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

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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.

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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.

Teacher Drew Lawson Shares the Importance of LibGuides and Gale Virtual Reference Library for Learning and Higher Level Thinking

English teacher Drew Lawson shares his thoughts on the instructional value of LibGuides and eBooks in The Unquiet Library’s Gale Virtual Reference Library collection.   Hear Drew’s thoughts on how LibGuides provides a point of access that helps students expend more energy into critical thinking and synthesizing information from the resources on the research guide.  You can see the research guide for Drew’s current unit of study here.

Announcing the New Media21 Program LibGuide

My documentation and organization of Media 21 has been overdue for a makeover, and this weekend, I finally revamped my resource page for the learning initiative.  Originally, it was housed on my Wikispaces page, but you can now more easily navigate the resources, readings, videos, reflections, and links related to Media 21 at my new Media 21 LibGuides portal. Here is how the guide is organized:

1.  Home page:  a brief overview of Media 21, links to readings/podcasts on Media 21, bookmarks to resources that inform the vision of learning for Media 21

2. 2009-10: this page houses all of my blog reflections before, during, and after the first year of the Media 21 program.  It also links to course resources , research guides, and student work as well as photos and videos.

3 . 2010-11:  this page houses the same type of documentation as the 2009-10 page and is currently a work in progress.

I’d like to encourage you to explore this guide as I think it captures the depth of collaboration, reflection, and documentation of this collaborative learning initiative I’ve been fortunate to experience with Susan Lester and our students.  I am still struggling with documenting all aspects of this work as an embedded librarian and reflecting as frequently and with as much depth as I’d like (as well as my other collaborative projects with teachers and the Kindle program), but there is a good body of that kind of work represented in the guide for now.  Susan and I are engaged in planning now as we prepare to pick up the final three months of Media 21 for Spring 2011; please look for new updates to the 2010-11 tab soon!

LibGuides Magic: Copying Content from One Guide to Another

One of my favorite features of LibGuides is the ease of copying over one piece of content you’ve created for a guide into another guide.   If you are constantly creating research guides/subject guides/research pathfinders like I am, this feature is a dealmaker.  See how it works in this video: