Bringing Sources into Conversation: Teaching Literature Review to High School Students (Part 2)

As I mentioned in November, I have become a huge fan of having students read and write literature reviews before heading off to college. Working with students in those upper-level electives that use scholarly sources, I have found that they completely misinterpret what that section of papers is doing and how they are meant to interact with it. More importantly, I find that literature reviews help with basic and highly specific skill-building for which alums express appreciation when they transition to college. In addition, I have several highly collaborative colleagues now (in our AP-equivalent Advanced Topics Statistics, Biology, and History Research and Writing classes) who collaborate on teaching how to build lit reviews, and also invite me to hang around as students work, involve me in draft reading and feedback, as well as assessment.

For my first several years at this school, AP/AT Statistics was the only class that undertook functional literature reviews, and the teacher made time available some years for me to come in and teach students what a lit review was before they wrote it. So, I had several opportunities to experiment. I will admit that, in part, this process has gotten easier as students have had an increasing number of years building relationships with me prior to my appearing for this lesson (in year two, students stared at me stony-faced over a sample lit review about whether dogs feel jealousy and in year three the lit reviews on women and swearing got the same response – in years nine, ten, and eleven, the same lit reviews go over very well among my gender-diverse girls school students, because they are unsurprised that I plumb the Ig Noble award-winning papers for funny, readable, and informative examples).

In any event, over the years I found some methods that worked better than others at teaching students particular skills inherent in lit review writing, but I still found the outcomes of student work quite inconsistent. No matter how I explained the basic building blocks of lit reviews, not all students seemed to get it – or, at least it took more, one-on-one discussion over time to drive the concepts home. So, this year I took on a new approach – and this one seemed to yield much stronger results.

What is a lit review?

This year, I did not tell students what lit reviews are for or how they are organized. Working in pairs or table groups, students read sample lit reviews. Each student would have a different paper. Their task was to compare, discuss, and answer: 

1. What job the lit review was doing? and 

2. What are the building blocks of lit reviews? 

We would then work to synthesize their observations as a class, which gave the classroom teacher and myself opportunities to add observations, clarify details, answer questions, and correct misconceptions. We always pause to look at an example of a sentence that address a single study and one that reflects on several studies that arrive at similar findings.

We do this work on paper — lots of annotating takes place, and we want them focused — so most students had their computers closed. One student took notes for the whole class to refer back to ask they worked (examples). I also gave them Assiya’s (my dedicated Lit Review Research TA) FAQ that I shared back in November, of course!

Creating conversations

In the second round, students looked for signs of “conversation.” How could you tell that authors are bringing sources into conversation with each other? What words did they use to demonstrate a conversation was taking place? Students discovered signal phrases – a concept I learned from The Harker School’s Lauri Vaughan – and transitions in their texts, and I gave them hard copies of the transitions template from They Say, I Say, and a handout on signal phrases with lists of sample verbs. 

(Sidenote: I get these documents into the hands of students every chance I get. They really help students to bring sources into conversation. A former Research TA and I analyzed multiple grade-levels of History writing from the same cohort of students, looking for how they were using evidence and hallmarks of strong skills. We found that precise and varied verb selection was at least highly correlated with good use of evidence. Since then, I encourage those students who do not naturally jive with synthesizing from multiple sources to let verbs lead their way; it is really helpful for them to pull out the list and just ask themselves which fit what they are seeing: are these sources contradicting? building upon? supporting? advocating for? Classroom teachers love that students use more variety than “said….said….said.” I encourage students to keep these docs next to their computers for reference whenever they are working to bring multiple sources into conversation.)

I do not know why I did not try this method years ago. Clearly, having students observe for themselves and puzzle out the “rules” of lit review was so much more effective than telling them.

Organizational schema

The final step of the lesson, which I have used for the last eight years or so, was to give students a set of notecards and have them practice organizing lit reviews based on different prompts. (I have two sets I use, here and here.) For each set of cards, I have three questions, and students work in their groups to pile notecards into the paragraphs they would create to answer each. For dogs, the questions this year were:

  1. Do dogs feel jealousy only over “their person,” or any person?
  2. Do dogs distinguish between social and non-social recipients of their person’s attention?
  3. What method is most effective for testing secondary emotions in dogs?

For each of these questions, most of the studies conveyed on the cards could be used in a lit review. However, for each of these questions, how the sources would be grouped would vary. A lit review might be organized thematically, methodologically, chronologically, etc. This exercise reinforces the idea they discovered earlier in the class that lit reviews are not “serial book reports” (a paragraph going into depth on each source) but synthetic documents.

I’ve come to love working with students on lit reviews, and feel quite passionate about the feelings of agency and accomplishment that they engender. Do you collaborate on any lit review instruction or creation? How do you approach this work?

Help me build a fantasy search lesson: Search instruction from popular fiction

While you might be surprised at how passionate I once was about Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, you will become less surprised when you hear why. Below you can find a little post I wrote on my very short-lived blog back in 2010, entitled: “A Searcher’s Review of Twilight: Book Vs. Movie Through the Eyes of a Search Geek.”

Originally, I only had one idea for a research skills lesson analyzing search choices in MG and YA literature. But then, several years ago, I came across this little gem in Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles, in which Scarlet is trying to figure out what the deal is with Wolf:

(Scarlet, p. 171-172)

So — new fantasy: What if we had a dozen or more research-related quotes from popular novels and could design a class where students picked one and came up with a short real-world lesson based on the fictional account?

My ask: Can you think of a brief passage from a book in your collection that speaks to or demonstrates thinking about research skills? If you email me directly or put them in the comments below, I would be most happy to compile a list of useful passages for the group.

In case we do not get to this new lesson, here is what I wished I had a class to teach to back when I read Twilight:

A Searcher’s Review of Twilight: Book vs. Movie Through the Eyes of a Search Geek

Well, it is that time again—the Twilight New Moon video is now part of our lives. Pre-teens and teenagers spend untold amounts of time mooning over Bella and Edward… providing, believe it or not, a great example of better quality, iterative searching.

Of the books’ strengths and weaknesses, what annoyed me most wasn’t the endlessly repetitive conversations, or the thousand uses of the word alabaster, but rather Bella’s very poor online search skills.

Bella, the heroine, tricks a member of the local Quileute tribe into telling her about love interest Edward’s secret:

In her agitation over this revelation, Bella naturally decides to hop online to verify the vampire claim. And that is what she searches: [vampire].

Bella reads though the site, “looking for anything that sounded familiar, let alone plausible,” (134) and comes up blank.

Meanwhile, my mind is fairly screaming, not about the revelation of Edward’s true identity, but rather about the fact that her friend gave her a perfectly good, highly specific and potentially powerful, search term, [cold ones], and it does not even occur to her to use it.  By sticking with a more general term, she not only opens herself up to many irrelevant hits, but fails to uncover pages that might have information matched to her specific information need. Like searching for [plant food] when you want to know what to feed your Venus fly trap. She ends up frustrated by her search process, feeling that it taught her nothing of use.

By contrast, movie-Bella has a search style that is worlds stronger.

In the film, instead of revealing Edward’s hidden identity, Bella’s friend darkly hints that Edward is somehow related to an old Quileute tribal legend, but refuses to say more. Bella then undertakes an iterative search process, in which she reads for search terms and folds them back into her search process to get more specificIn this example, Bella takes stock of what she knows, and goes online to find a more information (search: [Quileute legends]). She finds a book on Quileute myths, and homes in on the term cold one, which she then takes back online as her next search. Using this specific term, she finds precise information, which in fact allows her to build a list of attributes that she has recognized in Edward—speed, strength, and cold skin—and leverages that knowledge to add new ones—immortal, drinks blood—confirming for her that Edward is a vampire. A much more successful and satisfying search experience, if a weaker execution of the plot. This type of iterative searching is one of the key skills that I teach students, educators, and parents in my classes.

With the second movie in the Twilight Saga selling like crazy, and two more to come over the next two years, both the Twilight and the search lovers in your class can enjoy the opportunity to dig in.

My take away: No one wants to hear they have to run multiple searches to find information. So, use something kids do want to hear about to get the point across!

Bringing Sources into Conversation: Teaching Literature Review to High School Students (Part 1)

Over the past few years, we have had an increasing number of courses that ask 11th and 12th graders to write literature reviews, most frequently employing approximately ten sources. It turns out to be a wonderful assignment to get at the idea that scholarship is conversation, and one that I would like to see every student experience before heading off to college. It turns out you read scholarly papers a lot differently when you understand what a lit review is, and it makes the work of college much more meaningful.

In my next post, I want to share how I have arrived at teaching lit review after many years of experimentation. But this week, I want to feature the FAQ put together by Assiya Memon (’24), my first Research TA dedicated to supporting student understanding of literature reviews. Assiya’s comprehension of the genre is magical; she has an innate sense of the work, the tone, and the “moves” (as Graff and Birkenstien might say) of a strong literature review.

At the end of last year we interviewed every student on campus who had written more than one lit review in their time at our school. We asked about what they learned in class, what they figured out for themselves, and what tips they would most want to offer future students. Assiya went through those interviews looking for common themes, added a bit of wisdom of her own, and made the following tip sheet. My gratitude to this insightful TA, who personally tutored four sections of Stats and Advanced Bio students through the lit review writing process with humor and grace, even as she worked on her own college applications. (Find Google Doc version of this tip sheet here.)

The Literature Review: Reminders, Tips, & FAQs

First, a few reminders:

What claim are you making?
A common misconception students have about writing a literature review is that it is similar to preparing for a debate—that you are on the hunt for sources that prove your research question right, and should leave out studies that are contradictory to that narrative. While researching, remember that you are not yet arguing the claim of your study, but rather that the study you want to conduct is relevant. Do not shy away from disagreement in the field; let your research be comprehensive and acknowledge the brilliant back-and-forths that have been had! Maybe your research question will change to reflect the existing research, or maybe it’s perfect the way it is. Keep your mind open!

Does it feel hard to find the proper professional “tone” for a lit review? Do you just “not like research”? Remember that you already exercise many of these skills in other classes! While certainly not identical, you know how to put primary sources or quotations in conversation in humanities essays, or write narrative and transition-based problem sets. Your job with the lit review is to consolidate what research already exists, trace how scholars have bounced off each other’s work, and summarize it for your readers. Treat it like putting together a discussion or relevant historical context if you get stuck!

Lastly, literature reviews are unquestionably tricky. It’s easy to get lost in the research process, the narrative flow, or the quantity of sources—regularly stepping back and checking in with teachers/librarians/peers for feedback on what you’ve written can go a long way.

FAQ/Common Challenges:

➡ I’m encountering a lot of unfamiliar vocab in these studies! How much should I Google?
A: Note down any frequently-used terms that you do not understand. Remember that you’re doing a lot of research on a lot of cool new things: a librarian-approved rule of thumb is to only look up a word once you’ve seen it five times!

➡ There doesn’t seem to be much unique or original research done on my topic.
A: First, try refining your search. Talk to your teacher or a librarian if you think there are relevant studies out there that you just aren’t finding. Otherwise, it might be time to step back, recognize that there may not be enough with which to conduct meaningful analysis in a high school class, and consider widening your scope. 🙁

➡ Uh oh… system overload… too many sources
A: It’s hard to resist overcomplicating your lit review, especially if you’re passionate about what you’re researching. Avoid spending too much of your valuable time clicking through rabbit holes; intentionally focus on what studies you need to contextualize your research question. Remind yourself that you don’t have to use every source you look into (even if they’re interesting or cool). If a source doesn’t play a meaningful role in the discussion, it might be better not to reference it! More studies referenced ≠ better lit review.

➡ But I know that my sources are important for my lit review! How do I extract their significance without spending hours pouring over entire research papers?
A: You want to get to the findings—or “main idea”—of a study. All you likely need is the what, so what, and now what* of a given article. Remember to check its abstract, intro, and conclusion. Only delve into the rest of the source if those places are missing information that you know is critical to your lit review or your understanding. Again, you have a lot of sources to parse: resist the temptation to go on too many research deep-dives!

➡ I have so, so much citing and annotation to do…
A: The best thing you can do for yourself is to start citing/annotating early. Do not put it off. It’s remarkably easy to forget where you got a specific piece of information, or what significance a certain source had. Citing is a form of source evaluation. Utilize it!
— Plus, the empirical side effects to opening a fresh NoodleTools project the night before the deadline include extreme panic and exactly no hours of sleep. You don’t want that for yourself. Try your best to get rid of those 20 open tabs and stay organized with your research!

*”What, So what, Now what” is a reflection model that my teaching colleague, Helen Shanks, adapted as a framework for high school students reading scholarly work. I guess that routine may be the topic of Part 3 of this series of blogs…. TBM

Glimpses of the Future in Fiction: Simulations and Lost Knowledge?

Note: Some plot reveals

Truth is stranger than fiction. This saying is cited often, and now with advances in AI, it may well be more apt than ever. However, lately, I find that novels can call us to consider the features of our new world in innovative ways.

Seemingly unconnected to each other, two novels have some similar themes, related to concerns of our “real world” and a possible escape to better ones. For example, The Ferryman by Justin Cronin and Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land each feature certain similar plots relating to “new worlds” that aren’t quite as they seem. At the same time, each of these bears similarities to The Truman Show, in which Truman realizes he lives in his own artificial world. I am sure there are even more books and films that share these ideas of simulations. It is clear that the idea of space travel to another alternate safer place is buzzing our collective imagination. And yet, there is often an important catch to that dream, according to these works. Sometimes, we can’t quite reach our destination. And what collective knowledge should we bring with us on the journey as we begin anew?

These novels also share a concern with preserving knowledge, or discovering lost knowledge. Each has a secret trove of literature stored just in case. I wonder if there is a collective concern for a new era of information richness and clarity as our current information sources become muddled and distressed. This fiction coincides with at least two relatively recent nonfiction titles related to the idea of lost knowledge: The Library: a Fragile History by Andrew Pettegree and Richard Ovenden’s Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge. Meanwhile, Simon Winchester’s Knowing What We Know: The Transmission of Knowledge: From Ancient Wisdom to Modern Magic details the changing ways society views the concepts and conveying of shared knowledge. Interestingly, issues with disinformation and misinformation lurk throughout the centuries; they are not new. But perhaps more prevalent now.

These titles, nonfiction and fiction, could constitute an interdisciplinary course on these interrelated themes. At the same time, the rise of AI will add new dimensions to these issues, and how we address them. As the use of AI chatbots increases, there could come a time when we will no longer reference one standard “body of knowledge.” At least the newer iterations add live links to their cited source material. Meanwhile, a related worry is that of “model collapse” in which the data sets are distorted and unreliable; another concern is “Catastrophic forgetting” which “refers to the phenomenon where neural networks lose the ability to complete previously learned tasks after training on new ones.” Each of these issues highlight real anxiety about the future of knowledge in our new age.

In these revolutionary times, fiction can open new avenues for deliberation and exploration of these important issues. A central plot feature in Cloud Cuckoo Land is the discovery of a missing Greek text–does this portend our own future scramble for lost sources of information from within our constructed new worlds? When coupled with relevant nonfiction, these fictional texts offer engaging and thought-provoking ways to explore solutions to current concerns and they are also fun to read.

If you want to go fast…

I have been active in AASL and AISL since I began as a librarian 20 years ago. I won’t be at AASL in Tampa this year. I always learn so much at these gatherings, and I will miss the learning and the fellowship (not to mention the free books and swag 🙂). I served on this year’s AASL social media committee, and I will miss seeing my fellow committee members in person (our work was virtual), and will diligently read social media to follow along as best I can.  

If you haven’t heard me talk about it before, both my kids are/were rowers.  As my oldest is an English teacher and rowing coach (and Masters level competitor) at an Independent School in Princeton, NJ, I still follow the rowing scene closely (don’t get me started…). Today I saw this in a social media post.

True, that!  Attending conferences, especially in person has confirmed this over and over.  There is always something new to learn, even if it’s not something you can apply In toto to your personal practice. Meeting and talking with other Librarians brings us so much.  These takeaways can come in bits and pieces.  They will form connections to other snippets, many from your own experiences. You might make something no one has thought of before (and you can present it at your next conference)!

A few years ago, in Louisville, KY, I was fortunate enough to attend a session with a Battle Creek, MI high school librarian.  Her students participated the National Holocaust Memorial Museum’s History Unfolded project.  This crowdsourced collaboration allowed the students to learn just what America knew about Hitler and the atrocities in Germany, and when they knew it. These scholars-in-progress (aren’t we all?) searched and read newspapers on historical events from the 1930s and 1940s.  Their project culminated in town-wide exhibits, visits from Holocaust survivors, and an award from Michigan’s governor, among other accolades and opportunities.  

After the session (which was too short!), many of us gathered with the presenter, Gigi Lincoln, and chatted.  We exchanged takeaways, business cards, and a promise from Ms. Lincoln to respond to any questions we had.  For the next several months (until the pandemic), we exchanged ideas and resources and cherished the wisdom of Gigi Lincoln.

While I have not put the entire project into use, I have used many smaller aspects.  

Crowdsourcing:  The Library of Congress is crowd-sourcing its collection of musical theater sheet music.  Our musical theater students have been pouring over the collection…adding lyrics, composers, titles, and publishers to the LOC archives, while adding to their knowledge of themes, techniques, and the history of American musical theater. 

The Research Sprint: Gigi Lincoln spoke in detail about the “research sprint”. The state organization in Michigan provides a robust suite of databases to its school and public libraries.  However, these would not be enough for her students to find the local newspapers needed for information on the project. Gigi’s idea?  A “research sprint”!  Students visited Michigan State University’s libraries.  In collaboration with an MSU History professor, and the US History librarian, the students used America’s Historical Newspapers to search for information.  The students enjoyed lunch in one of the cafeterias and also had a tour of the MSU campus.  In our Advanced US History (offered through Indiana Univeristy) we didn’t travel far – we searched African American newspapers available at the LOC for an “in-school field trip”.  With the assistance of the History Librarian from a nearby college we spent four hours (and a pizza lunch) pouring over the magnificent collection, looking for evidence on the social accomplishments of significant African Americans in the late 1800s.  The kids loved it (and not just the pizza and Halloween candy)!  I’m always preaching the “community of scholars” (thanks Courtney Lewis!), but on this occasion, they experienced it for themselves.  

Attending conferences – whether local or far away – is one way to experience the “together” we need to continue to advance our practice and our profession.  I encourage you to take advantage of as many as you can!  And, registration is open for AISL 2024, in sunny Orlando.  Together we’ll go far!

Lessons with Legos

One of my favorite teaching tools is a box of Legos. I’ve built several lessons around Legos, and it is a guaranteed way to get my upper school students excited about a library session. The lesson I’m sharing here is one I use with 9th graders. The objective is to have students understand what a controlled vocabulary is, how it works in the context of searching, and how that applies to LOC Subject Headings and subject searches.

The set-up: I pre-sort my Legos into standard bricks and irregular pieces, providing a pile of standard bricks, randomly, to each student (or small groups, depending on the student:Lego ratio). I tell them we are building a database of Legos and get some volunteer input to get a definition of what a database is. I then give students about 4 minutes to decide with a partner/small group how they will categorize their Legos so we can search our database to find the right bricks.

Depending on the space that I have, students may write their categories on the board as they discuss, or share them out after and I will write. Typically they offer categories like color, shape, size. For each, I press a bit further and we get lists like:

  • Color
    • Red, green, blue, white, yellow
  • Shape
    • Square, rectangle
  • Size
    • Number of studs (yes, that’s what the bumps on Legos are called)
    • Stud dimensions (1×2, 2×2, 2×4, etc.) 
    • Short or tall (in Lego lingo this would be plate or brick)

Next, we try “searching” our database. I’ll call out a search and the students will push forward their “results” on their desks. I start easy with things like “red” or “square.” I point out how they can combine things “red AND 2×2” and bam, we get the brick we want. 

But, as librarians we know it’s not so easy to search and get what you want, so I point out that there are, in fact, three different shades of blue in my Lego set and that I may do a search for “turquoise,” which based on what we established as a class, is not an option: zero results. This creates the opportunity to discuss the challenges of controlled vocabularies for searchers–if I don’t know the language used for the colors, my search for turquoise will leave me thinking there are no results for me, when there are a lot of turquoise Legos, they are just called blue. So, do we keep it broad and say I should just search for blue and then I have to sort through all the blue results to find the ones that are turquoise, or do we want our Lego database to specify what our three different shades of blue should be called? And, will that alway help? What if I call the lightest shade turquoise but they call it “light blue” or “sky blue”? And, how would I know what words to use? When we work through it like this, students catch on quickly.  At this point, I let them build a creation from the bricks they have as we plow forward. 

New information gets created all the time, so our database expands– I give them a few more Legos from the bits set aside earlier and we upload this new data into our system. We quickly hit complications. How, for example, am I supposed to search for a wheel when our data structure doesn’t have a way to do that–wheels are not square or rectangular and they don’t have studs. Or how would we find a sloped piece? Or other irregular pieces? My goal here is for them to see that, while imperfect, adding more specific categories titles for our blue issue seemed like a fairly simple fix. If we try to come up with names and categories for all the irregular shapes the vocabulary gets unwieldy and it becomes even more confusing to know what to call things. How we chose to include information, label it, and organize it, impacts how it is used. 

Now I introduce LOC Subject Headings and how that language can be obscure, biased, and difficult to find as a novice searcher. But also, knowing how information is labeled and organized helps you know how you can search for it, as well as how some questions may not be readily answered by the way information is organized. We do exploratory searching in our catalog (we use AccessIt) so I can show them how to find the Subject Headings of results of their searches, that those are clickable links that redo a search, and how to backtrack to the stem if the subject is too specific.

The best part is I get to do a lesson on searching that engages my students without relying on walking them through searches projected on the board and connects to the ACRL Frame, Searching as Strategic Exploration through the knowledge practices: understand how information systems are organized in order to access relevant information; and, use different types of searching language (e.g., controlled vocabulary, keywords, natural language) appropriately.  

Knowing the author of a source matters: Gilmore Girls explains why

Anna Birman is a (graduated) senior and Research Teaching Assistant at the Castilleja School Library. She has spent the past two years observing and teaching research lessons to understand how middle school students best learn about media literacy, databases, and citations. She has been developing lesson plans such as this one based on those experiences.

From my collaboration with my school librarians, I hear that it is sometimes frustrating when lesson plans are not met with the same enthusiasm my librarians feel about them. Personally, I enjoy drawing connections in class to TV shows. In this presentation, I use a pop culture theory about the popular 2000’s TV show Gilmore Girls to illustrate how an author or narrator’s point of view can affect the way the reader understands the source. Gilmore Girls (2000-2007) follows the everyday lives of the fiercely independent single mom Lorelai and her studious teenage daughter Rory living in the eccentric Connecticut small town Stars Hollow. The theory states that the reason that Lorelai and Rory’s behavior seems so different in the 2016 reboot A Year in the Life is because the original series is narrated by Rory herself, while the reboot is told by an omniscient narrator. Lorelai and Rory did not change; the narrator did, and that made all the difference. Looking at the author in the context of SOAPA–subject, occasion, author, purpose, and audience–can help enhance our understanding of a source because the world view of the author impacts the evidence used and conclusions drawn in the source.

Building Knowledge in the Age of AI

I was tempted, but this blog was not written by AI or any Chatbox, one who loves me or not. But this piece is all about AI and its implications for librarians and education.  It seems we can expect a flood of texts written by AI from now on.  The question is how reliable will they be? Will the program pull from authoritative sources?  

As of now, AI  has no access to the “invisible internet” of database resources or print books that have not been digitized.  Nor, does it have materials uploaded after 2021.  When these programs scan sources, how will they determine the value of the sites? Just look for similar language and phrases? These questions have important consequences: for example, a  recent Nature article noted that scientists were fooled by such texts.

The increasing usage and acceptance of AI, presents challenges and new opportunities.  Perhaps the most important skill or students will need going forward will be to assess the accuracy and relevance of texts.  Yesterday, for example, the International Baccalaureate (IB) program announced that it would accept AI  generated material if cited properly. Matt Glanville observed that “When AI can essentially write an essay at the touch of a button, we need our pupils to master different skills, such as understanding if the essay is any good or if it has missed context, has used biased data or if it is lacking in creativity.” So, assessing content will be vital.  Granville states, “These will be far more important skills than writing an essay, so the assessment tasks we set will need to reflect this.” This approach is fine as long as students have time in school and home, to acquire this content in the age of distraction.

Emphasizing skills rather than content has become a trend lately. Memorizing facts is seen as boring and unnecessary.  The idea being students should learn the skills to “do” history and science like  the professionals..  Content could be learned later, or just by “googling” something as the need arose  But if you don’t have a solid foundation of basic facts, how you can judge the credibility of AI-generated content?   Will readers take the time to assess each fact?  Of course, these demands were present with human-generated content, but now the need is greater.  Perhaps it will help that the National Council of Teachers of English is placing greater emphasis on reading nonfiction.  

Of course, the role of librarians is clear: acquire and highlight noteworthy, human-authored background content and nonfiction so that students can build this important reservoir of background knowledge when they encounter new texts, regardless of who or what created it. Encourage the idea that reading for information can be fun, especially if connected with previous knowledge and interesting facts.  It will be essential in a world dominated by texts produced in 5 minutes by AI.

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Research Season is Here

For me, the third quarter of the school year is my Research Season. Teachers of course assign small research projects all year long, and I work with them on most of those, but this time of year is when we do the big US History Research Paper. This is the biggest research project that many of our students do in their high school careers, and it is also the project where I get to collaborate the most with the teachers who teach it. Each year, we take a look at the results from the previous year, and what we’ve learned in professional development opportunities that year, and make any changes to the process that we think will help our students learn the process of research better. We’ve been tweaking this project together, year by year, for 7 years now, and here are 2 recent changes that we feel have made a positive impact.

The Synthesis Matrix

For a several years we tried to incorporate an annotated bibliography into the project, but the students never quite understood it or it’s place in the research process. Students would find things that had something to do with their topic in order to write the annotated bibliography entry, but when they started actually writing the paper, they would often need to find all new sources because they weren’t paying attention to how the sources answered their research questions. Then, in 2021 at the AASL conference, I attended a session that talked about using a synthesis matrix as an alternative to an annotated bibliography. We added it to the project last winter with great success.

Image from University of Arizona Global Campus Writing Center, https://writingcenter.uagc.edu/synthesis-matrix

In a synthesis matrix, you place the research questions or themes in the top row, and then add each source down the side of the grid. For each source, you answer how it fits each of the research questions/themes across the top, leaving a blank if that source doesn’t fit one of your questions. Our students create their synthesis matrix as soon as we start looking for sources and fill it in as we go. If a source is blank across all of their questions, they discard that source and keep looking. It helps students see right away that just because a source talks about the Civil War doesn’t mean that it’s useful for their specific research. It also helps them see which of their research questions aren’t addressed with the sources they have so that they can tailor their future searches for those questions. As a personal bonus, I end up with fewer freaked-out students who suddenly don’t have enough sources the day before the paper is due.

Free Research Goals + 1 Minute of Knowledge

Both of the following tips came from the AISL community in some way, and they go hand-in-hand. Shoutout to Erinn Salge, who got this tip from Dave Wee and then shared it on the list-serv – every time you have students do free research in class, set a goal for students to reach by the end of class. You could do this as an exit ticket, or like Erinn you could work with teachers to add it into the classroom participation for the day. I usually just have students tell me something they found. For example, in 2 recent biography projects, students had to tell me an interesting fact about their chosen person at the end of class.

For the US history research paper, I’ve combined this with the 1 minute goal from William Badke’s Research Strategies, a book that several of us read together last spring in a discussion group (it’s worth a read, though none of us agreed with everything Badke says). Badke points out that you need a working knowledge of a topic before you can dive in to full-on research, and a rule of thumb for what constitutes working knowledge is to be able to talk about a topic for 1 minute without repeating yourself. Today, we are exploring possible topics for the US history paper, and students are reading reference sources about whatever topic/s they’re interested in. The students’ daily goal is to be able to talk about their potential topic to a partner for 1 minute; if they run out of things to say, they know that they need to read a bit more. This is all taking place before students even turn in their topic proposals, so by the time we start looking for primary sources, students should have a decent working knowledge of their topic.

Grades are gross: a new mantra for a new year

My school is spending this year looking at grading and assessment practices. While we’re drawing from many sources, our central text is Grading for Equity by Joe Feldmen. Some of you are probably familiar with Feldmen’s work, but I am reading it for the first time. As a school librarian, I don’t carry a gradebook (for which I am eternally grateful). I do, however, contribute to the assessment design for most of our research projects in grades 9-12, and this book is making me wish I didn’t have to do that either! Grading is gross! According to Feldman, it incentivizes compliance, decreases intrinsic motivation to learn, challenges the ability for students to trust their teachers, and the list goes on. Not to mention the fact that it was born from an early twentieth-century model for education that focused on obedience, punctuality, attention, and silence as habits people would need when they entered an industrialized workforce. YUCK.

Like I said, as a school librarian I am mostly free of worrying about this. Freeing myself of the power dynamic that comes with carrying a grade book was one of the best things that happened when I moved from the classroom to the library. I never liked the endless back-and-forth over one point here and one point there when students wanted to challenge a grade. I never liked the conversation that started with a student saying “Why did you give me this grade?” and me responding with “I didn’t give you the grade, it’s the grade you earned.” Ha! Yeah, right. I totally ‘gave’ that grade. There is a great quote in the Feldman book that sums up how I’m feeling about this topic at the moment. 

“[A grade is] an inadequate report of an inaccurate judgment by a biased and variable judge of the extent to which a student has attained an undefined level of mastery of an unknown proportion of an indefinite material.” Dressel (1983), Grades: One more tilt at the windmill

Isn’t that great? If true, however, then it seems like most “traditional” schools are in real trouble. How do we step away from points and grades when our school culture is so deeply entrenched in this way of doing things? How would students (and parents) respond to Feldman’s ideas?

As I was writing this, our dance teacher came in to discuss her upcoming modern dance research project. We do this each year and I love it. She has about twenty-five 9th-graders in Dance I. They will work in groups to learn about Alvin Ailey, Martha Graham, José Limòn, and Katherine Dunham. During the two weeks they work on this project, I am able to work with them on source selection, note taking, citations, slide design, image usage rights, presentation skills, and more. It’s a good project and they enjoy it.

The more we discussed the project, the more I realized that I get a totally different reaction from students when I teach/review these skills in their dance class versus when I teach the same skills to students in freshman biology or English. I mentioned this to our dance teacher and we started to wonder, what’s the difference? Why do the students seem to latch on to the skills and ease into the practice of them in dance, whereas in other content areas they seem a little more tentative, perhaps too concerned they are “doing it wrong”? I suggested that in dance class they may just be more relaxed. That would certainly impact their ability to learn. Then she said, “Maybe it’s because I tell them on the first day that they don’t need to worry about their grade. If they show up and dance, they’re getting an A.”

Ding-ding-ding! That’s it. That has to be it, right? If they don’t have to worry about a grade, they can authentically engage with the subject matter just for the sake of learning. What a concept. Feldman argues that traditional grading “stifles risk-taking and trust” and “demotivates and disempowers students”. Does that mean, then, that students in our Dance I are more motivated, empowered, trusting, and willing to take risks simply because they aren’t concerned about earning a certain grade? That seems to be what my experience with this modern dance research project demonstrates. 

So now I’m really motivated to think about this for our other research projects. How can we adjust the way we assess, for example, our Junior Research Project (a big, multi-step, year-long project) to deemphasize grades and increase motivation and risk-taking? Can we do it within the system we have now? If we deemphasize grades, does that mean some students just won’t do the work because they won’t see the value in it (grades=value in a traditional system, after all)? Will the teachers go for it? What about the parents?

I have a LOT to think about. I’m grateful that my school is taking this full year to learn and discuss this work together. I, for one, am already seeing things differently and it’s only the second day of school. For now, I’m going to think more about Dance I, intrinsic motivation, risk-taking, and trust.