Creating Context for Literature: Statistics Research in the English Classroom

When I began working at Thayer Academy in the fall of 2017 one of my goals was to increase outreach to and collaboration with different departments. There were strong existing relationships with many teachers in the history department, but few established partnerships with other teachers. In addition to meeting with department heads to learn more about existing curricula, I kept my eye out for willing collaborators. I believe the best way to encourage teachers to work with the library is by showing them examples of what their colleagues have done—the trick is to find someone who's willing to go first.

I've always found the faculty lunch table to be one of the most serendipitous locations in a school, and it was during a lunch conversation that I hatched an idea with two of our ninth-grade English teachers. Their classes had just started reading All-American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. The book, told from two perspectives, grapples with issues of racism, police violence, and bias. As students were discussing the book, their teachers were finding that while some students were familiar with the current events that the book's story mirrored, others were less aware. Additionally, both students and teachers had questions about the role of race in the criminal justice system and how cases of police violence were handled.

As the discussion continued, one of the teachers turned to me and said, "do you have any ideas for how students could research this question?" This was exactly the type of collaboration I had been looking for! I had been thinking a lot about Tasha Bergson-Michelson's work on imagining sources, as well as the Supporting Librarians in Adding Data Literacy Skills to Information Literacy Instruction project from the School of Information at the University of Michigan, and this seemed like a great opportunity to put some of those ideas into action.

Students were already midway through the book, so we didn't have much time to develop a plan and put it into action. Ideally, we can work with a teacher at the start of their planning process in order to create a project; however, that's not always how things work out, and I think it's important to build partnerships where we can, rather than waiting for "just right" opportunities. If a teacher sees you willing to jump into the middle of something and work together, they're more likely to want to work with you in the future.

The Process

We quickly identified a couple of skills we wanted students to work on: developing questions and visualizing sources in order to develop search strategies. We introduced the unit to students by saying that we would be looking for statistics to help us better understand the story being told in All-American Boys. We gave students some examples of question stems in order to jump-start their thinking and asked students to list several possible questions. Some students came up with several questions on the same general topic, while others listed questions on a range of topics. Students presented their questions to the class, and for each question we discussed what type of answers we might find, as well as ways to refine the question in order to clarify what information we were looking for. For example, some students asked questions about how something was different, several of which we refined so we could explore whether or not something was different; the question "How many more black people than white people are stopped by police?" became "How frequently are black people and white people stopped by police?"

Once students had some initial questions in mind we talked about imagining what the answers to those questions might look like. What shape does the information have? Who may have done the research to answer our questions? Who else is interested in our questions and answers?

Using my own question ("Do arrest rates for adolescents vary by race?") as a model, we talked about the forms statistical information comes in (tables, graphs, charts, etc.) and how we can use those terms to refine our searches. We looked at a few models to see how statistical information is labeled and generated keywords and context terms relevant to our questions. Students then sketched their ideal source—what it would look like, how it would be labeled, and where it would come from. We gave them a handout (Fig. 1) with questions and context terms they could use as a reference while sketching and also as they conducted their search.

Figure 1. Context Terms
Imagine Your Perfect Source…

Source Types and Context Terms
Add these terms to your search to help you find what you are looking for

  • What type of source is it?
  • Who created it?
  • Where was it created?
  • What is it called?
  • How old/recent is it?
  • What words are in the title? In subheadings? Captions? Sidebars?
  • Timeline
  • Report
  • Survey
  • Study
  • Picture
  • Image
  • Figure
  • FAQ
  • Case study
  • Map
  • Newspaper
  • Magazine
  • Graph
  • Table
  • Data
  • Statistics
  • Overview
  • Conference
  • Regulation
  • Presentation

Several students shared their sketches and as a class we brainstormed how we would search for a source like that. Using my model question and sketch, I did an initial search for my ideal source. My results included some things that looked like what I was looking for and several things I was not expecting. I did a "think aloud" with students, pointing out what I was seeing in my search and how I would refine my next searches based on these results. We wanted to make clear to students that searching is an iterative process, and your first search is rarely the last one you need to do in order to find your answer. Having a sketch of an ideal source helped illustrate the ways in which I needed to keep refining and searching—we all could see that I hadn't found what I was looking for quite yet.

As we looked at my search results and discussed with students where their information might come from, several students mentioned that government agencies may have collected the data they were looking for. I showed them how to limit their search to .gov sites, and we talked about the difference between data collected by the federal government and data collected by state governments and how you would need to vary your search strategies. This step of the project felt more rushed than any of us would have liked, and the teachers and I discussed the need to spend more time on defining and exploring different source types and building source evaluation skills.

The Product

Once students were off finding answers to their questions, the teachers and I realized we hadn't finalized how we'd ask students to report on their findings. We didn't want students to just hand us something and be done—we wanted them to share with their peers as well. This would not only give students a venue to share what they had learned with the rest of the class, but also to share the strategies they had used to find their information. The English department had been working on incorporating more public speaking opportunities into their curriculum, so we decided to have students do brief presentations. Very brief, in fact: we asked students to do sixty-second presentations. We wanted to students to only give the essentials of what they had done and what they had found and to practice editing their spoken work the same way they do their written work for economy of language.

The teacher gave a mini-presentation of his own to give students a model. Many of the student presentation stuck closely to the format of the model, though the differences between their questions and their search processes kept the content of the presentations from feeling repetitive. Some students had changed their initial question significantly during the search process or shifted to another topic entirely. We decided to prioritize having students learn skills around developing and refining search strategies over learning the content of their questions and answers.

Students found the sixty-second format challenging and, after receiving feedback on their presentations, many students wanted to re-do their presentation. We'd established learning from feedback and revising as a theme of the project—and students were used to revising their written work in an English classroom—so we set aside part of another class period for students who wanted to deliver their revised presentations. This was a definite upside of doing sixty-second presentation—we had the time to have students give their revised presentations. The improvement was significant; students spoke with more clarity and directness and also revised their slides to more clearly show the path they had followed in their research.

Looking Back, and Looking Ahead

Just as we asked students to revise their search strategies and their presentations, we recognized that we needed to revise this unit before we taught it again. The major advantage we have this time is that we can plan in advance. We've decided to start this project at the same time students start reading the book, as thinking about these issues and questions will help frame their understanding of the novel. Given that students will bring varying levels of background knowledge to this unit, I proposed using a write around featuring news stories on the themes of All-American Boys. Write arounds are one of my favorite strategies for engaging students with a new topic. I gather five or six brief passages of text and/or images around a topic and lay them out on chart paper. Students are then given different-colored pens (this really helps make the different voices visible) and collaboratively annotate the sources, writing reactions, asking questions, and making connections between different passages and their peers' comments. This strategy, from Harvey "Smokey" Daniels and Elaine Daniels book The Best-Kept Teaching Secret (2013), is great for quickly developing and tapping into background knowledge, as well as generating thought-provoking questions.

We also want students to spend more time thinking about where their information comes from and who is responsible for creating and publishing the sources they use. This is one of the areas where my goals for the first round of this project fell short; we did not spend enough time talking about how to interpret visual information and how to use that information to draw conclusions. We'll be giving students more guidance on how to deconstruct data visualizations. The relatively small scale of this project also gives us an opportunity to do more one-on-one work with students, and we've decided to do "source conferences" with each student so we can go into more depth about how they found their source, how they interpreted the information they found there, and how they determined the author's authority. I developed a single-point rubric (Fig. 2) to help guide these conversations and give students feedback. These conferences will not only help us identify areas of student strength and areas where further instruction is needed, they will also help students prepare for their presentations.

Figure 2: Single Point Source Rubric
Areas for Growth Criteria Areas of Strength

Student can explain the search strategies/terms they used to find those sources, as well as why they choose those strategies/terms.


Student can use evidence to explain who is responsible for this information.


Student can explain how they have interpreted the information in this source and how it answers their question.


The teacher was initially concerned that this would take up too much of my time, but I told him that I'm happy to spend as much time as we need on the condition that he tell all of his colleagues how great this project was—a condition he gladly agreed to.

What started as a casual conversation at the lunch table has turned into a project we'll iterate on and repeat for years to come and provided an example I can point to when looking to collaborate with other teachers.


Tasha Bergson-Michelson on imagining perfect sources:

Supporting Librarians in Adding Data Literacy Skills to Information Literacy Instruction, School of Information at the University of Michigan:

Questions stems:

Write around:

Single-point rubric:

You can see a sample student presentation here:

About the Author

Sara Kelley-Mudie, MEd, is the director of Southworth Library at Thayer Academy in Braintree, MA. She earned her master's in library science from Kent State and a master's of education in private school leadership from Teachers College Columbia. She is always happy to talk about inquiry, optimism, and/or podcasts.

MLA Citation Kelley-Mudie, Sara. "Creating Context for Literature: Statistics Research in the English Classroom." School Library Connection, April 2019,

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Entry ID: 2187125

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