Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Read, Relax, Dream . . . and Learn!

Learning in the Library!

The Willows library is certainly a place to read and relax—but it’s also most definitely a place to learn.

Willows librarian Cathy Leverkus loves the fact that the library has enough table space to accommodate an entire class of students for research and project work. “I love incorporating art into the library lessons I teach,” she says. “We have ample space for all kinds of hands-on activities.”

This is no accident. From the very beginning, Cathy explains, her passion has been to ensure that Willows students have the library and research skills necessary to be successful learners.

“When The Willows first opened, I was just a consultant,” she says. “My job was to automate the library. But almost immediately, I became excited about the opportunities to educate students to make the most of the library. Luckily, I convinced Lisa Rosenstein that we needed to have classes that dealt with library skills and research.”

The result? Weekly library classes for DK and up! In the library, students explore new literature and experience the joy of reading, but also learn to use the library’s resources to answer their questions regarding the world around them.

This process, called the I-Search, has become an integral part of learning at every grade level at The Willows. Cathy explains the principle behind the I-Search, which focuses on the student’s own questions about a topic (hence, the “I” in the title):

“Traditional research projects, like the ones we did as children, involved opening an encyclopedia, copying down facts without regard for whether or not they were interesting or relevant, and regurgitating them in an essay or an oral report.”

“With the I-Search, the first step for the student is to identify the specific questions that he or she has about the topic. Then, the student seeks out resources to answer those questions, with a focus on evaluating the resources themselves: Are they credible? Are they useful? Are they relevant?”

“This is possibly one of the most important lessons students take away from the I-Search process. In today’s world, with access to an unlimited range of information from the Internet, students must know how to separate the good resources from the bad.”

An additional step of the I-Search involves taking the time to reflect on the research process as a whole: What did the student learn about the topic? Also, what did he or she learn from the process?

Cathy points out that the I-Search appears different depending on the age group involved. Second graders who study ocean creatures, for example, identify a few questions they have about a specific animal and then use picture books and simple nonfiction books to find the answers.

On the other end of the spectrum, eighth graders spend a trimester and extra classes doing an I-Search project on a topic of their own choosing that culminates in a 5-7 page paper with citations, a hands-on project, and a presentation to the class. Topics and presentations have run the gamut over the years, from a project on neuroscience with a presentation featuring a dissection of a sheep’s brain, to a project on the history of chocolate, with a presentation that included tasty treats for audience members.

“Our main goal,” says Cathy, “is for the research process to be meaningful. The I-Search can be a powerful tool for feeding students’ passion for learning.”

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