A website is open in one tab. A journal article is open in another. A newspaper article from a database is open in another one. And, just for good measure, there’s an encyclopedia entry open in yet another tab. Is it any wonder my students have a hard time discerning what type of source they’re looking at?
I assume my students are not alone in struggling to figure out what type of source they’re looking at. This leads to questions when creating citations, of course, but it also creates challenges much earlier in the process. Knowing what type of source you’re looking at is an important part of evaluating sources, especially when it comes to determining if your source is relevant to your information need.
I started the year working with some of our Senior English classes on research questions inspired by their summer reading book, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. As I worked with the teachers to plan this project we decided this would be a great time to work with students on learning more about different types of sources. We knew we wanted them to look at different types of sources for their research, and be able to talk about why the sources they picked were best suited for their information need. We were also helping that this work with source types would help us lay some groundwork for later assignments.
I wanted to give students a chance to explore the characteristics of different source types before they started their research. In the past, I’ve tried giving students example sources, but I often found that students either had a hard time moving past the content to look at the qualities of the sources or generalizing what they’d learned to other sources they found. So I decided to take specific sources out of the equation, and give students some time exploring the qualities of different source types.
I created card sorts with some of the different source types we expected students to use for this project. The source types were in blue, and there were 2-4 descriptors printed on red paper. Given the specifics of the assignment, we wanted to focus on exploring different types of news sources. I gave the collections of source types and descriptors to small groups of students, and then they worked together to assign descriptors to source types. This led to great questions as students sorted the sources and descriptions. And since this was my first time trying this out with students, I of course discovered that some of the descriptors I’d chosen fit with multiple source types. This led to great discussions about what sources have in common in addition to what makes them unique.
As we hoped, this lesson also helped us lay the groundwork for future research. Several classes are now working on a literary analysis of Hamlet, using academic journals to support their arguments. As we introduced the research project, we were able to talk with students about the qualities of academic sources in a more nuanced way, and students had a better understanding of why academic journals were particularly suited to their research task.
My hope is to start doing some of this source exploration with younger students, so we can build on those understandings as students move through their academic careers, as well as developing their own definitions and descriptions of source types.
Most people who have spent time with me have noticed my “Relentless Optimism” stickers. There’s one on my laptop, one on my phone, and one on my water bottle–and usually a small stash of them in my bag that I hand out to people. In fact, I gave a few to some folks at the the AISL conference, and they encouraged me to share what I’d written about relentless optimism with the readers of the AISL blog.
People often ask me where my motto of Relentless Optimism came from, and what it means. I wish I had some grand origin story to share. I wish I could point to some major life event, some epiphany, some moment of insight that came after intense struggle or deep self-reflection. But no. All I can point to is a status update on Facebook.
I don’t know why that phrase came into my head. I don’t why it came at that moment. But as little as I understand about how I came up with that phrase, I am even more baffled by how and why it caught on. Very few people reacted to it on Facebook, but the next day at school a colleague looked at me and said, “Relentless.” And I said, “Relentless.” And then it took on a life of its own.
I started having text exchanges that looked like this:
I’d also get one word, all caps emails.
These texts and emails came at seemingly random moments, but it was also exactly when I needed to hear it. It was a challenging time at my school, and the days were long and the work was draining, but we were in it together.
I made buttons and handed them out. Initially I ordered 20, figuring I’d probably have some leftover. A week later I ordered 100 more because I’d had so many requests.
And while walking across campus I would often hear, in the distance, someone yelling “Relentless!” I had, completely by accident, started a movement.
It was a weird and wonderful time in my life.
But the more people that shouted it, and the more it spread, the more I got the question:
But what does relentless optimism mean?
It’s a fair question, and one I’m never quite sure how to answer. I have a complicated relationship with optimism. For most of my life I described myself as a “realist”, which is what cynics call themselves when they don’t want to own up to being cynics.
Optimism does not come naturally to me, which is why it sometimes surprises me that that’s the word people focus on when they see the sticker.
I focus on the word relentless. There’s a reason it’s on there twice.
“Relentless” can, as adjectives go, get a bad reputation. It’s connotation is something or someone that is harsh, inflexible, unforgiving.
A relentless enemy. The relentless heat of the desert. The relentless beat of the drums
Of course, when I went to look up some more usage examples I found this, which undermines my larger point, but was too delightful not to share. I like to think I’m doing my part to change the connotation of the word relentless
Relentless optimism is, for me, a particular kind of optimism. It’s an optimism that is deliberately and consciously chosen. It’s an optimism that is unyielding, even when the situation at hand might make it easy to succumb to “realism.” It’s the optimism you find deep within yourself when you’re not sure how you got where you are, and you’re holding on for dear life.
There is a fair amount of research pointing to the idea that humans are hard-wired for optimism–to believe that everything’s going to turn out okay for us.
We are also, however, prone to optimism bias–a tendency to underestimate the likelihood that we will experience negative consequences as a result of our actions. Optimism bias leads you to believe that nothing bad could possibly happen to you, no matter what you do. Over a decade of working in schools has provided me with plenty of examples of the pitfalls of optimism bias, but the one that sticks out in my memory is the student who decided to dunk a basketball by jumping off a chair. Because what could possibly go wrong. Besides, of course, breaking both his arms. The student in question (an advisee of mine from a previous school) would want me to point out that he did, in fact, make the basket.
But as we get older, we are less optimistic. We have more evidence that things don’t always turn out well (though research indicates that as we get even older, we get optimistic again–perhaps because even though things haven’t always worked out, we know we can survive setbacks).
This is where relentless comes in. When our innate optimism wanes, being optimistic requires making a choice, and being unyielding in that choice.
And the interesting thing is, by choosing optimism and priming ourselves to expect good results, we actually make it more likely that we’ll recognize bad ones and be able to adjust accordingly. We’re more likely to notice it than “realists” (who are sort of expecting things to go poorly).
Because relentless optimism is not just about believing that something will turn out well–it’s about doing the work necessary to make it turn out well. The relentlessness is how we turn our optimism into results, and—more importantly– how we avoid the pitfalls of optimism bias.
This tree, for me, is the arboreal embodiment of the kind of relentless I’m thinking about when I think about relentless optimism. It was struck by lightning, and split into multiple pieces. But before it could be chopped up and carted away, it started growing again. Not in the way it originally planned, not in the way anyone expected it to. But it grew.
There are times when the challenges seem insurmountable, when we have been felled by powers beyond our control. But we find a new and different way to grow.
Relentless optimism is about believing in (and working for) the possibility of change despite evidence that would lead you to believe that change isn’t possible. It’s about believing that we’re all in this (whatever “this” is) together. It’s about moving forward, even when moving forward is frustrating and difficult and overwhelming and seemingly pointless because it feels like you’ve never gotten anywhere before (or even lost ground).
If you don’t try, you are almost guaranteed to feel disappointed. If you try, and things don’t work the way you wanted them to, you might still feel disappointed, but at least you’ll know you tried. It can be easy–and comfortable–to succumb to negativity and defeatism. Relentless optimism involves risk; it can mean working without a net. It might not feel safe, but it’s exhilarating.
And I want to be clear: relentless optimism does not mean I don’t have bad days. It does not mean I never get frustrated and complain.
It means I take the moment to vent, and then I start looking for solutions. It means I find people who share my frustrations, and we figure out how to keep moving forward together.
I will encounter challenges beyond my abilities, and I will develop new skills. I will hit roadblocks, but I will find another path. I will be defeated, and I will get up again.
This motto is both affirmation, and aspiration.
Being optimistic (and being relentless) is a choice. It’s not always the easy one. But the more often and more deliberately I make it, the easier and more powerful it gets. And I love watching people around me make that choice, too.
This relentless optimism movement I accidentally founded gave me something I never could have anticipated—it helped me build a community. Because the power of relentless optimism is not that I believe in it. The power is that I have surrounded myself with other people who believe in it, too. I still gets those texts that are just the word “relentless” in all caps. I still send out stickers and buttons, and friends send me pictures of where they’ve put them. The real power of yelling “relentless” is that I know I’m not in this alone.
Because as important as it is to find something that energizes you, it’s even more important to find the people who share your vision and support you.
We need that passion, and we need that community to sustain us through the Journey.
At some point, without me even really noticing it was happening, my love of “Don’t’ Stop Believin’” went from ironic to real, true, and pure. And that’s when I knew I was no longer a realist. I am a relentless optimist.
The only thing I’ve ever felt certain of when teaching source evaluation to students was that no matter what I did I was missing a lot of the nuance involved in evaluating sources. I tried myriad different checklist and every acronym I could find to help students get better at evaluating their sources, but nothing ever felt quite right. I also realized that the strategies I was showing to my students were not strategies I used myself. If I didn’t evaluate information this way, why was I expecting that it would work for students?
A few years ago a friend pointed me in the direction of Sam Wineburg’s work at Stanford, and a lightbulb went off for me. Of course none of the checklists and acronyms felt quite right–they weren’t how expert evaluators evaluated information. Checklists also tended to keep students inside the source to judge its reliability, whereas fact-checkers would go outside the source to evaluate it. I started thinking about how I could teach my students to act like fact-checkers when evaluating an unfamiliar source.
I also wanted to help students approach sources with nuance: sources rarely fit neatly into “good” or “bad” categories–and even if they did, those categories ignore the complexities of a student’s question and research need. A source can be completely factual and not helpful to a student’s research need, and a biased source can help a student understand another perspective on an issue.
I still haven’t found the “just right” way to approach this process (I’ll be sure to keep you posted if I do), but I did recently have a chance to work with a couple classes of seniors that were doing current events work. Their teachers wanted them to get better at evaluating news sources, and especially to have the skills to avoid “fake news”. Inspired by the Source Deck activity developed by librarians at the University of Virginia I came up with a game I call Trust/Don’t Trust/Proceed with Caution.
I started the class by asking students about the process of applying to colleges and jobs and having to ask for references and recommendations. Why do we ask for recommendations? Can’t you just take someone’s word for it when they say they’re hard-working and creative? Or do you want to know what other people see in them as well? That real-world connection clicked for them, and from there we moved into talking about how to “check the references” of the information we find online.
We did a sample site together, first looking at the site’s About Us page, and then doing a search to find out more about what other people and organizations have to say about a site (we did this with [url -site:url] search, which eliminates the site itself from searches, but does show who links to the site). I talked them through how I look at search results to get the lay of the land, and then clicked through to a few sites to show them how I interpret what I find there. Most searches would come up with a Wikipedia article, so I pointed out to them how I interpret the Contents List to help with my evaluation (i.e. if there’s a section labeled “Controversies”, that’s probably where I’m going to start). I also showed them how I’d research any expert or organization quoted in an article.
After that I gave students cards with screenshots of the title, URL, and first paragraph of several news stories from sources across the political and accuracy spectrum. They then worked in groups of three to determine if this was a source they should trust, not trust, or approach with caution. We had them work in groups so they could talk through what they were finding with one another. Groups had 1-2 minutes (time got shorter as we went on and students got more confident in the process) to make their determination, and then each group had to hold up either a Trust, Don’t Trust, or Proceed with Caution sign, and explain why they had chosen it.
The “Proceed with Caution” responses (which I had weighted the deck with) led to really rich discussions about what it means to “proceed with caution” when reading a source. We don’t just want to throw up our hands and say “nothing can be trusted”–we want to approach all sources with our eyes open, but it’s also important to differentiate between “this source has a history of inaccuracy” and “this source has a bias in favor of particular positions or group.” Students were also able to distinguish between “an author who wrote for this source has a reputation for inaccuracy” versus “this source as a whole can’t be trusted.” Students also raised the question of whether or not we can trust Wikipedia, which led to a conversation about what to pay attention to when reading a Wikipedia article, and how to follow the sources they cite.
I was really impressed with the reasoning students used when deciding how to approach these unfamiliar sources, and having these conversations helped students understand how complex this process can be. I’m looking forward to expanding this lesson to be used with other types of questions and sources.