This may seem obvious. One typically assumes that librarians like research, but like most educators I think a lot about my own motivations when considering the student’s motivation. This balance is particularly challenging in middle school when there is less extrinsic motivation than high school. As a staff we are regularly talking about what drives a student, where their interests lie and how we can harness that motivation into the classroom.
Here’s the ugly and wonderful truth about middle school: it’s a setup. Middle school teachers ask students to succeed at tasks that their half-cooked, adolescent brains are not yet able to master, and therefore failure is not an if position, it’s a matter of when (p. 136).
As they spend a couple weeks totally engaged– well… not quite. Before the presentation, the thing the kids are always eager to get to, comes the annotated bibliography. Many would rather rush right through to the design phase, the presentation phase, but I emphasize the importance of process. Keep in mind our time is limited and we only have a week in the research phase, so the quick pace helps drive them. Once they have the assignment and supporting materials I don’t hover. Lahey agrees with this strategy, “Believe it or not, the answer, no matter how counterintuitive it might feel, is to back off. Allow kids to have the control and autonomy they crave even if it means struggling with the task or situation at hand” (p.27). Of course, I’m there for questions, but I’m very comfortable on the sidelines until they ask for guidance.
Withholding the final template until they finish the initial research. It’s then that they eagerly take on the work of the presentation, while I rush to give them useful feedback on the annotated bibliography.
Lahey’s ideas in The Gift of Failure are interesting to apply here. Why are students so eager? Well, she nails it when she cites psychologists: “Small failures, when the stakes are relatively low and the potential for emotional and cognitive growth is high, are what psychologists Elizabeth and Robert Bjork call ‘desirable difficulties.’ Learning that comes with challenge is stored more effectively and more durably in the brain than learning that comes easily” (p. 40).
Sure, there’s a grade at the end, but during the week they work I have a classroom where nary a peep is heard. Students throw themselves into deep concentration as they think about how best to convey their research and share what they have learned through the final product. Silence in a seventh grade classroom for a week is no small event– but it’s not required, it’s engagement. The project’s final stage is where they begin thinking consciously about how design impacts their delivery, sharing their projects with classmates, and reflecting on peer feedback. Lahey found this in her students’ progress as well, “The more I pulled back and allowed my students to come up with the details of their own projects, assessment, and learning, the more invested they became in those projects” (p. 29).
Watching this happen at the end of each term renews my love for research as I help them through the process and they share their findings. It resets my motivation to do it all again.