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


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.


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”!

Reflections on Santa Fe—Teaching for Engagement, Inquiry, and Understanding: Reaching Beyond the Standards

workshop notebook

Earlier this month, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a multi-day institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico:  Teaching for Engagement, Inquiry, and Understanding: Reaching Beyond the Standards .  Led and facilitated by Harvey “Smokey” Daniels (whose work I’ve used and referenced frequently on this blog over the last two years), Nancy Steineke, Christopher Lehman, Kristin Ziemke, and Sara Ahmed, this workshop provided participants the opportunity to explore strategies for creating a culture of curiosity and inquiry-driven learning.  The workshop, which took place against the gorgeous backdrop of Santa Fe, New Mexico, was organized with multiple learning structures.  In a nutshell, here is what we were promised in the workshop flyer:

This institute is a mix of keynote sessions, breakout workshops, and “homerooms.” Our watchword is curiosity, and we’ll work to turn our own curricula into questions that kids cannot resist answering. You’ll spend part of each day in groups that match your area of expertise: high school, middle, intermediate, primary, or leadership. You’ll also join a team of colleagues in a tech-enabled, multidisciplinary inquiry project, drawing on the extraordinary sights, sounds, people, and history of the Santa Fe area itself. As curious adults, we will experience everything we want our students to do, firsthand; then, we will make the practical adaptations to our back-home realities.

The workshop indeed delivered exactly what was promised and more.  After a social gathering and mixer Friday afternoon/evening, here is a breakdown of the schedule we followed:

Saturday, 1/16 (Day 1)

The day began with a delicious breakfast and an opportunity to meet other educators participating in the workshop as well as our presenters/facilitators/co-learners.   It’s hard to say how many people were there, but I would guess 125-150?  We had educators from all over the United States; some came solo like me, and others came in teams from individual schools or districts.  Participants included classroom teachers K-12, literacy coaches, and administrators.  We then jumped in with a marvelous keynote from Smokey Daniels, “Curiosity, Inquiry, and Santa Fe.”   This opening session provided us a framework of how we would go about our learning experiences and put curiosity and inquiry at the heart of our work.  We also explored the role of curiosity in learning and how that drives an inquiry culture in classrooms and schools.  We also discussed the obstacles or forces that crush curiosity in our schools (yes, TESTING).



We then took a short break and had grade level or “Job Alike” meetings for close to two hours.  We then were provided lunch and an additional hour to walk about Santa Fe to begin noticing what we saw and thinking about questions.  Fortunately, I arrived late Thursday afternoon, so I had already been exploring the downtown area and had some working ideas of questions and wonderings.  We resumed our grade level or “Job Alike” meetings at 2:00 and met another hour and half.

I was part of the high school group with Nancy; in these sessions, we focused on ways to support more effective group-work.  The morning “job alike” session kicked off with a focus on the question, “How do we get group members to work together vs. individuals working together at tables?”  Nancy referenced a study that showed students spend close to 60% of their time sitting in cooperative groups, yet 80% of their time is engaged in individual tasks.  We explored structured icebreaker activities for building trust in groups as well as identity webs.  Other topics/activities/strategies:

  • Defining social skills with T-charts
  • Informational Text/Article Tasting (we quickly sampled a variety of articles and ranked our area of interest on a scale of 1-5)
  • Text annotation strategies
  • Modeling strategies for working with informational text (as in Think Alouds) for students

The article tasting activity was our springboard to brainstorming topics we were interested in during our afternoon session.  As we sat at round tables in small groups, we brainstormed additional topics or subtopics of some of the bigger areas for inquiry (Georgia O’Keefe, Los Alamos, Trickster tales, myths of Santa Fe culture, Japanese interment camps, and the Pueblo Revolt).   Nancy served as the scribe as she jotted down the new suggestions we had developed in our small groups.  We then did roughly two rounds of voting to eliminate topics and to see which ones had generated the most interest.  Once we had narrowed this list to four or five topics, we formed interest groups in different corners of the room.  Within these groups, we then further hashed out and refined our points of interest within our groups that would be our starting point for our group inquiry work on Day 2.  I have to say this method of forming “birds of feather” interest groups was both fun and super effective; I would love to try this with a class that is doing group projects.

The afternoon ended with a menu of choice sessions that were held from 3:45 until 5:00 PM that afternoon.    These choice sessions included:

  • Kristin Ziemke:  Amplify Literacies for a Digital Culture
  • Sara Ahmed:  Building Compassion in Your Classroom from the Inside Out
  • George Wood:  “Leaders, Deserters, and the Change Process”
  • Smokey Daniels:  Supporting Comprehension and Inquiry with Images
  • Nancy Steineke:  Content Area Writing:  Using Short Mentor “Texts” for Inspiration and Revision
  • Christopher Lehman:  When Nonfiction Reading Attacks or How to Help Your Students Survive Notetaking.

It was really hard to choose a session; I think in designing this institute for the future, it might be better to shorten the job alike sessions (maybe by 30 minutes each?) and build in time for a second choice session.  I attended Christopher Lehman’s session on notetaking since that seems to be a challenge at all grade levels.   Some takeaways and ideas:

  • Notetaking can’t be a thing with a capital N.  Keep the focus on the process and don’t get fixated on locking kids into a certain way of taking notes.
  • What are notes?  Examples: Not just information or recording facts, but what you thinking, dreaming, wondering (example:  DaVinci’s notebook);Brainstorming and reflection (Newton); Sketch Notes; not just facts but a person’s ideas
  • Give them a choice in strategies for taking notes; Lehman prefers that students not use graphic organizers.
  • We spent a good bit of time on the “Read, Cover and Sketch, and Reread” method (click here for slides from a similar presentation on this topic he did last year)

ways to take notes

Other strategies/methods: bullet points: main facts with sub points below; T-Charts: helps to compare; Post-It notes—multiple/move them around to group; write paragraphs—summary, background knowledge, cause and effect;webbing/mapping;Venn Diagram; highlighting; index cards.

In the discussion that happened in this session, I discovered/observed some points of interest that bubbled up toward the end of the session:

  • Some of the teachers in the session don’t have a school librarian to help them with research or inquiry projects.
  • Some teachers don’t consult their school librarian when doing a research project.   I personally find managing all the pieces of research and inquiry very intense, so it’s hard for me to understand why someone would go it alone though there might be valid reasons such as scheduling issues (fixed schedules can be problematic in elementary and middle schools),  lack of resources, or perhaps having a librarian who is not strong in teaching research skills (yes, it happens, sadly).
  • Many teachers don’t know that there are tools their librarians and schools can purchase for them to make citation easier, like EasyBib.  This observation worries me because students may be forced to do citations in a laborious and/or erroneous manner that is not preparing kids for the kinds of research tasks (and tools) they may encounter in high school or college settings.

I have not had a chance to read Lehman’s book on teaching research though I do agree with some of his talking points from his book outlined in this post on his blog.   This session left me thinking about how people perceive and define research vs. reporting vs. inquiry–how are they different, what are some commonalities, and how do as a school develop a common vocabulary when we talk about these concepts.   I think a choice session on these points in future institutes would be beneficial and perhaps looking at some of the inquiry models from the world of information literacy (Stripling, Kuhlthau) to contextualize those discussions would be useful for participants.

I would also like more discussion on the discursive nature of research and inquiry (too many teachers and librarians think it is linear and a single “process”) and going deep and slowly instead of making research and inquiry a “drive-by” exercise where things happen way too fast and processes are skipped.  This approach is not only difficult for students, but it is also difficult for school librarians when we are asked to teach five or six major concepts/skills/processes in 20-50 minutes!  These are not new issues by any means, but in talking with fellow school librarians, it seems more of us getting requests to teach “the research” process in a single class period, which is completely irrational and impossible.  Maybe these topics on my wish list come under a bigger topic umbrella of “Challenges of Designing and Implementing Sustainable Inquiry Driven Projects”?

You can see all the Tweets and social media curated by Heinemann PD from Day 1 here on Storify.

Sunday, 1/17 (Day 2)

This was a super intense day!  Breakfast began at 7:30 and at 8:30, Nancy led us through her keynote that gave us strategies for “Going Live with Inquiry” or ways students can report out their findings.   We looked at different methods of “live” or performance sharing to “liven up” standards for speaking and listening, reading literature, reading informational text, and writing.  Some of the strategies we learned about and actually got to test out/practice/model/sample in this session:

  • Tableaux
  • Skit with Narration (lots of room to interpret on this one)
  • Song Parodies
  • Talk Show

For our group inquiry project that we were going to finish refining, planning, executing, and sharing, the end point was developing a 2 minute presentation (low-tech using these methods or some combo) for the performance dinner later that evening!    We had tremendous fun in this session, and I feel I left with some really powerful ideas to share with teachers and kids.  This was one of my favorite sessions of the entire weekend.  They presentation methods sound simple but as we saw later that night, these can pack a powerful punch when it comes to demonstrating what you’ve learned through inquiry.  I also loved the low-tech nature of these different performance modes.  Here is a sample of us practicing a song parody:

Nancy stressed that performance projects always start as formative assessments; here are key things to remember (I have lifted this from our conference workbook we received):

  • They’re never going to be perfect the first time around.
  • If possible, video to examine performances carefully (I agree–sometimes you get so caught up emotionally in the performance that you might miss something as an observer).
  • Always have learners self-evaluate/reflect.
  • Teach specific performance skills (this is where her book is helpful–see below).
  • Value the process.
  • Ultimately, value the depth of understanding presented—we are assessing the learning that happened, not the actual quality of the performance itself.


You can learn more about these strategies and ideas in Nancy’s book, Assessment Live!

This session was followed by an hour and 15 minute session by Christopher Lehmann on “Grounding Inquiry in Hearts, Not Just Heads.”  I will say that perhaps for future institutes, substituting a slot for an additional choice session rather than a 2nd keynote might be a tweak to consider to the schedule, and I would have liked an opportunity to learn from one of the speakers in a smaller setting like the choice session. Even though we were somewhat active in both presentations, it was a lot of ideas to process.

We then went into our “job alike” groups again and spent most of this time working on our inquiry plan.  We also learned a few more techniques and strategies for growing groups, like compliment cards (group members write something constructive and specific about each team member and a contribution they made to the process/project) before going deep with our drafting our inquiry plan on large/oversize Post-It notes.

research1 research2

My group decided to investigate turquoise jewelry as we wondered who was being helped or hurt if we made a purchase of turquoise; we wondered about the different kinds of turquoise available and how did you distinguish between these different types; we also wondered about the differences of buying turquoise jewelry from high end stores vs. the Native American artisans at the Palace of the Governors vs. vintage shops.   If I had an additional suggestion for the Sunday schedule, it might be to shorten the Sunday “job alike” session to give groups more time to develop their inquiry plan in the job alike groups without feeling rushed.  We then had a short break for lunch before our groups converged again at 1:30 to hit the town and begin our investigation.

One of our group members did a little leg work during the lunch break by interviewing one of the concierge staff at our host hotel, LaFonda, and this person was a wealth of knowledge that helped confirm our framework for research was on target.  We started together by visiting a vintage turquoise shop called Rainbow Man’s.  There we were lucky to meet Randy, an employee who was like a walking encyclopedia about all things turquoise and Santa Fe.  We really enjoyed learning about the different kinds of turquoise, particularly vintage grade, and the dynamics of the different turquoise markets in Santa Fe.


We then split up with part of our team going to some high end stores; some of us went to the Palace of the Governors to talk to the vendors there.  At all times we were upfront with everyone we met and interviewed about the purpose of our project; we were very grateful for people being so generous in sharing their time, expertise, experiences, and knowledge in such a thoughtful, honest way.   After we did some our small group interviewing, we re-convened and did a quick tour of the museum of the Palace of the Governors.






We then came back together at the hotel to have some snacks and to begin planning our performance project.  We did a lot of discussion for about 45 minutes around  what we had learned through our information gathering (interviews and some reading) and the wide range of questions that this research had spawned as well as answered.   We decided to do a skit with a narrator, me as the shopper, and our other three teammates portraying a high end jewelry seller, a seller at the Palace of the Governors, and Randy from the vintage turquoise shop.  We decided our skit would end with a question for our audience, “What are YOU shopping for?”  We worked collaboratively and individually for about another hour or so writing, revising, and refining our pieces of the script both individually and together; it was like being part of a writing group.  This was a really great experience to be the learner and to go through these processes.   I loved how we had a lot of discussion and fine tuning of the project performance; no way would the experience have been the same if everyone had done this as an individual inquiry project.

Around 6:30, a delicious feast was served as we all reconvened in the upstairs ballroom for dinner and the performances from each group.  We were all nervous, but in the end, I think this was a favorite part of the entire experience for many of us.  For me, this is where it all came together and crystallized.  I got SO much from watching the other group performances as well as the experience of performing with my group.  I loved how supportive everyone was of each other and was incredibly impressed by the creativity and different range of performances groups crafted to share their insights and what they had learned about their topics.    Each was fantastic in its own way; we did a lot of laughing as well as some crying.  My favorites were a parody of “Chopped”; a group performance that involved individual reading (representing a different voice from a walk of life in Santa Fe) that culminated in a very moving choral reading that had many of us in tears.

My ultimate favorite was the final performance, which I tried to capture with some Vine videos.  I referenced it as “Intersection of Santa Fe” at the time of the presentation.    However, it is actually “The Heart and Sounds of Santa Fe” (thank you team member and narrator Charlie Folsom!)  They had a single group member in the middle of the ballroom holding a sign that had a heart and the words “Santa Fe”; four other group members spread out to the four corners of the big ballroom, each holding a LONG colored piece of ribbon that corresponded to a colored sticky notes at the tables, creating “zones”.


These ribbons went back to the group member in the middle.  A narrator instructed us to look at the color of the sticky note at the table and when he put it on the document camera, to do as he instructed (we did a little practice for each one, so for example—if you had an orange sticky note, you were to hum).    The narrator then began reading recitations representing an aspect of life, an event, or group in Santa Fe.  He would then put the colored sticky note on the document camera, and as that part of the room did their part of the performance (humming, stamping feet, etc.), the four members in the corners would move around and the ribbons would wind about more concentrically around the person in the middle, “The Heart of Santa Fe.”  See the Vine videos below (note:  look in the lower right hand corner of each video to unmute it and hear the audio):

It’s hard to find words to express how this shared experience felt, but it was incredibly moving and powerful; it almost felt cathartic in a way.  I was both energized and exhausted when we ended around 9:30 that night!  There was a fun dance party in the ballroom afterwards, but I sadly bypassed the celebration because I was so very sleepy.

You can see all the Tweets and social media curated by Heinemann PD from Day 2 here on Storify.

Monday, 1/18/16 (Day 3)

We met the next morning for breakfast with a modified agenda since many participants were flying out that morning (it’s not easy to get in and out of Santa Fe!).    I frankly was still feeling exhausted (and still grappling with the effects of the altitude there), so I decided to decompress a little bit and take a final walkabout around the plaza (you simply cannot get enough of Santa Fe).   After getting some fresh air and visiting one last time with some of the vendors (they were super friendly and interesting to talk to!) at the Palace of Governors , I returned for the final keynote by Sara Ahmed and Kristin Ziemke—they did a fabulous job wrapping our workshop with their poignant and heartfelt talk on “Student Voice:  Live and Digital.”  I thoroughly enjoyed what both of them shared, and in the future, I’d love to attend an individual session with each of them (again, more choice sessions, please!).


We then concluded with all of our teachers taking a seat up front panel style and people spoke freely with their reflections on the weekend.  It was very moving, and many of us shed a few tears as people shared successes, struggles, and insights, plus it is hard to say goodbye to people you’ve shared an amazing time with!  Here were some of my closing thoughts/observations I Tweeted if you are interested in seeing them.  You can also see Heinemann PDs Storify from Day 3 here.

Final Thoughts/Reflections

santa fe mosaic

I cannot say enough about this amazing learning experience!  I had such authentic learning experiences and left with many new questions, insights, and strategies.  I wish more professional development learning experiences were structured this way.  Being part of this institute made me yearn to have this kind of learning community with me locally in my own workplace, something I know many of us desire and have desired for a very long time.   The experiences there also reinforced for me the kinds of work I do and do not want to do as a school librarian and educator.   As you saw earlier in my post, I had a few minor suggestions for the schedule, but overall, I wholeheartedly recommend this workshop.  I think the fact it was in Santa Fe made it even more special, and I don’t know that the experience would have been the same for me had it been elsewhere.  I love and appreciate that issues of equity and social justice and how that intersects with an inquiry approach to learning were always at the forefront of conversations in Santa Fe.


I am thankful to our workshop leaders and my fellow participants as well as the people of Santa Fe for such a memorable, unique and special time that I will forever cherish.  It’s not forever you go somewhere or to a professional development workshop and leave feeling changed in some significant way.  I hope to honor all of this by bringing back what I’ve learned and integrating into my daily work wherever my path may take me.  I hope I will have the opportunity to participate again in this workshop in the future.  Thank you to my school administration and district for supporting me and making it possible for me to attend this fantastic multi-day institute.

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?