Writing Our Way Into Inquiry and Presearch

As we continue our efforts to think about writing literacies as a focal point of our inquiry work in a high school library, my colleague Jennifer Lund and I continue to see the power of an old school technology: pen and paper.

We’ve targeted the presearch phase of research projects as a sweet spot for using writing literacies as a medium for critical thinking and making visible student ideas, questions, and patterns of understanding. In their “Pathways to Knowledge model of information literacy, Pappas and Tepe define presearch as the stage that “…enables searchers to connect their information need and prior knowledge. They may participate in a brainstorming activity to create a web or a list of questions on what they know about their subject or what they want to know” (Harada and Tepe).  Presearch can provide instructional opportunities to show learners “strategies to narrow their focus and develop specific questions or define [an] information need” (Callison and Baker 20). We have combined a variety of written conversation strategies adapted from the work of Harvey Daniels, Visible Thinking learning structures, and mindmapping activities to nurture student curiosity, spark questions, and help students connect existing knowledge to new information introduced through our presearch inquiry activities.

In our educational landscape that is informed by multiple state and local standardized tests and common assessments, curriculum maps, and large departments competing for limited time and space in the media center and computer labs, helping teachers open up student research learning experiences from ones that are limited and tightly predefined by the teacher to those that give students opportunities to select and develop a topic focus is a huge step forward in our efforts as collaborative instructional partners and designers. Earlier this semester, we tried a tandem of activities, Think, Puzzle, Explore and preserach search term strategy mapping, to see if we could use writing literacies as a more intentional part of the process work of research.

Think, Puzzle, Explore

In January, Jennifer Lund and I met with two of our 11th grade language arts teachers to plan their upcoming research unit on sustainability. We wanted to do something fun and interesting to introduce the range of topics to students who would engage them and not begin with them just browsing the resources on the project LibGuide. We initially considered using the write-around strategy, but with so many sections of classes and possibilities for topics/subtopics, we felt the prep work involved was a bit overwhelming for the time we had available to get the materials together.

We decided to use another strategy, though, that involved thinking and writing called Think, Puzzle, Explore, a routine for learning that “sets the stage for deeper inquiry.” Since many teachers are utilizing strategies from Making Thinking Visible, we felt this would be the perfect learning structure to introduce 11th graders to sustainability topics. With Think, Puzzle, and Explore, students are asked to reflect and share:

1. What do you think you know about this topic?
2. What questions or puzzles do you have?
3. How can you explore this topic?

Think, Puzzle, Explore Prep Work

We decided to choose eight areas of sustainability and to find an article of interest for each that students could read and respond to individually and collectively as a group. After we searched and selected articles on eight different topics, we made sets of five for each table so that each student could have a copy to read and mark up or annotate. Our library science student helpers gathered multiple sheets of butcher paper and helped us attach the three “Think, Puzzle, Explore” labels Jennifer crafted for each sheet of paper. These labels Jennifer created served as a reminder prompt to nudge students in their responses and as a placeholder for each column where students would record their responses. We were not sure how quickly the sheets of paper would fill up with student work, so we had extra sheets of butcher paper and labels in case we needed them. Initially, we thought all six classes could compile their answers on one sheet, but we realized after two classes we definitely need to rotate the response sheets. During our one period off, 3rd, we finished the prep work for the butcher paper sheets to be used later in the day.

Think, Puzzle, Explore Implementation
thinkpuzzle1We began by introducing the procedures for the activity and explaining the logistics and purpose of Think, Puzzle, Explore to the students. Our goal was for students to sample at least two tables/topics to, hopefully, fuel their interest and pique their curiosity. Once we finished the introductory procedures review, students had about two minutes to select a table; we limited each table to four students at most. We also reminded students to choose their tables by topics and not the safety zone of friends!

We gave students about five minutes to quietly read as much as they could of their articles (some were longer or more textually complex than others) and strongly encouraged them to mark up/annotate their articles to have some talking points for collaborative conversation. Some students also jotted notes in a notebook during this part of the activity and/or during the collective discussion that followed. Once the five minutes were up, we had students discuss their responses and then collectively compose their responses to “Think, Puzzle, and Explore.” The discussion and collective composition took 5-8 minutes. We then repeated this process a second time and had students choose a different table and topic.

thinkpuzzle2Once we had completed both rounds, each group got one of our “Steelcase Verb” dry erase boards, and each member contributed their takeaway reflection, reaction, or big question as the ticket out the door; each student put his/her initials by his/her reflection or question.

Curating Student Work, Reflections

As classes transitioned, Jennifer and I quickly tidied up tables and captured student work with a digital camera and our iPhones to curate and share with all classes and teachers. It was a day that was energizing (and a little exhausting) as the work and pace were pretty intense, but we were really pleased with student responses and participation. We got verbal feedback from several students about how much they enjoyed the activity and, for several, the process had given them some topics to think about for subsequent investigation that we’re now starting this week.

In the spirit of crowdsourcing our thinking, we collected all of the “big takeaway” responses and linked to each album on the LibGuide (scroll toward the bottom of the middle column to view by period). We also had our library science students transcribe all of the responses from the butcher paper; I then captured all of them using my scanner app on my phone and uploading the PDFs of the scans to Google Drive, which made it easy to then send to SlideShare and download the PDFs to my PC for transfer to the LibGuide. We did consider providing laptops and shared Google Docs for students to record their thinking, but our experience with our students has been that the tactile aspect of composing and experiencing seeing each other’s thinking on physical paper is powerful; in hindsight, we feel we made the right choice.

Not only did we build prior knowledge through this activity, but we accomplished our goal to engage students in collective thinking and build/play off each other’s ideas. Think, Puzzle, and Explore also provided students a medium to learn a little about a topic and tease out some initial thoughts. Now that we have all of their work uploaded, students can visit it if they want to revisit any initial thinking from last week or use it as a brainstorming tool to further investigate one of those topics although they certainly can go in other directions. This activity was the bridge to our next phase of presearch, Presearch Search Term Strategy Mapping, an activity we adapted from our friend and fellow librarian Tasha Bergson-Michelson.

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

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.
presearch3I 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.
presearch4After 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.


We continue to fine-tune our efforts, but overall we are very pleased with the quality of work and thinking we saw from our students in both activities. We’re excited that this strategy worked the way we hoped it would and impressed by how the students used the strategy to move from Point A to B in a thoughtful and more deliberate yet organic way with their search strategies and terms/phrases. It was also exciting to “feel” the student interest in their topics and their discovery process as some of them made some really interesting moves from broad topics to more focused subtopics. We invite you to watch and listen to the feedback some of our students shared with us as they eloquently explain how both activities helped them find, refine, and engage with a topic of authentic value to them.

In conclusion, we continue to see something very powerful about students using writing processes to engage in metacognition and inquiry. While so much of search itself is now done through digital means, the act of “unplugged” writing technologies to not only slow down student thinking but to also help them wrestle with the challenges inherent in information seeking tasks in presearch. Jennifer and I are excited for opportunities like these to incorporate activities that help students question, wonder, and explore as part of the topic selection process. As we continue to work with our teachers and students, we hope to better develop our formative assessments to identify specific learning outcomes and processes of the presearch stage of inquiry and research. We look forward to seeing how we can continue to integrate writing literacies into all stages of inquiry, particularly as we look more closely at ways of information inquiry (Callison and Baker 18).

Works Cited

Callison, Daniel, and Katie Baker. “Elements of Information Inquiry, Evolution of Models, & Measured Reflection.” Knowledge Quest 43.2 (2014): 18-24. Academic Search Complete. Web. 7 Mar. 2015.

Harada, Violet, and Ann Tepe. “Pathways to Knowledge [Trademark].” Teacher Librarian 26.2 (1998): 9. MasterFILE Elite. Web. 7 Mar. 2015.

All images by Buffy J. Hamilton