Rethinking Research

Screen Shot 2013-12-02 at 9.17.02 PMWikipedia. Google. Answers.com. Do you ever use them? I know I do. Some of my recent searches include: How long do I cook my turkey? Do I need 2 or 4 winter tires? How old was Bob Woodward when he broke the Watergate story?What was the name of that guy who wrote that book about World War I with the blue cover?

Regardless of our own personal reliance on these websites, we want students to understand the importance of reliable sources. We teach them the “CRAAP” test. We do entire lessons on evaluating websites. We tell them we will not accept Wikipedia as a resource. We tell them not to use the sources we rely on.

And I agree with all of that.  If we are asking students to do academic research, we need to stress the importance of reliable online academic resources like school databases, websites like the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian, and digital newspapers and encyclopedias, while also showcasing available print material.  There is a great deal of garbage on the Internet, and we must guide them to well-researched, responsibly-written work.

But if we are asking them to use those resources, we need to ask them to actually do research.

The Oxford English dictionary defines research as, “the systematic investigation into and study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions.” Yet, too often we ask students to just establish facts. And facts are quick and easy to find.  If we want a student to find out information about Abraham Lincoln’s life, most of that information is common knowledge and we can find it almost anywhere. Citing it feels falsified and doesn’t show students how to really acknowledge others’ ideas, because we can find where he was born and who he married on any Internet site or in any book, so whose idea is it, really?  Yet, if we ask our students How did Lincoln’s early life guide his decision during the Civil War? then we are asking them to not only understand his life, but to also understand what decisions he made–and then to draw conclusions. Instead of asking students to research jellyfish, what if we asked them How does the jellyfish adapt to its environment? Instead of asking students to research weaponry during the Viet Nam War, what if we asked them How did the weaponry of the Viet Nam War impact the death toll? Asking students to prove something–to assert a claim–to make a thesis–will always help them dig in deeper and naturally drift away from those wiki sites.

This kind of research requires time. It requires students to be able to comfortably navigate resources, read and not feel rushed, make mistakes, assert a different thesis than their original. But, like in every classroom across the nation, time is a rare commodity. Yet, if we do not honor the need for thoughtful and deliberate research, we are cutting them off at the knees and not preparing them for the research expected of them in college.

So how do we get around this complicated research debacle?

  • Offer authentic  choices in topics that allow students to assert authentic claims.
  • Remember that not every research project needs to culminate in a large project. What is your main objective of this assignment? You can create small, feasible research projects that culminate in index cards, a list, or a paragraph
  • If you are immersing students in a full-process research essay or presentation, give them adequate time to explore topics, make mistakes, struggle with theses, take notes, organize their information, and pull together their ideas in well-written prose.
  • Always remember to model each piece–do the research piece alongside them. Explicit modeling will always help your students.

What other ideas have you tried that have worked? What do you still continue to struggle with? What are our greatest challenges in teaching students how to delve into research? How can librarians and classroom teachers collaborate together to make the process easier? Please share!

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Tell Me What You Know

research pic

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?

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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.

Cite This (maybe?)

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.

The Okay-ness of Hard

“This is hard,” she sighs at me, her body slumped over on the table, head leaning against her arm, pencil lying limp in her other hand. “It’s toooooo hard.”

“Hard is okay,” I say to her.

She raises one eyebrow at me in disbelief. “No, really,” I encourage her. “You learn when you do hard things. If we always did what was easy, we’d still have our moms feeding us, right? I mean, dang. That was soooo easy.”

She lowers that supercilious, 9th grade eyebrow and mutters, “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

I pat her on the shoulder before getting up to leave.  “I promise,” I tell her, “I’ve never had a student die from writing a thesis statement.” She cracks a hint of a smile and sits up.

We are writing thesis statements for mini-TED-like talks in Health class. And I’m hearing them all sigh and say, “This is hard.”

And this is hard. Not just the thesis statement, but the whole project.

Frustrated by poor quality presentations that felt more like fact-finding than research, the health teacher and I decided to take on the usual independent health projects in a new, more meaningful way. Over the course of this quarter-long offering, working with a class of freshmen and sophomores a few half periods here and there at a time, we asked students to shift from the default Power Point regurgitated tedium that they too-often present to mini TED-like talks where they encourage the audience to look at a health topic in a new way.

Throughout the process, we watched students struggle. We had conversations that often began with “This is tooooo hard.” And we kept telling them, You’re right. This is hard. And that’s okay.

After choosing a topic, they had to decide what they were trying to prove–what they wanted their audience to understand. Writing this kind of a thesis statement is difficult and requires an abundance of conversation, processing, and many drafts. From there, they had to use that thesis statement to drive their writing, weeding through their facts and deciding which were relevant. Part of good research is knowing what is important and what is not necessary, and our students often have a difficult time weeding through all of the material they come across. We reminded them frequently: There are books out there on these topics. You are only speaking for about 5 minutes. Focus. Focus. Focus.  They watched multiple TED talks, observing the craft over the content, and recognized that good presentations have attention-grabbing openings, integrate narrative elements with factual information, and have stimulating visual backdrops. Checking facts, writing drafts, receiving feedback, plowing through revisions, and practicing consumed their time. They worked hard.

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Fast forward to the end of the semester.

It is last period on a Friday and the entire health class is sitting, silently, in the library, their eyes on a usually quiet girl who is presenting on what it is like to live with asthma. She stands, tall, with no note cards in her hands, looking her classmates in the eyes, speaking audibly, recalling statistics and experiences, with word-free images on the screen behind her. She is following another student who presented on how to understand peers who have social anxiety, who used personal and honest anecdotes, intermingled with haunting music, stunning artwork, and stark research. Before her, a boy who struggles with and often does not complete most assignments, stood tall and proud, pleading with his classmates to communicate with teachers the importance of standing and movement during the school day and the health implications of too much sitting. Another student, typically reserved, encouraged everyone to take precautions against skin cancer, using her own father’s experience as a backdrop to the research. Each student who stood up there in front of the class amazed us in a thousand different ways.

The health teacher and I sit, filled with pride, because what is happening this week in health class is spectacular. Our students walked away from the assignment, aware that what speaks to our hearts drives authentic research and that true research isn’t about spitting back facts, but about what we make of the facts we’ve come across. They learned that they can use research to make change, and that their voices are important. They recognized that when giving presentations, audio and visual channels will always compete, and how to balance the two. And that to communicate important research and conclusions, they always need to pull together an effective presentation.

But most importantly, this class of kids–honors students and IEP students, boys and girls, intrinsically and extrinsically motivated students–they took on something hard.

And they learned that hard is okay.

For the Love of Pod: Research Isn’t Always an Essay

Here’s why I love history class: it’s made up of stories–rich, complex, beautifully tragic and magnificently inspiring stories that in hindsight, capture the tangled webs of imperfect humanity, reminding us that even as we evolve as a culture, there are truths that will always remain the same.

So this month, a history teacher (who is equally passionate about storytelling) and I embarked on a new endeavor with our US I sophomore students as they covered the Civil War: podcasts. We wanted them not only to understand that the Civil War is more than dates and battles and numbers, but to help them see that it was a complicated, multifaceted time in our nation’s history filled with stories that continue to impact our identity today. And while we certainly could have asked students to write papers or do presentations that present facts, we instead wanted them to focus on how research is reflected through the stories that weave together the entire picture of the war and through a mode that appropriately suits the topic and engages an audience.

Students began by doing presearch and choosing broad categories–medicine, artillery, spies, disease–and then began to explore that topic a little deeper. Their explorations brought them to primary documents and stories behind the broader categories. And suddenly, the student who was studying artillery, discovered the importance of horses in the movement of artillery, and then discovered a story about Stonewall Jackson’s horse. And the student who was studying spies discovered the importance of female spies and then uncovered Belle Boyd, a notorious and enchanting Confederate spy. A student who was interested in the Underground Railroad fell in love with Harriet Tubman’s saga. A student who researched photography uncovered the hard truths of day-to-day living for photographers like Mathew Brady.

They used photographs as part of their research, realizing that it was near to impossible to write about people and places without having ever really looked at them. We cannot write evocative, inspiring work if we cannot immerse our reader into the scene. What was the battle plan for Pickett’s Charge? What did the Napoleon canon look like? How did the dresses of the Southern Belle grace the figures of women during this time? How was the devastation of a town burned to the ground photographed? What exactly do illness and sanitary measures look like in small-tent infirmary? It is important, when we ask students to write about history, that we show them that pictures and photographs are important research resources for accurate descriptions.

Before students began writing, they listened to several episodes of Nate DiMeo’s amazing podcast The Memory Palace, where in each 3-10 minute segment he focuses on a sliver of a historical topic. They listened to his content, they recognized when he used narrative elements and how he pulled in research to substantiate the story, and they analyzed the craft of the podcast–the music, the voice, the timing. Using these episodes as models helped them frame their own writing. They determined if they needed more research or if they were ready to write. And then, they put pen to paper and drafted their first podcast script.

Writing podcasts is hard. And that’s okay. Our conferences with students involved discussions about slow beginnings, choppy transitions, and abrupt endings. They read their work aloud to themselves, pencil in hand, catching things that didn’t sound right. They dug back into their research to support their work. They rewrote their beginnings after they had finished their first draft. They told us what they loved and what they didn’t love about the writing, and then finally, after much feedback, they, at last, began recording. Most students recorded on an iPhone or iPod borrowed from the library and then used Audacity to edit and overlay with open source music they accessed through Audionautix, while others used other online programs that they discovered themselves. The results? Beautifully crafted pieces of radio work that bring history to life and the stories within to light.

Podcasts are a great medium for high quality research–the very nature of them calls for seamless, excellent writing, and as students hear themselves read their own work, they fall comfortably and naturally into a self-editing process. They stitch together facts with stories that make the experience of history more real, more relevant, and more engaging, both for the student and the audience.

You can hear some of the work here:

An Interview with Harriet Tubman by Kyle

La Belle Rebel by Katie

Disease & Death in the Civil War by Maddy

Pickett’s Charge by Josh