Dropping the ball

Happy New Year?

I don’t know if the start to your January has been anything like mine, but it definitely feels like we’ve been back much longer than… four days? Is that possible? 

There always seems to be a bit of an adjustment period when coming back from a break, but this seems different from the usual adjustment. The spike in Covid cases, the uncertainty, and the fatigue of two years of pandemic teaching and living is… well, it’s getting to me. I’m thinking it might be getting to you.

My school had a professional learning day on Monday, and one of the things we talked about was well-being. We had some great conversations, and one of the major takeaways for everyone I talked to was that we find our work really meaningful and that We. Are. Burnt. Out. 

I don’t have a solution for that (sorry), but the other major takeaway from the conversations I had was that we all found it affirming to know that we were not alone in experiencing this. 

One of the things I was thinking about during these conversations was this great Twitter thread from Jennifer Lynn Barnes, sharing something from Nora Roberts. 

I’ve been trying to carry that idea with me this week, as I try and juggle all kinds of balls. And what I find most useful about this analogy is that it is built on the assumption that YOU WILL DROP BALLS. We all will. And thinking about it this way has made it easier for me to identify which of the tasks on my list are plastic, and which are glass. And knowing that the status of a ball may change from day-to-day.

  • A new January book display? Plastic. 
  • Getting a lesson on evaluating popular science sources done? Glass. 
  • Finding the “just right” image for that presentation? Plastic. 
  • Meditating? Yesterday it was plastic. Today, it’s glass.
  • Finding a place for my parents to get a PCR test? Glass. 
  • This blog post? Was almost plastic (but glad I was able to catch it!)

I have other things I’m working on and wanting to share, but putting them in a form that is comprehensible to other folks is, frankly, a plastic ball right now. Luckily, they’ve already called a snow day for tomorrow, so I might be able to pick up some balls I’ve dropped – the most important one being a good night’s sleep.

The Appendix of Information Literacy

  • No .com websites
  • You must use an article from the New York Times

I still remember seeing these two requirements listed on the same assignment, and wondering how to open a conversation with a teacher about the fact that if she wanted students to use an article from the New York Times, they would have to use a .com website. I don’t think she ever successfully resolved the cognitive dissonance (or revised the assignment requirements). 

  • If a website ends in .org it’s reliable
  • Don’t use Wikipedia – it’s not reliable

These two I’ve heard more times than I can count. From teachers, students, and strangers who find out what I do for a living. I sometimes want to point out that Wikipedia ends in .org. When it’s teachers and students, I try and engage in a more nuanced discussion, but these two beliefs about the reliability of online sources seem to be deeply embedded in peoples’ minds.

  • Check the “About Us” section if you want to learn more about the source and whether or not it’s trustworthy

Will someone who’s trying to manipulate me tell me that on their About Me page?

  • You can’t trust Wikipedia, but you can trust the sources it cites.

This (from a student) was a new one for me, but it seems to be a reflection of a teacher trying to teach students how to use Wikipedia. And it’s such a fascinating takeaway for students to have! How can the sources be reliable, but the content created from them not reliable? How do we connect that to students’ understanding of why we cite sources?

I’ve heard iterations of all these ideas (and more!), and I’m sure you have, too. I am starting to think of them as the appendix of information literacy – they may have served a purpose at one point, but they’re not really helpful now. And, like an appendix, they can cause problems. 

I understand the appeal of these source evaluation shortcuts. The world of information is big, and confusing, and often overwhelming. We want an easy way to decide where to spend our trust and time. But as we all know, there is no real shortcut when it comes to source evaluation.

What’s fascinating to me is the way that these shortcuts get passed down from generation to generation like a form of folk wisdom. Even as I start working with younger and younger students I’m realizing I need to make sure I spend time getting them to talk about their assumptions about sources and how to evaluate them. 

One way I’ve been doing that recently is by asking students to start by thinking about how they evaluate gossip for trustworthiness. The metrics they describe are often *exactly* the kinds of things I hope they’re thinking about as they evaluate sources for research. We can then make those connections as we move the conversation to thinking about how to evaluate sources for their research. Here are some slides with the prompts I used and notes from class discussions in the slides below.

This has been really useful for surfacing and clarifying some of the vestigial understandings they have about reliability. I’d love to hear how other folks are engaging teachers and students in updating their understandings of reliability. 

Who has History? And who has Issues?

Last week, I was preparing a lesson for a Global History class that’s doing some research on South Africa. I’m new at my school, and we’ve just added several Gale In Context databases to our collection, so I wanted to introduce students to how those resources are organized. So I navigated to the Topics list on Gale In Context: World History and boldly scrolled to where the South Africa Topic should be.

I say “should”, because there was no South Africa Topic. In fact, all of Africa – all 64 countries – was under four Topics, separated by time periods. Germany alone has four Topics (also separated by time periods), in addition to separate topics for the Holocaust and Hitler. The British Isles have a total of 13 different Topics (two for Great Britain, three for England, three for Scotland, and five for Ireland). It does not get better when I look at the individuals who have Topic pages. The only three Africans I could find were Nelson Mandela, Idi Amin, and Musa, Sultan of Mali (but there are no Topics for either Uganda or Mali).

I have not gone in-depth on all of these pages, but I will also note that the African History during the Colonial Period Topic has a total of 534 sources. Germany: The Middle Ages has 777 news articles alone.

Next, I moved over to Global Issues in Context, where I did find a Topic for South Africa. And the Congo. And Zimbabwe. And Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Liberia, Mauritius, Mayotte, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Uganda, Zambia and others. 

So, who has History, and who’s an Issue? 

After showing students what I’d discovered, I posed that exact question to them. One student pointed out that Great Britain has been a pretty major issue in global history – and has, in fact, made significant “contributions” to the issues in other countries. But there is very little representation for Great Britain on Issues in Context.

There are two issues here: what’s being collected, and what’s being curated. I’m guessing that there is a fair amount of overlap in terms of sources between these two databases, but the way they are organized is very different. And that framing matters. It’s similar to having a diverse print collection, but only displaying and promoting books with cis, hetero, white protagonists. However, I also suspect that the collection of resources that Gale is pulling from to curate these Topics could stand to be significantly more diverse in any number of ways. It’s hard to curate materials you don’t collect. 

Other than being mad, what do we do with this information? Like many of you, I’m taking a close look at my database collection, and which voices are included (many thanks to Tasha Bergson-Michelson for her leadership in this work), and also pushing our vendors to expand the representation in their collections. But that kind of change does not happen quickly. So until that change happens, we have an obligation to be transparent with our students and our teachers about the shortcomings of our database collections. We need to actively resist the “if it’s in a database, then it’s trustworthy” messaging that many teachers and students have internalized, because that includes an implicit message that resources found outside of databases are less trustworthy – and that’s simply not true. If we give more weight to databases sources, knowing full well that our databases do not include a full range of perspectives and sources, we are discounting those perspectives. Endorsing the idea that database = “quality” reinforces the systems of inequity that got us here in the first place.

UPDATE: I’ve been in conversation with some folks at Gale, and they’ve added Topic pages on South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, and Ghana to World History in Context! There is still more work to be done, but Gale has been responsive to questions and concerns. If you’re noticing issues, I encourage you to reach out to your rep!

Getting to Know You

I love getting to know the print collection of a new library. Does it have familiar titles and authors? Does it have the books I’ve been wanting to read? Does it have books that are new to me? Are there gaps I want to consider filling? Are there things I can learn about the community (and its readers) by getting to know the print collection?

I’ve just started a new job at a school that did not have a librarian on campus during the last school year, meaning the print collection was in need of a little, um, attention. There was evidence of well-intentioned efforts to keep the collection in order, and also evidence that keeping up with shelf maintenance was not a top priority during a most unusual school year (and rightfully so). 

The print collection’s need for a little TLC gave me the perfect way to get to know the collection. At this point in my process I’ve handled pretty much every book in our fiction collection – and created a TBR pile I have no hope of finishing before the summer is over. 

Shelf maintenance is also a good way to get to know your community’s sense of humor 🙂 

This project also gave me some insight into how students use the space the collection is in. There’s one spot that was in particularly rough shape, in large part because of its proximity to two student seating areas. After trying to figure out where the shelving pins may have wandered off to – and consulting with some folks who know the space better than I do – I decided that this might not be an ideal shelving location. 

So now my next project is to decide what to do with this space instead. I need something that won’t get destroyed easily, but that also doesn’t invite climbing. Some kind of (very durable) display? Inspirational quotes? A showcase of student work? I suspect I’ll have to try a few things before I figure out the best way to use this space. Let me know if you have ideas!

The campsite rule for libraries

Well, it’s the end of the year. I think. Like everything else this year, the end of the school year doesn’t feel quite normal. Adding to my sense of disequilbrium is the fact that I’m leaving my school this year (for another independent school library job – I’m not going that far!). So in addition to wrapping up this year (as well as a few things that never really got wrapped up at the end of last year…), I’m getting my library ready for a new director to take over.

This is my fourth library job, and walking into a new library is always… an experience. Sometimes you find detailed notes and information, and sometimes all you have to go on are a bunch of unlabeled keys (why are there always so many unlabeled keys?). We all know the ins and out of our libraries well, but all of our libraries will outlive us. What will someone else discover when they come into your library? Will they be able to take it over, or will they be doing a scavenger hunt? Will they sing your praises or curse your name?

Luckily I have two kindred spirits, Laura Pearle and Courtney Lewis, who enjoy thinking and talking about this almost as much as I do. A few years ago I joked with Laura that I wanted to do a presentation called “You’ve Inherited a Dumpster Fire. Now What?” While I haven’t presented that exact program, Laura, Courtney and I have presented a few times (including at AISL Boston) about the “What If Scenario” and recently recoded our presentation as a webinar for the Independent School Section of AASL (it’s free!). You can also find links to everything we presented here.

I try and follow the campsite rule when leaving a library: leave it better than I found it. And the beauty of many of these things is that they make the campsite a lot nicer while you’re still in it. As I’ve gone through and organized files for this transition, I’ve been reflecting on how helpful some of these documents have been – and kicking myself for not keeping some of them in better shape. But I know that the new library director will have what she needs to quickly get her bearings, and will also have some historical context for the program she’s taking over.

Setting all this step up is one of those big tasks that is easily broken down into small tasks. It may be that you can put some of these things into place as you wrap up this year or start next year. At the very least, start by labeling some of those keys.


Last week, when the alert I set in my calendar popped up to remind me I had an AISL bog due this week, I thought “okay, I’ll do some thinking, get an idea, and write something up this weekend.” And I thought. And thought. But no ideas came. At least none that I liked. I didn’t want to write about the challenges of this year, but it’s also the major thing on my mind. 

We’ve done some cool community-building projects this year, but our instructional program has taken a real hit with our revised schedule. For a variety of reasons, we moved to a semester-based schedule this year, which means that previously year-long classes are now being taught in a semester. One of the impacts of this is that a number of research projects have been cut or curtailed. And while I know that constraints breed creativity, the reality of the constraints of our schedule has meant that there is just not the time necessary for in-depth research. It also means I’ve had fewer opportunities to collaborate and brainstorm with teachers, which is one of my favorite parts of the job.

One of the other changes that came with our new schedule is the introduction of some new electives, including a 9th-grade course focused on the Middle East. This was my opportunity! The course had a lot more flexibility than other classes, and the teacher is a willing collaborator. So, Tuesday afternoon, as I was still struggling to brainstorm a topic for this blog post, I sat down to brainstorm with this teacher.

And it was so much fun! I have all sorts of strategies and methods for brainstorming with teachers (some of my favorites come from Project Zero’s Thinking Routines Toolbox), but this time we just had a one-on-one conversation where we built on each other’s ideas. I kept my research instruction menu open in the background so I could connect our ideas to the skills we’re hoping to teach. 

One of the goals we established right away is that we don’t want students to think of the Middle East only as “a place with problems” but to understand it in all of its richness and complexity. Given that this class may not have been every student’s first choice, we also wanted to build in some opportunities for them to feel more agency in their learning.

With those goals in mind, here’s what we’re thinking about so far. More brainstorming to do, and would love to hear any ideas you have!

  • Each student (or pair of students) will pick a country to become an expert on. This will allow us to do research tasks of different sizes at multiple points. Students can learn the history of a country, share current events, delve into the art and culture of a country, etc.
  • As a way to frame the research about their country, and as a way to develop some questioning skills, the class will generate the questions they’ll pursue answers to for their country study.
  • I’m hoping to find a way to incorporate (socially-distanced) write arounds as a way of developing background knowledge and thinking about multiple perspectives
  • This seems like a great opportunity to do some work with students on source types. This tends to be very abstract for my students, particularly at the younger grades. I have been wanting to do a source deck activity since I first read about them, but never seemed to be the right opportunity – until now! I’m still thinking about a topic, but would love any suggestions.

All these ideas need some more refining and planning, but it was exciting to be creative without constraints for a little while – and to get my brain storming in more productive ways. 


Back in the summer, I had… a very strong notion about what library instruction would look like this school year. There was no way to have a clear picture, given all of the uncertainties inherent in planning for a year like this, but I felt like I’d developed a clear plan and was ready to put it into action. 

I shared an earlier version of my research instruction menu in the summer, and had further refined it before sharing with teachers as we prepared to head back to school. I was excited! This seemed like a great way to communicate what we do, and to build on existing collaborative relationships.

And I honestly believe that in a “typical” school year, it would have been. But this year is, as we know, anything but typical. In addition to managing the challenges of a hybrid schedule, we’ve also switched to semester-based classes for the year – which means teachers are trying to teach in a semester what they used to teach in a year. And while the number of contact hours has not been cut in half, there is still less time overall, and less time for students to process information and skills in the way that is so important to information literacy development. We’ve been collaborating on some familiar projects, but others have been abbreviated or cut. I am a little nervous that many teachers are going to try and do a research project in January before the semester ends. I know that the impact we saw on research instruction last spring and throughout this year means that we’re going to need to adapt future instruction in order to fill in some gaps.

Another challenge has been the way we deliver instruction. My original plan was to do flipped instruction, providing video tutorials of instruction and then following up with student check-ins or other formative feedback. This, also, has not gone how I thought it would. We’ve created some instructional videos, and many of the shorter “how to” ones are useful, but I’m not sure about the longer ones. One issue is that few, if any, other teachers are using videos for flipped instruction. Given that we’re an outlier, I’m not sure if students know what to make of these instructional videos. And, honestly, I miss the connection of being with students. So much of good instruction is built on relationships, and those are harder to build in videos. We’ve been able to get into the classroom a little more, and to Zoom with students, and will continue to adapt.

I am holding onto my research instruction menu, and will try again with it next year. But for this year, I’m focusing on being flexible and adapting as we all figure out how to make the most of a very challenging year. 

Hybrid Library Instruction

We’re still a few weeks away from the start of classes here in Massachusetts, but I feel like the fall has been looming over since, well, last spring. We saw a sharp decline in our research instruction once we went remote last spring, and I’ve been thinking about how to make sure that didn’t happen again this fall, knowing that we were likely to be at least partially remote again.

We are going back with a hybrid schedule, with half of our students on campus on any given day. A class of students will, essentially, be split in two with half the students in the classroom with the teacher, and half at home each day. While there will be times when students Zoom in on their learn from home days, there will likely be a fair amount of asynchronous instruction happening. Those learn from home days seemed like a good opportunity to do some research instruction, and to collaborate with teachers.

I’ve never done much with flipped instruction, as we often had very few opportunities to get into the classroom with students as it was, and I wanted to make the most of those opportunities so we could build relationships and do some guided practice. However, it’s very unlikely we’ll be able to be in many classrooms this fall, and I won’t be able to lean over a student’s shoulder to help them the way I usually would. I wanted to do something that would help us connect better than Zooming into classes from our office. Also, being able to offer something to teachers as a way to do meaningful instruction with students who were learning from home will (hopefully) be a good way to rebuild some of those collaborative partnerships that suffered in the spring. 

I’ve been thinking about how to offer a “menu” of instructional possibilities to teachers for a while, and this seemed like the right time to put that idea onto paper (or GoogleSlides, as it were). My goal is to more clearly communicate to teachers what types of instruction we can do, as well as what sorts of applied practice students could do. It’s important to me that we communicate to teachers that research instruction is dynamic; a database demo doesn’t help anyone learn research skills unless they have a chance to practice and get feedback on what they’ve learned. It also means they’re doing something more than watching a video at home. 

This slideshow gives a broad overview of what types of skill instruction we do (I’m working on a one-pager that I was planning on having finished by now, but, well, here we are) along with some ideas for how students can practice those skills. The content will be delivered via video (which means students can review it at any time), and the opportunities for applied practice will be tailored to the assignment. 

The key to this for me is the last slide, which gives some possibilities for how students can get feedback. We can “visit” classes as we’ve traditionally done to answer questions and check for understanding. Or students can schedule a ten-minute “check-in” with one of us to share their work and get feedback; we’ve had great success with longer research appointments, and I like the idea of adding this option for students and teachers. Or, depending on the task, we can ask students to create a screencast of their work/process, explaining what they’re doing and why. This last option allows for some metacognition and reflection, as well as an opportunity for us to catch misunderstandings. All of these options will give us an opportunity to connect with and build relationships with students, something I’m very conscious of as I think about a socially distanced library. 

I’m still putting final touches on much of this (you all are getting a sneak peek) and I’ll be rolling it out to teachers soon. I’m optimistic that it will help start conversations with teachers about how they can incorporate research instruction, as well as make for meaningful instructional partnerships in what is sure to be a very interesting school year. 

SIFTing the news

I’ll admit I have found myself a tad… envious of those of you who find yourselves in high demand in this shift to remote learning. We have had a few teachers doing research work, and students are still coming for (Zoom) research appointments, but our (new) chat reference has been *crickets*, and it has been harder to collaborate than when I could chat with someone in the dining hall or on the way to assembly. 

I also miss seeing students! We’ve had some luck with virtual programs (including a group that is really, really into virtual bingo). But it is, as you all know, just not the same.

One group I have seen more of, however, is parents. Back in the Before Times I had been talking with our Director of Parent Programming and our Parent Association about doing a news literacy workshop for parents. With the US Presidential election on the horizon there seemed to be a lot of parent interest in learning how to be savvier news consumers – and the coronavirus pandemic has only upped the stakes. So when I was asked if I wanted to try presenting in our new online lives, I jumped at the chance.

I typically prefer to do things like this in a workshop-style, with people having the chance to follow along and try strategies as I demonstrate them. However, given that I couldn’t guarantee that people would have two devices at the fingertips (one to watch me on and one to work on) I decided on doing a presentation rather than a workshop. I’m also new to teaching on Zoom – and parents are new to learning on Zoom – so simplicity seemed ideal.

I used the materials from the Check, Please! Starter Course as my inspiration and my foundation and built a LibGuide to walk folks through the SIFT process: Stop, Investigate the Source, Find Trusted Coverage, and Trace Claims and Quotes. I love the SIFT model for its simplicity and its flexibility. There is room for nuance and complexity around all four moves, but they are also easy for a novice to understand and work with – and they’re adaptable to multiple kinds of sources and different kinds of (intentional and unintentional) misinformation.

I presented it to a group of parents last Wednesday. I still don’t love presenting to a group of people on mute, but luckily one of my colleagues is also a current parent and I could see her smiling and nodding in all the right places. Getting that little bit of visual affirmation certainly helped!

This was a great way to connect with the parent community to share the value of the library and our curriculum – and a good way to make my program visible when we’re all socially distant. I”m hoping to expand on it when we can meet face-to-face again!

Making room for reading

I’ve long been intrigued by the idea of doing an All-School Read, but have also found the logistics of pulling something like that off a little daunting. And even though I would talk with colleagues about books that might make for great community reads, the idea of picking a book that could, in theory, appeal to everyone at my school seemed impossible. 

But I still wanted to do what I could to encourage reading for pleasure, and to use reading as a tool for community building. Thus, the faculty/student book clubs were born!

I decided to build on the strong relationships so many of our students have with their teachers, and to use those as a vehicle to promote reading for pleasure. A student who may not pick up a book on their own may be inspired to read if it means they get to hang out with one of their favorite teachers. 

I wanted to start small, so the plan was for the book groups to meet once, right after our December break. Our semester ends before the break, so in theory our students wouldn’t have work to do over the break, and would be more likely to have some time to read. 

My first step was to recruit faculty to lead these groups. I emailed faculty with the outline of the plan and some “recommended reads.” I tried to include a mix of fiction and non-fiction, as well as different genres of fiction. Many faculty chose one of these books, and some chose a title on their own. Much to my surprise, I had multiple faculty members volunteering to “sponsor” the same book, which was great! With a little more recruiting, I was able to get teachers from different departments in each book club.

We had some time during an assembly to announce the book clubs and for faculty members to make a pitch for the book they were sponsoring, and then sent a sign-up to students. There were tons of posters and announcements and displays as well in order to hype up the book clubs. 

And then, we read!

Overall, attendance at the book clubs was low, which was what I expected for an inaugural effort; but everyone (faculty and students) who participated really enjoyed both the books they read and the conversations they had. Much to my surprise, one of the most popular book clubs was for Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. I could not have predicted that, but was delighted to see so many students connecting with a type of text they may not have the opportunity to read elsewhere in school.

More than having these book clubs themselves, my over-arching goal was to shift the conversation about reading. I know many high school librarians struggle to get students to read for pleasure, and often the narrative is that “kids don’t read anymore.” But they do! We know they do. But if the narrative is “kids don’t read” we make it less likely that more kids will want to pick up a book, and we de-legitimize the readers in our midst.

There were plenty of students who didn’t participate in the book clubs, but who made it a point to tell me about the books they had read over break. Having a public celebration of books and reading gave them an excuse to talk about books and to have that be celebrated. Giving reading the same space we afford to other pursuits in the school – academic, athletic, or artistic – helps shift the conversation about reading for pleasure.