“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I've learned, the hard way, that some poems don't rhyme, and some stories don't have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity.”Gilda Radner

Monday, December 1, 2014

Is Old-Fashioned Research Valuable At All Anymore?

In the wake of a newsworthy snowstorm, I spent the last two weeks re-learning the ropes of Stay-At-Home Mom-dom. It was kind of crazy, readjusting to every waking minute with my three boys, trying to find that mental control in every particular moment and every particular situation that comes more from practice than any natural instincts.

I think I had the knack down by yesterday.

It was not easy, then, to have to return to my teacher self and put on the dress pants and shirt that may or may not make me look fat (and the only ones who care are me and the middle schoolers who examine me instead of paying attention to the life of Poe and how to effectively annotate his biography). But I did it. I woke up, I put the makeup on, put the dress pants on, and somehow made it out the door on time.

The walk up the stairs to my classroom was very hard. Many, many stairs. The halls smelled like school cleaner and I was greeted by the custodians repairing the radiator in my classroom, which had caused a small flood along the back wall while we were off last week. I realized I hadn't finished my coffee at home and my eyelids felt like they weighed a hundred pounds.

That's when I had my terrific brainstorm.

I would turn the timeline of Poe's life into a BOARD game! Who wouldn't want to play that game? Man! Almost as fun as Pin-the-Apostrophe-on-IT S, I knew, and I got started straight away. The playing cards would each be a year from Poe's life, detailing significant events that would have influenced his life as a writer. Or would they? I'm so tricky, I began throwing in other odd facts, too, like the birth of Florence Nightingale and the invention of Heinz ketchup (which didn't even occur until twenty years after Poe died! Bwahaha! You wish you had my job!). Pull those cards, and your game piece would be moving back one space, oh yeah!

So, clearly I was excited about the new development of the day's lesson. I decided that the class would be broken into teams, and within each team, every student would be assigned a job. Because I'm weird, some students were the dice rollers and some were the card readers, but one job I was pretty psyched about was the Fact Checker. I loved this because it would allow the teachable moment of, "Hey, this is actually a job in real life!" and "Isn't research fun?" The only problem I foresaw was that there was no computer for the kids to go to for quick searches, and I couldn't bring myself to invite their smartphones into the classroom. I'm just not there yet. So, instead, I brilliantly assured myself, "No problem, I have that old set of encyclopedias in the back. Since this was all during the life of Poe, all these events should totes be in the encyclopedias." Totes. And they were. No problem, right?


My first clue that something wasn't quite right was when the birth of Florence Nightingale card was pulled during my third class of the day. The group was huddled up, feverishly discussing how old Flo may have affected the life of my good friend Edgar, but their brows were furrowed. Their hissy hushed voices took on accusing and indignant tones. Finally, the Fact Checker was shoved out of his chair and he headed to the back of the room, where, during prior Rule Explaining, I had directed them to go for encyclopedia use.

The Fact Checker stood helplessly in front of the shelves (and might I add, they are very pretty, well-stocked shelves). He first reached for a textbook, but his hand was slapped away by a student in another group. "That is not an encyclopedia!" she scolded. (Middle schoolers are a helpful people.) Finally, the Fact Checker seemed to spot the correct books. Randomly, he grabbed one and flipped it open in confusion. It was the 'G' volume. Because everyone knows 'G' is for Florence Nightingale.

At this point, the group's time had run out.

The class turned to me, looking bewildered. "Uh, do they get to move ahead?" someone asked.

"Well, no," I said. "They can't tell me who Florence Nightingale is, so they definitely can't explain whether she influenced the life or works of Poe." (The answer was NO, no she probably didn't, as he was nine when she was born in Italy and their paths never crossed in any way worth mentioning.)

At this point, however, the class ended and the packing up commenced and the next class spilled into the room.

The card that spurred the job of Fact Checker in this class was the one that included the names "Dostoyevsky" and "Baudelaire." I began to feel evil as the Card Reader stumbled over the difficult spellings and then tossed it at the completely daunted Fact Checker. I waited with interest as he (oddly, it was always boys who were assigned this job by the groups) made his way to the back of the room and stared blankly at the bookshelves. After another painful turn, the Florence Nightingale card was pulled by the next team, and the poor Fact Checking boy from that group stood forlornly by the green bound books.

What the?

As the group scrambled to prepare some sort of answer, I moved to the back of the room myself.

"Do you know what an encyclopedia is?" I asked the class in general. Imagine my shock when thirty heads shook. No. The boy stepped away in relief.

I sighed. "Have you ever heard of Wikipedia?"

Further relief flooded their faces, like Yay! She's speaking our language now.

"We know what that is, but we aren't allowed to use it."

"It's all fake and made up!" shouted a helpful Hermione type.

"Yes, well." I picked up the encyclopedia volume labeled 'N.' "Wikipedia is a similar idea to an encyclopedia. You type a keyword into a search box, like--" I paused emphatically, "FLORENCE NIGHTINGALE, and then a whole bunch of information comes up, all about...Florence Nightingale."

"Yeah, but it's totally fake," interrupted another charming student.

"But it is helpful if you're looking for a quick gist," I pointed out. "If you're just wondering really quick, 'Who is this person?' Wikipedia is a good starting point for you to start figuring it out." I flipped open the 'N' volume and started fluttering through the pages. "Back in the olden days, after we climbed out of horse and buggy outside the ol' library, we used encyclopedias to do that same job. Only we didn't have a computer and we didn't have a search box. Instead, we asked ourselves, 'What is the first letter of the thing I want information about? I know! N for Nightingale! Then we found the 'N' volume of the encyclopedia. Do you hear how it kind of even sounds like 'Wikipedia?' Then we had to flip the pages to find the topic. The 'N' volume is filled with all the topics that start with 'N'. See how they're all in bold? And helpfully, they're all in alphabetical order, too. So I know 'Nightingale' starts with 'Ni-' so I'm just going to skip past the beginning here and...."

And then something sort of clicked in my head. This was absurd. These children were watching me like I was a lunatic. The Internet literally does all of what I was demonstrating for them. Why was I even bothering? But the book in my hand, tattered and faded and shredded along its binding, felt so solid. I looked down at it, remembering countless trips to the library in high school and college, using the card catalogue, returning to a glass top table and my arms laden with heavy books, which may or may not contain any useful information. My God. Research is a totally different thing now. And my students had absolutely no idea what went into it, because ninety percent of the steps have been taken out of the whole process. To them, it's "I just want to know real quick," and the idea of taking any time at all to lift a book was blowing their minds. And I'm not going to lie. It was kind of blowing mine, too.

So in the end, I guess the question is, was I asking my students to do something ridiculous, or is there still some value in knowing how to use reference books the old-fashioned way? I have no idea, but I do know that for now, all I have is those encyclopedias, and tomorrow, all those Fact Checkers have their work cut out for them.

Poor guys.

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