We all get them…students who show up in the library with a sheet of paper assigning a research project to “make up” for something they didn’t do, so they don’t fail the class. This can be the worst kind of student library visit—the student regards this as a “punishment” and because there’s been no collaboration with the teacher, we may not have the resources for the stated project. However, instead of being annoyed, we need to view these incidental research assignments as wonderful opportunities to step beyond the boundaries of curriculum, to try something different, and to use resources that are otherwise little used.
A typical incidental assignment comes from performance subjects—Band, Orchestra, Choir, Theater—because students missed a scheduled performance. Often those teachers use the same make-up assignment—a 3-page biography research paper—differing only in the list of composers/performers. When faced with this scenario, I quickly ask myself 3 questions:
- How can I motivate this student so they want to do the project?
- How can I modify the assignment for the resources I have?
- How can I change the outcome and still satisfy the teacher?
These students aren’t eager to write a research paper, so I motivate them by suggesting we use non-traditional resources to gather information and then create a unique product: since they missed a performance, they’ll produce a short recorded performance as if they’re a radio or TV host discussing their subject. I’ve yet to have a student turn down this suggestion!
Remember those “reference interviews” we practiced in library school? They are valuable for finding out what interests the student about the particular class, so we can determine which of our resources will fit both student and the subject. Topical non-traditional resources that are rarely used (but we don’t want to discard) are perfect for an incidental research assignment. The student has usually never seen them before and they’re much more engaging for research than an encyclopedia. These little-used resources include:
- videos of people, places, performances, and events like cultural festivals
- music cassettes and CDs by various composers and performing groups
- computer CDs for graphics, web design and animation
- kits of pamphlets, booklets, or brochures
- copies of primary source documents.
I grab 2 or 3 resources that fulfill the theme of the assignment and the student’s interests, and quickly get the student started with them. The student previews the resources then picks a performer or performance and we gather a few additional print and non-print informational sources about their choice. I use the assignment sheet to ascertain the teacher’s research criteria and give the student a note-taking learning log or graphic organizer that aligns with the requirements, then, rather than a research paper, the student writes the script for their “show” explaining why they chose the subject and how some examples illustrate the subject’s place in history, giving biographical information along with their analysis.
Often these students miss the performance through no fault of their own, so they become immersed in an enjoyable make-up assignment and are excited to produce a unique “alternate” performance. Once the script is polished and the accessory performances are readied, the student records their own “performance” interlaced with recorded examples of the subject’s performance. Both the script and the recording are turned in for the grade. (We originally used audio- or video-cassettes but now use digital tools such as Audacity or MovieMaker.)
After my first successful “walk-in” this redesigned project became the model for all future performance make-up assignments, and performance teachers —Band, Choir, Orchestra, Theater—just sent students to the library with instructions to “do whatever Ms. P tells you to do!” So, what are some of the “performance analyses” we’ve done?
- Composers from Beethoven to the Beatles
- Singers and musicians from Scott Joplin to Janis Joplin, including greats like Billy Holiday and Glenn Miller, and pop icons like Frank Sinatra and hip-hop trendsetters
- Music from the medieval period and the Scarborough Faire Renaissance festival to Revolutionary War and Civil War songs to cultural festivals from 4 continents
- Old folk instruments to homemade street drumming to electronically produced tunes
- Cirque du Soleil acrobatics to adding audio sound effects during a theatrical reading
We’ve used so many (what I thought were) obsolete audio/video/digital items that I actually added resources for more variety. We had an existing Video Production Lab and I added an audio station to one side so we have a place just for listening and producing audio projects and adding them as pod-casts to our library website. I track music and theater performances on my library calendar so I know when to expect absentee students for a make-up assignment.
So, what a first-year librarian could have considered a real pain actually became one of my best PR activities and turned what was a discouraging prospect for students into a meaningful learning experience.