For an obsessive person, I’m oddly disorganized. It’s strange: I am meticulous about list making, obnoxious about planning ahead, and consumed with noting everything on my calendar (I break into a sweat thinking about missing an appointment).
However, when I try to stick to organizational systems at school, I flounder. In the quest to keep my notes private but also at my fingertips as I move throughout the room, I’ve struggled to maintain my thorough records about student progress while streamlining the endless mounds of new information I collect.
The Organizational Challenges of Research
During research-heavy projects, my middle school students typically have great flexibility in topic choice, some flexibility in product, and a little bit of flexibility in project pacing. Great for workshop . . . and tough for a teacher who’s admittedly scattered. Ramped-up Common Core research requirements are added layers of challenge.
The Common Core requires students to:
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.7 Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.8 Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.
I palpitate just thinking about how to keep track of my student-researchers’ progress on these pieces of those standards:
- All of those short and sustained projects
- Who has chosen which focused questions
- How well each student is comprehending the research materials for the subject under investigation
- From how many and what print and digital sources students have gathered information
- How relevant the information is
- How credible and accurate each source is
- How well students are integrating the information into their own words
Perhaps most important, how are students feeling about their progress? During research projects, students either flood each other and me with questions, or try to slink through unnoticed (a more worrisome problem). It’s critical for me to have in place a system to organize and make sense of students’ fluctuating research needs.
When we’re elbow deep in research, our workshop shifts to small-group instruction and independent research and writing time. I feel stretched to keep up with what everyone is doing. In the past, I used paper exit slips called “research check-ins” to ask students about their work. For example, a check-in might ask:
- What did you accomplish today?
- What was challenging for you today?
- What do you know you have to do tomorrow?
- What are you unsure about?
- If you could meet with me for five minutes, what would we talk about?
I’d go home each evening, spread out the research check-ins, note areas for whole-group instruction, plan individual conversations, and create or rearrange small groups with shared needs for the following day. My issue with this approach was that handling the sheer volume of paperwork created an additional layer of management, when it was challenging enough for me to manage my researchers themselves.
I decided that I was gathering helpful information from the questions themselves, but in the interest of efficiency and effectiveness, I needed to try a new method of administering and gathering it from seventy-plus students. I’ve settled on Google Forms integrated into Google Drive for easy, quick information gathering that I can access on any device.
Same Approach, New Tool
I’m fortunate to have attended great professional development sessions on Google Applications. However, I’ve also learned from YouTube tutorials additional possibilities. I’m grateful that YouTube content creators offer a range of step-by-step videos for beginners to experts. When I try something new, I open two windows on my computer — one with the YouTube tutorial, and another for me to experiment in.
When I use Google Forms, I log into Google Drive and create a form, entering each of my questions in a way that will give me helpful information to analyze student needs.
For example, I might decide to include this question: “What was challenging for you today?” If I thought my students would benefit from guidance to frame their challenges, I could create a multiple choice option from which they might select: “choosing a resource,” “understanding what the resource said,” or “putting my findings in my own words.” If I want to leave it open-ended, I might simply choose to have students answer openly in a paragraph form. The results are automatically dumped into a sortable spreadsheet in Google Drive.
The beauty is twofold:
1. I can quickly sort to determine whole-group, small-group, and/or individual needs for my classes the following day, thanks to the sorting function.
2. I can maintain a streamlined, transportable record of every “research check-in” survey my students have completed during the research project, which I can then use with them in conferring about their research processes.
I can administer the check-in while I work with students, or, if I give them the link to the check-in, and have them complete it independently during class or at home. Occasionally, I will print out a copy of the check-in for a student to complete by hand, and then I’ll enter it later into a form, for my records. Here is a sample of a recent check-in form I created for students:
Sorting Out Needs
Inevitably during a research project, some “hiders” will attempt to power through on their own, telling me as I pop around to their tables that Everything is just fine! I just want to work on my PowerPoint! I’m (still) just reading these really great articles! I’ve found that I can use Google Forms to help sift out the needs of these young researchers as well.
During one project when students had to research challenges faced by children all around the world, I sensed that some students were really feeling lost. On that day’s check-in, I purposefully left open-ended the response to this question: “If you could meet with me for five minutes, what would we talk about?”
I knew if I gave this group of students multiple choice options, some would select an option and then try to fake their way through small-group work. By leaving the check-in question blank, I received the following answers, quoted exactly:
- IDK (kidspeak for “I don’t know”)
- what to do
- How can i get my grades up?
I could quickly identify from a low-risk survey students who would benefit from one-on-one project conferences. Because I had their answers streamlined in a spreadsheet, later on in the project we could easily revisit their check-ins to reflect on what things they had actually struggled with but had been unable to articulate at the time.
Keeping Young Researchers at Heart
As I look at all of the Common Core research standards, including the expectation that students complete multiple research projects, I think about how I can continue to put researchers (not the research itself) first. When I implement the research standards for the first time this year, I know that some of my check-ins will include questions specific to the Common Core research standards. I know that I will need to frequently and thoughtfully check in with my readers and writers. I also know that I need to continue to keep easily accessible and sortable records of their research progress. Most important, I know that all of my check-ins need to remain rooted in the needs of my individual, inquisitive, growing student researchers.