Lessons with Legos

One of my favorite teaching tools is a box of Legos. I’ve built several lessons around Legos, and it is a guaranteed way to get my upper school students excited about a library session. The lesson I’m sharing here is one I use with 9th graders. The objective is to have students understand what a controlled vocabulary is, how it works in the context of searching, and how that applies to LOC Subject Headings and subject searches.

The set-up: I pre-sort my Legos into standard bricks and irregular pieces, providing a pile of standard bricks, randomly, to each student (or small groups, depending on the student:Lego ratio). I tell them we are building a database of Legos and get some volunteer input to get a definition of what a database is. I then give students about 4 minutes to decide with a partner/small group how they will categorize their Legos so we can search our database to find the right bricks.

Depending on the space that I have, students may write their categories on the board as they discuss, or share them out after and I will write. Typically they offer categories like color, shape, size. For each, I press a bit further and we get lists like:

  • Color
    • Red, green, blue, white, yellow
  • Shape
    • Square, rectangle
  • Size
    • Number of studs (yes, that’s what the bumps on Legos are called)
    • Stud dimensions (1×2, 2×2, 2×4, etc.) 
    • Short or tall (in Lego lingo this would be plate or brick)

Next, we try “searching” our database. I’ll call out a search and the students will push forward their “results” on their desks. I start easy with things like “red” or “square.” I point out how they can combine things “red AND 2×2” and bam, we get the brick we want. 

But, as librarians we know it’s not so easy to search and get what you want, so I point out that there are, in fact, three different shades of blue in my Lego set and that I may do a search for “turquoise,” which based on what we established as a class, is not an option: zero results. This creates the opportunity to discuss the challenges of controlled vocabularies for searchers–if I don’t know the language used for the colors, my search for turquoise will leave me thinking there are no results for me, when there are a lot of turquoise Legos, they are just called blue. So, do we keep it broad and say I should just search for blue and then I have to sort through all the blue results to find the ones that are turquoise, or do we want our Lego database to specify what our three different shades of blue should be called? And, will that alway help? What if I call the lightest shade turquoise but they call it “light blue” or “sky blue”? And, how would I know what words to use? When we work through it like this, students catch on quickly.  At this point, I let them build a creation from the bricks they have as we plow forward. 

New information gets created all the time, so our database expands– I give them a few more Legos from the bits set aside earlier and we upload this new data into our system. We quickly hit complications. How, for example, am I supposed to search for a wheel when our data structure doesn’t have a way to do that–wheels are not square or rectangular and they don’t have studs. Or how would we find a sloped piece? Or other irregular pieces? My goal here is for them to see that, while imperfect, adding more specific categories titles for our blue issue seemed like a fairly simple fix. If we try to come up with names and categories for all the irregular shapes the vocabulary gets unwieldy and it becomes even more confusing to know what to call things. How we chose to include information, label it, and organize it, impacts how it is used. 

Now I introduce LOC Subject Headings and how that language can be obscure, biased, and difficult to find as a novice searcher. But also, knowing how information is labeled and organized helps you know how you can search for it, as well as how some questions may not be readily answered by the way information is organized. We do exploratory searching in our catalog (we use AccessIt) so I can show them how to find the Subject Headings of results of their searches, that those are clickable links that redo a search, and how to backtrack to the stem if the subject is too specific.

The best part is I get to do a lesson on searching that engages my students without relying on walking them through searches projected on the board and connects to the ACRL Frame, Searching as Strategic Exploration through the knowledge practices: understand how information systems are organized in order to access relevant information; and, use different types of searching language (e.g., controlled vocabulary, keywords, natural language) appropriately.  


I’ve been wanting to write about Webtoons for the blog, since I started reading Webtoons webcomics a few years ago and now follow multiple series, but have held back for a couple of reasons. One, the world of webcomics is enormous, with a multitude of sites around the world hosting many thousands of series, but I’ve pretty much stuck to Webtoons so can’t comment on the others (except I know that sometimes series/episodes too racy for Webtoons end up on Tapas). Two, I haven’t really found a good way to translate my love of Webtoons to my job, except to post a list of the series I’m following, and to add some to our catalog if they are available in book format or were adapted from books. I’d love to hear other ideas for how to use them at school!

Webtoons is a South Korean company that’s gone through a few iterations since 2004. Originator of the scrollable-comic format that works well for the web and mobile devices, Webtoons now publishes original webcomics, has a self-publishing platform called Canvas, and is also associated with the writers’ site Wattpad. Though Webtoons is free, readers can choose to support their favorite comic creators, and some comics are offered on a “daily pass” system that allows you to unlock one episode a day or use virtual “coins” to unlock other episodes. Many Webtoons series are in progress, updating at different intervals or on hiatus, so don’t expect to read a story all the way through like a novel unless the series is marked as completed. Finding new Webtoons to follow can be frustrating, since the subject search is unfortunately minimal.

For the most part, Webtoons are aimed at YA and adults, though many are fine for grades 7+. A select few are appropriate for younger kids, though I wouldn’t recommend the site to younger students. More mature YA/Adult webtoons can have significant “R-Rated” content, though not generally above that; obviously that’s subjective. I’ve encountered a ton of LGBTQ representation and a fair amount of other diverse representation, which is always a plus! I also enjoy reading the comments, which has introduced me to more current slang, and let me see how other, probably younger readers connect with the material. Often people will tell how their own situation or personality mirrors something happening in the comic, such as autistic people seeing their experiences reflected in the experiences of Extraordinary Attorney Woo. I also learn things I never suspected; for instance, from reading comments on the trans comic Hyperfocus, I learned that people can identify as multi-personality “systems,” or as “non-human entities.” Windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors are well-represented in webcomics!

English-language YA titles that have been adapted as Webtoons (I’ve starred ones I’ve read):

Webtoons I’ve read that have been/are being released as graphic novels:

Webtoons I’ve read that have been adapted for Netflix or vice versa:

Though I have a long list of my favorite Webtoons, here’s a list of my top ten favorites for grades 7+, along with a summary copied from/adapted from the official Webtoon summary:

Nothing Special. Katie Cook. Fantasy, Humor, Romance, Adventure

Callie thinks she’s nothing special. With the unexpected addition of friendship and adventure (and dead radishes) into her life, she’s about to find out that she was very, very wrong! [On hiatus]

Space Boy. Stephen McCranie. Science Fiction, Adventure, Romance, School Story

A girl who belongs in a different time. A boy possessed by an emptiness as deep as space. A story about an alien artifact, a mysterious murder, and a love that crosses light years. [In progress]

Raven Saga. Chihiro Howe. Fantasy, Adventure, Romance

When her grandmother is taken by a mysterious boy, Wen must travel to the outside world to save her, but the world isn’t as magical as she once thought, and danger lurks around every corner. [On hiatus]

Cursed Princess Club. LambCat. Fantasy, Humor, Adventure, Romance

Gwendolyn doesn’t look like a fairy-tale princess, but she’s got a big heart and a loving family. When she accidentally stumbles upon the world of the Cursed Princess Club, her life will never be the same. [In progress]

Heartstopper. Alice Oseman. Romance, Realistic Fiction, School Story, LGBTQ+

Charlie, a highly-strung, openly gay over-thinker, and Nick, a cheerful, soft-hearted rugby player, meet at a British all-boys grammar school. Friendship blooms quickly, but could there be something more…? [In progress]

Brass & Sass! Antlerella. Romance, Realistic Fiction, School Story

What Camilla lacks in musical ability, she makes up for in passion – especially when it comes to Victor, the handsome musician who’s caught her eye. Will love rule the day, even when your crush-of-choice is a real brass-hole? [Complete]

Miss Abbot and the Doctor. Maripaz Villar. Romance, Historical, Humor

 Dr. Marino loves his quiet life, and when the strange Miss Abbott arrives in his town he decides he doesn’t like her at all. Unfortunately, she’s funny and quirky, has an uncommon past, and seems to enjoy getting him in trouble. [Complete]

The Witch and the Bull. Moonsia. Fantasy, Adventure, Romance

King’s royal advisor Tan hates witches, making him prime target for a curse that turns him into a BULL! The only way to undo this hex is to rely on the beautiful and kind witch, Aro. [In progress]

Night Owls and Summer Skies Rebecca Sullivan/TIKKLIL. Romance, Realistic Fiction, Camp Story, LGBTQ+

When her mother dumps her at Camp Mapplewood, Emma tries to get kicked out. But when she gets to know Vivian, a gorgeous assistant counselor, she might just change her mind. [Complete]

Acception. Colourbee. Realistic Fiction, School Story, LGBTQ+

With his rainbow-colored hair and love of all things fashion, Arcus is anything BUT your average teenager. But like the rest of us, he’s just looking for a few friends to call his own. [In progress]


 “Webtoon (platform).” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia, 7 Aug. 2023. Web. 12 Aug. 2023.

Thumbnail images from Webtoons.

AI and The Nightingale: A Cautionary Tale

Hans Christian Andersen wrote his fairy tales during the tumultuous changes of the19th century Industrial Revolution. Can one of his stories speak truth to our current Industrial Revolution of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence? Here are a few reflections on how Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Nightingale” might present a cautionary tale as educators continue to explore the opportunities and challenges presented by new technologies and artificial intelligence. Also included below are some “connections” prompted by recent student discussions of new technologies.

Natural Beauty 
The nightingale lived on the furthest reaches of the emperor’s lands in a “beautiful woods with “lofty trees and deep lakes” (242). Its song causes even the poor fisherman to pause in his daily work as he listens to the song. Though the nightingale agrees to be brought to the royal court to sing for the emperor, the bird says its song “sounds best among the trees” (246).

The nightingale’s song is best appreciated in its natural surroundings, “among the trees,” and not when the bird is tethered to a golden perch in the royal court. Its song also causes the listener to slow down and appreciate the beauty of the song. Later, this song has healing qualities as the emperor is rescued from Death by listening to the nightingale’s song.

Seventh graders examined how exposure to nature can make us healthier and discussed whether technologies such as Virtual Reality can duplicate the experience of being in nature.
Using the Scientific American article “Can Virtual Reality Mimic Nature’s Power to Make Us Healthier,” students examined the successful efforts of VR researchers, but also reflected on this caution from VR researcher Matthew Browning: “It’s a tool. It’s not a replacement . . . We have to be careful with not pushing it in a way that would take money or attention away from investing in urban greening and parks” (Bartels). 

Authentic Voice
In Andersen’s “The Nightingale,” a mechanical bird arrives as a gift for the emperor. The artificial bird delights the royal court with its sparkling appearance–“glittered like bracelets and breast pins”–and a predictable song that is “perfectly in time and correct in every way” (248). The royal court’s music master praises the superiority of the glittery, mechanical bird over the plain-looking nightingale. In comparing their songs, he faulted the nightingale’s song because it was unpredictable and different each time: “you never know what you will hear.” But with the mechanical bird, there is predictability: “everything is decided beforehand . . . one note follows upon another” (249).

Difference and unpredictability in a voice (the nightingale’s song) is not valued by the emperor’s music master. The music master diagrammed the gears of the mechanical bird and praised its ability to produce a predictable, immediate response. However, creativity thrives on the convergence of unpredictable elements and the struggles to create meaning through problem-solving and making connections. This artificial songbird (artificial voice) has “something wanting,” as the poor fisherman observed, “It sounds very nice, and it is very nearly like the real one, but there is something wanting” (249).

Students in grades 5-8 enjoyed discovering the “authentic voice” as they examined  two poems, one written by our school’s Technology Support Specialist, Jennifer Hockless, and one written by ChatGPT. Each were challenged to create a poem using as many of the following words as possible: Neptune, black tie, radical, lightning, sunny-side up, herb garden. As you view the two poems, which poem do you think has the authentic voice of a human?

Students correctly selected the poem “City Girl Dreams” as written by a human, noting the personal feelings expressed in the poem. In contrast, the ChatGPT poem “Cosmic Poetic Wonders” has a predictable rhyming couplet pattern and forced wording that is sometimes nonsensical, such as “A black tie soars” and “Amid celestial rays, sunny-side up.” 

Another interesting reflection on the importance of authentic voice was shared by educator and writer Alexis Wiggins during a conference presentation at STLinSTL. Alexis Wiggins and co-teacher Ashley Bryson challenged senior film students (John Cooper School, Woodlands, Texas) to create a 3 min. movie incorporating cinematic techniques. The constraint: the movie script would be generated by ChatGPT from randomized elements, such as story conflict, location, and genre of movie. When surveyed following the project, students said they enjoyed the project but wished that they could have written their own scripts. This experience of being required to use AI-generated scripts caused students to appreciate the value of their own authentic voice.

Empathy and Connections
In Andersen’s fairy tale, each person has a unique connection and reaction to the nightingale’s song.The nightingale’s song brings tears to the eyes of the emperor and a kitchen maid describes the effects of the song: “Its song brings tears into my eyes. I feel as if my mother were kissing me” (245).

The nightingale’s song not only appealed to their hearts, it also prompted introspection. The nightingale tells the emperor that its song will help the emperor to empathize with others in his kingdom, thereby building perspectives for wise rule and decision making. The nightingale says to the emperor, that it will “sing to cheer you and make you thoughtful, too. I will sing to you of the happy ones and of those that suffer. I will sing about the good and the evil, which are kept hidden from you” (253).

Fifth graders watched a TODAY Show video and read a news article about rescue worker Denise Corliss and her search dog Bretagne. Working 12 hour shifts, Bretagne was one of 300 search and rescue dogs that looked for survivors at ground zero following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.Though Bretagne did not find any survivors, this dog’s affectionate nature had a healing effect for the exhausted rescue workers. Veteran firefighter Chuck Jones observed the following:

“It was really heartwarming to see these big, rough firefighters and rescue people sit down next to Bretagne. Bretagne would put her head in their laps, and you’d see the tension come off their faces” (Coffey). Though advances in technology may make future rescue operations more efficient, the importance of human compassion and, in this case, the loving affection of the search and rescue dog, is crucial for healing.

Final Thoughts
Fairy tales possess truisms that speak to the human condition. Timeless stories such as Andersen’s “The Nightingale” provide a mirror for reflection, and perhaps these stories can also serve as windows to frame our vision as we look toward future possibilities and challenges of AI technologies.

Works Cited
Andersen, Hans Christian. Andersen’s Fairy Tales. Grosset and Dunlap, 1945.

Bartels, Meghan. “Can Virtual Reality Mimic Nature’s Power to Make Us Healthier?” Scientific American, 14 July 2023, www.scientificamerican.com/article/can-virtual-reality-mimic-natures-power-to-make-us-healthier/. Accessed 12 Sept. 2023.

Coffey, Laura T. “Last 9/11 Search Dog.” TODAY, 7 Sept. 2021, www.today.com/pets/last-9-11-search-dog-bretagne-s-legacy-lives-rescue-t229805. Accessed 11 Sept. 2023.

Finally Seeing the Fruits of Our Labor

Four years ago, at the 2019 AASL conference, I attended a session about a 20 book challenge in a middle school library (you can find a webinar by the originator of this idea here). It was a great idea, and I know I was one of many who took that idea back to their own school and ran with it. We did a shortened 10 book challenge in spring 2020, and even with the world shutting down, had a quite a few students totally finish the challenge. We’ve done a new 20 book challenge every year since in our middle school, and have adapted the basics, based on student feedback, for a much more flexible challenge in our upper school.

The challenges are quite a bit of work for us as librarians, but I’m starting to see a change in how our students approach reading. Last week, I went into several freshmen classes to help them pick out a choice reads book. Choice reads is an initiative in our English classes to have students read anything they’d like for 15-20 minutes, once or twice a week, during class time, with the only rule being that the book needs to be in print. Usually, I have several students tell me they’ve never ever read a book for fun when we go to start choice reads checkouts. but this year I only had one student say that, and it was a student who is new to Webb this year. You see, my current freshmen who came up the hill from our middle school have always had a reading challenge. In fact, many of those same freshmen already had a book they were reading at home and wanted to bring in. I saw the same thing happen in several of my of the older students’ classes as well. Even the students who are more reluctant readers, and there are still plenty of them, could tell me about books and authors they liked or didn’t like so that we could find a good fit for them, a big change from the reluctant readers who looked askance at anything that resembled the written word.

The upper school book challenge has become a beast of it’s own as well. Students can submit any book they read outside of class, including their choice reads since they’re not read together as a class. Over the summer and for the first 3 quarters of the year, the grade that submits the most books gets an out-of-uniform day, and the competition for those days has become very fierce. The class of 2023 had won every single quarter since we started this tradition, so there was a huge opening for a new powerhouse grade as we began the new year. I made summer submissions due a few days into the new year, and I had over 200 submissions during the final day. When I announced the summer winner in our daily assembly, after having several students bug me about it in the days leading up to announcement, the cheers from the winning grade lasted a full minute.

The book challenge isn’t the only thing we do to encourage a culture of reading, of course. All teachers in the middle and upper school have a currently reading sign on their doors to share their current reads. We prioritize student voice in our collection development. We share books on social media, send out a weekly library newsletter to students, and host annual author visits and book fairs. And I know that BookTok is a contributing factor based on the number of book challenge submissions that start with “I saw this on BookTok.” But I can’t help but feel that the constant celebration of reading across our campus is making a big difference in how our students see themselves as readers, and it’s really nice to see all that hard work pay off.

With Apologies to Eric Carle’s ‘A House for Hermit Crab”

some of my thoughts this month

If your school is like mine, this fall has been consumed by conversations about Artificial Intelligence.

The good: How can we help students engage with it as a free tutoring tool?
The bad: How can we keep students from accepting what it says blindly?
The ugly: How will this impact the job market? Is AI coming for our jobs?

Well, AI didn’t come for my librarian position, but I’m betting I’m the only AISLer in this situation. While I thought I was transitioning to the new role of Director of Curriculum and Research last year, that ended up on pause for a year to synch up with the more traditional hiring “season.” So we had an open librarian position this past winter. Without any irony, on New Year’s Day, my husband turned to me on a hike in Washington’s incomparable Deception Pass State Park, and asked, “what would you think if I applied for the role?” He and I have worked at the same school for the past 12 years, him in various teaching roles and me in the library. Most years, he’s even been stationed in the library one period a day as a library monitor. He’s already more patient and thorough as a cataloger than I am. We previously worked together at a restaurant. We overheard all each other’s conversations from our bungalow during COVID. No one would be entering the role with a better sense of what to expect in the day-to-day and with a clearer understanding of my vision.   

New Year’s Day at Deception Pass, WA

Where had this come from? – Tasha’s December AISL post with professional development webinar recommendations…which led me to Jevin West and his work on data literacy…which led me to tell Seth we should watch together, knowing we often talk about how people come to accept or revise hypotheses in the sciences….which led us to West’s book and course on Calling Bull…which led Seth to think about our new data science course and the elasticity of information literacy…

Basically, Frost had it right.

“The Road Not Taken” Robert Frost

Was this the librarian I had been picturing? This couldn’t have been farther from my radar. Is it a fantastic opportunity for him and our school? Absolutely, yes. He’s in a position to help the library integrate with courses in more grades and departments. Were I jealous person, I wouldn’t be boasting that he’s been invited to more math classrooms in two weeks than I was in fifteen years.

And this isn’t exactly out of nowhere. We met in the same Humanities undergraduate program, and he previously worked in the publishing field before ending up teaching English, Engineering, and Science. And now he’ll start at the University of Washington’s I School this fall, where West teaches and his parents are alums.

I’ve frequently thought about Courtney, Laura, and Sara’s magnificent presentation, The “What If” Scenario,” on library succession planning. What would any of us do in the fortuitous circumstance where we win the lottery and suddenly depart? I, however, knew this transition was coming, so I had time to neaten the shelves and organize my files. I stepped off campus last June assuming I would be returning to a new office in a different part of the library. But due to construction delays, that space won’t be ready until September 12th. I’m still sitting on the right side of the circulation desk in the chair I’ve sat in since starting at the school, looking out at the exact same view. He’s moved into the identical space on the left side of the circ desk. For now, one couch separates our work spaces.

Welcome to our current office!

I can hear every time a teacher comes in to donate a book for the collection. After doing it myself four times, I can now watch him work with students on the research project about the mythology that inspired the creatures in The Hobbit. I can note the database passwords have been updated on the library’s LMS without a whit of work from me. I can silently gloat from my chair as the printer ignores students.

So place yourself with me. You’ve readied the library for its next steps. But you didn’t win the lottery and are still working. Now picture your partner or any trusted friend you love. They are in your role—literally sitting next to you more than eight hours a day. They are excited for even the mundane parts of the job. They’re asking questions and putting in the effort to maintain the quality of the program. This is someone you want to thrive and someone with whom you work well!

But it’s also hard to take pride and vulnerability out of the equation. While it might not be visible to others, I see my own weaknesses throughout the library. He has my old calendar and the filing cabinet with my folders of every class I’ve worked with over the years. He can see my hand-written notes on all lessons, many punctuated by “next time change…” I hadn’t been able to figure out BrainPop’s SSO, and he did in a week. Upon learning of my new role, one priority I had for the “new librarian” was a substantial fiction weed. I’m sure I’m not alone, but I’ve definitely made some purchasing miscalculations over the years, and there are titles that are dated, unpopular, or simply not what I expected from the reviews. I don’t want that to feel like a catalog of my mistakes when he starts this project. We used to alternate yearly between inventorying the print collection and database analytics each spring, but we haven’t done a complete digital inventory since May of 2019.

Amazon un-boxing is a lot more temping when it’s no longer your job!

One of the most surprisingly disorienting tasks thus far occurred last Friday. I placed a large book order on behalf of both libraries for books I hadn’t chosen and didn’t know. Having been solely responsible for book collection previously, I’ve never had a book in my cart that I didn’t place there. Before ordering, I’d scroll the cart and have a familiarity with every single title. With every single cover. Sometime today, those boxes are scheduled to arrive. I don’t get the thrill of opening them, nor of designing a display around them.

If all had gone according to plan, I’d be writing a different post this month because I wouldn’t still be at the circulation desk with a front row seat to my old job. The furniture is ready for my new Hollywood Regency-esque vibe when I do get to move in a few weeks. This is the definition of a liminal time, and one that both makes me wistful for my past and appreciative of where the library is headed next. To data literacy and logic puzzles and how to graphically represent (or misrepresent) the number of pushups from a thirty day challenge and beyond. And of course there are still the book recommendations for English classes and the history research projects to come.

Some of the new furniture also sharing the current office space

And I know from our conversations that he isn’t sitting around judging all I didn’t get done, but I have been intrigued by some of what’s surprised him. I’ve asked him to keep track of his impressions this month — and he’ll be writing a complementary post in two weeks about the difference between being adjacent to the librarian and being the librarian. Stay tuned.

Playing With Displays

One of my favorite parts of the new school year is filling all of our book displays. I firmly believe that displays move books, and we are lucky at our library to have a lot of different ways to showcase our collection in many locations. We change them in different rotations — mostly based on the size — so that something is almost always fresh with new items. As we begin the new school year, I thought I would keep things light with some thoughts on displays.

Things we do:

  • Keep diversity in mind with the topics of displays as well as the items we put into the displays. It’s easy to get wrapped up in an idea and end up with 15 books by straight, white male authors, so we try to consciously approach each display with a diverse mindset.
  • Allow all of our team members to create displays by themselves. We have a “weekly” table in the front of the library that rotates through the entire staff. We set the calendar at the start of the year so everyone knows when their weeks are. I almost never interfere in the outcomes and this gives everyone a sense of autonomy and a chance to create something great. Some table examples:
  • CANVA!! Our Canva subscription could be the best money we spend all year. Everyone knows how to use it and good signage improves displays enormously. I made this in five minutes:
  • Scour the libraryverse for ideas — Instagram, TikTok, Pinterest, etc. There are a lot of smart and creative people out there who have already done it and documented it, so why not take advantage? 
  • Take pictures of a lot of our displays to post on social media. Check out our Instagram where we post book stacks, displays, etc. We also still have a Flickr account (I know, I know…but some habits are hard to break. Part of our new item processing is taking photos and posting them on the account for the three people who use it to browse our acquisitions) and we post photos of our “big” displays that only change a few times a year.

Things we don’t do:

  • Buy items for displays…the whole point is to publicize things we have, right?
  • Too many words! We are often prone to want to write long explanations and descriptions (librarians, right?), but very few people (especially students!) are ever going to read paragraphs in a display. I am always telling everyone to keep it simple.
  • Take ourselves too seriously:) We love funny, odd, and slightly subversive displays. Our most popular display — Books We Hate. Not only did students love it, they interacted with it, and it was the focus of a lot of discussions about books! Isn’t that what it’s all about?

We also have endcap displays that we change regularly:

And a desktop display next to our checkout area:

Hopefully, some of our ideas have inspired you–I hope everyone has a great start to the school year.

A Graphic “Novel” Approach to Nonfiction

Given the rise of visual media in society, this year I intend to expand my collection of graphic novels, including nonfiction.  With that in mind, I turned to the Wilson Core, among other sources, for ideas.  I was interested to see that nonfiction graphic novels are classified in the arts, 741.5.  I wonder if that is the best place? And what would be a better location? To this end, are they primarily casual, general sources of information and reading of a nonfiction type, sources for research? To be read as forms of art?

Then I started thinking about the media generally–it is certainly a hybrid form.  It is not a traditional novel for sure, and would it be the best source for research?.  Would teachers accept it as a source for a research project? So, that leaves casual, popular nonfiction.  But are students who are interested in reading about the Atomic bomb really going to read Bomb for information? Maybe they are. Maybe it would be a gateway to further engagement on the topic.

I am thinking that all graphic novel nonfiction is unique in form and that a potential reader who wants to gain knowledge from a graphic novel is probably not going to seek a longer narrative text-based source immediately, but might rather browse and find another compelling, different nonfiction topic of interest.

Therefore, I am classifying all my Graphic nonfiction (they are not novels) in a special section, much like the literary graphic novels.  Within that section, they will be ordered by subject.  In other words, I will have a mini-graphic library.  This is not a perfect solution, but I can always change it.

What do you think? Where do you shelf these hybrid works?

Canva, AI, and the biases baked into everything

Welcome back to “thinking out loud with Sara.” Today, and most days, I’m thinking about biases within AI-generated content.

One of my summer projects was to create some materials to support faculty in their use of Canva with students. As part of that, I wanted to explore some of the new generative AI tools that Canva has introduced.

Before I started exploring, I heard a story on There Are No Girls on the Internet about Canva’s text-to-image tool flagging the prompt “black woman with bantu knots” as possibly resulting in unsafe or offensive content. This article from People of Color in Tech covers the story in more detail – and I highly recommend reading it. 

Since I’m already a day late with this post, I’m just going to post some images from my initial searches, and give you the same prompts I hope to give students:

What do you see? What does it make you think? What do you wonder?

All images below are from prompts on July 26, 2023

Canva seems to be getting better at actually producing images, but I’ve done this prompt many times, and it has yet to produce an image of a Black woman with actual bantu knots

These are all concerning (but not that surprising) in different ways. The search that really surprised me though was this one:

What? I reached out to Canva support about this, but was unable to get past canned responses to my questions and concerns.

As I started writing this post, I decided to try again, and see if Canva had addressed this. And I actually got results!

Then I decided to push my luck…

My response to this is probably not appropriate for a professional blog.

There’s a lot here to discuss with faculty and students, obviously, and there is a part of me that’s grateful to have such clear examples of bias in generative AI to use in conversations. But we all know that bias is not always this obvious – and is easily missed if we’re not consciously looking for it. How do we equip ourselves and our students to be on the lookout for these things? How do we craft prompts that account for these possibilities? How do we put the brakes on the rush to using generative AI while acknowledging that it is going to play a significant role in our lives? I don’t have good answers, but I know I need to keep asking these questions.

What are you wondering about when it comes to bias in generative AI? What questions are you asking? What questions are your students and faculty asking?

On Mentorship


Here at Interlochen, the summer is a magic place. Since 1928, the National Music Camp (now Interlochen Arts Camp) has run for 6 (formerly 8) weeks. More than 3,500 campers, ages 8-18, spend time on the shores of 2 beautiful inland lakes experiencing music, dance, art, creative writing, and theater. They rehearse, practice, paint, draw, and write with dedication and drive.

On Memorial Day (graduation), the library moves from Academic to Camp mode. Our constituents change from High School artists and faculty to faculty and staff with mostly recreational pursuits and “kids at camp.”

I ran dozens of statistical reports in the first week of my new job (August ‘22). Circulation during the six weeks of camp was one of the most eye-opening. I WAS ASTOUNDED when I compared it to the circulation during the Academic year. Camp has three times the circulation (per person) than we do during the academic year!

The uptick in use allows us to hire 18 summer interns. We have 14 in the Ensemble and Music Library, 2 in the Academic Library, and 2 in the Archives! It’s quite a process and also quite a crew.

The interns we hire come from varied backgrounds. Some are current MLS students, some are recent college graduates, and others are undergraduates hoping to give librarianship a “test drive” for the summer. They live and eat on campus and are part of the camp experience.

The most important thing we do for these dedicated “book jockeys” is mentorship. Establishing a personalized program for each intern gives them hands-on experience, chances to develop a passion project, and provide advice and guidance they won’t see in their Library School programs.

I will always remember my Librarian mentor’s vital role in my career development. She showed me daily what school librarianship could be, with directed learning and through her dedication to the students and faculty. In the early days of the Internet, she modeled a positive and enthusiastic attitude toward change as we removed laser disc players, sent out our card catalog for digitization, and discarded old copies of the “Readers Guide to Periodical Literature.” She allowed me to try (and struggle) with early database searching and taught me how important it would be to let my students see the progress and pitfalls in searching and to take failure in stride. And, perhaps most importantly, she allowed me to ask more questions in one hour than my then four-year-old son asked in a day!

At their exit interviews, our interns marveled at “being a librarian is SO much more than what we learn in school!” Whether they processed orchestral parts, did programming for our faculty and staff children, drove the bookmobile to the Junior Campers for their after-lunch rest time, or processed thousands of vintage camp photographs, each one learned more about the varied scope of “Information Science” in 7 weeks than they’d learned in years of academia.

At my mentor’s retirement party, there were 4 of us that had worked with her, who had returned to school and obtained MLS degrees. Each of us had significant Independent school Librarian positions, mainly due to our attitudes, experience, and philosophies about teaching, learning, and the lives of teenagers. I saw then that adding to the profession was vital (for me) to a meaningful career.

You don’t have to have a gaggle of interns to “mentor.” Each of us does it every day. Whether we kindly answer a question on the listserv, talk with a student about the benefits of our positions, enthusiastically help a parent or grandparent with a book choice for their child, or model the significance of the First Amendment, we mentor. In doing so, we grow respect for this unique profession. You never know…you may grow another librarian!

Now that Camp is over, I’m diligently working on our Koha catalog conversion. I learned early on that one of the most rewarding aspects of this career is the variety in the work. There is always something new to learn and a new challenge waiting for you.

Wishing you all a wonderful start to the new school year.



Oxbridge Teacher Seminars 2023

Happy August, all! As we return to our schools and our jobs, I’m thinking back on the wonderful professional development trip I took this summer to Oxford, England. Oxbridge Academic Programs by Worldstrides has been running student programs for thirty-five years, in locations including Oxford, Cambridge, Paris, New York, and Barcelona. An offshoot of that is the weeklong Oxbridge Teacher Seminars, this year taking place in Oxford and Cambridge. This is my third time joining these programs, and the second time in Oxford. Each year the programs offer several different tracks, which in Oxford this year included: Literature and the Fantastic (about the Oxford fantasy writers like J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Philip Pullman, etc.), The Library and the Academy, Shakespeare in History, and Leadership Challenges in Contemporary Education. As I had previously taken the Literature and the Fantastic course, which I loved, this year I chose Shakespeare. My AISL colleague Jennifer Lutzky, from Campbell Hall in California, chose the library track. She contributed all information related to that, as well as contributing to the details of the program overall.

The programs take place at one of the thirty-nine colleges included in Oxford University; this year at Worcester College. Program days start with breakfast in the college dining hall, seminar meetings in the morning, a tea break at eleven (because, of course), then further seminar meetings or local field trips with your seminar group until lunchtime. Lunches are on your own in Oxford. Afternoons include plenary (all-group) sessions that could be lectures, workshops, walking tours, college tours, or local activities. Dinner is also in the college dining hall, and can be followed by optional excursions to pubs, concerts, plays, etc. And of course, there is lots of time for connecting with your fellow course participants over meals, at meetings, and in your free time—network away! 

There is also plenty of time for exploring Oxford and souvenir shopping. Oxford is a highly walkable town, with something new and photo-worthy around every curve, narrow alleyway, and corner. Our introductory walking tour, through the lively river of summer tourists and students, touched on all the main sites, such as the Radcliffe Camera, Ashmolean Museum, Bodleian Library, Sheldonian Theatre, etc. Despite its historic buildings, Oxford is no museum; it’s a living, active host to hundreds of years of scholarship and shenanigans. 

Here is a daily schedule of the 2023 program, for the Shakespeare and Library tracks: 

Day One: Arrival at Worcester College 

Welcome: Group meeting to go over the program and make introductions 

Plenary Session: Walking tour of Oxford 

After dinner: Optional pub visit to The Rickety Press 

Day Two 

Discussion Groups: The Shakespeare group, led by Dr. Kim Sturgess, discussed Shakespeare in general, and teaching Shakespeare. One suggestion was treating it like a video game, with many different levels of expertise. We then took a “field trip” to the college lake, overhung by willows, for a reading/discussion of Ophelia’s death in Hamlet.  The library group, led by Steven Archer from Trinity College Cambridge, discussed “Libraries and the University”, an overview of how the Oxford and Cambridge systems work and how their different types of libraries integrate into the institution as a whole. Then we visited Merton College, established in 1264, and their library, which was built in the 1370s. It is the oldest continuously-operating university library in the world.

Plenary Session One: Dr. Mark Hammond: “Exoplanet research, Education, and Outreach.” 

Plenary Session Two: Prof. Patrick Porter: “Blood and Iron: Ukraine, Taiwan, and the West.” 

Day Three 

Discussion Groups: The Shakespeare group read aloud from and discussed Romeo and Juliet, and ways to approach it with students, mostly by knocking it off its pedestal and connecting students with the universal emotions and experiences at its center. At our second session, we talked about the lyric poem Venus and Adonis, one of the few pieces published in Shakespeare’s lifetime. The library group discussed theories about what makes a library a library, and got an overview on the history of ancient and medieval libraries. Then we had two library visits! The first was with the curator of medieval manuscripts at the Bodleian Library, where we got to see an array of manuscripts, including one scribed in the 1180s and the first bible translated into Middle English in the 1430s. Next we visited the Lincoln College library, which moved into a beautiful church in the 1970s and has exquisite Georgian ceilings.

Plenary Session One: Charlie Gilderdale: “Experiencing Learning.” In this session, we spent forty-five minutes on a math problem, and forty-five minutes discussing our experiences as students. 

Plenary Session Two: Punting on the Thames, unfortunately canceled due to rain. 

After Dinner: “Optional drinks with the faculty of The Oxford Tradition and The Oxford Prep Experience at Corpus Christi College.” Worcester College Cellar Bar also open. 

Day Four 

Discussion Groups: The Shakespeare group read from and discussed The Tempest, and some of its problematic aspects, such as the treatment of Caliban. Dr. Sturgess tried to frame it with an Elizabethan consciousness to help us understand how its original viewers would have responded to it. The library group learned about the early history of printing, and then discussed cataloging and item access. Today’s library visits were to two particularly impressive libraries, Duke Humfrey’s Library in the old Bodleian, and the Radcliffe Camera. Both are places typically restricted to Oxford students and faculty, without any public access, and both were extraordinary to see in person. The library group was especially awed by Duke Humfrey’s library, with all its 15th and 16th century splendor, and amused by the juxtaposition of centuries-old volumes and bookcases with power strips and USB ports.

Plenary Session One: Gabriel Sewell: “Visit to Christ Church’s historic Upper Library with the college librarian.” Discussion about the library system at Oxford. On display: a 14th century copy of The Canterbury Tales, among other wonders, and a beautiful exhibition devoted to Lewis Carroll, who was both a student and mathematics tutor at the college.

Plenary Session Two: Dr. Sally Bayley: “Books have the power to change your life. Performed readings from Dr. Bayley’s new book, The Green Lady.” 

Day Five 

Discussion Groups: The Shakespeare group discussed The Merchant of Venice and its controversial aspects, as well as how it would have been viewed by Elizabethan audiences. The play does feature some wonderfully strong and intelligent women, who found ways to have power in a society that allowed them few choices. The library group discussed library spaces and how they have changed, and talked about ways that libraries can engage and serve their users. We then visited the library at Queen’s College, which has three floors with three distinct atmospheres, built in the 17th, 19th, and 21st centuries.  

Optional Bodleian Library Tour: Thirty minute tour covering the history of the library while visiting the oldest section, the 15th century Duke Humfrey’s Library, then a brief visit to the Divinity School with its fantastical fan vaulting. 

Plenary Session: Eleanor Townsend: “Re-discovering Women in Art: the making of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Medieval and Renaissance Galleries.” 

After Dinner: Walk to the nearby Norman-era Oxford Castle for an outdoor performance of Romeo & Juliet

Day Six 

Discussion Groups: The Shakespeare group discussed last night’s performance of Romeo & Juliet, as well as reading from and discussing Henry V, and watching video clips from the Kenneth Branagh version. In the second morning session, we watched an episode of Michael Wood’s In search of Shakespeare, a documentary exploring Shakespeare’s lifetime. The library group talked about library services and the broad spectrum of what libraries do for patrons. Then we again fit two libraries into our field trip schedule. First we were off to the Oxford Union, the iconic Oxford debating society, to hear about their history and see their library (including a ceiling painted by William Morris). Next we explored the library at Trinity College, which is over 600 years old and houses everything from 10th century manuscripts to a collection of rare erotica to limited editions of Winnie the Pooh.

Plenary Session One: Choice of walking tours, one for architecture, one for literature. 

Plenary Session Two: Punting on the Thames, starting from Magdalen Bridge. 

After Dinner: Optional concert at the Sheldonian Theatre: “Shakespeare in Music; Oxford Philharmonic.” 

Day Seven 

Free time: With a free morning, some new friends from the Shakespeare group hopped on a local bus to visit Blenheim Palace, the vast and lavish estate that’s the seat of the Dukes of Marlborough, and birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill. The library group snuck in one last field trip, a visit to St. Edmund Hall (“Teddy Hall”) and their libraries. Another library housed in a church, the College Library building dates from the 12th century and is one of the oldest churches in Oxford. There is a tomb nestled among the desks in the reading room, a crypt underneath the floor, and students regularly lean against the gravestones outside to study on sunny days. The Old Library, in a separate building, was constructed in the 1680s and was the last Oxford library to keep their books chained to the shelves to prevent theft.

Plenary Session: Tour of New College (founded 1379). “A visit to this 14th Century college to explore the magnificent chapel, hall, quads, and gardens.” 

Drinks Reception: Presentation of certificates. 

Formal Dinner 


Rebecca: I think I could happily spend part of every summer in Oxford, and I highly recommend the Oxbridge program, though it is rather pricey as far as professional development goes (I paid for it myself). Please feel free to contact me for any more information, and you can read an expanded day to day description of my experience here. If you’re really interested, you can also read a way-too-long travelogue of my experience with the Literature and the Fantastic course in 2011 here. That course is still being offered, and while of course it would be different, the travelogue could give you an idea of the type of thing likely to be covered. 

Jennifer: For the library group, just to be admitted into so many very old and very beautiful library spaces, and surrounded by the sheer volume of rare and many-centuries-old books and manuscripts, was overwhelming and awe-inspiring. Those opportunities, paired with engaging discussions about libraries and library services, made this seminar both worthwhile professionally and delightful personally. I hope to repeat the experience, perhaps the next time it is hosted at Cambridge!

Composite of photos taken around Worcester College. It is enormous, including a small lake, multiple academic and dorm buildings, a library, a chapel, a dining hall, a pub, a Henry Moore sculpture, ancient trees in luxuriant gardens, walking trails, and a vast athletic field.