Resilience: The Most Undervalued Information Literacy Disposition

Disclaimer added 5/17/17:  Due to erroneous information being circulated by certain academic librarians, I would like to clarify this post was written with appropriate permissions.  If you have concerns, I would appreciate your being professional and contacting me directly.

Update 5/18/17:  Due to misinformation that has been spread maliciously by at least once academic librarian through social media about this post, I have edited the original for clarity to keep the focus on the original theme of the post, resilience as an essential information literacy disposition.  It is unfortunate that some academic librarians who perceive themselves as the FERPA police and who know nothing of K12 education posted erroneous information about this post through their social media channels before bothering to contact me about the post, behavior that is unprofessional and most decidedly not in the spirit of the kind of librarianship I would hope colleagues would aspire to emulate.  When they did contact me, they did so in a manner I would not consider appropriate on many levels.  Here is the slightly revised post, and I hope you will glean food for thought whether you are a classroom teacher or librarian at any level.

When we think of information literacy, certain skills usually get great emphasis: understanding how to evaluate information and the sources of that information, search strategies, and citation management.  While these are all important skills, it seems that some dispositions get overlooked because they are soft skills that are not easily taught in neat tidy ways, nor can they be taught in a short time frame.  They are not considered “hard” skills that might be formally or quantitatively assessed with a test or performance task in some way.

I’ll be writing soon about my mini inquiry and research unit with 7th and 8th grade writers. However, there was a moment today I think is worth sharing and speaks to the importance of the soft skills and dispositions.  Ryland is one of my 7th grader writers who has gone from hating the class at the beginning of the year  to one who has flourished and thrived even with some setbacks as we took on more challenging academic writing during the second semester.  He has persisted in the face of assorted challenges.  He even signed up for my Creative Writing SOAR this semester (on top of having the regular writing class with me every day). Of notable importance, Ryland has discovered a love for writing poetry and shared that love of writing poetry with others.

As part of our project work, students brainstormed topics, narrowed down topics, and then engaged in presearch to confirm or change a final topic of interest.  After we completed presearch, students generated 10 different research questions using our question lenses method (more on this soon in a blog post, I promise).  From the 10 questions, I asked students to select their three choices with the understanding we would only focus on two but keep the third on standby in case they discovered one of the top two was not a viable choice as they continued with additional research. Like many other students during the presearch phase, Ryland needed some extra support with his search strategies and efforts, but he dug into the resources I helped him access.

In Ryland’s original research contract, he identified two top question choices around his interest in the Chattahoochee River.  He struggled to compose his 10 questions and to select his top two choices, which originally included:

  • How did the people use the river a long time ago?
  • How long is the Chattahoochee River?

Of course, the second question is not one that really lends itself to inquiry.  However, I wanted Ryland to be able to figure this out for himself.  After being introduced to EasyBib for crafting bibliographies and taking digital notes, he continued his search.  He fell behind for various reasons with his notes, and did not meet his deadline for getting 10 notes (a suggested 5 per research question); I gave him an extension, and he continued working on notes.  Yesterday, he began drafting his introduction to his research essay.  As we conferenced over his draft, we talked about how he had a terrific hook but that the thesis was falling flat.  Through this writing conference, Ryland realized that the second question was one that was more factual and not truly researchable in a deeper way.   I asked him if he would consider going back into his sources and review some the ideas he had read, including an article I had shared with him about the water wars involving the river between Georgia, Alabama, and Florida.  Though he looked a little discouraged, he said he would try.

Today he returned to class in an upbeat manner.  He cheerfully and excitedly took out his research contract and told me that after doing some thinking last night, he had a new research question:

How did the water wars get started in the first place?

Not only did Ryland show resilience in developing a new research question (and a damn good one at that!), but he did so in a calm and thoughtful way.  Even more impressed is that Ryland demonstrated this quality at a time of year when many students think school is over with only a week to go!  While this academic move may not sound like a big deal to us as adults, problem-solving and persistence are a big deal for a 7th grader, especially for one who has little experience doing research projects.  Of course, I praised him!  He then set about taking some additional notes and then writing his thesis statement for his introduction now that he had two major research questions/points that worked.   If we look at AASL’s Standards for 21st Century Learners, we can see Ryland demonstrated these dispositions under Standard 1:  Inquire, think critically, and gain knowledge:

  •  1.2.5 Demonstrate adaptability by changing the inquiry focus, questions, resources, or strategies when necessary to achieve success.
  • 1.2.6 Display emotional resilience by persisting in information searching despite challenges.
  • 1.2.7 Display persistence by continuing to pursue information to gain a broad perspective.

He also demonstrated these self-assessment strategies:

  • 1.4.2 Use interaction with and feedback from teachers and peers to guide own inquiry process.
  • 1.4.3 Monitor gathered information, and assess for gaps or weaknesses.
  • 1.4.4 Seek appropriate help when it is needed.

I find that frustration, especially when faced with challenging or unfamiliar learning tasks, is a major obstacle for teen learners.  Many students have low thresholds for frustration and give up easily for different reasons.   The majority of the students I teach, all of whom were identified as struggling writers last summer and placed into my Writing Connections courses for this academic year, especially grappled with a low threshold for frustration early in the year last fall.   As I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to teaching writing through a workshop/studio approach this school year, I have found that being able to frequently conference with students 1:1 and coach them through these rough patches goes a long way in building confidence and students’ belief that they CAN overcome new or difficult learning challenges.  These opportunities to regularly conference with students about their writing is a integral and critical part of helping them develop resistance in the face of a demanding or exacting learning situation.

Giving students opportunities to struggle through something hard, that requires thought,  and even asks for multiple efforts, is essential to helping students learn how to problem-solve and build resilience.  At the same time, we as teachers monitor them through the struggle; we know when to step in and when to step back.  We can be there for them and scaffold their efforts by serving as a sounding board they think/talk aloud a challenge/problem,  provide the “just in time” question to prompt or shift their thinking, and celebrate all their steps along the way as they learn from missteps and then ultimately achieve success.

As a librarian, resilience, adaptability, and persistence are essential dimensions of information literacy that I honestly could not cultivate very deeply or frequently with students in the media center in any scalable kind of way.  Why?  Because I lacked that regular interaction with students as well as the deep trust and relationship building that come from working with a student every day of the school year as a classroom teacher.   As a classroom teacher, I have the learning environment and access to students to help develop these dispositions of information literacy.  I’m situated in the heart of our writing and learning studio as we model, practice, share, and revise our thinking and our writing.  As I’ve said in the past, information literacy is not the work of only the librarian, but it is the work of the entire faculty who can work as a schoolwide team with the help of the school librarian to infuse information literacy skills on a meaningful and significant scale with regularity that will have genuine impact on student learning.

Ryland showed a major growth spurt today and has come from far from the writer and learner he was in August. Will this show up in our school’s growth bubble or as part of his test scores on the Georgia Milestones?  Most likely  no, but it will be an important part of his growth as a student and an individual that will go with him far beyond K12 education and hopefully help him as he encounters life challenges beyond graduation.  It is a joy and honor to be part of my students’ journey as learners and to play a role in helping young people like Ryland develop these fundamental dispositions.

Joy.  Writers. 

Yesterday my 6th graders designed their learning contract for Cycle 2 of our Greenbelt Writing project.  Today every student in period 6-3 came in and got to work with no verbal prompting on their first writing piece–it was just rather breathtaking watching them work and make decisions as they composed.  My 6-6 writers also got down to business and immersed themselves in the first writing pieces of this cycle.

We are mired in end of year craziness, and the pace is frenetic as I juggle all the end of year events with my 7th and 8th grade writers and their inquiry projects, many of whom are doing their very first research-based writing in their young lives (another post coming on that this week–there is joy in academic writing structures, too!).   Even with smaller classes, juggling six classes of writers is sometimes akin to moving at the speed of light. But today as I walked about watching my 6th grade writers, I tried to really watch and listen.

It’s in these moments you pause and you suddenly really see what is happening before you, much like the unfurling of the trees and flowers as spring comes into full bloom, and the world suddenly seems lush and vibrant.   You  pause from the frenetic pace of the day to see young writers blossoming and growing in front of you, and I feel both awe and joy. Maybe this is not the kind of growth that shows up in what Georgia defines as a growth bubble, but it is growth, and you hope you’ve nurtured a young write in a way that will continue to bear fruit in years to come.  I am thankful I can still feel the awe and the joy after 25 years of teaching.

I have quite a few of my students who are doing collaborative writing this week.  A sampler of today’s  writing pieces  include Reader’s Theatre scripts, couplet poems, Gretchen Bernabei’s writing structure “Story of My Thinking,” and Gretchen Bernabei’s structure “Favorite Place.”  I have students doing persuasive pieces; other students are doing writing pieces about people who have made a difference like Malala Yousafzai.  They are writing about historical events they have chosen and care about like the Chernobyl, Holocaust, and September 11.  They are writing personal narratives about lost parents; they are writing about favorite and special places like a hunting camp.  They are writing about how to play baseball and crafting time travel stories.   We still have challenges, but they are writing.

They are writing collaboratively, and they are writing alone.

They are writing, and they are writing with joy.

Nurturing Seeds of Writing Joy with Greenbelt Writing

A week ago, I sat down and read Ralph Fletcher’s new book, Joy Write, on a Sunday afternoon.   A wonderful synopsis of the book is posted over at Two Writing Teachers by Stacy Shubitz; for me, the book really crystallized the tension I often feel between teaching certain genres I know my kids need and the messier, experimental writing that kids also need to grow as writers.  Because I only get to see each class for roughly forty minutes each day, time has been one of the challenges as I’ve wrestled with this inner conflict.  While I don’t completely agree with everything Ralph Fletcher says (and I’ve been a fan of his work my entire career), I do love his ideas about greenbelt writing and its importance, especially for struggling writers.  I don’t feel a writer’s workshop is an “either/or” proposition for secondary grades, but instead, I think a writing studio includes greenbelt writing as well as more structured writing that includes more 1:1 help and guided instruction, an inquiry stance on writing that includes the use of modeling and mentor texts, and the use of writer’s notebooks for thinking and trying out different writing/text structures.

Fletcher introduces his concept of Greenbelt Writing in Chapter 5 and then has subsequent chapters explaining what it might look like. Fletcher defines Greenbelt Writing as:

“Writing that is raw, unmanicured, uncurated.  I’m talking about informal writing. Writing that is wild, like the pungent skunk cabbage that sprouts haphazardly along the edge of a swamp.  I’m talking about low-stakes writing, the kind of comfortable composing kids do when they know there’s no one looking over the shoulder.”

Fletcher also says that the more “developed” and structured modern writing workshop can be supplemented with greenbelt writing, a “wild territory where kids can discover the power of writing” that is (39):

  • personal
  • passionate
  • joyful
  • whimsical
  • playful
  • infused with choice, humor, and voice
  • reflective of the quirkiness of childhood

In Chapter 10, Fletcher says, “…instead of giving reluctant writers more structure, let’s give them more freedom.  Invite students to try out any of the writing types detailed in Chapters 6 and 7, and especially the ideas found in Chapter 8” (85).  Fletcher then tells teachers to encourage these kinds of writing:  free-writing, journal writing, writing in a favorite genre, collaborative writing, humor, obsessions, and edgy writing.  Several teachers he interviewed who have tried greenbelt writing with their students say their students gain confidence and see themselves as writers, processes that are essential to growth as a writer.  Fletcher acknowledges teachers may not completely buy into the idea that greenbelt writing will lead to “…stronger formal classroom writing” (86).  However, Karen Huy, a third grade teacher, says “Before I can even get reluctant writers to regard themselves a writers, I have to get them to see all of their many forms of writing as writing” (87).

With these ideas and arguments (as well as counterarguments from personal experience and included in the book) in mind, Chapters 5 and 10—“Greenbelt Writing” and “The Reluctant Writers” —were the two chapters that resonated with me the most; they pushed my thinking and perspective, and as a result, I scrapped my plans for the last 3.5 weeks with my 6th grade Writing Connections and rebooted to have a “Greenbelt Writing” unit.  While a formal unit is not truly in the spirit of the book, it is a starting point for us and a space for us to experiment with greenbelt writing; it also gives us this space to simply write, share, and hopefully thrive while sustaining our writing stamina.    I also see the greenbelt writing project as a space for us to plant seeds for the 2017-18 year and to figure out how to better balance greenbelt writing with the required genres I know my students must learn.  Though I am presenting this as a unit to my 6th grade writers, I am trying to stay true to Fletcher’s urging that we not keep out as teachers but adopt a “hands off” (40) approach in terms of letting students pick their genres of writing/writing projects and evaluating their work/knowing when it is publish-ready.  Most importantly, this unit is designed to give students “spaces and opportunities to experience the pleasure of writing” (40).

Last week, we began by brainstorming topics we were interested in writing about.  I then introduced our project guidelines to both of my sections of 6th Writing Connections.  I have organized our project into two writing cycles; in each cycle, students choose two writing projects to develop and publish on our 6th Writing Connections KidBlog.  We also reviewed our calendar and timeline for Writing Cycle 1.



All of my 6th graders are struggling writers, so I thought about how to keep the writing open yet provide some flexible writing structures for those who might want something to help them start.  I crafted the following menu and stations for each kind of writing that students could visit:

Students always have the option to free-write most of the genres; some of the genres are ones we have done earlier in the year, like different kinds of poetry and personal narratives.  While I know Fletcher railed against the use of any templates in his book, the reality is that many of my students honestly have NO idea where or how to begin even with lots of modeling.  I primarily used writing/text structures  from Gretchen Bernabei (I have all of her books!) because I love how her work provides flexible writing/text structures to help students who need “training wheels” to get them going with their selected writing pieces if they are not sure how to begin with their choices as a free-write. Her text structures and “kernel essays” also give them ideas for exploring different ways writing might look within a genre.  Here are my go to resources I used from Gretchen:

After they reviewed the list of options, they visited each “genre” station and decided which kinds of writing they wanted to do.  I asked students to pick two choices, indicate the topic, share if they planned to write with a partner, and share if they planned to create any of the writing pieces as a VoiceThread (we have a district subscription).  I took everyone’s contract and created a master roster that is now posted in the room so students can double-check their chosen writing projects.  Here is a sampler of student topics and writing pieces:

  • Favorite places (local, like Mom’s house; others are more exotic like the Bahamas)
  • Medical Marijuana–persuasive/argument
  • Family stories
  • Favorite memories, like the first day of school
  • Traffic/car accidents
  • Anxiety and worry stories–one student is writing about his fear of tornadoes
  • School rules–persuasive
  • Gun control–persuasive
  • How to bathe a dog
  • Flowers
  • Made up story–the disappearing boy, dogs, the dangers of technology
  • What if humanity became extinct
  • How to make a spinner
  • Personal narrative–“my scars”
  • Readers’ Theatre Scripts–time travel, soccer, smartphones
  • How to build a skateboard
  • How to make slime
  • Assorted poems (free verse, color, Where I’m From)
  • Persuasive–why I deserve a dog, why I need a certain kind of shoe, why the school day should be shorter
  • Problem-Solution–bullying
  • Valuable advice–being a good friend, being a good student in middle school
  • How to stay organized
  • Poem topics:  flower, wildlife, nature, ocean, beach, my dog
  • Archery–how to

For the last three days, students have been working on their projects with enthusiasm.  I had three students who were ready to publish poems today in period 6-3; they LOVED seeing their work on our class blog and learning how to publish on the blog.

It’s also worth nothing that nearly every student chose to do one collaborative project, and many are interested in trying VoiceThread.  I’m excited to see what students create the next three weeks, and I will try to do a follow-up post near the end of May.  I’ll also continue to contemplate the arguments and ideas Fletcher presented in his wonderful book and dwell in this metaphor of informal writing as a greenbelt.

Crowdsourcing Our Knowledge With a Conversation Hotspots Gallery Walk

During the month of March, my period 6-3 (6th grade Writing Connections) selected drones as a topic they wanted to explore.  Over roughly 10 days, we read roughly 6-7 articles on the uses of drones; as we explored each article, we tracked the benefits and drawbacks to using drones as part of our front loading work for writing an argumentative essay.

I wanted students to have a way to talk about the pros and cons and see each other’s thinking, so I set up what I called “Conversation Hotspots” gallery walk after we had finished reading all of our articles and compiling a master list of pros/cons for drones.  I used pastel colored lined chart paper to set up 8 “hotspots” around topics from articles like drones and firefighting, drones and privacy issues, drones and farming, and drones and airplane safety.  Next, I assigned pairs and gave each pair a starting conversation hotspot.  Each group had 2 minutes to share a pro or con on that topic.  We then rotated to the next station where the next group had to either add a new pro/con statement OR clarify a statement that a previous group may not have written in specific terms.  While two minutes is a short time, it seemed to be just right for the students to review what others had written and to add something new.

After rotating to all the stations, each group eventually landed at their original station.  Each group then shared out the collaboratively built list of drones pros/cons with the rest of the class; this large group review/share also gave us an opportunity to add any ideas that may have been missed in our first pass during the gallery walk, and students could also update their individual pro/con lists.

The overall response to the activity was positive from the students.  The activity seemed to particularly resonate with one of my 6th grade students.   About six weeks ago, I got a new student who was very scared and anxious. He has had a chaotic young life and outside of band, very little academic success. He has also had a difficult time socially because he looks like a high schooler even though he is in 6th grade. He let me know right away he hated writing. Since arriving, I have watched his confidence grow and been proud of my students who have made him feel welcome. Flash forward to the end of our class today after we finished our Conversation Hotspots Gallery Walk. He came up to me and said, “Ms. Hamilton, are we doing this again tomorrow because this sure is FUN!!!!” I nearly cried hearing the joy in his voice and seeing his smile. That is something our state Milestones test can NEVER measure.

I love gallery walks because they get students sharing knowledge, talking with each other, fact-checking information, and an opportunity to physically move about the room (an aspect that is important for wiggly middle schoolers!).  How are you using gallery walks in your classroom to create “hotspots for conversation”?