The last couple of weeks have been fun. I started my three different research units with my sixth, seventh and eighth grade students, a curriculum I’m experimenting with and calling “Research Lab”. I like calling it that because A) I like naming things, B) I’m trying to get the middle school kids to play around with research, guided by their own questions, and even though I should know better as a former science teacher I associate labs – experimentation – with play, and C) this way of teaching is an experiment for me. I have no idea if it’s going to work or even if it’s an effective way of teaching information literacy skills.
The challenge: My school library is on a fixed schedule. We serve students in grades Pre-K through 8 and I see each class in every grade once a week. I really am grateful for this opportunity to see all the kids on a regular basis, but while the elementary students will eagerly complete any task I throw their way and relish every moment I give them to look for library books, the middle school students are a tougher sell. It’s not that they don’t like looking for books. They do. But if given too much time book browsing quickly becomes social hour. And getting middle school students to complete information literacy exercises in the library when they know there are no grades attached, no real consequences for not participating, can turn into a battle of wills. I expect this. I’ve been working with middle school students for over a decade. “Why can’t I just sit here and work on my homework? Or better yet, why can’t I just sit here?” Valid questions, maybe, but I suppose the answer is that I enjoy teaching and learning with middle school students too much to let our time together go to waste. I want to explore research skills with them. I’m excited about what I’m supposed to be teaching them. And I know that as a school librarian, these skills should be taught in context and while collaborating with their content area teachers. Those collaborations, when they occur, are rewarding, meaningful and really do motivate the students. But collaborating with teachers – and I can’t imagine this is just me – is not always possible for now anyway not happening on a consistent basis.
So what do you do with a class of middle school students that you see on a weekly basis for 45 minutes at a time? In the past I’ve lead them through discrete information literacy lessons – website evaluation, verifying data, creating bibliographies, understanding copyright and creative commons, finding copyright friendly media – but it’s all hypothetical and out of context. “Trust me, your teachers are going to ask you to do this some day.” It feels hollow, flat, unsatisfying.
Enter Research Lab, the idea I’ve been playing around with for a year or so as a means for re-framing how middle school spends their time in the library. My goal is to take middle school students through mini-research units that are driven by their own lines of inquiry. I introduce a topic that I hope they get excited about, they ask questions they are interested in answering, and we try to answer those questions while practicing research skills. It’s my attempt to unify the individual mini-lessons I was teaching before into a cohesive, meaningful learning experience. If I can make collaborative units happen with classroom teachers, that will be the priority. But when that’s not happening, it’s all about Research Lab.
Look! I made a flowchart. Click to bigify.
In this scenario, the research process is definitely more important to me than the research product. All research will be done in class (no homework) and, as much as possible, written work will be created and submitted electronically using the iPad cart that my wonderful principal bought me to use in the library. I’m hoping that the entire cycle will take about nine weeks, about the length of a quarter at our school, and that it can be repeated at least a few times a year. I’m looking forward to trying a more holistic approach to teaching information literacy to my middle school students, but more than anything I’m excited about our research being guided by student-generated questions. I’m hoping that students will be motivated to engage in these exercises if it’s in service of answering their own questions. There is still no grade attached to what I’m asking them to do. No stick, if you will, but hopefully a carrot in the form of a legitimate question about an interesting topic. Will it work? Only one way to find out.
I’ve been trying to make room for instruction driven by student inquiry for years. Read about a grand idea that never made it off the ground from my days as a science teacher here. Why has it taken me so long to start? As a classroom teacher, there was never time. There was always too much to cover, to much to get to before THE BIG TEST. It would have been an awesome way to teach but I was too afraid to take chances with the curriculum when so much was at stake. That sad state of affairs in education is for another post. However, now that I’m a librarian with a little more freedom, I have an opportunity that I don’t intend to squander. I’m still afraid. What if the kids aren’t curious about topics I find interesting? What if the technology doesn’t work? What if the seven days that go by between class meetings, the weeks it takes to move through a unit, make it hard to sustain student interest? I think I’m ready to let go of all that, more than anything because I want to feel like I’m really teaching and not wasting my students’ time. I’m going into this knowing that it’s going to be sloppy and full of mistakes and revisions – like any good experiment!
And I’m excited to say that, a couple of weeks into this process, I’m really enjoying it so far. Students are digging the topics I introduced (Deep Ocean Animals in 6th, Hoaxes in 7th, Women Disguised as Men in 8th) and have generated meaningful, open-ended questions. But as this post is already overly long, I think I should stop here. Remind me to tell you about how it all rolled out.
Things I’m still not good at: Sharing what I’m reading with students.
Things I’m getting better at: Embracing failure.