Sunday, January 14, 2018

The 6 Things I Learned About Research in the Library

Confession: This post has been sitting in my drafts since the end of LAST SCHOOL YEAR! It seems like the end of the year is always a whirlwind, so it's no surprise that I missed finishing this little number. But I am finally getting around to sharing it.  And lucky for you, I have done another round of research projects and was able to update a few pieces of advice!

My first year I wanted to create large research projects to do with my classes.  I did some with a few grades but wanted to do one with each grade level. I learned a lot through the research units I completed with my students the second and third year.  So I felt it was only appropriate to pass the wisdom I have gained to you!

(Note:  This was written specifically for libraries but a lot of it will apply to a regular classroom as well.  So classroom teachers- read on!)

Lesson 1: Space Them Out

Have you ever had an idea and thought it sounded great, only to find out when you started that it was NOT?  I wanted to come up with some research projects that I could do with my students that tied into their curriculum, would hopefully be interesting to them, and let them practice all those research skills we learn in the library - all still great ideas.  The plan was to scatter them throughout the year, but things kept rearranging my plans and I got to the end of March realizing time was quickly disappearing.  That's when I got the not-so-brilliant idea for my first round of projects: "Let's just do all the research projects at once!"

Now I feel like I should clarify.  For the most part I enjoyed these projects.  And the kids seemed to enjoy them, too.  Most of my students were engaged and actually interested in the topics they were researching.  It is just a LOT of work.  When you're doing research with students you end up having to put out fires, remind students of things you taught them a billion times, and hop from here to there and back again helping students problem solve.  I love it because they really learn through the process, but at the end of a day running around like a crazy person I am mentally fried.  If I could do it over again, I would space out the projects and do 1-2 grade levels at a time (like I originally planned to do) so that it added some variety to my day.  And some sanity.

Lesson 2: Pre-teach, Pre-teach, Pre-teach!

Every teacher knows that their students are more successful when they have prior knowledge on a topic.  I spent a lot of time before the actual projects teaching my students the individual skills they would need to be successful in their research.  We did units on research skills and the resources our library had that would be helpful.  Not only did it make my students more independent during their projects, it also lowered my work load.  Pre-teaching meant that the students that needed help with skills we had covered would find other students that remembered the information.

My second year of research projects really showed the benefits of teaching these skills.  It was no surprise students that had been with me the previous year remembered most of those skills, especially after we reviewed them.  I spent a lot less time running around reminding students how to use the databases and a lot more helping them analyze the information and asking questions that generated more research.  If you are doing projects in your library I would highly recommend teaching how to access and use databases from your library subscriptions, how to cite sources, narrowing search terms, and plagiarism.  It is also helpful to teach students how to take notes when doing research.  Otherwise you will get halfway through the project and realize they are copying down whole paragraphs from an online encyclopedia, which is just a waste of time at best and - at worst - lends itself to plagiarism.  

Lesson 3: Give Some Choice (but Don't Be Afraid to Set Limits)

One thing I really wanted to include in my projects was choice.  So many times in school kids are forced to do projects on something specific and have no interest in the topic.  Since my projects were not for a grade, having students invested was important to keeping interest up and mischief down.  However I am not proposing you simply tell your students to choose any subject they want!  If you have the time and energy for that God bless you and go for it!  But having a million different types of projects with classes of 25 kids would not have worked for our short 40-50 minute class periods. 

To accomplish this balance, I chose a broad topic that fit the students' grade level science or social studies standards and then let them narrow it from there.  I then created research record sheets that would require them to find information that would fit both that broad range of topics and their standard.  For example, fifth grade researched ancient civilizations but got to choose which one.  Some other ideas might include:

Limiting Topic:                                     Student Choice:
Migration of People Groups                Students choose a migration event 
Animals                                                  Students choose an animal
Biographies                                            Students choose the person
Countries                                                Students choose a country
Weather                                                  Students choose a type of weather event

I also allowed students to work either in a group of two or on their own.  We are fortunate to have 15 computers in my library which meant this generally was not an issue.  I only had a handful of instances where students that wanted to work alone had to compromise and work with a partner. 

Lesson 4: Know Your Students

As with any classroom it is important to know your students.  Who will need extra help and who will need a challenge?  Which kids will be able to help others?  Which behaviors will you need to keep an eye out for and how will you limit them?  Making those modifications and setting procedures in place to minimize issues makes your life a lot easier.  I only remember one major issue I had to deal with while doing these projects (which I mention later on) and it really wasn't bad at all.

Lesson 5: Know Your Resources 

The second time I had my students do projects they only used three websites for their research.  I did this for two reasons.  First, the project was at the end of a unit about our databases and electronic resources.  Since the focus was using those databases this restriction worked well to ensure they practiced using them instead of simply using Google.  The end goal was familiarizing my students with the research resources our library had and allowing them to use other sites distracted from that goal.

Another reason I made this restriction was that it was a lot easier for me to visually see if a student was off task.  When you are dealing with 25 students doing 13-15 different projects you can't watch everything.  With a quick glance I knew if a student was off task and needed to be redirected.

Now let me clarify one thing before we go on.  I am not saying to always restrict your students to your databases.  It is EXTREMELY important for librarians to teach students how to analyze resources and choose websites that are appropriate and valid.  My suggestion would be to have two different research projects - one in Fall and one in Spring.  For the first unit you can focus on databases and basic research/note taking skills.  Then you can use the second project to teach about search terms, authoritative sources, etc. and have them branch out to other websites to practice those skills.  From my experience the students will start to gravitate toward using the databases first once they become familiar with them, and I use this to help them learn how to cross-check websites for accuracy.

Lesson 6:  Make a Plan (But Be Flexible!)

It is important to plan out your project ahead of time.  Know your end goal and how your students will get there.  But even the best laid plans can fail.  Some classes may take longer than others.  Students will need to use other resources because there is just not enough on their topic.  A fire drill happens right as the students sit down to work... the complications in the classroom never end! So above all be flexible and willing to change things up if they aren't working.  I had a class that I quickly realized would not be able to work in pairs because they were just too distracted.  After a warning and a second chance that class got split into two groups.  Half worked on their research while the other half checked out and did library centers.  Once we reached the halfway point of class they switched.  Students were not happy about working solo, and they took longer than the other classes to finish, but it was an important change to make that project work.

There is no doubt research projects in the library are a challenge.  With so little time and so many kids it can seem daunting.  But I promise with a little preparation, a little flexibility, and a lot of excitement it can be one of your favorite times in your classroom!

So what research projects have you done in your classroom or library?  What are your tips for a successful unit?

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