information literacy

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.

dorsey-art-1 dorsey-art-2

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.

Funky Focus Dorsey Art Review

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:
areas of challenge

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.

When Less Is More: Discovering Student Points of Need with Small Group Conversation

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As any classroom teacher knows, time is a valuable commodity.   It’s always a struggle to squeeze every last drop of the instructional time we have with students and still provide meaningful learning experiences.  One of our English teachers, Kim Cooney, recognized she needed a way to negotiate two major class activities with her 10th grade students:

  1.  She needed to have small seminar discussions with students.
  2.  She needed for students to have some instruction on EasyBib and research databases for a project in which students are investigating issues related to social media.

Ms. Cooney asked me if I would be comfortable working with half of her class in the media center while she did seminar with the other half in her classroom.  I immediately said yes, and we scheduled two days with her 1st, 2nd, and 4th periods to “flip” between us.    I was super excited about being able to work with a smaller group of students as it feels more personal, and I think students get more from that setting than they sometimes do with an especially large class.

A series of events over the last 24 hours helped me craft a better approach to our mini-lessons today.  I realized after school yesterday we didn’t have enough computers available (our lab was already booked) for all sections to do some hands-on work after the mini-lesson.  I then arrived at work to this morning and learned Ms. Cooney was very sick and that a substitute teacher had not been found.   Our fantastic department head, David White, and I discussed options and we agreed to move forward with the small group plans as scheduled.  He and fellow English teachers stepped in to facilitate the seminar “speed dating” discussion style while the other class half came here for their instruction.

After wondering what to do in lieu of no computers, I decided on the fly that kicking off the mini-lessons with a conversation was the best course of action.    I quickly drafted a graphic organizer for students—-this served the purpose of them jotting down answers to these two questions as well as taking brief notes:

  1.  What topic(s) are you thinking about? ( I made it clear it was OK if they had not picked one or had time to think about it just yet)
  2.   What gives you the most difficulty when doing a research assignment?

We met in our small group area I organized this morning and students had a few minutes to jot down their responses.  We then did a whole-group conversation with each student sharing his/her responses to those two questions.  Not only did this give me a chance to get to know the students a little, but I think it also give an element of humanity to the experience, especially since I had not seen most of these students until today.

Here are some of the challenges students identified; I have boldfaced the ones that bubbled up most frequently.

  • Getting started or knowing how/where to start
  • Staying on task/dealing with distractions
  • Procrastination
  • Finding valid and credible sources and knowing that they are such
  • Finding relevant resources (to the research topic)
  • Search terms
  • Managing citations (EasyBib to the rescue!)
  • Knowing which sources to use (MackinVIA groups FTW along with LibGuides)
  • Knowing how to use the databases
  • Keeping up with notes/organizing notes
  • Pacing self through the project

We took time to talk about each student’s challenges as I wanted to be sure to validate and honor each area of concern.   This discussion was a perfect springboard to our research guide and how the resources there and the mini-lessons from today would help mitigate and address many of those concerns.  We also talked about how their responses would help me shape future conversations with teachers about research assignment design, especially with pieces like more formative assessments to help keep everyone on track and take the “pulse” of student progress (and not in a punitive way) as well as more time in-class to do hands-on work.  We also talked about possibilities for more collaboration as part of research projects and perhaps birds of feather groups to meet periodically to share successes and challenges (this was super helpful for my Media 21 students a few years ago).

The feedback also helped me collect informal data that might help me sway teachers to build in more time for topic selection with activities like reading frenzies or Think/Extend/Challenge.  These activities encourage inquiry and give students some concrete starting points to get ideas for topics or to introduce topic ideas that might not be on their radar.

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In hindsight, this activity seems like it should have been an obvious starting point; I honestly feel a bit sheepish I didn’t initially plan to do this as part of the instructional time today,  but I’m glad it came to me on the fly this morning.    Sometimes we get so busy that we forget the ultimate starting point is the student point of need, especially if we as librarians get caught up in trying to work within a very limited amount of scheduled time with students.   I am excited to listen to what the kids have to say when I see the next round of small groups tomorrow as we “flip” students and engage in “research chats”!