on getting by with a LOT of help from my friends…

I can’t believe that it’s time for me to post another blog. We’re in our 7th week of school, here, and instruction has been going great! We’ve had middle and high school classes in for research lessons, book talks, SIFT lessons, copyright discussions, and project-instruction. We now have our youngest K-2 scholars come up to our library for lessons and to browse and borrow so our single library now officially serves students from K-12. Being busy is great! It’s absolutely what we want for our program, but sometimes we’re literally SO BUSY that I LITERALLY don’t have a spare minute to work on other things that a good library program should address.

I Get by with a Lot of Help from My Friends…

I was reflecting today on the unbelievable amount of help and support I get from so many AISL librarians who help me fill out the parts of our programming that I otherwise would just not have the time to do.

Basically, this is me at the moment. The spirit is willing, but… 🤣🤣🤣

Here’s what I mean…

Passive Programming? Why, Yes, I Can Do Passive Programming…

In August, Kate Grantham shared this post on Passive Programming. “When funds or time are in short supply, passive programming is a great way to continue engagement in your library.”

Hmmm… Well, it’s still early in my fiscal year so I have some funds, but time is certainly in short supply so passive programming for the win! During the 2018 AISL Conference in Atlanta, organizers had a sample Let’s Stick Together kit that moved from venue to venue during the conference. I was #OBSESSED with the concept and loved sticking my colored pixels to the grid. Anyway, I took Kate’s advice, rolled up my sleeves and ordered some kits. We’ve had Kindergartener’s, middle schoolers, high school seniors, facilities staff, teachers, records office staff stopping in to stick together with us and it has been amazing, fun programming for us! Thank you, Kate!

Banned Books Week Snuck Up on Me…

My partner in the library, Nicole, always puts together great programming for Banned Books Week. However, given the way that library life has recently gone, I really wanted to do my part to expand our community’s engagement with honoring our freedom to read. [As an aside, a few years ago after looking at my Banned Books Week bulletin board where I’d put up pictures of the most commonly banned an challenged books from the previous year, a middle schooler looked at me with concern and asked, “Mr. Wee, why are you banning all of these books?” so now I try to be sure to frame things as “Celebrating our freed-om to read!” 🤣 #Freadom]

While I was being busy being busy, AISL librarians Karyn Silverman and Courtney Lewis incredibly generously shared print-ready quotes on book banning and censorship. I, literally, hit command+P a whole bunch of times, took a stack of printed quotes to our Academic Chairs meeting and asked colleagues to share them out with teachers in their departments that might want to put them up on their doors. The response from our teachers was incredibly heartening!!! I took a walk through one of our buildings and this was what the hall looked like…

I also was approached the next day by a language arts teacher who is considering having students examine the some of the reasons books they know have been challenged. It’s a thought, not a project by any means at this point, but teachers definitely are thinking about and wrestling with censorship and freadom to to read issues in ways I haven’t seen before. Thank you Karyn and Courtney!

I’ll leave things here because… Well… I don’t have time for more, but I just want to say thank you for the generous hearts of AISL librarians. Whether it is the sharing of a sample collection development and challenge policy, advice on what kind of button maker or vinyl cutter to buy, or hosting conferences and summer institutes, you’re always there to lend a hand and help me make it through another day or year.

I’m so very grateful for the community that you are for me.

Thank you! Thank you!! Thank you!!!

PS–If you’ve happened upon this post and you’re an independent school librarian who isn’t a member yet, join us here!!! Professionally, it’s the very best $30 investment you’ll ever make! Hope we’ll meet you soon!

Can we share philosophies of teaching research?

Well…this blog post was due yesterday, which was Back to School Night around here. So, I’m running a tad behind.

For Back to School Night I was asked to create a tri-fold board summarizing our seven year research skills curriculum. It was quite a challenge (hence the late post). I’m sharing a picture of my poster below, but it really made me want to hear from our group:

Please share your philosophy behind how you develop your information literacy curriculum. It can be one sentence, or just bullet points. If it would help, maybe share a short bit of personal history about how you got there. Please share in the comments below.

Through this blog, our conferences, and our list we have so many discussions about teaching information literacy, and I think it would be amazing if we could see a wealth of different ways of approaching the endeavor of teaching research skills.

Poem for a New Year

I would be quite shocked to learn that there are not many NPR listeners among the readers of this blog. The chances, I think, are good that you heard some of this piece on the radio earlier last week. A new school year begins. What are your goals for teachers and students? : NPR

Kwame Alexander, known to us for his brilliance as an author who writes for our students and their peers, suggests setting an intention or goal for the new school year in the form of a poem. Submissions will be edited into one crowdsourced poem, which I can’t wait to read. (The details can be found at the link above.) He offers as inspiration an excerpt of the Maya Angelou poem Woman Work. I loved the idea of applying this model to the work that is getting underway now – an invitation to shift perspective in a creative way. So, I’ve given it a stab. I didn’t officially submit it to the NPR callout, but here it is. 

Librarian Work

I’ve got reviews to read

The collection to weed

The audit to complete

The school bus to meet

Guides to create 

Information to curate

Blog posts to write

Censorship to fight

Teachers to support

Data to report

Access to provide

Research to guide

Lessons to learn

Trust to earn

Answers to know

Students to grow

I am going to try this with different groups of students in these first few days, maybe as a collaborative exercise as the final result of the NPR callout will be. So far I’ve had AP Lang students give it a try – thinking about either the school year as a whole or just the class, with some fascinating, funny, and moving results. 

What is in your poem this year? 

Grades are gross: a new mantra for a new year

My school is spending this year looking at grading and assessment practices. While we’re drawing from many sources, our central text is Grading for Equity by Joe Feldmen. Some of you are probably familiar with Feldmen’s work, but I am reading it for the first time. As a school librarian, I don’t carry a gradebook (for which I am eternally grateful). I do, however, contribute to the assessment design for most of our research projects in grades 9-12, and this book is making me wish I didn’t have to do that either! Grading is gross! According to Feldman, it incentivizes compliance, decreases intrinsic motivation to learn, challenges the ability for students to trust their teachers, and the list goes on. Not to mention the fact that it was born from an early twentieth-century model for education that focused on obedience, punctuality, attention, and silence as habits people would need when they entered an industrialized workforce. YUCK.

Like I said, as a school librarian I am mostly free of worrying about this. Freeing myself of the power dynamic that comes with carrying a grade book was one of the best things that happened when I moved from the classroom to the library. I never liked the endless back-and-forth over one point here and one point there when students wanted to challenge a grade. I never liked the conversation that started with a student saying “Why did you give me this grade?” and me responding with “I didn’t give you the grade, it’s the grade you earned.” Ha! Yeah, right. I totally ‘gave’ that grade. There is a great quote in the Feldman book that sums up how I’m feeling about this topic at the moment. 

“[A grade is] an inadequate report of an inaccurate judgment by a biased and variable judge of the extent to which a student has attained an undefined level of mastery of an unknown proportion of an indefinite material.” Dressel (1983), Grades: One more tilt at the windmill

Isn’t that great? If true, however, then it seems like most “traditional” schools are in real trouble. How do we step away from points and grades when our school culture is so deeply entrenched in this way of doing things? How would students (and parents) respond to Feldman’s ideas?

As I was writing this, our dance teacher came in to discuss her upcoming modern dance research project. We do this each year and I love it. She has about twenty-five 9th-graders in Dance I. They will work in groups to learn about Alvin Ailey, Martha Graham, José Limòn, and Katherine Dunham. During the two weeks they work on this project, I am able to work with them on source selection, note taking, citations, slide design, image usage rights, presentation skills, and more. It’s a good project and they enjoy it.

The more we discussed the project, the more I realized that I get a totally different reaction from students when I teach/review these skills in their dance class versus when I teach the same skills to students in freshman biology or English. I mentioned this to our dance teacher and we started to wonder, what’s the difference? Why do the students seem to latch on to the skills and ease into the practice of them in dance, whereas in other content areas they seem a little more tentative, perhaps too concerned they are “doing it wrong”? I suggested that in dance class they may just be more relaxed. That would certainly impact their ability to learn. Then she said, “Maybe it’s because I tell them on the first day that they don’t need to worry about their grade. If they show up and dance, they’re getting an A.”

Ding-ding-ding! That’s it. That has to be it, right? If they don’t have to worry about a grade, they can authentically engage with the subject matter just for the sake of learning. What a concept. Feldman argues that traditional grading “stifles risk-taking and trust” and “demotivates and disempowers students”. Does that mean, then, that students in our Dance I are more motivated, empowered, trusting, and willing to take risks simply because they aren’t concerned about earning a certain grade? That seems to be what my experience with this modern dance research project demonstrates. 

So now I’m really motivated to think about this for our other research projects. How can we adjust the way we assess, for example, our Junior Research Project (a big, multi-step, year-long project) to deemphasize grades and increase motivation and risk-taking? Can we do it within the system we have now? If we deemphasize grades, does that mean some students just won’t do the work because they won’t see the value in it (grades=value in a traditional system, after all)? Will the teachers go for it? What about the parents?

I have a LOT to think about. I’m grateful that my school is taking this full year to learn and discuss this work together. I, for one, am already seeing things differently and it’s only the second day of school. For now, I’m going to think more about Dance I, intrinsic motivation, risk-taking, and trust.

Carpet-geddon: Or What I Did On My Summer Vacation

(Just kidding–I’m a 12-month employee I don’t get a summer vacation…but that’s another blog post, right?)

The saying “be careful what you wish for” was never far from my mind this summer when we embarked on the enormous job of replacing all of the carpets in our library. Full of rips, stains, and areas worn so thin you could feel/see the concrete underneath, we desperately needed it, and we had been trying to get it done for more than five years. At around 20,000 square feet and with more than 25,000 books in mostly full-sized, six-shelf stacks we went in knowing it would not be easy, and with the job finally in my rearview mirror, I can say “easy” never entered the picture. I’ve thought a lot about what went right, what went wrong, and what we could have done better and I share some of those ideas with you in case your library ever heads down this road.

One thing we got right was hiring professional movers to assist with the work. When it came to moving the furniture we could not have done it without them. On the flip side, we also trusted them to take the books off the shelves and put them back, which was a huge mistake. Even with assurances that they knew what they were doing, that they were writing things down and taking pictures, it was an enormous disaster beyond explanation. The books were so haphazardly replaced that my staff and I ended up needing to take basically every single book back off the shelf, reorganize, and then reshelve. It took weeks. 

Another thing we got right was separating the library into several spaces, and dealing with them one at a time. This enabled us to move things from one space to the other as the carpet people finished areas and began others. This process stalled us out a few times, but I’m glad that we did it as it contained the worst of the chaos to one area at a time.

And — thank goodness we began as soon as possible when school ended. Both the carpet company and the movers thought the entire job would take two to three weeks. It took eight weeks, and even then we were still trying to get the books straightened out. 

So, what other advice do I send out into the library-verse?

Hire movers, but deal with the books yourself. 

The only room that went well was the room we emptied of books ourselves using carts and placing the books onto tables in a room that had already been finished. Two of us managed to move more than 3000 books this way, and they stayed in order and went back up the same way. The movers had large, multi-shelved carts that they used to store the books while they moved the empty bookcases. If I did this again, I would borrow the movers’ carts, but do the books ourselves. 

Take a lot of pictures and notes before you move anything.

You think you know your library inside and out, but when you are staring at a completely empty space where there are normally 12 bookcases and they want to know where everything goes…trust me, it is not so easy. We found ourselves asking each other: “Did we use the bottom shelf in that section?” “Were there five shelves or six here?” “Is that really how the shelves were spaced?” “Are the endcap signs right?” Take pictures of every room and bookcase, measure where all the furniture is, and take notes about everything.

 Appoint a project manager who will be there and take responsibility.

I guess we had a project manager? At least there was someone on our maintenance team who was supposed to be “in charge” and to “check in”, but he was never in the library because he was busy working his job. Meanwhile, I was there all day every day, but very rarely did the movers or carpet people come to me with issues or questions — even when I inserted myself into situations. Whether this was pure sexism or because no one told them I was in charge I will never know, but in retrospect, I should have insisted that the bosses from both teams told them I was the project manager. More communication between all of the players definitely would have made the project go smoother.

Be prepared to pivot.

Obviously, a large job like this is going to encounter issues, and some things won’t go as planned. I wanted to move some stacks that in the end I could not (electrical issues — but that’s another story), so we did something else instead. When it was clear the movers were not handling the books well, we stepped in and did some of the work ourselves. This may sound like common sense, but when you’re in the heat of the process it’s easy to forget the basics.

The end of the story is that we have new carpet. It may not be gorgeous (is any industrial carpeting gorgeous?), but it is clean, not ripped up, not buckling in places where people can trip on it, and did I say clean? If any of you plan on embarking on this project in the near future don’t hesitate to reach out for more details.

Passive Programming Wins

When funds or time are in short supply, passive programming is a great way to continue engagement in your library. This type of programming draws in students, builds community, and increases positive connotations with the physical space and library staff. Last year, we had three passive programming wins in our library.

#1–Wooden puzzles at the check-out desk

Absent during the pandemic, these wooden puzzles (and a mini-Jenga!) have made a huge comeback. Students specifically come to the library to try and solve these puzzles. We have a couple of students who are the expert fixers and when others take them apart and cannot rebuild them, they stop by to set everything right again. The puzzles’ close proximity to whoever is staffing the desk provide easy avenues for us to strike up conversations.

#2–Jigsaw puzzles

On and off over the years, we have had a jigsaw puzzle out on a library table. Last year, we had a dedicated puzzle table on our main floor. Different groups of students work on it throughout the day. When one puzzle is complete, another comes out. I’ve noticed the puzzle is a fantastic way for more introverted students to work on something together instead of feeling forced to talk the whole time.

#3–Question board

One of my favorite things in the Library the last few years has been our rotating question board. We use old-fashioned paper pads and Sharpie markers on a standing easel, which lives across the walkway from our check-out desk. Approximately every 4-5 school days, we change the question and stand back to watch what happens. Some questions take more thought so the answers trickle in (such as the most recent query, “What is your superpower?”) but others invite immediate responses like “Top song on your playlist”. Similarly to the wooden puzzles, the question board is close enough to the desk that we can initiate conversations based on students’ reactions and oversee (and correct when necessary) inappropriate responses. This board is a destination for our regular library users who stop to read what’s new since the last time they were in. The best part for me is seeing a group of students huddled around the board, reading others’ answers and adding their own, building community in this small way. (If you’d like a list of questions we’ve had success with this year, email me at kgrantham@jburroughs.org.)

What passive programming has been successful in your libraries?

The Times They **Keep** A-Changin’

Welcome to a new school year! This post, despite its title, is a cheerful (hopefully cheering?) look at changes still underway….

Current library door decorated by Christina Appleberry, Library Services Specialist


Show of hands: How many of you have returned to this year only to discover a new wave of changes to your program?

I may be the only one with my hand in the air, but I doubt it.

This week the ten-month-contract educators all returned to my school. Like many other schools, we have had a lot of shifting around: some new elements to our schedule and some new teachers; switching up who is teaching what class and changing out class deans, not to mention transitioning who is the lead teacher for any given class.

Amid this refresh, we have been discovering quite a few unanticipated changes that are a challenge to our program. For example, some tweaks to the school’s method of orienting new students – in order to avoid too much school time before the year formally begins, a response to the long arm of COVID-driven societal changes – is transforming the way we in the library will meet new students.

Similarly, I have intentionally ended the project that gave me the most relationship-building and instructional time with our 9th graders, the first year upper school students. During our January intersession, each grade-level has a special project. For the nine years I have been at my school, we have had the same (generally speaking) project for our ninth grade, and I have been on the teaching team since day one. During lockdown, the grade level-project was (by necessity) cut from an October-February, 40-50-hour project to being just 6 hours in January. We adapted the curriculum and the expectations, but we really needed to stop trying to figure out how to fit a big thing into a small box. As the newly minted lead of the project, I decided it was time to “murder my darlings” (to quote Arthur Quiller-Couch) and set that project aside altogether.

In doing so, I forfeit many hours of instruction and interaction with our ninth graders. Particularly, hours that colleagues were required to have me in their classrooms to prepare students for the project. Hours that I counted on to introduce the philosophy and basic logistics of upper school research education, not to mention time to interact at length with individual students and their four-person groups. It is a moment of letting go for the greater good. I am trying not to panic.

So – I am heading into this year well aware that there is very little that will be the same as it has been in past years. I have a lot less clarity than I have in about a decade about where my work will be situated in the coming year. All of this sounds very doom and gloom, but really – I am striving to remember – it is very exciting! I always strive to question what I have been doing, look it over, refresh it. It is tiring, but really a chance to question my assumptions, involve my Research TAs in decision-making and curriculum formulation, and learn. Well…here is my opportunity.

The truth is, I always have many more skills I want to teach than I will have the opportunity to undertake with students. Since I always have to make hard choices, I am focusing on the chance to pick what I think is most useful to students now, what skills they most need today. Might this year’s ninth graders not get some of the skills that ninth graders got five years ago? Certainly. Will they have a chance to learn something new and deeply relevant? Also, certainly. It is really mostly upside, with a side-order of hustle.

As I am writing, I am realizing that I want to frame conversations with colleagues as an exploration of what today’s students need that is different from past years. Approach with an assumption that change is in the air (as is the opportunity to keep what we have built in the past). It really is an exciting opportunity, now that I think about it.

So, thank you for listening. You have given me the opportunity to think through a scary moment to the excitement underneath.

Where will this year go? Who knows! I look forward to sharing the journey and hope that you will do the same. May you have a meaningful and uplifting new year.

Putting Students at the Center of Learning: Student Blogs

“If students do not develop a valuable relationship to the things they study in school,
their relationship with their teacher will not have accomplished its full purpose.
This challenges (teachers) to resist the desire to be the center of the story….”
Doug Lemov in Teach Like a Champion 3.0 (Jossey-Bass, 2021, pp. 103-104)

How do you measure student success as a learner? The AASL Standards for Learners echo Doug Lemov’s comments: “Put the learner at the center, focus on growth…and enable learner voice, choice, and agency” (AASL, National School Library Standards for Learners, School Librarians, and School Libraries. ALA, 2018, p. 124). Educators provide a variety of learning experiences that offer opportunities for student inquiry, exploration, and growth as a communicator; however, student blogs have the potential to engage students with personal choice, critical and creative thinking, and decision-making skills through the creation and sharing of digital content for an authentic audience. In addition, student blogs offer librarians exciting ways to guide students in developing skills as ethical communicators and digital citizens.

Video Bloggers Characters Flat Set. Britannica ImageQuest, Encyclopædia Britannica, 2 Nov 2020.
quest.eb.com/search/186_3417278/1/186_3417278/cite. Accessed 28 Jul 2022.

Several years ago I challenged sixth graders to create their own mock-up of a blog. In this article I will share some details from that early exploration with student blogs, and then I will share additional ideas on how to expand the project, inspired by a summer conference presentation by educator Allyson Spires, Principia Middle School.

The Martha Payne Story and Digital Citizenship
Sixth graders were introduced to blogs through the story of nine-year-old blogger, Martha Payne, and her blog Never Seconds. This news show video and Guardian article provided the background story of Martha Payne’s blog. Students viewed the global response to Martha’s blog on this blog page, which shows photos of school lunches shared by students in Japan, Israel, Brazil, Spain, and Chicago. As students viewed the video and read the article, they were asked to think about the following:

  • How Martha identified her passion (Love for journalism and interest in writing about
    school lunches. She planned to post photos of her daily lunches and rate them.)
  • How Martha’s father helped her to ethically set up the blog (Discussed idea with the
    school for their permission before setting up the blog.)
  • How Martha safely set up the blog (Father set up the blog and she used the name VEG to protect her identity.)
  • How Martha reacted to public response (Excited response from community, even globally, as other students emailed Martha photos of their school lunches. Later, Martha’s school demanded that she shut down her blog because of critical reaction to the quality of the school lunches. After a strong reaction from the community in Martha’s defense, the school backed down and allowed Martha to continue her blog.)
  • How Martha used her “brand”–the popularity of her blog (Over 10 million “hits” to her blog website. Martha set up a “JustGiving” page for Mary’s Meals–a kitchen to serve free breakfast to students in Malawi. Donations raised £131,666.79.)

After reflecting on the success of Martha Payne’s blog and the charitable donations to provide nutritious meals to children, students also viewed the STEM Kids Rock website. These teen articles describe how members promote science discovery and outreach to the community. The mission of STEM Kids Rock: “We’re inspiring the next generation of STEM leaders through our Free Mobile Science Centre that is powered by kids.”

Creating Your Own Brand
Both Martha Payne and the teens of STEM Kids Rock created a memorable brand for themselves by following their passions and expanding outward in efforts to benefit others. For the blog project, students were asked to consider the following: What could be your brand? What passion could you share to engage the interest of an audience? Using Google Slides, students were challenged to create their own mock-up of a blog. (See slides for a template and a sample “Book Ends” blog–note that links are not active in this sample template mock-up.) The resulting student blogs reflected an array of interests: food recipes, sports highlights, car models, pet tips, superhero movie reviews (including an article “Most Anticipated Sequels that Never Came Out”), and art blogs (featuring an article “There’s No Such Thing as Too Much Art!”). These sixth grade students commented that creating a blog was one of their favorite projects. Because of a short time-frame (four class periods) for the project, a community outreach aspect of the blogs was not explored.

Re-Imagining Student Blogs: Choice and Voice
This summer I attended the STLinSTL summer conference, and a presentation by Allyson Spires, “Choice and Voice,” reawakened my interest in student blogs. Allyson Spires, a language arts teacher at Principia Middle School, developed a blog unit over a five-week period. She began the unit by challenging students to think about their knowledge and passion: What are your interests outside of the classroom? How would you share those with others? Students used Wix templates (wix.com) to create their blogs, and every aspect of the site was password protected (sites were shared through a link with the teacher and students could also choose to share the link with family and friends). Allyson Spires also used this Blog Evaluation so that peers could appraise the blogs and offer helpful comments for the bloggers. Students also considered how a blog could be a vehicle to spur positive action. View the Teen Activist resource list compiled by Allyson Spires (note that some titles are appropriate for high school readers).

Student Blogs: Next Steps
This Fall I plan to revive the student blog project with a seventh grade Creative Writing class. If possible, students will use Google Sites to create a private website for their blog and share the link with the teacher as well as family (if they wish). Students will have their choice of creating a blog that features an Indelible Moment or a blog that explores a Personal Passion. This criteria will be used to evaluate student blogs.  Beyond the creation of these blogs, students might choose to share their Indelible Moment or Passion article with the school community during their Language Arts class or during our weekly assemblies (each seventh and eighth grade student develops a personal essay that is shared during the assembly).

Final Thoughts on Blogs: Four Pitfalls to Avoid 

  1. Whose Blog is This? Student agency should drive the blog (not teacher-driven).
  2. Just Another Wiki? The blog should not be an info dump; instead, the blog reflects critical thinking and careful curation; the discussion of ideas shows new connections. 
  3. It’s All About Me? Blogs should illustrate (with a touch of humility) what has surprised the writer in the learning process AND what still needs to be explored or learned (new questions that arise). How has this experience or passion affected your life, your attitudes, and how have you grown as a learner? 
  4. You Said What? The blogger should be open to a lively exchange of ideas and allow the conversation to clarify ideas and enlarge perspectives. Remember that some commenters may criticize, but be thoughtful in your own responses. Dialog with ideas, don’t attack the person.

The goal of this re-envisioned blog project is to immerse students in a thoughtful use of digital tools to communicate to a wider audience. Empowering student choice and voice builds skills that will help students to become critical thinkers, creative problem solvers, engaging writers, and respectful, ethical communicators. And who knows, for some bloggers this experience may be the beginning of positive action in the community.

For further reading and viewing:
Melly, Christina. “Can We Blog about This? Amplifying Student Voice in Secondary
Language Arts.” English Journal, vol. 107, no. 3, 2018. Accessed 25 July 2022.

“Oversharing and Your Digital Footprint.” Common Sense Education,
commonsense.org/education/videos/teen-voices-oversharing-and-your-digital-footprint.
Accessed 25 July 2022.

“Profiles of Generation M2.” YouTube, uploaded by Kaiser Family Foundation,
youtu.be/rUOOAbTu07A. Accessed 25 July 2022.

“What’s in Your Digital Footprint.” YouTube, uploaded by Common Sense Education,
youtu.be/4P_gj3oRn8s. Accessed 25 July 2022.

Classroom Management

Last year I spent a lot of time thinking about classroom management as we welcomed students (a large number of whom had not set foot in our library, or any library, for a few years…) into our school building. The trouble was, I don’t have a classroom. I have a revolving door of 9th-12th grade students each period, each day, that can include all 500+ students throughout the year, and as many as 150 any period. So, all the classroom management advice about community creation of norms and setting expectations in the syllabus and the like that are standard fare for teachers with classrooms and classes of students that are indeed a classroom community day in and day out just doesn’t fit. I suspect I’m not alone.

Last Year

Last year, as we welcomed our students into the building we knew there was going to be a major adjustment for these students. I started the year with grace, gently addressing behavior violations (noise, cell phones, food, etc.) without formal discipline in the expectation that students would learn the ropes, and, grateful for the grace, adjust their behavior. Alas, that was not what happened. By the end of the first term my assistant and I were so fed up with rearranging disarrayed furniture, picking up trash (orange peels, half-eaten bananas!) and gym shoes, silencing serial chatters on the quiet floor, and picking up books knocked to the floor by students who sat in the aisles of the stacks, we decided to crack down. We collected cell phones–our policy for phones visible in the building–assigned demerits, and called in the Dean of Students to do extra walk-throughs during troublesome times. And it worked, sort of, for a while. We rolled through cycles of this throughout the rest of the year and vowed to find a better way. 

But what is the better way? I’ve read enough in the past year to know that I’m not alone, that what I’ve termed the squirrliness of our students was a fairly universal issue for educators in the past year as we navigated the effects of the pandemic with our students. That said, traditional classroom management advice doesn’t apply well to the library. The context just isn’t the same.  Fortunately, one of the joys of being an educator is that every fall we get to try again. So, here is my plan for library management. 

Next Year

1) Make expectations incredibly clear from the very start.

Lots of folks get the chance to talk in our opening assemblies, but the librarian was never one of them. I successfully convinced my administrators of the importance of sharing library rules directly and in person with our students within the first few days of school.  This will certainly undercut the students’ ability to tell me “I didn’t know” or “I thought the library was the exception” to schoolwide policies about phone use, eating, and the like. I know students don’t read the handbook, so the best way to assure that they are clear on the expectations for the library is to have a genuine opportunity to tell them.

2) Start strong, then ease up.

Clear expectations need to be followed with consistent consequences. I am aware that a good part of my troubles last year came from the grace I gave at the start of the year. As a parent of young children I’m well aware how important clear boundaries and consistent discipline are for developing brains, and yet somehow I let my sympathy for students get in the way of what would help them, and me, best long-term. Aside from being firm and consistent from the very start, I’m toying with a riff on the OSHA workplace accident signs as we start off the school year. I’m curious if noting daily violations in the space, with a hint of humor, will show both that the community rules are enforced and also demonstrate improvement over time.

3) Use space to my advantage.

The unexpected amount of time I spend considering space as a librarian is a post all its own. Space is absolutely related to student behavior, and I need mine to support students in utilizing library space. I learned the lesson in my first year not to have couches with the back to a wall, for example, something I always keep in mind now. I don’t expect students to scan the room and immediately think, “oh, it’s arranged this way so Dr. Gamble can walk around and see what we are up to,” but they are also less likely to start streaming Netflix when their screen faces towards a path I regularly walk. 

I keep seating on our quiet floor spaced out–mostly carrels and smaller tables with fewer chairs to discourage clumping–which leads to chatter, while on our collaborative floor I have seating spaced in ways that groups of various sizes can readily find the right place to work. This year I’m fortunate to have some new furniture pieces added to my space (see point 4) which I hope will help keep students from resorting to the aisles of the stacks for places to sit and will include some small portable C-tables that will make our couches and soft seating more conducive to schoolwork. Space matters, and I aim to harness it to support our library expectations as best I can.

4) Advocate, advocate, advocate.

Some of the things I’m excited to add this year, like addressing the whole student body in the first week of school, and adding additional seating, are products of extensive advocacy over the last year or more. As behavior issues and annoyances came up throughout the year, rather than simply handle them myself, I handled them and then shared those challenges with the dean of students. By having those frequent conversations, inviting him to come by during the busiest periods, and letting him know what I needed, I was able to secure face-time with the student body. Our furniture additions also were made possible by showing the right folks how crowded we were, the head counts from busy periods against the number of seats we had, and noting it frequently. We all know what they say about squeaky wheels, and I’m going to keep squeaking when I need to.

Advocacy with my students is also important, and an area I know I need to work more with this year. One small step last year showed how a bit of up-front work can go a long way. Mid-morning snacks from our dining services led to a parade of food into the library. Realizing this, I was on alert at snack time–it was a lot easier to catch kids coming in with  snacks and say “thanks for not eating that in here,” than to clean up the messes left behind later. This approach reminded them of the rule while reinforcing their ability to make the right choice. It also let them know that I saw they had food, and those students were much less likely to be sneaky about eating than ones I hadn’t addressed. Furthermore, it made the norm more visible, such that after a while students who walked in with snacks or bagged muffins from the coffee shop would hold it up as they passed me and say “Don’t worry, it’s for later,” or “I’m just grabbing a friend and heading outside.”

My students NEVER push in their chairs, they move furniture around and leave it, even with just-in-time reminders like stopping by a few minutes before the bell to tell them to put things back in place. One morning I asked my regular morning crew–regular culprits in leaving the furniture akimbo–how I might rearrange things so that they could sit the ways they wanted but also not leave me to clear furniture out of pathways every time they left. With the utmost honesty, one student said “bolt the chairs to the floor.” I’m more optimistic that this student, I still hope there’s another way. 

Please feel free to share your classroom library management tips in the comments!

An easy introduction to your library’s online resources

It’s still July, and way too early to be thinking about a new school year! But perhaps a lesson from our summer Kickstart program will be a useful first library research experience for your students.

Each summer my school holds a class for a few incoming freshmen who need some summer enrichment to prepare them for the rigors of the high school curriculum. The library typically has a minimal role in this program – we give students a tour, make sure everyone is enrolled in our patron database, and encourage students to check out whatever books they would like to read. Three years ago, the Kickstart history teacher (who is also the history department chair) decided it would be helpful for these students to have some basic research instruction as well, and she asked me if we could create a kind of glossary of our most accessible online databases. And thus the Database Notetaker was born.

We all know it – introducing students to a collection of online resources is boring. It’s also hard to give an overview covering a number of resources when the students don’t have any immediate application for that knowledge. We sold this idea to the students by describing it as a tool – something they would use right away for a quick project, and then would have as a reference all year long for future research projects. We spend a good deal of time during the school year teaching our freshmen how to organize their work by keeping assignments and readings in a binder, and this database tool was designed to live in front of their research projects where it could be consulted as needed. We told these Kickstart students that they would hear all of this information again with each research project but that they would have an easier time remembering because they had this reference page.

The actual lesson that year was pretty short, with a quick introduction to several primary and tertiary source databases, along with JSTOR for secondary sources. We explained the concept of primary, secondary and tertiary but not in depth – again the point of this lesson was to create the tool, not to conduct actual research. Students filled out the form by hand (more on that below), describing the database content in their own words plus indicating which types of sources could be found there. They turned in their completed form for the teacher to look over, then filed it in their history binder where it could be referred to during each research project.

When we began our first freshman Modern World History research project that fall we quickly realized that ALL students would benefit from using this reference page, so the same overview lesson was used (Kickstart students were advised to see if they could add any new information). Since that time a new version for sophomore US History students has been created, and several “unofficial” versions have popped up. A couple of those versions included databases we longer subscribe to, so I linked the current versions on our research databases page for everyone to use. This guide has developed into tool that is often referred to by faculty as we begin a research project, and I’ve enjoyed seeing teachers adapt it for their electives.

Regarding the “write it out by hand” concept: it’s a real challenge to balance the digital doc/sustainability issue with the perception that students retain information better if they write it out by hand or read a physical paper. I’m very committed to the idea of using less paper, but I’ve seen a decline in writing quality as we moved our docs online, and I’m not the only one at my school to comment on this. Of course as they say “correlation isn’t necessarily causation,” and there are studies on both sides of the paper vs digital reading comprehension issue, but for now we are sticking with our belief that having freshmen write out their notes on paper and file the page in a physical binder is the most effective approach. It’s also much easier to find when needed, as Google docs have a way of disappearing into a black hole of uncategorized documents.

I hope you are enjoying your last days/weeks of summer!