Posts Tagged research

Raise your hand if you love great librarians

I’m raising my hand.

It’s remarkable how much of an impact a great librarian can have on the teaching and learning that happens in a school. I have no idea who the librarian was at the high school I went to, and it was a very good high school. I don’t know if that person worked behind the scenes with my teachers, if the roles of librarians have changed, or if I just happen to be especially lucky right now to have one who works so closely with us and provides so much practical support.

At the beginning of the school year, I bring all my students down to our library to give them a chance to browse for a book for SSR (sustained silent reading). Our librarian, Kristin McKeown, has a library classroom stocked with her own “staff picks” of the library’s most appealing (and provocative) books, arranged into a few broad categories. She then conducts a short mini-lesson during which she generates a ton of student interest and buy-in for independent reading.

But it’s the research project that prompted this post right now. All 9th grade teachers in my department embark on a collaboratively planned research assignment around now, and Kristin is instrumental in it. I won’t go into the instruction she provides for students when they’re down in the library, but I just wanted to share something new she has done this year: a series of Jing videos outlining the many steps of the research process that she has posted on the library’s website.

Here’s one of the four videos that make up Day 1 of research in the library: “Developing Basic Knowledge: Using a double-bubble map.”

She used Jing to make the videos (and Inspiration for the drawing of the thinking maps – a district-wide focus for us this year). I haven’t used that myself yet, but she says it’s very easy, and so does Nik Peachy. Due to the number of anticipated views, she had to pay a monthly fee to Screencast to host them. (Youtube is free, of course, but, as Kristin put it, “we have obvious access issues there.”)

I’m so excited that these videos are there for my students. One of the most surefire headaches for both students and teachers when it comes to these projects is when a student is absent for one of the library research days. This has always been one of those problems that seems insurmountably complicated. And it always happens, of course. And to many, many students. Every year. And still, each time a student returns to class and asks “What’d I miss?” I end up scratching my head in futility, wondering how I’m possibly ever going to catch them up.

Some analogies:

  • I know that my morning commute always take me around 35 minutes to get to work, and I know where the typical slowdowns are. But I still feel surprised and frustrated when I get to them.
  • Or when there’s an ongoing construction project that I should have anticipated, but when I get to it, the detour still throws me for a loop.
  • Or when I’m surprised by how many calories are in a milkshake or a cheeseburger.

Anyway, problem solved.

Go to this site, watch the videos. Come see me if you have any questions. Done.

Then there are the students who are so excited that they are in the library instead of in the classroom, sitting next to a friend instead of a non-friend, and in front of a computer instead of a row of desks, that there’s no way they’ll be able to pay attention to the live instruction.

And, of course, there are all those students with different learning needs for whom a video that they can stop and start at their leisure will allow them to go at a pace that ensures they can more fully understand all the steps in the process.

These are all points that are argued in the flipped classroom debate, but in this context it seems like a no-brainer. We’re still doing class time the way we’ve always done it, but if you missed it, in any sense of the word “missed,” here it is again, all spelled out for you.

Why don’t we do this for kids all the time? Because we don’t all have great librarians.

Okay, you can put your hand down now.

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Teach me how to Google?

Here’s what I realized today: my students don’t know how to use Google.

You might think that sounds crazy. Kids have grown up using Google. It’s second nature, right?

I don’t think so. I think that growing up in the information age may be having a perversely counterintuitive effect on them. Namely, they have no idea how to find information.

I took my frosh to the computer lab today to give them time to work on their essays on “The Cask of Amontillado.” They were armed with teacher-approved outlines and sample essays. I got them signed on to GoogleDocs and settled in for what I hoped would be an hour of frenzied typing with plenty of over-the-shoulder writing instruction.

Not so much. I did end up hopping around the room like a madman, giving plenty of instruction, but very little of it pertained to writing. Starting with the most frequently asked, these were the top questions of the day:

1. What was the name of the guy in the story?

2. How do you spell “catacombs”?

3. What’s Poe’s first name?

4. How does this sound so far?

Oh, how I wish question #4 were at the top of that list! That would have meant that I spent my day helping students articulate their ideas and clarify their writing. I love doing that! But instead, I spent my day responding to those other questions. Let’s look at them.

1. What was the name of the guy in the story?

I’m not even worried about the fact that they can’t remember these two names (the only two names – besides Luchesi – in the story). Who cares? And that’s exactly the point – there’s no reason to memorize the names of the characters because we can find them so easily! Or so I thought. To each kid that asked this, I told them to find out themselves. But how? We didn’t bring the textbooks down! Use the tools in front of you, I said. There are no tools in front of me! This actual exchange happened once, which caused me to mime ripping my hair out (I’m quite bald, so this always looks odd). I said, you have Google and the entire internet in front of you (you know, the most powerful tool in human history?).

After this exchange, I simply told each kid that asked this question to Google it. This instruction was usually met with a moment of hesitation. Some even asked, “How?”

Seriously. How do you google it. Can you imagine how difficult it was for me to hold back the tone of condescension in my voice when I explained, “Well, you type “cask of amontillado” into that Google search bar”? In fact, you don’t even have to do that. You can type “cask,” and Google will figure out the rest. Then you click on any 667,000 results that pop up 0.23 seconds later, and find the characters’ names in a plot summary or in the text itself.

2. How do you spell “catacombs”?

I often hear students cry out in distress, “How do I right-click?!” when in a Mac computer lab. It seems a lot of them rely on that technique for spell checking their Word documents at home. The fact that GoogleDocs doesn’t even let you control-click to find suggested corrections threw them into utter despair. “What do I do? I don’t know how to spell that?” Google it, I said, again. “But how – I don’t know how to spell it?” Just type a guess into Google, I said, trust me.

Again, with great trepidation, they’d begin to type their guess at the word into the Google search bar. Did you mean catacombs? “Oh look ,there it is.” Yup. Whaddaya know?

You can probably guess how question #3 went at this point, too.

So what does this mean? How is it that these students seem so unable to find out the simplest pieces of information? Is it laziness? Is it easier to wait with a raised hand or (who am I kidding) call out and try to get a teacher to give you a piece of information than to type it into Google yourself? Is it really possible they didn’t know that Google could help them?

To my generation, and to all those that came before me, the magical ease of Google may be due to the baseline we have for finding information. When you grew up having to walk/bike/get driven to a library, search card catalogs, follow the Dewey Decimal System, then search through the volume you finally find for an answer to your question, Google’s 0.23 second solution is incomprehensibly easy.

But when Google is your baseline, when you and your parents have always been able to find the answer to any question in an instant on your phone, maybe the act of typing the word in the search bar doesn’t seem so easy. Maybe it’s only natural to try the easier version first: asking the teacher.

I’m afraid, though, that the ease of finding right answers somehow leads to more indifference about making sure your answers are right. I hate to launch into a “kids these days” rant, but, for example, I Googled “dewey decimal system” a few moments ago just to make sure that I was right about the spelling and capitalization. I was pretty sure I was right, but since I only had to actually type in “dewe” before Google guessed what I wanted, and then it only took another 0.14 seconds for confirmation, it seemed worth it to me. And I know there will always be good students (like me) and less enthusiastic ones, but still, it’s troublesome how many “Cast of Amontilado” essays I’ve read over the past couple of years.

But why would ease of finding information lead to indifference? Is it the same reason that I’ve never been to the top of the Empire State Building? Growing up in New York, you know it’s always there, so why do it now? Growing up with Google, you know the answers are always there, so why find them now?

And whose job is it to teach kids how to Google? We 9th grade English teachers spend weeks teaching them how to navigate the SIRS and Gale databases to find scholarly articles, but that is starting to seem as sensible as teaching someone how to make a cheese soufflé instead of how to fry an egg.

I’m not mad at middle school teachers here, the way high school teachers sometimes get when our kids can’t write a sentence. I get it – we all thought they knew about Google! We see them manipulate their phones so dexterously, always texting their friends and using savvy-sounding abbreviations and even hashtags. And we think we’re on top of it with all of our 21st century learning goals and media literacy objectives.

But maybe we need to take a step backwards first. We’re all trying to make sure they become lifelong learners. It’d probably be good starting point, then, if they knew that the screen in front of them has the answers to pretty much every question. And it’s really not that hard to find them.

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Brains, homework, more tests and marbles

Did you know there was an International Mind Brain and Education Society? And that its nifty acronym is IMBES? And that they have this nifty logo?

It’s a whole new discipline founded on cross-collaboration between biology, education and cognitive/developmental science. It looks like it takes a scientific, research-driven approach to finding out how kids learn. I first heard about in this piece in the New York Times Sunday Review by Annie Murphy Paul.

There’s a journal and a conference and Harvard even has a master’s program.

The easily-inspired and optimistic part of me looks at developments like this and sees a possible solutions to all problems in education. So much of neuroscience is so new, relatively, that it seems sensible and feasible to expect that we will be able to teach better as we learn more about how kids learn.

Don’t worry, I’ll get cynical in a bit. First, some highlights from the article.

Murphy Paul’s Times piece focuses on the application of MBE findings to homework, which is what I’ve been thinking about lately as I wrestle with my students over getting them to actually do any homework. That so few of them complete it has been leading me to think that I may not be assigning the right work (it’s easier to say they’re lazy, yes, and they are, but still).

There’s the idea of “spaced repetition,”which would have students “encounter the same material in briefer sessions spread over a longer period of time.” We know that exposing ourselves to new information over and over again will cement it in our brains. But I often give homework based on that day’s lesson, then move on. If they learned anything at all, it’ll be gone by the next week. But I think my teacher-gut steers me away from giving students the same task over and over again. I may need to check that.

Then she talks about “retrieval practice,” and this one is really interesting. It calls for using tests as a way to reinforce learning, not  to assess it. So more tests? That throws me for a bit of a loop, given my general attitude toward tests (which is strongly influenced by the nature of our state tests and the weight they carry), but it makes sense. Murphy Paul: “Every time we pull up a memory, we make it stronger and more lasting, so that testing doesn’t just measure, it changes learning.”

That also gets me excited about the explosion of online test and quiz generators. Sites like Veri (still in beta), Quizlet, QuizBreak, and all these sites that Larry Ferlazzo put together could help us cash in on the value of retrieval practice.

And then there’s the finding that when we work harder to understand information we can recall it better. Apparently, psychologists have even found that the following techniques help learning: “sprinkling a passage with punctuation mistakes, deliberately leaving out letters, shrinking font size until it’s tiny or wiggling a document while it’s being copied so that words come out blurry.”

That makes me feel really good about my budget-saving practice of reducing the size of my handouts to fit four pages of text on one sheet of paper.

I know I promised to get cynical, but now I don’t feel like it. I’m excited about this strategy of making myself harder to understand to my students. I might put marbles in my mouth tomorrow before a lecture. Is that cynical?

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