Conference Takeaways? Make that Takeaway.

As a librarian who finally earned her first pair of glasses this past April, I was thrilled to hit “submit” on my registration for AISL Houston Seeing Clearly 2020. We know there is a reason AISL conferences fill up quickly; we learn so much from each other throughout the week. Based on AISL member feedback, the conference is intentionally small, letting a local planning committee create a unique experience in keeping with the character of their region and schools. This personal touch lets attendees visit schools and see behind the scenes at other libraries, and it provides a mobility that would be impossible on a much larger scale. I always return with lists of ideas and pages of notes. Some get accomplished and some enter my “someday maybe” file. But what if I instead flip the script to the ONE takeaway that turned out to be the most meaningful from any given year? My list is not what I would have expected boarding the plane heading back to TPA each spring, and yet it represents the ideas I’ve returned to repeatedly and the changes I’ve made to my own practice. Since you all are so awesome, this was a nearly impossible task! If this post sparks any ideas from your own experiences, I’d love to hear them below.

Boston 2019 – Conferences have many moments that are planned – speakers, tours, workshops – but sometimes one of the most powerful moments occur because of the unforeseen. When there was a bus delay in Boston, the fabulously fashionable Ellen Cothran revamped her presentation into a pop-up session on Harkness discussions through some sort of alchemy in a lobby at Andover. She had everyone engaged and even handed out notes and captured her audience on the fly. I’ve tried to model her energy and enthusiasm for letting learning bubble up naturally. Proctoring PSATs, walking to a performance of Romeo and Juliet, and waiting for the microwave are all possibilities to have a pop-up session with students and faculty.

Atlanta 2018 – I can totally see why Constance Vidor won a Sara Jaffarian Award for her work on turning the library into a museum with interactive exhibits. I shared the webinar with my Middle School history faculty as a way we could broaden research outcomes to reach more learners. However, here is the line from my own handwritten notes that I remember most directly as an AHA moment. “20 craft packets with black paper, sharp pencils, gold/silver sharpies, and hand out. 6 straight lines drawn on paper so it is neat. Make it easy for them.” It seems so obvious, but I needed to have that level of granularity. It might seem easy for me to say that advisors should ask students to use pencils to complete a task, but compliance will feel easier if I hand them the pencils. Thinking back to Takeaway Boston, handing out pencils is an untraditional opportunity for conversation. Win-win!

New Orleans 2017 – While I always enjoy the keynote speakers, in New Orleans Doug Johnson provided the most memorable lesson of the conference. When he spoke about building library support with little tweaks to make administrators your allies, I listened. Of particular note were three items. 1. Be seen outside your the library. 2. Don’t call it “my library” but “our library” and advocate for library users, not for library goals. 3. Principals hate surprises, whether the surprises are good or bad. If there is something innovative that is happening in the library, your administrators should hear about it from you, not from a parent on the soccer field. It allows them to speak knowledgeably about the library programming and puts them in the position to support you. This directive to share positives has been key in building support outside my walls.

Los Angeles 2016 – Talk about “unknown unknowns.” Until Nora Murphy’s eye-opening presentation on frogs and axolotls, otherwise known as source literacy, I had been happy that teachers at my school knew how to direct students towards database usage. But we fell far short of teaching source literacy for untraditional or subject-specific sources, like photo archives, trade publications, or policy briefs. We don’t let our students take the shortcut of relying on mythical universal expertise; we know this is subject-specific. Thinking about where we encounter sources in our daily lives and how this differs by discipline has led to thoughtful discussions with department chairs about what quality sources look like in different disciplines. My students had been too quick to assume neutrality and authority in sources they encountered, and this session gave me the vocabulary to add nuance to our research program. I have since sought out Nora’s presentation for her insights and humor.  

Tampa 2015 – Conference planning is hard work. Much more time is spent focusing on raising money, building bus routes, writing bus scripts, determining meal plans for many varieties of diets, and coordinating breakout rooms than you would think. Five years later, I needed to look through my folder to remember the programming, compared with many memories of logistics. If you’re heading to Houston and see someone with a Conference Planner tag, thank them for all the weekends and evenings they devoted to set the stage for you to learn. Team Houston, there is a subset of AISL librarians that you’ll join on April 3. When talking with this esteemed group, you’ll never take the AISL conference for granted again.

Again it’s not always the skills but mindsets that have had a lasting influence. I’m better for our camaraderie, and I thank all AISL members for that!

What Should I Read

In my last post, as summer began, I was thinking about “swimming in literary water” and how I decide what to read. As promised, this stayed on my mind through the summer, particularly in reference to my ever-growing “recommendations tab on Wunderlist, which had topped 20.

Seven Day Book Challenge

Sidenote: If you’ve sat next to me on a bus at an AISL conference, it’s likely that at least two of the following statements will be true.
-We talked about books.
-It somehow came up that I am a bit obsessed with to-do lists, keeping them fastidiously, mainly using the Wunderlist app but relying on Post-its with surprising frequency. (Wunderlist and Post-its execs, if you’re reading, consider me your unofficial spokesperson.)
-I wrote down your book, movie, or podcast recommendation to return to at a later time.

What I see everyday on my phone

It seemed like the time was right for me to begin to tackle that list. This summer, I read 20 books, drawing heavily from that tab, and gave them an average Goodreads rating of 3.6. My overall rating for books since I began keeping track is 3.39, and there was both a higher percentage of 2 ratings (6) and 5 ratings (8) than usual. High five to my past self, because I added 3 books to my “favorites” shelf, an exclusive club only reached by 32 books over the past 14 years. High five, past me! You did a good job recommending books to your future self!

Now let’s get to recommending books to others. Do any of these sound familiar?
-My friend’s daughter is turning 10. What book should I send her as a present?
-What book should my husband bring to the beach?
-You’re a librarian, so tell me what my book club should read next.

I’m comfortable offering suggestions, but expertise in a subject and personal preference are not the same. Too often, I’m asked what I’ve enjoyed reading recently, and that’s not necessarily what I’d recommend to others without knowing their own reading habits. I happen to know I love books in the 300s relating to education, class, and gender, but I don’t usually seek out the true crime or legal histories located nearby. Basically, I’m the first one to offer personalized recommendations as a friend, and as a librarian I’m always eager to create displays and booktalks for my students; I’m more hesitant when the boundaries are blurred. I don’t feel like my taste is worth more simply because I’m a librarian. I advocate no-guilt reading, and I tend to stop people who apologize for loving John Grisham or Elin Hilderbrand. I want more of us to enjoy reading and to make time for it, and these authors are incredible at creating compelling characters and plots.

One of the fun parts of my job is supervising our advanced Capstone research students. Already on the first day back this week, I had a thoughtful conversation with one of them who is exploring standardized frameworks for listening to and discussing popular music. It centered on familiarity and vocabulary. I do have more of an academic vocabulary for books than for music, both from my library degree and my writing degree. Perhaps I can explain more easily how something occurs in a book or why the author might have made specific choices, but that’s more academic than personal. My taste is my taste. As one of the many hats we wear, I can see our personal reading selves and our professional ones.

Social media as a platorm for sharing our reading selves

As I’ve watched the Seven Day Book Challenge fly around Facebook, I’ve peeped on others’ choices while not participating myself. I want more than the covers of the books we read; I love knowing why a particular title stood out or what resonated with a reader about a specific plot. Maybe this is the reverse-augmented reality potential of social media. What amazing fodder for valuable face-to-face conversations about books! So my Book Challenge for you is to ask someone what they’ve read recently that really resonated with them, and let’s continue to share our love of books.

Swimming in “Literary Water”

In August, a colleague with whom I’ve worked closely in the Middle School is moving up to the Upper School. I’m thrilled. It’s already been a model of how collaboration should work, from getting feedback on the design of the projects through sharing completed work, with mutual professional respect demonstrated consistently in between. We have been brainstorming books and poems and research for the coming year, and several weeks ago, he sent me this message:

Christina,

I have a random request.  I need help finding some literary water to swim in.

Lately, I’ve very much been into new music.  Each day I check out Pitchfork, Paste Magazine, Rolling Stone, etc.  I listen to those suggestions on Spotify, form my own connections and tastes, and discover other music as I go along.  What is the literary equivalent for you?

Are there Podcasts, blogs, websites, thinkers, that are having good literary conversations on which I might eavesdrop?  Any suggestions would be more than wonderful. Thanks!

(I’m halfway through They Say/I Say.  It’s great and can’t wait to use it.)

Immediate responses? Awesome ideas? Crickets? Here was my initial response, and after responding, I reached out to a few librarians for their thoughts as well. It’s a great question, and one I’m now honestly surprised I hadn’t been asked before now.

Great question! I’ve been thinking about it all day. The first thought I had upon reading this email is, “oh no, I don’t do that! I’m an imposter.” Then I started thinking that I used to do a lot more intentionally but patterns have seeped into my life as a librarian. Let me know if this answer makes sense. With songs, there are so many options. Each one is a 3-5 minute blip on your life and they can approach you as you are doing other things. With playlists created by Spotify after I select a song, much is just background. Seldom do I actually check the artist or title, hence the cliché, background music. Reading is much more engaging, and with novels, engaging for a much longer period of time. I need to choose materials with which I want to interact and with which I want to spend hours. I believe it was Cory Doctorow writing about writing and giving his books away for free. He m—get a sense into my brain—this is me pausing to see if I could actually find what he wrote and if what I remembered matched that—-and one search led to my answer. Or, this answer: “For me — for pretty much every writer — the big problem isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity (thanks to Tim O’Reilly for this great aphorism). Of all the people who failed to buy this book today, the majority did so because they never heard of it, not because someone gave them a free copy.”

I do read widely, but I don’t need to read as widely to be knowledgeable as you would to be truly knowledgeable in music. I read approximately 100 books per year. I likely listen to that many songs in a week. My book club, made of teacher readers, sometimes don’t finish the one book assigned within our monthly time limit. So while I think the categories are related, I don’t think that they are as similar as they seem on the surface. My biggest advice is to listen widely—to others, to reviews, to bestseller lists. What people are talking about is what gets read. Perhaps I’ve gotten more cynical as I’ve gotten older, but I think that being published only means you have been published. … The sellers are defining the market. With that in mind, I listen to what others are reading, and I’m lucky that my librarian listserv encourages librarians to have a tagline at the bottom of their email with what they are reading. I also look at the reviews each month in Library Media Connection and School Library Journal. I browse through the New York Times Book Review, and I check out what The Week and People magazine (surprise!) are recommending. I also peruse several library webpages for their recommendations and reading lists, and I keep a list on my phone of items that are recommended to me. It’s often quantity of references to a title or a personal recommendation from someone who knows my taste that moves a title to the top of the list. I do keep track of everything I read on Goodreads (you can find me there through my school email), which is a way that I can look for preferences in my own rating system.

Give thanks to the rain for giving me the time to write this before biking home…let me know if you want me to clarify my thoughts or if you want to continue the conversation.

So for the last month, each time I’ve picked up a book I’ve thought about why I’m reading it. It turns out I had more of an answer than I originally thought, but I’d be curious for others’ takes on the same question. Please share any suggestions below.

As to the three books I’ve most enjoyed this summer, I’d have to say Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Notice and Note, and It’s Trevor Noah. But in the words of my Reading Rainbow childhood, “You don’t have to take my word for it…”

Perfect is the enemy of the good.

If you are reading this, you believe that collaborations between teachers and librarians make a difference and are worthwhile. Whenever librarians come together, we invariably end up discussing collaborations – our successes and our frustrations.

“Making Co-teaching Stick” at AISL Boston

My AP Language students are just finishing a unit on Rogerian argumentation, making me think about the shared ground for collaboration between teachers and librarians. The best collaborations need shared time (for planning and for implantation), shared goals, shared vocabulary and shared respect.

We all have our *gold* standard of collaboration, that project that looks like it was designed to ace our MLIS Research Methods class. And we all have our practical “yay we collaborated because we talked” standard. Getting the foot in the door and setting the tone for research might be enough for some projects because it shows that the library skills are being integrated across the curriculum even if students don’t set foot in the library. For the purpose of this post, teachers fall into three categories:

  1. Eager Beaver collaborators look for any opportunity to co-teach. Students are used to seeing me in their classes and the teacher and I can finish each other’s sentences. This is where I spend most of my time, designing curriculum, in the classroom, and meeting with students.
  2. I Appreciate Libraries collaborators believe in school libraries. They tell their students to use the library and incorporate research but don’t necessarily include the librarian in their planning or scheduled library time.  
  3. Someday Maybe collaborators is the optimistic term for teachers who don’t fit into the above categories. These individuals don’t tend to see any connection between their curriculum and the library program. It’s (hopefully!) not that they dislike the library, just that they don’t see a place for it in their classrooms.

Recognize that teachers also feel the time crunch familiar to all of us. Many conversations with my Physics teacher husband led to my thoughts on how to best reach the I Appreciate Libraries contingent. Eager Beavers don’t need more encouragement, and Someday Maybes are, well, someday maybe when the time is right. But for I Appreciate Libraries; I can offer support in a way that enhances their projects while preventing me from trying to find a way to schedule three different classes during the same period.

Offer virtual help. The library webpage, libguides, slideshows, and help videos are available on demand for students in the midst of researching. Not as personal as a class session, but they can be accessed anytime students are researching. They also have the advantage of being available for multiple classes and shared between department members. 

“Some of the students were asking how to get to History Reference Center, so here’s a visual help sheet with arrows they can follow if you want to post to SSESonline.”

Offer in-person help at surprising times. Office hours, popping by classes, and having teachers recommend students meet with me during study hall have led to conversations and research consultations with individual students. I know I’m not the only librarian whose desk is next to a printer. A friendly question when students pick up work is a great opening for project assistance.

“I heard the outline is due Friday and it’s supposed to be at least two pages. How much do you have so far?”

Offer suggestions for next year. It’s hard to fix a project that isn’t working mid-stream. Personally, I’ve never been successful at it. Students are already working towards their goal, and the class as a whole gets a bit of tunnel vision. By taking notes on what’s not working and approaching the teacher afterwards, you can set the tone for a more successful project next year.

“I noticed those MLA bibliographies seemed to be in a new format that I’d call untraditional at best. If you want me to work on that before they turn them in next year when you do this, just let me know.”

Teach the teacher. I was surprised in a chance conversation in the faculty room earlier this year to learn that a teacher wasn’t bringing his classes to the library because he “knows how busy I am.” True, but my passion is teaching. I will put off cataloging and user analytics for any time with students. But also, sometimes teachers don’t plan ahead as much as would be ideal or our schedules don’t work. (Might I mention that you can all think of me next Friday when I’ll have 8 classes in 5 periods?!?) Many of my teachers know how to use JSTOR or evaluate websites after seeing me work with their classes before. It’s been really hard for me to think that it might be a sign of a successful program that teachers feel empowered to conquer these subjects on their own and that it’s really an endorsement of what the library offers, even though it feels like a rejection in the moment.

“I heard you’re evaluating health sites tomorrow. That’s awesome! Let me know if you want me to pop by or if your students have any questions you weren’t anticipating that we can work on in the future.”

Much as I want to collaborate with every teacher, I know that amongst all the classes, I’m reaching all the students in my Middle and Upper School in at least one of their courses. Instead of spending my energy worrying about teachers who aren’t looking to collaborate, I’m working on providing the skills that my students need for college and career readiness in a format that works for more of my teachers.

It’s time to think creatively. Please leave any suggestions or recommendations below.

I’ve Never Won a Game of Astro Bears Party (and that’s okay)

Last week, my school credit card was canceled. Even though I’d like to blame this on the way that Amazon can’t seem to help breaking my single order into multiple payments, it was ultimately my responsibility to make sure the statement was correct.* All school credit card holders had received a reminder from the Business Office with the warning that anyone with an incorrect statement on the 3rd of October would lose access to their card. While people would tell you that I’m more organized than most, and while this never happened with our previous banking system that sent email reminders for unreviewed transactions, it’s not the first time that I missed a deadline with our new system. It is, however, one of the first times I felt a real consequence for an inattention to detail. Since I had been developing a system that was working for me, I’m annoyed with myself that I didn’t meet my own expectations, particularly because I felt like I was caught on a technicality. (See below.)

Coming back from a long weekend with my parents and brother, I can’t stop thinking about the credit card as it relates to my successes (and mainly failures) playing video games. For the most part, I found school pretty easy, and I enjoyed it. I still love learning, and I still don’t like making mistakes. Reading is my primary hobby. For my brother it’s video games. With storms in the mid-Atlantic , we spent a lot of time playing video games the past few days. Reading does not lend itself quite as easily as a shared activity across the generations. Yet, video games often get a bad rap. In fact, I’m collaborating on a Sophomore project right now that begins with this premise. However, I want to question that assumption in two key ways.

1.      There is tremendous background knowledge required to understand video game systems and the norms in the games themselves. I don’t know where the X button is, what’s likely to make my character jump or that a Martian on screen represents a character from the early 1990s. If you were measuring my video game skill by lexile, it would be low. Not because I couldn’t understand it but because I haven’t yet learned the terminology. Scaffolding is important. The game where I experienced the most success is Mario Kart, largely because I played a lot of SNES Mario Kart when I was in middle school. I was wowed by my brother’s ability to enter a new game, navigate the controls, determine the purpose, and immediately act like he had a direct connection with the avatar on the screen. I can’t even look at the score on the screen while making my character move. He works in the medical field, and I can see how his ability to think quickly, parse new information and multitask would be assets that help him excel on a daily basis. Learning the basics in a field makes it much easier to move on to more advanced knowledge, often without even realizing that we’re using our tacit knowledge.

2.      Video games teach resilience. The Switch is a forgiving system for new users. Death Squared, despite the macabre name, is a team puzzle solving game, a modern version of the logic games we used to play in elementary school. There is a goal, teamwork, and sequencing of actions. It is impossible to know what will happen when you step on a tile without actually stepping on a tile. And sometimes getting spiked. Or blown up. Or lasered. Or falling off the edge. At which point you begin the level again with that data and avoid the activity that just got you killed. The two video game experts in the room anticipated this, planned for it, and then chuckled at the new way we’d found to destroy ourselves. The two newbies apologized every time. Even with teaching about the growth mindset, it’s hard for me to keep this from feeling like failing. If you give me a goal, I want to go directly there, but I also realized the resilience my brother has developed while gaming directly relates to his ability to respond appropriately to setbacks in his job.

Playing games this weekend ultimately had me thinking about some of the struggles that some of our best students have with research. Coordinating the Capstone Scholars at my school, I spend two periods a day with students who are grappling with large-scale independent research projects. This is the first time they are creating their own targets, measuring their own progress, and following their own interests. Each has an internal faculty mentor and an external academic mentor, and my role is in helping them navigate this process. I honestly don’t know that I would have had the maturity in high school to motivate myself the way that they do. For students who have always been “good at doing school,” it’s a substantial adjustment to learn for yourself when it’s not clear if you are successful on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis. They are making up the rules as they go and trying to follow their own moral compasses. Without an external measure of success from a rubric or a transcript grade, the notion of success morphs. There is no answer that I can provide, and the amorphous shape of real-world research can be overwhelming. I can’t pretend that I was playing video games these past few days to learn a life lesson, but I can tell you that I want to take the notions of contextual knowledge and resilience back to our top students.

No one is perfect, and no one gets it right 100% of the time. But we more often celebrate our successes publicly and cover over our insecurities privately. I think that’s why there was such a strong commiserative response in our community to David Wee’s post about Messed Up Library Lessons. We’ve all felt this way, but how often do we acknowledge this to our peers, to our students, to our families? University of Houston professor Bene Brown’s TED Talk on the Power of Vulnerability has been viewed over 36 million times, likely because we all have times when we’re afraid to be vulnerable. As a perfectionist, this post is tough to write. If I get my credit card privileges back, I will guarantee you that losing it was the most effective way for me to learn a system in which I will NEVER forget to reconcile my statement. I might forget other pieces of office work, but not that. Failure is a powerful teacher. Let’s all keep learning and striving for success and setting up libraries where our students are empowered to do the same.

*Full disclosure—I did reconcile my account the morning of the 1st but then my Amazon order, which had been broken into four parts, despite being shipped in only two shipments, posted two more transactions that afternoon. I hadn’t tallied up the totals of the two I had paid to realize that the order was incomplete. I fully admit that in two earlier months I had forgotten to even enter the system, but a simple calendar reminder is all I needed to solve that problem. So I’m still going to argue that Amazon deserves part of the responsibility here. And if you have had success stopping this sneaky accounting, you’ll be my hero and a hero to all Amazon users at our school!

Inquiring minds want to know…

As we approach the start of a new school year (welcome back all!), I wanted to reflect on this year’s Critical Literacy Summer Institute.  Southern California brought the largest group in the history of Summer Institutes for days of deep discussion regarding research, the news, inquiry, and what it takes to craft a great question. The Willows School library blends indoors and outdoors—and many of us couldn’t resist climbing Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook after watching all the hikers from the base. The planning committee accounted for southern California sunshine and 80 degree days, and we split our time in interactive lectures, workshops, small group discussions, and insanely fancy snack breaks (think brie and smoked gouda).

I take a lot of notes

I have to admit that I never even got to perusing the project I brought to revise because I used breaks to continue conversations and delve deeper. If I had to state an overarching message, it’s that there’s always space to dig deeper, question further, and learn more. The presenters were gracious enough to share their presentation slides on the libguide, and I have linked to them directly below. Since we spent a half day thinking about developing questions, I challenged myself to think of my three main questions as a response to each workshop. This is my public declaration of my takeaways, not a summary of the sessions themselves. Feel free to get in touch throughout the year to see how I’m approaching finding answers and the way this shapes my teaching.

Thinking creatively about research questions

Source Literacy in your Library – Nora Murphy

  • What sources do I find necessary in my own life, and how did I develop the skills to evaluate them and place them in the context of the larger information landscape?
  • In teaching, what parts of the research process do I have standardized and structured, and which parts are individualized? What are the consequences in allowing for serendipity but also wanting equity of service?
  • How much time do I let students feel uncertain about their progress in the “exploration stage” of research? Am I considering that they might be falsely optimistic about their work if they move to the “clarity stage” before they’ve placed their research in the proper context?

Cognitive Bias and the Way We Search – Cathy Leverkus

  • With the anchoring bias fully a part of my students’ experience, how do I get them to keep an open mind as they learn about topics beyond their first impressions?
  • Would sharing a media bias chart with my students and having them evaluate it together as a class help them to consider the strengths of limitations of various pieces of media? (I’ll find out soon with the AP Lang students—stay tuned.)
  • Can my students accurately assess if they are evaluating sources as they search, and is their confidence in their skill warranted?

Diving Deeper: Advanced Online Searching Skills for Educators and Students – Angela Neff and Sarah Davis

  • When faculty ask me for research help, am I searching
  • for them and providing answers or am I modeling so that they can improve their own searches, particularly in the quadrant of “unknown unknowns?”
  • When I ask my students to think of the beginning stages of research like “asking a trusted friend,” how can I get them to tell me where they really go (Wikipedia) versus what they think I want to hear (JSTOR)?
  • How can I get comfortable with filming myself to create a repository of library resources that are available to students at their convenience?

Breaking News: Read Between the Lines for Librarians – Bobbie Eisenstock

  • Since students trust teachers and family more than the news itself, how do I integrate the process of evaluating the news as a professional with my own personal beliefs and share this with students who are trying to develop an understanding of the world around them?
  • Can I convince administration that digital natives may still display digital naiveté? Their tech savvy does not necessarily translate to media literacy but rather a familiarity and comfort with the format.
  • This isn’t a question, but let’s celebrate media literacy awareness week from November 5-9, 2018! A media literate person interrogates the message, the media creator, and the media consumed. He or she thinks about the ways that different people might perceive the same message and how this affects our values in a democracy. Now for the question, what are some creative ideas to make this exciting for my school community?

Exploring Inquiry – Connie Williams

  • How can I design the inquiry-based question-making experience so they aren’t focused so immediately on seeking answers, and more specifically, seeking “the correct answer?”
  • Building on the source literacy and cognitive bias sessions, how will my students keep an open mind when reading laterally and using the Making Thinking Visible Truth Routines?  Will they end up being able to honestly answer “I Used to Think…Now I Think?”
  • How many closed-ended questions do I ask compared with open-ended ones? Even for open-ended questions, are their answers I am hoping for more than others? I’m suspicious this may be the case, and would like to work to truly build an open-minded culture of inquiry.

View from the library with a scenic hiking overlook beckoning us to climb!

So now you have a record of what’s on my mind as I welcome students back for what’s already scheduling itself to be the busiest research year yet. It’s fun to watch something grow over time, and I hope you all are as excited as I am to build on research programs with students and teachers. Looking forward to learning more and connecting in person in Boston in April!

 

Is “All the World a Stage?”

As I see many of you at AISL this week, you may notice two things about me. First, I take a lot of notes. I’m someone for whom the process of learning is greatly assisted by the practice of writing things down, even if I never return to the specific notes again. Though AISL conferences are so full of information that is relevant to me, I keep my AISL notebook in the drawer to the immediate left of my chair. So even if a presenter says the entire presentation will be online, I’ll probably still have my pencil in hand. Second, I’m generally pretty quiet in group situations. Like many introverts I’m listening and I may seek you out to continue a conversation on the bus but I would literally hide behind a pole rather than belly dance in an airport. (Just a little reminder of what a multi-talented group we librarians are.)

So it came as a surprise to me this spring when my advisees, who know me pretty well as far as students go, asked why I hadn’t yet given a chapel speech.

Me-“Guys, I hate speaking in public. There’s no way…”
First student-“What are you talking about? You love it. Pause. Right?”
Second student-“Right! You talk like all the time.”
Me-“What?”
First student-“Yeah in our classes. You talk a lot.”
(Cue sad face for student-centered classroom failure…)

And so that brings me to my main thought of today, particularly for those of you with flexible scheduling who depend on teachers to invite you into their classes for co-taught units. Many people harbor a stereotype of a silent librarian, but are we all, secretly, theatre people? At least in one way, my answer is assuredly yes. I follow improv’s “rule of yes” whenever I can. With both students and teachers, I think it’s important to think about why you’re saying no.

 “Oh, interesting that you can’t write 1750 words on Nazi propaganda because there’s not enough out there? NO, here’s a 257 page book entirely on your topic.”

But for many questions, consciously thinking about learning goals rather than tradition might move a no to a yes or at least a let’s think about how this could work.

 “I know it’s not really history, but I don’t understand Brexit, and I want to know if it’s really about refugees. Can I research it?” YES.

“I know you want us to have a website, but I found this really interesting podcast and it’s led by doctors. Can I use it? YES.

“I have to read a fantasy book and this one takes place in the real world except that ghosts are real. My friend recommended it, and I want to know if it can count for the assignment.” YES.

“I want to include an appendix with a picture of “Guernica” so my readers can see it for themselves.” WHY NOT?

Formal research is a tough process for our kids in today’s “infobese” culture. This is especially true for perfectionists who want to get everything right the first time. Keeping foremost the learning goals for an assignment, why not challenge yourself to say yes when there isn’t a contradicting reason to say no? As my mom says…

Along with this idea, when I’m collaborating I try to focus on the things within my control. This includes my interactions with my school community and my management of my library. For many of us, we can’t control our colleagues, their assignments, the work ethic of the students, or delays due to weather, illness or alternate schedules that pop up out of nowhere. I attend classes at the invitation of the teacher. They know their class dynamics and they are the ones creating and grading assignments. Since I ultimately want to provide support to the teacher, I try to think carefully before “correcting” a teacher, particularly in front of students. Not every project is going to meet both my research goals and the classroom teacher’s subject-specific goals. That said, it’s often possible to start tweaking a project to improve it for next year even as you’re assisting with the current version. I’ve found a variety of ideas can help as I try to link these projects to the learning goals I’d like the students to attain. Take the long view and suggest some “adaptations” for next time. Or ask if a project can be used to help you “test a database’s effectiveness.” Offer to grade the annotated bibliographies you fought so hard to include. I’ve found this comes easier the longer one’s tenure at a school. So breathe easy, continually do your best in promoting your library’s resources and leave your feedback below.

 

Peripheral Vision

At this point it almost seems like a habit to spend time early in the new year reflecting on research. As many of you know from past posts, my school has a solid co-taught embedded research unit for all 9th graders each January. We collect papers in the days on either side of the Superbowl and meet in early February to tweak for next year. Today I’m not thinking about how we teach research per se, but rather the peripherals. For example,  

Eat when you’re hungry.    

My younger self would have shaken this off as unprofessional, but make sure you take care of your own needs too. So many of us put any help we can give a student or teacher first, which is great, but starts to become more difficult if you haven’t had a solid lunch in two weeks. During January, my base schedule is five teaching periods a day before adding other classes and lunch meetings, and, you know, running a library. Freshmen invaded the library (in the best possible way) during their study halls. Recipe for getting hangry? It was awesome that I could look at the teacher on the craziest days, and she’d motion for me to take a brief banana-peanut butter break. Those few minutes of silent sugary protein brought me the next 85 minutes of helpful answers.

This is true for students too.

Not just with food, but in a broader sense that there is a lot going on in their lives. Concerns about friendships, other course work, jobs, or a basketball regional might be foremost in their heads on any given day. Giving a brief brain break to stretch or grab water or just listening to their concerns works wonders with getting them focused again.

Ask for student volunteers as class examples.

We always tell students that their paper (student translation: grade) will be better for students willing to volunteer “to share the current state of their project with the entire class on the projector.” I was shocked at first when perfectionists eschewed the opportunity because they were afraid to share their works-in-progress. It’s more realistic for classes to see an example that looks like theirs. Then we either demonstrate the next research step on that student’s paper or have them model for the class. (Side note—for the first time this year, we had a class fall in love with a student’s paper—on the Cod Wars—and follow a single volunteer for the entire month. From our sample size of one, it worked really well. Of course, it’s possible that you need a topic that is particularly exciting to freshmen. Like cod, apparently. Who knew?)

Rally your school community.

Use your voice and those of your collaborators to build a culture around research in your school. This may require some creativity on your part, but it helps legitimize student work. Build an advisory session where students reflect on their budding research skills. Ask English teachers to talk about the ways that History and English research papers compare. Have Writing Center tutors “pop into” Western Civ classes unexpectedly to advertise their services. When the whole community rallies around you to help you succeed, you want to try just a bit harder to make that happen.

Separate process and product.

The inspirational Alyssa Mandel will be speaking about Not-Papers at AISL Atlanta next month, so mark your calendars. For the research project I’ve been discussing here, we do have a final paper. But that final paper is worth 50% of the project grade. The other 50%, for which students could theoretically earn full credit even if they never submitted a final paper, is entirely process. There are over fifteen daily checkmark grades. Items like creating a Google Drive folder, sharing three topic ideas, writing a half page of notes, sketching an outline, and completing a peer’s Ladder of Feedback. I must admit, however, that we adapted the full-credit process grading a few years ago. Now the full outline and rough drafts earn both checkmark grades and more nuanced grades. We did this for three reasons. It helps them take these deadlines seriously. It gives them a sense of whether they are on track to successfully write a paper. And it keeps them automatically from earning 100% for an entire month in our online grading system. Other than that, as long as the student follows along, I get to focus on process and the teacher can focus on product.

Give “easy points” so procedural tasks earn 100%.

I love the structure of a rubric, but I hate thinking about points. I have joked with kids that I became a librarian so that I could just help them learn without grading their work. But we are a school driven by grades, and for most of our students, grades matter. They are likely to struggle with conceptual tasks like analysis and synthesis. But the little structural pieces matter too because they suggest a level of seriousness to the work. I believe those structural pieces, like a title page, correct spelling, and a perfectly formatted bibliography, trick the reader into trusting the argument a little more readily. Plus it’s good training for future writing where the details matter: little things like a college resume or job cover letter. I think it’s important to waste spend my time going over bibliography drafts individually with students, asking them pointed questions about alphabetization and spacing even though we just covered this together as a class. They pay attention when an adult asks about their work, and they’re more comfortable returning for future projects. They get the sense that I really care about helping them perfect this part of their work and they get the easy points, as much as it pains me to say it.

Let them flounder…a bit.

When our alums return for a panel discussion about life in college, they stress time management. Not that they don’t procrastinate, but that they are more strategic procrastinators. Have you tried giving your students a little space during working sessions to use their time wisely…or not? We are explicit that this is part of their learning process and we won’t make them work. We give suggestions about limiting distractions—like turning off device notifications, sitting at individual computer carrels, or listening to a preplanned “focus” playlist. During the first block research period, we observe but don’t interfere. In future individual research meetings, we ask them to reflect on how they’ve been using class time, and we do sometimes assign specifics for students who aren’t quite ready to motivate themselves on their own. But our goal isn’t for them to work when we are looking over their shoulders; it’s to prepare them to work on their own when no one is watching.

20 minute tasks.

Since the lesson plan and the lived experience don’t always match, here is my addendum to the previous paragraph. Last month, 3 classes were on track with learning age-appropriate time management skills. Two weren’t. In frustration, the teacher and I turned to each other after a boisterous block period and asked, aren’t people supposed to be able to focus for 20 minutes? Because I love Post-it notes, the next day we showed up in class and had everyone write their goal for the period. Then, we talked about breaking that into smaller goals, specifically identifying a silent 20 minute task to start. If they had questions on their individual papers or wanted to be first to talk to us after the 20 minute “test,” they wrote it on the back. It may have been born of necessity, but it worked amazingly. And kids kept asking for Post-its during future classes. We all know it, but it’s new to high schoolers that their next task isn’t to “write their paper” but to write three sentences or check that their As have Bs in their outlines.

Where’s your average middle?

If you’ve worked with classes where students are working independently, you know that two types of students tend to dominate your time. There are weak students, who you don’t want to get left behind, even as they try to stay invisible. And there are the strong go-getters, who would probably sit right next to you for the entire project and ask a question every step if they could. But what are you doing to make sure you’re reaching the quiet average students, the ones who complete every assignment and who would never think to interrupt you while you’re meeting with another student? Can you schedule individual meetings with students once a week? Or comment more thoroughly on their work? These are the kids that it’s easy to overlook when others are vying for your attention, and it’s worth some effort to make sure these good kids aren’t forgotten. This is a particular weakness of mine. I tend to focus on the students in front of me, and I’d greatly appreciate your suggestions about how to strategically plan to serve this demographic.

Debrief with students and with teachers.

20 minute tasks wasn’t anything I thought I’d be writing about. Honestly, I didn’t think I’d be thinking about it after a random Wednesday when I just wanted students to pay attention. But in debriefing sessions with their advisors, where students presumably felt the most comfortable, this was the top lesson they said they learned. Every time I complete a collaborative project with a teacher, I take a Post-it note and paper clip it to the top of the lesson with the dates, what we did, and what I’d change for next time. Then it gets filed away. This process has helped me prepare more efficiently for last-minute requests, and it provides me a few minutes to reflect. With whatever kind of organization system you keep, this is something I’d recommend.

Perhaps a plane ride was a bit long for uninterrupted writing, so I apologize for the Giant Block of Test ™. You get a sense of the types of questions I ask myself as I transition from one task to the next. Please add any thoughts below. I’d love to hear what tips I can learn from each of you.

And Time Keeps Marching On

“AHA moments” result from random encounters. One of my advisees recently surprised me with this as a Christmas gift.  

It’s shiny, hand-decorated with sparkly bits, much lighter than you’d imagine, and made from her home 3d printer. Her home 3d printer. She received it last year for Christmas, and apparently the model retails for approximately $250 dollars. I think that’s proportionately—and maybe even in real money—less than the black and white paper printer I had in college. How times have changed.

What struck me, however was not the gift itself. It was the normalness of all of this for her.

When I was in elementary school, my dad bought an AppleIIGS computer. I was obsessed. And despite the bad rap that some computer games have, my parents knew what they were doing. The only games I remember playing in the early years were “Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego” and “Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing.” Those games and also “The Print Shop.” If there was a birthday/yard sale/dinner menu happening, you can bet there was an accompanying card/banner/sign. For those of you unfamiliar with “The Print Shop,” it was a software package that “provided libraries of clip-art and templates through a simple interface to build signs, posters and banners with household dot matrix printers.” My grandparents were always thrilled to receive a card designed by me and printed in color on our very own home printer that could be counted on to screechingly and consistently print one page per minute. For me, nothing seemed strange about having a home printer producing cards. They never imagined home computers would become ubiquitous.

Side note-Since librarians like finding answers, I remembered that we had a dot-matrix printer but I didn’t know the name for the type of paper with the perforated borders and the little holes. Wikipedia to the rescue with the answer of continuous form paper.  I also got other keywords like fan-fold paper, burst paper, and tractor-feed paper. This is exactly what we want to model for our kids for starting-level research, right? So often I see searches thwarted prematurely when students don’t have the background knowledge to get to the search terms they need for the subject they are researching. But that’s fodder for another post…

Tying this back to schools, most changes are more subtle. Rolling in quietly like waves year after year, our roles shift a little each fall with technological innovations. Barring that aha moment, I don’t think about the ways that school librarianship has changed since I entered the field in 2005. But in ways large and small, librarianship has a different shape. Consider—

  • Changing search strategies. Google has gotten much better at anticipating searches and providing information directly in their search engine. A few years ago, we barely had tabs and content didn’t automatically synch across devices. As an iPad school, I love that I can airdrop materials right to students’ devices.
  • Learning Management Systems that automatically give the librarian access to all course materials and assignments, as well as student progress and grades. (I never miss the feeling of co-teaching a research lesson after being handed the assignment instructions as the class walked into the library.)
  • Google Drive, Libguides and other options for easily sharing information and collaborating in the cloud. It’s so easy to create and share. The burden has shifted to organization.
  • Free Amazon two-day shipping for items needed immediately for projects.
  • The ease of finding MARC records online for items that need to be cataloged. (See above)
  • Federated search engines, imperfect though they may be, that make it easier for students to use the databases that libraries purchase, and to find and cite the information they need.
  • The rise of visual search, especially in student presentation preparation, from image matching and location recognition, to sortability options for the ideal image.
  • Author Skype sessions that are less costly than in-person visits and the new AISL webinar series that lets us learn from our inspirational colleagues outside of the time and space constraints of the annual conference.
  • Conversations around the terms libraries, learning commons, and maker spaces. The fact that we need to specify the need for quiet spaces in our bustling collaborative spaces is a world away from the shhhing librarian.
  • SMARTPHONES- ie. the ubiquity of the Internet.  Need I say more?

There is always hand-wringing about new technologies. But there’s also the potential for positive momentum. We’re continually recalibrating towards a new normal. Since we’ve all entered the fields in different years and even decades, I’d love to hear your perspectives on the specific technologies that have changed schooling and your role in librarianing. Just some food for thought this holiday season, and I hope everyone enjoys their semester breaks.

Conflicted Thoughts about a presentation that was “Mostly True”

Remember the last time that you heard a speaker who challenged your thinking and perhaps made you question your role in your profession? Sometimes, like with professor Eric Mazur who keynoted FCIS a few years ago, I didn’t even realize I was paying attention until I noticed how often I was changing my lessons to match his ideals. Recently, the county library system sponsored David Lankes, Director of the University of South Carolina’s School of Library and Information Science. His talk was “Mostly True: A Knowledge Organization in an Age of Alternative Facts.”

Abstract: Communities need the public library now more than ever. In an era when neighbors are more divided than ever, and even the nature of truth and facts are in question, how do librarians best serve their community? This presentation makes the argument that our communities do not need more information literacy, a greater emphasis on quality information, or a neutral institution. Rather our communities need trusted partners helping weave together common understandings of events and priorities.

You can watch the entire presentation here with audio and slides at https://davidlankes.org/?p=9237.

Lankes believes that public libraries are safe places to explore dangerous ideas and that librarians must change their mindset from serving the community to being part of the community. We should work off of emotional intelligence (EQ) and not just facts.

He talked about the difference in the statements “How can I help you?” and “What are you interested in today?” The first implies that we are serving patrons, and the second gives them ownership over their interests. Get out from behind the reference desk.

Basically, the setup of the talk was that our field’s response to the current news situation has been three-fold: information literacy, promotion of quality, and neutrality. He disputed that this was the best response and asked listeners to instead worry less about “truth.” All information is contextual. Instead of thinking about information, we should think about knowledge. Knowledge is social. It’s about trust. “Trust doesn’t come from neutrality but from consistency.” Lankes believes that there has been a rise in credibility by reliability rather than authority. This makes sense to me as so-called experts are called into question by those in authority, and people find sources that confirm their own biases. There isn’t always an objective “truth.”

In particular, in relation to school libraries, he questioned the information literacy courses that we teach and value. This is difficult for me. I love teaching information literacy skills, and I think that they are valuable for our students. In fact, I’m still not sure that I buy his argument. Lankes said that some of the fake news controversy that we’ve been confronting over the last year is a result of such courses. Information literacy training leads to greater confidence in one’s ability to evaluate information, but not necessarily greater ability. This struck a chord with me. I’ve seen it with my own students. His other reason is that “every tool we give to evaluate is one people can use to manipulate.” There are marketers and political analysts who will utilize what information literacy courses teach to make their sites seem more legitimate or more neutral. When making websites, these individuals will make sure that it appears to pass the CRAP test or whatever checklist your school uses. This is true, but there has to be an answer in how to teach students to be more effective information consumers who can interact critically with sources across the ideological spectrum.

Librarians should:
M-otivate
A-ccess
K-nowledge
E-nvironment

This is a paradigm shift for librarians. Even if we don’t agree wholeheartedly, it’s important to have conversations about information literacy and librarian neutrality. Thoughts?