Research Questions and the Ten-Year-Old Mind

As a school librarian it is my task to teach research skills to my students.  In library circles.the new nomenclature for what was once research skills is now information literacy.  Whether you call the skill by its older more familiar name – or its new appellation, it all boils down to the same thing.  Basically, what’s your question, where do you look for it – not necessarily on the internet – and how do you extract credible information from your chosen sources.  My biggest challenge is to get the idea across that all research begins with some kind of question.  For example, the question “How do you make chocolate chip cookies?” is for all intents and purposes a legitimate research question.  I like it…I like cookies.  Because kids often confuse reporting with legitimate research convincing them that off the wall questions constitute legitimate research  and is far more interesting than mere reporting, true research pursuits often need a little nudging. The goofier the example the better.  Does the light in the refrigerator turn off when the door closes?  hmmmmmm? 

Stories are great ways to nudge kids.  So I told my story which I shall call, “How do toilets flush?”  A legitimate research question, I think.  Certainly worthy of my ten-year-old-self’s pursuit – much to my mother’s despair.  

I was often roped into helping my father with repair work around the house.  “Hold the flash light, and hand me the wrench.”  In many ways I was like the assisting nurse in an operating room.  By the time I was five, I knew the difference between a flat-head and a phillip screwdriver.  I didn’t mind.  I wanted to help.  I wanted to tighten the screws, and pull out the bent nails.  I wanted to do what I wasn’t allowed to do.  I held the flashlight.  And I watched….carefully.  Sometimes too carefully. 

Dad had to fix something in the toilet one day.  I can’t remember exactly what it was, but I was recruited and dutifully handed him the required tools and pointed the flashlight in the right direction.  He removed the lid on the toilet tank, and started fiddling around with the mechanism within. I watched, and took mental notes.  Many mental notes. 

About a week later, a research question hatched…How do toilets flush?  Curious minds want to know.   My best source of information was the trusty set of encyclopedias ensconced in the bookcase in the dining room.  So I crystalized my research question down to one keyword – toilet, retrieved the encyclopedia’s “T” volume, and located the entry.  Lo and behold…not only was there a concise history of toilets (Did you know, that Sir Thomas Crapper was credited with the invention of the flush toilet? Hence the “crapper” came into being. Recent researchers dispute this factoid…more research is needed to verify the etymology.  (I sound like a librarian, don’t I…geesh!)).  More importantly, within the article resided a detailed diagram of the inner-workings of the mysterious tank.  I hit the jackpot!  I think I read the article about ten times…flappers, ball cocks, etc., etc., etc. I knew the history! I controlled the vocabulary! I possessed a detailed diagram! I was ready to rock and roll. 

Vicarious experiences never satisfy my curiosity.  If I read about something, I want to experience it.   Time was of the essence, my mother was in the backyard hanging up the wash.  I wanted to see if what the encyclopedia said about toilets was really true.  So, I snuck up to the only bathroom in the house, locked the door, and began the experiment. 

Step one – remove the tank lid.

 Mom covered the tank and the toilet seat with these fuzzy things that were the rage in bathroom trappings, so removing the fuzzy covers was a must.  That was not as easy as one might think, because she didn’t always buy the user-friendly ones with elastic bands…Oh no…draw strings kept those little suckers in place.  

Once the tank lid was undressed, and the lid was on the bathroom floor, I started playing with the stuff inside.  Chains, and flappers, water, and ball cocks…That part was pretty easy…But it led to another question…How does the water know when to stop filling the tank so that the tank doesn’t overflow?  That wasn’t covered in the encyclopedia article.  More experimenting.  More flushing.  Did you know it takes several gallons of water to flush a toilet?  When a family is on a one-salary budget, the water bill is an important controllable expense.  Multiple flushings for childish experimentation are not appreciated. 

Laundry done, mom returns.  She hears multiple flushes. 

“What are you doing up there?”

 “Nothing!” Desperate attempts on my part to  clothe the toilet tank with the fuzzy things.

“Why are you flushing the toilet so much?”

“I have an issue!”  Working harder to get the fuzzy things back on the toilet without breaking the porcelain tank lid. Breaking out in a sweat.

“Do you need any help?”  (Moms are great, aren’t they?)

“Nope, got it covered!” Literally – the toilet tank had its fuzzy clothes back on.

“Let me in there!  Right now!”  Banging on the door.  Busted!

I was toast…she knew…. The fuzzy things weren’t on in mom-perfect fashion. No more experiments – grounded for the day. 

The good news is…I’m still here to tell the story.  The better news is that my students are beginning to understand that their questions are legitimate research questions.  The bad news is that some of my students are starting to look at those toilet tanks with gleams in their eyes…. It’s a good thing I didn’t tell them about how I eliminated my knee wart.  (Encyclopedias are great, aren’t they?) 


Grocery Shopping Under the Influence of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy

When I was a young adult (and still am in the spirited sense) a lot of things were really important.  I mean really, really important… like guys, my weight, clothes and meaningful work…(emphasis on meaningful).

Things have changed.  Very few things are really, really important.  Other things are really important.  A few things fall into the important category.  Most things fall into the …”Oh, well…another day, another challenge” category.  Upon consideration, the “really, really important” category just doesn’t exist at the moment, but I’m open-minded about stuff….who knows?

While grocery shopping this morning, I’ve come up with something that falls in between the cracks of the important category, and the” another day another challenge” category.  I’m not really sure how to catalog this problem…My favorite grocery store –Ultra Foods – is closing, and the choices left in my community will be the high-end designer grocery stores – like Mariano’s, Pete’s, and the Jewel.  There goes the budget.  Ultra Foods was perfect for my needs.  The prices were competitive; the selection was decent; and it was within three miles of home.  I suppose a new category is needed…”the irritating fly in the ointment of life” category.  Yes, I do believe the closing of Ultra Foods is truly an irritating fly in the ointment of my life.  Oh, well.t 

So what to do.  Whenever I face some goofy challenge like this, my epileptic brain goes into hyper drive.  Yes, I have temporal lobe epilepsy.  As a sidebar, TLE’s seizures present as mood swings, self-talking, smelling things that aren’t there, and brain hyper-drive.  Rarely, if ever, do I get twitchy and lose consciousness. A little anticonvulsant daily helps immeasurably.  So if you see me in a grocery store, talking to myself…I’m not crazy…I’m having a seizure…No big deal.  Getting back to the story and my hyper-active brain.  While shopping this morning, I started planning…really planning about what future grocery shopping is going to look like…because I can tell you right now…I’m not paying designer prices for produce.   My brain was a whirling dervish, and I went into self-talking mode…People started avoiding me.  Oh, well…that happens a lot.  Despite the weird looks from fellow-shoppers, I came up with a plan.  Fortunately, I live in shopping paradise.  I don’t have to go very far to find just about anything I could possibly want to drag home.  Sadly, my grocery budget can’t support high-end produce…so here’s the plan – so far. Aldi’s will be the go-to store for detergents, paper towels, soaps, etc.  The Dollar store has always been a good place for saran wrap, and aluminum foil.  (Fortunately Aldi’s and the Dollar Store are across the street from each other – so no big deal there.) Produce and meats -that’s the challenge. Fortunately we have a really truly great

The carnicería/frutería on North Avenue that serves our Latino community – Villa Park Fruit Market.  If you have never shopped at a carnicería/frutería, you really need to go in one and take a look.  Fresh produce – and I don’t mean just the generic-garden variety you can get at the Jewel – the kind of produce that supports Latino cuisine….yumm!  The meat department is the same story.  Fresh beyond belief.

But, Marianne (you say), Villa Park Fruit Market is a good five miles from your current domicile, and Jewel is just down the street.  True.  Very True.  But the Jewel can’t hold a candle to the variety and freshness of foods at the Fruit Market.  But, Marianne, (you continue),  what about Pete’s and/or Mariano’s.  Well, I can’t get my shopping cart down the aisle at Pete’s.  There is entirely too much high-priced stuff all over the place, and I don’t need Mariano’s piano concert to enhance my shopping experience.  I need to fill the shopping cart with what’s on my list, and get the hell out of there.  (I am a very focused shopper.  I may be talking to myself while shopping…but that is when I am really, really focused.)   Another great thing about the Fruit Market is it’s proximity to PetPlus (a great lower-cost alternative to Petsmart) and Hobo’s – good competition for the big-box hardware stores.  I like it.  I can get the grocery, pet and hardware shopping done in one convenient location!  So what if it’s five miles.   

I think I’ve reduced this “fly in the ointment of my life” to problem solved.  And I have TLE to thank for it. 

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