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