“I found it miraculous that a thesis can transform so gradually. It was truly amazing to see it evolve into its final stage like a butterfly.” Millburn High School student

 Collaborative Learning
Over the past 13 years, my work as a library/media specialist has been centered on inquiry learning. Inquiry helps kids to think creatively, and when you capture their imaginations, this creativity will help them to develop problem-solving skills for life. Inquiry is about learning by asking questions, engaging with problems, and seeking knowledge to solve those problems. Dr. Carol Kuhlthau, professor emerita from Rutgers, says “Guided inquiry involves students in every stage of the learning process, from selecting what to investigate, to formulating a focused perspective, to presenting their learning in the final product.”

I have long been a proponent of walking alongside students as they process through their information seeking, much as a mentor would accompany an apprentice. Using the ISP (Information Search Process) developed by Dr. Kuhlthau, I created a model that provides a step-by-step process for guiding research. Because I was seeing my students struggling I wanted to be able to intervene at strategic moments in their process.

When a student of mine made the comment above about preparing a research paper, it reinforced my role as someone who should guide students through a journey. That same student  had initially told me that she found the beginning stages of research “overwhelming and chaotic.” I had to transform my teaching to address my students’ needs more immediately. I began thinking that instead of a printed research packet, I might create a digital environment where I would be able to see the stages of my students’ struggles and respond at their points of need, walking with them as they engaged in the process.

The collaboration begins

My first thought was to develop a document in Google Docs that would serve as a process journal where students would respond to questions posed by the classroom teacher or me. For example, “What did you struggle with most today during your research time in the library?” or “What search strategy did you use that was successful? Not successful?”

The start of my journey proved once again that timing is everything. My colleague Suzanne Snyder, a language arts teacher, approached me with her thoughts on doing a research project that would be all about the process and not about writing “the paper.”

“For years I thought I was doing the right thing by assigning a large research paper,” Suzanne explained. “I thought it was what every English teacher did. But after 10 years I felt both I and the kids were missing the point. I struggled to assign such a daunting paper, spending a week addressing the technical aspects of the actual paper, answering questions that seemed to suggest the students had never done research before and then watching them run around the library really having no idea why they were there.”

Suzanne had an epiphany. She wanted research to be about research and writing about writing. “Research and writing don't have to meet right away, but rather get to know each other naturally,” she suggested. Her assignment would focus on the authenticity and authorship of the works of William Shakespeare. It would serve as an introduction to her ninth-grade Romeo and Juliet unit, while also treating research as the process it is intended to be. Here was my chance to use Google Docs as an interactive journal conversation about the research process while Suzanne and I observed students’ progress.

Instead of note cards or conferences that take up class time, Suzanne and I would sign in once an evening to read the thread of comments. When she felt students had lost sight of their goals, she would pose a question for them to consider, and I would do the same. It was a great success.

“It was awesome to see such collaboration,” Suzanne noted. “To see students signing in and out of the Google Doc each night showed me they were invested in the process. I knew they would not be tempted to plagiarize and would not worry about writing an eight- to 10- page paper when they didn't even know what to write.”

The process of setting up the journal conversations

  1. Open a Google Doc.
  2. Provide instructions to your students “How to turn on comments” at the top of the doc.
  3. Pose your question.
  4. Add a roster of students listed on doc (so they can highlight their name to make their comments).
  5. Share the doc (you will need student email addresses).
  6. The journal can cover any point during the process depending on the insights and assessments you are working to obtain.
  7. Remember, the journal conversations are designed not to assess understanding of content but rather to provide insight to the students’ inquiry process.

This process journal is an excellent example of the modern role of school libraries. According to a recent two-phase study by Rutgers University's Center for International Scholarship in School Libraries (CISSL) on behalf of the New Jersey Association of School Librarians (NJASL), school libraries have much more to offer than just access to books or other resources. In fact the statewide study, “One Common Goal: Student Learning,” found that student research capabilities and success are explicitly linked directly to collaborative inquiry-based instruction implemented through instructional teams, where the instructional role of the school librarian is key to helping develop deep knowledge and understanding, rather than that of information collection.

Part of the inquiry-centered approach to learning through the school library is about modeling the inquiry process with teachers. This opportunity came for me when Suzanne wanted to address the challenges her students faced as they tried to go through a research project. She saw how research needed to be a separate process, and that when they meet at just the right time; can transform learning from a struggle to a butterfly, just as my student had observed. 

Going beyond the journal conversations

It wasn’t long before the word spread about the success Suzanne’s students were having with their research projects. Suzanne shared our journal conversations with her department head, who was surprised to see just how many struggles the students were experiencing and how we were able to strategically intervene and create an environment where students felt comfortable sharing their difficulties. As the process continued we began referring students to other students, connecting them to each other based on their own learning and knowing. The door for more collaborations swung wide open.

Working with another ninth-grade English teacher, Michelle Blakely, we created a PLN (personal learning network) using Google Docs. This PLN was built around the graphic novel Persepolis and was created to model our thought processes for our students while encouraging a questioning environment. Michelle felt this novel might be hard for her students to understand without some background knowledge.

The process began with Michele posing a question to me that I answered using authoritative resources. After we had modeled the desired behavior, she brought her students to the library to participate in a Google spread sheet we had created for students to share and ask questions. Students were encouraged to participate using previous knowledge or found knowledge from print or digital resources. No one was required to participate. We wanted this to be about their learning and their need to know.

We have extended this process to create a hybrid course where our students are meeting face to face while simultaneously working completely in a collaborative digital environment.

The priority for the school library program has to be about providing instruction, guidance, and assistance for students and teachers to get things done, anywhere, anytime. I am not concerned that a student might be able to find a book without me. In fact, that is my goal--to develop independent pursuers and users of information. How I embrace the pursuit of information (whatever the format) is the trait that will make the school library relevant now and into the future. Databases, eBooks, digital formats of whatever ilk can certainly collect dust the same way a print volume does if I am not doing my job correctly. 

How to create the PLN (personal learning network)

  1. Create an environment where your students feel safe to ask questions. Decide your topic, collaborate with your librarian and arrange time to take your students to the library. Our topic was the teaching of a difficult text: Persepolis (a graphic novel set in Iran).
  2. Set up a Google doc spreadsheet with the following headers:
    • Your Name?
    • Need help? Cite the page number in the book. Identify the reference or aspect of history you didn't know about or understand.
    • Provide help: Enter your name here if you know about the reference or aspect of history cited in the earlier column.
    • Provide help: Explain what you know that could help your classmates.
    • Provide help: Did you find something you can share that will help you or your classmates? Where did you find it? Cite your information.
    • Student reflection: Tell me what this process has been like?
  1. To get the process rolling, post the first question. The librarian responds using quality resource materials to answer the question.
  2. Provide time in the library for students to pose their own questions.
  3. Allow a variety of resources to answer questions (student’s own knowledge about the subject, Wikipedia, print materials, databases, open internet, etc.) The goal is to allow students the time to help each other understand the text by using the interactive digital tool we set up. Students should be allowed to pick the questions they want to answer and not be required to answer any questions if they don’t want to. By approaching the requirements in this manner a more casual opportunity is created for students to think about the novel and to pose real questions that vary in level of depth.

We discovered that students would thank their classmates for providing feedback, and they felt more connected to helping each other process the knowledge that was necessary to understand the text. What we also noticed was the variety of resource materials students used to respond to questions, using print, the open web and our subscription databases.

Transforming from “the struggle” to “the butterfly” 

Just because our students have grown up in a digital world doesn’t mean they know how to approach research and inquiry. By creating an environment where they can ask questions and help each other, we can aid them through the struggle to become a butterfly.

Another student said it best: “At the library, I have learned great techniques for researching. Before, I used to just look online and take random information without any organization. Now that I have tried the method that the librarian taught us I have found doing research so much easier and more efficient.”

As an educator, this process has shown me that while learning is transformational, so too is teaching, especially when I consider the way I teach and how I connect with teachers. I need to meet students where they are, where they can wonder, and where they can feel good about the struggle that brings about their own deep understandings.

When Suzanne, Michelle and I reflect on the work we did by creating a culture of inquiry in the digital environment for our students, we not only saw transformation for our students but transformation in how we can collaborate as colleagues.

LaDawna Harrington is the library/media specialist at Millburn High School and author of Guided Research in Middle School: Mystery in the Media Center. She was named New Jersey Outstanding Media Specialist in 2004 by the NJASL and has been featured on “Classroom Close-up, NJ.” Harrington serves as the chair of NJASL’s Outreach Committee and can be reached at ldharring@optonline.net.