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.

1 thought on “Searching with the Sevens

  1. Finally reading this and so much to think about! I LOVE the idea of having students identify the signal phrases for personal narratives. I’ve been talking with students a lot about using phrases like “by the year” when searching for trends and predictions – need to find some good sources so they can start identifying those phrases on their own.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.