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Overwhelming Evidence
[January 06, 2006]

Overwhelming Evidence

(School Library Journal Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)Last spring, Doug Helferich spent six weeks exploring superstring theory, a red-hot issue in physics. Elizabeth Ngs love affair with botany prompted her to track down recent findings on plant

hormones called auxins. Courtney Puglisi set out to study the teenage mind and ended up synthesizing peer-reviewed articles on teenage sexual behavior.

College level work by college students? If you said yes, you would be half right. Only the best college students could handle these topics well. But the students who took on the topics and were entitled to a victory lap when they finished werent college students. They were juniors at Gill St. Bernards

School in Gladstone, NJ, and their projects were part of a rite of passage at the schoola six-week lesson in information handling required of all 11th graders. Guided by the private schools upper school librarians and science teachers, juniors select a course-related topic that interests them, analyze recent studies about it, and produce a paper that summarizes their research and conclusions.

Freedom of choice is key to the annual programs success, Randi Schmidt believes. Schmidt is the upper schools head librarian, one of 93 teachers and administrators in the school of 645 students from pre-K to 12th grade. One of the things the evidence has shown, she says, is that kids learn best when they answer questions that they have themselves. Not something that the teacher tells them to do. Not questions that the textbook lays out.

The program is a true teacher-librarian collaboration. Im happy with the results, says Larry Bostian, Doug Helferichs physics teacher. Mrs. Schmidt and I have two different ends in mind, and when you combine them, it makes a good project.

Visitors to the schools somewhat cramped, 30,000-volume upper school libraryone of 16 buildings dotting a bucolic, rolling, 72-acre campusoften hear the phrase the evidence has shown. Thats because Schmidt and the two librarians who work with her regularly ask themselves if what and how they teach are rooted in the latest research. My entire curriculum is based on prior scholarship and my understanding of how my students learn, she says.

What Schmidt is describing is the essence of an evidence-based practice (EBP), one in which the process of searching for information can be as important as the product. EBP is a kind of three-legged stool. One of the legs rests on the evidence information scientists have produced on the research process. Another leg stands on the librarians understanding of how her individual patrons learn bestvisually, aurally, by reading, or all three. The third leg consists of data, measurable proof that the librarians guidance has a real impact on learning. Keeping this wobbly stool upright isnt easy. Its very labor intensive on the librarians side, Schmidt says, and also on the kids side. This is not something you can sleep through.

The information scientist whose research has most shaped Schmidts practice is Carol Kuhlthau, director of the Center for International Scholarship in School Libraries. She taught me everything I know, says Schmidt, who was one of Kuhlthaus students at the School of Communication, Information, and Library Studies at New Jerseys Rutgers University. Kuhlthaus investigations of research techniques led her to identify several places where young researchers can use a librarians helping hand. Ross Todd, one of Kuhlthaus colleagues at Rutgers, calls intervention the key role of the school librarian and one that ordinarily involves a close partnership with classroom teachers.

Kuhlthau knows the library at Gill St. Bernards well, having helped Todd conduct a study of teacher-librarian partnerships there in the 20032004 school year. What Randi is doing is implementing an inquiry approach to research, says Kuhlthau. She has bumped it up to another level. She emphasizes the learning of the student more than the project. We have a name for thatguided inquiry. It emphasizes the learning process, what students are learning as they go along.

Students at Gill St. Bernards are introduced to guided inquiry as soon as they enter either the middle or upper school. Its the job of Ginny Kowalski, the research librarian, to guide younger students along the path to information literacy, the ability to locate, evaluate, and use needed information. I meet seventh and eighth graders twice a week for 45 minutes throughout the year, she says. We teach them all the research skills, and I expose them to various databases as well as paper materials.

A series of two-month research projectsthree for seventh graders, four for eighthallows students to practice what Kowalski has preached. The projects are tied to the schools various curricula. Working in concert with history, English, and science teachers, this year she will help seventh graders create a mock ancient Greek newspaper, dip into mythology, and prepare a pamphlet on world diseases.

Eighth graders follow a similar path. This year they will examine immigration issues and landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions, and let whatever language they are studying guide their choice of a topic in art history. Kowalski wants to design a fourth project around databases. Thats a good use of their research skills, she says. Students will be able to use databases pretty professionally when theyre through.

The research projects become more sophisticated as the students climb the academic ladder. But one theme never changes: reminders to students that there are physical, emotional, and cognitive components to all research, and that the librarians are there to guide students through them. Kuhlthau has found these three components in all six stages of library research: identifying the overall task, selecting a topic, exploring it, choosing a focus, collecting information, and presenting the results. This information process, she says, leads not to answers that everyone can agree on but to something deeper and more personalmeaning. Dont just judge a project by the end product, she tells librarians, but by what students are learning.

To discover just what students are learning, she advises librarians to intervene at least three times during each research project. Ask them at the beginning, 'What do you know? Ask them again at the midpoint; ask them at the end, she says. Just after they get started, they find a lot of information and conflicting ideas. Thats the point where they need real help in how to use and think about research.

Schmidt agrees. Intervention, she says, is what we used to call the teachable momentthe moment where somebody will know more about the research process or about the content or where to find it and steps in and says, 'This is not the end of the work. Heres a book for you, or an interview you can do.

She witnesses this pattern time after time with the ninth graders she and four English teachers co-teach. Students choose a topic that interests them andthe scariest part, they will tell youpresent an oral report to the entire freshman class. From proposal to oral report (given around Halloween), Schmidt and the English teachers with whom she collaborates almost daily have several opportunities to intervene.

At the end of the project, students write a two-page essay about what the nine-week information search process taught them about themselves. I learned I was more creative than I previously thought, one wrote. I make things much more complicated than they need to be, said another.

Some students discover their learning styles. I found that pictures work best for me when it comes to researching, a student said, because I find them more interesting than just pages and pages of words.

Learning styles are a form of evidence that the librarians at Gill St. Bernards take very seriously. Each teacher librarian gets to know the kids very well, Schmidt says. In the ninth grade, I have kids who are visual learners, who are not verbal, so when I steer them to the materials for their topic I keep that in mind.

We do have a feel for how the child learns, Kowalski adds. You experience that through their writing assignments, how they configure them. Then theres feedback from the teachers and observation through the years. A lengthy intake interview with each student provides still more evidence.

Students welcome the librarians diagnostic approach. Mrs. Schmidt, she knows us, says Puglisi, now a senior. I dont know if there are very many librarians who know exactly what goes on in a kids mind.

The six-year-old scientific literature review that absorbed Puglisi and her classmates in 11th grade is the capstone of their years-long study of the research process. The program began when a teacher looking for a way to breathe life into introductory psychology took his problem to Schmidt. She suggested an experimenta six-week teacher-librarian collaboration during which students would research a topic of their own choice in peer-reviewed journals. Skeptical but willing to try, the teacher, Mike Wendell, asked his students to write papers on any topic that would shed light on the nature-nurture controversy. The results were spectacular. Students who had shown little interest in psychology dug deeply into the subject and as a result became confident researchers. Two years later, the project was expanded to all 11th-grade science courses.

Like most self-directed projects, the science literature review requires a certain doggedness on the part of students. Forty or more hours spent scouring scholarly publications and writing up the results is not unusual. What takes time, says Ng, is reading and trying to understand the documents.

Five hours of one-on-one tutoring and guidance from the library staff is common. If the librarians hadnt intervened, Puglisi says, I would never have been able to do thisno way. They kind of remind me a lot of parents. They dont exactly tell me what I have to do. They kind of study me until I see what has to be done.

At the end, each student receives one grade, 50 percent from Schmidt and 50 percent from their science teacher. The teacher grades the content. Schmidt grades the quality of the research and the enthusiasm with which students tackle the information search process. I have to take two days off to read all the papers, she says.

In assessing the impact the library has on learning at Gill St. Bernards, the papers are Exhibit A. But they arent the only evidence that Schmidt and her colleagues gather to show that they are doing a first-rate job. David Loertscher, a professor of library and information science at San Jose State University in California, advises librarians to collect three kinds of evidence. The first, and easiest to collect, is organizational datacirculation, collection size, and so forth. The other two types of data, the kind Schmidt has in abundance, show how library lessons promote classroom learning and the learning gains of individual students. The last two, Loertscher says, are the most valuable right now in the game were playinga game whose rules are defined by the No Child Left Behind Act and state standards.

Positive feedback from teachers like Bostian provides evidence of the upper school librarys impact on classroom learning. As for gains by individual students, the high quality of the research performed by students from seventh to 12th grades provides solid evidence that at Gill St. Bernards EBP is thriving.

How can one quantify the effect of a librarys program on individual students? Theres a wide variety of evidence to collect from a particular learner, Loertscher says. The first one is the standardized test. In addition, teacher-librarian collaborators could decide together what kids will know or understand and then create activities to measure those. At the end of a unit, you will have an assessment that ranges from a rubric to a performance of some kind to a paper-and-pencil test. The trick, he says, is to make sure the assessment is structured in a way that enables administrators to see what the librarian has addedsearching skills and so forth.

Visitors have come to study the Gill St. Bernards model from as far away as Australia and Scotland. And in late October, the New Jersey Association of School Librarians (NJASL) named the schools 11thgrade science research project the library media program of the year. In accepting the award, Schmidt gave credit for the programs success to the tight collaboration between teachers and librarians at her school. When outstanding teachers work together with knowledgeable, skilled librarians, she said, student learning is evident in so many ways. Especially, she might have added, when a program stands on high-quality research, close observation, and the collection of rock-solid data.

Eric Oatman is a contributing editor to SLJ.

Training ModuleEric OatmanThe Ohio Educational Library Media Association (OELMA) has assembled a professional training module designed to help media specialists learn how to gather evidence of student learning and achievement in their libraries. The in-service training kit is based on the work of Ross Todd, an associate professor in the School of Communication, Information and Library Studies at New Jerseys Rutgers University.

The module costs $500. We feel it is adaptable to any states standards or guidelines, says Christine Findlay, OELMAs president. Why should school districts or associations reinvent the wheel when we have developed a way to train librarians in evidence-based practice? For more information, contact Melinda Vance at (614) 221-1900, ext. 224, or [email protected]

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