Pre-Search and Mindmapping to Narrow a Topic Focus

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In my last post, I shared how we were moving deeper with our second round of more targeted pre-search after students had narrowed topic choices to one from their work with the first phase of pre-search.  To help our students begin to make sense of the information they had collected during their second round of pre-search, Sarah and I introduced mindmapping to our two classes.   There were a couple of factors that influenced this decision:

Getting Started and What We Did

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We introduced the concept of mindmapping by defining what it was, discussing ways we could use utilize it, looking at examples, and then offering three approaches to give students a starting point.  We gave them the choice of using one of our approaches, mashing and mixing up those options to make it their own, or mapping in an original that made sense to them.  We encouraged them to go deeply back into their annotations and KWL notes as they looked at their work both horizontally and vertically through the mindmapping processes.  We provided them oversized blue sticky notes although a few students selected a larger version of the easel-sized Post-It Notes.  In addition, we provided a small tub full of different colored Sharpies, and Sarah provided a jumbo box of Crayola markers.  We also gave students many choices in sizes of smaller sticky notes they could use if they wanted to identify patterns they were saying or to incorporate into the mindmap as an organizational tool for smaller bits of information.

Note:  In hindsight, I would introduce Evernote to students as a tool for organizing or capturing their work on the Post-it notes and purchase the sticky note types recommended by Evernote so that students could later easily search their handwritten notes (also see these recommended oversized Post-It notes that would be perfect for this activity).  Evernote would be a perfect way to help students archive and organize these types of notes, and it would be a great medium for students to take advantage of our district’s new BYOD policies this year.

Students spent roughly 3.5 days working on their maps.  We were struck by how intensely they worked and how focused they were in class on drafting their mindmaps as well as the diversity in the ways they organized their ideas.  While some students worked alone, most chose to partner with a research/inquiry buddy as they composed their mindmaps.

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At the end of each day, we asked students to hang their works in progress in the windows of our rotunda area for safekeeping; these maps, though, quickly became a conversation piece in the library as well as a form of art!   The mindmap gallery is something I highly recommend if you have wall or window space to do it.  We were a bit awestruck that nearly every student came in on the second and third days and grabbed their mindmaps with no prompting before immediately settling into their work.

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Sharing Our Thinking Aloud in Small and Large Groups

The next step in our process upon completing our mindmaps was to have students pair up and interview each other about their mindmaps.  We asked students to share with each other:

  • how they approached their mindmap
  • how the mindmapping process helped them hone in on their topics
  • how the mindmapping process helped them think more deeply and/or differently about their topic
  • what was clearer to the student about their topic after completing the mindmapping process
  • patterns or themes that might have emerged through the mindmapping process
  • gaps or missing pieces of information/questions still lingering after the mindmapping process

We provided the students a handout to help them take notes about their responses, but after seeing how our 2nd period students were stymied from verbal conversation by having this handout during the interviewing piece of the activity, we waited until after they had to time to discuss before giving it to students with our 3rd period class.  Once students finishing interviewing each other and recording their responses, we asked them to look at the topic triangle/funnel on that same handout and to to share/discuss/record how they had narrowed their topic through the mindmapping process. This part of the activity took roughly 25 or so minutes.

We then moved to large group share with each pair of students coming up to the Verb easel board, hanging their mindmaps, and sharing their responses from the pair-share interviews with the entire class.  This part of the activity served a couple of purposes:

  • We wanted students to hear each other’s thinking and processes aloud so that they could hopefully gain insights from each other and to see the diversity in the way they approached the task and how the mindmapping was helping them toward a more focused topic for further research.
  • It was an opportunity for Sarah and I to constructively pose questions about the ideas they were sharing and “conference” aloud with the students as part of our efforts to confirm they were heading on the right track or to “nudge” their thinking if they were still a bit unfocused or too broad with their topics.  Students could also ask questions of those speaking or to offer suggestions.  Most students were very comfortable with this aspect of the group share, but we did find there were those who were pushed out of their comfort zone since many of their previous “research” experiences were somewhat superficial and did not require them to really focus a self-selected topic.  While it is a challenging endeavor, we know that students building resilience in developing a topic is an academic skill they will need for future academic experiences.  We will continue to follow-up with individual or small group conferences over the next week with those who still needed some help in further focusing their topic.
  • We like giving them opportunities to speak in front of their peers–these experiences are gentle “rehearsals” that help them warm-up for larger presentations.

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This large group share took about a class period’s worth of time over two days.   I hope to have a follow-up blog post to this one up tomorrow or Monday with some student feedback/interview with their reflections on these processes and activities.

In the meantime, I want to share just  a few things Sarah and I have observed in this extended inquiry unit so far in recent days and that we’re contemplating:

  • As energizing as inquiry-based work is for some students, it can be frustrating or even threatening to other students because this approach disrupts the traditional ways of academic success and learning in our test driven culture (I know, you’ve heard me say this multiple times in the past!).   Finding the balance between gently pushing students and honoring that discomfort as you try to help students work through it is not always easy, especially when their frustration may even manifest itself in negative behaviors toward you as an instructor or even toward fellow students.
  • We’ve both been thinking more intentionally about assessment and struggling with the realities of grade-driven school experiences that impact both teachers and students.   Helping students keep their eye on what they are learning, encouraging them to risks as learners, and asking them to have faith in you during this process can all be challenging tasks, but we believe they are all worth our efforts to help our students.  I’ll also write more about formative assessment related to their annotating skills and KWL charts in an upcoming post to share dilemmas of assessing this kind of “process” work in a way that is true to the spirit of our inquiry unit as well as what we have learned in looking at these pieces of work.
  • It is an absolute joy to work with another teacher in this way—I have learned so much from Sarah over these last few weeks and so admire how well she knows her students and how that factors into the way she not only responds to them and interacts with them but how those insights inform the way we shape and tweak our learning activities to meet them at their points of need as learners and individuals.  I also love that I’m learning from the students and genuinely appreciate the opportunity to have extended time with them in this unit.

As part of our efforts to give them some strategies for narrowing their topics or to look at their topics through different lenses or perspectives, we utilized a strategy from my friend and colleague Heather Hersey, a school librarian in Seattle.  I’ll discuss this strategy and how it led to one final activity in this progression of learning experiences for helping students narrow a topic in my next blog post.  Overall, we are very pleased with the incorporation of mindmapping into the inquiry process—so much in fact that students will actually be incorporating them into their multigenre projects they’ll be creating soon (yes, a blog post forthcoming on that, too).  We hope you’ll continue to follow our journey of learning through our LibGuide where our Tweets, photos, resources, videos, and previous blog posts are all housed.

What strategies are you using to help students narrow their topics and take an inquiry stance on learning?  I would love to hear from anyone who is using mindmapping or other techniques to help students focus their topics and their pre-search in an organic and authentic way!

6 thoughts on “Pre-Search and Mindmapping to Narrow a Topic Focus

  1. I’d like to thank you Buffy. You are a terrific collaborative partner in this new endeavor. Your reflective, informative blogs help me disseminate the good work we’re doing with our students. I’m learning so much in this process. Thank you!!!

  2. I definitely want to try this! I love how you allow students to graphically represent their thoughts, but especially the way students are scaffolding their own learning. I’ve engaged students in similar tasks, but I think next time I’ll introduce a presentation component like what you’ve done. It adds yet another layer to allowing them to assume autonomy and expertise in a given project. Well done as always!

    1. Hi JD– a pleasure to connect with you! Thank you so much for that feedback. That low-key presentation piece was really rich–the kids got to hear each other’s thought processes, and it gave us an opportunity to interact/dialogue with them and “think aloud” together. I appreciate your taking time to read the post and share your thoughts!

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