What does “Sunshine” mean anyway?

Our school year started in person on August 19th, with safety protocols in place for those on campus and a virtual option for students unable to return physically. I’m loving the conversations I’m part of in the library and the hallways. Even though those interactions are much more limited than previous years, they were largely non-existent this spring. I’ve also noticed that masks seem to operate for many like a costume, something that frees people to speak more openly, to move quickly towards deeper and more personal conversations. Or maybe after 6 months interacting mainly with those in our households, we’ve simply lost the habit of small talk? I’ve always joked that there’s no routine to a library day, but last spring made it obvious that there’s a routine to a library year, and certain “interruptions” are actually “expectations” built into my understanding of what days are like for librarians. I’m surprised at how much I like being back; I was pretty trepidatious in early August. That said, I feel like I can’t turn off the fog and fragmentation that entered my mind while working from home. Much of the joy and exploration that bring meaning to my work feel muted. I can’t focus enough to trim the number of open tabs (or should I just call them uncompleted tasks?) in Chrome, clean out my inbox, or even respond to messages in the AISL listserv. (As they build, know many of you may be getting out-of-date responses soon, to the queries that intrigued me most, when I reach that Neverland state of “back to normal” or “caught up.”) Even choosing a topic to write about today felt overwhelming, rather than invigorating. But, like all independent school librarians and their clichéd many hats, my school knows me not only in the library, but also as Academic Team coach, lead advisor, Honor Council faculty rep, and relevant here, Sunshine Committee Co-chair.

Some high school musical lyrics for your enjoyment

Most of your schools probably have something similar, but our short tagline for new faculty is “Sunshine is celebration in good times and comfort when times are tough.” We send cards for events like weddings and condolences, plan Secret Santa, organize potlucks, and, well, pretty much everything else that comes to mind also involves camaraderie through food. Who doesn’t like food? COVID. Or to be more accurate, it doesn’t like people sharing tables unmasked. So we’ve been trying to think creatively about how to make people feel valued authentically during a period when we’re all feeling overwhelmed, a period when even if there was more time in our schedules, we’re discouraged from most social interactions.

It’s easy to lose a sense of time…but not a love of Alice in Wonderland.

Cue Disney – Disney has some enticing offers for Florida residents to buy seasonal memberships, something my family has done in past years. As a northern transplant, I still haven’t lost the thrill that I can leave work late on a Friday afternoon and be standing in the World Showcase of Epcot before dinner that night. Of the many websites I regularly visit is one that posts Disney updates, historical trivia, and stories of interest to the bloggers on the site. Chris Barry’s Top Five Cast Member Moments post stuck in my head because of 3 and 4 specifically. People non-ironically use the term “Disney magic” to describe vacationing there. In the article, Chris describes five moments where cast members exceeded his expectations and delighted him. The five share some characteristics. They’re surprising, not something he had been anticipating. They’re personal, related to his family and the effects on them. They’re detail oriented, noticing and responding to the moment.

Per Chris, “Not only do they (cast members) make us feel special, they go above and beyond to do so and they make it look easy. They’re probably underpaid and overworked but I like to think that the ones that really turn on the Disney magic do so because they believe in what the place stands for; that you should feel different when you pass through those arches and it’s their job to facilitate that.” Per me: Why is this exclusive to Disney? How can we bring this magic to our own schools, whether in the library, as a sponsor of a club, or through something like Sunshine?

Eagle-eyed readers from FL and CA might note these images are both from Disneyland, not Disney World.

I reached out to some teachers who I trusted to think seriously and creatively about what would make their days brighter. We’re a small faculty, one that really does enjoy each other’s company. Even with how busy people are, especially with virtual learning and a new block schedule, every teacher I asked took the time to respond. I laughed at answers that ranged from hosting after-hours Zoom happy hours to banning after-hours Zoom happy hours, from posting inspirational teacher posters to placing sarcastic teacher memes in mailboxes. But one, from a Classicist who’s brilliant and purposeful in all his actions, stood out. If I were to describe a colleague as having gravitas, it would be him.

“Some time ago you asked me what might be something that Sunshine Committee could do to brighten up people’s day.  Of course I ruminated on it for some time. My answer is flowers.  Flowers are a thing of beauty that can lift spirits in an inexpressible way. Maybe if they were out here and there in the school (in the commons for chapel, in the Library for faculty meetings, etc?) on occasion it may make some difference.  Or even a random teacher. Random chance can raise spirits in a strange way.”

What a final line. This is not a teacher I would have thought would have noticed flowers in the library. Random chance can raise spirits in a strange way. But how true. How lovely. When I was in high school, after reading The Catcher in the Rye for English class, I sought out and devoured the rest of his oeuvre on my lifeguarding breaks. In Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenter, Seymour claims, “I’m a kind of paranoiac in reverse. I suspect people of plotting to make me happy.” I wrote this quotation in notebooks and pinned it to my bedroom wall. If there’s a value underpinning my work, I want to be the person plotting others’ happiness.

My handwriting has improved over the years, but the full quotation is worth reading.

But this isn’t just true for faculty. We might currently be stressed, unhappy, and critical of our own performance, but we’ve done this before. Except for those retiring in 2021, we’ll do it again. Career trajectories have peaks and valleys, and most of us are in a valley. Random chance in the form of a chocolate bar, a thoughtful note, or taking the time to listen to someone vent might brighten a day, might make it easier to get to the weekend and hit reset for another week of simultaneous instruction, mask fatigue, and worry about testing results. This is an anomaly. This better be an anomaly. But given the growth that happens each year for students, they’re experiencing this once. Student’s peaks and valleys are on a yearly cycle. A terrible 5th grade year isn’t buoyed by an amazing 7th grade experience. New 9th graders who don’t get to meet and bond with their classmates at an orientation retreat can’t recreate that experience as 10th graders who’ve known each other for twelve months. The experience of last year’s 12th graders, who lived seven months of senior year normally, leaving campus for lunch, having spectators at sports games, and building a Spirit Week float, is in no way analogous to this year’s 12th graders, who may end up with a graduation ceremony, but who are currently living a Spartan senior fall.

SSES Surprise Snack Day for the Class of 2021

Without candies, without puzzles, without after school hours, how can the library bring Sunshine to their days? My baseline is not letting the library be sidelined in this crisis, but I want the library to be something that actively makes their day better. This list is incomplete and almost embarrassingly small, but it’s not for lack of thought. I try to stand in the hall outside the library and say hello between passing periods. When I see students printing annotated bibliographies, I offer to review on the spot for simple fixes like double spacing and alphabetical order. I write to the advisor when I oversee someone doing something nice like helping with recycling. I listen to students complain about the year when they’re standing at the copier, and I empathize with their sense of loss.  I never end classes with the make sure to push in your chairs lecture but thank them for using the library. I meet with seniors about their common app essays and talk about what they want to convey. I think endlessly about my senior advisory and new privileges we could design for them. Yesterday, they all received a prepackaged cookie on the 21st to celebrate the Class of 21. It’s insufficient, but it’s something. As someone who doesn’t grade them, as one of the few faculty members who has worked with them since 7th grade, I can give them my time, I can give them my attention. ­­Because this year doesn’t look the same for them and it’s the only time they’re experiencing what it’s like to be a 7th grader, a 10th grader, a 12th grader. Even if I only hold steady this year with our research curriculum, I can build on any missing academic pieces next year when it’s the same me with a new grade of them. Which is all to say that I’m trying and it has to be enough and it doesn’t feel like enough.

Word of the day is sprezzatura

I imagine I’m not the only blogger who plans and drafts ahead of the deadline. I have debated completely revising today’s post, which I wrote early last month. I decided I’m not going to do that. That said, in rereading what I wrote, the me of 6 weeks ago is not the me of today. First off, I had a library I biked to every morning and a routine that included chapels and senior speeches. How quotidian that was then, and how foreign that feels now. We have no clue when we are returning to school or the lasting impact COVID-19 will leave on our schools, our country, and the world. In happier news, I had totally forgotten even applying for the grant. More seriously, we’ve gone 180 degrees on mental health, from worry about kids who had scheduled 28 hours of activities, jobs, courses, and test prep into a 24 hour day to worry about those same teens sitting in their houses on screens for at least a month nonstop.

But I think the topic of the post, avoiding sprezzatura, is more important now than ever before. I am so proud to be a leader of AISL, and I have been so impressed with the ways that AISL members have stepped up to help each other and their schools over the past few weeks! THANK YOU for creating libguides, sharing resources, and asking the questions that are allowing us to successfully move our libraries virtual without much time to plan. It is obvious that you care about your students, your teachers, and the field of librarianship. I will say personally that I’m having a lot of difficulty with work-life balance, simply because I care so much and it feels good to do something. And there’s no physical reminder that I’m not at work. All the time. I wanted to share that because I sense from our continued conversations that I’m not the only one feeling overwhelmed. I am really proud of the board, and especially our Tech Coordinator Claire Hazzard, for quickly pulling together the Zoom chats. I was surprised at how quickly I smiled as I tuned into the first one and saw so many faces I recognized, offering support and providing connection. We plan to continue these for at least the next week or two, or as long as members find them helpful. After a meeting yesterday, my teacher husband said, “it’s like we’re all first year teachers again.” We care a lot, we’re working really hard, and we still have a lot to learn. And we are definitely better as a result of the collaborative nature of AISL. Here’s the original post:

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Hi, I’m Christina Pommer, AISL President and relentless perfectionist. (Am I writing this at 7:30pm on a Friday night as a “break” from reading student essays? Yes, yes I am.) Unfortunately, I’m also a bad perfectionist.

All of our seniors have to give a chapel speech that shares something of importance to them with the school community, and I have a running list of topics and partially-written speeches that will never be given because the message would be lost in my terror of speaking into a microphone.

In January, Gus gave one of the most meaningful and memorable speeches I’ve heard in a decade of listening to senior speeches twice a week. He was eloquent. His tone was perfect. And I learned a new vocabulary word that all high school teachers should know: sprezzatura-the art of studied carelessness. (Translation: Doing well without looking like you’ve tried.)

Here’s the gist of the speech. Despite what many high schoolers pretend, it’s important to care and it’s important to try. And he struck a balance of eloquence and humor, with a tone that didn’t alienate his classmates. It was the message I needed to hear that day.

“Now, in the very constrained world of high school, what we do with our time has very little to do with what we care about–instead mostly having to do with what parents, teachers, and colleges care about–but someday their influence will wane, and we will all be completely responsible for what we do with our lives.(Instead of looking to others) we will have to turn to ourselves and decide what we care about and then own up to that, proudly saying that “I do this because I care about doing this, and doing it well.”

“I hope that there is something each and every one of you does care about. I urge you all to care unashamedly, unreservedly, about something, about anything, just care.”

Two weeks previously, I had applied for a grant related to information literacy. It was hard to even admit I cared, that I wanted to do well, that I wanted it…or that I deserved it.

One of the pieces of the application that simultaneously intrigued and terrified me was the small print about “optional supporting materials. How cool to have the opportunity to share presentations, images, and publications. But how? There were no instructions about how to submit anything beyond the application form, essay, and letters of recommendation. I decided to incorporate these optional materials into my essay at the appropriate points, allowing readers to see examples of my actual work, much like Wikipedia readers might click on the hyperlinks of an article. Because I get so concerned about losing formatting in electronic submissions, my final task after proofreading and checking all links was to convert all documents to pdfs.

Two weeks later brings us to the morning of Gus’s speech. A freshman asked a question about a hyperlink that wouldn’t open from a pdf. Shifting immediately to panic mode, I wanted to check my own submission. Instead, using all willpower I possess to focus on the task at hand, we found the link on a general web search.  Then I opened my own document and clicked on the first link. And the second. And the third. I was offered the option to highlight. To strikethrough. To add a note. But not to open any links. I returned to the Word document and the links worked as anticipated. Knowing myself, in 100 times of checking, I never would have added the step to check the pdf. It’s always the last thing I do before submissions.

I was late to chapel because I was writing the committee. Better to at least let them know that my application hadn’t submitted as I had intended. This at least stopped my own wondering about the reception. A response was waiting a few hours later.

This is the time when I tell you this was all occurring two weeks before the announcement of the winner, giving me time to write most of this post as a way of processing my disappointment, while simultaneously imagining a scenario in which the nonfunctional links didn’t matter and I was the best candidate. Please tell me I’m not alone in living in two dichotomous worlds, though at the end of those two weeks I learned for certain I didn’t win.

As with many of your schools, our school is increasingly looking at the mental health of our students; what’s stressing them out and what’s making their days happier. Since beginning conversations with the team at Challenge Success, we are discussing how to limit the bad kind of stress while teaching students to cope with eustress. Was my experience the former, or was it the latter? It was a technological learning point for me, one I won’t soon forget. Sometimes a spelling erorr in a resume can cost you an interview, a traffic snarl can keep you from arriving at an interview on time, or too many “umms” can keep you from getting the job. These are real consequences.

Which returns me to sprezzatura. It’s nice to wake up with hair that looks perfectly blown out. How convenient to be on the lacrosse team that happened to win by 10 points last night. The themes of Gatbsy just flowed from your pen, earning you an A on your ICW.  It’s harder to care, and to admit to that you care, to talk about the time spent with a blowdryer, running drills, or annotating the text.

Or from Gus:

Every time somebody flexes that they aced a test without worrying about it, chalks an impressive goal up to luck and not the hours of practice they put in, or dismisses some club or extracurricular as being solely about the college app grind and not, on some level, a genuine passion, they’re employing sprezzatura . Faking carelessness like this necessarily means denying the part of yourself that really does care and losing yourself to your artificial air of nonchalance. Without caring about anything, you might avoid embarrassing yourself, you might seem cool, but you certainly won’t know any real success, feel any real satisfaction, either. If no part of your life means anything to you, your life is, in the most literal sense, meaningless.

AISL members have responded in the past with a sense of recognition when bloggers have shared their own vulnerabilities. It’s hard for me because it goes against that effortlessness that is modeled in so many corners of society. I have told students for years that the single piece of writing that stood out to me the most in four years of high school English was Joan Didion’s On Self Respect. In hindsight, I wonder both how much of it I understood and how much of my identity had already been set by age seventeen. This is my public declaration that I care about librarianship and specifically information literacy, and I put in the effort, and at the end of the day in this case it wasn’t enough. And that’s okay.

“Research Says…”

Everyone has that phrase, the cliché that rolls off others’ tongues with surprising frequency. The one that shouldn’t bother you. The one that does bother you. The one you seemingly can’t escape.

Whether it’s “out-of-the-box thinking,” “giving 110%,” or “same difference,” whatever comes after is lost. For me, that phrase is “research says.”

This is partly due to its ubiquity, but also because there doesn’t seem to be a definition of research that’s shared between librarians and popular culture.

Research isn’t the actor. Research isn’t a specific result. Research isn’t a prescription. Research is a focused and systematic investigation, with the goal of finding useful information and replicable results. Scientists will agree with the librarians. And obviously 9 out of 10 dentists.

Each fall my husband’s Physics students run carts of different weights down an incline to determine whether mass affects the acceleration of gravity. No less a scientist than Galileo determined it doesn’t, and my husband has the equations to back this up. The result is not just anticipated, it is known and can be calculated. The students are not researching, but the experimental process sets the tone for what research looks like when the result hasn’t yet been determined.

Similarly, in English classes, who else has been asked to help students write papers with their own “original research” offered as literary criticism on a work. Ironically, what teachers mean by this is usually the students’ own thoughts on a published piece, without referring to any external secondary sources. This can promote critical analysis, though I might question why we assume novice readers will come up with valuable insights not considered by experts, but it isn’t research. No wonder students are confused by what research is or why it matters.

We try to address this general idea in Honors Biology with a Vitamin lesson on why experts disagree. It’s helpful to hear students try to contextualize what an individual study demonstrated, the limitations of that research, and how the findings were shared (or shall we say dumbed down) by the popular media. They’re quickly able to make connections to the clickbaity news they encounter on a daily basis.

Stanford History Education Group’s updated report on Students’ Civic Online Reasoning is, in their words “troubling,” and in my words, “terrifying.” It’s not just that our students need to be better navigators of information so as to excel as scholars. There are organizations out there who are monetizing our illiteracy. Whenever I hear “research says,” I picture research (as some sort of Muppety Beaker/Swedish Chef amalgamation) messily mixing variables and then sharing the resulting baked goods with an unsuspecting audience.

Is it too much to ask who did the research, the background of those researchers, and the scope of what they were expecting to find? Bonus points for when it was completed and the variables that were tested! This isn’t what makes headlines, but this is what research would actually say if it were able to talk. When we can substitute “I did a Google search and this is what I found” for “research says,” we are setting our society up as information illiterates, with consequences for our civic infrastructure. We continue to increase media’s access to us through our- often complicated – relationships with our devices. I believe it’s crucial that we are ambassadors for a nuanced understanding of the idea of research. If you have any ways that you’ve done this in your school or community, I’d love for you to share in the comments below.

Insta Update

In my attempt to connect this post to my holiday break that starts today, I’m beginning with A Christmas Carol. We’re all familiar with the message of redemption after Scrooge visits his own past, present, and future. In cinematic adaptations of the Dickens’ novella, we often see Scrooge and his ghosts peering through windows at those in his life.

1938 Movie Adaptation of “A Christmas Carol”

Several years ago, I posted about my personal use of Instagram in the library. This isn’t the way my students use the platform but rather about meeting the personal challenge of posting once per day, considering my role through fresh eyes. This time, instead of reflecting on my own posting, I want to consider myself as participant and viewer.

I admit that I like to live vicariously through beautiful libraries… 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is pretty-spaces.jpg
The NYPL, Strand, and the Morgan, some NYC favorites

Or following the Los Angeles Public Library as they visually document spaces referenced in Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, so I can see how new media can enhance the old…

LA Central Public Library, past and present

Or marveling at #bookfacefriday.

#bookfacefriday

Or stalking books and contests.

If you haven’t read The Poet X, seek it out over break.

Or keeping up with AISL and its librarians.

Follow aislibrarians

But my favorite is just getting a snapshot into others’ libraries. Staged shots are beautiful, but I like seeing what average days look like for other librarians. Their displays. Their students. Their teaching space. Their sense of humor. The books they are reading. My students laugh when I show them my stream, and I’m in no way Insta’s average user. Libraries, libraries everywhere…

John Burroughs School – Study Space (I was coveting glass rooms for awhile last year, but we got our pod…sorta)
Mercersburg Academy students have a more creative book club sign up table than mine
New College Writing Center – procrastination in action
Virtual reality with Middle Schoolers at Tampa Prep
This idea went straight from Solebury School to my circulation counter.
I have screenshotted several of the Holton Libraries bulletin boards for my own adaptations.
This is what I needed for some maker fun before winter break courtesy of the Viewpoint Library

Just a short post for today so I can get the holiday started. Thanks for the inspiration, and I wish everyone a relaxing semester break!

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!