Friday, February 25, 2011

Reflections on Research

We're nearing the end of the first go round with the collaborative research unit I talked about a while back. And as I mentioned in that post, we're on a modular schedule, which means we'll be starting the same project from the beginning. Which, of course, means revamping based on our experiences this first time around.

In talking with teachers about revamping things, they have sometimes lamented that it's unfortunate that this first group had to act as guinea pigs--but I point out that usually all students have to act as guinea pigs, and we have to wait an entire year in order to test our new ideas again. I'm excited about being able to re-do this unit so soon, and get more ideas for how to make it better.

And boy do I have ideas for how to make it better. I love this project, and I think many things worked well the first time, but there are definite areas for improvement. One big change will be where in the process we explicitly introduce the writing of the thesis statement (speaking of which, have I mentioned how very, very much I love Tom March's Online Thesis Generator? 'Cause I really, really do). We talked with students from the beginning about the need to form an argument and write a thesis, but we didn't do much direct instruction until late in the process of finding sources--and many students discovered that the sources they had were not helpful to their thesis, which was very frustrating for many students.

For our next go round, we'll be asking students to find a certain number of sources on their topic in order to establish their background knowledge and get an overview of their topic. Then write the thesis, then find additional sources in order to specifically address the subtopics of their thesis. This is one of those ideas I have that makes me feel kind of foolish for not having thought of it the first time around.

As frustrating as citation has been, I'm nerdily excited about deploying my citation map to its full effect. And I have to remind myself that I no longer see Works Cited pages that simply list "", so progress is being made. There have been some interesting mistakes, and I think understanding those will help me help students avoid them in the future (for example, one student entered a magazine article from a database as a radio broadcast, because he'd used the database's built-in text-to-speech feature (which, by the way, much UDL love there) to listen to the article). (Did I just do a parenthetical aside within a parenthetical aside? I think I have a problem. . .) And inspired by Buffy Hamilton (a statement which could be true of about half the things I do), I'm going to work on some citation guidesheets to help my students move through the process from finding a source to creating an accurate citation. While I love NoodleTools (and eventually many of my students come around), many of my students struggle with identifying what type of source they have and how to answer the questions in NoodleTools. I want to help them get things right at the beginning, in order to limit future frustrations.

And after reading Kristin Fontichiaro's recent post about reflection it occurred to me in that "why didn't this occur to me before?" kind of way that while I regularly checked in with students on their progress and got a good sense of what they were struggling with and what was going well, it would be good to ask students to reflect in a more formal way on their own process. So I created a form asking students to reflect on each part of the research process--from topic selection to citations, and which parts were easiest and most difficult for them. This will help in adjustments for the next go round with this project, but I'm hoping that it will also help students realize how much they've managed to accomplish.

There are also lots of little tweaks, and I'm sure after the next time I'll have even more ideas for how to adjust. I don't know if I've ever taught the same unit the same way twice, and I think it will be a long time before I do. If I ever do. Which is just the way I want it to be.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The World of Citation

I was going to start this post by saying, "Citation is one of the hardest things I teach" but then I thought about it and realized that there's nothing I teach where I think, "Hey, no problem, everyone understands that immediately." But citation is definitely one of the most frustrating things I teach, because it can be such an abstract idea for students. Why, they want to know, do they have to include all those details? And why would anyone care what order the information was in? Can't they just throw in a title and a URL and be done with it already?

Students do seem to have a sense of why it's important to give credit to their sources, and I do use (and love) NoodleTools to help them with the citation process, but I was still getting a lot of push back on the "why" of the details citation. I was struggling to come up with good way to make it click for my students ("just because" wasn't cutting it, explanation-wise, and for good reason).

I love teaching with analogies, and I had managed to develop several good analogies to explain different parts of the search process (most of them involve food. I know my audience), but a citation analogy eluded me. Until, out of nowhere (probably while processing books, which is when I do some of my best thinking), it came to me.

A citation is like the source's address.

Of course! I put together a quick presentation for students the next day--after all, I was convinced the idea was brilliant, but it might fall flat with students. I started by putting up the school's address, but all jumbled up, and asked if they could tell me what it was. They knew it was the school's address, of course, but also recognized it wasn't in the right format. No big deal, of course--unless someone tried to send them a care package to the messed up address, and it never got here because the post office couldn't figure out what was going on.

I then put up a jumbled address from somewhere in New York City. It was easy to tell it was a New York address; then I revealed it was the address of the LEGO store in Rockefeller Center. If you were able to decipher the address, you'd be able to get somewhere awesome.

It seemed to be clicking with students, and I've been working on the analogy since. Most kids have seemed to connect with it, and it's provided a good way to frame discussions about what needs to be in a citation.

Why do they need to include the year of publication? Because it's part of the address.
Why don't they copy and paste the URL from a database source? Because it's bad directions.
Why do we need in-text citations? They're a sign post for your reader.

Then I hit up my Social Studies department for a spare map (I was too impatient to order one). I was hoping for a US map; they only had a world map, but I think it worked out even better. I also had some giant thumbtacks I'd gotten for Christmas, which makes the display 3-D (sort of). The slides below are a more refined version of my presentation, including pictures of my World of Citation display.

World of citation
(This is, for the record, also the first time I've used SlideShare.)

This is, in my humble opinion, the most awesome citation-themed bulletin board ever. It's also getting lots of attention and questions from students, which is really cool. Who ever thought a display about citation could be a conversation starter?

Monday, February 7, 2011

On the Internet, no one knows you're a Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus

A colleague recently posted a story titled 'Tree octopus' is latest evidence the Internet is making kids dumb, says group on the CASL listserv. You should go read it, too, particularly because it's much more reasonable and balanced than the title would lead you to believe.

The researchers concluded that the fact that students fell for the tree octopus site meant that students weren't prepared to critically evaluate information they found online. Which is likely true, but that, I don't think, is the real takeaway lesson from this. What struck me is that the students' biggest mistake was not in trusting the information they found on the tree octopus site--it was in trusting that the researchers had steered them in the right direction.

Around the same time I read that article, I saw this one from the New York Times, about the proliferation of Q&A sites on the Internet. As more and more information is available, the harder it is to sift through it all on our own; we rely on other people to either help us sift through it or to answer our actual questions, not the ones that the SEO spam that is creeping more and more into Google search results thinks we're asking.

Wanting to know and trust that there is a person behind the answer--no matter how qualified or unqualified that person might be--is, I believe, part of why sites like Yahoo! Answers and WikiAnswesrs (and Wikipedia itself) are so popular. As much as we love having so much information at our fingertips, we don't trust information. We trust people. When people get starry-eyed talking about how the Internet has changed things, they seem much more likely to be talking about how it makes it possible to connect to people, not to connect to more information.

The students in this study fell prey to the most natural instincts of all learners--when you're learning something new, you turn to an expert. When I'm trying to learn something new, I don't start from scratch--I see if any of my colleagues have experience or expertise to offer. I search for what other librarians have done. I consult professional journals and listservs. As a very last resort I'll try random Googling, but if it comes to that I know I'm in for a long road ahead.

This, too, is what I try to teach my students about searching. If you want to make life easier on yourself, use the pathfinder I've created for your class, use the library catalog to find websites, and above all, ask for help. While I hope my students develop a bag of tricks for doing research in high school and beyond, more than anything I hope they develop the ability and the confidence to know when to ask for help--and who to trust when they ask for that help.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

How (not) to make a book recommendation

I have a few other blog posts I've been thinking about, but this whole BitchMedia/100 Young Adult Books for the Feminist Reader snafu has gotten my hackles up, and nothing inspires writing like raised hackles.

I had seen a couple comments about the 100 Books for the Feminist Reader, but hadn't had a chance to check it out yet. I generally enjoy lists like that, however--I use them in deciding what the read or order for myself and my library.

And then Bitch Media got a few complaints about a few books and pulled three books from the list (power of your convictions FTL!) and then everything exploded. There are some really thoughtful and eloquent comments on the article itself (including several by YA authors asking to be removed from the list), which I was reading last night until the mansplainer troll showed up, and I had to stop because I value my health.

I won't get into how aggravating and lame Bitch Media's waffling on this issue has been, as that's already been said much better here and here. If you want a more thorough overview, or if you feel your blood pressure is too low, go read those posts.

I had been assuming that the list had been made by someone who had actually read the books she was recommending, which ended up being a less than accurate assumption. Which, in my book, is a cardinal sin of book recommendation. You can not recommend something you haven't read. It's like saying, "Those shoes are really comfortable, I saw them in a magazine once" or "That restaurant's excellent, I've seen the sign they have."

The only book list I create in any official capacity is my Summer Reading list. And I AGONIZE over it. Seriously, I lose sleep. I'll usually start with an initial pool of a hundred books and eventually winnow it down to twenty, carefully trying to balance the list. And I'm never sure I've gotten it just right. So I tweak and tweak and eventually have to set a final list because having your Summer Reading list come out in September is ridiculous. This is for an audience of about 180 students.

I take book recommendations seriously. I haven't read every book in my library (though some students seem to think either I have or I should), so when it comes to recommending books to students I rely on my catalog and reviews I've read in order to fill in the gaps. If I can recommend something I've read, great. But when I put a book in a student's hands that I haven't read, I say "I haven't read this, but this is what I've heard about it." Because recommendations carry weight, and they are about trust. A student asking me for a book recommendation is trusting me to help them with a decision. And yes, one book choice is a small decision, but relationships--with me, with reading, with libraries and librarians--are built on decisions like that.

That's how seriously I take recommending one book to one student. It's a fairly limited audience. I'm fairly certain Bitch Media has a larger audience than that, yet they don't seem to take that responsibility very seriously.

Bitch Media--and anyone else interested in making a list of recommended books, for that matter--if you don't have the time or interest in taking this responsibility seriously, find someone who will. There are lots of us out here who do this kind of thing professionally, and we'd be happy to help.