The students had had nearly two hours of independent research time over two days when I sat down next to a boy. “Tell me everything you know,” I said to him. After all, we had already gone over accessing and assessing websites; I had created a LibGuide leading them to excellent sources; we had reviewed note-taking skills and databases. He should have, in two hours, had a plethora of information on the colonization of his African country.
“I don’t know anything,” he stated.
“Well, let’s start with the basics. Who colonized your country?” I asked.
He stared at me blankly. “I’m not sure. Britain or France, I think.”
As I moved from student to student, similar, vague conversations took place. They had EasyBibs started with their resources, they had lists of bulleted notes, they had their assignments in front of them, they had reliable resources open on their screens. When I scanned the room, it looked like they were doing everything we had instructed them to do. Yet, each time I sat down and asked, “Tell me what you know,” they were caught off guard.
One student grabbed his notes and started reading them to me. I interrupted. “Don’t read me what your notes say, tell me what YOU know.” He asked me to give him ten minutes.
After they left class, I sat, reflecting, discouraged. I wanted to blame the students, but I also know that if every single student in a class is not doing what they need to do to be successful, I am responsible for some of that blame. And so I sat and wondered, how can I get them back on track after this railroaded research disaster?
The following day, when the students came in, they found large pieces of bright paper with 4 index cards taped on them and my coveted collection of Sharpies that they love to raid. Each index card had a question: For what reason was your country colonized? What did life look like for the native inhabitants during colonization? How was the country liberated? What issues does your country struggle with today? “Grab a color you like,” I told them. “Grab some markers, and start writing what you know. If you don’t know anything, write that. Be honest.”
Students sprawled out on the tables and started jotting down what they could. They started digging out their notes and reading through them. As the other teacher and I circulated, we heard a lot of comments like, “I think I have more to look into” or “Wow, I didn’t even pay attention to the part about that.” When finished, they took out a piece of notebook paper and wrote down where they needed to focus during the class period that stretched ahead of them.
During research time, there was a different tone–a sense of purpose. They started asking us questions about what they were reading. They started being able to answer our questions. When there were five minutes left in class, they returned to their poster-sized notes and scribbled more information down. And then, again, they wrote on notebook paper what they needed to focus on over the weekend.
It was simple really, and I was disappointed in myself for not doing this kind of checkin on day one. But it reminded me that we so often forget to teach explicitly about thinking and reflection. When we tell kids to go research their topic, they comply and walk through the paces that we have “trained” them to do. But how do we train them to reflect on what they are finding? On reading for understanding? On finding purpose in their searches? These habits of mind must be taught daily in order for them to independently make meaning of their learning when they leave for college.
So what can we do to bring explicitness into our classroom research practices?
*Confer with students constantly. Go to them–don’t wait for them to come to you.
*Be flexible in the process. Let them change topics. Let them change thesis statements. Let them change sides. Let them see that research is messy and non-linear, and then give them the time they need to find their way.
*Ask specific questions every day. Why did you choose this topic? What is the most important thing you have read? What do you remember most? What does this mean today?
*Ask students to be active in their daily learning process. Have them write entrance and exit slips–What do you plan to accomplish today and how are you going to do that? What did you accomplish today? What do you have left to do?
*Ask students to stop what they are doing and write from time to time. Writing is thinking, and giving them the time to sit and think about what they know for a moment will help them be more efficient in their process.
*Have students reflect on their habits. Are they proud of their work? What would they do differently? How did they use their time?
Explicitly teaching research takes time, and in the classroom, we never feel like there is enough time. But if we want students to find purpose, meaning, and pride in their findings, we must remember that they–no matter what age–will continue to require that kind of instruction throughout their educational career. It’s not enough to assume that somebody else has taught them how to do a task or that they remember it from a previous lesson or that they just know how to do it. We need to remember to check in, provide personally-directed reminders, and have conversations about their learning processes routinely.
I, for one, will leave reminders for myself, in my next unit. Because the next time I sit next to a student and ask, “Tell me what you know,” I want her to confidently look me in the eye and open the world.