Teaching and Learning

Revving Up Student Thinking with Choice and the Reading Un-Frenzy

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Last year, Jennifer Lund and I had the pleasure of doing a reading frenzy with Language Arts teacher Sean O’Connor and his students.   The concept of a reading frenzy comes from teacher and speaker Nancy Steineke.  The basic premise of the activity is to give students a series of texts, allow them to skim and read fairly quickly, and then rate/rank the articles/texts they have read from most favorite to least favorite.  This activity is a springboard to helping students either choose a topic or find a focal point for a topic they’ve already identified as an area of interest.

When ESOL teacher Amy Balogh approached me about helping her students with research, she wanted them to have a positive experience and to develop key skills rather than trying to blast them with too much information.  We had great fun brainstorming and thinking together; ultimately, Amy decided to approach the research unit as a series of mini-inquiries infused with modeling mini-lessons as well as some light information literacy instruction with me.  Because she has been implementing a writer’s workshop approach all year, she decided to use some of the mini-lessons and writing/mini-inquiry assignments from Kelly Gallagher’s Write Like This: Teaching Real-World Writing Through Modeling and Mentor Texts as the inspiration for her instructional design.

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Amy decided to begin with the “5 Things You Can Do” inquiry/writing/research assignment.  Each class brainstormed and decided on a top topic to explore as a class.  Using a LibGuide as our “home base”, we decided to introduce the students to two of our Gale databases,  Opposing Viewpoints in Context and Kids InfoBits, as our starting points for research.  The students *loved* the search interface, but they especially loved the ease of citation of the articles with EasyBib.  Their favorite feature, though, was the Gale integration with Google Drive.  Students were super impressed with the ability to download articles directly into Google Drive for annotating or just having a digital copy of the text; they also loved the highlighting and note-taking feature and the ability to download those highlights and notes into Google Drive.  This mini-lesson gave students some search tools and strategies to begin their group inquiry into their class issues like current debates around gun control and gun violence.  Amy used shared documents in Google Drive to model the writing assignment from Gallagher in which they investigate the issue and then develop 5 solutions or “things you can do” about the issue.  This mini-lesson gave the students some solid starting points for search, but because the students’ bigger challenge is reading and understanding informational text, we didn’t want search to be the focus of their learning experiences as we moved forward with new mini-inquiries that we wanted to use to “spiral” up the depth of student thinking.   We both agreed that working with the information–reading, synthesizing, and then creating their own writing based on their research interests were the priorities.  With these learning needs in mind, I felt a slowed down version of Nancy’s “reading frenzy” would be a great way to scaffold students to these goals.

Our next step was for students to choose a topic to explore individually or with a partner.  Students brainstormed a diverse range of topics, and I pulled together text sets on each topic.  “Texts” in each set could include articles from the web, articles from different databases, podcasts, and/or videos; for digital texts, students could use the media center iPad to watch/listen to their those texts.  These texts would be a springboard to helping students then craft their own “5 Things You Can Do” mini-paper.  Topics included:

  • How to sleep better
  • How to eat more food in a restaurant (two ideas:  eating contests and getting the most for your money while dining in a restaurant)
  • Decreasing junk food in schools
  • How to have a good day
  • Time management
  • Taking care of a dog
  • Growing plants
  • Traveling on a budget
  • How to get rich
  • How to avoid major life mistakes; making smart life choices
  • Healthy eating/nutrition

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We gave the students two days to muck around with their text sets.  I told students they could read the articles in any order, and they were also welcome to explore other text sets if something caught their eye.  Each student received a green sheet to record his/her articles and how they would rate the article on a scale of 1-10.  We asked students to read the articles of their choosing from their set(s) of interest and to annotate the texts as they read.  We used Nancy Steinke’s text annotation codes as a supplement to the annotation strategies they had already learned earlier this year with Ms. Balogh.  In addition, I provided students different kinds of sticky notes they could use to jot down notes and highlighters.  They immediately jumped into their sets and immersed themselves in the readings!

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Normally, students would scan and skim the articles in a shorter time frame and rank the articles based on their interest in the topics within that set; they would then begin engage in presearch and begin developing an inquiry plan around that topic.  For us, our “slowed down” version of Nancy’s reading frenzy structure was to help students confirm an interest in the topic and/or further refine a focal point and narrow the big topic to a more specific scope.  We did give students an opportunity to rank their favorite articles at the end of Day 2; this ranking was helpful in identifying the kinds of articles students found most helpful or interesting.

Two things really struck me about this first round of the slowed down reading frenzy with Amy’s students.  First, they were incredibly engaged and involved with their texts—whether they were discussing the articles, reading intently and annotating, jotting notes on the sticky Post-It pads, or asking Amy specific questions about a text for clarification, the students were soaking up the text sets.  Secondly, the camaraderie among the students in each class was inspiring to observe.  Amy has clearly cultivated a classroom culture of care and empathy, and the students really function as a true learning community.  Whether they were helping each other with a text, sharing an idea, or thinking through an idea with a partner,the rapport was genuine.  In many ways, the feel of the class is reflective of the practices of participatory learning; I think this culture of learning is so vital for meaningful learning experiences.

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For our second mini-inquiry, Amy introduced the problem-solution writing task from Kelly Gallagher’s book and modeled this in person using a shared Google Doc with the students.  Once again, students generated topics of personal interest, and I put together text sets to get them started:

  • Cosmetic surgery–blepharoplasty or double eyelid surgery–with young people, especially in Korea
  • Bees in danger of extinction
  • Teens – body image
  • Teens – grade pressures
  • Drugs and teens/the heroin epidemic in the “Triangle” in metro Atlanta
  • Teen dependency/ over-dependency on phones
  • Hours in a school day, changing the start time of the school day in relation to teens needing more sleep; also decreasing school day
  • Time management
  • Improving school cafeteria; better school cafeteria design
  • Bullying and teens
  • Teens and suicide
  • Poor/poverty and education – in US
  • Refugee crisis – Syria – US
  • Personal debt
  • Getting into college–admissions policies for Georgia schools

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With both “slowed down” reading frenzies, there was always 1-2 students who were still struggling with a topic; sometimes they were able to think of something on their own, but other times, they discovered a path to a topic by exploring the existing text sets.  Again, we gave students two complete days to immerse themselves in the text sets; they also had choice in where they wanted to sit and the table/seating arrangements.

Reflections

Here are some of the grows and glows about the activity from Ms. Balogh’s students:

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As you can see, the students felt the activity helped them move forward with the information they needed to dwell in the thinking, composing, and idea development processes they did in their mini-papers.  As one student pointed out in the “grows”, we definitely need to add some nonfiction and/or informational texts in print, particularly ones that are more varied in reading levels so that there is something for all learners.  This area of development is one of our collection goals for 2016-17.

Amy shared these reflections on the work we’ve done for the last month:

My struggle in the past with the ESOL students and research is that it’s challenging to find articles that are both “scholarly” and are at an accessible reading level. Also, it is difficult for the students to skim articles when searching for them to see if they are actually helpful. This activity eliminated problem.  I’m more concerned with them actually READING good articles that help them, instead of spending a lot of time trying to FIND articles to read.  My favorite quote from this activity was when one student said, “this really made me think.”

I have thoroughly enjoyed my time with Amy and her students over the last few weeks, and it has been joyful to see the students happily engaged with their topics.  I am deeply appreciative that Amy puts student curiosity and choice at the center of the learning experience; clearly, that focus has yielded student growth.  She has supported students with regular modeling of writing and thinking processes, and I am happy I could be part of fostering learning experiences to scaffold students’ engagement with their topics.   Now that we have a solid foundation established, we can begin looking to 2016-17 and thinking about ways to fold in more mini-inquiries throughout the year so that we can build search skills as well as informational text reading strategies.  I am looking forward to further collaboration with Amy and her students and new opportunities for us to provide learning experiences that will help students grow not only their reading and writing literacies, but their digital and information literacy skills as well!

The Culture of Inquiry-Driven Learning in Art Classes: Inspiring the Possibilities for Research and Composing Literacy Practices

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Last fall  I had the pleasure of spending a good bit of time with Dorsey Sammataro’s art classes during the first nine weeks of the semester.  One of the things that struck me about her classes was the inquiry-driven approach that felt like a real-world workshop because there is shared ownership of learning by the students.   In late October, I was really thinking about how her approach to teaching and learning reflected the ideals of inquiry-driven learning and how could her art classes inspire how we approach research projects.

While I’ve been busy with other projects, assignments/initiatives, and working with other academic classes, Dorsey and I have continued to muse and think together.   Earlier this month,  I had the chance to observe Dorsey’s 1st period students, and this experience crystallized the possibilities of learning I want to see happening as part of our instructional program.  At the same time, it really brought to the surface a lot of the frustrations I have felt in recent years as I’ve tried to elevate my work and role as an instructional designer.   If you’ve taught in a high school, you know that these learning environments are often the most difficult to frame from an inquiry stance on learning and literacy.

I thought it would be helpful to share the aspects of the learner experience I’ve seen in Dorsey’s classes since starting here last August.  Dorsey provides learning structures, but students ultimately make choices.  Some elements I’ve observed include:

  • Students set learning goals—short terms and long term.
  • Students engage in multiple “drafts” and passes at art work.
  • Student have freedom to “fail” because failure is viewed as positive and part of the learning experience that values experimenting and mistakes.
  • Students keep idea books/sketchbooks that they share and serve as a place to pen ideas for immediate use or to revisit at a later time.
  • Students do regular peer review and discussion of their works; collaboration is encouraged and an integral part of daily life in these classes.
  • Students engage in frequent reflection and self-assessment.
  • Formative assessment is integral in these classes as is time to actually engage in the craft of creating art.
  • There is always something to learn from completed projects even if they did not turn out the way students planned or if they are not completely successful in the eyes of the student.

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As I have been drafting this post, I was taken back to the roots of my interest in an inquiry stance in learning:  READ 8100 (Inquiry Based Literacy) with Dr. Bob Fecho at the University of Georgia.  I could write an entire post about this life-changing course, but instead, I’ll point you to some reflections I composed (2002!) in response to a reading on Paulo Freire. Here are some of the qualities of a learning space that takes an inquiry stance on learning (this list was compiled by my classmate Sharon Murphy Augustine, and I incorporated them into my response):

  • DIS-ease. There are many questions raised without answers
  • Establishes more than the teacher as validator of knowledge/work
  • Feeling of responsibility to yourself and the class
  • Recognizes classroom as a complicated, non-laboratory place filled with complex, caring human beings
  • Fights culture of school that wants THE right answer
  • Doesn’t hide what is occurring in class and makes class part of determining what is occurring.
  • Patience- doesn’t give up too quickly and realizes community/learning/inquiry doesn’t happen overnight.

Unlike the banking concept of education,  Freire says,  “For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and reinvention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other”(72).

Of course, these qualities dovetail with those of participatory learning spaces, something I’ve written and spoken about extensively over the last few years.   You can search my blog if you are interested in reading more, check out my pieces in print, or view my presentations.

One of the regular learning structures of Dorsey’s class is peer critique—students have an opportunity to share a completed piece of work and share the successes as well as the struggles.  It’s a fantastic reflective experience for the student sharing as well as the peers providing feedback.

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Here is a sample set of reflection questions that Dorsey uses when students are ready to share out individual projects with the larger class:

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Students write or type a narrative based on these questions to help them think about the verbal/oral discussion with the group.  Over a series of a couple of days, each student has an opportunity to share these reflections with the group, and classmates then provide on the spot feedback.  It’s a relaxed conversation, and I’m always struck by how articulate, candid, and invested students are in their work and assessment of their work.

So what does the exemplary work of an art teacher have to do with me as a school librarian?

What I see in Dorsey’s art classes invites us to rethink how we see literacy practices like research projects and writing assignments.  What if more teachers approached research and writing the way Dorsey’s artists approach their work?  What if students had more say in topic selections?  What if the processes of topic selection, developing questions, investigating, wrestling with information, drafting, and composing final products (whether a paper or alternative forms of expressions/composing/creating) were valued as much as the end product (usually a traditional paper)?  What if formative assessments were integrated and valued as much as the summative assessment?  I think we would see deeper learning, higher quality of work, authenticity, and more excitement because students would be taking responsibility for their learning rather than the experience being completely teacher driven.   It’s hard to be emotionally invested in something when you have little to no input or voice.

I’ve been lucky to experience this sustained, inquiry-driven approach with different teachers in recent years, but these experiences are often the exception, not the norm.   I become giddy when I get to help co-design learning experiences where we can go deep and kids are not rushed through some of the most important life skills they will acquire and take with them wherever they go.  I relish these opportunities to do deep dives and give students choice and ownership of their learning as well as meaningful learning structures to scaffold that decision making.  I worry about the consequences of these kinds of literacy practices are increasingly commonplace and  limit kids to certain kinds of assignments that are often couched in “college and career” readiness rather than a broader mindset of life readiness where literacy practices are evolving as people move through different careers and personal experiences.  Many of you teachers, librarians, and students are weary of research assignments that feel formulaic and artificial.    I have always aspired to be someone who helps grow a learning environment of inquiry and curiosity and meaning making like Dorsey does in her classrooms.  As a teacher and librarian, I worry about the practices I’ve seen in recent years with research assignments and how it seems increasingly marginalized at the high school level.

Maybe it’s my life and professional experiences of recent years, maybe it’s part of being this far in my career with only a few years left to go, or maybe it’s the culmination of these factors and more, but whatever the case, I feel a sense of urgency to be a catalyst and team in player in a larger learning environment that dares to re-imagine not only research and literacy practices in academic areas, but also the public school learning experience from an inquiry, participatory lens.   The art studio experiences that Dorsey and her students live and breathe serve as inspiration for how we might rethink the dominant research and composing practices and framework.  I am looking forward to continued collaboration with Dorsey, art teacher Donna Jones, and their students as we all learn from each other.

Sticky Notes for Assessing Student Learning Needs and the Bigger Picture of Information Literacy

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A few weeks ago, I wrote about a simple yet rich activity I did with tenth grade students as the kickoff to a “one-shot” mini-lesson; this activity was helpful in getting specific feedback on what was particularly challenging for these students with research.  Last week, I spent two days with English teacher Meg Batchelor’s sophomores and decided to do a similar activity.  This time, though, the two focal questions were:

  1.  What is most challenging for you when doing research papers or projects?
  2.  What are you “go to” sources when doing research?

I thought it would be fun to have students share their responses anonymously using sticky notes and then capture their responses in three ways:

  1.  photographing the responses
  2.  capturing the responses with the Post-It App
  3.  identifying all the responses and corresponding number of responses for each response

Students jotted their thoughts on the sticky notes and then placed them on the appropriately labeled “parking lots” (a bigger jumbo sticky note–so very meta!) on the wall.

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Take a look at the tallied responses below:

table 1 responses from batchelor sources used march 2016 table 2 challenges of research from batchelor march 2016

I found both data sets fascinating and saw some overlap with the responses from the previous group (valid/credible/reliable surfaces bubbled up again as well as sources with information relevant to the research topic or question), but as you can see, there are some nuanced differences, too.   We can also clearly see that the students rely heavily on Google and Wikipedia; at first glance, the responses don’t seem to reflect much prior knowledge or experience in using other sources such as the school and district owned databases from Gale or specific EBSCO databases provided at the state level through GALILEO.   More research would be needed to peel back the layers of the stories behind the data and to better understand what might account for these responses, especially for me as a newcomer who has been here only since August.  It would also be interesting to see do a large scale open-ended survey by grade level and compare results.

If we group student responses to identified challenges of research into the three categories of learner experience and six stages of information seeking using Kuhlthau’s Information Search Process model; we can see the majority of these responses would be related to cognitive tasks.  However, we can also see evidence of what Kuhlthau identifies as the principle of uncertainty  reflected in the student responses.   This is an imperfect first pass at coding and categorizing the student responses—I could see how some of their responses could fall into multiple areas of experience (both affective and cognitive) as well as overlap in information seeking stages since students often move and back forth between uncertainty and clarity as they continually explore, formulate, and collect (see this great blog post on this interpretation by my colleagues at the Letting Go blog that is all about ISP).  You can click on the image below for a larger view.

student responses and ISP spectrum

We could also categorize responses more broadly into these areas of challenge:
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However you look at it, these kinds of data sets provide conversation points to evaluate and assess student information literacy skills in the context of current research practices by each subject area in our school.  I see this data as a set of conversation points to help us look more closely at current practices with research assignments in the context of:

  • alignment to the state standards—where are we hitting the sweet spots, where are the gaps, where are engaging in overkill?
  • the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education (most high school teachers don’t know about this set of information literacy learning outcomes; thank you University of West Georgia academic librarian and Information Literacy Coordinator Andrea Stanfield for pointing me to this LibGuide on the standards–I love how they organized the content.)
  • engaging in some soul-searching and really thinking about what we believe about research—what do we need to keep doing, what should we let go, and what do we need to begin doing (see this great example).

Having the courage to interrogate what you believe about research practices is not always easy, but I think it is essential if we are to take an inquiry stance on many kinds of literacy practices.

On a side note, several of you from Twitter asked me to share the technical aspect of this activity with the Post-It App.  Overall, it worked fairly well, but the image captures were limited in size, and responses recorded in pencil didn’t pick up very well or at all.  You can see the less than ideal quality of the images here.   If I use this app again as part of data collection, I will make sure students write on the post-its in pen; I also am curious to see if the app functions in a more robust manner on an iPad versus an iPhone.

In closing, I am deeply appreciative to Ms. Batchelor and her two sections of 10th Literature/Composition for their candid responses and the opportunity to talk about some of the challenges as well as an opportunity to introduce resources through our project LibGuide to help address some of those concerns.  Their feedback and these conversations are wonderful opportunities for me to learn from the students and to continually revisit what I think know and how I am interpreting student learning.