Can we share philosophies of teaching research?

Well…this blog post was due yesterday, which was Back to School Night around here. So, I’m running a tad behind.

For Back to School Night I was asked to create a tri-fold board summarizing our seven year research skills curriculum. It was quite a challenge (hence the late post). I’m sharing a picture of my poster below, but it really made me want to hear from our group:

Please share your philosophy behind how you develop your information literacy curriculum. It can be one sentence, or just bullet points. If it would help, maybe share a short bit of personal history about how you got there. Please share in the comments below.

Through this blog, our conferences, and our list we have so many discussions about teaching information literacy, and I think it would be amazing if we could see a wealth of different ways of approaching the endeavor of teaching research skills.

The Times They **Keep** A-Changin’

Welcome to a new school year! This post, despite its title, is a cheerful (hopefully cheering?) look at changes still underway….

Current library door decorated by Christina Appleberry, Library Services Specialist


Show of hands: How many of you have returned to this year only to discover a new wave of changes to your program?

I may be the only one with my hand in the air, but I doubt it.

This week the ten-month-contract educators all returned to my school. Like many other schools, we have had a lot of shifting around: some new elements to our schedule and some new teachers; switching up who is teaching what class and changing out class deans, not to mention transitioning who is the lead teacher for any given class.

Amid this refresh, we have been discovering quite a few unanticipated changes that are a challenge to our program. For example, some tweaks to the school’s method of orienting new students – in order to avoid too much school time before the year formally begins, a response to the long arm of COVID-driven societal changes – is transforming the way we in the library will meet new students.

Similarly, I have intentionally ended the project that gave me the most relationship-building and instructional time with our 9th graders, the first year upper school students. During our January intersession, each grade-level has a special project. For the nine years I have been at my school, we have had the same (generally speaking) project for our ninth grade, and I have been on the teaching team since day one. During lockdown, the grade level-project was (by necessity) cut from an October-February, 40-50-hour project to being just 6 hours in January. We adapted the curriculum and the expectations, but we really needed to stop trying to figure out how to fit a big thing into a small box. As the newly minted lead of the project, I decided it was time to “murder my darlings” (to quote Arthur Quiller-Couch) and set that project aside altogether.

In doing so, I forfeit many hours of instruction and interaction with our ninth graders. Particularly, hours that colleagues were required to have me in their classrooms to prepare students for the project. Hours that I counted on to introduce the philosophy and basic logistics of upper school research education, not to mention time to interact at length with individual students and their four-person groups. It is a moment of letting go for the greater good. I am trying not to panic.

So – I am heading into this year well aware that there is very little that will be the same as it has been in past years. I have a lot less clarity than I have in about a decade about where my work will be situated in the coming year. All of this sounds very doom and gloom, but really – I am striving to remember – it is very exciting! I always strive to question what I have been doing, look it over, refresh it. It is tiring, but really a chance to question my assumptions, involve my Research TAs in decision-making and curriculum formulation, and learn. Well…here is my opportunity.

The truth is, I always have many more skills I want to teach than I will have the opportunity to undertake with students. Since I always have to make hard choices, I am focusing on the chance to pick what I think is most useful to students now, what skills they most need today. Might this year’s ninth graders not get some of the skills that ninth graders got five years ago? Certainly. Will they have a chance to learn something new and deeply relevant? Also, certainly. It is really mostly upside, with a side-order of hustle.

As I am writing, I am realizing that I want to frame conversations with colleagues as an exploration of what today’s students need that is different from past years. Approach with an assumption that change is in the air (as is the opportunity to keep what we have built in the past). It really is an exciting opportunity, now that I think about it.

So, thank you for listening. You have given me the opportunity to think through a scary moment to the excitement underneath.

Where will this year go? Who knows! I look forward to sharing the journey and hope that you will do the same. May you have a meaningful and uplifting new year.

Urge your state school library association to join School Librarians Learning Networks

One of the greatest joys for me is learning with and from other librarians. It is one of the features that makes AISL so wonderful!

Presumably Steve Tetreault, a librarian with a career in New Jersey public schools, feels the same way. He is working to get the School Librarian Learning Network (SLLN) up and running.

The intent of SLLN is to scale the PD that is taking place in different state school librarian associations. Tetreault aims to have different state associations share their online professional development trainings across the SLLN’s entire membership. A new collaboration across states could provide “virtual professional development opportunities on a regular, rotating basis.” (From their homepage.)

Because it is summer, and I am a bit slow, I now have a bit more information to add: Steve reports that his goal is to get as many state organizations as possible working together in a coordinated effort to offer several PD opportunities a month, every month, to school librarians across the country; with some coordination, that would make it so each state org would only have to figure out a small number of PD offerings each year, while being able to take advantage of a whole lot more. At the moment, joining SLLN is pretty straight-forward – anyone can visit the site to see free learning opportunities he has come across and use the links to sign up.

Is your state a member? So far New Jersey; Louisiana; Washington, DC; and Nebraska have joined. I have contacted California School Library Association and requested they join.

I urge AISL members to reach out to your state TL organizations and request that they join SLLN, as well. Together, we can continue to update, grow, and learn as a profession!

Not only is this network a cool idea, but as we are seeing a lot of threats to libraries that we need to be discussing across state lines. These threats both make use of local laws and government structures and of anti-library groups are coordinating more fully across different states with the goal of impacting how libraries function in each location.

In other words, we need a national network to help us tackle local issues. I’ve been chatting with TLs around the country and am discovering that a librarian who is very deeply educated about anti-database legislation in their own state may not have any idea what the organizations and conversations are on the national stage.

We need to talk to each other, learn together – and from each other.

I was thinking of Cathy Leverkus’ AISL publishing group and her point that AISL members need to reach out and share our wealth of experience with others in our profession. So, not only can we request that our state teacher librarian associations join this nationwide endeavor, we can also offer to lead AP that our states can offer as their contributions to SLLN.

Please join me in supporting this wonderful national initiative!

Great PD next week! Global Factcheck 9

Last October I had the great good luck to attend a conference for professional fact checkers organized by the International Fact-Checking Network at the Poynter Institute. It was cool enough to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and — as they vowed to be back in-person for 2022 — I thought for sure it would be just that.

Happily, I received an email just this week telling me that the conference will be hybrid this year. Next week (June 22-June 25) it will take place in Norway, but will also be offered virtually. You can find more information here.

At this very global conference you can hear panels, such as the one involving journalists from Brazil, Kenya, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Phillippines, discussing fact-checking during elections. Another multinational panel discusses media information literacy from the point of view of professional fact-checkers. There will be sessions on conspiracy theorists and on the relationship between research findings in the field and practical applications. It looks pretty great, to be frank.

So, if you are looking for a taste of PD for the summer, and want to engage with a field that is both familiar and unfamiliar, check out Global FactCheck 9! If you need a bit more flexibility on timing, I also recommend viewing recordings of sessions from past years of the conference on the International Fact-Checking Network’s YouTube channel.

What we talk about when we talk about concussions: More questions than answers

Are you in the same situation as me? Do you have multiple students who suffer from concussions each year? Some of my practice has been changed forever by students suffering from concussions. I’ve worried and fretted about how to support them. But I have looked and found few answers. While I cannot really figure out how to go forward, I cannot help but want to have policies in place in support of students with the range of symptoms that come with head trauma. So, with one of my at-home students currently confined to a dark room from a concussion, I thought I would throw the question out here: do you have policies or practices in support of concussed students? Do you feel like it would be a helpful issue to address? Do you have ideas on where to start?

In past years – and based on an admittedly quick search now – I have not found any literature in our field on this topic. One student with whom I became quite close spent close to 12 months over the course of her her 5-year high school career shut in dark rooms suffering from concussions from increasingly benign activities – we have talked quite a bit about her experiences.* I am currently parenting through my own child’s second, non-athletic concussion. And, in addition to multiple concussed students each year in our school’s general population, I am currently mentoring two second-semester seniors in our college-level historical research course who live with persistent concussion symptoms on a daily basis.

So. Here is what I’ve anecdotally got:

The student experience

One of the challenges of concussion protocols is that symptoms vary widely, so it is not – I am told by experts – possible to come up with a one-size-fits-all policy.

School concussion protocols acknowledge that light and screens can be particularly painful. Reading is hard. Students need to rest frequently. According to my students, the corollary is not only that they cannot focus on threads of ideas or remember what they hear for more than a few moments at a time, but that they simultaneously feel the need to be polite and engaged, and so tend to cover for their cognitive deficit when they are interacting with me.

They report that they continue to interact, even though it hurts and is confusing, because one of the hidden outcomes of the earlier stages of concussion is profoundly overwhelming boredom, sometimes partnered with depression. Existing in a dark room for days (or significant chunks of days) on end without company is emotionally excruciating. One can only sleep so much. In fact, with all the lying around it becomes hard to sleep at night. But all those awake hours with nothing to do are so very, very hard. The result can be profound depression, along with an inability to engage with emotion.

Coming back to school, there exists a tension among competing forces of teachers wanting to support students, wanting students to learn the content of their classes, and wanting to help students catch up. The general result seems to be that in our sincere desire to support concussed students in all the ways (as one school’s learning specialist once told me: “We do not cut content, just work. A student who completes a class is just as well prepared as his classmates.”) students experience teachers saying they are following the protocols but not actually doing so. Add to that situation the oft-observed student practice of having both sides of a conversation with a teacher by themselves, without the teacher’s knowledge, and you get experiences like: “Sure, my physics teacher said to only worry about completing this reflection, but that means he expects me to catch up on all the daily work too, he just did not write it in the plan.”

So, where does the librarian fit into this?

How we interact


It seems helpful to tell a student up-front that I know that head trauma makes it hard to concentrate for long. I let her know I will be checking in at regular intervals (aka, every few minutes) and I am in support of her telling me when her concentration runs out. And then actually asking and responding appropriately. If I just pop out with that question mid-conversation, without the up-front warning, students tend to pretend they are okay when they are not.

Audiobooks

I learned to love audiobooks due to careful cultivation by my former five-year high school student. Her first concussion kept her in a darkened room for something like six months; music and audiobooks were the only activities she could manage. While she was a font of knowledge that got me hooked on the genre, she also had a lot to say about the kinds of audiobooks that worked for her during recovery: slow moving, not too much emotion, often well below her reading level so they took less cognitive effort to follow but did keep her mind active.

One of her favorites provides a good example of what worked for her when she missed a significant portion of tenth grade: Saffy’s Angel, by Hilary McKay. The book was character-driven, with a slow-moving story. The characters are engaging, and the book is quietly funny. School Library Journal rates it for 4-6 grades. The humor is very helpful when stuck in a dark room, but laughing hurts and so quietly amusing seems to work well. Again, students report that emotional content can be impossible to process, and I believe that a particularly well-crafted story for an audience younger than the student herself can make for a good fit. Slow-moving stories make it easier to process when you find you cannot remember all that you hear.

Based on advocacy by this student, we determined to add audiobooks in our Overdrive collection (though she may just be learning that fact from reading this post). I would love to crowdsource a list of audiobooks that can provide a sort of emotional “high-low” listening experience that might work for concussed students of different ages.

Additionally, while our library does not tend to collect curricular books – or focus on providing fee-per-use audiobooks of reading from our curriculum – it might be worth considering a special budget category (above and beyond your budget as it stands) for supporting concussed students. Anyone have anything like this in place?

(Another parent’s point of view on concussions and audiobooks can be found here.)

Research

Generally, my colleagues seem to cut back on research assignments for concussed students, but I am also aware that there are plenty of assignment that fall into that gray area that classroom teachers do not call “research” (at least, for the purposes of considering collaboration) but that require both searching for and navigating information resources.

This is where I feel we would really benefit from having a policy in place that gets rolled into the school’s concussion policy. I would like to have well-informed practices in place that would automatically involve our library staff in helping teachers think through the necessary learning objectives around a project. Is this assignment intended to help her learn to pick search terms? To pick good results? Or to navigate content in sources? She should not have to do them all, nor should she be responsible to complete steps that lengthen the use of her eyes and focus when they are not helpful to fulfilling the learning objectives. So, how can we help lighten the load?

I’ve not really gotten beyond this point in my thinking, and would truly love to hear from others how they handle this element of our work.

Reading

Overall, I am a huge proponent of teaching students how to read academically, especially in the latter years of high-school. The notion of reading scholarly works from the outside in should be, I believe, a central part of any college prep curriculum that involves reading journal articles, as should discipline-specific guidance helping students understand the parts of articles and what a high school/early college student does and does not need to actually understand in an article. (For example, I’ve distilled this article into a three-page outline that I often share with students reading in the social sciences and some sciences.) Textbooks create a different kind of challenge in reading, since they are written for compact delivery of factual information.

But I think a strong base in reading for different purposes and a curricular acknowledgement that good reading does not always involve reading and understanding and taking notes on every line of text is good for all students. And then we have a base to build upon for supporting recovering students in being selective in not only what pieces they read, but how they approach reading them.

(And now I want to learn more about how visual note taking may or may not be a useful tool with students recovering from head trauma.)

Thoughts?

So – this lengthy post is more thinking and wondering than answers, but I would be so very grateful to hear your thoughts and practices, as well. As schools seek to improve their care of students suffering from brain injuries, librarians have another opportunity to offer thought leadership and compassionate care.

*This story with my alum’s permission.

OK, we stopped Follett — Any righteous anger left for the bad actors forcing bad choices?

What do California, Hawaii, Minnesota, Indiana, Nebraska, Idaho, Utah, Oklahoma, and Tennessee have in common? Each state’s legislature has considered and/or passed laws criminalizing databases, building a narrative of fighting against content that is “harmful to minors” (and other terms I’m skipping because they may trigger sensitive Internet filters). 

Update: These laws have passed in Oklahoma, Tennessee, Idaho, and Utah. In some cases they make librarians and educators individually, criminally liable for students accessing sources deemed undesirable. Next legislative season they will be coming back in several more states.

This post will cover:

What is this legislation?

This particular movement has been underway since a Colorado couple filed a lawsuit against EBSCO and the Colorado Library Consortium in 2018, alleging that databases “knowingly [provide] sexually explicit and obscene materials to school children” and that the Consortium “purchases from EBSCO and knowingly brokers sexually explicit, obscene, and harmful materials to Colorado school children.” According to James LaRue, the former director of ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, it was the first known challenge to a library database. The lawsuit was dismissed, but in its wake a connected individual in Utah filed a complaint that led to the state turning off all access to EBSCO’s K-12 databases while it was investigated. Although specious, the state of Utah has since maintained over 1500 blocked terms in their state consortium-purchased K-12 databases and has now passed anti-database legislation (and demonstrated consistently via usage reports that students are not searching for inappropriate content). The pandemic has since helped popularize the narrative perpetrated by that lawsuit. Various political groups fed parents’ worries that children isolated at home during online school were using databases that – they led parents to believe – were giving students the capacity to access materials that were harmful to minors. 

“Harmful to minors” and the related designations are used in COPA and CIPA, though you may most clearly recall having seen them applied more recently to a wide range of books being pulled from library shelves around the country. This movement is occurring in states that span the political spectrum.

Legislators in many states have introduced bills designed to shut down statewide database access unless massive filtering takes place.

So far, I have seen three general flavors of legislation:

  1. Requires all databases purchased for use by K-12 students (generally at the state and/or school district level, sometimes including other entities such as public or university libraries) to have “safety policies and technological protection measures” that filter and prohibit sharing of materials that are harmful to minors, etc. 
    1. Penalty for noncompliance is termination of contract and withholding payment;
    2. Very common version of legislation;
    3. Appears across states to come primarily from a template; 
    4. Examples include Idaho (enacted), Utah (signed by governor 3/21), Oklahoma (in committee) and many more (many voted down or languishing in committee).
  2. Requires schools to provide convenient methods for parents or guardians to track, monitor, or view curricular and supplemental learning materials.
    1. Often part of a so-called “Parents’ Rights” bill
    2. For example, in California.
  3. Nebraska’s bill, currently undergoing amendments from the Judiciary Committee, is particularly pernicious and is intended as a model for other states. In addition to the requirements above, the Nebraska bill requires that schools:
    1. Assign each K-12 student an individual logins for any state-contracted databases, outlawing group accounts; and
    2. “Provide the account credential of each student in kindergarten through grade twelve to such student’s parent or guardian and allow the parent or guardian access to all materials accessible to the student.”

The bill also outlines situations in which individuals can sue database vendors and and claim damages.

History suggests that we will see continued attempts at legislation on this topic across the nation; the inciting rhetoric suggests that the library vendors’ products themselves are not the actual target. Rather, the legislation seems to be aimed at libraries and the schools they serve. All of which leaves students caught in the crossfire, impacting their access to information as well as their privacy.

Why support vendors?

Last week, a nationful of librarians raised voices in protest when Follett reached out to say they were considering complying with so-called “Parents’ Rights” legislation being promulgated in a number of states. Many librarians responded viscerally–not only due to our belief in intellectual freedom, but also in the knowledge that many administrators might see that optional “fix” as an easy answer if Follett made it available. Furthermore, we worry about whether technological changes demanded in one place might come to impact our students’ access to information in another place. So we fought back against Follett and now feel empowered and righteous in our victory.

Meanwhile, the laws and bills that forced Follett to consider adding optional modules remain in place. Of course vendors with business models requiring money from libraries need to act in accordance with the ethics of librarianship. That said, I could not help spending last week wishing to see the energy that went into anti-Follett advocacy aimed instead at our state legislatures and the encoding of censorship into law. 

If we want our students to continue to have intellectual freedoms, it is critical that we focus our efforts on ensuring that our vendors will maintain the legal rights to provide all of us with the educational content they can provide.

What can I do?

So, if you have energy to give, how can you help? A group of librarians is working on a strategy now. We are happy to have more hands to make this work lighter. 

  1. Now: you can help identify if any legislation is passed or pending in your state that would impact database access. Whether in so-called “parental rights” bills, freestanding bills requiring enhanced filtering, or other mechanisms for parental reviews of “supplemental educational materials,” we are trying to get a sense of what attempts to block intellectual freedom through databases are out there. Please feel free to use this anonymous form to point us towards legislation impacting databases.
  2. Sign up here and we will reach out and find a volunteer task that works for you. Also, watch this space. We are constructing a crowdsourced monitoring tool so we can try to keep an eye on what is being blocked in different parts of the US. 

In gratitude: So many people have helped me understand what is happening here. Many of them cannot be named due to risk in their workplaces. However, the entire ad hoc working group for building realistic databases has worked together to reach this point. Some of our colleagues’ comments about unsearchable terms on my last blog post started a process. Several anonymous individuals helped me understand more about what was going on. EveryLibrary tracks legislation and has helped me better understand the movements underway. My family have been supportive as I have lost sleep, and … well, everyone I have encountered has had to listen to this tale as we followed its twists and turns. Thank you to each and every one of you. And, thank you to to village of librarians and Americans committed to intellectual freedom that it will require to move forward and safeguard our students’ right to learn.

Have five minutes to give for better databases? Take that vendor call or write an email!

Over the past eighteen months, many of you have asked how you can help encourage database companies to reformulate their core products to reflect a wider range of identities and perspectives. Luckily, there is a quick and easy way you can contribute: reach out to your vendors and ask for what you need!

This action can be as simple as picking up the phone when a rep calls, sending a short email, or adding this topic to your contract renewal conversations.

We have found that when two or three librarians from different geographic regions have reached out offering feedback about product offerings (as when companies have done marketing blasts for new “ethnic” databases over the past year) it makes people within the company take note. Imagine if a company hears from twenty or thirty of us? Or two to three hundred? Alone we are just one independent school. Together we represent a significant customer base for most of our vendors.

To help you out, below please find potential talking points to use with vendors. Credit where it is due: Sara Kelly-Mudie led the way documenting these points, a group of eight additional independent school librarians from around the country contributed to the conversation, and then Sarah Levin of the Urban School of San Francisco and I ran these past the Bay Area Independent School Librarians group last fall for feedback. So – we hope you will find a point or two that can help you get started.

Whether you work from these points or have another approach based on your personal observations, if you have wished for more diverse, equitable, and inclusive school products, now is the perfect moment to let your vendors know. We will not get what we do not communicate that we need.

Talking points for vendor reps

Our ask:

The core school database product should offer a realistic reflection of the people who live in the United States/Canada/your country. We should not have to buy “special” add-on databases representing “other” identities or perspectives (be they socioeconomic, ability-based, racial/ethnic, religious, gender-based, etc.) in order to offer basic representation of the people present in our school communities and in our country.

Reasoning:

*We are so excited to share that our institution is expanding its commitment to equity in every department. Here in the library we are auditing all our services and resources, including databases.
*Much like our collections, our electronic resources need attention if they are to reflect our communities and provide the perspectives we need.
*As we think about which vendors we will continue to patronize, we have decided to prioritize those committed to building central products that reflect the diverse experiences and perspectives of our students and their communities.
*We’re so excited to see the equity work you’re currently doing – identify two or three things you have noticed (examples here and here), OR ask them what they are doing to recreate their core school product to be equitable and inclusive – to reflect our nation in a realistic way.
*Looking ahead, as we consider our next round of renewals, we have a few questions:
Are you committed to offering a broad baseline of experiences and perspectives in your flagship product (rather than in add-on packages)?
*What is your current equity audit process and timeline? Do you have a rubric?
*Are there simple ways to offer feedback about gaps?
*Thank you in advance for your time and attention. We look forward to hearing from you and to our ongoing collaboration.

Responses to the objection that this ruins databases’ profit model:

*At this moment, our institution is looking to represent our population and those we study.
*We are exploring many vendors’ offerings and, while none is exactly what we’d like, some are moving with intention toward our ideal.
*We are happy to work alongside a vendor for another year or two as you work toward realizing the commitments we asked about above. If we don’t see significant growth after that, we’re happy to take our business elsewhere.
*We believe the vendors most willing to engage in this work alongside libraries will be poised to capture our attention in the next round of renewals and beyond.
*We don’t mean that you have to “give us everything” – we understand the value of being able to purchase extra depth in areas central to individual schools’ curricula. However, databases that do not provide realistic representation of our national population do not actually provide the sources our students need to be educated adults.

Why I love verbs

When it comes to search, I love nouns. Riffing on Michael Pollan, I share a little verse with my students offering general guidelines for thinking about constructing queries:

Yet, in recent years, verbs have become the power hitter in my research skills curriculum.

Back in 2017-2018, one of my Research TAs, Sara Zoroufy, spent her year analyzing a series of ninth and tenth grade History papers to enhance our understanding of how students made use of evidence. One of the most interesting (and subjective, to be honest) outcomes was a powerful correlation between selection of precise and varied verbs and strong use of evidence. Harker School US librarian Lauri Vaughan clarified an aspect of that observation for me when she gave a PD talk about “signal phrases” – the name/verb combinations we use in academic writing to introduce an idea or a quote from one of our sources, such as: “Gupta argues…,” “Zhou counters…,” or “Mendez concurs….”

Not only does the verb choice in signal phrases add significant analytical punch to student writing, but I find that verb choice can be used to help students bring sources into conversation with each other. Whenever I am able, I visit Upper School US History classes to pass out the handout linked above, along with a verb list recently constructed by one of our History teachers and a list of transitional words from the wonderful book They Say, I Say. Recommending that students keep these lists on-hand for when they are writing, we look at them as a tool to help with synthesis. 

Imagine you are working on a Document Based Question, and you have four sources that you are supposed to synthesize into an understanding — and eventually an argument — regarding an historical question. If you feel stuck as to how to proceed, you can look at a list of verbs and ask yourself: “Which verb fits the relationship between Source A and Source B? Does Source A: Acknowledge? Highlight? Refute? Delineate?” When you find a verb that feels right, the word itself begs for the “because…” that ends up being the analysis and synthesis you were trying to achieve. For a reasonable percentage of my students, this strategy seems to offer a productive way to think and write more effectively.

So, I love verbs. History teachers (in particular) love the idea that not every signal phrase students write will be “So-and-so said….” 

I additionally appreciate that I get to demonstrate to students how skills they learn in one discipline (here, English) strengthen their work in another discipline. When I can do that, it feels like everyone wins.

P.S.: For metacognitively strong students, this use of verbs can be helpful in a number of ways. Sara, the same TA, was confronted with a reading in her senior-year International Relations class for which she had no prior knowledge to provide context. She was bothered that she was therefore having trouble distinguishing evidence from argument (a personal interest of hers, as she explained to us in her 2017 AISL post). She ended up using signal phrases to distinguish where the author was presenting evidence and was able to work backwards and understand the article to her satisfaction. Very creative application of the concept, I thought.

Searching with the Sevens

This fall we had the odd experience of orienting the 7th graders to our physical library – giving them the introduction they would have had when they entered the school as 6s had we not been…well, you know. Since we already knew each other somewhat, I had more chance to observe over students’ shoulders as they pursued our “get to know the library” scavenger hunt, which is how I had the opportunity to watch several students search Destiny for [ books about birds ] and come away quite frustrated, telling us we did not have any bird books in the collection.

Very fortunately, the 7th grade dean was able to arrange for an hour for them to learn how search works (which I rarely get to teach anymore) and – when it became clear that the grade-level work they would be doing during our January intersession would revolve around finding “personal narratives” relating to “indigenous peoples and climate change” I was able to get another hour with them. During that class I tried out a lesson plan I’ve been wanting to test drive for more than a decade.

I’m not sure I have ever had two full hours just to teach students about the functioning of search tools and then the functioning of human expression in interaction with the search tools. As usual, I’ll share what I did here in the spirit of asking for feedback or thoughts so that (hoped for) future iterations can be smoother.

The first lesson: How search works

Thanks to the hard work and feedback of my wonderful Research TAs, I was able to pull together a lesson that demonstrates how search tools actually locate information and that involved lots of cat memes. Memes are great for search activities because they have so few words on them – and none of the words is actually “meme.”

The lesson objectives were to:

  • Understand that search tools crawl individual sources and index the words on each page.
  • Use a model index to locate physical sources.
  • Create a search query that will find what you need when you are working with a limited index.
  • Practice rudimentary imagining of sources.

Since I was running this class in one room, while three colleagues (with assistance from my TAs) were running it simultaneously in other rooms, I made both slides and a step-by-step script. There were activities building up to it, but the core of the lesson was pairs of students working together: one was the “searcher,” the other was the “computer.”

A picture of three lesson handouts: A prompt to try to find memes based on a French scientists' paper arguing that cats are a liquid, some samples of student searches for that meme, and an index of the words appearing on a collection of memes about cats being liquids.
Left: The “Searcher” had a secret prompt and search boxes to fill in. Right: The “Computer” had an index of words that appeared in eight different, numbered memes.

The “searcher” got a secret prompt and empty “search boxes” to fill out. The “computer” who – like our real computers – had no earthly idea of the context for the words written in the search box, had this very simple index to work with (but could not show it to the “searcher”). The computer also had small black-and-white printouts of eight cats-are-liquid memes, numbered 1-8 to correspond to the index. They could only see the number assigned each meme, not the meme itself. The “computer” could only return “no results” or a meme identified by the index. Looking at the “searches” on the left and the index on the right, one of the original searches, [french scientist cat memes] must have returned zero results, as three of the search terms do not even appear in the index. However, [cats are liquid] found two memes (numbered 6 and 8) and [cat liquid] found numbers 2, 4, 6, and 8 …  the “searcher” just kept trying until they got a meme result. Then, of course, each pair joyously looked at all eight possible memes and identified why the “computer” had been unable to “find” so many of them (because, of course, they said things like: “Liquid mode activated,” and so could not even be found if the searcher used the word [ cat ] in their query. 

We solidified this understanding by looking at actual search results and highlighting where our search terms showed up – proving that the words we typed in were the ones that search tools were identifying to bring back our results:

Sample search results for [ science cat memes ] – student identified where these search terms appeared in relation to the image of the meme itself.

The second lesson: How language made by humans works

My room got very engaged with the lesson, though I had my usual doubts about if it was all about the memes, or if anything actually stuck. Thus, I was very pleasantly surprised when – two months later – students did retain the big points of the lesson (ok, admittedly, a number of students in the class were individually able to help compile a list of points):

My students recalled these guidelines from the search lesson two months earlier.

For the follow-up lesson I had a harder ask: teach students how to translate the idea of “personal narratives” (a term both students and teachers love) into functional search terms. 

Often, when personal narratives are desired, I teach (older) students to look for [ oral history ] a wonderful context term that has the distinct advantage of describing collections of personal narratives. However, when looking for narratives from individuals from various indigenous communities around the world – particularly on the topic of climate change – we needed a different strategy entirely. I had learned from many years on a project we do with the ninth graders that individuals’ anecdotes that put a human face on “issues” like climate change often appear at the start of newspaper articles and in other, similar formats. My job became teaching the seventh graders to imagine search strategies and search terms to find these types of sources. 

This time, I had the whole 64-person grade in the library at once, and slides were once again in order. We considered the whole range of strategies for finding personal narratives, and trust me that the first two made for a lot of student chatter and example-sharing:

Slide outlining different ways to try and find “personal narratives”

We discussed searching in YouTube for their subject’s name (solution 3A), searching for terms like [ interview ] or [ transcript ] (solution 3B), and then I took a risk and tried a method I had wanted to undertake for years. I handed out excerpts from sources that offered stories from individual’s lives (such as this article or this one or this one), selecting the portion of the source that indicated that such a narrative was about to appear. Once again, I had them read, observe, and highlight. If an article did not use the words “personal narrative,” what words might it use?

Their observations were just phenomenal!

Terms my students identified from sources that contained personal narratives – including several I had never noticed myself! Several new options made my own list for future use.

(BTW: Forgot to say before that my personal favorite way to search for these narratives might look like this: [ farm OR livestock she OR hers OR he OR his OR me OR my OR our OR ours OR them OR they ] and this one when I need life-background information [ farm OR livestock “as a child” ].)

Once again, I am not sure every student got the idea I was going after, but I have rarely seen as many hands in the air and I actually had to cut them off so we could continue with the lesson (which was using Boolean in Google-form and in database-form to try to look for more personal narratives using these terms). We were in the middle of their final project for the year, writing Simple English Wikipedia pages for notable female-identifying individuals. While we would not use personal narratives for writing Wikipedia pages (they are not acceptable by Wikipedia’s source quality standards), the students were pretty excited about their subjects so we used them for search examples. 

I will have to see how their work goes during intersession (which will be virtual and for which I will be assigned to a different grade level), but this series of lessons did appear to offer heartening outcomes.

It was an excellent reminder to me: it is almost never a waste of time to give most of your time to the very, very basic building blocks students need to do research right.

#GlobalFact8: Learning fact-checking from the experts

This past week, I was fortunate enough to spend four days “attending” the International Fact-Checking Network’s eighth annual conference. It was compelling and eye-opening!

Many of the discussions really could have been taking place at a school library conference: questioning how to better teach media literacy, grappling to understand why mistrust in journalism and fact-checking is so high, wrestling with necessary relationships with certain corporations to maintain funding and access without letting those companies set the global fact-checking agenda, and discussing how to do more work with less money. Other topics, like the massive mental toll of both spending your days lurking on lists that are promoting misinformation and possibly worse, and harassment ranging from insulting comments to imprisonment to death threats made or carried out, are elements I am deeply grateful are much less a part of our work lives.

I’ve been noodling on what to share with you all, but also suffering a bit from screen fatigue. Furthermore, I neither want to simply hand out the intellectual property of these individuals who work so hard to find and share what is true, and I want to be thoughtful about naming individuals who are already suffering from harassment.

Due to our very similar fields and goals, however, I am in contact with the IFCN about how our professions might work together — so stay tuned for more (and keep your fingers crossed).

A few, random hot tips, though:

  1. The preponderance of research suggests that educating people to recognize misinformation (“prebunking” or “inoculation”) is much more effective than trying to debunk misinformation in the moment.
  2. TickToc is by far fact checkers’ favorite tool for prebunking education about how algorithms work, since they say (sorry, I have to take their word for it!) it is so very, very clear what the algorithm is doing within that social network.
  3. Fact-checking videos is the hardest, YouTube is not interested in transparency, collaboration or funding fact-checking, and their algorithm very decisively recommends videos that blatantly run afoul of their takedown policy but are up and running and being promoted.
  4. In many countries, the national statistics agencies are run by political appointees. And the resulting statistics may be re-tabulated and/or deleted by subsequent administrations. May be whole different agencies, as well.
  5. The absolute best video for teaching the technicalities of researching if a video is real or a deep fake is this aerobics class. (Reach out if you want more about doing so — don’t want to just share out someone else’s lesson, but here is the actual fact-check on the video.)

In the meantime, at the risk of giving you just a list of resources, I would like to share a slightly annotated … list of resources. The following are some of the most compelling reports, slide decks, and videos that were shared over the course of the conference:

Some context on US situation from the American Press Institute:
*Report: A new way of looking at trust in media: Do Americans share journalism’s core values?
Slides – not from this talk, but much of the same content in shorter form
*Also check out:
–2016 Report: A new understanding: What makes people trust and rely on news
–2018 Report: Americans and the News Media: What they do — and don’t — understand about each other

Sponsors of the conference: International Fact-Checking Network – Poynter
*IFCN Code of Principles
*International Fact-Checking Network YouTube Channel — lots of great content!
–Including: Fact-checking in school: Best practices from around the world (I have not watched this yet, but I did see some of these speakers on other, related topics)
*MediaWise – Poynter – they have a teen fact-checking group

Verification Handbook – a detailed primer by a number of strong professionals in the field.

Inoculation Theory – one researcher argued there is the most evidence that this is the most effective, others have supported the approach in their talks. One paper, as an example. A field that can really guide us in thinking about the most impactful use of our limited time with students.

First Draft News
*A guide to prebunking: a promising way to inoculate against misinformation
*The psychology of misinformation
*Many other useful reports – worth a look!

Global Trends in Fact-Checking: A Data-Driven Analysis of ClaimReview by Thomas Van Damme
*Data visualizations
*Thesis

Why Gendered Disinformation — #SHEPERSISTED – Explains the issue of gendered disinformation that targets female politicians, etc.

Lead Stories – has a “red feed” and a “blue feed” and is clearly run by a beloved and respected member of the fact checking community

Disinformation for Export: how false content generated in the United States reaches Latin America

YouTube Regrets – how YouTube algorithm surfaces and recommends misinformation
*Press release for shorter read

A typology of caveats (from FullFact) – We’re continuing to investigate the type of contextual information that statistics need in order to be meaningful and used correctly.

INFODEMIC COVID-19 IN EUROPE: A VISUAL ANALYSIS OF DISINFORMATION

Is it a Marvel film or a fact-checking newsroom? How Maldita.es uses its readers’ ‘superpowers’
This reminds me of some programs that could be built on preexisting TA programs, etc. in schools

A framework for information incidents – exploring how fact checking organizations should best respond in different incidents that can give rise to misinformation

GlobalFact 8 talk – Why good national statistics are so important for fact checkers – 2021-10-12
Gives insight into why it is so hard to use different country’s statistical data

Fact-Checking – Duke school of journalism

A comparison of reverse image search tools – has a handy summary chart if you scroll down

Weaponizing fact-checking: What Canada needs to know

https://fcl.eun.org/facts4all: The Facts4All – Schools as community hubs against disinformation is a one year project co-funded by the European Commission’s Media Literacy for All Programme project, which aims to increase awareness and critical thinking in relation to online disinformation across generations – in particular young people and their (grand)parents. — There is a MOOC

Headlines Network – Drive conversations towards improving mental health in the media and communications industries.