Putting the Priority on Process

Throughout my 21 years as an educator, I have experienced an evolving relationship with research. As a high school English teacher, I assigned research projects I thought would inspire my students to explore a topic in-depth, but ultimately, I ended up rushing through the process so that I could grade the papers in a timely manner. As an elementary and now high school librarian, my role has changed from "assigner and grader" to more "collaborator and coach." This shift helped change my perspective on teaching research, from a focus on product to one on process.

There is no denying that research is about process. When we boil the word research down to its basic parts, it's about searching again in order to learn. But I know from personal experience that teachers often focus on the "search" and not on the "re," because in this standardized-testing-crazed world, who has the time to do anything again, much less repeatedly?

But without emphasizing the cyclical nature of research, we deny students the opportunity to practice resiliency. The challenges of our world demand that students be persistent problem-solvers—that they develop the mindset and stamina to search again and again for answers and solutions. And this takes time. The more we can focus on the inquiry skills strong researchers need and design opportunities for students to practice those skills regularly, the more ingrained these habits will become.

Spark Inquiry

One way that I do this is to utilize the cool stuff in the library to spark inquiry. Our library is lucky to have thirty five sets of VR goggles. I've discovered that a VR experience can spark curiosity in even the most jaded high schooler. This year our students explored Salem, medieval castles, and the surface of the moon. During these lessons, I give plenty of time to explore the scenes through the goggles, and I always allow time for students to generate questions in writing after their experience. We use those questions as a springboard to research so that they have an opportunity to try to find answers to their questions. We also do Breakout EDU activities in the library, which is a perfect way to incorporate inquiry skills. One of the most successful ones I did this year was with seniors in order to help them become "Fake News Fighters" (inspired by Jennifer LaGarde and Darren Hudgins's Fact vs. Fiction: Teaching Critical Thinking Skills in the Age of Fake News).

Provide Choice

Another barrier to building persistent researchers is the lack of student agency in the process. When the topic is teacher-assigned, the questions are teacher-generated, and the products are teacher-designed, there is no ownership for students. It's hard to be resilient in learning about something you care nothing about.

Counter this characteristic by advocating for student choice in topics. For example, our seniors used to write a traditional literary research paper about the archetypes in Beowulf. It was a painful experience that caused much gnashing of teeth (much like Beowulf himself!). After several years of reflective conversations with the teacher about how he thought his students did on their papers (he gnashed his teeth while grading them), the teacher agreed to try something different: students now choose a topic that will impact them in the near future (a passion, a problem, or a process). Our students have explored topics such as the history of tattoos, the problem of police brutality, and how to apply for college financial aid. The gnashing of teeth by students and their teacher has been reduced to zero.

Help Ask the Right Questions

Support their agency further by helping students to focus on asking the right questions. The senior English teacher and I collaborate and co-teach several lessons to help students develop their own questions. We encourage them to carefully evaluate sources in order to find solid answers. When they can't find the answer, we model going back to the question to see if it can be recrafted. This is a crucial skill to cultivate in resilient researching.

Be a Model

Finally, we can model for our students and improve our own practice by being resilient researchers ourselves. As librarians and teachers, we must continuously seek ways to grow as teachers of research. For example, I am always looking for ways to improve my lessons around helping my students ask better questions because I see this as a crucial part of the process.

As our students graduate and step into this complicated world, problems that need to be solved await them. It is crucial that we not only teach our students how to be real-world researchers but that we also instill the necessary resiliency to keep them searching for solutions.

Resources

MacKenzie, Trevor. Dive into Inquiry: Amplify Learning and Empower Student Voice. EdTechTeam Press, 2016.

LaGarde, Jennifer, and Darren Hudgins. Fact vs. Fiction: Teaching Critical Thinking Skills in the Age of Fake News. ISTE, 2018. (This book gives you access to a fake news digital breakout created by LaGarde, which I used to create my own.)

Gallagher, Kelly, and Penny Kittle. 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents. Heinemann, 2018. (I urged the senior English teacher to read this, and I believe this is the book that helped him make the switch to giving students choice in their own research.)

Luhtala, Michelle, and Jacquelyn Whiting. News Literacy: The Keys to Combating Fake News. Libraries Unlimited, 2018.

About the Author

Amianne Bailey, MA, is a teacher librarian at Mesquite High School in Mesquite, TX. She received her master's degree in liberal arts from Southern Methodist University and her school library certification from the University of North Texas. She is also a diamond-level literacy trainer for Abydos Learning. You can follow her and her library on Twitter @AmianneB and @SkeeterLibrary.

MLA Citation Bailey, Amianne. "Putting the Priority on Process." School Library Connection, July 2019, schoollibraryconnection.com/Home/Display/2214789.

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