Tag Archives: research

LibGuides and Student Choice

24 Feb

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.    

American Literature LibGuide

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.

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

Reflection on #AASL13: Importance of Student Voice

18 Nov

On Friday, November 15th, we presented the ILP to a group of educators at the AASL 16th National Conference & Exhibition in Hartford, CT.  As part of our presentation, we shared video reflections from students who have experienced the Inquiry Learning Plan, which is one of our favorite parts of the presentation to share with others.

It always brings us joy to watch our students reflect on their learning through the ILP.  The video we shared of students communicating their experiences in developing questions, confronting new information, and making decisions about what to study demonstrates just how mature they are in their thinking.  On Thursday evening, we listened to Tony Wagner speak about the importance of critical thinking and adaptability, two of seven essential survival skills for today’s learners and workers.  When re-watching this video of our students, we can’t help but see the connections between our students’ learning and the message Wagner so passionately articulates.  Our students are unpacking language in standards to identify skills they need to address.  They are choosing information sources responsibly and synthesizing these sources to address the divergent and convergent questions they are crafting.  They are deciding which activities best allow them to practice and master the standards, and they are reflecting upon these activities, which ultimately leads to a final summative representation of their learning.  Our students are charged with the responsibility, the curiosity, and the perseverance to undertake this learning process. This is the core of critical thinking.  This is the core of rigor.  And we—the teachers and librarians—provide feedback, ask them questions, connect them with texts and information, and suggest methods for piloting each stage of the ILP.  We help them learn not just the content of the curriculum, but how to navigate the landscape of learning and research, with all of its twists, turns, and bumps in the road.  This is the spirit of adaptability, and such experiences help students build confidence and skill as researchers. Continue reading

The Role of Essential Questions in the Inquiry Process

23 Apr

The best questions point to and highlight the big ideas.  They serve as doorways through which learners explore the key concepts, themes, theories, issues, and problems that reside within the content, perhaps as yet unseen: it is through the process of actively ‘interrogating’ the content through provocative questions that students deepen their understanding.
— Wiggins and McTighe, Understanding by Design

Any question you ask will just lead to more questions.
— Mother, LOST

Good questions call for discovery, which is at the heart of inquiry.  In using the Inquiry Learning Plan (ILP), we guide students through the process of developing their own essential and guiding questions for each unit. Essential questions are ones at the center of a topic; they are broad and seemingly timeless.  They also have no right answer, but instead invite all learners to engage in dialogue around the themes within the content.  As we discussed with the concept of “third space” in a previous post, strong essential questions allow for students to connect their life experiences, in addition to content from other curricula, to whatever they are inquiring at the time.  This is the very nature of transfer, and good questions prompt students to consider more than one way of viewing a topic.

The purpose of creating an essential question is for students to develop a focus.  At this point, they have already spent time understanding the broader scope of what they are studying (i.e. a time period in literature, an era in history, etc.). Now, they must narrow their inquiry.  As demonstrated in Kuhlthau, Maniotes, and Caspari’s Guided Inquiry Design, students may need to consider four criteria when developing an essential question:  “What is interesting to me?  What are my learning goals? How much information is available?  How much time do I have?”  (pgs. 96-97).  Such understanding connects students to their own information need.  Information need is an important concept in information literacy that suggests learners are thoughtful to what type of information is most significant to addressing their questions, rather than students simply collecting information based on a set of requirements imposed upon them.

Before we have students develop their questions, we discuss with them the difference between convergent and divergent questions.  Convergent questions are those that ask for specific information or have one or a few right answers.  These types of questions are considered low-level questions.  On the other hand, divergent questions do not have a right answer; instead, they are open-ended, provide an opportunity for investigation and argument, and may require synthesis and analysis.  With this understanding, students can aim for creating divergent questions as the basis of their inquiry.

Oftentimes, it takes several tries for students to develop quality essential questions.  For example, students in Cathy’s sophomore English class developed the following “essential questions” on first try:

  • What attributes make Beowulf a hero?
  • Can rumors cause more fear than true events?
  • Who are the monsters and why do we see them as such?

When asked to reflect on this first attempt using the definitions of convergent and divergent questions, students understand that they haven’t quite mastered the task.

As teachers, we can design activities to guide students through this process.  For example, Cathy and I developed an activity called “Musical Questions: Broadening and Narrowing Our EQs.”  Students placed their first “essential question” at the top of the sheet, and Cathy began playing instrumental music.  She instructed the students to move about the room; when the music stopped, students sat in the closest seat and read the essential question on their classmate’s worksheet.  Each student then wrote one question that was broader and one question that was narrower than the original essential question.  After a few rounds of “Musical Questions,” students returned to their seats and read through the questions that their classmates had left for them.  Many students began to see their original question in relation to the others classmates wrote.  When asked to reflect on which ones were most “essential”, meaning most divergent, students were able to identify at least one.  Now, questions read like:

  • What is heroism?
  • What is scary about the unknown?
  • How are social roles determined?

This activity was successful on a few levels.  First, students really understood the process of developing questions.  At the end of the activity, they had not only essential and other divergent questions, but they also had an important list of guiding questions to help their inquiry.  Secondly, students also practiced the information literacy skill of narrowing and broadening an inquiry, which connects with both the Common Core ELA Writing Standard 7 (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.7) and the AASL Standard 1.1.3 (Develop and refine a range of questions to frame the search for new understanding).  With a provocative essential question, students will have a strong foundation upon which they can begin quality research and investigation.

What are some other ways we can engage students in developing essential questions?

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