Vagabond Librarian

Reports from the intersection of military life, motherhood, & librarianship.


Middle school

Why a Wiki? Content Collaboration in the Middle School

A wiki is a content collaboration tool that enables people to work together remotely to share ideas, develop new understandings, plan and negotiate processes, make decisions, and solve problems. A wiki can serve as a sandbox for collaboration and working together, and it also  can serve as a presentation medium for finished work. Students can use wikis to aggregate and share resources, to develop guides, bibliographies and book reviews to share with their peers, and as a platform to showcase their original writing and multimedia creations. In this blog post, I’d like to share an idea for an authentic wiki project for fifth graders.

Before we delve into that idea, though, check out this video by Common Craft Wikis in Plain English (May 29, 2007 via YouTube). This is an old video, but by far the most clear and concise description of how a wiki works that I have seen. (The video I had previously embedded below wasn’t working, so I substituted a screenshot of a wiki I created about using Storybird. The text link to the video still works, though.)

Screen Shot 2013-10-18 at 8.07.39 AM

As you are no doubt thinking after watching Wikis in Plain English, there are infinite possibilities for applying wikis to classroom collaboration projects. What I have in mind is a unit activity that would work well as a collaboration between the school librarian and the 5th grade writing teacher, but this project lends itself to collaboration with all subject area teachers, as well as other school staff.

The Project:

Fourth graders are nervous about entering the middle school next year, where they will be required to change classes, remember locker combinations, and navigate the junior high hallway to the gym. Current fifth graders are being asked to create a wiki that provides information and resources that they think will help these new students transition to the middle school.

Earlier in this post, I referred to this as an “authentic” wiki project. Working on an authentic task is incredibly motivating for students. This project is authentic because the students are working on providing a usable product for a real-world purpose. This project isn’t intended to simply earn a grade and then sit online for parents to proudly point to later. This project is intended to be put to use by a real audience (and, of course, proudly pointed to by parents as well).

This wiki project can include academic, practical, and social advice. All of the information included in the wiki should be relevant, engaging, and encouraging for incoming students. It should be written in a formal voice, and should contain proper spelling and grammar. The wiki should include maps, interviews, photos, links, and either a FAQs page or a place for fourth grade students to submit questions. The wiki can include a “Story” page, in which case the text introducing the page should be formal and the stories can be written in whatever voice is appropriate to the narrator.

The wiki will be started by the librarian, who will provide links on the home page to additional wiki pages that contain the following information:

  • Basic instructions and a video tutorial
  • Wiki guidelines
  • Brainstorming area
  • Recommended Duties page where students can sign up as authors, editors, fact-checkers, photographers, and whatever other duties they determine are necessary
  • Parent information page
  • Privacy information and internet safety reminders (the wiki privacy settings can be “Private” while students are working and once the wiki is complete, the pages can be “Locked” and the wiki will be made available online for viewing)

Once the basic framework for a wiki is established, the librarian can introduce the wiki, its tools, and the wiki engagement guidelines, to students during a class in the library or classroom. The librarian can demonstrate examples of respectful wiki interactions, citing sources, fact checking, offering constructive criticism, and how to use functions like the wiki discussion space to politely explain why you edited someone else’s work (spelling, organization, fact check, visual appeal, or maybe you found more recent information from a reliable source that differs).

The hardest part about a project like this is the next step.

Stand back and let the students learn.

Let them brainstorm, collect information, work together to decide how to organize their information, make connections, ask more questions, debate, and edit. In other words, let them discover and learn. Coach them when they get stuck. Model critical research and inquiry skills. Provide assistance when they need to resolve a conflict. Be a mentor if they come to you with a problem, and encourage them to rely on each other to work through it. By putting your students in charge of the process, you give them experience planning, collaborating, thinking critically, editing, validating information, and practicing good digital citizenship. And, they will accomplish all of that while engaging in a fun activity that is providing an authentic product that will serve a greater good. Teaching doesn’t get better than that.

You can involve students in their own assessment, too. Posting the assessment criteria on the wiki will provide them an ongoing reminder of what is expected of them throughout the project.

You could include self-assessment elements like the following:

  • I provided constructive feedback to others and responded politely when I got feedback.
  • I followed directions and assisted others in the investigation, editorial, and review processes
  • I contributed thoughts and ideas to improve the project
  • I followed directions and did my best.

And, project assessment elements like these:

  • The project uses formal voice
  • The project is free of spelling and grammar errors
  • The project uses positive language
  • The project uses outstanding resources and those resources are cited
  • The project includes pictures and multi-media elements that are relevant, and are cited

You can tailor the assessment elements to the learning standards you are targeting in your library lessons and the subject area teacher is targeting in their content lessons.

Some of the learning standards this project directly supports are:

AASL Standard 2.1.5 Collaborate with others to exchange ideas, develop new understandings, make decisions, and solve problems.


Common Core Standard W.5.2 Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly.

Common Core Standard W.5.5 With guidance and support from peers and adults, develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach.

Common Core Standard W.5.8 Recall relevant information from experiences or gather relevant information from print and digital resources; summarize or paraphrase information in notes and finished work, and provide a list of sources.

How have you used wikis in the classroom? Or, how would you like to see wikis used in the classroom? Share your comments below!

Incorporating Informational Text Into Library-based Activities

School librarians can serve an important role in supporting teachers and students as they adjust to new expectations. While I still have a number of questions about the best way to assist teachers as they integrate Informational Text into their lessons, I see a number of opportunities that these authentic texts offer. Check out my Goodreads reviews for a number of Informational Text titles appropriate for middle school children–you may be surprised to see titles you already know and love.

Informational Text

The current shift in American school curriculum to the Common Core State Standards, which place an emphasis on increasing the amount of Informational Text students read as they progress through grade levels, has brought the sometimes-misunderstood genre of Informational Text into the spotlight. The Common Core’s emphasis on Informational Text has generated controversy among teachers and parents who are concerned that students’ personal connection to, and analytical study of, literature will suffer in the wake of an emphasis on a genre they fear consists of instruction manuals and “advocacy journalism” (Stotsky, 2012). These concerns highlight common misunderstandings, or misrepresentations, about what the genre of Informational Text encompasses. The purpose of this paper is to introduce the depth and variety of Informational Text as a genre, and to highlight activities that incorporate Informational Text into the middle school library learning environment.

Informational Text is a subset of non-fiction that is unique in purpose, feature, and format. Its primary purpose, whether written to report or to persuade, is to inform the reader about ideas, facts, and principles related to the natural or social world (Duke, 2003, p.17). The features in a work of Informational Text vary according to the purpose and subject of a text, but can include print features such as a glossary, index, or key word guide; visual aids like diagrams, illustrations, maps, and charts; and organizational aids such as bold print, headings, section titles and informational sidebars. Informational Text exists in a number of formats, including print and digital versions of books, magazines, newspapers, essays, correspondence, handouts, brochures, and infographics. Informational Text can be used in the library and the classroom to promote information literacy, provide opportunities for close reading and comparative analysis, and support subject matter content across the curriculum. Additionally, because Informational Text is authentic text, it has the potential to spark meaningful personal connections, as well as provide opportunities for exploration and analysis of literature, culture, and history.


The following suggested activities represent the adaptability of Informational Text to a wide variety of subject area content. Each of these activities employ Informational Text as a generative springboard to encourage close reading, analysis, evaluation, discussion, and reflection of student learning.

Activity 1: Inside-Out Discussion Circle

This activity is adapted from Sharon Kane’s 2008 work Integrating Literature Into the Content Areas (p. 61). Kane suggests placing chairs in two facing concentric circles to set the stage for a dynamic activity that provides students the opportunity to engage in multiple one-on-one discussions.

Description. The teacher-librarian provides each student with a copy of the same informational text and a main question on which to focus and form an opinion, based on textual evidence. Students are then given time to read the text, and subsequently invited to join the circle. Students will share their thoughts and observations about the topic and main question with the person in front of them in the circle. After three minutes of discussion, the students are asked to each move two chairs to the right and begin the discussion anew with the classmate who is now in front of them.

Materials and resources. For this activity, the teacher-librarian will need copies for each student of an informational text on the chosen subject, chairs arranged in two facing concentric circles, and (optional) a bell, maraca, or other noise-maker to signal that it is time for the students to shift to another chair.

Motivational value. This activity provides a platform for students to discuss their own opinions and ideas about a topic with a number of different peers in a one-on-one setting that provides an element of security that will bolster student confidence, thus encouraging student motivation to participate. Student motivation is further encouraged by the student’s freedom to discuss information they found important, as well as the opportunity for all students to be fully engaged during the entire activity.

Activity 2: Student Evaluation Groups

The following activity is inspired by Sharon Kane, who suggests having students evaluate science texts against one another for accuracy in her book Integrating Literature Into the Content Areas (2008, p. 40). The activity has been modified for this paper to illustrate that it is appropriate to use with a variety of subject areas. This activity supports learning about scientific inquiring, analyzing a range of texts, evaluating texts for consistency, and comparing and contrasting values and ideas.

Description. The teacher-librarian divides the students into small groups and asks students to review a number of Informational Texts about the same subject. The students are given the texts, post-it notes, and a chart on which to record basic fact and observations from each text. The students will group the notes on the chart according to facts that are in agreement and disagreement. Students will then investigate the disagreements further and find additional resources that verify or disprove the fact or claim they have culled from the text. Students will then rank their original texts from most to least accurate and present their chart and findings to their peers.

Materials and resources. This activity requires the teacher-librarian to select and have available multiple copies of a small variety of Informational Texts about one topic, and to assemble additional resource texts (print and digital) about that topic. The activity requires post-it notes, markers and a poster board chart (or whiteboard space) for each group.

Motivational value. This activity will prove most motivational to students when the teacher-librarian collaborates with the classroom teacher to choose topics to explore that are both relevant to student interest and classroom subject matter. Students will find being in charge of evaluation motivating and will derive satisfaction from sharing their knowledge and accomplishment with other students.

Activity 3: The Big Idea Infographic

The Big Idea Infographic activity is inspired by Tanny McGregor’s suggestion in Genre Connection: Lessons to Launch Literary and Non-Fiction Texts to spark a connection between art and Informational Text by viewing visual representations of information like those created by information artist, David McCandless (2013, p. 99-100). This activity will challenge students to read, understand, and process information and then to organize and present what they learned in the form of an infographic.

Description. The teacher-librarian will show students examples of data visualization and explore what information those infographics are conveying. Then, the students will choose an Informational Text excerpt from those provided by the teacher-librarian and engage in close reading, making notes and highlighting “big ideas” from the text. Students will then be asked to join other students who read about the same topic to form small groups and discuss the purpose, facts, and main idea of the text. The teacher-librarian will give the groups materials and instruct them to create their own infographic, using the information they have read about and discussed. Students will be allowed time to create their infographic, and then to present to each other, the teacher-librarian, and the teacher at the end of the activity. Once all students have presented, they will share their observations about the process of choosing and representing the information they determined to be important. While I would encourage physically creating an infographic in order to keep all members of the group engaged, students could create a digital infographic like the one included here.

Materials and resources. For this activity, the teacher-librarian will assemble examples of infographics to show on a screen, smartboard, or as posters. The teacher-librarian will also provide copies of a variety of Informational Texts from which students will chose. The activity requires the teacher-librarian to assemble art materials with which the student groups can construct their infographic poster. Suggested materials include the following: poster board, colored pencils, highlighters, colored paper, glue sticks, and scissors.

Motivational value. The opportunities for students to choose their subject matter and to express themselves creatively encourage personal connections that will reinforce relevance, satisfaction, and, in turn, motivation for all students. Although the main purpose of works that fall under the umbrella of Informational Text is to inform, the authentic texts that comprise this genre have the potential to spark powerful personal connections. The examples, annotations, activities, and information included in this paper demonstrate that the genre of Informational Text contains works that not only inform and enrich the investigation of classroom topics across the curriculum, but also have the potential to inspire, as well as to provide valuable opportunities for analysis, evaluation, and critical thinking at all educational levels.

Works Cited

Council of Chief State School Officers. (2012). Key points in English language arts. 2012 Common Core National Standards Initiative.

Duke, N. K., &; Bennett-Armistead, V. S. (2003). Reading & writing informational text in the primary grades. New York: Scholastic Teaching Resources.

Kane, S. (2008). Integrating literature in the content areas: Enhancing adolescent learning & literacy. Scottsdale, Ariz: Holcomb Hathaway, Publishers.

McGregor, T. (2013). Genre connections: Lessons to launch literary and nonfiction texts. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

New York State Education Department. (2013). Selection of Authentic Texts for Common Core Instruction: Guidance and a List of Resources for Text Selection. EngageNY.

Stotsky, S. (December 11, 2012). Common core standards’ devastating impact on literary study and analytical thinking. [Issue brief]. The Heritage Foundation.

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