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Using Technology to Foster Creativity and Authenticity

4 Aug

Many stages of the ILP provide fantastic opportunities for students to really show off some of their strengths while they simultaneously demonstrate their learning. Technology tools can give students options beyond using physical materials in their classrooms. Furthemore, online tools can help students reach authentic audiences beyond the classroom using mediums that best meet that audience’s needs. Technology tools can also be used to creatively share teacher reflections and best practices with colleagues and members of a PLN. The tools that we will highlight here have proven especially helpful as learners begin to contribute to the information on the web.


Perhaps Prezi’s most impressive feature is its ability to manipulate space. Many people equate it to a souped up version of Powerpoint, but that really is limiting the features that Prezi offers. Starting with a single canvas, users can add text, images, sound, and videos of varying sizes and orientations. The challenge is to organize all of those items in some way to demonstrate a topic or an argument; Prezi is an awesome tool for students to demonstrate their thinking as well, showing similar threads between ideas. Users can zoom in on different elements, and pan out to reveal how they all connect within the larger element. While this often requires the presenter to be there in person, it does have a sharing feature that allows a creator to grant an audience permission to the presentation after it is given.

Prezi also has a collaborative option so users can access and edit a presentation at the same time from different locations and assigns each user an image that indicates where in the canvas the user is and what he or she is editing. Sample Prezi


A tool for presenting images, Voicethread offers collaboration and audience participation features that make it a great option for group and individual activities and presentations. Students who are working with visual texts find it particularly useful as it allows them (and their peers) to analyze a text in multiple ways. With every image, participants can leave spoken commentary, record a video of them explaining their thoughts, write analysis, and point to specific elements of the image by drawing right on it.

Voicethread is also a fantastic tool for full classes or inquiry circles to use with a common visual text. In a Freshman Humanities class, students who were studying the Reconstruction Era for social studies and its artistic and literary counterpart, Realism, for English, used Voicethread to analyze elements of a painting as a text.

They synthesized their analysis of the painting with information they gathered from their history textbooks, a video about Reconstruction, and Realistic short stories, sparking discussion about the potential influences of historical events on literature and vice versa.

Video Editing Tools

Our world is increasingly visual; therefore, encouraging students to present their learning as videos is not only an accommodation of learning styles but also a necessity for future success. They can use images, videos, music, voiceovers, and text to analyze their work or create a product for the “So What?” Three of the more common tools are Movie Maker, WeVideo, and iMovie. Movie Maker is free editing software that can be downloaded from Microsoft; it often comes with Windows, so many students may have access to it. Movie Maker also allows students to upload their finished product online. WeVideo has a similar interface and tools, but is web-based through Google, which means it can be connected to Google Drive, Facebook, Instagram, and other applications for access to videos, pictures, and documents. In order to upload a video or share it with others, a small fee is charged, but there are educational accounts that can be created at a discount. Many students in Meg’s HIP class used WeVideo for their end-of-course “So What?” because it allowed them to show images of their learning plan, pictures of the class, and add voiceover explaining what they learned about themselves and inquiry. iMovie is Apple based and many students who are MAC users have access.


Probably the most well-known, most commonly used wiki is Wikipedia. It’s a starting point for many of our students when they don’t know where else to begin with research. With crowd-sourced articles and linked references, it typically provides thorough information about all kinds of topics. Similarly, wikis can be developed by students to share what they have learned with a broad audience.

Wikispaces is a platform that our students have used individually and in groups to create original content and provide references for their topics. One American Literature class created a reference page for their peers in other classes who were learning about different literary eras. See Figure 10.10 for a snapshot of their page about the American Enlightenment. In order to move away from simple reporting, they included sample texts for each period with brief teasers to their content, author bios, and potential text pairings.

Wikispaces page from an American Literature class:

These are just some of the many, many options available, and even considering a single tool, there are likely many, many uses for it, certainly ones we haven’t even considered yet. What are you using and how are you using it?

Collaboration and Communication

28 Jul

We’ve previously written about the importance of building a learning community. Students, teachers, and librarians should work to challenge each other, share experiences, and grow together. Technology tools can facilitate the ability to create that community because they offer options to connect, share, reflect, and question.

Blogs with Aggregators

Blogs allow writers to reflect on current issues, share their thoughts, and initiate conversations by asking questions of their audience. They are unique mediums because they also allow writers to link to other writers’ works, alerting them that a conversation has begun. When I first started blogging at Flying Off the Shelf, I blogged with Cathy and my students. We encouraged them to write anything that they realized about themselves as learners, and we did the same. The posts weren’t graded. They were simply outlets. We know what you’re thinking–what’s the motivation for them to post anything? Truly, it was the accountability to the rest of the class. I then created a page on Netvibes, an online aggregator of published materials. I simply added a link to each student’s blog, which appeared as a small widget with the most recent posts for each student site. I then shared the link to the Netvibes page with the students in each class. Continue reading

The Text Assistance Request Form

7 Jul

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.

text request form

Two Heads are Better than One: Librarian as Co-Teacher

17 Feb

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

Teachers as Learners: Key to the ILP

10 Jun

One of the major shifts for teachers as they use something like the Inquiry Learning Plan (ILP) is being learners everyday with and for their students.  The ability to ask great questions and guide students through each step of the plan is challenging and requires that teachers be, as Will Richardson in his book Why School? suggests, “master learners.” Now, this term sounds a bit intimidating; I certainly don’t consider myself a “master” of learning; however, Richardson’s call for teachers to be role models for learning and to be learners even before content-area teachers is a core concept behind the ILP:

Teachers need to be great at asking questions and astute at managing the different paths to learning that each child creates. They must guide students to pursue projects of value and help them connect their interests to the required standards. And they have to be participants and models in the learning process. Continue reading

ILP and the Information Search Process

26 Mar

By the time the four of us started discussing Kuhlthau’s Information Search Process (ISP) and Guided Inquiry (GI), Meg had already created and used her initial version of the Inquiry Learning Plan (ILP).  During our work for our school’s 1-1 computing pilot, Meg began to talk to Marci and me about the principles of ISP and GI. We realized that what she was attempting had much in common with what Marci and I were so passionate about bringing to Hunterdon Central, and these frameworks have informed many of our discussions about the ILP since.

The ISP was the framework I had learned while studying for my library degree at Rutgers.  ISP is one of the foundations of the Guided Inquiry Design Framework (which we will discuss in a future post), and it still serves as an important part of our teaching.  Unlike other processes, it includes not only the actions of successful researchers for each stage but also the associated thoughts and feelings.  The framework also highlights common stumbling points during which students need more support and scaffolding.  The ISP framework was developed after the study of how people research – not just students but also people whose jobs depended upon the quality of their research.

Continue reading

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