Not Just “Doing Research”: An Interview with Albany High Teacher Scholar Sara Oremland
In early February, Mills Teacher Scholar Sara Oremland, Teacher Librarian at Albany High School, presented at the California School Library Association conference along with Allyson Bogie, Teacher Librarian at Fred T. Korematsu Middle School in El Cerrito. Their joint presentation, “Not Just ‘Doing Research’: Strategies for Purpose-Driven Secondary Research Projects,” highlighted the process and findings of their collaborative inquiry into supporting students to find credible, useful sources. In the following interview, Sara discusses their inquiry journey. To hear more about Sara’s and her Albany High colleagues’ inquiry work, come to our Teacher Inquiry in Action Forum on March 23rd!
Q: Tell me about your inquiry. What were you hoping to learn? How did you go about it?
Allyson and I were both trying to figure out why the majority of our students didn’t seem to know what kind of information they needed to find to accomplish a research task. For example, at my site I did a lot of work teaching students about finding credible sources. But then when we would do a research task where they needed to find information that wasn’t just credible but could help them answer a question, the majority were finding sources that were on topic but had limited usefulness to actually answer their research question. So I was trying to figure out what was behind this frustration. Did they misunderstand the task? Did they not know what was needed? Did they not know how to get what they needed, or did they not recognize that what they were finding wasn’t helpful? If not, why couldn’t they tell that the sources weren’t helpful? Those were all the questions that I was struggling with and Allyson held those questions too.
My breakthrough came through interviews with proficient students. I had recently done a research project with a group of freshman and at least 70% of them were not finding the kind of sources I wanted them to find. Only about 10% were finding what I envisioned would be the right kind of sources. So I interviewed a couple of those students, trying to find out what process led them to finding good sources. Both my Mills Teacher Scholars colleagues and Allyson helped me think through the interviews. My Mills thinking partners helped me identify what the students were actually saying. Then when I listened to them again with Allyson we were also able to name what the skill was. So, for example, the students that I interviewed seemed to have reframed the question or interpreted the question in their own terms. They could articulate what the research task was and they gave it back to me without using the language that I gave them. So Allyson and I realized that interpreting the task is an important skill that these few kids knew how to do.
Another thing we noticed was that these students had a picture in their head of what kind of information would be helpful and then they tried to go and find it. We called this anticipating – they could anticipate what kind of information they would need. Other students were just typing in the question we gave them without breaking it down and without a vision in their head of what kind of info would be helpful to find.
The third skill Allyson and I identified in our proficient students was evaluating. These students were able to evaluate what they got, figure out how useful it was, and make adjustments in their search to get more of what they were actually looking for.
Q: Were there any surprises along the way?
One of my interviewees really surprised me because she’s an okay student but not always super academically oriented. The question they were researching was: Is it ever appropriate to remove a book from a school library or school curriculum? She found these court cases that dealt directly with this question. So when I was interviewing her I asked, “How did you get here? Did you know you needed court cases from the beginning? Are your parents lawyers? Are you interested in law?” But instead she said, “When I was searching I noticed that one of the sources I found briefly mentioned how a certain book ended up in court. When I saw that I thought if something ends up in court it must be for a big deal reason. So I searched that court case.” I had held a theory that maybe kids who were doing well had some extra prior knowledge, but she didn’t.
Q: Tell me about the inquiry process itself. How did it lead to changes in your teaching?
I was fortunate that after trying a strategy with my first group of students, Allyson and I would meet. Then I would have three other groups of students come in, so I was able to make adjustments and try out teaching strategies with different batches of students. One strategy we developed came from noticing that when proficient students interpreted a research question they used different words. Like one boy added the word “controversial” to his search about whether it is ever appropriate to remove a book. We hadn’t given him that word. So like a lot of teachers do KWLs, we made a graphic organizer we are calling a KWH. In the “K” column – What do you already know? – we asked, What are some words or synonyms you associate with this topic? I would write their words on the board and explicitly tell them to use these synonyms to reinterpret the question. Don’t just use the question we gave you, use these words to search.
The next column in our organizer – “W” – is what do you want to know. We realized that most students were trying to find sources that directly answered a specific question. However, what we actually wanted them to do was find evidence that would support a yes or no position about the issue. I gave them an example: say you found a study that said students who are exposed to violent imagery are more likely to be violent. How could you use that evidence to take a position on whether it is ever appropriate to remove a book? They were like, “Whoa! That evidence had nothing to do with books!”
Finally, the “H” column stands for How. We would ask them, How are you going to find your information? What search strategies will you try, what key words will you use? In groups, the students would decide who would find what, trying not to all focus on the same information.
The result was that we went from 70% finding not that great sources to 70% finding the kind of information I would want them to find. And the really proficient kids found way better sources than the proficient kids did the first time.
Q: Where will you go next? What are you still wondering about?
I do still have 20-25% of my students finding the same kind of basic sources as before. I don’t know yet where the breakdown is occurring for them. Do they still not understand the research task? When they search, are they still having trouble recognizing what’s useful? Is it a matter of reading comprehension? I’m thinking this time that I won’t do formal interviews with proficient students, but try more on-the-fly interviews with these struggling students while they are at work on a research task. I’ll try to ask some targeted questions: When you started researching what were you thinking? What did you think you needed to find? What was your understanding of this task?
Also, we didn’t tackle the skill of evaluating in our first round of changes to our instruction. Allyson and I really want to look at what’s going on there. What makes someone know what information is useful? So that’s our next step.