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Magazines > MultiMedia Schools > September 2003
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Vol. 10 No. 4 — September 2003
The Online Educator
Connecting the Classroom and the Library: How One School Uses Web-Based Library Projects to Build Information-Literacy Skills

by Mike Terry, Educational Technology Specialist, and Diane Spear, Head Librarian Greenhill School, Dallas, Texas

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Those of us who work in school libraries have seen it before.

At 10:15 the library fills up with students assigned a research project. The teacher gives the kids some basic instructions, tells them to keep the noise down, and then turns them loose. The librarian, eager to help in their search for sources, quickly discovers that many students haven't narrowed their topics and aren't sure how to do so. She's also surprised to find they're not researching quite what she thought. And then she cringes as the students, instead of seeking out the books and databases she's ordered for their project, sit down at a computer terminal in the lab, pull up Google, and begin searching the Web.

It's a recipe for poor research that happens over and over. Five years ago, the scene in our library at Greenhill School in Dallas was much the same. It took us little time after joining the school's staff in 1999 to realize that we needed to address the problem.

Over the years, the administration at Greenhill has created an environment in which faculty members are encouraged to develop their own curricular programs. Classroom projects often take on a life of their own, instilling into our students the desire to learn. This creative freedom has always been one of Greenhill's real strengths.

While that environment makes classroom life interesting, it creates challenges. The library works to remain at the center of academic research at the school, but for years, teachers and librarians were not finding the time to discuss projects beforehand. Without this initial collaboration, librarians often did not fully understand the objectives of the research assignments. Teachers remained unaware of the numerous resources available in the library, including new databases, which they didn't know how to access or navigate.

Most of the Greenhill faculty agreed that instruction in research methods was important, but we frequently missed opportunities to do so in the context of a real information need.

Developing a Solution

The first step we took in 1999 was to stop teaching isolated library skills classes. We began reinforcing information-literacy skills through class projects. At that time, we employed traditional strategies, including paper pathfinders and guided lab sessions. (See the "Paper Pathfinders and Beyond" sidebar below.)

Next, the library began working with the technology office to build the library's Web page. We created an online space where teachers and students could quickly find a variety of resources, ranging from Internet databases to the online library catalog. Almost from the start, we noticed a new interest and enthusiasm in what the library had to offer. Teachers could now point students to specific resources with little confusion. No longer did they have to crowd around the two or three public terminals. Each student could sit in front of a computer in any lab on campus and begin researching.

This small but significant upgrade in library services began to affect the way teachers and students viewed information organization and retrieval. They realized that with resources gathered in one place, they could find information in a more efficient manner.

The next step in the transition came as we began to move away from traditional pathfinders. Aside from photocopying issues, paper lists of sites and databases caused problems for our students. They frequently mistyped long Web addresses. They lost the sheets, and they often forgot passwords to the various databases. While the students dealt with the pathfinders, teachers complicated the resource issue by using network drives to store project information. That strategy made sense in isolated labs where computers had been mapped tothose resources. But from labs outside the teachers' buildings or from students' homes, the information was inaccessible.

The obvious solution for us was to move toward the use of Web-based project pages. The first of these were basic, simply linking to Word documents stored on the network. Eventually, the Web pages became more customized. We phased out the use of linked documents and decided instead to put assignments, topics, due dates, and help information directly on the Web pages. As a result of improved communication between classroom teachers and librarians, we began adding selected Web sites considered appropriate for individual projects, as well as databases that would provide high-quality, in-depth information. We created an online environment that successfully organized project information, made sense of the confusing glut of information resources, and made those resources available from home.

After experimenting with a few of these projects, we began to see how the projects might help us carry out our established information-literacy objectives.

Our Information Literacy Program

We laid the foundation to theseinformation-literacy skills in the lower grades by introducing our younger students to the collection, teaching them how to find and take care of the books. Our lower-school librarian, Cay Geisler, read and discussed books with her students, encouraging literacy and artistic appreciation as well as respect for intellectual property.

At the middle-school level, we taught citation skills. Specific skills, such as library catalog searching, Internet evaluation, PowerPoint presentation, use of online databases, and "cyber ethics" were taught sporadically throughout the grades. Librarians and technology staff actively sought every opportunity to reinforce these skills, especially during middle-school years, with the hope that, by their junior year, students would begin internalizing the information process and could conduct independent research.

In spite of good intentions, the scope of our information-literacy curriculum remained poorly defined and lacked sequence. We had long been aware of the need to clarify our instructional goals as teacher/librarians and to devise a strategy for incorporating information-literacy skills into the school-wide curriculum. In 1998, the American Association of School Librarians and the Association for Educational Communications and Technology jointly announced and published national standards for information literacy in schools. (See "Standards: Recipes for Serving Student Achievement," by Jane Prestebak, MultiMedia Schools, October 2001; years ago, studies were conducted in Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Alaska on the impact of school library media programs in those states. (See "Proof of the Power: Quality Library Media Programs Affect Academic Achievement," by Keith Curry Lance, MultiMedia Schools, September 2001; studies provided documented evidence that student achievement is directly related to a strong information-literacy program within a school, as well as to collaboration between teachers and librarians. As issues of standards and best practices in teaching research skills emerged more frequently in the literature and at professional conferences, we began considering how we could use our library project pages to help us define the scope and sequence of our information-literacy curriculum at Greenhill.

We were encouraged in the spring of 2001 when the newly appointed Head of School Scott Griggs decided to take a closer look at the curriculum. By the following year, the school board released its strategic plan and named information literacy as one of its key issues. The plan suggested that along with other school-wide initiatives, Greenhill School should "develop and articulate a pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade program in information literacy into the existing curriculum."

After comparing the library's new approach and the suggestions laid out in the strategic plan, Scott gave the library projects his stamp of approval.

"Students today have access to information in a variety of forms," Scott said. "The volume of information is extraordinary, and the quality is varied. Students must be taught, through an organized and disciplined approach, how to access, assimilate, and differentiate the information at their disposal. The development of our library projects program is a cutting-edge example of the type of work we are doing in the area of information literacy for all of our students. These projects pull together many aspects of learning with technology that are so important to our students today."

A Case Study: Art History in the Middle School

When we first began producing the projects for a few middle and lower school teachers, it was difficult for them to imagine how the sites would be used in a classroom situation. By encouraging them to send us project instructions and components, we could then build the pages to demonstrate how the sites work. Normally, it took just the initial demonstration to gain a new partner. Peggy Turlington, Greenhill's seventh grade literature teacher, recognized the project's power as soon as she saw it.

Each winter, with the help of several other middle-school teachers, Peggy leads the students through an art history unit, which she inherited several years ago. When she took the project over, it was outcome-focused; the objectives centered on PowerPoint production. The students spent a day in the middle-school computer lab scouring the Internet for images and information, then another 3-5 days inserting what they found into a presentation. After hearing the students speak about their artists, she realized that they had barely scratched the surface. All the work with the search engines and PowerPoint had gotten in the way.

"There was too much emphasis on technology," she said. "The students were only getting a thumbnail sketch of their artists. I decided that we needed to get to the library and do some real research. Maxine Brittain, our middle-school librarian, had been encouraging me to bring the kids in for some time. It didn't take me long to agree with her."

Once she agreed to bring her students in, the library and technology staff planned a Web-based project page that would organize all of the project's research components. Empowered by the new level of collaboration, Maxine gathered databases and Web sites, while at the same time pulling out books from the library's collection.

Peggy saw immediate results. "Maxine began to use the project page to teach the kids about how to find information in the databases, how to identify worthwhile Web sites, and where to look for the excellent books the library carries," she said. "The students learned the distinction between databases and Web sites. Maxine also gave them passwords so that the students could do their research from home."

By the end of a week of active research, the seventh graders had acquired a wide base of data from which to build their reports. "The project was much less teacher-directed. The students were able to come into the lab, log onto the Web page—which is a format they are infinitely more comfortable with than paper—and move at their own pace," she said.

The students spent fewer days creating the presentations, but in the end were able to communicate a deeper understanding of the artistic styles and movements they studied.

Costs and Benefits

Every new endeavor comes with challenges; this approach to research instruction is no exception. It requires technical support, both in terms of system hardware capabilities and of the skills needed for Web page design and maintenance. We are fortunate at Greenhill to have that support readily available so that these projects could be developed in a timely manner and without burdening teachers who may not have the time or inclination to tackle the technical issues involved.

The benefits have been enormous. Teachers, librarians, and technology staff are not only collaborating more, but with a new understanding and appreciation of what each team member has to offer. Less time and energy is wasted when we can all meet on the Web to share and organize our ideas for a research project. These projects remain a permanent archive, easily revisited, revised, or shared with other teachers on our own campus or across the country. Best of all, we have a new tool to examine our strengths and weaknesses in meeting established standards for information literacy.

While the various outcomes of the library projects have been exciting and satisfying, the real reward for us as educators has been in the process itself. We see our students actively engaged in the type of critical thinking that ignites and fuels a lifelong passion to ask questions, seek answers, and share information.

Paper Pathfinders and Beyond

Traditional pathfinders are simply topical guides to resources in a specific library facility or system. Call them extended bibliographies. They usually include:

• Book call numbers

• Database or reader's guide information

• Web site URLs

Online library projects go beyond the traditional pathfinders by:

• providing context, organizing class
documents, due dates, and research help.

• giving direct access to online library catalogs.

• offering online database connections.

• linking to relevant Web sites.

• providing on-demand access.


Want Some More Background, Some Examples? Take a Look

If you're wondering how to start a library project and what one looks like, take a look at This site, created by the team at Greenhill, explores information literacy and the role it played in the development of the school's initial projects.

The site outlines American Library Association standards and definitions and also links to a variety of different research models and methods.

One of the site's real gems is its catalog of warehoused projects. Currently, there are more than 12 different projects on the site, giving visitors an inside look at the various ways Greenhill is using the tool. Each example is fully functional with all of the resources intact. Take a look. You might get some ideas.


Curriculum Mapping and Project Pages Meet on the Web

The faculty at Greenhill School is currently using a Web-based tool to map all school curriculum from preschool through grade 12. Through the initiative and planning of Mark Crotty, director of curricular programs at Greenhill, all faculty were trained in January of 2002 in the use of Atlas [] from Rubicon International. This tool allows faculty across all grade levels and divisions to input and manage curriculum content, skills, assessment, and resources at one Web site that is accessible and searchable to all users. This development at Greenhill has presented new opportunities for collaboration and sharing of resources among Greenhill educators. It enables teachers to follow sequence across the school and to identify opportunities for team teaching, reinforcement, and resource sharing.

Greenhill librarians have discovered that the library project pages have been a crucial aid in mapping information-literacy curriculum. When an "information-literacy" link is added to each site, these pages provide an organized record of the skills being addressed in each project, as well as specific resources being used. In the Atlas software, online project pages can be linked directly to the mapping grid for easy reference. The benefits of merging Web-based project pages with online curriculum mapping work both ways. Librarians can search the school curriculum database by keyword or skill and discover what information skills are being addressed by individual teachers at different grade levels. This allows them to discover gaps that need to be addressed and to identify possibilities for collaboration with classroom teachers.


Mike Terry, educational technology specialist, has been developing Web solutions at Greenhill School, Dallas, Texas, since 1999. Diane Spear is the head of the library department at Greenhill School. Contact them at and, respectively.

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