Monday, June 2, 2008

Ruminations on Favorite Lessons

At this time of year, I reflect over lessons and think about what to keep, what to improve, and what to replace as I reorganize and prepare to pack up my stuff for the summer. Often, my colleagues and I show up at lunch clutching some beloved handouts as we put away files for the year; “Do you think you could use this?” “I found this worked well…” “What do you think I need to add to this one?” During these informal share sessions, I’ve gotten the seeds for some of my favorite and most useful lessons, so I thought I’d start an online version for us virtual colleagues. Every time I put away my research essay unit binder, my hand lingers affectionately over assignments for the Annotated Bibliography. I started using it in my research essay unit about five years ago, and each year, I think it serves students more and more.

When I was a girl, long, long ago in the eighties, we found our research sources via the card catalog and the Readers’ Guide to Periodicals. I only found as many articles as I was willing to fill out little slips of paper and ask to be retrieved from the shelves for me. Today, with the click of the mouse, my students find thousands of sources. As they select the HTML or PDF full text files, all the sources show up and print out in near identical appearance to each other. Back in my day, I looked at the hard copy article within its original publication. The ads on opposing pages, the pictures and font all gave me information about the source’s quality even if I didn’t actively realize it at first. I knew a medical journal must be more academic than a magazine just from its boring goldenrod cover and Times Roman typeset. For my students, all that peripheral information has been stripped away. The Annotated Bibliography process helps put it back.

I adapted directions I found on Cornell’s website. Students use the process to vet about ten sources before they sit down to begin organizing the essay itself. Initially, students think the process will be easy. In fact, it is easy, but it is also time consuming because it requires critical thinking. As students complete the steps, they need to ask themselves, who wrote this source? Per instruction, students “Google” authors’ names to find information they can use to establish credibility. We practice all these steps together, and then students repeat the process on new sources independently. I ask them to complete the annotations on ten sources, and let them reject some of those sources as inadequate, trying to communicate that not everything is of equal quality just because it all looks the same when found through a library database.

This process takes a couple of weeks. As students work on the project for homework, I do classroom lessons on reading and taking notes, paraphrasing, and how to write Works Cited entries. The work can be rote, but students tend to find the process empowering, too. This process provides clear, distinct steps for determining the “good” stuff from the “not so good” stuff, and my students are glad for the tool. Because the Annotated Bibliography repeats the process for each source, it lends itself to differentiation, too. Students can learn the steps and then re-apply them, working at their own paces. I can direct students to sources appropriate for their reading level, too. Not everyone gets it right the first time through; I let students revise the document until all the annotations are high quality. Sometimes students thrill me during this revision process and say things like, “Actually, I’m not going to use that source at all. I couldn’t really establish the author’s credibility, so I think I’m going to find something else.”

Writing a good research essay takes experience, but an Annotated Bibliography can really be mastered the first time out once students understand the process. I like including this assignment in our research process, not only for the enhanced research skills and critical thinking it provides, but for the sense of accomplishment it gives students during what can often be a long and wearying process. I’m always on the look out for processes that improve the research essay unit!

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Educator


The Procrastinating Perfectionist said...

Thank you for this! Just like you, I am in the reflection stage of my teaching as I am beginning to put my thoughts of "how to do it better next year" into planning for actual practice next year. I was intrigued by your annotated bibliography assignment. My most recent research unit was lacking in teaching about sources, and I, too, was caught up in how I did research (not thinking about how much sources have changed for our students). Would you feel comfortable sharing any handouts you gave students? Sometimes I feel that, more than anything, helps me determine how to implement someone else's ideas in my own classroom.

Kate Kellen said...

I'd be glad to share! You can find the materials I use on my website:

Thanks for your comment...