Researchers as Artists, Artists as Researchers: Tinkering, Messiness, and Meaning Making in Libraries as Learning Studios


Last week, I sent out a needs assessment to our faculty.  Initially, I was concerned it was too lengthy, but as a new media specialist here at Chattahoochee High, I feel a sense of urgency to get some idea of what teachers have done in the past, what they are interested in now, and their points of need.  In spite of some lingering reservations, I shared the assessment with our faulty via email.  The next morning, AP Studio Art teacher Dorsey Sammataro came by to see me because she was intrigued by information literacy concepts embedded in the survey.  Long story short, the survey opened a really exciting conversation between us about certain concepts and skills she saw on the survey and how it dovetailed with the needs for a new unit she is piloting related to 2D Design Service Learning and Natural and Human-Made Environments.  Students have started thinking about topics of importance to them but need help growing strategies for search, developing search vocabulary, and becoming more comfortable with web-based resources as well as databases that students can mine to find inspiration for ideas and issues that can then inspire their art.  Ms. Sammataro identified this working list of issues and topics of importance to her students in the course:

  • Issues of socioeconomic equity (rich, poor, middle class)
  • GMOs/Food
  • Education and Equity
  • Human trafficking
  • Environment
  • Cultural appropriation: identifying its effects in everyday life and raising awareness of it
  • Assimilating into a culture:  how, why, impact on those assimilate—what is gained, what is lost
  • Adolescent mental health issues
  • Body image
  • Emotional health
  • A sense of unity and connection to peoples and cultures in other parts of the world
  • Stereotypes and assumptions people make about specific ethnicities
  • Bullying
  • Abandonment of self because of depression/mental illness as well as abandoned communities and/or groups of people

When she said they would be having a group debrief about the first work of art they had created that had come out of their initial pass at these topics, I asked if I could come listen in, and she enthusiastically said yes!  I was able to join them and listen to most of the 50 minute small group discussion as they talked about:

  • expanded insights about their topic ideas—this aspect of the discussion was quite meaty/weighty as students drew from personal experiences.
  • what they had learned about their idea through their initial research and first efforts at crafting 2D art around it.
  • what community resources (people, groups) might be resources for our work and ideas.
  • how and why one might abandon a topic and how the process of making art around a topic may help you realize that topic is not your true passion.
  • one student shared she had discovered she needs a strong intention for figurative pieces, so the idea/topic of interest is particularly crucial for art making.
  • an extended conversation about the importance of time, space, and ownership of experimentation for both literal and experimental/abstract pieces (echoes of Nancie Atwell’s concept of what writers need); the importance of trying new things, art forms.  In the words of one student, “Don’t be afraid to stray from the path of success.”
  • some students discovered they liked new art forms they didn’t think they would like.
  • one student shared how she was excited about the idea that inspired her art but when it came to do the printing process it was very humbling because it was more difficult than she imagined and the piece didn’t turn out quite as she envisioned, yet this trial and error process was important and valuable to her.
  • some discovered it was more difficult than they anticipated to turn an idea/topic/issue into an art piece.
  • one student shared how important it is to find out what you really are passionate about and then wondered how to better go about mining it to yield more strategic ideas/subtopics or focal points for expression of that through art.

I was struck by how deeply invested the students were in these topics and the group discussion; I was also appreciative of their honesty and openness, something that is not easy to do among peers or with a new adult on the staff who is listening to what they have to say.    Their perspectives on these topics as well as their insights on art making processes had a depth I had not anticipated; it also got me thinking about the parallels between making meaning from art and making meaning from working with information (and some form of research whether formal, informal, or some hybrid).   A few wonderings I’m now contemplating:

  • How do the two (research and art) inform each other, and how might looking at art-making processes foreground our conceptualization of “research”?  I can’t help but wonder if some of the precepts of Dennis Sumara’s work with “literary anthropology” in studying reading literacies might be applied when we think of art, the learning environment of a studio, and research intersect as a site of “information literacy interpretation.”
  • How might a library function as a studio where meaning making is elevated across multiple forms of literacy, particularly information literacy processes?  How is research art?  How might research and the cultivation of information literacy skills in art students impact their art-making processes?  What insights from an art studio might we draw upon in designing a library as a learning studio, and what does research look like in this environment?  How will it translate to learning spaces then outside the library and impact a larger learning community and culture where research seems increasingly marginalized in K-12 public schools by the impact of standardized testing?  What tools, resources, experiences, and learning design drivers do artists and learners need in a research/library learning studio as well as an art studio?
  • How is the act of crafting art like acts of crafting research processes and products?
  • Research and art can both be organic, recursive, and frequently non-linear (even though there are those who would like to prescribe models that are contradictory in nature).    Many K-12 teachers, professors, and yes, even some librarians tend to emphasize the consumption aspect of research rather than frontloading the grittier messy work of mucking about in information; students often miss the experience of wrestling with the friction of ideas that comes when one goes beyond regurgitating facts and engages in higher level thinking; it is often the final product, a paper, that gets the most emphasis.  Yet this creative process is viewed positively when it comes to crafting art—-how might it be viewed if we embrace meaning making as the core of research as it is in art?

Building on the extensive work and efforts Jennifer Lund and I invested in developing the concept of library as learning studio at Norcross High (see any of my posts from the last two years), this budding collaborative partnership with the AP Studio Art students and Ms. Sammataro (and my larger/big picture efforts to now develop the library as learning studio concept at Chattahoochee High) may offer opportunities for us to explore these wonderings together by working from an inquiry stance.   I hope to dwell in these ideas and look forward to see how my thinking is shaped by my experiences with Ms. Sammataro and her students.

Mindmapping Our Presearch Notes: Seeing Patterns and Gaps


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.

Igniting Inquiry with Think, Puzzle, and Explore


Earlier this month, my colleague Jennifer Lund and I met with Linda Katz and Elizabeth Hollis, two of our 11th grade Language Arts teachers, to plan their upcoming research unit on sustainability.  We wanted to do something fun and interesting to introduce the range of topics to students that would engage them and not begin with them just browsing the resources on the project LibGuide.  We initially considered using the write-around strategy, but with so many sections of classes and possibilities for topics/subtopics, we felt the prep work involved was a bit overwhelming for the time we had available to get the materials together.

We decided to use another strategy, though, that involved thinking and writing called Think, Puzzle, Explorea routine for learning that “sets the stage for deeper inquiry.”  Since many teachers are utilizing strategies from Making Thinking Visible, we felt this would be the perfect learning structure to introduce 11th graders to sustainability topics.  With Think, Puzzle, and Explore, students are asked to reflect and share:

1. What do you think you know about this topic?

2. What questions or puzzles do you have?

3. How can you explore this topic?

Prep Work


We decided to choose eight areas of sustainability and to find an article of interest for each that students could read and respond to individually and collectively as a group.    After we searched and selected articles on eight different topics, we made sets of five for each table so that each student could have a copy to read and mark up or annotate.  Our Library Science student helpers gathered multiple sheets of butcher paper and helped us attach the three “Think, Puzzle, Explore” labels Jennifer crafted for each sheet of paper.  These labels Jennifer created served both as a reminder prompt to nudge students in their responses and as a placeholder for each column where students would record their responses.  We were not sure how quickly the sheets of paper would fill up with student work, so we had extra sheets of butcher paper and labels in case we needed them.  Initially, we thought all six classes could compile their answers on one sheet, but we realized after two classes we definitely need to rotate the response sheets.  During our one period off, 3rd, we finished the prep work for the butcher paper sheets to be used later in the day.  We were grateful we had extra supplies and copies as we discovered two classes could easily fill up a sheet of butcher paper with their thinking.


We began by introducing the procedures for the activity and explaining the logistics and purpose of Think, Puzzle, Explore to the students.  Our goal was for students to sample at least two tables/topics to hopefully fuel their interest and pique their curiosity.

Once we finished the introductory procedures review, students had about two minutes to select a table; for the most, we limited each table to four students.    We also reminded students to choose their tables by topics and not the safety zone of friends!


We gave students about five minutes to quietly read as much as they could of their articles (some were longer or more textually complex than others) and strongly encouraged them to mark up/annotate their articles to have some talking points for collaborative conversation.  Some students also jotted notes in a notebook during this part of the activity and/or during the collective discussion that followed.


Once the five minutes were up, we had students discuss their responses and then collectively compose their responses to “Think, Puzzle, and Explore.”  The discussion and collective composition took anywhere from 5-8 minutes.



We then repeated this process a second time and had students choose a different table and topic.   Once we had completed both rounds, each group got one of our Steelcase Verb dry erase boards, and each member contributed their takeaway reflection, reaction, or big question as the ticket out the door; each student put his/her initials by his/her reflection or question.


Curating the Student Work and Reflections

As classes transitioned, Jennifer and I quickly tidied up tables and captured student work with a digital camera and our iPhones to curate and share with all classes and teachers.    It was a day that was energizing (and a little exhausting) as the work and pace were pretty intense, but we were really pleased with student responses and participation.  We got verbal feedback from several students about how much they enjoyed the activity and for several, the process had given them some topics to think about for subsequent investigation that we’re now starting this week.

In the spirit of crowdsourcing our thinking, we collected all of the “big takeaway” responses and linked to each album on the LibGuide (scroll toward the bottom of the middle column to view by period).  We also had our Library Science students transcribe all of the responses from the butcher paper sheets; I then captured all of them using my scanner app on my phone and uploading the PDFs of the scans to Google Drive, which it made it easy to then send to SlideShare and download the PDFs to my PC for transfer to the LibGuide.   We did consider providing laptops and shared Google Docs for students to record their thinking, but our experience with our students has been that the tactile  aspect of composing and experience seeing each other’s thinking on physical paper is powerful; in hindsight, we felt we made the right choice.

Not only did we build prior knowledge through this activity, but we accomplished our goal to engage students in collective thinking and build/play off each’s other ideas (as it turned out, pairs of classes back to back).  Think, Puzzle, and Explore also provided students a medium to learn a little about a topic and tease out some initial thoughts  Now that we have all of their work uploaded, students can visit it if they want to revisit any initial thinking from last week or use it as a brainstorming tool to further investigate one of those topics although they certainly can go in other directions.

Overall, the four of us felt the activity was successful and a nice bridge to our pre-search this week.  I could also see this structure being used in combination with the pre-search mapping we’re piloting this week ( a blog post coming soon on that and many thanks to our colleague Tasha Bergson-Michelson for inspiration on pre-search strategy mapping) if students were going to be composing group papers or if time permitted “birds of feather” collaborative work once students had an initial topic in mind.   We definitely hope to use this learning structure again as a springboard to inquiry and research.

For your viewing:

Holistic and Individualized Formative Assessment of Research and Inquiry Processes

For the last two weeks, our students have been immersed in investigating information and constructing new understandings as they have been composing their research design proposals, revising sections of their proposals, and doing additional research after focusing and narrowing their topics and research questions.  As they have gone back and forth in refining their topics and questions and doing the subsequent additional research, we’ve seen our students move back and forth between confusion/doubt/uncertainty/discomfort and clarity.  Most students are not used to doing this sort of deep dive with a topic, making their own choices about the topic and research questions, articulating how they demonstrating growth in their learning, or selecting their learning products; consequently, the messiness of choice and ownership of their projects has been a new experience (and uncomfortable to varying extents) for them.  Sarah Rust and I have also experienced a spectrum of emotions in this inquiry process as well;  we know our students will grow from these experiences yet we too feel some of that same uncertainty and frustration as our students when they wobble or stall in spite of our efforts to scaffold and support with individualized feedback, resources, and reflective questioning.   Like our colleagues Heather, Meg, Marci, and Cathy, we provide  them strategies and feedback that will propel them forward and give them the tools to self-help, but as we have told them, we cannot make the decisions for them or give them the answers.   We stay calm and reiterate that we are focused on how and what they are learning, not grades—of course, this discourse is a departure from the narrative they have heard their entire school lives in our test-driven culture.

The individualized and fluid nature of working with 50+ students who are all doing different topics is also a newer experience for us and definitely for the students.   Over the last two weeks, any given day has been a potpourri of joy, exasperation, delight, and doubt as students have drafted their research design proposals for their multigenre projects.  This kind of work is where the collaborative partnership Sarah and I have is critical because you have an instructional partner to be responsive to these kinds of learning experiences and individual student needs.  Because we both bring different strengths to the table and can process what we are observing with student work together, we are much better positioned to truly help our students than if we were doing this in a solitary or prescriptive, rigid way.

After receiving the drafts of their proposals for their projects, Sarah and I have employed a variety of strategies to personalize the feedback for each student at their points of need.  Here are some of the action steps we’ve tried:

Individualizing and Capturing Feedback Through Mail Merge and Databases

I created a database in Word of all of our students in 2nd and 3rd periods.  Data fields I created included:

  • First name
  • Last name
  • Class Period
  • Comments About the Narrowed/Focused Topic
  • Multigenre Products Students Selected
  • Publishing Platform of Virtual or Paper (Word/PDF)
  • General Notes (comments about student self-selected learning targets, what they know about their topic at this point, what they want to learn, research questions, their working bibliographies, and search terms/strategies.
  • Next Steps–specific tasks and suggestions to help the students move forward.  These action steps could also include requests for students to schedule 1:1 help or to participate in some of the small-group help sessions we set up in response to the patterns of thinking and gaps we saw in the proposals.



I went through each proposal and typed in my feedback for each student in the appropriate fields in the database document.   I then used the Mail Merge wizard in Word to create a “form letter” that imported this feedback and printed out the feedback documents for each student on colored paper or in color.  Once I printed completed feedback forms, I stapled them to the research design proposal draft and returned to the student as soon as possible for them so that they could move forward or make revisions.  I also provided a copy to Sarah so that she could begin developing a list of needs to address and to prioritize which students needed her help and areas of expertise.  The master database provides us an archived record of the formative assessment to use as we look at student growth; it is also easily accessible to reprint should a student lose his/her copy of the feedback form.

It did take quite a bit of time to methodically go through each proposal and to generate the personalized feedback.  However, I so appreciate the opportunity to engage in this sort of assessment because it helps me get to know the students as learners.  This work also improves my instruction because I can easily see patterns of understanding and confusion and helps me to be a more reflective and effective practitioner as well as instructional designer.

Conferencing/Coaching/Triage 1:1 and Small Group

help help help help 2


help help 3

Using this information as our starting point, Sarah and I have  been meeting with students the last few days (late last week and all of this week)to discuss the feedback we’ve provided them ; we use the feedback forms as a strategic entry point for face to face conference/coaching conversation with students.   We have been organizing our 1:1 meetings and small group sessions through a variety of mediums each day:

  • Students can sign up for specific individual help each day—we have used large post-it paper and our Verb dry erase boards as our parking lots for students to indicate they need assistance or have questions.
  • Students can sign up for small group help or indicate they want to join a future small group work session through our Verb dry erase boards.  For example, after reviewing all the research design proposals, I realized I needed to do some small group instruction on additional search techniques with Boolean operators and additional instruction on mining Academic Search Complete.
  • For those who might be shy or reluctant to place themselves in one of these help request parking lots, we’ve also been sure to work through our class rosters and are checking in with each student so that we are sure to meet with EVERY student and “check up” on their progress, successes, questions, and worries.

Yesterday, Sarah called students up by the class roster whereas I started with my list of student requested help.  Today we approached the scheduling of the 1:1 conferences by working through the class rosters and having students first check in with Sarah about some of their recent process work; students then moved to my table for to discuss the feedback they received from us on their research design proposals.   We each set up a help area with our mobile tables and our green Hon rolling chairs so that we had comfortable spaces to talk to students and where they could spread out their work and/or where we could show them specific resources or skills on our laptops if they needed some concrete visualization or examples.  Some conferences are brief while others are more extended, but typically, each meeting can last 3-10 minutes—it all depends on student need and how the conversation evolves in the conference.  We also keep notepads, large lined sticky notes, and/or Google Docs available at the conference table to jot down notes from each meeting while students bring along their folders of their process work, drafts of their design proposals, and the individualized design proposal feedback form.

student conf notes

In just these first few days we’ve been meeting with students, it’s very apparent when students feel confident (and skills/processes/ideas they’re self-assured about as well) and where students feel fuzzy, unsure, and/or anxious.   We’ve also observed that most of our students are not used to this level of accountability, and some seem a bit uncomfortable with it when you are asking them questions to nudge them to dig deeper or be more specific with details; we sense many are also not used to these types of conferences that puts the responsibility and decision making on them as students.   We are framing this conference/coaching sessions from a stance of discussions to help them think through their choices, to clarify their own thinking/choices/next steps, and to move forward with their projects since we don’t want them to see the messiness and muckiness of inquiry as punitive.   These sessions have also helped us identify those who might benefit from some of our upcoming small group mini-lessons but who may not have initially signed up for assistance.  Last but not least, I believe these conferences convey to our students that each person matters and that we care about them and their topics.


While we cannot do their work for them, we can give students every opportunity to get personal assistance in a low-key setting —we want them to know they cannot fall through the cracks or simply fly under our radars.  While I’ve done this sort of work before, this is probably the biggest chunk of time I’ve had in a collaborative partnership for this level of assessment and 1:1 student conferencing.  This approach requires us to be agile and responsive as each day is different and every student need varies.  This kind of conferencing/coaching is time consuming and messy; while the prep for the small group work is pretty straightforward, the 1:1 help is definitely open-ended.  I have been inspired and am improving my own conferencing skills with students by watching Sarah (who is a master at this process) and by my friend and fellow school librarian Heather Hersey.  Her post about the importance of conferencing helped me to think about focusing on all aspects of their inquiry work and design proposals rather than just sources or their bibliographies; it also inspired my idea for using the mail merge form and database to capture feedback and use that as a starting point for the student conferences/coaching sessions.

Sarah and I have also been discussing how intense this kind of work is and how you have to be comfortable with making adjustments as needed to timelines and your plans in order to be responsive to the students.    The processes are messy, yet this “mucking around in ideas” is the grist for the growth and critical thinking that happens as both we and our students problem solve, question, and revise our ideas and stances.  Neither of us has any idea how someone would do this kind of process-driven, organic, fluid, and reflective work alone!  We love that our combined talents help the students as well as each other; we also are appreciative of having someone else each day who can help you see things you might have missed or to think about a particular situation or challenge with fresh eyes.   We are also excited we can model collaborative learning for our students—how often do they get to be in a learning environment where there are at least 2-3 adults who can help them and provide them the kind of specific and personalized attention they are receiving?  Most importantly, this type of collaboration is a catalyst for inquiry work and for integrating more formative kinds of assessments that benefit students and impact learning.

We expect the 1:1 and small group conferences, coaching, and small group instruction to continue the next 7 days of school leading up to our Thanksgiving break.  I hope to share more images, video, written/video reflections and feedback from both of us as well as our students in an upcoming post later this month.   I’m also thinking about how to better integrate the conferencing/coaching/conversation aspect into the inquiry approach (and at an earlier point in time) with research using Cris Tovani’s conceptualization of these conversations as data and formative assessment (see her text, So What Do They Really Know?  Assessment That Informs Teaching and Learning).

Cris Tovani's Conversation Calendars

How are you approaching assessment with inquiry work?  How do you negotiate and embrace the challenges of time and fluidity with this approach to learning and research?  How do you scale this kind of learning experience when there are always challenges of time, space, and staffing?

Moving from Our Mindmaps to More Focused Topics with Question Lenses and Musical Peer Review

music activity-collage

In my last post that is part of this series, I shared how we used mindmapping after our second round of pre-searching to begin honing in our a more specific topic for our research.

After students shared out their mindmaps and big ideas, we asked them to look at their topic through different question “lenses” using an activity shared with me by my colleague Heather Hersey, a school librarian in Seattle.  Heather, who adapted her version of the handout from An Educator’s Guide to Information Literacy: What Every High School Senior Needs to Know (Ann Marlow Riedling, 2009), graciously shared her template with us, and we used it to help students look at their topic from multiple perspectives by “trying on” a question lens (see below).

Large Group Share of Mindmaps and Topic Triangles

This exercise was a stretch for the students as it forced them to look at their topic from an angle they might not have considered; we asked them to see if they could generate a question for at least 2-3 of the question lenses.  For some students, this was a helpful endeavor as it helped them in their thinking process about narrowing a focus even more for their topic; other students, though, were a little overwhelmed by the task and/or the cognitive dissonance that came along with the activity.   I love the activity because it is yet another way to encourage wonder, but in retrospect, I think it might have been more beneficial had we incorporated it sooner.   After conferring with Heather via email, I realized I missed that she utilizes it earlier in the pre-search process; I will consider following her lead on the timing in the future although I want to get student feedback on this aspect before making a decision for future efforts.

Once students had some time to muck around with this exercise, we asked them to then see if they could arrive at a more focused topic and compose a research topic statement or focused essential research question—we wanted to give them the option to write about their more focused in either format.  This statement/question writing was the springboard to an activity, “Musical Questions:  Broadening and Narrowing our EQs,” that we did on Friday (October 24) that we adapted from Marci Zane, Heather Hersey, Meg Donhauser, and Cathy Stutzman.   Sarah Rust came up with her own brilliant take on this activity:

1.  We arranged our tables in a conference style arrangement so that students could move about the “square” easily.

Musical Research Topic

2.  At the beginning of both classes, Sarah instructed the students to take out their document with the focused research topic statement or question they had composed earlier in the week.

Musical Research Topic

Musical Research Topic

3.  We explained that there would be four rounds of peer review; during each review students could provide four types of feedback:

  • a suggestion to broaden the topic statement/research question if needed
  • a suggestion to narrow the topic statement/research question
  • pose a question to nudge the peer’s thinking
  • share a constructive piece of feedback to help the peer with fine tuning that statement or question.

We asked that they put their names next to their feedback in case the owner of the statement/question needed to confer with them later about their statements or questions they had shared.

4.  We then explained that when there was no music, they would get up and begin walking around the table until music began playing (we let the students choose the music, and interestingly enough, they chose 80s and 90s tunes!  Their input made the activity more fun and gave them a sense of ownership).  Once the music started, they were to sit down in the closest chair and document and begin writing their feedback to the peer.   We gave them roughly 3-4 minutes to provide the feedback before stopping the music and starting our rotation again.

Musical Research Topic

Musical Research Topic

We honestly were not sure what to expect with the activity, so we were delighted by the positive response from our students.  We were also joined during our first class by assistant principal Christine Dailey who was there not only as an observer, but also as a participant—her jumping in and working side by side with the students was fantastic and of course, great modeling for our kids.  After the four rounds, we asked students to return back to the original seat and work and read over the feedback provided.  They then had an opportunity to pair-share with the person sitting next to them and to reflect on next steps or ideas that came from the four rounds of feedback from their peers.

Musical Research Topic

From what we observed, many students found this activity helpful in getting concrete suggestions for being more specific with the wording and in some cases, the scope, of their topic statements/research questions. We definitely would do this activity again as it gave students the chance to collaborate and work together  in a meaningful way as we continued to work through our research/inquiry processes! We would like to thank our students for their efforts, Christine Dailey for her time and feedback, and Heather, Meg, Marci, and Cathy for so generously sharing their ideas and experiences with us to create learning experiences that have helped us all as learners.

In addition, a big thanks to our New Jersey/Washington state friends for reminding us that the affective aspects of inquiry that our students are cycling through—confusion/frustration/doubt and clarity—are normal and that activities like these help mitigate some of the emotional lows or challenges our students are feeling, especially as the inquiry approach pushes them out of their comfort zones.  Even when you’ve experienced this process with students in the past, it is always reassuring to hear from others their approach to honoring that uncertainty and helping nudge students forward when they get stuck.  This same post has also given us some helpful guidance as we’ve wrestled with issues of grading and assessment of process-oriented, formative work.

In my next post, I’ll share how we are moving through the research design proposal process for the multigenre projects that students will be crafting.  The next couple of weeks will be interesting as students complete their proposals and move recursively between investigating, constructing, and expressing.   Until then, we’d love to hear your ideas and strategies for helping students narrow their topic statements and questions after pre-search–what have you tried that has been successful?  We’d love to hear your suggestions!