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December 8, 2011 Taking Risks for 21st Century Research Skills By Mary Blow
Grades 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

    John Keats once said, “I was never afraid of failure, for I would sooner fail than not be among the best.” The thing about trying something new in your classroom is that every now and then, you will fall on your face. Consider it a rite of passage, a step toward becoming one of the best. This is particularly important to remember when it comes to teaching 21st century literacy skills. Whatever happens, don’t let those seeds of self-doubt take root. You can always push the Stop button, rewind, and reteach, which is what I did this week. Read on to see how I learned an important lesson about failing — and successfully taught my students important 21st century research skills.

    Every time I start a research project with my 6th graders, I question my sanity. But even if it gets messy, in the end, it is worth it. A couple weeks ago we started researching invasive species. Because this is a current events topic, our library didn't have any pertinent print resources. Luckily, however, our library subscribes to databases: our research project became the perfect opportunity to push my 6th graders out of their comfort zone.

    I was aware in doing this that I was taking certain risks. First, the databases contain much higher-level reading content, which could cause struggling readers to shut down. Second, my students' technological skills vary widely. Some are tech savvy while others are afraid. None are adept at research. Still, we cannot avoid the challenging learning experiences provided by research. These skills prepare our students for college, careers, and life.


    Keywords & Spelling

    Our first hurdle was spelling the names of our topics: blue tilapia, Burmese python, rhesus monkey, Muscovy duck, etc., all posed a challenge. When students didn’t find information on their species, I asked them to check the spelling. I also showed them that Google and other search engines often suggest correct spellings. If they still couldn’t find information, I reminded them that re- in research means again: they needed to search again. Oh, I got a dirty look or two, but it was worth the excitement when they found it and felt the success.

    If they were still struggling, they usually needed to try different keywords. Because my 6th graders were researching unfamiliar topics, thinking of new keywords was difficult. They had to read articles to find out that there were synonymous or related terms. It took scaffolding. I showed them that database articles often suggest related terms. As with writing topics, students had to narrow the keywords if they got too much information or broaden them if they couldn’t find any information. For instance, in researching Asian carp, we found synonymous keywords such as black carp, silver carp, grass carp, and bighead carp to help us find additional information.

    I breathed a sigh of relief when I pulled out the Information Charts, or I-Charts. These charts help students stay focused on their topics and subtopics while harvesting facts. At the bottom of the handout, there is a space for recording keywords as students encounter them, so they can record the correct spelling and keep track of them.


    Internet Search Tips

    Having used their keywords and exhausted the database, they were drowning in information. A quick mini lesson served as a life jacket. I modeled the following search: “Burmese python.” The quotation marks indicated to the search engine that I was looking for these two words together, not divided by other words. We got information on Burmese pythons, but some of it included exotic pet shops and pet owners' guides. So, we narrowed the search by typing "Burmese python + invasive species." The plus sign indicated that I only wanted information that pertained to both Burmese pythons and invasive species, filtering out unnecessary information. This narrowed the search results considerably.

    Classroom resources for teaching Internet search tips include Google classroom posters, the article“How to Use Google Search More Effectively” by Josh Catone, and a Scholastic PDF “Using the Web for Research.” 




    Evaluate Internet Sources

    So now they had thousands of pages of relevant information. For better or for worse, it's human intuition to click on the first few links. My students are no different. However, they learned to do a quick survey of URLs before clicking. At middle school level, I begin by teaching my students the top-level domains, illustrated in the table at the right. I tell them that they must focus on educational (.edu), U.S. government (.gov), and organization (.org) sites. They may use commercial (.com) sites. but only if we are familiar with the seller. Trusted commercial sites include Scholastic News, Time, National Geographic, The New York Times, etc. Notice that all of these are publishers, which is why we decided we could trust them. If in doubt, my students check with me.

    We also talk about Wikipedia. My students are not allowed to use Wikipedia as a resource. Each work on Wikipedia is a collaborative effort, with content from people with a range of — or no — credentials. However, my students are allowed to scroll down to the bottom of a Wikipedia page or other Web site and skim the bibliography for credible resources. Whether skimming Google search results or bibliographies, my students focus on top-level domains. For more on teaching your students how to evaluate Web sites, see the South Seattle Community College article “Teaching Students to Effectively Use the Internet” and Mary Blow's “Web Site Evaluation Form.” 


    Google Is Not a Web Site and Other Citation Tips

    At the end of our first day of researching, I discovered that a number of things had gone wrong. This year, I switched to the new MLA format to prepare students for college and careers. However, the new MLA does not require URLs, and we were creating a wiki with our research information. If we wanted to publish our writing online, we had to link back to our sources, so we needed the URLs. It was one of those fall-on-your-face moments. In addition, some of my students were citing text and images from Google although I had told them repeatedly that Google is a search engine, not a Web site. Others forgot to cross-reference their notes to the bibliography. I left school that day feeling defeated, wondering whether I should cut my losses or go back and reteach the assignment using I-Charts.


    Luckily, for this project we're collaborating with Ronica Lawrence and her students from Heuvelton School District, so I emailed her in frustration. She graciously shared her own challenges and some words of wisdom: “Reteaching is what education is all about.” Roni is right. If we walk away because it is too hard or because they don’t get it, we are not teaching. We have to reteach regardless of the time it might take. The next day, I taught them how to cite their sources using the bibliography I-Charts. When we couldn’t find the source, we learned how to use the keywords from the information they did record. This, too, was a useful research skill. It took an additional three days of instructional time, but they now know the relevance of citing their work.

    Initially, my students were frustrated with the extra work, but I reminded them that it is when we are out of our comfort zone that we are learning. Researching and citing sources definitely pushed my students out of their comfort zone, but with some guidance and the I-Charts, they got back on track. Most importantly, my students engaged in learning, and my heart is singing because they feel successful.


    Are you researching with your students? Please share your experiences below.


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