enter, students often struggle with the freedom that choice provides. Therefore, scaffolding is a necessity. We have created guides that provide resources for students to use as they make choices about their inquiry. For example, our American and British Literature LibGuides put all of the relevant resources into one place. In addition to providing guides, we created a Text Assistance Request Form that students can use after trying all available resources. The first question ensures that they did indeed try to find resources on their own. The second question helps them to articulate their information need and prepare us to help them. Through these two questions, we are able to better understand how students are searching and to make our assistance more focused on their actual need.
We hope you are all enjoying the start to the summer! We’ve been very lucky that Heather Hersey has been able to visit–though we’re lucky to be able to meet online each week, there’s nothing like meeting face to face over a cup of coffee (or in our case, ice cream!). There are some exciting updates for the Let Go To Learn team. This July, Marci Zane will start down a new path as the Education Librarian at The College of New Jersey! Hunterdon Central will definitely miss her, but we know she is going to do incredible work in her new job! Heather Hersey is now the Upper School Library Director at Lakeside School, in Seattle, where she has been working for the last three years. And Cathy and Meg are very excited to announce that during the Fall 2014 semester, they will be on sabbatical! During this time, they will both be researching how the Inquiry Learning Plan is being used across grade- and skill-levels, in disciplines outside of English, and in schools other than their own. Another goal of the sabbatical is to write a text to help teachers who are interested in implementing the Inquiry Learning Plan in their classrooms! And, of course, the four of us will continue to write and share our work on the blog and in a series of articles for School Library Monthly.
The sabbatical is a very unique opportunity, and we want to take advantage of fact that we can meet with other teachers that are pursuing inquiry and independent learning opportunities for their students. Meg and Cathy are hoping that as part of their research, they will be able to visit schools across the country that are currently using the ILP or a similar approach, so if you’re interested in having us observe your classes or even mentor you through the process, please let us know!
We know many of you are just out of school, but as you reflect on the past year, we’d love to learn about your using the ILP or implementing inquiry practices. This type of student work prepares them in so many ways and we would love to see what your students have been able to produce. Is there anything particularly successful or impactful? How did you or your students struggle? If you adapted the ILP in any way, we’d love to hear what you’re doing! We would also love to offer encouragement and answer any questions you might have!
If you’re interested in discussing your work in any way, please let us know. We’d love to email or Skype (or meet over ice cream!). We hope to hear from you soon! Happy Summer!
Last time, I wrote about one point of frustration during my American Lit class’s first time through the Inquiry Learning Plan (ILP)–their first individualized unit where they were designing activities and assessments. About 2/3 of the way through, students hit another snag. They had already completed 6 activities, and we took a few minutes of class to look back at what they’ve done and figured out our next steps for the upcoming round of activities. Students seemed to be in a good place, recognizing that each activity connects an element of content and at least one standard as they aimed to learn more about their essential questions. And, after lots of practice breaking down standards into rubrics and developing activities in small groups, most students were pretty comfortable with designing their own activities during class workshop time. Their comfort was apparent in their self-assessments after their second round of activities. Using Dr. Carol Kuhlthau’s ISP continuum, I had asked students to identify emotions they were feeling about their work at that point. Many said they were feeling confidence and clarity. Several wrote that they had a sense of direction. Wahoo!
The next day in class, I complimented their progress and their resilience as they tried something new. I also spent some time reminding them about the requirements for their last three activities–they needed to use their long text in one of the activities, they had to use any remaining texts (of their original 7), and they had to cover all of their standards. I didn’t anticipate the reaction I got that day. After all, I thought, if they had put effort into their prior activities, and if they had learned from the mistakes that they made to improve for the final round, they would be in great shape.
However, the mood almost instantly changed in the room.They looked scared, baffled, and frustrated. Recognizing the distress, I did some quick conferencing with students. One student told me that he left class the prior day feeling clarity with both the content and the inquiry process. Today, he plummeted right back to doubt. Only this time, he said, he felt lower than when we started the process. A few students admitted that they were struggling to make sense of new source information, and even more were overwhelmed by the thought of coordinating everything in these last few activities. Confusion and frustration were rampant. Continue reading
My 11th-12th grade American Lit class just finished up their first full unit with the Inquiry Learning Plan (ILP). As I assess their work, I have been thinking a lot about the ups and downs of their learning experience. As I expected, there were several points where students met challenges and where they felt uncomfortable. Looking ahead to the next unit, I thought it might be helpful for me to write a few posts about dealing with challenges of the inquiry process and share some of the strategies I’ve used to help students work through those moments of frustration and doubt.
The first of those moments came when they were developing activities on their own for the first time. They were really struggling with the idea that they have little direction about the final product–what they will ultimately work toward. So, in order to help ease their minds and give them a little insight into the philosophy behind what we were doing in this class, I decided to start one class period with a little troubleshooting session. It went something like this… Continue reading
One of the important aspects of using inquiry, and especially in using the ILP, is the opportunity for student choice. In Meg and Cathy’s classes, students explore themes in literature and develop skills around standards, and all of this begins with the texts students choose. In Heather’s latest post, she discusses the ways in which librarians can help students and co-teach in inquiry classrooms. For Cathy’s and Meg’s classes, librarians assist students at the beginning of the ILP process by helping them select texts. One of the ways we do this is through booktalks. A booktalk is a short introduction of a book that we can provide to students as a way to get them interested in a particular text, era, or genre of literature. In giving a booktalk, Heather and I, as well as other librarians, provide students with a glimpse into a text, by either reading a small section or sharing the conflict, theme, characters, or our favorite part. For American Literature classes, Heather and I would organize and provide booktalks around eras: Realism and Romanticism, Modernism & Postmodernism, Contemporary American Literature, among others. While we would share titles belonging to these eras, we would also connect the texts to major concepts and themes from the time period. Cathy and I would “tag team” our booktalks, alternating between the two of us, often like a ping-pong game along a literary timeline. While we were satisfied with the introduction of the texts we provided to students, we always felt that we could never cover enough books to give students a wide exposure to all of the possible literature they could choose from.
In an effort to make this part of the inquiry process more student centered, in addition to booktalks, we guided students through a browsing activity using a curation tool called a LibGuide. This web-based program allowed us to collect various websites and databases, as well as print books available in our collection or electronic texts found online. Our LibGuide for American Literature optimized a student’s ability to browse for texts. Instead of simply listening to a booktalk with books the teacher and librarians have chosen to highlight, now students could explore the multitude of resources on this guide to not only learn about eras and authors more thoroughly, but also to explore as much as possible of the literature America had to offer. This LibGuide has certainly grown over the past few years. We’ve added websites that students have discovered in their learning, ebooks that the library has purchased, and our own documents that serve to guide students through the ILP.
And when Cathy began talking about altering the structure of her class this time around, we saw the need to add even more material to this guide. While we still offer the opportunity for students to browse by era, this guide leads students to explore major playwrights, novelists, and poets across eras. It links to lists of American literary awards by year, as well as resources on American art and music, allowing students to see the connections between literature and other arts. We’ve offered sites on American culture and American history, and knowing that students don’t need to find just long texts and can explore supporting documents and materials, we’ve aggregated resources that contain primary documents from our nation’s history.
In some of the specific eras, we have linked to certain Google documents that highlight either the texts that our school library has, titles that Cathy’s classroom library contains, or books that students can find in the public domain on the web. Cathy and I have used these documents for specific browsing activities where students list their top three choices and explain why they are interested in reading the text and how it may connect to the themes they want to explore or the essential question they want to answer.
By combining all of these different types of approaches and exposing students to as many resources on American literature, writers, culture, and history as possible, we truly desire to create an open opportunity for them to explore–to wander around the resources, making connections and creating pathways for their own learning. We’ve even created a space for students to upload resources they find in their own browsing and searching online, giving them ownership of this class resource as well. And as we monitor this LibGuide, we can examine the usage statistics in the site’s “back office” to evaluate which sites are frequently referenced or which ones may be underused. Such data can give us insight into how students are using the guide and may help us determine what, if any, changes need to be made in the future.
And we haven’t just used LibGuides to help students connect with texts for literature classes. Teachers in other disciplines have teamed with the librarians to create guides in their disciplines, including Global Studies and Environmental Science, among others. By using resources like LibGuides and providing the time needed to deeply engage with the material in the beginning stages of inquiry or research, we are honoring the act of discovery and immersion as well as the importance of student choice, which all contribute to successful ILP and learning processes.
Please let us know if you recommend any resources for the American Literature LibGuide, or any of our other LibGuides, that we can share with our students. We welcome any feedback you may have and certainly would love to hear how you honor student choice in your classroom or library.
When Cathy Stutzman began working with inquiry, and then specifically with the Inquiry Learning Plan (ILP), I did a lot of co-teaching with her. At the end of the course, we asked students about the impact of having a librarian as co-teacher in their classes. Here’s what they had to say:
- “It was indeed helpful because both teachers had different kinds of feedback, which was helpful at the end to improve my work.”
- “The impact of having a librarian as a co-teacher was very positive and helpful, especially when another opinion or perspective was needed. Having two teachers and two people to give advice made the course much easier and relaxed.”
- “she provides interesting points that push research even further.”
- “It also helps when we have meetings and talk about our projects. We get the insight of a teacher but also a librarian. We get better constructive criticism.”
Of course, having two people in the classroom to circulate among students while they are working is helpful as is having a colleague to mull over ideas and be a sounding board and cheerleader when doing inquiry is a struggle. However, as you can see from the comments above, the impact goes beyond the ideas that two heads are better than one. Students saw that the perspective of the librarian was different than that of content teachers. Librarians are in a unique position: they are not content-area experts, which helps them approach information tasks in a similar way to students who are novices in the subject; however, they are experts in the information search process – curious-by-nature questioners who can follow trails of information in a genuine way. Because of their lack of content knowledge, they can help students learn how to use their prior knowledge and sources to initiate and later focus a topic. As research has shown, this is one of the most difficult parts of the research process.
- For example, a student recently wanted to write a paper about states’ rights. After showing him an article about states’ rights and seeing the depth and breadth of the topic and how many sub-topics and time periods were within it, we agreed that he needed to narrow it down. Therefore, we talked a bit about what aspect of states’ rights interested him the most. For example, was there a certain time period or topic that he would like to learn more about? Though he had no certain time period, he was really interested in economics. Since the focus of the essay was rights and responsibilities, we used a states’ rights article in the West’s Encyclopedia of American Law to search for the term “economics.” We found a few options, including his favorite, “The Commerce Clause.” The student learned an excellent technique for connecting the assignment to his interests while narrowing down his topic to a manageable size.
Librarian conferences are also helpful later in the process as students begin to fill in gaps in their research and restructure arguments after receiving feedback from their teachers.
- For instance, a student was told that she would likely have to do some extensive research to make her focus work. In its current form, her paper was not delivering what was promised in the introduction, which was an analysis of rights and responsibilities during the creation of the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) “Fairness Doctrine.” I asked her if she wanted to do more research, and she admitted that she has already done so much and wasn’t finding enough about the creation of the doctrine. I asked her if there were any point in the timeline of the Fairness Doctrine that had more primary and secondary sources available. As she looked at her sources and notecards, she realized that much of what was written about her topic was about its demise in the 1980s. My next question, again, revolved around her interest in this aspect of the topic, which was strong. So I wondered aloud if she could simply shift her focus to how the doctrine fell out of favor, making its creation a necessary part of the background. We talked through how putting the crux of her argument into the abolishment of the doctrine in 1987 would strengthen not only the number of sources she could use but also her connection to rights and responsibilities since the FCC believed that it violated the First Amendment. Through our conversation, she realized that a change of focus would give her more opportunity for analysis and investigation, allowing her to continue with a topic she loved without more researching.
Librarian feedback can also help students deal with the large amount of information found on the web.
- In our world of instant gratification, patience with getting good search results is not high. Sitting with students and showing them how one simple tweak to a search term can mean a high change in results. While searching for United Nations documents, I asked a student why he felt the results we got were so sparse. We looked at them carefully, and he noticed that the UN was referring to his country by a different name in a few of the documents – using the Syrian Arab Republic instead of Syria. By using a wildcard (Syria*) after the search term, we were able to capture all of the relevant documents for his country.
Even when research conferences aren’t formally planned, having a librarian in the classroom can still help students navigate the inquiry process, particularly when they are searching for information. For example, Marci Zane provides another example of librarians can show students how to “read” search results.
- In an AP Government class, students were charged with locating a recent undecided court case for an issue they were interested in so that they could use past precedents to draw conclusions as to the outcome of the case they find. One student asked me how exactly she would go about searching for something that she didn’t know existed. She was interested in exploring sexual assault in the military, but didn’t know where to begin. This was an excellent opportunity for an impromptu session on keyword development and search strategies using Google. After watching her input her natural search string (sexual assault in the military court case) into Google and not having a court case appear in the first list of results, she asked me how she could search better. After a brief discussion about the issue of sexual assault in the military, we were able to pinpoint a few additional keywords significant to the issue. We chatted about using quotations around “sexual assault” in her search and specifying branches of the military to garner more specific instances of abuse, rather than general articles on the controversial issue. We also discussed the importance of browsing the news features on various search engines or news outlets. Once we were able to locate one story, it was like unveiling many paths for her to continue searching. Now she had people’s names, prior cases, names of laws and bills, and charities and humanitarian initiatives. Like pieces of evidence she had to gather to understand the bigger picture, all of these names and information were valuable avenues for her to explore, not only to locate a potential court case happening now, but also to gain background information on the issue itself.
Sometimes the effects of librarian-teacher partnerships are felt throughout a class.
- As sophomore students have been working on their Model United Nations research, we were getting frequent questions about how to narrow their research for both the policy paper and the simulation. I decided to reach out to the sophomore history teachers via email, explaining the difficulty that students were having and how we were suggesting that students address it. As a result, the teachers decided to rewrite the initial questions, making them more focused for the students. If we hadn’t been speaking to students about their research dilemmas, the teachers might not have known how the broad questions were effecting their research until later in the process when it would be more difficult to rectify. We are also able to approach the assignments AS students, which provides important insight into the assignment.
Seeing this kind of modeling and having this type of mentoring is essential for students as they move closer to a world where jobs are not easily defined and may change swiftly. It also shows just how willing librarians are to be vulnerable in front of students and teachers. This vulnerability as learners is essential to our role but also really important for students to se
A new semester is upon us, and because there’s something that keeps me from doing the same thing with each class, I’m switching things up a little bit this quarter. In the past, I’ve grounded my American Literature classes around literary movements. Even though students asked entirely unique questions and they may have each selected different books, they were always exploring those things under umbrellas like Romanticism or Modernism. And, that’s always worked fine. But I noticed that they weren’t doing as well as I would’ve liked on the common final exam, which is a synthesis essay defining what it means to be an American. So, I’m pushing myself into something new this quarter with my American Lit class–a new structure to better prepare them for a common final exam, to help them more aptly synthesize what they learn, and to allow them more time to reflect and prepare a course-level “So What?” artifact. I ask my students to push themselves outside of their comfort zones to work on skills that are challenging to them; why not challenge myself with something a little new, too?
The class began with a diagnostic unit, kicked off with a personal response piece that answers the final exam question–what does it mean to be an American? Next, I split them up into small groups, each assigned a single literary era to study. I maintained a lot of control over this mini-unit–assigning an essential question, the standards, the activities, and the assessment. However, students still documented their process through an adapted Inquiry Learning Plan template, and they were in charge of creating guiding questions as well as choosing their texts. Each group presented their findings to the class (a diagnostic for a few speaking and listening standards), and all students noted their greatest takeaways from each presentation. The kids took us through information they discovered from various texts about their literary eras: Colonial, Enlightenment, Romanticism, Realism, Modernism, and Postmodernism.
Afterwards, I handed out a list of thesis statements from their diagnostic essays–a sampling of voices from our contemporary literary era. I asked them to determine what their theses say about us now. Then, we applied their guiding questions to our experiences as Americans including:
What important events took place?
Who were the important authors?
Who were the most influential people?
What is the general tone of the period, and/or what emotions were expressed?
I recorded their responses as they spoke, and that became a basic list of themes or topics from our contemporary literary era. Our next step is to develop essential questions from those topics that will lead students into our first theme-based unit for which they will select one text from each era to study the theme’s treatment and/or development over time.
I will be posting periodically throughout the unit to let you know how it’s going. If you have any questions or thoughts on the process, please post in the comments below. I hope you will join us on this exciting adventure! I’m very much looking forward to learning in a new way with my students, and I welcome any feedback you might give.