Inquiring with Students: What Do or Can “Good” Research Projects Look Like?

Responses from Ms. Rust's 2nd and 3rd period students

Responses from Ms. Rust’s 2nd and 3rd period students

We have just started a new inquiry unit with Language Arts teacher Sarah Rust and her students in 12 British Literature/Composition; although the course is identified as a senior level course, most of the students are juniors due to the nature of the IB curriculum.    We wanted to give students an opportunity to go deep with a research project and have opportunities to develop their own research questions and target processes and skills they identified as areas of personal need. We’re using Stripling’s Model of Inquiry as our framework while pulling in the affective aspects of Carol Kuhlthau’s Information Search Process model.  After surveying students on their topics of interest, we also asked them to identify information literacy and technology skills they felt confident about as well as areas of need (see 2nd period and see 3rd period).  We then decided to ask students the following questions:

  • What is a good research project?
  • What does/what can it look like?
  • What qualities does/should a good research project have?

These questions are seemingly simple, but reading the students’ responses reminds me of the complexity of prior experiences, perceptions, and connotations associated with words like “good” and “research”.    I love that reading students’ responses forces me to rethink my own perceptions and criterion for identifying quality research projects and how I conceptualize research, especially when I think of it more broadly as information seeking behavior in a variety of contexts—K-12 school, real-world, the workplace, and academia.

rust what is good research notecard surveys

Sarah collected the responses from our students this past Friday via index cards, and I then compiled them over the weekend.  You can read our students’ responses here in this Google doc; I’ve also enclosed a visualization in this post of their responses.  A few initial reactions of patterns I noticed in their responses:

  • While many students referenced a traditional paper, an overwhelming number of students indicated that images and multimedia were essential to a “good” research project.
  • Most students felt that research projects should be more than a traditional paper and that multimedia formats like Prezi and videos were valid and in some cases, superior, forms of a “text.”
  • Some students stressed quality and quantity of facts while others felt that a person’s insights and understandings were equally, if not more so, important.
  • The influence of the Schaffer Writing Program that has been in place here for a few years at NHS was reflected in the references to CDs (concrete details) and CMs (commentaries).
  • Several students felt the topic should be interesting and of importance to both the writer and the reader of the project/paper.
  • Quite a few students stressed the importance of organization while others mentioned citations and appropriate references to reliable sources although a few shared they wanted more freedom to use alternative sources of information that might be traditional “authoritative” sources.
  • Several students discussed the importance of “depth” in the quality and scope of the project.

I can’t help but wonder what we might glean if we start inquiry units or initial research projects with questions like these to see where our students are and their perceptions.  I also believe this type of exercise can be a springboard in engaging students in the process of instructional design, including the design and criterion for formative and summative assessments; it can also be a conversation starter about how context might determine our responses and how we define “good” in different information seeking tasks and settings.

How might your students define research and what counts as a “good” or effective research project?  Your teachers?  Your administrators?  I’d love to hear from you if you have posed these sorts of questions in your learning community.

Connecting and Assessing Individualized Independent Reading with Paired Book Chats, Collaborative Thinking, and Big Group Share

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Last year, Jennifer Lund and I worked with a small group of Language Arts teachers to pilot an independent reading component to their courses.  This initiative focused on providing students a dedicated day a week (most selected Wednesday) to read any text of their choice for an entire class period.   We worked with teachers and students to provide targeted readers’ advisory, individualized and small group recommendations, and ideas and strategies for formative assessments; we also documented best practices and interviewed students about their learning experiences.  This year, all Language Arts teachers who teach Honors and College Prep courses are implementing the independent reading time component into their curriculum and class time.

We’re continuing last year’s efforts and striving to work with faculty more closely to implement creative and meaningful formative and summative assessments of students’ literacy experiences.  We know from other colleagues who teach Language Arts that teachers sometimes struggle to find ways to either help tie together so many different readings that are ongoing at any given time; others wonder how they might connect the independent reading students are doing to larger class thematic studies.

Sarah Rust was one of our Language Arts teachers who was interested in the written conversations strategies we introduced to staff early in 2014 and has been playing with her own variations of these strategies.  Today, her 2nd and 3rd period students met with us in our Learning Studio area (in progress!) to engage students in:

1.  Paired book chats about the books they are currently reading for independent reading (IR)

2.  Helping students connect their current individual readings to four larger ongoing class themes:  perceptions, justice, identity, and conformity.

3.  Bringing together students in small groups to share their thematic connections and collaboratively develop a broad statement about specific themes based on their texts and shared insights.

We’d like to share with you an overview of how the activity flowed today with her two classes this morning and some initial reflections/observations.  Yesterday, the students were asked to complete a short homework assignment in which they were asked to do some brief guided reflections to bring to class today as a springboard for conversation; she refers to this set of guiding questions as the Book Talk Prep Form.

IR Book Chats and Collaborative Thinking About Themes

After doing a quick check of student work as they arrived in the Learning Studio area (formerly Fiction as you may notice from our photos), Sarah first reviewed the procedures and tips for engaging in a paired book chat.  After making sure every student had a partner and giving students an opportunity to move themselves to a partner if needed, the discussions were on!   Many students referred back to both their book chat prep form as well as their texts (mostly print but some eBooks on phones).   While students were encouraged to focus on discussing with their partner, we noticed some students engaging in a larger group discussion at their tables.

IR Book Chats and Collaborative Thinking About Themes

IR Book Chats and Collaborative Thinking About Themes

After the first five minutes or so, Sarah paused the student conversations to remind them to slow down and encourage them to go more deeply into their discussions; she also provided some tips on talking about thematic connections and engaging in some higher level questions they might ponder as part of the conversation.  This scaffolding was helpful for those students who might have been less experienced with these types of book chats and who needed some gentle support.

After students had chatted roughly five additional minutes, we paused again to review instructions for the next phase of the activity.  Sarah distributed sticky notes and provided a short template to help students think about how their books related to one of the four larger thematic themes of class study (justice, perceptions, identity, and conformity).  Students had about five minutes to compose a rough working statement about how their book embodied one of those four themes; students discussed ideas with their partners and peers at their table and when needed, conferred with Sarah for clarification or a short think aloud with her to process their thoughts.

IR Book Chats and Collaborative Thinking About Themes

IR Book Chats and Collaborative Thinking About Themes

Once students completed their rough statements on the sticky notes, they then got up and moved to tables with large post it notes that served as “parking lots” for each of the four themes.  Because “identity” was a popular theme in both classes, we created a second parking lot for this theme on the fly.   Once students had grouped themselves by them and shared their sticky note statement in the “parking lot” on the jumbo post-it, each student shared his/her statement.

IR Book Chats and Collaborative Thinking About Themes

Interestingly enough, the 2nd period students all chose to stand as they talked while the 3rd period students immediately seated themselves at the table for the shared conversations.

We then asked students to come up with a collaboratively crafted statement about their interpretation of the theme based on their shared statements rooted in the individual readings/texts.    We chose to use our Steelcase Verb whiteboards and easels for students to record their group statement.

IR Book Chats and Collaborative Thinking About Themes

IR Book Chats and Collaborative Thinking About Themes

IR Book Chats and Collaborative Thinking About Themes

IR Book Chats and Collaborative Thinking About Themes

With the 2nd period, Sarah provided the recap of student statements…

IR Book Chats and Collaborative Thinking About Themes

 

…but for our 3rd period, we all decided to let students share their work from their tables and discuss the group statement they had crafted.  This second variation definitely had a better flow and student engagement in terms of their large group share aloud component—we love being co-learners in these experiences!

IR Book Chats and Collaborative Thinking About Themes

IR Book Chats and Collaborative Thinking About Themes

The student response was positive, and we loved having the opportunity to use our new learning space and furniture to support Ms. Rust and her students in these conversations about texts and inquiry.  We are looking forward to our continued collaboration with Sarah this year, and we’ll be incorporating this kind of work into an upcoming inquiry/research unit we’re doing later this fall with her classes.  We invite you to think about how you might use these strategies and structures for your own independent reading program or how you might adapt them for content area study!

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2014 BCTLA Summer Institute Presentations and Resources

Teacher Librarians Engaging in Inquiry Through Written Conversations Around Texts

It was truly a pleasure earlier this week to spend time with the wonderful teacher librarians of BCTLA—-they are truly among the nicest, most enthusiastic, and most progressive groups of librarians I’ve had the honor to speak to in my career.  I am truly grateful for their hospitality, their energy, and their passionate participation during the Summer Institute this past Tuesday!  I’d like to give an extra word of thanks to Arlene Anderson—she was the ultimate hostess and went above and beyond the call of duty in making my visit both possible and memorable!

Fabulous Librarians of BCTLA!

Fabulous Librarians of BCTLA! /Photo by Doni Gratton

Session 1:  Subject Guides

Resources of Interest:

 

Session 2:  Participatory Learning and Inquiry

Please let me know if I have omitted any resources you may have wanted as a participant or if you want to share any work related to our sessions as the school year gets underway!

Growing Learning Communities Through School Libraries and Makerspaces-Creating, Constructing, Collaborating, Contributing

Thank you once again to Jennifer Finley-McGill, David Kates, and the Independent School Library Exchange of Southern California for inviting me to speak at their summer retreat in beautiful Ojai, California.  I am grateful for their hospitality as well as my friend and hostess Elisabeth Abarbanel for treating me to a great week of fun, learning, and sharing!  The slides below are from yesterday’s presentation about the possibilities for makerspaces and school libraries.  Please note all links referenced in the session are live and accessible via the SlideShare post below.

 

Framing and Developing an Inquiry Stance for Independent Research Projects

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A heartfelt thank you to The Thacher School Dean of Faculty Jeff Hooper and the wonderful participants of our workshop today on supporting students in independent research/capstone projects using strategies and models for inquiry. The first half of our workshop began with using the write around text on text strategy to help us explore and unpack our experiences, challenges, and successes with students and research projects.  We began by engaging in a write around these questions and data:

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This was the first time using this strategy with adult learners, and I was so impressed with the depth of thought, questions, participation, and engagement by the faculty in the workshop—they rocked! Take a look at their collaborative work in the gallery below or for a larger view of the photos, browse here in my Flickr album:

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Small Group Debrief and Large Group Share
See our collaborative Google Doc for our questions/wonderings, big ideas, and new ideas/insights that grew out of our 25 minute write-around.  We engaged in small group discussion and focused on these three areas of reflection that we all eventually contributed to a Google Doc to pull together our experience prior to the second half of our workshop which was a short presentation on models and strategies for inquiry that related to our questions, wonderings, and areas of challenge.

Presentation Slides/PDF

 

Resources of Interest