Piloting the Mini-Lesson/Embedded Librarian Model in 6th Grade Science (at last!)

Sometimes in education it feels like projects take years to implement, rather than, say, months or weeks. As the type of person who experiences a particular sort of joy when checking things off of the ol’ to-do list, those types of nebulous, long-term, drawn-out initiatives can at times feel rather ungratifying. So I’m excited to share about a project that has been almost three years in the making, and has begun to unfold in a way that is, in fact, immensely gratifying.

When I started my job as the Middle School Librarian at Colorado Academy in 2013, there wasn’t much research curriculum to speak of in my division. I spent my first year getting to know my colleagues, students, library collection, and general curriculum, and by my second year was given the go-ahead by our Middle School Principal to start building buy-in with the faculty to create a research scope & sequence. This involved almost a year of meetings that I won’t bore you with here, and ultimately the Middle School faculty, with my guidance, chose to implement the Pathways to Knowledge model for research (http://eduscapes.com/infooriginal/pathways.html). It’s an older model created by Follett in partnership with Marjorie L. Pappas and Ann E. Tepe, but it fits our needs as a school in that it is non-linear and inquiry-based.

I spent another school year gathering information about existing curriculum, and determined that we should move forward by scaffolding research skills within projects that already exist. I also had the revelation, as I know from the AISL listserv many of you also have, that mini-lessons are often more effective than large-scale information dumps (that one-off “research lesson” where you try to cover ALL the skills in 45 minutes). So, I reached out to our 6th grade science team to see if I could “embed” myself in their classrooms for the duration of their Global Water Challenge project, which is a large-scale project where teams of 6th grade students are asked to research water issues in a particular country, prototype a solution to the most pressing water issue in that country, and ultimately create and perform a skit in which the prototype is presented in addition to an overview of the country’s water issues. Because the two 6th grade science teachers are wonderfully open to collaboration and because this is the first long-term research project middle schoolers take on, piloting the “mini-lesson” model with the Global Water Challenge seemed like a good fit.

I’ve been embedded in 6th grade science classrooms for a week now, and have loved how everything has unfolded so far. Below is my mini-lesson plan (each lesson lasts about 20 minutes total)–I’d love to hear from those of you who work with 6th graders (or middle schoolers in general) about whether you see anything that’s missing or that I could add!

Day 1
Appreciation & Enjoyment: The Water Princess Read-Aloud
Students gain an introduction to water scarcity issues in Burkina Faso and understand some of the basic issues associated with water scarcity in general
Student curiosity about water issues is piqued

Day 2
Presearch: First Day with Country Groups
Students practice presearch skills, including brainstorming, formulating initial questions, relating information to prior knowledge, narrowing or broadening a topic, and identifying keywords

Day 3
Search: Using CultureGrams to Explore the Difference Between Databases and Search Engines
Students use the CultureGrams database to find information about their country
Students discuss the difference between databases and search engines using the analogy “Databases are more like streaming a movie on Netflix, and search engines are more like trying to stream the full version of a movie using YouTube.”

Day 4
Search-Paraphrasing and Plagiarism
Students paraphrase lyrics from Adele’s “Hello” in an effort to understand how paraphrasing works
Students use NoodleTools to cite the CultureGrams article they located the day before

Day 5
Search-Online Resources: Wikipedia
Students understand that Wikipedia is merely a starting point for all research and never an end point
Students understand how to identify errors in Wikipedia articles
Students are able to use the footnotes at the end of a Wikipedia entry to find more resources
Students are able to cite a Wikipedia article

Day 6
Search-Effective Web Searches (Government Sites Using CIA World Factbook)
Students can explain the significance of a URL (.gov, .edu, .org)
Students can conduct a basic Google search
Students locate and take notes on the sections for their country on the CIA World Factbook for Total Renewable Water Resources, Freshwater Withdrawal, Climate, Terrain, Natural Hazards, Environment-Current Issues, Drinking Water Source, Sanitation Facility Access, Major Infectious Diseases

Day 7
Search- Effective Web Searches (NGO Sites)
Students are able to conduct a basic Google search to locate organizations that work with their countries on their water issue
Students are able to conduct a basic Google search to locate health organizations that deal with water-borne diseases, drought, etc.
Students are able to effectively use the CRAAP test to evaluate websites

Day 8
Search-Effective Web Searches (News Agencies)
Students are able to conduct a basic Google search to locate recent news articles about their country and water issue
Students are able to effectively use the CRAAP test to evaluate websites

Day 9
Search-Creative Commons Image Search
Students understand how to limit an image search to “Labeled for Reuse”
Students understand that they must cite images using a URL

Days 10-20
Small group research conferences with me to check in on progress

On Taking Matters Into Our Own Hands: A Grassroots Approach to Remodeling Library Spaces

Colorado Academy is a PreK-12 campus, and I work as the Middle School Librarian in the library that serves our 6th-12th graders. The building was completely scraped and rebuilt in 1998, and it’s a lovely, large space with big windows and lots of natural light. But, as I imagine many of you can empathize with, the furniture and the design of the space is a bit “20th century,” despite the fact that the work our students and faculty are doing in the library is very much anchored in more innovative and collaborative 21st century skills. While our library is somewhere on the list for updates on our campus in the next five (?) years or so, it understandably falls behind our un-air-conditioned theater building from the 1970s and several other more pressing projects. So, while we wait patiently for more large-scale improvements, last year we decided to completely shift one of the spaces in our library on a shoestring budget in an effort to better meet the needs of our community. I unfortunately don’t have any “before” shots as this was a last-minute, get-it-together-in-the-week-before-students-arrive kind of late summer project, but I want to share the results in the hopes that they might empower some of you to make the same type of grassroots changes to your spaces.

Last August, our Middle School Principal asked our former Director of Libraries if we needed any extra whiteboards for the library. A shipment for the Middle School had arrived with six too many rolling whiteboards, and rather than go through the lengthy process of returning them, he was trying to find someone who needed or wanted the extras. We happily made a new home for them in the library, which is where our grassroots remodel process began.


The whiteboards shown in the photo above seemed conducive to helping to create a design thinking-type learning space, and we used them to create a makeshift (but flexible) wall around a previously underused area in the library.


We already had a mobile smart board that we moved into the space, but we realized that the old-school furniture we had didn’t quite strike the tone we were going for. We didn’t have the budget for any new purchases, so our solution was to ask our wonderful and accommodating Operations department to put rolling casters on the table legs in order to make the space more flexible, which they were happy to do. Once the rolling casters were on, we used whiteboard paint (which we purchased at Home Depot) on top of a white primer to create dry erase surfaces for the tables. We did the painting work ourselves, and although the primer required several coats, it was a relatively easy process that only took a few days.


We kept the older chairs that were already in the space, and our Operations department agreed to replace the dim overhead lighting with brighter fixtures. Once the lighting was finished, we wrapped up this quick and cheap “renovation” that has been more impactful than we could have imagined.

Faculty members LOVE reserving what we now call the Teaching Lab for classes–whether they need a change of energy or pace or are working on something that could benefit from a more flexible space than a traditional classroom, we now have more classes meeting in the library than ever before. I’ve seen fabulously inventive configurations of tables and chairs, and I get a special thrill when I walk through the Teaching Lab after a class and see evidence of incredible brainstorms left behind on our dry erase tables and rolling whiteboards. It’s also been wonderful to have a bright, shiny space for my own instruction, which used to happen in a much smaller and darker room in a back corner of the library.
While I admittedly look forward to that day in the future when our space gets the go-ahead for a more comprehensive overhaul, it’s been empowering to realize that a DIY facelift can also do the trick in a pinch. How about you all? Any genius grassroots remodel hacks to share?