You’re Never Too Old for Storytime

It’s currently Spring Break at my school, so even though I have some ideas brewing from the AISL conference and the research seminar I’m teaching this spring, I wanted to share something a little cozier for this post.

As many of you likely know, February 1st was World Read Aloud Day. I also work with students in grades 6-12, which are not prime read-aloud years. But they should be! There has been plenty of research on the benefits of reading aloud, but for me the biggest benefit is the joy of sharing a story together.

I’ve only tried to do something once before with World Read Aloud Day – it was very elaborate and a middling success. I tried to do something that lasted multiple periods across the day, involving all kinds of teachers and while it engendered some positive feelings about the library, the reality was that it was poorly attended (even with the lure of hot chocolate!) and did not connect with students the way I had hoped it would.

But iteration is the name of the game, right? For this go-round, I decided to keep things much, much simpler. One storytime, during a time when most students are free, two picture books, and, of course, some cookies. I’m lucky to have a student ambassador for the library who I can consult with as I plan these things – she helped me pick the day and time, and also helped spread the word and generate interest.

I made an announcement during an upper school meeting and sent a follow-up email, but didn’t do much else in terms of promotion. The two books I selected to read were Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (a favorite of mine) and, by student request, an Amelia Bedelia book.

I was expecting maybe five or six students to show (which I would have counted as a success!) but I ended up having almost 30 kids come to storytime! There were students from grades 9 through 12, and a handful of middle schoolers who were brought by the leader of their after-school activity. One student asked if they could respond to the story as I was reading it, and I said yes – which sparked a steady stream of “oh no!” and audible groans as I read about the trials and travails of poor Alexander.

This simple little storytime proved so popular that students requested it become a regular event. I did another storytime in February (and had a second planned that was canceled due to a snow day), this time inviting the faculty advisors to the Black Student Union and Black/African heritage affinity group to read aloud some of their favorite books. I’m hoping to continue to connect with other affinity group advisors for future storytimes.

I know I am often guilty of trying to go “too big” when planning, well, anything so it was both lovely and humbling to see so many people excited about such a simple program. And, thanks to Cindy Wray and Margaret Rhoades and their AISL presentation on creating a culture kids love, I now have a million more ideas for programs (big and small!) that will help me to connect to even more students.

Searching for search terms

I frequently tell students that using the same search terms over and over again will mean they find the same information and perspectives over and over again. But in my experience, students really struggle with how to develop a range of search terms. Inspired by a post of Tasha’s I wanted to try another way to help students think more expansively about what search terms they could use.

The class I worked with on this is doing research about repatriating culturally significant objects. They’ll be learning what they can about the history of a specific object, and then making an argument about whether or not it should be repatriated. This is a research task in which finding multiple perspectives is really important – and varying search terms is going to help students find those perspectives.

I started by talking about the difference between the words in your question and the words in your answer, using an example that a student came up with. This is a concept that many students find difficult to wrap their heads around, but this example really seems to help. We talk about how [impact] is not a term specific to their answer, but the different kinds of impact sun exposure can have are useful search terms – and also how sunburn/skin damage describe different impacts than vitamin D/seasonal affective disorder.

Next, I showed students how I might approach this task. I pulled passages from a few articles they’d already read, and highlighted terms that I might use in searching; I pulled out expert vocabulary, phrases, and the names of organizations and legislation. I then gave students two articles about the repatriation of an Alutiiq kayak that was held by Harvard’s Peabody Museum. One article was from the Harvard Crimson, and the other was a press release from the Alutiiq Museum. Working in small groups, students highlighted terms and phrases that they thought could be useful in their search.

The list of terms they found was amazing! This list below is in addition to the ones I pulled out from the passages I read. This activity also allowed us to correct some misunderstandings about what might make for effective search terms.

As students shared terms, I asked them to note which article they had found the term in. We had a brief discussion about how the terms differed between sources; next time I do this I need to devote more time to this part of the lesson as it’s a valuable part of understanding how different terms help find different perspectives.

After this lesson students have a bank of search terms to return to as they search – and, hopefully, a better understanding of how to find effective search terms.

Chat GPT, Write Me a Blog Post

My goal for this blog post was to have some organized thoughts about ChatGPT to share, but I think the best I can do is still just some disorganized thoughts. There is, of course, lots to talk about and think about, but I’ve been spending some time thinking specifically about the role ChatGPT could play in research. I’m going to spare myself from trying to write transitions and just go for some bullet points.

  • Students can struggle with finding an appropriate source to build background knowledge on a topic. I experimented with asking ChatGPT to give me a paragraph about different topics students are researching, and the writing it produced was full of expert vocabulary, important ideas, and potential search terms. It could be useful for modeling how to use background sources, but also for helping students find a jumping-off point when they’re new to a topic.
  • This is not an idea I came up with, but I’ve had fun playing with it: ask ChatGPT to write you the table of contents for a book about something. I was working with some colleagues on a course about media influences, so I asked ChatGPT to give me the table of contents for a textbook we could use. It gave a really solid outline of what we could think about. When using it for research, it could provide some guidance about what subtopics you could explore. You can also ask ChatGPT to expand on different chapters of your imaginary textbook!
  • I’ve played a little with asking ChatGPT directly for search terms, and am still deciding what I think about it. Admittedly I’ve given it pretty vague prompts, so the search terms have also been pretty broad. I did notice, however, that it generated search terms that represented different political viewpoints – and it also encouraged me to be more specific in my research. 🙂 
  • I think prompt crafting is going to become an important skill. When I gave ChatGPT a vague prompt, I got unimpressive answers. As I refined my request, the responses got better. The advantage of ChatGPT is that I can keep asking for refinements to the previous response. This means that I need to clarify my own thinking so I can ask for what I want – either on the first try, or by evaluating the response and making further requests. Being clear on what you’re looking for (both for yourself, and when creating a search) is such an important skill and the conversational nature of ChatGPT could provide some practice.

I’m aware of the ethical and practical concerns around ChatGPT and AI (and my colleagues can assure you that I will share them at even the hint of an opportunity), but I’m also aware that our students will have access to these tools as they move through the world. I’m hoping we can skip the years of hand-wringing (*coughcough* Wikipedia *coughcough*) and instead help shape the conversation about how we can meaningfully and ethically make use of these tools.

So, how are you thinking about the role ChatGPT can play in your work?

Extra! Extra! Read all about it!

When I got the calendar alert reminding me I had a blog post due soon, I thought I’d write about ChatGPT – it’s been a big topic of conversation at my school and I have been in many really interesting conversations about what it is, what it means, and how we can use it. But then I caught Covid (my first time!) and the post-break return to school is always hectic so I haven’t really had the brain space to put my thoughts into words. 

Instead, I thought I’d share about an activity I did with our Media and Its Influences class yesterday. It was our first day of classes back from break, and a few of us are doing a “guest teacher” unit for the month of January. We wanted to both get students’ brains back in gear, and also learn a bit more about how they think about and evaluate news coverage. 

I went to Newseum’s collection of front pages from key moments in history and picked four events – Hurricane Katrina, the Supreme Court decision about same-sex marriage, the 2016 election, and the release of the Mueller report. I chose four front pages from each event, looking for a range of front pages – in tone, layout, location, etc. – and printed them on big pieces of paper and posted them around the room. 

After introducing the activity, we set students loose to examine the front pages and add notes/reflections responding to the following prompts: 

  1. What are the “vibes” of what you’re seeing?
    • What stands out to you about the word choice?
    • The imagery?
    • The physical layout of the article?
  2. What do you notice or wonder about regarding the different ways the event was covered by these sources?
  3. What questions do you have?

After everyone had a chance to look at all collections, we divided students into groups and gave them each a collection to discuss and to share takeaways with the group.

It definitely took some prodding to get students to offer the “why” of their interpretations, but with some gentle nudges they had some really great insights. One student noticed that almost all of the pictures from the same-sex marriage front pages were of white women (which was not something I’d done on purpose, but when I went back to look at the rest of the front pages was accurate overall). Another student noted that one of the front pages about Trump’s election looked like a poster, so we talked about the role of “front pages” historically. After a student noted that he’d never actually seen the front page of a newspaper (because no one in his house subscribes to a print paper) another student countered that “home pages” for websites work much the same way. There were lots of other great observations and discussions as well, and there will be lots we can refer back to and build on in order to deepen their understanding of how news media works.

What do you recommend?

One of the recurring tasks on my weekly to do list is to find a middle school student who wants to recommend a book – and it’s often one of the highlights of my week. Every week during Middle School meeting a student gets up to talk about a book they love and that they think their peers will enjoy as well.

The format is pretty simple. Students offer a couple of sentences about why they like the book, and who they would recommend it to. But it’s the conversation it takes to get to those sentences that I really love. I usually stop by a classroom looking for volunteers, and on good days I’m greeted by eager students who want to share a book. Sometimes it takes a touch more cajoling, but once I get one-on-one with a student they light up talking about the book they’re recommending. 

After we turn our conversation into a more concise format, we make a slide with the book cover and recommendation, and the student gets up during the meeting to share about the book. It’s a great opportunity for students to get some low-stakes public speaking practice too!

How about you? How do you have students share book recommendations?

Tik Tok, Do Stop*

I’m sure many of you saw the headlines about TikTok being “the new search engine” for Gen Z. And if your colleagues are anything like mine, they wanted to talk to you about what it meant, how search works on TikTok, and if I would be changing any of my teaching strategies as a result. I had had several of these conversations before it suddenly occurred to me – was this even true? How was this determined? Why were we all so ready to believe this?

So I did what I tell students to do – I applied some SIFT strategies to this information. The first step, of course, being to Stop and pay attention to what my reaction to this story was – a reaction which can probably best be summed up by grandpa Simpson.

Okay, I’ve accounted for my biases. I saw this story in the New York Times and other publications I’m familiar with, so I didn’t spend much time Investigating the source. I did, however, have an inkling that my emotional reaction to this information might have been shared by some of the people (likely similar in age to me) who were reporting on this story. 

My efforts to Find trusted coverage were also pretty brief. This story had been in a lot of places – though I did notice that a lot of the stories relied on anecdotes. Hmmm…

Finally, I decided to Trace these claims to the original source. The source seems to be an interview with Google Senior Vice President Prabhakar Raghavan in which he said:

“In our studies, something like almost 40% of young people, when they’re looking for a place for lunch, they don’t go to Google Maps or Search,” he continued. “They go to TikTok or Instagram.”

Which is interesting! But is also very much not what was typically being reported. The story I linked to also goes on to note that the data isn’t public – another red flag. 

Mea culpa. 

Luckily enough, I was recently invited into a Chemistry class to do a lesson on evaluating popular science reporting and applying SIFT strategies to all those articles about what “a recent study found.” I was able to use this experience as an example, and talk to students about how my own biases and assumptions got in the way of my critical thinking. I love being able to talk with students about how I use the strategies I teach in my own day-to-day life. 

My own SIFT example I shared with students

The SIFT strategies are tremendously useful and I teach them all the time, but I’m realizing I often give short shrift to the Stop part of the process. For the lesson I did with the Chemistry class I asked student to specifically note the reaction they had to the story before doing any of the other steps. Looking at student reflections was fascinating, and gave me lots of insight into how students react to the sources they encounter – I will not, however, be turning these anecdotes into a story for the New York Times. 🙂

  • With apologies to Ke$ha

Out of sync

There is a rhythm to a school year. The energy is far different in September than it is in the weeks before spring break. It’s something I love about working in schools – you can really feel the “seasons” of the school year and the shared sense of community that comes as we move through the year.

This year, however, I am out of sync. I started the school year on bereavement leave, and shortly after returning had a bad fall that kept me out of school for a few additional days. This week is really my first week back full-time; it’s my start of the year, but everyone else is already in the thick of it. 

I always knew I relied on that time before classes start to get ready for the year, tie up loose ends on summer projects, and set up my space ready for the year. It is so disorienting to be trying (and, I’ll be honest, mostly failing) to do those things once the year is underway. I am trying to get ready for a year that is already underway. My space still feels disorganized, I know I missed information from opening meetings, and I am still introducing myself to new colleagues. Colleagues are eager to jump into collaborations, but I am still getting my bearings. 

I am also not coming in with the type of energy and focus I typically have at the start of the school year. Grief has made my brain… fuzzy, and I’m struggling to remember names, ideas, and tasks, or to do the types of lesson planning I usually do. It is frustrating to feel out of sync in so many ways. 

I know there has been a lot of conversation over the past several years about the need to take care of ourselves and to be realistic about what we can and can’t do. Those ideas have gone from theoretical to very, very practical for me, and I’m trying to be clear with myself and others about what my limitations are at the moment. Yes, I’d love to talk ideas but I need more time to process. Yes, I can recommend a book but it will take me a while. Yes, I’m happy to meet with students but I really need a heads-up about what you all are working on. Yes, I want to be a part of things but everything is still too much for me. 

I’m grateful for colleagues who have been understanding and offered support (and even encouraged me to take more time off). It is a gift to be a part of this community. And I know that people are accommodating in part because they know how difficult the last couple of months have been for me. But I also wonder what it would be like to do this all the time, not just when we are in acute need. As much as there is a rhythm to the school year, all our lives also have their own rhythm. What would change about how we work together if we were in tune with the cadence of each other’s lives?

Unstuck in time

I went through a phase where I tried every online task manager I could find. I tried multiple apps, different systems of task organization, and almost every categorization scheme I could think of. And finally, after trying all that, the system I’ve found that really, truly works for me is a notebook that I turn into a weekly planner. I get to see my whole week laid out in front of me, and I have columns on either side of the two-page spread – one for tasks to do this week, one for tasks that I want to keep on my radar for next week(s). And, at the top of the page, I list my top three priorities for the week. This week, one of those priorities was “AISL blog.”

And here I am at 9:00pm, after an 11-hour day at school, just sitting down to start writing it. It is that time of year when I get a little unstuck in time so even though I knew my blog post was due Thursday, and that today was Thursday, I somehow did not connect that this meant that I needed to post my blog today.

It’s also that time in the school year when the year isn’t over yet (one week to go!), but it definitely feels over. Classes are winding down, schedules are changing, and special events abound. It’s very easy not to know when you are.

I’m also looking ahead to summer. I almost have my first year at this job under my belt and I have So. Many. Projects I want to work on this summer. I’m rethinking the library space, and also doing some big curriculum planning with teachers. I have a bunch of tech tools I want to learn and tutorials to make. And, so far, I am keeping track of all my ideas for summer projects by jotting them on post-its and sticking them in my planner. Maybe I haven’t found the perfect organization system quite yet.

Here’s hoping the end of the year is wrapping up well for all of you, and that we all get some time where it’s okay to forget what day it is.

Okay, but what is an encyclopedia anyway?

Whenever I talk to a class about understanding source types, I like to ask how many of them have ever used a print encyclopedia for research. Or even seen one. There’s usually one student in every class who will hesitantly put their hand up, and then look around as they realize they’re the only one with their hands up. 

Which I think is probably part of the reason why so many students have a hard time understanding what a reference source is or when and why to use one. Same goes for magazines, newspapers, journals, etc. – if all of these source are open in a tab, how do you figure out what it is and where it fits in the information timeline.

Many of us learned what these kinds of sources are by actually getting our hands on them, and so as I was talking with teachers about improving our students’ understanding of how different types of sources work, we thought “why not have students get their hands on some sources?” Newspapers, magazines, and books were easy to get. I get the ALAN Review and (in that way that random mail often ends up on the librarian’s desk) I lucked into a copy of Journal of Microscopy, so I was all set with academic journals. While there are no encyclopedias in my current library, I knew my old library had an old set of encyclopedias and the librarian there was kind enough to loan me a few volumes (thanks Amy Perry!).

Our first activity was intended as a warm-up but ended up taking about 20-25 minutes with each class. We gave each table of students one type of source and some big paper and asked them to try to answer the following questions:

  • What are the defining characteristics of this type of source?
  • Who do you think is the audience for this source?
  • Why/when would someone use this source?
  • Who is responsible for the information in this source?

I was so impressed by what students were able to observe as they looked at these different kinds of sources. While there were some tongue-in-cheek answers (“why would someone use this?” Because their wifi isn’t working), students were also able to discern the differences between each kind of source and identify who the creators and potential audiences were for each source type.

From there, we moved into an activity I’ve done before – the source type card sort. I updated it using some of the language from this awesome information literacy module from NoodleTools. It may be coincidence (or confirmation bias), but it seemed like students had a much easier time matching descriptors to source types than they had when I tried this activity before. I think having some time to generate their own understandings of these kinds of sources really helped in building a mental model of each source type. 

Many students seemed to really enjoy reading the newspaper and the magazines. And doing every crossword they could find.

The teachers I was working with really wanted students to dig into understanding sources, so next we tried to apply what we’d discussed so far by doing a source deck activity. I’d built my deck around labor movements through history, and we asked students to use the source type categories from NoodleTools to identify what kind of source they were looking at. We had a lot more ideas for what to do with the source deck, but ran out of time because our opening activity took longer than expected – but I’m glad to have the deck (and ideas!) for another class.  

One of the things we hadn’t been planning to talk about, but emerged in our discussions, was the distinction between “database source” and “source found in a database.” I talk to a lot of students who seem to think that “database” is a type of source – and the way teachers require “database sources” doesn’t help this misunderstanding. I’ve long struggled to find a good way to explain to students what, exactly, a database is, but I think I’ve found an analogy that works: a charcuterie board. I ended up pulling this slide together in the middle of class and introducing it in the last two minutes, but I definitely saw some lightbulbs go off as I explained it. 

Container =/= content

I feel very lucky that I got this much time to talk with students about source types, and while I don’t know if I’ll always have this much time I can definitely use some of these activities in other classes.

How about you? What has helped your students understand different kinds of sources? 

The faculty that reads together…

It feels like I have a million projects happening right now, a never-ending inbox, and that I’m always in the middle of a dozen conversations. There’s so much I want to do, but I know that if I don’t slow down I won’t be able to achieve one of my major goals for this year, which is to build relationships with my new colleagues.

I talk with my colleagues all the time about research and technology, but haven’t had as many opportunities to chat with folks about things other than school. So when one of our English teachers (also new this year) approached me about starting a faculty book club I was thrilled! 

We quickly rejected the possibility of discussing books about pedagogy – we wanted to focus on reading for pleasure and coming together to discuss good storytelling. 

The first meeting included faculty from both middle and upper school divisions, as well as several staff members. There were lots of folks there who don’t interact with each other as part of their regular workdays. On a whim, a teacher suggested we go around and share a favorite reading memory, which ended up being a perfect way to do introductions. People have such powerful memories of reading and books and it was a lovely bonding moment for the group. 

Our first book was Crying in H Mart, which seemed to be on everyone’s “I’ve been meaning to read that” list. Starting with a memoir made it easier for people to join the conversation even if they hadn’t read the whole book; nobody felt like the ending would be “spoiled” and everyone still had a perspective to add. It also made the choice of snacks really obvious. One of my colleagues happens to live near an H Mart and brought in a selection of goodies for us to enjoy as we discussed the book. It’s such a simple thing, but it had also been a very long time since folks had been able to gather in person to eat and talk and having that communal experience was just what many of us needed.

What’s been even better is having conversations with colleagues about the book as we’re reading it. It’s given us something to talk about with each other besides work, which I think we all need. And I’ve been lucky in that the group has been very easy to organize – I think in part because people are grateful that someone else is taking care of logistics. I’m also getting to read some books I might not otherwise make the time to read. It’s a great motivator for diversifying my reading choices. 

How about you all? Do you have a faculty book club? Other ways you connect with the adults in your school community?