We all get them…students who show up in the School Library with a sheet of paper about 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.
3 QUESTIONS: MOTIVATE? ADAPT? TRANSFORM?
My first incidental assignments came from performance arts subjects—Band, Orchestra, Choir, Theater—because students missed a scheduled performance. The teachers used the same make-up assignment—a 3-page biography research paper—differing only in the list of composers and performers. When faced with this scenario, 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 aren’t keen to write a research paper. I motivate them by suggesting we use non-traditional resources to gather information and then, since they missed a performance, they’ll create a unique performance 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.
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 research criteria, so I can give the student a note-taking learning log or graphic organizer that aligns with the requirements.
Performing arts students become immersed in an enjoyable make-up assignment and are excited to produce a unique “alternate” performance. The student writes a script for their “show,” giving biographical information, why they chose the subject, and their place in history. Once the script is polished and the example performances are readied, the student records their own “performance” interlaced with example of the subject’s performance. 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
The first “walk-ins” were so successful, the performing arts teachers adopted this redesigned project for all performance make-up assignments. Now Band, Choir, Orchestra, and Theater teachers send students to the library with instructions to “do whatever Ms. P tells you!” Now I keep track of music and theater 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” we’ve 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.
- 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 add resources for more variety. I set up an audio station to our existing Video Production Lab so we have a place for listening and producing audio projects, which I add as podcasts to 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. That’s some mighty powerful PR for the School Library!