Well, it’s the end of the year. I think. Like everything else this year, the end of the school year doesn’t feel quite normal. Adding to my sense of disequilbrium is the fact that I’m leaving my school this year (for another independent school library job – I’m not going that far!). So in addition to wrapping up this year (as well as a few things that never really got wrapped up at the end of last year…), I’m getting my library ready for a new director to take over.
This is my fourth library job, and walking into a new library is always… an experience. Sometimes you find detailed notes and information, and sometimes all you have to go on are a bunch of unlabeled keys (why are there always so many unlabeled keys?). We all know the ins and out of our libraries well, but all of our libraries will outlive us. What will someone else discover when they come into your library? Will they be able to take it over, or will they be doing a scavenger hunt? Will they sing your praises or curse your name?
Luckily I have two kindred spirits, Laura Pearle and Courtney Lewis, who enjoy thinking and talking about this almost as much as I do. A few years ago I joked with Laura that I wanted to do a presentation called “You’ve Inherited a Dumpster Fire. Now What?” While I haven’t presented that exact program, Laura, Courtney and I have presented a few times (including at AISL Boston) about the “What If Scenario” and recently recoded our presentation as a webinar for the Independent School Section of AASL (it’s free!). You can also find links to everything we presented here.
I try and follow the campsite rule when leaving a library: leave it better than I found it. And the beauty of many of these things is that they make the campsite a lot nicer while you’re still in it. As I’ve gone through and organized files for this transition, I’ve been reflecting on how helpful some of these documents have been – and kicking myself for not keeping some of them in better shape. But I know that the new library director will have what she needs to quickly get her bearings, and will also have some historical context for the program she’s taking over.
Setting all this step up is one of those big tasks that is easily broken down into small tasks. It may be that you can put some of these things into place as you wrap up this year or start next year. At the very least, start by labeling some of those keys.
Last week, when the alert I set in my calendar popped up to remind me I had an AISL bog due this week, I thought “okay, I’ll do some thinking, get an idea, and write something up this weekend.” And I thought. And thought. But no ideas came. At least none that I liked. I didn’t want to write about the challenges of this year, but it’s also the major thing on my mind.
We’ve done some cool community-building projects this year, but our instructional program has taken a real hit with our revised schedule. For a variety of reasons, we moved to a semester-based schedule this year, which means that previously year-long classes are now being taught in a semester. One of the impacts of this is that a number of research projects have been cut or curtailed. And while I know that constraints breed creativity, the reality of the constraints of our schedule has meant that there is just not the time necessary for in-depth research. It also means I’ve had fewer opportunities to collaborate and brainstorm with teachers, which is one of my favorite parts of the job.
One of the other changes that came with our new schedule is the introduction of some new electives, including a 9th-grade course focused on the Middle East. This was my opportunity! The course had a lot more flexibility than other classes, and the teacher is a willing collaborator. So, Tuesday afternoon, as I was still struggling to brainstorm a topic for this blog post, I sat down to brainstorm with this teacher.
And it was so much fun! I have all sorts of strategies and methods for brainstorming with teachers (some of my favorites come from Project Zero’s Thinking Routines Toolbox), but this time we just had a one-on-one conversation where we built on each other’s ideas. I kept my research instruction menu open in the background so I could connect our ideas to the skills we’re hoping to teach.
One of the goals we established right away is that we don’t want students to think of the Middle East only as “a place with problems” but to understand it in all of its richness and complexity. Given that this class may not have been every student’s first choice, we also wanted to build in some opportunities for them to feel more agency in their learning.
With those goals in mind, here’s what we’re thinking about so far. More brainstorming to do, and would love to hear any ideas you have!
Each student (or pair of students) will pick a country to become an expert on. This will allow us to do research tasks of different sizes at multiple points. Students can learn the history of a country, share current events, delve into the art and culture of a country, etc.
As a way to frame the research about their country, and as a way to develop some questioning skills, the class will generate the questions they’ll pursue answers to for their country study.
I’m hoping to find a way to incorporate (socially-distanced) write arounds as a way of developing background knowledge and thinking about multiple perspectives
This seems like a great opportunity to do some work with students on source types. This tends to be very abstract for my students, particularly at the younger grades. I have been wanting to do a source deck activity since I first read about them, but never seemed to be the right opportunity – until now! I’m still thinking about a topic, but would love any suggestions.
All these ideas need some more refining and planning, but it was exciting to be creative without constraints for a little while – and to get my brain storming in more productive ways.
Back in the summer, I had… a very strong notion about what library instruction would look like this school year. There was no way to have a clear picture, given all of the uncertainties inherent in planning for a year like this, but I felt like I’d developed a clear plan and was ready to put it into action.
I shared an earlier version of my research instruction menu in the summer, and had further refined it before sharing with teachers as we prepared to head back to school. I was excited! This seemed like a great way to communicate what we do, and to build on existing collaborative relationships.
And I honestly believe that in a “typical” school year, it would have been. But this year is, as we know, anything but typical. In addition to managing the challenges of a hybrid schedule, we’ve also switched to semester-based classes for the year – which means teachers are trying to teach in a semester what they used to teach in a year. And while the number of contact hours has not been cut in half, there is still less time overall, and less time for students to process information and skills in the way that is so important to information literacy development. We’ve been collaborating on some familiar projects, but others have been abbreviated or cut. I am a little nervous that many teachers are going to try and do a research project in January before the semester ends. I know that the impact we saw on research instruction last spring and throughout this year means that we’re going to need to adapt future instruction in order to fill in some gaps.
Another challenge has been the way we deliver instruction. My original plan was to do flipped instruction, providing video tutorials of instruction and then following up with student check-ins or other formative feedback. This, also, has not gone how I thought it would. We’ve created some instructional videos, and many of the shorter “how to” ones are useful, but I’m not sure about the longer ones. One issue is that few, if any, other teachers are using videos for flipped instruction. Given that we’re an outlier, I’m not sure if students know what to make of these instructional videos. And, honestly, I miss the connection of being with students. So much of good instruction is built on relationships, and those are harder to build in videos. We’ve been able to get into the classroom a little more, and to Zoom with students, and will continue to adapt.
I am holding onto my research instruction menu, and will try again with it next year. But for this year, I’m focusing on being flexible and adapting as we all figure out how to make the most of a very challenging year.
We’re still a few weeks away from the start of classes here in Massachusetts, but I feel like the fall has been looming over since, well, last spring. We saw a sharp decline in our research instruction once we went remote last spring, and I’ve been thinking about how to make sure that didn’t happen again this fall, knowing that we were likely to be at least partially remote again.
We are going back with a hybrid schedule, with half of our students on campus on any given day. A class of students will, essentially, be split in two with half the students in the classroom with the teacher, and half at home each day. While there will be times when students Zoom in on their learn from home days, there will likely be a fair amount of asynchronous instruction happening. Those learn from home days seemed like a good opportunity to do some research instruction, and to collaborate with teachers.
I’ve never done much with flipped instruction, as we often had very few opportunities to get into the classroom with students as it was, and I wanted to make the most of those opportunities so we could build relationships and do some guided practice. However, it’s very unlikely we’ll be able to be in many classrooms this fall, and I won’t be able to lean over a student’s shoulder to help them the way I usually would. I wanted to do something that would help us connect better than Zooming into classes from our office. Also, being able to offer something to teachers as a way to do meaningful instruction with students who were learning from home will (hopefully) be a good way to rebuild some of those collaborative partnerships that suffered in the spring.
I’ve been thinking about how to offer a “menu” of instructional possibilities to teachers for a while, and this seemed like the right time to put that idea onto paper (or GoogleSlides, as it were). My goal is to more clearly communicate to teachers what types of instruction we can do, as well as what sorts of applied practice students could do. It’s important to me that we communicate to teachers that research instruction is dynamic; a database demo doesn’t help anyone learn research skills unless they have a chance to practice and get feedback on what they’ve learned. It also means they’re doing something more than watching a video at home.
This slideshow gives a broad overview of what types of skill instruction we do (I’m working on a one-pager that I was planning on having finished by now, but, well, here we are) along with some ideas for how students can practice those skills. The content will be delivered via video (which means students can review it at any time), and the opportunities for applied practice will be tailored to the assignment.
The key to this for me is the last slide, which gives some possibilities for how students can get feedback. We can “visit” classes as we’ve traditionally done to answer questions and check for understanding. Or students can schedule a ten-minute “check-in” with one of us to share their work and get feedback; we’ve had great success with longer research appointments, and I like the idea of adding this option for students and teachers. Or, depending on the task, we can ask students to create a screencast of their work/process, explaining what they’re doing and why. This last option allows for some metacognition and reflection, as well as an opportunity for us to catch misunderstandings. All of these options will give us an opportunity to connect with and build relationships with students, something I’m very conscious of as I think about a socially distanced library.
I’m still putting final touches on much of this (you all are getting a sneak peek) and I’ll be rolling it out to teachers soon. I’m optimistic that it will help start conversations with teachers about how they can incorporate research instruction, as well as make for meaningful instructional partnerships in what is sure to be a very interesting school year.
I’ll admit I have found myself a tad… envious of those of you who find yourselves in high demand in this shift to remote learning. We have had a few teachers doing research work, and students are still coming for (Zoom) research appointments, but our (new) chat reference has been *crickets*, and it has been harder to collaborate than when I could chat with someone in the dining hall or on the way to assembly.
I also miss seeing students! We’ve had some luck with virtual programs (including a group that is really, really into virtualbingo). But it is, as you all know, just not the same.
One group I have seen more of, however, is parents. Back in the Before Times I had been talking with our Director of Parent Programming and our Parent Association about doing a news literacy workshop for parents. With the US Presidential election on the horizon there seemed to be a lot of parent interest in learning how to be savvier news consumers – and the coronavirus pandemic has only upped the stakes. So when I was asked if I wanted to try presenting in our new online lives, I jumped at the chance.
I typically prefer to do things like this in a workshop-style, with people having the chance to follow along and try strategies as I demonstrate them. However, given that I couldn’t guarantee that people would have two devices at the fingertips (one to watch me on and one to work on) I decided on doing a presentation rather than a workshop. I’m also new to teaching on Zoom – and parents are new to learning on Zoom – so simplicity seemed ideal.
I used the materials from the Check, Please! Starter Course as my inspiration and my foundation and built a LibGuide to walk folks through the SIFT process: Stop, Investigate the Source, Find Trusted Coverage, and Trace Claims and Quotes. I love the SIFT model for its simplicity and its flexibility. There is room for nuance and complexity around all four moves, but they are also easy for a novice to understand and work with – and they’re adaptable to multiple kinds of sources and different kinds of (intentional and unintentional) misinformation.
I presented it to a group of parents last Wednesday. I still don’t love presenting to a group of people on mute, but luckily one of my colleagues is also a current parent and I could see her smiling and nodding in all the right places. Getting that little bit of visual affirmation certainly helped!
This was a great way to connect with the parent community to share the value of the library and our curriculum – and a good way to make my program visible when we’re all socially distant. I”m hoping to expand on it when we can meet face-to-face again!
I’ve long been intrigued by the idea of doing an All-School Read, but have also found the logistics of pulling something like that off a little daunting. And even though I would talk with colleagues about books that might make for great community reads, the idea of picking a book that could, in theory, appeal to everyone at my school seemed impossible.
But I still wanted to do what I could to encourage reading for pleasure, and to use reading as a tool for community building. Thus, the faculty/student book clubs were born!
I decided to build on the strong relationships so many of our students have with their teachers, and to use those as a vehicle to promote reading for pleasure. A student who may not pick up a book on their own may be inspired to read if it means they get to hang out with one of their favorite teachers.
I wanted to start small, so the plan was for the book groups to meet once, right after our December break. Our semester ends before the break, so in theory our students wouldn’t have work to do over the break, and would be more likely to have some time to read.
My first step was to recruit faculty to lead these groups. I emailed faculty with the outline of the plan and some “recommended reads.” I tried to include a mix of fiction and non-fiction, as well as different genres of fiction. Many faculty chose one of these books, and some chose a title on their own. Much to my surprise, I had multiple faculty members volunteering to “sponsor” the same book, which was great! With a little more recruiting, I was able to get teachers from different departments in each book club.
We had some time during an assembly to announce the book clubs and for faculty members to make a pitch for the book they were sponsoring, and then sent a sign-up to students. There were tons of posters and announcements and displays as well in order to hype up the book clubs.
And then, we read!
Overall, attendance at the book clubs was low, which was what I expected for an inaugural effort; but everyone (faculty and students) who participated really enjoyed both the books they read and the conversations they had. Much to my surprise, one of the most popular book clubs was for Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. I could not have predicted that, but was delighted to see so many students connecting with a type of text they may not have the opportunity to read elsewhere in school.
More than having these book clubs themselves, my over-arching goal was to shift the conversation about reading. I know many high school librarians struggle to get students to read for pleasure, and often the narrative is that “kids don’t read anymore.” But they do! We know they do. But if the narrative is “kids don’t read” we make it less likely that more kids will want to pick up a book, and we de-legitimize the readers in our midst.
There were plenty of students who didn’t participate in the book clubs, but who made it a point to tell me about the books they had read over break. Having a public celebration of books and reading gave them an excuse to talk about books and to have that be celebrated. Giving reading the same space we afford to other pursuits in the school – academic, athletic, or artistic – helps shift the conversation about reading for pleasure.
The first thing you need to know about De-stress Fest is that you have to be very careful about how you pronounce destress, lest you inadvertently end up promoting an event called Distress Fest. The second thing you need to know is that trying to help students destress can be a little stressful.
A few weeks ago one of our Learning Center teachers approached me about hosting a Destress Fest in the library. Knowing that our students’ anxiety levels can get pretty high in the week before exams, we decided to host a day-long event in the library with activities, crafts, and peer tutors on hand to help students prepare for exams. Thanks to everyone on the AISL list for their suggestions!
Our library has a few small study rooms which we could use for peer tutoring, and we gave over about half of the main floor to crafts and activities. We had coloring, snowflake making, a puzzle, origami, a Stick Together of The Scream, and ornament making. The ornaments were a last-minute addition, as the supplies we had ordered for some other activities were delayed in the busyness of holiday shipping. My colleague made a last-minute store run to make up for the DIY Slime, modeling clay, and games we had ordered.
The Stick Together activity was a huge hit. We didn’t tell them what it was, so lots of students were focused on getting it done so they could see what it was (and we snuck in a stealth art history lesson).
We got steady traffic throughout the day, and definitely had more takers on activities than we did on peer tutoring, which I suppose is to be expected on a Friday afternoon at the end of the term. Our afternoon was crowded with students who wanted to make ornaments (some students had been wearing the ones they made in the morning attached to their backpacks or jackets), but we were long out of supplies by then. It was hard to find enough de-stressing activities for everyone, but all were in good spirits!
We’ll definitely do this again, and now that we know how popular it is we’ll be sure to have more supplies on hand. In fact, we’ll be able to use the supplies we ordered for this event, which arrived Saturday morning.
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.