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.

Mindmapping Our Presearch Notes: Seeing Patterns and Gaps

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For the last month or so, I’ve been working with a section of Honors 9th Language Arts (hopefully, another more comprehensive post coming on this endeavor later in the spring).   After completing a class study of To Kill a Mockingbird, the students selected a motif of choice and began presearching a topic of choice related to the motif.   After completing a presearch search term map and arriving at a narrowed topic (which I’ve blogged about earlier this semester), we moved forward with another and more focused round of presearch while using EasyBib to capture information sources and take notes.   After approximately two and a half weeks, most students had a body of notes on their focused topic.  However, after many 1:1 student conferences and a formative assessment of collecting and reading their notes, the teacher and I realized many students were struggling with:

1.  Recording relevant information from their information sources.

2.  Taking notes in “bite-sized” portions.

3.  Being discerning about information that would help them go beyond merely reporting and instead, help them dig into the higher level thinking and questions that we wanted to anchor their inquiry.

After addressing some of these challenges with a mini-lesson and small group or individual conferences, we felt the students needed a more concrete way of discovering the patterns of information as well as the gaps in their notes. We asked students to print out their e-notes from EasyBib and gave them supplies (Sharpies, markers, large/oversized  sticky notes) to help them map out the information they had collected up to that point in their notes.  We discussed some strategies for identifying major topics and subtopics as well a sample mindmap of notes. Students were assigned a working area with a partner so that they had a “research buddy” to help them think through their process as needed and worked on their maps about a day and a half.

We wanted the class to have an opportunity to look at their peers’ maps and provide feedback; we knew our students would need a little scaffolding to provide meaningful peer feedback, so we took a few minutes to review their peer review activity guidelines with them.  We spread out the maps and placed pads of lined sticky notes at each table of notes mindmaps.  We asked students to write their feedback on these sticky notes and to include their name, their feedback, and the feedback category number (see the handout embedded below).  We discussed ideas for meaningful feedback (including a list of idea/conversation starters) that were numbered so that they could include the “feedback category” ID number on the sticky note as an extra layer of clarification.

As students walked around giving feedback, we also instructed them to keep a running record of the maps they were reviewing and quick notes about what they were seeing (see page 2 of the document embedded above).

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We initially thought the students could complete the activity in 12-15 minutes, but in spite of our best efforts to be proactive, we had about a quarter of the class that had difficulty staying on task, participating, or making a legitimate effort to provide meaningful feedback.  Because our studio space had been reserved for another activity the following day, we had to adjust our plans to complete the activity in the teacher’s classroom, a space that really was not conducive to the activity or an ideal learning environment for this kind of activity.  However, we had no choice, so we had to adjust as best we could.   I hung some of the maps on whatever wall space I could find; for the rest of the maps, I had students place desks together in pairs and utilized that surface space for the remaining maps.  We thought they could complete feedback within another ten minutes, but some of the very same behavior issues that plagued us the day before were again problematic even after we enlisted the assistance of an assistant principal to conference with some of the students outside of class as part of our efforts to address the previous day’s issues.  However, we stayed the course and tried to redirect students as needed so that we could get as much helpful peer review for everyone as possible.

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Once we brought the peer review to a close, students paired up once again with their research buddy and used the Making Thinking Visible learning structure of Compass Points to help students reflect on the mindmapping process and peer review activity.  Each pair received a graphic organizer to complete their ideas they were to share and discuss.

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After having 5-7 minutes to discuss and record their observations and ideas, we asked each pair to do a quick share of their notes with the large group.   Students noted effective map organization strategies as well as what constituted “good” or quality information from the notes in the maps.  However, many students noticed that quite a few maps lacked depth of information; others noted that better organization was needed in structuring topics and subtopics. In spite of some of the challenges we encountered, we felt most students truly benefitted from the mapping activity itself as well as the peer review.

When we returned from spring break, we returned maps to the students along with the sticky note feedback others gave from the peer review activity.  We then asked students to think about what they had in their notes and maps that was helpful and what was missing.  Students then had the class period to complete two thinking/reflection exercises:

1.  The question lenses activity that I borrowed last semester from my friend Heather Hersey (and blogged about; also see Sarah Ludwig’s awesome adaptation of this thinking exercise–I would have totally done her version if we had more time in our schedule for this project).  We framed this thinking exercise as a way of addressing gaps or “struggle areas” of their mindmaps and as a means of thinking about next steps for our new round of additional research for the week.

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2.  They then had time to complete  mindmapping reflection questions via a Google Survey embedded in the project LibGuide.

We collected the hard copies of the question lens activity; I downloaded the responses from the Google Sheet as an Excel spreadsheet and then ran a mail merge so that the teacher and I both had easy to read hard copies of the student responses.    Common feedback ran along the lines of these statements:

  • The mindmapping process helped me better organize my ideas.
  • The mindmapping process helped me realize I didn’t have enough information about my topic.
  • The mindmapping process gave me new perspectives I had never considered.
  • The peer feedback helped me rethink one of my subections and a new direction for research.
  • Organizing my topics and subtopics was harder than I realized.
  • The mindmap challenged me to make sense of my notes (more intentional thought as opposed to just randomly taking notes).
  • I realized some of the information I had taken notes on really did not fit with my narrowed topic focus.
  • Mindmapping helped me visualize how my pieces of information fit and relate to each other.
  • Writing in short phrases or brief key ideas was challenging for me; I wanted to copy my notes as they were in complete sentences.
  • Mindmapping was challenging because categorizing my ideas and information into subtopics was difficult.
  • The mindmapping process helped me to see I need to slightly change my topic focus from A to B.
  • I realized the notes I have are lacking in meaningful detail.
  • The mindmapping process has allowed me to see/find a deeper personal connection to my overall topic.
  • The mindmapping process has helped me to see I need to go deeper with my information and further develop the topic.
  • The mindmapping processes helped me better see the strengths and weaknesses of my research and better refine my subtopics.
  • The peer feedback helped me to see I need to regroup my ideas on my map.
  • The question lenses activity helped me to look at my project from a different point of view and to rethink what information I should now focus on gathering.

I’m happy the mindmapping activity and peer review provided students the opportunity to wrestle with their notes and the information they had gathered during our first round of presearch.  My hope was that the process would nudge their thinking because it was clear within the first few days of working with the students that they were used to reporting information as opposed to researching, a distinction my colleagues who blog at Letting Go have made in previous posts.  I know that for some students, the uncertainty and our pushing them to think more deeply beyond shallow, surface level work has been uncomfortable, but we have tried to give them as much support as we can to help them develop new strategies and resilience in this inquiry focused project.  I think it is especially important with freshmen to provide and scaffold these kinds of learning experiences, particularly if they have had few or no opportunities to develop these kinds of information literacy skills and processes.

Their teacher and I are proud nearly every student has either had the confidence and persistence to move forward this past week wherever they have been on the spectrum of the quality and depth of their work.  Several have regrouped and have been digging in to act on the next steps they identified from their insights and reflections on their work.   It takes grit on the part of students, teachers, and librarians to grapple with these kinds of challenges, but it is so gratifying to see the individual growth and forward momentum for each student.  They are now starting to sketch out their multigenre products, and we’ll be moving forward with creating those artifacts and the supporting notes narratives/compositions.