Okay, but what is an encyclopedia anyway?

Whenever I talk to a class about understanding source types, I like to ask how many of them have ever used a print encyclopedia for research. Or even seen one. There’s usually one student in every class who will hesitantly put their hand up, and then look around as they realize they’re the only one with their hands up. 

Which I think is probably part of the reason why so many students have a hard time understanding what a reference source is or when and why to use one. Same goes for magazines, newspapers, journals, etc. – if all of these source are open in a tab, how do you figure out what it is and where it fits in the information timeline.

Many of us learned what these kinds of sources are by actually getting our hands on them, and so as I was talking with teachers about improving our students’ understanding of how different types of sources work, we thought “why not have students get their hands on some sources?” Newspapers, magazines, and books were easy to get. I get the ALAN Review and (in that way that random mail often ends up on the librarian’s desk) I lucked into a copy of Journal of Microscopy, so I was all set with academic journals. While there are no encyclopedias in my current library, I knew my old library had an old set of encyclopedias and the librarian there was kind enough to loan me a few volumes (thanks Amy Perry!).

Our first activity was intended as a warm-up but ended up taking about 20-25 minutes with each class. We gave each table of students one type of source and some big paper and asked them to try to answer the following questions:

  • What are the defining characteristics of this type of source?
  • Who do you think is the audience for this source?
  • Why/when would someone use this source?
  • Who is responsible for the information in this source?

I was so impressed by what students were able to observe as they looked at these different kinds of sources. While there were some tongue-in-cheek answers (“why would someone use this?” Because their wifi isn’t working), students were also able to discern the differences between each kind of source and identify who the creators and potential audiences were for each source type.

From there, we moved into an activity I’ve done before – the source type card sort. I updated it using some of the language from this awesome information literacy module from NoodleTools. It may be coincidence (or confirmation bias), but it seemed like students had a much easier time matching descriptors to source types than they had when I tried this activity before. I think having some time to generate their own understandings of these kinds of sources really helped in building a mental model of each source type. 

Many students seemed to really enjoy reading the newspaper and the magazines. And doing every crossword they could find.

The teachers I was working with really wanted students to dig into understanding sources, so next we tried to apply what we’d discussed so far by doing a source deck activity. I’d built my deck around labor movements through history, and we asked students to use the source type categories from NoodleTools to identify what kind of source they were looking at. We had a lot more ideas for what to do with the source deck, but ran out of time because our opening activity took longer than expected – but I’m glad to have the deck (and ideas!) for another class.  

One of the things we hadn’t been planning to talk about, but emerged in our discussions, was the distinction between “database source” and “source found in a database.” I talk to a lot of students who seem to think that “database” is a type of source – and the way teachers require “database sources” doesn’t help this misunderstanding. I’ve long struggled to find a good way to explain to students what, exactly, a database is, but I think I’ve found an analogy that works: a charcuterie board. I ended up pulling this slide together in the middle of class and introducing it in the last two minutes, but I definitely saw some lightbulbs go off as I explained it. 

Container =/= content

I feel very lucky that I got this much time to talk with students about source types, and while I don’t know if I’ll always have this much time I can definitely use some of these activities in other classes.

How about you? What has helped your students understand different kinds of sources? 

The faculty that reads together…

It feels like I have a million projects happening right now, a never-ending inbox, and that I’m always in the middle of a dozen conversations. There’s so much I want to do, but I know that if I don’t slow down I won’t be able to achieve one of my major goals for this year, which is to build relationships with my new colleagues.

I talk with my colleagues all the time about research and technology, but haven’t had as many opportunities to chat with folks about things other than school. So when one of our English teachers (also new this year) approached me about starting a faculty book club I was thrilled! 

We quickly rejected the possibility of discussing books about pedagogy – we wanted to focus on reading for pleasure and coming together to discuss good storytelling. 

The first meeting included faculty from both middle and upper school divisions, as well as several staff members. There were lots of folks there who don’t interact with each other as part of their regular workdays. On a whim, a teacher suggested we go around and share a favorite reading memory, which ended up being a perfect way to do introductions. People have such powerful memories of reading and books and it was a lovely bonding moment for the group. 

Our first book was Crying in H Mart, which seemed to be on everyone’s “I’ve been meaning to read that” list. Starting with a memoir made it easier for people to join the conversation even if they hadn’t read the whole book; nobody felt like the ending would be “spoiled” and everyone still had a perspective to add. It also made the choice of snacks really obvious. One of my colleagues happens to live near an H Mart and brought in a selection of goodies for us to enjoy as we discussed the book. It’s such a simple thing, but it had also been a very long time since folks had been able to gather in person to eat and talk and having that communal experience was just what many of us needed.

What’s been even better is having conversations with colleagues about the book as we’re reading it. It’s given us something to talk about with each other besides work, which I think we all need. And I’ve been lucky in that the group has been very easy to organize – I think in part because people are grateful that someone else is taking care of logistics. I’m also getting to read some books I might not otherwise make the time to read. It’s a great motivator for diversifying my reading choices. 

How about you all? Do you have a faculty book club? Other ways you connect with the adults in your school community?

Reflecting on research

We’re in the middle of #AISL22 and I’m in the midst of prepping for two major projects next week (more on those in a future post) but I wanted to give a quick update about the project I references in my last post. It is, and I say this with very little hyperbole, one of the coolest projects I’ve ever done.

As I mentioned, the final product for this project was for students to document and reflect on their research process. Students could create a visual, record something, and/or give a presentation in which they reflected on and shared their process and the decisions they made as they were searching.

For a little bit of background… the teacher had already done one research project in this class, and figured out that their research skills were far weaker than they had anticipated. The students are sophomores, and it seems very likely that they have not had many opportunities to practice research skills during the last couple years of pandemic learning. As we planned the project, we wanted our students to be able to:

  • Write and revise essential questions for research
  • Generate and iterate on search terms and use multiple search strategies
  • Evaluate search results before clicking
  • Distinguishing between source types, and learn about a source’s reputation

We front-loaded with direct instruction on these skills, and kept computers closed for the first couple days. Then, students had time to apply and practice skills with our support – and in conversation with us and each other as they searched. At some point I’ll write more (and hopefully find a conference where I can co-present with the teacher) about what we did, but for now I want to share some student reflections because they were awesome. 

I’ve gone through the final presentations and gathered all the reflections, and wanted to share some highlights

  • Rejected a research question for being vague, even though it was interesting
  • Referred back to Britannica for background information throughout the process
  • Ambiguity of term [race] (i.e. running race) made searching tricky; needed to vary terms
  • Chose source that had an author with credentials, and internal citations
  • Rejected sources that addressed a different aspect of the topic (not related to essential question)
  • Asked other people where they were getting their information in order to get search ideas
  • Was finding information repetitive, so added new search terms
  • At one point, a student giving a presentation said, “I noticed that this same book kept being mentioned in all my sources, so I went and found the book” 

We’d given students the tools to do research and the language to reflect on their process and They Were Doing It! I’m still analyzing the reflections but I’ve already learned so much from these reflections.

There were also some reflections that let me know we still have some gaps to fill:

  • “Blogs are not a reliable source”
  • Rejected a site because title was all in lowercase; didn’t recognize site and assumed it was untrustworthy
  • Determined a source was an opinion piece, and so not useful
  • Statistics tell me it will be an accurate source
  • “Government websites cannot be faulty”

It’s so helpful to know what misconceptions are students have, and where we need to introduce more nuance to the conversation. These are also evidence of things they’ve heard/been taught about research, so we have some un-teaching to do as well. 

The teacher and I shared this project with their department colleagues yesterday, and the response was overwhelming – hoping I’ll be able to do this will lots more teachers!

Click Restraint and Click Paralysis

When working with students on search there are two things I see pretty regularly:

  1. Students start opening links seemingly at random
  2. Students scroll up and down on results, unable to decide what to click on

Neither, obviously, is a great strategy. Students end up deep in a source before thinking carefully about the results of their search, or end up searching and searching, perhaps hoping that the “just right” link will open of its own volition. 

We want students to click mindfully, but they’ve rarely been given the tools and the time they need to learn how to make sense of their search results. Luckily, I have a History teacher colleague who has noticed (and is frustrated by!) the same thing, so we developed a plan to help students slow down and think about their searches. 

We started by giving students printouts of two different Google search results, asking them to notice the difference in results when using search terms. We then looked at the “anatomy” of a result – what can you tell about a source before clicking through. What words are in bold in the results? Is there a date (and does it matter)? What does it mean when a result includes “cited by #”? What is the title of the source (oddly enough, the last thing they noticed)?

Next, we showed them some strategies for more effective Google searching. Students were still finalizing their area of focus, so their searches were pretty general. Our main goal was to have students pay attention to their results and think about what they might want to click on and why. Inspired by something I’d seen from Tasha Bergson-Michelson, I created this grid for students to use as they tried different search strategies and evaluated their results (you can use this link to make a copy if you’d like). Many thanks to Tasha for sharing this, and for knowing what I was talking about when I emailed to ask her to share it!

After giving students some time to practice, and debriefing their experiences, we moved onto databases. Many of our students had not spent significant time searching in Gale, so we wanted to orient them to how to refine their results. Knowing that we couldn’t teach them everything about databases without overwhelming them we decided to focus on the different “categories” of sources, and using the Subjects filter to refine results. I tried to adapt the grid we’d used for Google, but I feel like it still needs some work – or students need more orientation to the databases. Or both. It’s probably both. In any event, you can make yourself a copy here, and please let me know if you have ideas for how to improve it. 

This is part of a larger project, for which students will be asked to create something that tells “the story” of their search. We wanted to take the pressure of a paper or presentation away, and ask students to really focus on articulating how they’re searching and why. It’s our first time doing this, so definitely still working out the kinks, but I feel very lucky to have the time and space to dig into these skills with students. Would love to hear how other folks are teaching click restraint, and overcoming click paralysis!

Dropping the ball

Happy New Year?

I don’t know if the start to your January has been anything like mine, but it definitely feels like we’ve been back much longer than… four days? Is that possible? 

There always seems to be a bit of an adjustment period when coming back from a break, but this seems different from the usual adjustment. The spike in Covid cases, the uncertainty, and the fatigue of two years of pandemic teaching and living is… well, it’s getting to me. I’m thinking it might be getting to you.

My school had a professional learning day on Monday, and one of the things we talked about was well-being. We had some great conversations, and one of the major takeaways for everyone I talked to was that we find our work really meaningful and that We. Are. Burnt. Out. 

I don’t have a solution for that (sorry), but the other major takeaway from the conversations I had was that we all found it affirming to know that we were not alone in experiencing this. 

One of the things I was thinking about during these conversations was this great Twitter thread from Jennifer Lynn Barnes, sharing something from Nora Roberts. 

I’ve been trying to carry that idea with me this week, as I try and juggle all kinds of balls. And what I find most useful about this analogy is that it is built on the assumption that YOU WILL DROP BALLS. We all will. And thinking about it this way has made it easier for me to identify which of the tasks on my list are plastic, and which are glass. And knowing that the status of a ball may change from day-to-day.

  • A new January book display? Plastic. 
  • Getting a lesson on evaluating popular science sources done? Glass. 
  • Finding the “just right” image for that presentation? Plastic. 
  • Meditating? Yesterday it was plastic. Today, it’s glass.
  • Finding a place for my parents to get a PCR test? Glass. 
  • This blog post? Was almost plastic (but glad I was able to catch it!)

I have other things I’m working on and wanting to share, but putting them in a form that is comprehensible to other folks is, frankly, a plastic ball right now. Luckily, they’ve already called a snow day for tomorrow, so I might be able to pick up some balls I’ve dropped – the most important one being a good night’s sleep.

The Appendix of Information Literacy

  • No .com websites
  • You must use an article from the New York Times

I still remember seeing these two requirements listed on the same assignment, and wondering how to open a conversation with a teacher about the fact that if she wanted students to use an article from the New York Times, they would have to use a .com website. I don’t think she ever successfully resolved the cognitive dissonance (or revised the assignment requirements). 

  • If a website ends in .org it’s reliable
  • Don’t use Wikipedia – it’s not reliable

These two I’ve heard more times than I can count. From teachers, students, and strangers who find out what I do for a living. I sometimes want to point out that Wikipedia ends in .org. When it’s teachers and students, I try and engage in a more nuanced discussion, but these two beliefs about the reliability of online sources seem to be deeply embedded in peoples’ minds.

  • Check the “About Us” section if you want to learn more about the source and whether or not it’s trustworthy

Will someone who’s trying to manipulate me tell me that on their About Me page?

  • You can’t trust Wikipedia, but you can trust the sources it cites.

This (from a student) was a new one for me, but it seems to be a reflection of a teacher trying to teach students how to use Wikipedia. And it’s such a fascinating takeaway for students to have! How can the sources be reliable, but the content created from them not reliable? How do we connect that to students’ understanding of why we cite sources?

I’ve heard iterations of all these ideas (and more!), and I’m sure you have, too. I am starting to think of them as the appendix of information literacy – they may have served a purpose at one point, but they’re not really helpful now. And, like an appendix, they can cause problems. 

I understand the appeal of these source evaluation shortcuts. The world of information is big, and confusing, and often overwhelming. We want an easy way to decide where to spend our trust and time. But as we all know, there is no real shortcut when it comes to source evaluation.

What’s fascinating to me is the way that these shortcuts get passed down from generation to generation like a form of folk wisdom. Even as I start working with younger and younger students I’m realizing I need to make sure I spend time getting them to talk about their assumptions about sources and how to evaluate them. 

One way I’ve been doing that recently is by asking students to start by thinking about how they evaluate gossip for trustworthiness. The metrics they describe are often *exactly* the kinds of things I hope they’re thinking about as they evaluate sources for research. We can then make those connections as we move the conversation to thinking about how to evaluate sources for their research. Here are some slides with the prompts I used and notes from class discussions in the slides below.

This has been really useful for surfacing and clarifying some of the vestigial understandings they have about reliability. I’d love to hear how other folks are engaging teachers and students in updating their understandings of reliability. 

Who has History? And who has Issues?

Last week, I was preparing a lesson for a Global History class that’s doing some research on South Africa. I’m new at my school, and we’ve just added several Gale In Context databases to our collection, so I wanted to introduce students to how those resources are organized. So I navigated to the Topics list on Gale In Context: World History and boldly scrolled to where the South Africa Topic should be.

I say “should”, because there was no South Africa Topic. In fact, all of Africa – all 64 countries – was under four Topics, separated by time periods. Germany alone has four Topics (also separated by time periods), in addition to separate topics for the Holocaust and Hitler. The British Isles have a total of 13 different Topics (two for Great Britain, three for England, three for Scotland, and five for Ireland). It does not get better when I look at the individuals who have Topic pages. The only three Africans I could find were Nelson Mandela, Idi Amin, and Musa, Sultan of Mali (but there are no Topics for either Uganda or Mali).

I have not gone in-depth on all of these pages, but I will also note that the African History during the Colonial Period Topic has a total of 534 sources. Germany: The Middle Ages has 777 news articles alone.

Next, I moved over to Global Issues in Context, where I did find a Topic for South Africa. And the Congo. And Zimbabwe. And Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Liberia, Mauritius, Mayotte, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Uganda, Zambia and others. 

So, who has History, and who’s an Issue? 

After showing students what I’d discovered, I posed that exact question to them. One student pointed out that Great Britain has been a pretty major issue in global history – and has, in fact, made significant “contributions” to the issues in other countries. But there is very little representation for Great Britain on Issues in Context.

There are two issues here: what’s being collected, and what’s being curated. I’m guessing that there is a fair amount of overlap in terms of sources between these two databases, but the way they are organized is very different. And that framing matters. It’s similar to having a diverse print collection, but only displaying and promoting books with cis, hetero, white protagonists. However, I also suspect that the collection of resources that Gale is pulling from to curate these Topics could stand to be significantly more diverse in any number of ways. It’s hard to curate materials you don’t collect. 

Other than being mad, what do we do with this information? Like many of you, I’m taking a close look at my database collection, and which voices are included (many thanks to Tasha Bergson-Michelson for her leadership in this work), and also pushing our vendors to expand the representation in their collections. But that kind of change does not happen quickly. So until that change happens, we have an obligation to be transparent with our students and our teachers about the shortcomings of our database collections. We need to actively resist the “if it’s in a database, then it’s trustworthy” messaging that many teachers and students have internalized, because that includes an implicit message that resources found outside of databases are less trustworthy – and that’s simply not true. If we give more weight to databases sources, knowing full well that our databases do not include a full range of perspectives and sources, we are discounting those perspectives. Endorsing the idea that database = “quality” reinforces the systems of inequity that got us here in the first place.

UPDATE: I’ve been in conversation with some folks at Gale, and they’ve added Topic pages on South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, and Ghana to World History in Context! There is still more work to be done, but Gale has been responsive to questions and concerns. If you’re noticing issues, I encourage you to reach out to your rep!

Getting to Know You

I love getting to know the print collection of a new library. Does it have familiar titles and authors? Does it have the books I’ve been wanting to read? Does it have books that are new to me? Are there gaps I want to consider filling? Are there things I can learn about the community (and its readers) by getting to know the print collection?

I’ve just started a new job at a school that did not have a librarian on campus during the last school year, meaning the print collection was in need of a little, um, attention. There was evidence of well-intentioned efforts to keep the collection in order, and also evidence that keeping up with shelf maintenance was not a top priority during a most unusual school year (and rightfully so). 

The print collection’s need for a little TLC gave me the perfect way to get to know the collection. At this point in my process I’ve handled pretty much every book in our fiction collection – and created a TBR pile I have no hope of finishing before the summer is over. 

Shelf maintenance is also a good way to get to know your community’s sense of humor 🙂 

This project also gave me some insight into how students use the space the collection is in. There’s one spot that was in particularly rough shape, in large part because of its proximity to two student seating areas. After trying to figure out where the shelving pins may have wandered off to – and consulting with some folks who know the space better than I do – I decided that this might not be an ideal shelving location. 

So now my next project is to decide what to do with this space instead. I need something that won’t get destroyed easily, but that also doesn’t invite climbing. Some kind of (very durable) display? Inspirational quotes? A showcase of student work? I suspect I’ll have to try a few things before I figure out the best way to use this space. Let me know if you have ideas!

The campsite rule for libraries

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.

Brainstorming

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.