"Go online and search your topic for 20 minutes": Leveling up students' browsing strategies and skills

The problem

Every year students surprise me with the way they navigate the internet, or "read online."  Kim Young noticed when she asked 9th grade students to browse the internet for introductory research, 60% of of them didn't show the skills, strategies and behaviors associated with consciously browsing the internet to get an introduction to a topic.

The solution

In the Advanced Innovative Learning Team (AILT),  Kim and I discussed this data point and decided to create a lesson using a deck of cards to scaffold student browsing during the initial research phase of the 9th grade Global Concerns project. Students research three different geographical areas for 20 minutes to get a feel for which one they might want to select for their extended research project.

We opened the lesson by modeling a Google search, paying particular attention scanning article titles, URLs and snippets. Most students click on the first result, and we want them to use the strategy of  scanning and choosing what they read with intention instead of chance.

After we modeled searching, we introduced the browsing decks.  We made multiple decks of cards (this is a beta, so they were simply designed using GGL docs, printed out on colored paper, and cut into cards about half the size of an index card) with about 200 cards each. The students were seated in groups with one large browsing deck to share. We encouraged students to draw from the deck during their 20 minute search period in class, and to try at least five new strategies. If they drew a card that didn't work for them they discarded it and chose another.

The four major themes of the browsing deck 

Search strategies (two card examples follow)

  • Scan the "snippets" under your Google search results to learn more about your topic
  • Scan two pages of Google search results before choosing which result to click on and read

Using different types of sites (two card examples follow)

  • Search social media platform, e.g. find a Facebook group that relates to your topic
  • Search forum like Quora or Reddit 

Browser/search engine strategies (two card examples follow)

  • Try Duck Duck Go browser for results that aren't influenced by the information your browser holds from previous searches
  • Use Google Videos search

Trying specific sites  (two card examples follow)

  • Use a site you know well for a new purpose: i.e. search the "News" section and hashtags in Snapchat to find out more about your topic
  • Search the New York Times and scan the first 50 results before you click on anything

The future: make a "real" deck of cards and share

We plan on collaborating with Cat Ciccolo, another AILT participant, for her graphic design students to design the cards so they are actually nice to look at and quicker to understand. Then, we want get the cards professionally printed with a WEEFC grant. Then, we will make the game available to all teachers in the high school who want to scaffold browsing with their students when they ask their students to "go on the internet and learn about your topic."

Impact outside the classroom

The first place teenagers look for information is the internet. Did you know that the most frequent internet search for teenagers is health related? When students use a variety of skills and strategies to search for information, they exercise critical thinking skills to become better informed and more selective in what they read and believe. 



Alexa in the library

I'm part of the the Advanced Innovative Learning team led by Kerri Stoffel and Kim Young. This group gives me the time and support to explore new technology. I have a split focus for this year: understanding and making Alexa skills for the library, and integrating geospatial data into freshman history classes with Kim Young.

Last week I attended the tinkering day at the Weston Arts and Innovation Center with the entire group.  I worked on the Alexa project. Alexa is the voice assistant for the Amazon Echo. There are a bunch of other products like this on the market, like Google Assistant, Siri and Cortana. I became interested in working on this because I had heard a lot of talk online about voice assistants in the library, some against because of privacy issues, and other pro, because of the additional services they can offer patrons about the library program. Some people believe voice assistants are the next wave of library services.

Personally I'm horrified by the idea of voice assistants run by Amazon and Google. Neither company has shown much regard for anyone's privacy, and they make all of their money off of user data. However, this summer I watched my 5 year old niece ask Alexa everything as a matter of course and I understood the reality of voice assistants as part of our daily lives. Maybe not my life, but of many others, especially children.

The first time I played with Alexa was at my parent's house. Years ago I gave my father an internet radio, and he was able to listen to all of his favorite radio shows from NY even though he lived in Florida. My father told me he didn't need it anymore because Alexa plays all of those radio shows. I had just listened that fabulous podcast, Crimetown, and thought my father would love it. I said, "Alexa, play Crimetown" and nothing happened.

That's when I realized there was something behind Alexa besides asking it to play a song or recite the weather forecast. That thing was the Alexa app, where you customize your voice assistant to do various things like play your email aloud, control your home's smart features like turning lights on and off,  I also discovered there was something called "skills," programs you can connect to your Alexa.

The most popular skills on Alexa are sounds: sleep sounds, meditation sounds, white noise, music, radio stations. Educational, children's, games and news round out the categories. If you search for "library" you'll find a bunch of academic and public library skills that can do amazing things like search the catalog, put items on hold, renew, and answer frequently asked questions.  The search for "school" discovered skills created by school districts that give information on calendars, school closings and events, menus and similar information.

I didn't see anything in schools or library skills that related to instruction or content. This led me to wonder how we could use Alexa for teaching. The skills in the educational category are about vocabulary words, facts about certain disciplines (astronomy, history) world languages. One that looks interesting is "Critical Thinking Skill." I wonder what's in that?

My goal for the day was to understand the privacy implications of Alexa (of which there are MANY), and figuring out what it would take to make a skill. I found all the privacy info pretty easily as I hooked up my Echo.  The app on my phone walked me through all of the privacy settings. Basically, the fewer things you connect to your Alexa (your phone, email, smart home system, etc) the more privacy you have.

I was shocked to learn how easy it is to make a skill. In your app, you are led through the steps of making a skill, step by step in the Blueprint tab of the Skills category. I had to decide what topic the skill would be, and what format it would be in. There are hundreds of formats to choose from, like Custom Q and A, Listening Quiz, and Flashcards. I went with Listening Quiz and created a brief skill called "Avoiding Plagiarism." I wanted to call it "Why Cite?" but the word "cite" isn't in Alexa's vocabulary yet. I think it is now, because it was all over my "Avoiding Plagiarism" skill!

In "Avoiding Plagiarism," I explain what citing is, why we cite, and a few other important ideas associated with it. There is a one paragraph spoken introduction, followed by two paragraphs of content with associated questions that students can answer. I typed the text into the app, typed the questions in, and wrote out variations of correct answers so Alexa could "grade" the answers. It's kind of like an oral Google form, but with a lot more content. It took me about one hour to learn how to make the skill and then actually make the simple skill. Of course, longer  skills will take longer. And, I just threw together my content. Planning the skill should take the most of the time. Actually making it is pretty easy.

While my skill is rudimentary, I see implications for education: this is a great way to convert text to speech and ask comprehension questions. It could be adapted for active note taking activities. Students could make oral quizzes.  It could be used by all ages, from pre-reading to college.  Librarians could read stories aloud. Current thinking says this practice doesn't violate copyright. If you want your voice to be heard instead of Alexa's, you'll have to make a podcast and connect the online podcast to your skill.

As educators, when we think about how students would be using Alexa, it is a home-based, elective tool rather than a required, on campus tool. I'd feel very uncomfortable turning on the mic for Amazon in our school building. Our privacy needs to be protected. In addition, all families may not have an Echo at home. We could lend out Echo Dots to students who don't own them. They are relatively inexpensive: mine cost $30, but I think it was a sale. There may be some management issues with connecting apps to the device, and switching over to new owners. Also, some families may own voice assistants other than Echo, which poses another access question, and the additional work of educators creating skills for programs other than Echo. It might be easy, but I haven't done it.

I never found out how to listen to Crimetown on Alexa. But now I know that if I spend 10 more minutes on it, I can tell my dad how to hear the unbelievably corrupt and unbelievably entertaining tale of Buddy Cianci, mayor of Providence. Our students can hear a lot of us on Alexa if we put ourselves there and they listen. As always, if you want a hands on tutorial, please let me know and I'll be happy to walk you through. I have an Echo Dot (always unplugged) in my office and will be happy to plug it in for you to try.

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Image by flickr user Stock Catalog used under a CC by 2.0 license


Northeast Regional Media Literacy Conference, Nov. 8-9, 2019

I attended the Northeast Regional Media Literacy conference this past weekend.  Being around media literacy scholars and teachers reminds me how critically conscious consumers of media are empowered, independent, analytical,  informed, active citizens: just the profile we wish for our students.

One of the most interesting things about being a librarian is being immersed in media, and noticing how media has changed over time. I was a 20th century kid. Media was books, Pong, print newspapers and magazines, movies in theaters, channels 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13 and, once I hit middle school, Wometco, the fledgling NYC area cable channel featuring Uncle Floyd. Here comes the refrain: now we live in 24/7 media cycle. 21st century students live in a completely different media environment than the one I grew up in. The Action Coalition for Media Education summarizes the shift beautifully:

  • Epistemological shift: from 20th century WORD to 21st century IMAGE
  • Technological shift: from 20th century ANALOG to 21st century DIGITAL
  • Personal shift: from 20th century MASS media to 21st century PERSONAL and PARTICIPATORY
  • Aesthestic shift: from 20th century DISCRETE media platforms to 21st century CONVERGENT media platforms
  • Political shift: from 20th century REGULATION to 21st century DEREGULATION
  • Economic shift: from 20th century COMMERCIALISM to 21st century HYPERCAPITALISM
  • Discursive shift: from 20th century OBJECTIVE news to 21st century SUBJECTIVE news
  • Cultural shift: from 20th century PRIVACY to 21st century SURVEILLANCE


I welcome conversations about how you can incorporate media literacy into your classroom. I've been building my knowledge over the past few years, have received a certificate in Digital Literacy from URI, and keep up with the latest thinking and teaching in media literacy by attending this conference. Media literacy is applicable to every area of the curriculum.

Browse my Twitter highlight reel of the conference. Notice that the sessions involved Music, Art, Science, English and History. A list of resources follows the Twitter highlights. I also have a bunch of print resources that I can share with you in person. I hope you are encouraged to incorporate (or think about incorporating) media literacy instruction into your classrooms

Additional resources


Review: Tempests and Slaughter

Tempests and Slaughter Tempests and Slaughter by Tamora Pierce
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Entertaining, compelling, imaginative, thought provoking and full of soul. It starts out freakishly like Harry Potter, which stressed me a little, yet develops far beyond that into 100% original Tamora Pierce. The descriptions of magic are awesome, and the gladiator arena setting is masterful. The themes and plot relate to our present political and social dilemmas. Seeing friends with foundationally different beliefs developing a close, trusting, nuanced relationship is inspiring and instructional, a valuable vision for the socially divisive age in which we live.

View all my reviews


The best books I read in 2017

I read some fabulous books over the past year. I use Goodreads to keep a record along with quick reviews. I pushed myself to read nonfiction this year which challenged and enriched me. The titles are linked to my brief Goodreads reviews. 


The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich

The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy by Masha Gessen


Barkskins by Annie Proulx

Mental Illness

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson

Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King

Surprise endings

Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart

Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt


Landscape with Invisible Hand by M.T. Anderson

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

The Mandibles 2025-2047 by Lionel Shriver


Scythe by Neal Schusterman


We Will Not Be Silent: The White Rose Student Resistance Movement That Defied Adolf Hitler by Russell Freedman

The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis


American Street by Ibi Zoboi

The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon


My Sister Rosa by Justine Larbelestier

We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver

The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu

One of Us: The Story of a Massacre in Norway and its Aftermath by Asne Seirstad

Gender and Sexuality

George by Alex Gino

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

The Internet Age

The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside our Heads by Tim Wu

Black Lives Matter

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

Life in other places

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

LaRose by Louise Erdrich


Goodreads 2018 Reading Challenge: Beat me and I'll make you lunch

Sometimes I can't believe my good fortune to have a job where I am actually *paid* to read. I can even do things like enter Goodreads' annual reading challenge, set my reading goal for the year, and happily check off books as I read them. This year I set my goal at 55 books, and challenge you, my students and colleagues, to beat my number. If you do, I will treat you and five of your friends to homemade lunch. I am a good cook.

Join Goodreads for free, follow me (Weston High School Library), and set your 2018 reading challenge.

My 2018 Goodreads Reading Challenge


Feed your head

We've added a few new books about teaching to the collection about that you might be interested in taking a look at this year:

Social LEADia: moving students from digital citizenship to digital leadership (2017) by Jennifer Casa-Todd  is enthusiastically recommended by many teachers for practical examples of how students are "leveraging social media in positive and powerful ways."

Schooltalk: rethinking what we say about--and to--students every day (2017) by Mica Pollock helps "educators match their speech with their values."

Creating cultures of thinking: the 8 forces we must master to truly transform our schools (2015) by Ron Ritchhart "demystifies the process of creating dynamic learning communities."

Who's doing the work: how to say less so readers can do more by Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris (2016) talks about "how some traditional scaffolding practices may actually rob students of important learning opportunities and independence [and] suggests ways to make small but powerful adjustments."

Happy teachers change the world: a guide for cultivating mindfulness in education (2017) by Thich Nhat Hanh and Katherine Weare "includes easy-to-follow, step-by-step techniques--perfected by educators themselves--to learn mindfulness and to apply it in their relationships and teaching with students and colleagues."