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Looking at Resources as Helpful, Not Taboo

Hi All,

My sincere apologies to whomever is presenting this week!  I signed on this morning to start engaging in the conversation, and when I looked at the syllabus I realized I was supposed to post on this week’s readings, too!  So sorry I am late with this, but here are my thoughts on Purdy’s Wikipedia is Good For You!?

As you all know by now, I work in a somewhat unique school district.  All of my classrooms follow an inclusion model, where students who need 1:1 aides are working cooperatively with those who are battling to be the class valedictorian.  On any given day, there are 1-2 additional adults in my room co-teaching with me.  In addition, my 9th and 10th graders are preparing to enter a rigorous International Baccalaureate Program once they enter their junior year, so the curriculum in the lower grades is also challenging.  Differentiated instruction has become second-nature, and now I am becoming fluent in the language, theory and practice of the Common Core.  Anything that can make learning a little easier for my students, especially those who struggle, is a plus in my book.  But, Wikipedia?  Really?  Isn’t that the source that we all tell our students to avoid?  The one that is unreliable because anybody can decide to change the information that is presented?  The one that makes educators (myself included) grimace when we see it listed on bibliographies?

Purdy would say, “Yes” to all of this.  In fact, he acknowledges all of the apprehensions I listed above in one felt swoop when he states, “As a result of such changeability, Wikipedia articles are unreliable; the article you cite today may not exist in that form tomorrow.  This variability challenges prevailing understanding of how published texts work so cause some anxiety.  Because print texts are (relatively) stable, we expect texts we read (and cite) to be the same when we go back to them later.  Even Wikipedia contributors express worry about the implications of article changeability for citation…” (208).  So, how can Purdy acknowledge all the flaws we see in a resource like Wikipedia and still advocate for it as a useful research tool?  By showing us how it can be a supplement to, rather than a replacement for, accurate and thorough research.

Purdy goes on to explain the many ways that Wikipedia can be used to assist students with research by giving them a place to start.  For most students, research articles that come from scholarly (read: dense) journals are intimidating and lengthy.  Purdy writes, “Rather than a source to cite, it can be a source of (1) ideas, (2) links to other texts, and (3) search terms” (209).   Wikipedia articles are broken down into easy-to-read segments that give students a basis of understanding for the topic at hand, and provide additional resources for students to explore in relation to that topic.  Instead of looking at the article as the authority, students should be encouraged to utilize the article as a pathway to other, perhaps more reliable, resources.

In addition, students should also be encouraged to use Wikipedia as a way to place themselves in the scholarly discussion.  Purdy explains that by reading the discussion page on a wikipedia article, you can “…identify the debates, questions, and absences you find.  In other words, list what contributors (1) argue about (ie: what ideas are contentious), (2) have questions about, and (3) think is missing from and what should be included in coverage of that topic” (215).  For students who are unsure about how to formulate an argument about a given topic, looking at what others have to say about it can help, and Wikipedia’s discussion pages can be a way for students to identify the thoughts of others and decide where they fall in the discussion.  Ultimately, we want students to engage in the academic conversation instead of just repeating information they have read (215).  Showing them how to utilize the components of a site like Wikipedia in order to assist their work may help them understand the difference.

Earlier this year, my administrator held a department meeting during which he shock us all and actually advocated for the use of Sparknotes in our resource rooms and ELA support classes.  My colleagues and I all looked at each other like we were all waiting for the punchline to some bad academic joke.  We asked the same questions of him that I posed earlier in this post:  You want us to tell the kids that Sparknotes are ok?  Sparknotes?  The site that has become an English teacher’s enemy?  The site that  students think they can use as a replacement to the required reading for class?  No way.  He isn’t serious.  But, he was, and he showed us exactly what Purdy is showing us in this article:  ways that Sparknotes can be used as a suppplement, instead of a replacement.  Having students characterize characters in a work, then checking Sparknotes to see what they may have missed, or what insight they have that Sparknotes missed.  Looking at a Sparknotes “summary” of a chapter versus the “analysis” of a chapter to help students understand the difference.  Ultimately, whether it is Wikipedia, Sparknotes,  or any other source that makes us turn up our noses, the lesson here is that there are ways in which we as educators can make these previously taboo sources work for our students, instead of constantly fighting against them.

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4 Responses

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  1. Travis Lamprecht says

    “Supplement” was the word I was looking for in my comment on Safaarah’s post. The Sparknotes example is a great way for students to learn how to judge information on the Internet as a whole. It should be treated as an additive to their current knowledge while also using critical thinking to identify pros and cons of Sparknotes. I agree that constantly fighting against these sources is a waste of time and can result in the students’ increased use of these sources. Sparknotes and other similar websites are just padding to concrete knowledge. Students should be able to break-down the information they’re receiving and thus decide for themselves whether the information is accurate or not.

  2. Dana Choit says

    I agree with Gee’s notion that Wikipedia is a tool that can be used as a springboard to further research and understanding. Encouraging its use for “(1) ideas, (2) links to other texts, and (3) search terms” (209) is great way to make use of its availability and as you state “easy-to read segments. It then becomes OUR responsibility to show students how to ”…identify the debates, questions, and absences you find” (215) in order to better conduct research or utilize the “pitfalls” that as educators we have with suchsources like Wikipedia.
    Similar to this process that we want our students to use such sources as a springboard, Sparknotes can be used to do the same. Isn’t the whole reason such sources like Sparknotes and Cliffnotes were created? so that students can get help when reading and trying to comprehend difficult pieces of literature? My mother used to get me Cliffnotes from the library even if I didn’t ask. Our issue with such sources are that students abuse them and read only sparknotes or cliffnotes in place of the actual text. 1. I think thats just the risk that out there with this kind of information available, but 2. I think teacher’s can tell when students only read such sources (and not in addition to the text at hand).
    When I was student teaching I also found that alot of students that don’t bother to read in the first place don’t bother to use sparknotes either. I once asked a student prior to a quiz, “did you read?” He said no. I asked, “Did you even pretend to read and at least read sparknotes?” He said no to that too.

  3. Rachel Duso says

    I’ve used sparknotes in the past in addition to the actual text but never in place of. If student would use it as what it is, a resource, then I can advocate for it; however, students think they can replace reading a novel with sparknotes. Although, sparknotes is considered a reliable source and has good information, it does not, and should not, replace the reading of a text. Wikipedia, on the other hand, has never been considered a reliable source as far as my teachers or professors were concerned. My co-teacher allows our students to use Wikipedia. I don’t agree with this but don’t have much say in the situation. He feels its good enough for what they need.

  4. Victoria Fontana says

    Megan discusses using Wikipedia as a “pathway to other, perhaps more reliable, resources. It’s important for teachers to illustrate proper usage for popular resources that are readily available to the world to avoid relying on utilizing them in “unproductive ways and can help you see sources as more than static products to plunk into your writing” (Purdy, 221). Wikipedia’s brief and often concise articles can be a great tool for teaching proper research, especially if it’s used as either a secondary source or a primary source in addition to another. An articles’ brevity and clarity provides a good starting point to practice proper citation, paraphrasing, and putting “sources into conversation” (218).