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Digging into Databases--Using Databases to Inspire Novel Approaches to Creating Curriculum [Available Full-Text, Free]

By Sarah Cooper - Posted Nov 1, 2005
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During the past year, I spent dozens of hours looking at more than 50 subscription databases as part of research for a school's new library. These online publications are a dream for middle and high school English and history teachers in the variety of primary and secondary sources they offer.

Databases can inspire novel approaches to creating curriculum. As teachers become familiar with them, their thinking about lesson planning and student research often moves in innovative directions. Below are five projects where librarians can take the lead in helping history and English teachers see the potential of this new world of sources.

1. Hot Topics: Personalizing Current Events

When teachers look for current events sources, general reference periodicals databases can often seem daunting in their scope and coverage. More specialized databases, however, such as SIRS Researcher and Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center, offer targeted information that helps students narrow their focus for current events debates. By presenting these databases sequentially, librarians can help students become independent scholars.

SIRS Researcher includes thousands of articles and illustrations from U.S. and world periodicals, screened for school use by a staff of more than 40. As a result, students can find thoughtful, relevant information on any topic. Librarians and teachers can take advantage of this quality content by turning students loose to discover a personal stake in the news.

For instance, in preparation for a debate, students can work in teams to find articles on a SIRS topic preassigned by the teacher, such as Pollution or Criminal Justice. Each member of the group can print one article and one image (a table, chart, or photo); write a few sentences to summarize each item; and explain why it is interesting. For the subject of Defense, one student might choose an article about Marine tactics in Iraq, while another might decide on a piece about Army basic training. So that students do not simply pick the first article they see, the teacher can require them to look through at least three nonconsecutive pages of search results before selecting a piece.

Once students have discussed their angle on the assigned topic with the librarian or teacher, they can move on to Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center, a Gale product based partly on Greenhaven Press' Opposing Viewpoints series of books. To begin, students can find a subject in the extensive index that relates to the articles they found on SIRS, such as National Security or Iraq. Then each student can print out two of the most interesting pro/con essays on the topic, assessing the merits and drawbacks of each side.

By this point, the group will understand many facets of the topic and can prepare more concretely for a debate. First, based on their individual research, group members can choose one or two smaller subjects within their assigned topic that they really want to discuss. For the large topic of National Security, students might select the subtopics of border crossings or protecting the Internet from hackers. Now the group can divide itself in half (pro and con) on the subtopic(s) and pursue more in-depth research. At this point, media specialists can guide students to the general periodicals databases, such as ProQuest, NewsBank, EBSCOhost MAS Ultra, Gale InfoTrac, or LexisNexis, to find specific articles.

Such scaffolding of research, from SIRS' thoroughly vetted pieces to Opposing Viewpoints' thoughtfully constructed essays to the general databases' wide-ranging articles, helps students feel confident in their ability to find solid information at each step of the way.

2. By the Numbers: Statistical Information

Statistics are crucial for understanding economic and social trends, and two databases make it easy for students to work with numbers: CountryWatch's data section and LexisNexis Scholastic Edition's statistics area. Librarians and teachers can opt to begin a unit with these tools before students have learned much about the country or historical period they will study. This way, students must draw their own inferences from evidence. When they do read more about the topic, they will have a context in which to place the information.

CountryWatch's data section allows the user to select a country or countries, 1 or more years since 1993, and any number of indicators relating to employment, religion, health care, industry, and education. Especially useful in a geography, health, or government class, the data allows students to quickly compare one country to another. For instance, as an introduction to a unit on prenatal and postnatal care, students could compare infant mortality rates in five countries. They could then offer theories on why the rates differ before turning to articles on health care in each region. Similarly, in a world history class covering China, Europe, or the Middle East, students can look at the percentage of people today who are Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim in the countries they are about to study. The results can serve as a hook to inspire students' curiosity.

Unlike CountryWatch, LexisNexis Scholastic's statistics section allows a full-text search, producing copious results. For instance, looking up "women" and "California" produces hundreds of documents, ranging from "Licensed Young Female Drivers, By Age, 2002" (from the Federal Highway Administration in 2004) to "Women Holding State Public Offices (2002)" (from the South Carolina Budget and Control Board in 2004). Students can be encouraged to incorporate at least one statistical source as part of a larger project or to base an entire paper on what they find, especially with detailed census or employment statistics. Alternately, they can brainstorm paper topics in the library after conducting a statistical search. If they do not end up using the tables they generate, they will have at least become familiar with the process.

3. Language at Your Fingertips: The OED Online

The original Oxford English Dictionary (OED), with its 20 volumes, is impressive enough. The online subscription version, however, allows student scholars to search its holdings in ways that cast new light on the history of language. (Obviously, the dictionary contains many words that are not appropriate for school use, and it is helpful to remind students of this before beginning any activities.)

The OED Online easily ties into classic English authors, such as Shakespeare. A search for the Bard as "first cited author" produces approximately 150 words, and checking for him as "quotation author" gives thousands of hits. As short activities for a unit on Shakespeare's language, students can search for words that Shakespeare coined from the play that they are reading, such as the verbs "mildew" from King Lear and "overperch" from Romeo and Juliet; track the parts of speech of words Shakespeare invented or used; or write a monologue using 10 of his original words. Other authors with rich linguistic records on the site include John Milton and Mark Twain.

Teenage culture often produces language that makes its way into the dictionary, and students can trace modern English through the OED's "Latest new entries" feature. In June 2005, listings included "carbo-load" and "in-box"; in March 2005, "bok choy" and "upload." To jump into these new coinages, students can define a group of 10 prescreened words as a group or individually. Then they can sort the words into categories by writing them on big Post-it Notes on the wall, each with a title at the top such as "food," "foreign affairs," or "technology." With five or six groups of students working on this project, the Post-its together will contain 50 or 60 words. Students can then choose a category that interests them and draw conclusions about a society that values these words.

Tracing words over time works for history as well as English. Using the OED's "First cited date" function, students can find hundreds of new words from 1945, including "bebop," "fissionable," and "passive-aggressive." To follow up, they could write a short piece about the 1940s or World War II using at least a dozen words from the list or a historically accurate dialogue between people living in 1945 and 1995, when hip words included "e-tailing" and "Webcam."

4. Voices from the Past: Historical Newspapers

Searching through newspaper pages from the 1700s to the present gives students the chance to become historians. An excellent general source is ProQuest Historical Newspapers, with full facsimile text of publications including The New York Times from 1851 to 2001, The Wall Street Journal from 1889 to 1987, and the Los Angeles Times from 1881 to 1984. (More recent years of the papers are available on current periodicals databases, such as ProQuest Platinum.) A more specialized historical repository is Accessible Archives, with magazine and newspaper holdings from 18th and 19th century America, including The Pennsylvania Gazette from 1728 to 1800 and Godey's Lady's Book from 1830 to 1885. Both databases give the perspective of the time on historical events, and the skills each teach go beyond search-and-find.

ProQuest Historical Newspapers fits well into a media literacy segment of an English, government, history, or journalism course. Librarians and teachers can ask students how several different newspapers covered the same event, focusing on tone, voice, and bias. What does one article include that another omits? How does each story begin? In addition, students can track one newspaper across 100 years. How did the tone and design change from the 1890s, the heyday of yellow journalism, to the 1990s, when objectivity was prized? Teachers could conclude this lesson by asking students to reflect on the mission of today's newspapers.

Both ProQuest Historical Newspapers and Accessible Archives can help students appreciate primary sources. For example, students can find a passage in a U.S. history textbook or other secondary source describing a key event, such as the taking of San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War or the ratification of the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote. Then they can look at several descriptions of the event, noting which information each newspaper chose to include and why. Finally, students can list the pros and cons of using these primary and secondary sources.

One Accessible Archives section, "The Civil War: A Newspaper Perspective," highlights issues of bias and viewpoint. It contains important stories from The New York Herald, the Richmond Enquirer, and the Charleston Mercury from November 1860 to April 1865, thus describing the Civil War from Northern and Southern perspectives. Students can weigh parallel accounts of significant battles as well as aspects of regional daily life, identifying with the war experience on the march and at home.

5. Literature Laid Bare: Evaluating the Critics

The scores of literary criticism articles online on sites such as JSTOR, Gale's Contemporary Literary Criticism, and ProQuest Learning: Literature can amaze even the most serious scholar. While teachers and librarians need to be vigilant about cut-and-paste plagiarism for English papers from these resources, directed study can help sophisticated readers understand literature's context.

Librarians can spearhead this assignment by choosing a few key paragraphs from three or four different articles on the same novel. Selections for Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street, for example, could include passages about narrative voice, dreams, the culture of childhood, or city life. In small groups to foster discussion, students can read the excerpts from one or more articles, briefly summarize the gist of each article, and assess how believable the authors' viewpoints are. This technique can also be tied into biographical information. A study of criticism on Romeo and Juliet or The Great Gatsby, for instance, could ask how much William Shakespeare or F. Scott Fitzgerald would have agreed with modern critics' interpretations of their novels.

For highly skilled readers, searching literary databases independently can lead to exciting connections. Students can scout for articles from different decades or movements to see changes in how we have analyzed literature over the years. They can also find an article that compares the novel they are reading to another book, then read the second book and evaluate whether they agree with the juxtaposition.

Any of these activities could be followed with a wrap-up that examines the significance of literary criticism. Students can discuss questions such as the following: How have these articles affected your understanding of the novel? Is your experience of the work now richer? Why or why not? Through such reflection, they become participants in a wider world of analysis.

Creating New Curriculum

Now that many schools subscribe to a critical mass of databases, we are entering a new age of curriculum design. No longer does information simply lie inert, waiting for us to stumble across it in printed indexes, encyclopedias, or the Readers' Guide. Students can now shape the ways in which they encounter and use knowledge through sophisticated searches and side-by-side comparisons. As librarians and teachers, we can invent projects that take advantage of this flexible access, leading students—and ourselves—to think in new ways as we go.

Sarah Cooper is a middle school history teacher at the Bishop's School in La Jolla, Calif., now in her seventh year of teaching. During the 2004-2005 academic year, she served as a consultant on library issues from a teacher's perspective for Flintridge Preparatory School in La Ca-ada, Calif. She recently authored a curriculum guide on Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game for Jane Schaffer Enterprises, and she has written articles for Education World, The Journal of San Diego History, and Common-place: The Interactive Journal of Early American Life. Sarah can be reached at



Accessible Archives

Gale InfoTrac

Gale Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center

LexisNexis Scholastic Edition

The Oxford English Dictionary Online

ProQuest Historical Newspapers

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