Our Ongoing Journey into Project-Based Learning

The World of the Library Lesson

I started my school librarian life at the turn of the new millennium. I had been an elementary classroom teacher for many years. After surviving Y2K (bonus points for readers who remember the terror that was Y2K) and with my newly minted MLIS degree firmly in hand, I had the good fortune to land a position as a middle school librarian at a wonderful independent school in Los Angeles. The World Wide Web was relatively young, print sources and traditional bibliographic skills were largely still the main game in town at most schools, and I had landed in a place that valued libraries with what amounted to an unlimited book buying budget. Upon my arrival I was handed a three-ring binder that held copies of the assignment sheets for every research assignment that had been assigned during the previous school year. I came to learn that every seventh grader in our 7–12 school was enrolled in a course in which foundational technology and research skills were taught. During my dizzying first three months as a librarian, I saw every single seventh grader, fifteen class sections, through an arc of five or six "library lessons." Those lessons covered: The Big6 research process, using a print index, reference sources, searching the book catalog, using call numbers, building citations, taking notes, and database searching. It was a thing of beauty, but it was a beauty rooted in a specific time and culture of teaching and learning.

Over the course of the dozen years that I remained at the school, I tweaked my instruction continuously and our library lessons evolved to reflect changes in assignments and the growth of online research. Essentially, however, my library instruction adhered to a fairly traditional "library lesson" paradigm. Teachers presented students with a topic and an assignment that incorporated research, and the library delivered sources and instruction on how to locate, access, and use those sources.

A New Job and A New World

Life intervened and I found myself with an opportunity to move back to my hometown of Honolulu. As a librarian living under a lucky star, I found myself moving from one great job to another and I now work at an amazing PK-12 progressive independent school nestled in a beautiful valley overlooking the city. Our library team consists of two MLIS librarians with a full-time assistant, and we oversee the library program and the information curriculum schoolwide. When I arrived, I joined a school community embarking on a journey centered around developing and nurturing a student-centered culture of teaching and learning.

Project-Based Learning and the School Library

Over the four years I have been here, our curriculum has moved toward more and more project-based learning. In project-based learning, agency and engagement are designed into the curriculum in a variety of ways, but one of the most common is by giving students choice. Sometimes choice comes in how students show what they have learned—the final product. Just as often, however, choice comes in the form of allowing students to select the topics or the facets of a topic that they explore and research.

As a program, we find ourselves doing far fewer one-shot library lessons and increasingly see cohorts of students multiple times over the course of a project. In a school that aims to individualize instruction as much as we do, this means is that one-size-fits-all library lessons are rarely a good fit for the kind of teaching and learning that takes place here. As a result, I have had to become a different kind of librarian.

In making information literacy and research instruction work in our context, one of the first and most prominent needs we had to address was articulating our content. As a school library team, we invested time developing an aspirational scope and sequence. Based largely on a scope and sequence developed and shared by independent school librarian Nora Murphy at Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy in La Cañada, California, our scope and sequence includes:

  • Use of research tools
  • Source selection and documentation
  • Research notes and organization
  • Research methods
  • Knowledge of sources types
  • Information use

As school librarians working as a team, articulating our curriculum and vocabulary for ourselves helped us to better share our program's message and content with our faculty and students in our day-to-day work.

In the sections that follow, I offer additional examples and reflections on the effects of project-based, individualized learning on the library and our teaching practice.

Recognize the Instructional Impact of Your Faculty

I love my school. I am incredibly grateful that I get to come to work each day at an institution that undoubtedly values that the work we do and the skills and know how that we bring to our school community. There are, however, just so many hours in a school day and there is only so much instruction that two librarians can deliver directly. As library director, over the course of the last four years, perhaps the single most important realization that I have come to embrace is that while it is my job is to be sure that information skills are being taught and that they are being taught well, that does not necessarily mean that all of the information instruction needs to be taught by librarians.

Over the course of a school year, discipline-area teachers have thousands and thousands of instructional interactions with students. No matter how fantastic your lessons may be, there is no way that four to six high school library lessons a year could ever match the impact of a well-trained teacher teaching and reinforcing quality information literacy instruction as an inextricable part of their everyday instruction.

Use Library Lessons as Teacher Professional Development

We continue to have classes come into the library for "library lessons." As we venture further down the path toward more project-based learning, however, the perspective that I bring to my library lessons has evolved in some meaningful ways. I now largely see these lessons as opportunities to deliver information literacy professional development to our teaching faculty. Our library program covers instruction to our elementary, middle, and high schools. Because we only have two librarians on staff, it is not unusual that a librarian will teach and model a research or information literacy lesson for a teacher's first two sections of a course, but that teachers will be responsible for the instruction for their remaining sections. I have come to realize that this reality has been very helpful in getting teachers to take our research and information literacy instruction and make it their own. If it is, as I believe, my job to make sure that information literacy instruction is being taught rather than to teach all of the information literacy myself, this is a wonderful thing!

As high school teachers here have become familiar with the premise that regardless of format, students' notes need to incorporate attribution back to a source, we spend less and less time addressing that issue in our direct instruction—our teachers are largely teaching that part of our curriculum for us.

Shape the Project to Shape the Practice

As we have moved toward more project-based learning in our high school curriculum, much of the work to build good information literacy practice into our students' learning experience has come in the form of working with teachers to build those practices into their project design. Teachers here, for example, always required that a MLA works cited lists be turned in with students' projects. As we looked at students' practice more holistically, however, it became evident that many of our students did not methodically keep track of the sources they used as they gathered facts and quotes. We began working with our faculty to develop a culture of documentation. We encouraged teachers to require that students submit notes pages at various points in the research process. Some of our teachers collected notes at specific points while others let students know that they could ask for "notes on demand" at any point in a project. As teachers began to incorporate the notes requirement we supported the practice instructionally by teaching note taking practices that emphasized that regardless of format—digital or on paper—any fact or quote in students' notes had to be clearly attributable to a specific source.

Being freed from teaching note taking has, in turn, allowed us to work with teachers and students on other aspects of information literacy. We have, for example, worked with classes on authoring thesis statements. There were some initial feelings of consternation about whether writing thesis statements was a "library thing." I see support of authoring thesis statements as helping students "effectively use" the information they find, so I was happy to do it. In the course of working on thesis statements with classes, some teachers found that once students got a draft of a thesis statement actually written, that many students found that they needed to circle back in the research process to find content they now realized they lacked. When a teacher tells a librarian, "Next project, I want to change the project design and move the thesis writing up a week or two to give the kids time to circle back and do the research that they find out they're missing" we are on our way toward an information literacy curriculum.

Observe Students Carefully and Keep Raising the Bar

As requiring working notes became more common, we began to realize that students were not always engaging with all of their sources as deeply as was desirable. It would not be uncommon, for example, for a student to glean the vast majority of their citations from a single source, then incorporate a single quote or fact each, from a few other sources to round out what at first blush looked like a fine works cited list. To encourage deeper engagement with sources, we encouraged teachers to begin requiring annotated works cited lists. We initially raised this idea at a high school faculty meeting. Because we were not sure how well received the idea might be, we developed a very simple, very brief annotation format and let teachers know that if they wanted to incorporate an annotation requirement, that we would happily come into their classes and help with the instruction. The response from our teachers was remarkable! Our social studies teachers continued to require working notes and began incorporating annotated works cited requirements for their projects almost across the board. The best part about this entire endeavor, however, is that after working with our annotation format for a short time, the social studies team decided that they wanted to adopt the OPVL (Origin Purpose, Value, Limitation) annotation format that is used in our International Baccalaureate (IB) courses in all of the high school social studies classes whether they were IB courses or not. The library program, in turn, adopted OPVL annotation in our instruction in other disciplines.

Final Thoughts

Change is hard. For me, letting go of my hard earned "library lesson expertise" and looking at ways to build information literacy concepts and knowledge about processes, skills, and research tools into other people's instruction has been challenging—at times it has been downright discouraging. In the end, however, what really matters is that in the time that they are with us, our students have learning experiences that leave them equipped to successfully navigate the increasingly complex information universe that is the reality of their time and their world. Do I think we have reached the point where I believe we need to be? Not yet! I am, however, pleased with the progress we have made so far and I am beginning to see that four years of trial and error and perseverance have brought what was once a rather opaque path forward into increasingly clear relief. Developing information literacy and research instruction is a journey. Parts of most journeys can be challenging, but in the end they are there to be enjoyed! Be willing to let go and embark on a journey of your own. If you are anything like me, you won't regret it. It's the best hard work I've ever gotten to do!

About the Author

David Wee, MILS, is the library director at Mid-Pacific Institute, a PK-12 independent school in Honolulu, HI. He holds both a master's in education and a master's in library and information studies, both from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Wee blogs regularly for Independent Ideas, the blog of the Association of Independent School Librarians, and in 2017 received AISL's Marky Award in recognition of his contributions to the organization.

MLA Citation Wee, David. "Our Ongoing Journey into Project-Based Learning." School Library Connection, December 2018, schoollibraryconnection.com/Home/Display/2230094.

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Entry ID: 2152654

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