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From Think Puzzle Explore to Mapping a Search for a Potential Topic

Written by Traci Fong
April 30, 2015

Like many of you classroom teachers and librarians, Jennifer and I frequently wonder: how can we provide students time and opportunity to dwell, wrestle, and grow as searchers who can develop effective strategies and techniques for finding information and using that information to narrow a topic? How do we help students learn techniques for cropping and focusing a topic area? While we have been advocates for pre-search for a long time, we have been more deliberate this academic year about trying to elevate this aspect of research and inquiry processes as well with our faculty.

In reflecting on our inquiry work with Sarah Rust last semester, I wondered if there might be a better way to get kids to think more intentionally about their search terms and to build some prior knowledge for an initial round of topic focus prior to the work with modified KWLs and annotating I’ve done during pre-search and then mindmapping with both Sarah and other projects I did with teachers while at Creekview High in the past.   After revisiting the work of Tasha Bergson-Michelson and a great post from librarian Carolyn Foote, I decided to adapt Tasha’s search strategy mapping technique for our sustainability research unit with our 11th AP language arts teachers. After running my ideas by Jennifer and doing a little brainstorming together, we decided we would adapt Tasha’s technique to help students map their first round of pre-search strategies to help them find a path to a more focused topic area of sustainability. 

I actually went through the process and worked for about two and a half hours off and on doing search and creating a model I could use as a think aloud with students this week on the first day of formal instruction in the library. I began with the topic of urban garden (food sustainability) and wound my way to a more focused topic of food justice. My first version I did in a freehand fashion, but I replicated it using Mindmeister to show students what their maps might look like if they used a free online mindmapping tool.  I felt it was important to draft models related to their area of study and that would hopefully be accessible to our students. Here are my drafts:

On the first day of presearch, a Monday, I modeled the process for students each period while sprinkling in some search strategies and tips for specific databases; this part of the lesson took about 10-12 minutes. I showed them how I began by skimming and scanning 3-4 articles from sources like databases, search engines, and TED videos. For each place I searched, I noted key vocabulary, terms, and concepts that seemed important and/or new to me. I showed them how I then incorporated new terms into my running list of search terms/phrases I was trying out and how that helped me discover new articles. I shared how my discovery process kept building on each search effort and what I was getting from the reading and how that led me from a topic of urban gardening to a more focused topic of food justice.

We encouraged students to skim and scan at least three articles from three sources to find vocabulary terms, and concepts that could help them grow their search terms; just as I had done in the think aloud modeling, I told them to keep a running list of search terms/phrases they were trying. Because we did not want to overstructure the mapping process, we told students not to worry about citation or identifying specific articles or web resources although they certainly could capture permalinks/bookmarks/URLs for resources that seemed notable. We provided students plain and colored paper (they love choices) as well as Sharpies for those who wanted them. We made sure students also had access to digital and hard copies of my drafts so they had a tangible model to see once we finished the lesson. While we were not able to secure the same timeline Tasha uses with this approach, students did have a day and a half to work on the maps in the library (the submission deadline established by the teachers was the end of class on Tuesday) although some students might have benefited from an additional half or full day to work on their search and maps. We, along with the classroom teachers, told students to use Monday evening to try making progress on their maps and search as well.  While students had the choice of crafting their presearch search term maps by hand or with a tech tool, an overwhelming majority chose to create their maps by hand; this is a choice we have seen across other classes in the last few weeks since this initial effort.

I devised a “lightning reflection” to help students share a little of their process and to help us better understand what we might be seeing in their pre-search strategy maps.

Jennifer and I targeted the students in three specific class sections to complete this form and then attach it to the mapping work they had completed at the end of class yesterday. We then struggled to think about an effective yet fast way to give them some helpful feedback today since we had anticipated returning the maps either today or Thursday. After much trial and error (and some additional revising to add some comment checkboxes related to the search term notes — we noticed after assessing one set of student work, some students were noting more facts than terms and vocabulary, and it was time consuming to write the comment repeatedly), so we crafted this form thinking the checklist and “green, yellow, red” status indicators would help students think about next steps in class this week.




After looking at their green reflection sheets and maps, I spent roughly a day completing the feedback form and providing written comments as needed. Jen assisted me in this process, and we enjoyed seeing patterns of their thinking as well as gaps as looking at student work helps us better understand what students know at this point and where they may need additional help or instruction.

After returning the student assessment feedback forms, we took time to discuss with the classes what they were doing well and strategies for strengthening their presearch work with the maps.  We also shared exemplar maps from their peers for further inspiration; below is a sampler of some of the maps our students created.