The seventh grade history teacher and I had earmarked today as the day to have students pull together all of their resources to create their Works Cited. They had used a mixture of media in their recent country project: pictures, books, databases, websites, and video. We had anticipated that one 45 minute class period would be ample time.
We were wrong.
As we went through the steps, me modeling with my own research project on Iceland, we found students falling behind and not knowing where to go. They didn’t understand what the term MLA meant. They didn’t know what a URL was. They couldn’t tell the difference between a website title and a website page title. They didn’t know where to look to see if a photographer was credited. Some of them assuredly jumped on Easybib.com, telling us they had done all this before, and started creating their own Works Citeds, citing everything as a website and not recognizing the nuances of databases or online photographs, and then getting frustrated that they had to delete those citations.
Once we got everything into a document, they didn’t know the rules of Works Cited: everything has to be the same font and size, and entries have to be alphabetized. So when they pulled a generated citation from a database and tried to integrate it with their Easybib material, they didn’t recognize that they had to move things around, and then they weren’t sure how to cut the citation out and paste it in another place. Some students tried to un-indent the second line of each citation because it looked “weird.”
Everything we had assumed about their prior knowledge to citing was wrong.
By the end of the first period, we felt like we had already put in a full, exhaustive day of terrible teaching. Their Works Citeds were not finished, and we were pretty sure that tomorrow they wouldn’t be able to find them because in the state of being overwhelmed, we forgot to remind them to title their Google Doc as a Works Cited.
We all have bad days in the classroom. And while I hate to fail on precious student time, I am reminded that failure has its purpose in life: to teach us what sucked so we don’t do it again. A quick, post-class, reflective conference, before second period, helped us identify what went wrong and adjust the lesson. By the final periods of the day, our students were leaving with a completed, titled, fully-formatted Works Cited saved on their computers. We triumphed. So what did we learn today about teaching bibliography skills?
1. We need to teach kids how to read their resources for citation information.
Remember when we (and by “we” I mean anybody over the age of 30) used to have to type our Works Cited by hand? We not only had to know where commas and periods and italics went, but we had to know book titles, publishers, dates, cities, etc. While sites like Easybib make remembering the formatting component obsolete, they still require the writer to look for publication information. Students still need to know how to look for titles, publishers, dates, and cities. In fact, I would even argue that they have to know more information than we did “back in the day” because they now have access to Youtube videos, online databases and encyclopedias, oodles of online artwork, let alone websites. They need to understand where to look for authors, publishers, titles, etc. because sometimes Easybib doesn’t pick them up. Explicit instruction on how to do this is key.
2. We need to teach students that there are different rules for different kinds of sources.
Our students often think that if it is on their computer screen, it is a website. They don’t see the difference between an eBook or a database. They don’t realize that an online video is cited differently than an online photograph. They don’t realize that an online photograph is different than an online painting. They often think they can cite Google Images rather than the site that carries a picture itself or that a URL link to that picture is the correct way to cite it.
3. Teachers need to know the rules, too.
If we don’t know the rules, then we aren’t catching students’ errors in their citations. We need to be able to look at a Works Cited and say, “Hmmm. I think there’s something wrong here. Let’s go back in and edit that together.”
4. We need to give students the time to cite correctly.
When we don’t, we implicitly let students know that it is not important. When we accept any version they have created, we also send that message. When we give students the time to work on this with us, it also allows them to start asking really important questions. One student today said on a recent project he had used a bunch of Youtube videos. He had cited them all by just typing in the general Youtube home site address and not differentiating between each video. This opened up a great conversation between us about where to look for that information.
5. Kids need practice.
While we were successful by the end of the day, we also recognized that this cannot be a one-time lesson. Explicit citation lessons must be part of each project, allowing for student questions and struggles. “Back in the day” I always had to pull out my Diana Hacker to figure out how to cite a book with two editors. I simply could not remember what information was needed. Our kids need similar guides and frequent practice at accessing guides. We are currently putting together a simple resource that will remind the students of everything we did today, but we will continue to give them the necessary practice in all classes.
In the end, today was a reminder that technology does not neatly solve all problems. While putting together a Works Cited feels easier to us, because we don’t have to remember the formatting intricacies, we are often failing to teach students the content of what goes into a Works Cited. We need to know the rules, give ample time to practice, and show students how to read resources for publication information. Easybib and other citing machines are miraculous tools, yes. But they do not replace our students thinking. In fact, our students have much more to think about when addressing issues of citation than we ever did, and today was a reminder they need help with that.