April 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Beyond the Computer: A Writer Reflects On Information Literacy



I stand before 100 or so fourth and fifth graders and ask how they conduct research. Hands shoot up. It’s no surprise when the first student answers, “the computer.”  It takes a bit of digging to elicit more detailed responses: the Internet, Wikipedia, the web, Google, and then; books, newspapers, and videos. I ask them what they think the words displayed on the screen behind me might mean. It reads: History Must be Seen. And we’re off.

For the next 50 minutes or so, we explore historical thinking from a variety of angles. Together we consider how we research with our eyes: by visiting museums, examining artifacts, and exploring images. We ask questions about what’s going on in the photographs and illustrations we examine, and discuss how what we see in them can tell us about a story or an era. We investigate first-person accounts, news and other reports; e.g., primary and secondary sources. We explore historical context by contrasting past and present. (For classroom posters and materials on historical thinking visit the Stanford History Education Group website.)

While I always encourage students to think beyond the computer, it’s perfectly natural that young people—and probably most of us—turn to the Internet as our first source of information. But what do we find there, and how do we evaluate it?

In a November 2013 Edutopia  Education Trends blog entry that discussed the ubiquitous presence of misinformation, Stanford History Education Group founder Sam Wineburg aptly referred to our age as one in which “library is spelled G-o-o-g-l-e.”

Yet within this rich, confusing, cluttered, and rapidly evolving information environment, today’s fourth and fifth graders will be expected to be media and information literate by the time they are undergraduates, if not before. They will need to know how to cite sources correctly (with the help of Purdue OWL, of course), and how to locate, use, and assess primary and secondary sources.

How will they arrive at the point where they can accomplish this, when many states have drastically cut funding for school librarians and libraries? And what can authors, parents, and educators do to best support and encourage the development of these skills?

I think a lot about these questions lately, in part because I have just left my day job to be a full-time author, writing and speaking at schools and conferences. I’m fortunate to have had two stimulating, often intersecting careers, and I actually spent a good part of my professional life writing grants and raising money for higher education projects that included information literacy and pre-college programs. So, here are some ideas that come to mind:

Encourage parents to be co-investigators with their kids. Whenever I speak at family literacy evenings in schools or libraries, I promote the idea of the “lifelong family book club.” To the extent that parents are able and willing to read with their children and teens, this seems an easy way to encourage reading, including the reading of nonfiction, which the Common Core initiative has highlighted as a key shift. There is so much that we as adults hear or read about during the course of a day—from the news or a book review on NPR, to professional articles that cross our desks, or even a link we follow from Twitter. Modeling the search for more and accurate information—and including our kids in the process where appropriate—can help spark interest in a variety of topics, both current and historical.

As a writer, I think of this process as having my “antenna” up and following the scent. For example, the idea for my middle grade novel, The Great Trouble: A Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel (Knopf, 2013) came after listening to a review of Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map (Riverhead Books, 2006) on National Public Radio. Johnson’s book sounded interesting (I highly recommend it!), which then inspired me to write about the 1854 London cholera epidemic for young readers.

Today, when I present The Great Trouble to groups of students, I ask if they think cholera is still around. Then I show both Dr. John Snow’s 1854 map of the cholera outbreak, and a map of the 2010 cholera epidemic in Haiti, which has claimed more than 8,000 lives. This has led to lively discussions about everything from the safety of our water, to what public health professionals do, to connecting 1854 London with what students are learning about cholera on the Oregon trail. And this, of course, is just one example. We can have these conversations with children in the classroom, as we escort them to school, or across the dinner table.

Promote passionate and self-directed inquiry. Students may refer to the computer as the way they do research, but if they are passionate about a topic, I suspect they are already employing sound research skills, driven by curiosity and a love of factual details. These are the kids (and we all know them), who become experts about a topic, whether it’s the Titanic, horses, dinosaurs, World War II, airplanes, or baseball.

Most of the amateur historians I got to know when writing my book, Titanic, Voices from the Disaster (Scholastic, 2012), began researching the story of this ship when they were young. I would venture to guess that most dedicated 12-year-old Titanic enthusiasts know much more about the disaster than I ever did, and can spot the smallest error in xx about the vessel and xx event, which leads to my next point.

Model academic standards in nonfiction. The Common Core Standards website includes this tagline: Preparing Students for College and Careers. I believe that as an author of nonfiction, I have the responsibility to support and model this goal of preparing students for a future that might include college classes.

To me this means that even in narrative or creative nonfiction, I choose to adhere to accepted academic standards of quoting, citing, and sourcing. Simply put, if I make up words or dialogue just so my books read more like novels, then I am not writing nonfiction—but something else entirely. If I were to have deviated at all from what is reported to have been said by passengers or crew members during the night of the Titanic sinking, I would have been called on it (probably by an 11-year-old).

While my picture book A Boy Named Dickens is though based thoroughly on research, it is historical fiction; in it, there are imagined scenes of the young Dickens speaking with others. For Annie and Helen (both Schwartz and Wade, 2012), which I would consider narrative or creative nonfiction, I used both Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller’s writings directly when creating the text. While there is some use of figurative language, each specific incident is drawn from direct sources, and the book has no invented dialogue. We hear Annie’s voice through excerpts from her letters.

It’s fascinating to reflect how nonfiction standards for a popular adult audience have evolved. By all accounts, Walter Lord did a tremendous amount of research, writing letters, and using primary sources for A Night to Remember (Holt), his famous 1955 book on the Titanic. But when I was writing on the same topic, most of his work was useless to me (unless I had been able to travel to view Lord’s original papers). Why? He didn’t cite his sources.

Do everything to support a road to college and the idea that college is a long-term plan. In my career in higher education, one of the most successful pre-college programs I helped write grants for was Oregon State University’s SMILE (Science and Math Investigative Learning Experiences).

Working in rural, underrepresented communities, SMILE afterschool programs help create “a road to college” that begins with fourth graders and their families. Over the past 27 years, SMILE has developed impressive data that shows the benefit of creating family connections to higher education, years before students can actually apply. Especially for first-generation college students, strategies that provide information about community colleges or universities, visits to campuses, and information early on for their families, have all proven successful.

Helping students research and informational literacy skills is no different. That’s why there’s no difference in writing for high school students, or for fourth graders when it comes to modeling best practices of research, writing, and documentation.

And it’s not just success with that first introduction to Purdue OWL that I’m thinking about. The skills required for historical thinking, research, critical inquiry, and information literacy are essential for the future of our nation, and the planet. Understanding and critiquing information and where it comes from are the very tools young people will need to rely on in order to respond to the complex global issues that make a democracy thrive.


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  1. Melissa Elliott says:

    This was a thorough article and made some excellent points, but as both a librarian and a recent student (having gone back to get my masters to BE a librarian) I am dumbfounded that the author made no mention of databases as authoritative and extremely pertinent research resources. The awareness curve for databases is a difficult one in public library world, with students, parents, AND teachers, so I was hoping for a nod to them here, where educators might pick up on it. As a recent student I can say that knowing about databases and how to use them was one of the most important components of success in my higher education.

    • Yes, great point.

      Clearly, learning how to negotiate and use databases and all library resources is essential. I don’t have a lot of experience with what databases are available for elementary students, and suspect it varies a lot, but certainly this is important for information literacy. Sometimes students do mention this as a resource, but not always, so your point is well taken.

  2. Debra McCracken says:

    I just heard Deborah speak at the Gayle A. Zeiter Children’s Literature Conference this past weekend here in Las Vegas at UNLV, where she shared many of these ideas. I know she is adept at using the databases mentioned in the previous comment, so not sure why they weren’t mentioned here. I was impressed with her scholarship. What I was hoping for here in this article was mention of the school librarian as an important vehicle for children gaining these skills. Working at a university library, I often hear from librarians and professors alike the woeful tales of students not having the foundation of informational literacy that they should have by the time they set foot our campus. The dwindling supply of school librarians seems to bear direct relationship to this lack of preparation. As one of my colleagues recently commented–when music programs or arts programs at K-12 schools are threatened, community lovers of the arts and parents speak up in protest. When school librarians are eliminated, there is a conspicuous silence. We need all of these parts of curriculum to make up a complete education for our children. Even an unscholarly, quick search of Google shows study after study of the positive correlation of student achievement with the presence of a school librarian.

    • Hi, Debra. Yes, it is so apparent when one walks into a school how integral school librarians are to creating a learning community. I should have added this to the article. Recently I learned of a district with one trained librarian for nine elementary schools. While parents and staff members can help, there is absolutely no substitute for what a dedicated librarian brings to a school. Thanks for pointing out this omission.