I am most definitely in the bibliography doldrums today. I have a class full of 8th graders who are so intent on their requirements for a bibliography, that they are losing track of the research itself. How to motivate them to do the work: to read and explore, to become experts in what they’re learning, without trying to take on the last step first? It makes me want to say “Who cares about the Bibliography, what did you learn today about Allen Ginsberg?” But the Bibliography is necessary, and it is good. Right now, however, it just feels like it’s in the way.
My Belief: The Bibliography is a tool.
The Bibliography is a tool for teachers to see how a student is doing. Truthfully, I don’t even enjoy using the word “Bibliography” anymore (preferring to call it a “Works Cited Page”), because it implies “books only” and does not accurately reflect today’s information formats. I’ve tried to inspire a change in the verbage, but that’s what the students call it, and so I’d rather err on the side of a common vocabulary. By using a Bibliography, teachers can see if students are choosing the best sources, in need of help in finding better sources, having trouble locating who is responsible for creating the source, etc. It gives us the chance to see if there is a direction they need to be taking, or even if there’s something interesting I’ve found lately that I’d like to share with them. For this particular assignment, we are asking for the bibliography early, so we can truly use it to be of help to students, and not as a final assessment of how well they researched. But they are still … panicky.
Why do Bibliographies cause such anxiety? A few possible answers:
Is it because the bibliography is often handed in at the end of a project? I want to use it as a teaching tool, but I don’t want it to be the focus of the project. If the bibliography becomes the focus, it is easy for students to “source collect” – that is, accummulate a bunch of sources (without necessarily reading them first) and stick them on the bibliography so that they can “get credit.”
Is the bibliography not so good of an assessment tool after all? Is there a way to see whether or not students are finding good information, if they need additional information, etc., without having them tell us which sources they are using? Ok, that last sentence sounded a bit absurd. But it is something I’m thinking about. I don’t believe we should drop Bibliographies, because they are a skill that is needed, and the more one practices, the easier they get. But I am rethinking them, based on the emotional reactions (and not the good kind) they seem to inspire.
For example, one of the things we are trying this year in 8th grade is a “Twitter-like” program called Edmodo, where students can “micro-blog” after each class to say where they are in the process, what they are working on, what sources they used, what information they found, what more they might need, etc. We are hoping that this will keep us on top of their progress and be able to help them out when the need it.
Part of me wonders if the Bibliography serves as a distraction away from the scarier prospect of having to learn something new and delve into unfamiliar territory. Perhaps it is easier for the mind to think of finding the source, rather than reading it and using the information? This goes back to my previous post on “What Research is Not” – are we putting so much emphasis on how to find the “answers” that we are not helping students know what to do with the information?
Very often, students believe that they should already know the topic they are assigned. They don’t want to start on a project because they think about the end result and say “I don’t know how to get there.” So the greater question here may be: how do we get students to realize it’s okay to start from the beginning – to not know the answer and to slowly acquire knowledge over time. How do we give them the gift of that time?
I’ll close this post with a recent experience: I was at a Colonial event where I was showing a student how to play with a a “Bilbo Catcher” which is a toy where you try to get a ball on a string into a cup or peg. (It’s a lot harder than it sounds).
The student tried it a few times and then asked me, “What’s the trick?” I said, “There is no trick – you need to practice.” The student lost interest.
How does one get a student to desire “Carnegie Hall?”