War Eagle Writers in the Research Sandbox, Part 1: Selecting and Narrowing a Topic, Presearch, Evaluating Information, and Generating Research Questions

 Please note that some handouts may not appear in their original format if you do not have certain fonts installed.  If you would like to know the fonts for a particular document, please contact me. Thank you!

The research based writing unit for my 7th and 8th writing classes was one I would have preferred to have introduced earlier in the school year; however, I felt obligated to sequence and emphasize our units of study of informational and argumentative writing  in January, February, and March since they are a major part of the writing assessment on the state Milestones End of Grades test for all of my student students in grades 6, 7, and 8.

In this first post of two, I’ll outline how I introduced these skills to students:

  • Brainstorming a topic.
  • Narrowing topic choices by learning more about it through presearch.
  • Generating different kinds of questions (10) for the same topic.
  • Narrowing and selecting your top three choices for your research questions from your list of 10 (top 2 choices with the 3rd as your alternate).
  • Understanding and using the CRAAP test to evaluate the quality and relevance of any information source.
  • Using scholarly sources from GALILEO like SIRS Discoverer and Britannica as well as NewsELA.
  • Tips for searching and using Google.

Though I knew we would not start the research unit of study until after our district spring break, we did not truly begin our research unit in earnest until after we finished the state Milestones testing.  Because of the way the tests had to be scheduled and because my classes are in the school’s “Connections” rotation as an academic elective, I did not see each class daily until testing ended; consequently, this scheduling pushed back our true start date.

Getting Started:  Brainstorming, Refining, and Selecting a Topic

However, I used this time during testing to give students a starting point with opportunities to think about research and  brainstorm possible topics of interest.  We did a Writer’s Notebook entry about prior research experiences to help me have a better idea of what they already knew and might want to know about research skills.

We also used this modified schedule time to brainstorm possible research topics of interest.  I kept things simple for both 7th and 8th graders by providing them this easy “Top 10” possible topics.   Some students had no problems generating ten topics while others struggled to come up even 2-3 ideas.  I encouraged students to discuss topic ideas, and I tried to conference 1:1 with students who were having difficulty to give them some questions to prompt or nudge their thinking.

Next, I asked students to select their topic 3 topic choices and to complete the following handout:

Here is a sample of student work (used with appropriate permissions):

The CRAAP Test and Presearch

Before introducing the presearch phase of our project, we spent about four days learning about the CRAAP test. After introducing the CRAAP test with a video and the checklist, we spent about three days doing small group, paired, and individual practice using the CRAAP test.  Students had opportunities to evaluate different resources and then share why they evaluated the assigned resource as they did.  I used our district Canvas platform to push out resources for evaluation to students:

Our culminating activity was the CRAAP Test Rumble, something I’ve done as a librarian in the past, but this year, I mixed it up and incorporated the “musical chairs” activity into it.  I set up 20 resources on a single research topic and question that I reviewed with the students along with the procedures for the activity.  I played music and once the music stopped, students had to stop at the nearest seat and evaluate the source.  With the four classes, I was able to do about three rounds of evaluation though one class was able to do four.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Though I had worked incredibly hard to plan the activity in this format, I didn’t feel the students were as enthusiastic about it as my high school students were.  I don’t know if this activity is better suited to older teens, or if perhaps this group just wasn’t as confident since they had less experience with their research skills.  I do think that some students were a bit weary from the all testing of the previous week and a half, and I am sure this impacted the energy levels for some of my writers.

Introduction to Scholarly Sources and Search Tips for Google/The Open Web

Once we had selected our topic three topic choices, we were ready to begin presearch to learn more about the topics and decide which one would bubble up to the top for each student.  However, in order to do presearch, students needed some mini-lessons on scholarly sources and search tips for Google.  I realized very quickly that most of the students had little to no experience using either type of source or the search tips.

The other complicating issue was that our district did not have access to any scholarly resources outside of GALILEO, our state virtual library.  While GALILEO is a wonderful resource, it is heavily dominated by EBSCO databases, most of which are far above the reading level of my students; in addition, the search interface and filters are challenging for students, especially middle schoolers, to use.  I would have loved to have had access to some other databases besides EBSCO as I’ve had in other districts, but we did the best we could.

I used the research guide I created to show students how to navigate and use the different kinds of information sources; I broke these mini-lessons up over three days so that students had a chance to practice using the resources and ask questions.

Presearch Work:  Applying Our Search Skills and Evaluating Information Using the CRAAP Test

Once students were introduced to these sources, we captured our applied work with the presearch notetaking template:

Students had two choices for presearch and the presearch notetaking template:

  1.  They could focus on their top topic if they felt pretty strongly about that top choice after doing the first round of topic narrowing (shown earlier in this post).
  2. Students could take notes on all three topics or their top two choices if they needed to learn more about the topic and eliminate one of the choices with certainty.  I think it was important to offer this option because many students opted for this choice and felt better about their final topic choice after having room to explore and learn more details about two or all three of their top three topic choices.

Some students breezed through this work, and other struggled to complete even one.  I was intrigued that overall my 7th grade writers seemed to thrive more with the presearch work than the 8th grade writers.

Most students found Britannica and SIRS Discoverer to be the most helpful resources through GALILEO though some did find articles of interest (and that they could read) with my assistance from the EBSCO databases in GALILEO.  Most students actually did a great job of finding a good blend of scholarly resources as well as quality resources through Google; for some topics (like those related to travel), the open web was a better place to scour and vet quality resources.  Because my classes were fairly small (16-18), I was able to give each student personalized support and assistance during our presearch phase.

Using Our Presearch to Think Broadly and Deeply About Possible Research Questions for Our Final Topic

The primary purpose of presearch was to give students time and space to explore their topic(s) and to learn more to make an informed choice for the final topic.  However, I also wanted the presearch work to be a springboard to help students with our final and critical step of brainstorming questions about the selected topic.  I used an activity I modified from my friend Heather Hersey, who modified her version of the activity from Joyce Valenza.  I’ve used the “question lenses” activity in the past (see this version and this version).  However, I did some more significant modifications to the template and modeled my own research questions generated around a hypothetical research topic I had used as a model throughout our unit up to this point with the students.  Here is the handout and template I used as a model and as part of our mini-lesson:

Students needed about two days of class time (40 minutes per class session) to complete their own version of questions; I asked them to generate at least two questions in each category.  This activity definitely pushed their thinking and some even did some additional presearch as they worked on the activity to help them with the process.  This activity by far was the most challenging part of our research unit up to this point.  The goal was to get a total of 10 questions with 2 in each of the 5 question categories though they could do more.  Here is a sample of student work (used with appropriate permissions):

Once students completed their question chart and I had reviewed it with them individually, each student then selected his or her top three questions.  I told students they only had to write about two but to select three in case they decided they might need to abandon one of the research questions as we moved forward with additional research the following week.  Here is where students recorded and captured their top choices as well as thoughts on the kinds of writing they would do with their questions and sources they might need to use for additional research:

Once I had approved a student’s investigation plan, he or she was ready to move on to additional research and then writing the paper.  It was essential students had three solid questions in the plan (which came from the 10 questions they generated) so that they had a new focal point for additional and more strategic research about their topics.

Reflections On These Parts of Our Research Unit of Study

In hindsight, I wish that I could have introduced the unit earlier in the year when there was more time, but I also knew students needed some intensive work with informational and argumentative writing skills without having the additional layers of research skills on top of the writing instruction that they needed.   Though I wish the timing and pacing of these pieces of the unit could have been a little different, I am glad students were able to experience these parts of research and investigation because it was clear very few in grades 7 or 8 had these kinds of learning experiences where the topic selection, presearch, and generation of research questions were emphasized and heavily frontloaded.

In the future, I would like to find  ways to connect my students with real world professionals who use these research skills as part of their daily work in their careers to help students see these research skill processes in action “in the wild”.  I think information literacy in the “real world” is something that gets very little attention from teachers or librarians.  Looking ahead to next year, I would like to find ways to connect research skills to genuine and authentic workplace experiences for my students.

Many students had limited or no experience with the scholarly resources in GALILEO, so I am glad students had this time to explore and use GALILEO resources because they’ll be expected to use them in high school and college; many shared they liked the resources they used within GALILEO plus they enjoyed learning search tips for Google. Though they didn’t seem too energized by the CRAAP Test Rumble, they clearly were using the CRAAP Test during presearch and that tool showed up in their thinking and source selection as we moved further into more focused research later in the unit.

I also realized how intense these weeks were because I have virtually no photos of students working after we did the CRAAP Test Rumble because I was so busy conferencing non-stop on a daily basis with so many students as they engaged in presearch, generated questions with the question lens activity, and then finalized a working investigation plan for their research paper.   I feel a great sense of regret and sadness now that I realize I have virtually no photos of the students working in this unit.

In closing, these experiences challenged students to think critically about different aspects of research and information.  Nearly every student, including those who may have come up a little short with their deadlines or quality/quantity of work, showed some measure of growth in these skills, and that was the ultimate goal.

Coming Up:  Part 2

In my next post, I’ll write about how I introduced EasyBib into our research work for crafting our bibliographies and taking digital notes.  I’ll also share with you how I personalized the writing instruction for the paper to be available “upon demand” as students completed different research and learning tasks.

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.