From the Bird’s Eye View to the Worm’s Eye View

All of the seniors at my school take a class called Global Humanities, the culmination of which involves students writing a 10 page capstone research paper. Those papers are ultimately turned into 5 to 7 minute presentations and delivered to the school community in a three day, academic conference style format. The paper and presentation are both graduation requirements for our seniors.

In years past, I’ve worked closely with the four section leaders to advise them on how they implement the research portion of the class. Due to staffing conflicts this year, I was invited to step in and teach one of the four sections. I knew that accepting this role would mean losing valuable time in the library (and I was right), but the chance to work closely with students as they navigated the biggest research assignment of their high school careers felt like it was worth the trade off. It allowed me to move from the bird’s eye view of their research experience to the day to day, classroom level application of skills – the worm’s eye view, if you will.

Maybe it’s just me, but I often don’t get to see the results of the information literacy lessons I deliver to other teachers’ students. This experience has been humbling and eye-opening. It turns out that my lessons aren’t always slam dunks. It turns out that students need research instruction multiple times, in multiple ways, with several opportunities to practice and receive feedback along the way. Of course I suspected this to be true, but being able to regularly observe and interact with students in the classroom as they try to make these skills their own brings it all into greater focus.

Teaching this class has also afforded me a backwards planning perspective of our library program. What do we want our students to know and be able to do as they head off to college? When and where are we building these skills, and how can we be more deliberate about doing so? As a result, our library department has pruned and fine-tuned our scope and sequence and aligned it to our school’s portrait of a graduate. We are better able to speak to our principals about what our students can do, or to what our teachers assume they can do, and keep information literacy at the top of our school’s list of priorities.

Finally, another benefit of teaching the class is the opportunity it gives me to practice some of what our faculty has been studying with our partner school, St. Andrew’s Episcopal School and their Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning (CTTL), whose mission is to “elevate teacher effectiveness, student achievement, and the whole child’s school experience using the most promising research and strategies in Mind, Brain, and Education Science.” For example, one thing I’ve learned from the CTTL is that giving students feedback without a grade has been proven to be more effective than giving students feedback with a grade. What do students do the minute you hand back a graded assignment with lots of feedback? Skip to the grade and ignore everything else. Today I handed back capstone rough drafts that took me on million hours to grade and respond to. There was no way I was going to allow all of that feedback to be disregarded by students whose primary concern is, “What is my grade?” So they got rough drafts back with feedback and without grades.

I’ve also learned that feedback should aid in the building of metacognitive skills, and how important it is to embed metacognition throughout the planning, monitoring, and evaluation of tasks and assignments. How would I make sure my students actually read the feedback I gave them and apply it to future drafts? I created a feedback reflection form that forced them to summarize their feedback and consider their next steps heading into the next draft. It also gave me a quick opportunity to gauge their confidence level at this point in the process (shout out to Carol Kuhlthau) and a space for them to let me know how I can best help them. If nothing else, this form provided a little friction between the time they received their feedback and the time they stuffed it into their backpacks.

This is my first year teaching this class, and it will also be my last. Next year, it will be time to work with my department to take the lessons I’ve learned about teaching students how to research – from that classroom level, day to day view – and use it to strengthen our research program for all students from the bottom up.

5 thoughts on “From the Bird’s Eye View to the Worm’s Eye View

  1. Thanks for sharing your experience, Chris! When you wrote, “It turns out that students need research instruction multiple times, in multiple ways, with several opportunities to practice and receive feedback along the way” all I could think was, “Thank goodness it’s not just me!!!” I think maybe this is a case of, “Instructional challenges love company…”

  2. I’m teaching an Independent Research class right now and nodded vigorously while reading this entire post (especially on the time demands…). I’ve been showing my students Kuhlthau’s model of the information search process and affirming for them “if you feel confused and a bit frustrated at the moment, you’re right on track!” And yes, it’s also making it abundantly clear what skills may need some additional scaffolding before they get to this class!

  3. Wow, Chris. I definitely agree with the struggle to transmit those information literacy skills and get feedback on the success of instruction! My department has been doing a year-long project on the developmental abilities of each age group ( because we were noticing that well-meaning teachers (often without a strong developmental psychology background or education degree) were asking students to do things that they actually could not do because of their age (like asking third graders to paraphrase material). We ended up doing a ton of research (see the folder where we have a master spreadsheet but also broke up the material also into grade-level documents that teachers can put their own observations in.

    I found that my biggest revelation was that the AP US History teachers and I kept getting frustrated with 11th graders (“This is a college-level course! You should be able to keep up with reading and note-taking each week and not leave it to the last minute!”) when in actuality that age CLEARLY has cognitive struggles with long-term deadlines but are good at managing short-term deadlines, so it’s actually on us to not require them to submit notes each week between their annotated bibliography and their outline. I also had a moment where I realized our culpability in how much we require them to be on their computer and yet the maximum recommended technology “screentime” is around 3 hours per day. What could be done on paper that would deepen thinking and eliminate distractions?

    Thanks so much for this deeper moment of reflection today, Chris. I needed it!!!

    • Wow, Courtney! Your reply deserves its own blog post. What a challenging and worthwhile endeavor for your department to research the developmental milestones (and limits) at each age level. And so generous of you to share. This is such a valuable resource for your teachers and I can’t wait to dig into it.

    • Courtney, thanks for sharing this. I am bookmarking your resource for those days I have ‘less than successful’ library times, to remind myself that all the craziness is PERFECTLY NORMAL! And yes, please consider expanding this to a blog post! I’d love to hear more about your process, and how you changed what you did based on your research…

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