On Data, Citations, and Sources, Oh My!

Spring is in the air!

One of the realities of Spring for middle school librarians is that spring is the time of year when our 7th graders come to believe that they are actually 8th graders, but our actual 8th graders are still 8th graders.  Believe me, two sets of 8th graders on one campus is generally not something one would purposefully design into a 7th-9th grade campus.  So … Sometimes spring makes me feel like hyperventilating.

Amid the hyperventilating and chaos, my 7th-graders-who-think-they’re-8th graders have been working on a project on the meaning of data.  As a way to teach them some of the basics of Excel and Google Sheets, we have our students pick a topic of interest to explore, find some data on the topic, and present their data in a meaningful way that, ultimately, could “help the world be a better place.”  Our students generally come to us with very little experience with spreadsheets and charts so we use this activity as a way to show them how data sets need to be formatted and manipulated in  order for the data to be charted in a sensible way.  In the past, we have given them data sets to chart, but our move to more project-based instruction has meant that this year, students were charged with locating their own data sets–A change that has given rise to some really great conversation and learning about source evaluation and citation.

In the past we’ve used all kinds of source evaluation systems. At various times over the years we have tried the Quality Information Checklist – QUICK!, we have tried the RADCAB Steps to Online Information Evaluation, and we have tried having students look at a few different systems and come up with a system of their own.  With 12-year old human beings, the reality is that source evaluation is just a very, very complex and difficult task. I know that some will disagree strongly, but over the years I have come to believe that it really isn’t a realistic goal for us to expect our 7th graders to evaluate sources well–they just lack the necessary background knowledge and life experience required to do the task well.  I’ve come to grudgingly accept the idea that, our mission as middle school librarians is to make students aware of the things they need to evaluate and introduce them to the tools and practices they should be engaging in when working with information sources.  Beyond that, I can only hope that source evaluation is a developmental task at which students will improve with time and practice.

This year, I gave up on acronyms and systems and at every opportunity and with every project, I’ve tried to have on-going discussions about our sources of information. I started my unit by taking a look at this graphic:

Top 25 High Schools SAT/ACT Edition from Niche.com

Top 25 High Schools SAT/ACT Edition from Niche.com


When working with middle schoolers, sometimes one must make use of all of the pedagogical tools available to us and in this case I found it very helpful, in this case, to appeal to my students’ sense of outrage.  My line of questioning went something like this:

Why isn’t Harvard-Westlake on this list?!?!? Why aren’t we getting our due?!?!? Why are we being left out?!?!?

Outrage gave rise to my classes’ very determined effort to get to the bottom of this online INJUSTICE!!!

    • Who is this graphic from anyway?
    • Is there an author?
    • No specific author, so what entity is responsible for this data?
    • What about the title?
    • Does the title fairly represent the data presented? Why? Why not?
    • Is that ethical and “honest?” Why? Why not?
    • What website does this come from?
    • Who is niche.com?
    • What business are they in?
    • What do they sell?
    • How could we find out?
    • Where on the the niche.com page did you find that information, Zane?
    • Is the information current?
    • Maybe it’s really old and that’s why we’re not on it?
    • What’s the URL?
    • What does .com mean?
    • Our school website is a .com, but we’re a non-profit school so is .com ALWAYS bad?
    • etc.

A very determined class eventually figured out that at the bottom of the graphic a footnote indicates:

Data is based on self-reported scores from 75,834 users at 909 schools from 2012 to 2014.  To qualify, a school must have responses from at least 100 students.

We then had a really great chat about the importance of understanding how data gathering is designed and presented, then we segued into a discussion about how citation is one of the ways that academia communicates all of this very useful information.  We pulled up the web citation formatting in Noodletools and discovered that the citation format for a website is:

Author(s). “Title of Article/Page.” Other Contributor(s). Name of Website. Last Modified Date. URL.

Fancy that, huh?  Citations have a PURPOSE!!! And the PRIMARY PURPOSE really isn’t so much about “avoiding plagiarism” as much as it is about sharing important information that will let your reader/viewer better judge for himself/herself, the quality of what you put forth.  I think I saw ACTUAL light emanating from my students’ heads from the light bulbs that turned on!

My students went on to gather their data and complete their projects–including a post to their blogs about their information evaluation process and citations to the the sources they chose.  Were their choices perfect?  No … But nobody asked, “Why do we need to include a citation?”

As a middle school librarian, I’ll take that as a win!

5 thoughts on “On Data, Citations, and Sources, Oh My!

  1. David,

    I love the color coding of the parts of the citation and how it references the types of evaluation questions on the quality of the source. I also commend your point that citations serve the purpose of sharing quality sources as you create new knowledge. A good bibliography serves the purpose of pointing your reader to quality sources; the reader can then launch off in new directions as they use one of your sources to create new insights. Congratulations to you and your students!

  2. Brilliant!! Simply brilliant. I hope that you are familiar with the phrase “imitation is the highest form of flattery” because I would like to take your idea and find a way to imitate it.

    • I agree. I took this in to one of my 6th grade classes yesterday, and it worked wonders. The chart not only led to a discussion on what makes a “top” school in their minds, but also a healthy dose of skepticism about information found on the web. When motivated, they’re actually quite good at sleuthing through web evaluation questions. Thank you for sharing!

  3. I am in awe of the data discussion you had, which is so critical for our students to comprehend. And on to weave that into citation instruction is just brilliant! I am hoping I can modify something like this with my Fifth Grade students! Thanks for a great post.

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