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What Happened to the Card Catalogue? – Helping Students Research and Manage Sources

Do you remember the days of writing research papers before the internet? Were you, like me, forced to dig through the card catalogue, books, and journals to find pieces of information? Maybe you recall your teacher making you use index cards, with each card coded based on source. You developed a symbol or color for each source. If it had a star, it was from the encyclopedia. Maybe you color-coded your cards, with blue coming from The Journal of American History. Before you could actually write the paper, you had a stack of 300 or so cards that you then organized based on theme, main ideas, argument, etc. You were saved in the end, because you knew exactly which source to cite, because the card had your “magic” code. You could put them in ANY order, and you would always know the source.

Fast-forward to today. Sources are at our fingertips. A few Google searches, a little database research, and maybe a library visit (you know if you are crazy and want fresh air or something not digitized), and you have more information than I (little Ms. 1981) could have ever imagined possible. My students at PASB have all of the sources they could ever want. The question becomes, “How do you organize all of that information?” Your students may look at you and ask other questions. “How do I find a good source?” “What is an index card?”

When I first started teaching IB History I had this problem. Students would research, write a paper, and submit a list of links. Unfortunately, they would have no idea whatsoever how to cite properly, and more importantly, what information came from where. I would tell them to go back and cite their sources, and they would struggle for days to find where they originally encountered the information. I quickly realized the index card solution of 1995 was no longer a realistic solution, so I developed my own system that is computer friendly.

To start, I make all of my students create a bibliography page first. This page can easily be added to, and rearranged in alphabetical order. I make them use proper format, telling them that they only have to do it once! Whether using MLA, Chicago Manual, or APA, the first time they use a source, they must do it properly. Then they never have to worry about it again. This page must be color-coded based on source. This process is incredibly easy to do, because word processing software has every color imaginable. See the example below:

Chasteen, John Charles. Born in Blood and Fire: Latin American Voices. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2018.

Dávila, Jerry. Dictatorship in South America. Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.

Skidmore, Thomas E. Brazil: Five Centuries of Change. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Next, I let the research begin. I ask students to take ALL notes in one document. Students are free to take notes from any source they want. What is the trick? They have to take the note in the same color as the source. This process allows students to cut and paste their finished notes by theme, category, or even paragraph without forgetting where the information originated. No matter where the information ends up on the page, the color will indicate the source that should be cited.

The goal in the end is for students to connect sources with their notes in an easy and simplified way. On a side-note, I never let the kids cut and paste their original notes or take notes in a foreign language. I make them take notes in their own words, thus avoiding plagiarism. Cut and paste is only allowed once notes have been recorded on the note sheet.

This technique is especially helpful for ESL/ELL learners. The language can be overwhelming, and this process assists students in organizing their thoughts at their own pace. There is no need for them to feel on-the-spot pressure to translate. They have time to record their thoughts in their own words and continually access and move the information. Even the most unorganized students find great relief in knowing everything is in one place and easy to find.

Christian Strayhorn is a teacher at the Pan American School of Bahia in Salvador, Brazil. She has been teaching for 13 years. In those years she has taught History, English, and Theory of Knowledge. Christian enjoys writing in her spare time and has written three historical fiction novels and one non-fiction book.


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