We all get them…students who show up in the School 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 assigned project.
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 rarely used.
HOW CAN I MOTIVATE? ADAPT? TRANSFORM?
My first incidental assignments came from performance arts classes—Band, Choir, and Orchestra—because students missed a scheduled performance. The teachers all used the same make-up assignment—a 3-page biography research paper—differing only in the list of composers or performers. When faced with this situation, I asked myself 3 questions:
- How can I motivate this student so they want to do the project?
- How can I adapt the assignment for the resources I have?
- How can I transform the product and still satisfy the teacher?
Often these students miss a performance through no fault of their own, so they’re not keen to write a research paper. To motivate them I suggest using alternate resources to gather information and, replace their missed performance with a unique product:
Produce a short recorded performance as a radio or TV “host” discussing their artist.
None of my performance arts students turned down this suggestion, and after running the idea by teachers, they loved the idea, too, especially since it aligns with 3 National Core Arts Standards for Music:
- MU.Performing4.1.6: Apply teacher-provided criteria for selecting music to perform for a specific purpose and/or context, and explain why each was chosen.
- MU.Pr4.1.7: Apply collaboratively-developed criteria for selecting music of contrasting styles for a program with a specific purpose and/or context and, after discussion, identify expressive qualities, technical challenges, and reasons for choices.
- MU.Pr4.1.8: Apply personally-developed criteria for selecting music of contrasting styles for a program with a specific purpose and/or context and explain expressive qualities, technical challenges, and reasons for choices.
My question technique is so successful that I use the same process when any student walks in with an incidental research assignment that lacks a WOW factor.
RARELY USED A/V/D RESOURCES
Topical non-traditional resources that are rarely used are perfect for an incidental research assignment. The student hasn’t seen them before, and they’re more engaging than an encyclopedia for research. 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
- graphics and animation on computer CDs or websites
- kits of pamphlets, booklets, and brochures
- primary sources as print copies or online.
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 subject. I grab 2 or 3 resources related to the assignment’s theme & the student’s interests, and the student previews them. They pick a person or performance, and we gather additional print and non-print informational sources about their choice. I use the assignment sheet to ascertain the teacher’s content standards and research criteria, so I can give the student a note-taking learning log or graphic organizer that aligns with the requirements.
My performing arts students become immersed in this make-up assignment and are excited to produce a unique “alternative” performance. The student writes a script for their talk radio show, giving biographical information, the person’s place in history, and why they chose them.
Once the script is polished and the sample performances are readied, the student records their own “performance” interlaced with examples of the music. Both script and recording are turned in for a grade. (We originally used audio- or video-cassettes but now use digital tools such as Audacity or MovieMaker.)
SUCCESS CREATES CHANGE
Impressed with the alternate performance-based product, Band, Choir, and Orchestra teachers adopted this redesigned project for all performance make-up assignments. They send their students to the library with instructions to “do whatever Ms. P tells you!” I keep track of musical performances on my library calendar so I know when to expect students for a make-up assignment.
So, what are some of the “performance analyses” students have done?
- Composers ranging 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 Texas 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.
We’ve used so many—what I thought were obsolete—audio/video/digital items that I actually add resources for more variety. I set up an audio station in our existing Video Production Lab so we have a place for producing audio projects, which I now add as podcasts on our library website.
What any school librarian could have considered a real pain has become one of my best library research activities. It turned what was a discouraging prospect into a meaningful learning experience for performing arts students. And as word spread, other teachers began to ask me to modify their make-up assignments for the better.
That’s some mighty powerful PR for the School Library!