Looking Back @ Make-up Assignments for Performing Arts Students

Looking Back @ Make-up Assignments for Performing Arts StudentsWe 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 subjectsBand, 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:

  1. How can I motivate this student so they want to do the project?
  2. How can I modify the assignment for the resources I have?
  3. 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.

cartoon of broadcasterOften 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.

Looking Back @ 5 Ways a School Librarian Can Improve Your PBL

Looking Back @ 5 Ways Your School Librarian Can Improve Your PBLEducators have known for years that student projects are great assessment strategies, but the current trend in project-based learning shows us that projects also provide superior learning environments for students—they are more engaged in critical thinking, their learning is contextual instead of disparate, and they make more authentic connections to the ‘real world’. Since many teachers struggle with PBL, I’m sharing the very best way you can make PBL more successful: collaborate with your School Librarian! 

A recent Edutopia article Project-Based Learning vs. Problem-Based Learning vs. X-BL, by Buck Institute for Education (BIE) Editor-in-Chief John Larner, states that “The term ‘project learning’ derives from the work of John Dewey and dates back to William Kilpatrick, who first used the term in 1918,” and “The use of case studies and simulations as ‘problems’ dates back to medical schools in the 1960s.” Thus there is a rich background for the success of PBL as a learning strategy.

According to Larner and BIE, project-based learning has a broad array of new monikers—of which the article includes an impressive list—and takes various forms, but is primarily an “extended learning experience” that may include one or more of the following:

  • “investigating a topic or issue to develop an answer to an open-ended question”
  • “solving a real-world problem (may be simulated or fully authentic)”
  • “designing and/or creating a tangible product, performance or event.”

According to Larner, PBL et al. falls under the general category of inquiry-based learning—which also includes research papers, scientific investigations, Socratic Seminars or other text-based discussions, etc.” (Nice to know those research papers we’ve been assigning all these years are still relevant!)

If you’ve been unwilling to try PBL or had a bad experience with it, here are 5 ways your School Librarian can be an invaluable PBL partner:

  1. We can show each student the best problem-solving model to guide them through the project/problem/design/challenge they’ve chosen.
    Problem-Solving Models Comparison Reduced ImageIn a prior blog I presented a chart of the best problem-solving models (FREE PDF download). All PSMs have 4 basic phases: plan, aggregate materials, create a product, and analyze outcome. Some have more steps, some fewer, and all develop in students a problem-solving mindset. Since each PSM has its benefits and flaws, a School Librarian, experienced in teaching these models, can determine the most suitable one for the PBL a teacher has in mind, can present it in a format that supports student inquiry, and will scaffold the learning so students master each step.
  2. We can show students the best ways to develop meaningful questions.
    Students rarely have an opportunity to plan a research assignment, so they may not be adept at creating meaningful questions for PBL. School Librarians have brainstorming tools to help students formulate questions as they begin their projects. We can also show students how good questions help them sift through resources for specific information—saving them time—and how to analyze the value of that information for a quality product or outcome.
  3. We can show each student the best information resources for their needs.
    My school library—the smallest of our 6 middle schools—had nearly 10,000 non-fiction books; our school district offered over 50 different online resources for students. Imagine the confusion for students trying to determine what to use for their information need. A school librarian knows these resources and, more importantly, knows how to match the most useful print, audio, video, digital, or web-based resources with the needs of each student’s project. We are the ultimate curators of information resources!
  4. We can show students all the best search strategies for those sources.
    Before the Internet came along School Librarians taught students how to generate keywords to search an Index or Table of Contents in print materials. Our purpose has not changed; teaching students to generate keywords is essential for searching online, whether for text, graphic, audio or video materials. "Google can bring you back 100,000 answers; a Librarian can bring you back the right one." Neil GaimanWe’ve also mastered new ways to fine-tune a search in online subscription services and search engines, such as Google. We can help each student customize their search for whatever their own PBL requires.
  5. We can show students the best way to gather information ethically and proficiently.
    Looking Back @ Teaching Academic HonestyA prior blog post talked about Academic Honesty and teaching students note-taking methods for the ethical use of information. School Librarians also know a range of non-digital and online apps to assist students in gathering and organizing their information, some of which are excellent for presenting the final project/product.

I hope teachers are now infused with new confidence for doing Project/Problem-based Learning by collaborating with School Librarians. Now is a perfect time to visit with your School Librarian about planning PBL lessons for the coming school year!