Teaching and Learning

Formative Assessments: Our Compass for Understanding Affective, Cognitive, and Physical Aspects of Information Search Processes

Original photo by Buffy Hamilton

Original photo by Buffy Hamilton

I’m currently working with a section of American Literature/Composition students who have been asked to look at a historical or current event that embodies a degree of hysteria or abuse of power and compare that to the hysteria or abuse of power in the play The Crucible.   This research task is a fairly typical high school assignment for this text and course.  Initially, the teacher wanted me to cover five major areas of research in one class period in lecture format with no hands-on learning activities because she initially thought they had a greater degree of prior knowledge.   However, after a series of email conversations, we worked out a series of learning experiences to implement this week to address student learning needs in a richer and more meaningful way for students.   As many of you know, these collaborative conversations are sometimes really difficult and uncomfortable to broach, especially when you are new to a school or don’t know a teacher very well as you want to be respectful yet honest when you realize a particular request for instruction might not be realistic or effective for students.    I also try to remember that many teachers have never had the experience of working with a school librarian who is genuinely interested in being a co-teacher and instructional designer, so they might not want to ask much of you simply because they’ve never had that kind of expectation or instructional services.

We began our efforts earlier this week by introducing the students to specific databases and search tools in GALILEO through our project LibGuide.  We also talked briefly about some basic search features and tips for each of the databases.  I also showed students how to sign up for our EasyBib account and how to export potential sources to their EasyBib project bibliography.  In an ideal world, I would not attempt to cover so much territory in one session, especially with students who have little experience using databases, but when forging new collaborative partnerships with faculty, it often takes time to establish the trust and rapport needed to jointly fine-tune project pacing and the instructional design process.  It is also a regular challenge many school librarians face as we try to balance our desire to go deep with hands-on learning activities and time to engage in inquiry while respecting the pressures and time constraints classroom teachers face with pacing calendars, common assessments, and other aspects of modern classroom life.

Yesterday we formed “Birds of Feather” groups by research interest.   Topic areas/groups included McCarthyism, post 9/11 racial profiling, Japanese Internment Camps, and then “undecided” for students who were still exploring.   I created topic placeholders for each table to make it easier for students to self-form groups because I wanted them to work together to talk about search terms and databases they were trying so that they could hopefully tap into the power of collaborative thinking.   My plan was for them to collaborate as searchers, to work on their search maps, and then complete a group debrief/”ticket out the door” assessment we’d do with big sticky pads (see below).


Teens being teens, though, some decided to sit with friends rather than by topic; as a result, we lost a little instructional time because the teacher wanted to get them in the “like” groups at the beginning of the period before we proceeded any further.   Once everyone was settled in, though, we jumped into the day’s agenda:  I reminded them how to get back to the LibGuide (and they also had a set of notes/graphic organizer I had provided the day earlier to help them as well) and did a brief introduction to search mapping.    I did not take as much time as I normally would because:

1.  We had already lost about 10 minutes of class.
2.  I originally thought this might be an optional activity,  but after observing their initial seach efforts on Tuesday, I realized they needed this form of scaffolding to help them navigate the databases with some deliberation and intention.

I told the students I would collect their maps and whatever progress they had made as their ticket out the door and provide feedback the next day.  They then set about searching the databases and beginning their search maps; the teacher and I walked about providing feedback and answering questions with individual students and small groups. This was also a great opportunity to just observe and see what students were doing and how they might be thinking. Toward the end of the class period, I asked students to flip their maps over and complete the simple and fast self-assessment below:


I collected their maps at the end of class; this morning, I read through their work as well as their self-assessment reflections for about 90 minutes taking time to provide brief written comments and making notes about points of confusion and questions.  By looking at this simple self-assessment, I was able to see patterns of misunderstanding or difficulty while noting specific questions to address/answer.   In particular, I could see that students were struggling with:

  1.  Slowing down the process and doing pre-search with more intention as they worked with the search mapping process (new for all students).  This “slowing down” process  also included reading beyond skimming and scanning.   I call this “doing the work”; I recommend this brief but terrific post by Pegasus Librarian on this challenge of reading and search; also see her brilliant post Information Literacy in a Utopian High School.
  2.  Working through informational text—-some were having difficulty pulling out the big ideas, so I pulled together some resources from Cris Tovani and Stephanie Harvey on text annotation (this is not new or unfamiliar territory!).  I also decided to create a template for a Venn diagram to help students visualize their big ideas since the teacher had suggested that to some students yesterday, and it seemed to help them make sense of the research task (another area that I soon realized later in the day was a clear area of misunderstanding for some)
  3. How to deal with dead-ends with search terms and understanding that one database would not be enough for this research task as well as additional strategies for search terms specific to databases.

By looking at the students’ work, I could provide some specific written feedback and help resources (either in print format that I attached to their maps and/or as resources I added to the LibGuide this morning).

When students arrived today, we returned their maps.  I then shared how I had looked at their work and the three big areas of concern/patterns of response; I also showed them resources added to the LibGuide (handouts, graphic organizers, how to videos, website links) to help them negotiate those challenges.

I also tried to allay their uncertainty and discomfort by talking about the fact that search is often just difficult and takes a great deal of reading, browsing, and persistence in trying different strategies.   We also talked about “digging in”, making sure our conversation with peers was constructive, and advocating for ourselves by asking questions and choosing a different seat if the current workspace was too distracting.  Last but not least, we celebrated the exemplary search maps from Day 1, and I showed them where they could download or print a copy of these model search maps (which of course are still in progress) on the LibGuide.

The class was then given the rest of the period to continue their presearch/search mapping , and they were encouraged to seek help from both me and the teacher.  She circulated about and answered content related questions for the research task while I set up an area where students could come and do 1:1 or small group conferencing with me, an activity that was very insightful for me as well as the students.    These mini-conference/conversations were very revealing and helped me see that some students just needed verbal reinforcement of what to do while others clearly didn’t understand the research task at all.  Other students needed a visual graphic organizer to unpack the research task (see this simple Venn diagram I was inspired to create for the students after hearing Ms. Sidell, their teacher, suggest it to a student yesterday).

Sidell Venn Diagram

It was also a great opportunity to ask students about what they had learned in their initial reading yesterday, and that opened up honest yet encouraging conversations with individual students about taking time to actually read the texts and the importance of reading in developing search vocabulary and ideas for interpretation and discussion in their papers.

These two methods of formative assessment in 24 hours reminded me to look to the work of Carol Kuhlthau to help me contextualize much of what I was seeing and  hearing from the students.    Her Information Search Process model underscores the affective aspect of information seeking behaviors and reminds us that we need to help students acknowledge, honor, and own the feelings of confusion, doubt, and frustration that can come with the messiness of Initiation and Exploration.  Teachers, students, and librarians can embrace the discomfort and leverage these teachable moments as opportunities to help students hone and grow their strategy toolkit that will ultimately help them develop persistence and resilience in the face of challenging information seeking tasks.  I highly recommend you read these three posts from my colleagues and fellow practitioners Heather Hersey, Marci Zane, Meg Donhauser, and Cathy Stutzman:

As many of you know, working through these rough patches is often a healthy mix of tough love and patient TLC with a generous helping of practical strategies for learners.  By engaging in formative assessment in various formats early in the inquiry process, I stay grounded and can better understand the stumbling blocks for the students.   It also helps me to unpack what might initially be seen as negative behavior such as resistance or even hostility when in reality, that behavior is camouflaging sincere student distress and fear, especially if they have little experience in negotiating challenging or difficult academic endeavors.  Consequently, I’m then better positioned to offer practical coaching and help rather than getting stuck in the weeds of frustration that can spring up as quickly for us as it does the students.    These formative assessments also give us evidence and guideposts for adjusting instruction, something that is particularly important when we are helping the classroom teacher think through the kinds of learning activities students need and how to appropriately pace them by being responsive to student needs.

How are you engaging in formative assessment?  Where does this intersect with Kuhlthau’s ISP for you, and how do you help students and teachers work through the messy and uncomfortable chaos that is in inherent in search and information seeking tasks?  How do you help frame the feelings of uncertainty and confusion in a constructive and positive light?

Write-Around + See-Think-Wonder + Gallery Walk-Big Group Share=Art Students’ Awesomeness


I’m continuing to collaborate with amazing art teacher Dorsey Sammataro in AP Studio Art and now with her extended period Introduction to Art class along with her fellow Fine Arts teacher Donna Jones.  Dorsey and I began this mini-collaboration last week with a brief conversation and meeting about the new unit on graffiti and public art that is culminating in the students participating in a Free Art Friday drop in October at Atlanta’s Beltline.  She then shared the unit planning guide (a Google Document) with me; we did a great deal of virtual collaboration at the end of the week and over the weekend using the commenting feature as well as the chat tool—it was wonderful to be able to brainstorm and have conversations about the content and plan the write-around using Google Docs.  I love the ease of sharing and collaborating in Google Docs plus the fact you can export the file with the comments in an easily readable format if you are like me and sometimes need a hard copy in front of you (see below).DSCN1892

To build prior knowledge, the students have watched some videos, read a few articles, (see this page in LibGuides for the background “texts“) and engaged in class discussion around these “texts” with Ms. Sammataro and Ms. Jones; I also did the readings and viewings over the weekend to be up to speed on the content.   I then attended the mini-lecture/conversation about the history of graffiti with both classes yesterday (they meet for a 90 minute block daily); this terrific presentation provided students to come up to the board and interact with the slides as well as opportunities to participate in class discussion.  Not only did I learn many new and interesting facts about graffiti, but I also live Tweeted the session with the hashtag #hoochart and then pulled them together into a Storify story (also embedded in the LibGuide).   Dorsey and I then finalized the write-around questions and discussion prompts; we also incorporated two great prompts suggested by my Norcross High colleague Dan Byrne, who once taught Art History courses!  The prompts included:

Today both classes arrived at the beginning of 4th period; our library assistants helped me set up the tables, butcher paper with prompts, and Sharpies needed for the activity.  Once students were seated, I then reviewed the protocols for our write-around:

As always, we encouraged followed these basic protocols:

  • Move about organically during the first pass at each table and prompt
  • Write quietly and channel their conversation energy onto the paper
  • Respond with text, graphics, sketches, and hashtags
  • Use the second and third passes around each table to respond to their peers
  • Visit each table as long as needed; we did not specify a required time or order to move about
  • Students could choose to initial their work or not
  • For this particular activity, we encouraged students to use their sketchbooks if needed (many had taken notes in these)

Students composed for roughly 30 minutes; the trajectory of the conversation was consistent with what I’ve seen for nearly two years now in doing the written conversations with a build-up of energy.  I was very impressed by how quickly these students, mostly 9th graders, jumped into the activity.  Several visitors, including one of our assistant principals, our visiting instructional technology coach, and a parent volunteer were impressed that every student was participating and engaged.

Vine Video:  Writing Around in Action




We then asked students to self-organized into small groups of 4, and I reviewed the See-Think-Wonder structure for the groups to process their thinking and responses to the ideas and thinking of the write-around as well as the content of the last few days.  For roughly 15 minutes, groups used large post-it notes to record their small group collaboration:

Vine Video: See-Think-Wonder in action:



Dorsey then added a really fabulous twist to our large group share since we had over 40 students participating and about 10 small groups.  Students hung their post-it note responses on the wall, and we then groups could either volunteer to come up to the gallery and present their ideas or we nudged groups to volunteer.  Some groups had a spokesperson come up to the gallery and be the spokesperson; other groups came up together as a team and shared.  Students were very supportive of each other during these mini-presentations and shared some incredibly thoughtful observations, insights/understandings, and wonderings/questions:

Vine Video:  Gallery Walk Share in Action

FSCN1858 FSCN1850 FSCN1865

DSCN1888 DSCN1860

You can see the depth  of their thinking in the slideshow below with the photos of their work.  They now are moving onto developing their ideas for an original piece of art they will create for the Free Art Friday field trip drop in a few weeks in October.  I’ll be participating in this great day of authentic learning and fun, so look for a future post live from “in the wild” as we move forward with the unit!

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NHS Students Reflect on Learning Spaces and Design, Libraries, and Academic Capital

Today three of our TOK students stopped by to chat with me about their reflections on last week’s discussion activity anchored by written conversations around our dry erase/markerboard surface tables.  In this thirteen and half minute video interview, they share their thoughts on the ways the markerboard surfaces elevated and created a  more participatory medium for learning that they felt would probably  have not happened in a traditional classroom or library setting.  In the first third of the interview,  they discuss the ways the dry erase/markerboard tables helped them to focus their thoughts so that they could then develop deeper oral discussions with the group; embedded in their reflections is the notion of writing as a process that helps stimulate their cognition.  They also touch on the ways that the dry erase surfaces helped them to build conversations and thinking that were organic, sustained, and more nuanced.   I’m fascinated to further explore the ways these kinds of surfaces might help students grow their ability to contribute to their learning community through discussion, an important form of academic capital.   They also share their insights on library and learning space design, low tech vs. high tech learning experiences, and the importance of choices/”structured openness” in learning experiences.    I hope you will take time to listen to their thoughtful and insightful ideas!  Many thanks to these three students for so generously sharing their thinking with us and giving us permission to share it with all of you.

IB Teacher Dan Byrne Discusses Growing a Culture to Support Academic Literacies

In yesterday’s post, I wrote about our most recent collaboration with Dan Byrne and James Glenn and on a larger scale, the possibilities for libraries as  places and catalysts for growing academic literacies.  Dan was gracious enough to stop by for a few minutes this morning to share some quick but poignant reflections on growing a culture of learning with students that supports academic literacies.

Markerboard Surfaces, Collaborative Conversations, Academic Literacies, and Libraries

Yesterday I blogged about the use of our new markerboard surface tables as a way for students to collaborate and capture their group thinking.   I’d like to briefly share another use of these dry erase surfaces in our library learning studio from last week with our Theory of Knowledge (TOK) students.   This was an activity that came together very quickly Thursday morning and while not tied to a formal research project, threads of inquiry were essential to the learning experience.  The group came to the studio to watch a short clip of a PBS video related to their content/unit of study.  Dr. Glenn and Mr. Byrne developed discussion questions around this segment and composed them on our dry erase surfaces.


After watching a short segment of the video, students had approximately 10-12 minutes to visit each table; students were encouraged to discuss their thoughts and reflections with their peers and then jot down their responses.    We also observed students continuing the conversations around the written responses as they engaged in some truly meaningful and deep dialogue with each other.

tok2 tok3 tok4


Students were able to jump into the activity quickly and confidently and participate in richer, more nuanced conversations (both written and oral) because Dr. Glenn and Mr. Byrne consistently integrate learning/thinking structures as a regular part of classroom life.  As I watched these students immerse themselves into the learning activity with depth and intensity, I could not help but think of the huge participation gap that Jennifer and I have observed the last two years.  We have seen a wide range of academic and social skill sets across multiple content area classes, course levels, and grades; I feel I have struggled to articulate what I’m observing and to contextualize it although the recent readings are helping me to take first steps in doing so.   The academic discourse and social behaviors of the TOK students were reflective of the academic literacy framework I referenced in yesterday’s post; in particular, these students were demonstrating:

1.  Disciplinary literacy: “…the join understanding of discipline-specific literacy features through which knowledge is created and practices are shared” (Kiili, Mäkinen, and Coiro 225).

2  Argumentative literacies:  “As students work to establish themselves as contributing members of a domain-specific discourse community, argumentative literacy practices enable them to consider alternative perspectives, broaden and deepen their knowledge, and make judgement to inform their decision making.  As a result, students are able to identify, evaluated, and produce arguments within a wide range of individual and social literacy events…students are able to effectively composed, evaluate, and learn from arguments by adopting the social practices of the target discipline” (Kiili, Mäkinen, and Coiro 225).

3.  Collaborative literacies:  “…those literacy practices in which two or more person engaged in reading and/or writing together are equally responsible for negotiating meaning through talk.  The goal of collaborative literacy practices is to produce a joint interpretation of a text” (Kiili, Mäkinen, and Coiro 225).  In this case, our texts were previous knowledge and the PBS video segment.

Like many other activities we’ve helped design and/or facilitate this academic year, common threads are woven into learning activities:

  • Writing as a medium for thinking and sharing
  • Collaborative conversations
  • Individual work, small group discussion, and large group share

We then moved to a large group discussion facilitated by Dr. Glenn; students from each table had the opportunity to share their thoughts about the question posed at their table.




Because we ran out of time, the activity was continued into the next day.  Many students captured the ideas on each table with their cell phones as they prepared to leave for lunch.

Reflections:  The Library as Learning Studio and Site of Literacy Practices

While not a formal research type of activity or project, we love working with teachers and students to provide them space and assistance for these kinds of learning opportunities.   So often we call the library the “biggest classroom” in a school, yet learning experiences are often limited to formal research projects and/or storytime.  In many schools, it’s a challenge for teachers and administrators to see the library as an additional learning space that can accommodate many kinds of experiences because the quiet, book-centric model and/or prior experiences dominate their perceptions.  In other school libraries, limited budgets and restrictive physical space hinder the efforts of librarians to sell the library as a studio and alternate kind of classroom.  When our spaces are designed with flexible areas that can be repurposed quickly, mobile furniture, and technologies for multiple modes of learning (low tech and high tech), the library can support a more diverse range of learning experiences and be better positioned to support the growth of academic literacies for all students throughout the school year, not just when it is time for formal or informal research projects.  These learning space design drivers  expand the possibilities of libraries as sites of practice for multiple literacies and can potentially position the library as a “commonplace for interpretation” in exploring, expanding, and theorizing the literacy practices within its learning community (Sumara), hence shifting and expanding the role of the librarian as a sponsor of literacy (Brandt).


Brandt, Deborah. Literacy in American Lives. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. Print.

Kiili, Carita, Marita Mäkinen, and Julie Coiro. “Rethinking Academic Literacies.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 57.3 (2013): 223-32. Professional Development Collection [EBSCO]. Web. 25 Apr. 2015.

Sumara, Dennis J. Why Reading Literature in School Still Matters: Imagination, Interpretation, Insight. Mahwah, NJ: L. Erlbaum, 2002. Print.
Note:  If you are interested in the “Rethinking Academic Literacies” article, you may also enjoy teacher Gary Johnston’s series of blog posts on this article.