Earlier this week, I shared how we used Think, Puzzle, Explore as a fun and meaningful learning structure to ignite student interest in a topic and to build prior knowledge as we started a unit of study on sustainability with 11th grade AP students.  Those of you who work at the high school level and with AP courses know that carving out sufficient time for research projects can be a challenge when so much of the course hinges on the AP courses as well as other state or district assessments administered in the spring of the year.  We know that helping teachers feel comfortable in devoting more in-class time for research projects often happens in baby steps; like many of you, we always are excited when we co-plan a research unit and are able to incorporate learning activities we know will grow students’ information literacy skills.

As we negotiate concerns and tensions about budgeting time and the constraints that inform those challenges, we also have conversations about how to slow down inquiry processes.  How can we provide students time and opportunity to dwell, wrestle, and grow as searchers who can develop effective strategies and techniques for finding information and using that information to narrow a topic?   How do we help students learn techniques for cropping and focusing a topic area?  While we have been advocates for pre-search for a long time, we are excited that we seem to be getting more of our fellow teachers excited about this aspect of research and inquiry processes as well.

In reflecting on our inquiry work with Sarah Rust last semester, I wondered if there might be a better way to get kids to think more intentionally about their search terms and to build some prior knowledge for an initial round of topic focus prior to the work with modified KWLs and annotating I’ve done during pre-search and then mindmapping with both Sarah and other projects I did with teachers while at Creekview High in the past.   After revisiting the work of my colleague Tasha Bergson-Michelson and a great post from friend and colleague Carolyn Foote, I decided to adapt Tasha’s search strategy mapping technique for our sustainability research unit with Linda Katz and Elizabeth Hollis.  After running my ideas by Jennifer and doing a little brainstorming together, we decided we would adapt Tasha’s technique to help students map their first round of pre-search strategies to help them find a path to a more focused topic area of sustainability.  I actually went through the process and worked for about two and a half hours off and on doing search and creating a model I could use as a think aloud with students this week on the first day of formal instruction in the library.   I began with the topic of urban garden (food sustainability) and wound my way to a more focused topic of food justice.  My first version I did in a freehand fashion, but I replicated it using Mindmeister to show students what their maps might look like if they used a free online mindmapping tool.  I felt it was important to draft models related to their area of study and that would hopefully be accessible to our students.  Here are my drafts:

Pre-search strategy retro style


pre-search strategy map with tech-page-0

This past Monday, I modeled the process for students each period while sprinkling in some search strategies and tips for specific databases; this part of the lesson took about 10-12 minutes.  I showed them how I began by skimming and scanning 3-4 articles from sources like databases, search engines, and TED videos.  For each place I searched, I noted key vocabulary words, terms, and concepts that seemed important and/or new to me.  I showed them how I then incorporated new terms into my running list of search terms/phrases I was trying out and how that helped me discover new articles.  I shared how my discovery process kept building on each search effort and what I was getting from the reading and how that led me from a topic of urban gardening to a more focused topic of food justice.

We encouraged students to skim and scan at least three articles from three sources to find vocabulary, terms, and concepts that could help them grow their search terms; just as I had done in the think aloud modeling, I told them to keep a running list of search terms/phrases they were trying . Because we did not want to overstructure the mapping process, we told students to not worry about citation or identifying specific articles or web resources although they certainly could capture permalinks/bookmarks/URLs for resources that seemed notable.  We provided students plain and colored paper (they love choices) as well as Sharpies for those who wanted them.  We made sure students also had access to digital and hard copies of my drafts so they had a tangible model to see once we finished the lesson.  While we were not able to secure the same timeline Tasha uses with this approach, students did have a day and half to work on the maps in the library (the submission deadline established by the teachers was the end of class on Tuesday) although some students might have benefited from an additional half or full day to work on their search and maps.   We, along with the classroom teachers, told students to use Monday evening to try and make progress on their maps and search as well.

Yesterday, we spent the entire period with Katz’s classes since she was away due to a death in her family.  We were available to answer students’ questions or to serve as a sounding board when they wanted feedback or needed to think through their ideas; Ms. Hollis interacted with her students in the same way.  Since Jennifer and I had not worked with Katz’s students prior to this project, we felt we needed them to also complete some sort of quick reflection on their search/mapping work to submit with their maps.   We devised a “lightning reflection” to help students to share a little of their process and to help us better understand what we might be seeing in their pre-search strategy maps:

lightning reflection

We asked students in each of Katz’s classes to complete this form and then attach it to the mapping work they had completed at the end of class yesterday.  Jen and I then struggled to think about an effective yet fast way to give them some helpful feedback today since we had anticipated returning the maps either today or Thursday.  After much trial and error (and some additional revising to add some comment checkboxes related to the search term notes—we noticed after assessing one set of student work, some students were noting more facts than terms and vocabulary, and it was time consuming to write the comment repeatedly), we crafted this form thinking the checklist and “green, yellow, red” status indicators would help students think about next steps in class this week.

After looking at their green reflection sheets and maps, I spent this morning completing the feedback form and providing written comments as needed.   Jen assisted me in this process, and we enjoyed seeing patterns of their thinking as well as gaps as looking at student work helps us to better understand what students know at this point and where they may need additional help or instruction.

student work

Ms. Hollis was able to share these completed forms with Katz’s afternoon classes today and start a conversation about the feedback that Jennifer and I will finish tomorrow as we help the students more forward with additional pre-search now that most have come to a point where they have narrowed their topic and can continue searching and gathering information before they do some mindmapping of what they have found.   We also plan to share some of the exemplar work with students tomorrow to both celebrate the interesting ideas and thinking of our students while giving those who might need more scaffolding some additional models to examine.  You can see a sampler of these exemplar maps embedded below:

While we will probably do a little fine-tuning with our next efforts, but overall we are very pleased with the quality of work and thinking we saw from our students!  We’re excited that this strategy worked the way we hoped it would and impressed by how the students used the strategy to move from Point A to B in a thoughtful and more deliberate way with their search strategies and terms/phrases.   It was also exciting to “feel” the student interest in their topics and their discovery process as some of them made some really interesting moves from broad topics to more focused subtopics.  We cannot wait to see where they go next as they refine these newly focused topics! If you are using this technique or something similar, we’d love to hear how you are incorporating it into inquiry and research processes with classes.