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).
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.
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.
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.
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.