Leaning into the Chaos with Social Literacy

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Dream Collaborations

I have a team of true collaborators among the English IV teachers at my school. They invited me to be part of their brainstorming for an upcoming unit a few weeks ago, looking for a way to “re-make” the annotated bibliography and research proposal into something that engages students, not only in research, but in true student-guided inquiry.  Social justice was the topic on the table for this unit’s exploration, but the teachers were tired of the same old topics and surface-level digests of mediocre source information they received from student’s in the past.  

I started my teacher inquiry interviews with the same three questions I ask all of my instructional partners:

  •  What are your goals for students?  What do you want them to be able to do, independently, in a new and unfamiliar situation?
    • We want our students to demonstrate they can understand and empathize with someone not like them; we want them to evaluate information they find in different types of source (web, academic, personal, etc) and synthesize the information to create something new that demonstrates how their own thinking has changed.
  • What evidence do you need to see from students to know if they met these goal?
    • A list of their sources with critical annotations demonstrating their evaluation and analysis of information
    • A reflection of their own journey including insights and critical moments where they came to understand something new about the world and themselves.
    • A product or demonstration that shows how they can empathize with another viewpoint or perspective
  • What types of learning experiences can you imagine that would support students in reaching these goals?
    • Collaborative
    • open-ended
    • analytical, focusing on evaluating and analyzing information

With the team’s answers from these three big, little questions I was able to pull together resources I’d been gathering from Media Literacy Week and Brittanica Digial Learning’s Blog series “Fight the Fake” written by librarian Tiffany Whitehead.  These resources included videos to engage students in the topics, resources, lessons, and activities to teach students to be critical consumers of information and to be armed with the skills needed to combat the effects of fake news and misinformation in the media.   Armed with new resources, I created a rough learning plan designed around Guided Inquiry Design (GID) (Kulthau and Maniotes)

Guided Inquiry Design 

The team indicated they wanted students to gather a wide, diverse collection of information from both popular and scholarly resources. So we began with gallery walk of videos that introduced students to the topics surrounding misinformation to prepare them to evaluate sources later on in their inquiry.  To support their critical and analytical thinking skills, we taught students how to use Depth of Knowledge (DOK) Question stems to scaffold their thinking about complex topics. 

Media Literacy Gallery Walk

Misinfo Nation

Our exploration began with a video that posed many relevant questions surrounding the impact misinformation is having on democracy.  

“In a world where it feels like our opinions are so different from one another, leaning into that chaos might actually be what leads us to a better understanding of the landscape we live in.”

In this video by Mozilla, we engaged students in the questions:

  • What is media literacy?
  • How does media shape what and how I think?
  • What opportunities does media provide us to understand one another better?
  • What barriers does media present that perpetuate divisiveness and intolerance?

As they traveled around stations students, watched a brief video from this media literacy playlist and created DOK leveled questions in response to the ideas.

Students used the questions they generated from the video gallery walk in an inner-outer circle discussion20181108_104938

Our Takeaways

Students were uncomfortable in this type of discussion where their questions, not their reasoning, were the most important contribution they had to offer.  They had become well-adapted at arguing their points to one another to “win” discussions.  In their discomfort, we saw opportunity.  Throughout the upcoming inquiry, students will be forming groups based on broad topics relating to social justice.  Their success will depend upon their ability to “lean in” to the social chaos and to one another as they form questions and seek diverse perspectives.  

Continuing the Exploration

Next in the social literacy inquiry– developing empathy and forming a Circle of Viewpoints with Time’s Guns in America.

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Tech Tuesday #5

Google Custom Search Engines

I ❤ Google!  I love Google forms, Google docs, Google doodles, Google Scholar…the list goes on and on.  And, I have a furvent longing to one day attend Google Teacher Academy, if I could ever get around to making that dang application video…Today, I love Google Custom Search Engine (  Let me tell you why:

Yesterday, I caught wind of a little research project being conducted in our English II pre-AP classes over a little book called Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.  The teacher graciously allowed me to take a look at the assigment handout, which led students through a webquest, exploring various topics relating to Nigerian history, culture, and the author himself.  On the assignment page, specific websites were listed for students to access depending on their topic.  I saw a library-infiltration opportunity and pounced!

(Time-out for a little soap-box on teaching students information and research skills.)

Used with permission from the creator, Sean Gallo,

 You may or may not be familiar with the addage, “How do you eat an elephant?…One bite at a time!”  This is the image that comes to mind when I am asked, “How do you teach high school students to be critical consumers of information, digital citizens, and researchers?”  One “byte” at a time, friends.

More often than not, research seems to be a “stop-and-do” unit of exhausting, lengthy days in the library or computer lab.  Students and teachers spend days and weeks pounding away at research topics, meeting minimal requirements for number of sources, note cards, direct quotes, working toward completing a checklist of research tasks rather than engaging in transformative, authentic inquiry.  Rather than pushing research back and back until afetr “the test” or reserving it until May when we’re eager to mark the days off of our calendars until summer, my proposition is this:  let’s teach narrow and in depth–one bite at a time. 

Google Custom Searches allow us to streamline one part of the inquiry process (exploring and searching) so that students can dig deeper into another part of the inquiry process.  Here’s what you can do as a teacher or librarian to help “cut the meat” for our young researchers:

2.  Select “Create New Search Engine”

3.  Give your search engine a title, description, and copy and paste websites that you have pre-selected as appropriate, credible sources for students to explore the topic in depth.

You can choose various formats and looks for your search engine, turn off the advertisements since you are using it for educational purposes, keep track of analytics (statistics that show usage), and even embed the CSE into a blog or web page.  If you don’t want to embed, you can copy and paste the direct link to share with students. 

Sometimes we need to be a Momma-bird and do a little “pre-chewing” for our students to ease digestion (tired of the zoological metaphors???  Got it.)  We can support students’ inquiry by providing them pre-selected sources so that they can then dedicate their attention to narrowing the focus of their inquiry, effective note-taking, documenting sources, synthesizing information, or presenting their understandings about the topic. 

Would we want to give them a CSE everytime they do research?  No, they need to learn to take the first bite, but perhaps we give them support in another area instead.  Once they have all the smaller pieces mastered, then they can fully engage in the transformative power of inquiry-driven research…and fully enjoy the elephant in its entirety (couldn’t help it that one).

Talk to your librarian about collaborating to create Google Custom Search Engines for your next research adventure!  Take a look at the library page I created to support students as they conducted research relating to Things Fall Apart.  Special thanks to Christina Salcido and Erin Mathews for allowing me to crash their research party 🙂

Sneak peak for next week’s Tech Tuesday blog:  Social bookmarking for student collaboration…Pinterest, Diigo, and Delicious

Check out some CSEs that I’ve created for various inquiry units: