What I Mean When I Say Information Literacy

When I arrived at my current school months before Covid, I was told that the only department that had traditionally collaborated with the library was the history department. This was shared in a self-evident way–the history classes were the only ones that did research. My gut reactions were 1) I/the library can collaborate on more than traditional research, 2) surely there is research happening in other classes, and 3) my goal is to start collaborating with more departments. So, I started reaching out to department chairs to come pitch the library in department meetings. Some chairs were happy to let me have some time. Others were friendly but skeptical in the “we don’t do research” kind of way. 

When I said “library” or “information” or variations of that, all anybody could hear was “formal research.”

And then, on this very day in 2020, we started teaching virtually and my goals and priorities were radically altered. Which is how I found myself not fully revisiting my goal of building stronger relationships with all departments until this past fall. With a new chair in our Arts Department I reached out again and heard a similar response–our arts classes are performance/product oriented: the chorus sings, the ensembles play, the theater students act, the photography students take pictures, etc.–so they don’t really need instruction from the library. Of course, my librarian brain could think of loads of ways our arts students use information and need information literacy, but what I realized, in this case and others,is that something kept being stuck in translation. When I said “library” or “information” or variations of that, all anybody could hear was “formal research.”

https://xkcd.com/1576/

To remedy this I’ve taken a two pronged approach. The first step has been to address the semantics challenge. Starting with our Vice Principal for Academic Affairs, I’m working to develop a broader, shared understanding of information literacy (IL) drawing on the ACRL Frameworks. We also discussed how to develop a mutual understanding of IL so that faculty can start to see how they already teach IL within their disciplines and also possibilities for collaboration that they had not considered before. Next, I will be joining a department heads meeting to explain IL, and later in the spring doing a mini-PD at a faculty meeting. When our faculty and I are speaking the same language we will be able to have more productive conversations, and hopefully collaborations.

The second step is a targeted approach of pitching hypothetical IL lessons to teachers and departments who don’t expect to have a need for library instruction. A fruitful example from this fall turned into a two-day collaboration with our Advanced Photography class. I approached the Photo teacher and asked if/to what extent her class discussed ethical use of images, particularly in light of the spread of AI image generators, or how students are copyright holders of the images they take. By offering a idea that I saw as a potential intersection of IL and the work the photo students were doing we were able to design a teaching collaboration. On the first class period I introduced students to copyright, their rights as a copyright holder of the photos they create, Creative Commons licenses and how to include those on works they share online, and how to understand some of the issues in determining the ethical ways of engaging with other peoples images. On our second day we discussed the impact of AI on the authority of photographs in photojournalism and the bias in AI image generators. This collaboration would never have developed if we stayed at the misunderstanding of library=research. 

By recognizing this bottleneck in library outreach, I have been able to take the steps to build a shared understanding among our faculty about the broader possibilities of what the library can mean for them and their students. But, shared understanding is only one step. By offering new ideas of how to build students’ IL skills in their own disciplines, I have helped faculty start to see what that broader definition of “library” can look like own classes. These demonstrations of non-research information skills in action are already starting to spread roots in departments, opening doors to new collaboration opportunities by showing, rather than just telling, what teaching our students IL can really include.

What lessons do you teach outside the traditional research projects? How have you engaged with less obvious (to them) classes or departments?

Making Books Easy

I recently read Daniel Willingham’s The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads. The book leads readers through each aspect of cognition that contributes to being a successful reader. And, perhaps of no surprise for librarians, the constant message was that folks who are good at reading are folks who read a lot. So, I was particularly interested in Willingham’s suggestions on how to get students to read more. It boils down, in many ways, to this: kids need to have books in their space all the time, it needs to be easy, otherwise the things that are easy (tik tok, anyone?) will win their attention. What I’m sharing here is one small step I’ve taken to help smooth the path between “I have some time on my hands” and “I’m reading.”

There are readers who always have a full TBR queue, and then there are those who go deer-in-the-headlights when they close the back cover on their latest book. While some of us are skilled at articulating what we like about the books we love–intense worldbuilding, deep character development, particular storylines, found family, etc.–there are also those who have a harder time putting their finger on what part of a book caused a connection. What better way to help figure that out and find their next book than a bit of gentle prompting by way of a decision tree!

Another way to reduce friction is to find the right attention getters. When we meet our students where they are at, like getting excited to see the next installment of Dune, and guide them to options that they may not have considered, we make it just a little bit easier to get a book in their hands.

My goal for now is to build out decision trees and mind-map style book finding aids for each of our genres. Genrefication made it easier to get out students to a subset of books they might find interesting, hopefully these diagrams can help a bit more.

What are you doing to make books easy for students? What are the books that win your students’ attention?

The Onus of Collaboration

We are in the midst of a search for a senior administrator role at my school, and as I crafted my question for our open sessions with the candidates I got to thinking (again) about structures and unspoken norms within school communities. As librarians, it seems like we are always seeking, depending on, and managing collaborations. As an upper school librarian, my ability to get in a classroom requires collaboration. Even programs that are internal to the library cannot wholly thrive without buy-in or collaboration from other parts of the school. Here are my initial thoughts on the systemic ways our upper schools place the onus of collaboration squarely on the shoulders of librarians.

But first, two caveats. While some elements of this may ring true for LS/MS librarians, I cannot speak to that directly, so I am speaking particularly about upper schools. Secondly, what I say herein is about structure. Each of the issues in faculty-librarian collaborations I speak to here are not an issue with faculty, rather about why the expectation of collaboration resides unduly on librarians because of how our schools are set up. I expect we all have some examples of successful, ongoing, meaningful collaborations with exceptional faculty who really “get it.” Which is great. Truly.

And yet, in most upper schools, librarians teach at the invitation of curricular faculty. Our job descriptions all (I suspect) have a key statement along the lines of “support, collaborate, and co-teach with faculty,” a clear expectation that we will be working with faculty on research projects and instilling information literacy in our students through collective work with teachers. Do faculty job descriptions implore them to “collaborate and co-teach with librarians?” Nope. So, if there is no structural support that reinforces collaboration from both parties, is it surprising that the onus of collaboration lies on the librarians?

inequality by Creative Mania from Noun Project (CC BY 3.0)

Because it is part of our jobs, librarians can be evaluated on our collaborations and co-teaching, whether that is by the number of these collaborations or instruction sessions “co-taught” with faculty, or by the depth or impact of such collaboration. But, to what degree can that be a meaningful assessment when there is no equality to the expectation? A teacher may choose not to collaborate with librarians at all for a host of reasons–they feel they have too much content to cover to “give up” a day, they may not recognize that there is a connection between the library and the content or skills they are teaching, they may not have done it in the past and don’t want to do the work to change their course to find the time, or any number of other reasons. And while, sure, a librarian could keep at it with such a teacher, or work to convince them of the IL skills in the class they could help with, or even pitch a lesson idea, the only one invested in making that collaboration work is the librarian. I doubt many faculty have annual goals that mention library co-teaching, but I bet a lot of librarians have goals to work with more departments or improve or expand instructional collaborations.

Even successful collaborations can potentially fall apart from year to year through no fault of the librarian or ill will of the teacher–maybe they got sick and missed a day or two so they bump the library day to catch up, or perhaps changed an assignment that the collaboration was tied to so that the instruction session disappears. Or, a great collaborator teaches a different course, retires, moves to a new school. So now, the librarian has to explain why they have fewer sessions than in the past. Are teachers ever asked why they have failed to co-teach with the librarian?

Let’s also look a bit closer at the idea of co-teaching. According to Wikipedia, co-teaching is “the division of labor between educators to plan, organize, instruct, and make assessments on the same group of students.” When we consider the structure of a school, the “co” is undermined by the fact that one partner has a codified curriculum and one does not. Without IL as a formal curriculum in the school and without the librarian allocated time to teach, the underlying power dynamic will always disadvantage the librarian in collaborations and co-teaching. Inherently, this amounts to something more akin to librarian as guest-speaker than librarian as co-teacher.

If our schools are earnest about library collaborations and co-teaching, administrators need to distribute the onus of those collaborations between librarians and our faculty collaborators in a systematic way. If we are meant to develop information literacy skills in our students through faculty collaborations then we need to have school structures that support clear scope and sequence of IL curriculum as well as time to do that teaching. And, we need to be supported in creating and implementing assessment of that learning as well as the collaborations themselves. Then, when librarians and faculty come together to collaborate on a research project, or to plan to co-teach, it might look a lot more like sharing.

partnership by Gargantia from Noun Project (CC BY 3.0)

Lessons with Legos

One of my favorite teaching tools is a box of Legos. I’ve built several lessons around Legos, and it is a guaranteed way to get my upper school students excited about a library session. The lesson I’m sharing here is one I use with 9th graders. The objective is to have students understand what a controlled vocabulary is, how it works in the context of searching, and how that applies to LOC Subject Headings and subject searches.

The set-up: I pre-sort my Legos into standard bricks and irregular pieces, providing a pile of standard bricks, randomly, to each student (or small groups, depending on the student:Lego ratio). I tell them we are building a database of Legos and get some volunteer input to get a definition of what a database is. I then give students about 4 minutes to decide with a partner/small group how they will categorize their Legos so we can search our database to find the right bricks.

Depending on the space that I have, students may write their categories on the board as they discuss, or share them out after and I will write. Typically they offer categories like color, shape, size. For each, I press a bit further and we get lists like:

  • Color
    • Red, green, blue, white, yellow
  • Shape
    • Square, rectangle
  • Size
    • Number of studs (yes, that’s what the bumps on Legos are called)
    • Stud dimensions (1×2, 2×2, 2×4, etc.) 
    • Short or tall (in Lego lingo this would be plate or brick)

Next, we try “searching” our database. I’ll call out a search and the students will push forward their “results” on their desks. I start easy with things like “red” or “square.” I point out how they can combine things “red AND 2×2” and bam, we get the brick we want. 

But, as librarians we know it’s not so easy to search and get what you want, so I point out that there are, in fact, three different shades of blue in my Lego set and that I may do a search for “turquoise,” which based on what we established as a class, is not an option: zero results. This creates the opportunity to discuss the challenges of controlled vocabularies for searchers–if I don’t know the language used for the colors, my search for turquoise will leave me thinking there are no results for me, when there are a lot of turquoise Legos, they are just called blue. So, do we keep it broad and say I should just search for blue and then I have to sort through all the blue results to find the ones that are turquoise, or do we want our Lego database to specify what our three different shades of blue should be called? And, will that alway help? What if I call the lightest shade turquoise but they call it “light blue” or “sky blue”? And, how would I know what words to use? When we work through it like this, students catch on quickly.  At this point, I let them build a creation from the bricks they have as we plow forward. 

New information gets created all the time, so our database expands– I give them a few more Legos from the bits set aside earlier and we upload this new data into our system. We quickly hit complications. How, for example, am I supposed to search for a wheel when our data structure doesn’t have a way to do that–wheels are not square or rectangular and they don’t have studs. Or how would we find a sloped piece? Or other irregular pieces? My goal here is for them to see that, while imperfect, adding more specific categories titles for our blue issue seemed like a fairly simple fix. If we try to come up with names and categories for all the irregular shapes the vocabulary gets unwieldy and it becomes even more confusing to know what to call things. How we chose to include information, label it, and organize it, impacts how it is used. 

Now I introduce LOC Subject Headings and how that language can be obscure, biased, and difficult to find as a novice searcher. But also, knowing how information is labeled and organized helps you know how you can search for it, as well as how some questions may not be readily answered by the way information is organized. We do exploratory searching in our catalog (we use AccessIt) so I can show them how to find the Subject Headings of results of their searches, that those are clickable links that redo a search, and how to backtrack to the stem if the subject is too specific.

The best part is I get to do a lesson on searching that engages my students without relying on walking them through searches projected on the board and connects to the ACRL Frame, Searching as Strategic Exploration through the knowledge practices: understand how information systems are organized in order to access relevant information; and, use different types of searching language (e.g., controlled vocabulary, keywords, natural language) appropriately.  

The Joys of Book Juggling

As I sit at my desk trying desperately to focus between questions, printer drama, and the need to tell that student that he can’t surf wheelie-chairs in the library, all while trying to will away the constant din of conversation on the the silent floor, I’ve decided to write this post about something a little further from my day to day. Today is the last day of regular classes here, so the real day to day is ending for the year. We are moving into exams and then those year-end traditions that transition us into summer, off to college, up a grade level. So I’m taking a moment to pause, and invite you to my reading realm.

I never used to be a book juggler. I get so invested in each book that I don’t want to be reading anything else until I’m done with the characters, ideas, and worlds that I’m so immersed in at the moment. Over time though, and for a variety of reasons (children, long commutes, competing desires), I’ve shifted to being someone who is often reading at least 2 books at any given time. Right now I find myself in the delicious early pages of two pleasure books, while also slowly eking my way through one “work” book.

One aspect of book juggling I have come to appreciate is how the mental hangover from one to the next can sometimes lead to interesting connections and insights. Because I’m still mulling through the as-yet-unresolved thoughts and threads from one book as I shift to pick up the others, I bring those muddled thoughts to a new context and I often apply the same questions there.

Looking back at my reading list since the start of 2023 I’ve been on a real fantasy kick: Bardugo, McGuire, Roanhorse, and Clarke.There are other books mixed in, but fantasy easily sweeps me up. Rarely is a new world contained in just one book, there are trilogies and series to fall down the proverbial rabbit hole into. So, it was, in fact, a bit of a surprise to myself, when this week I paused and realized I was juggling 3 non-fiction books for the first time in a while.

I picked up Gathering Moss: a Natural and Cultural History of Mosses, by Robin Wall Kimmerer when my kids brought me to the bookstore for Mother’s Day. A few days after I started reading, I was not entirely surprised to find out that our Environmental Science teacher is also reading it currently. Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass has been a book that clearly made an impact on our school in the past year. The only book at all mentioned in our weekly Meeting for Worship, it has actually moved students and teachers to speak at three different Meetings with entirely different queries. Given how infrequently our community has been moved to speak at Meetings this year, it is clear that this book has power. Beyond that, it has also been one of the most frequently shared books by faculty on our “What’s We’re Reading” display. I myself managed some strange hybrid of both devouring and savoring Kimmerer’s words when I read it last year. Gathering Moss has been on my to-read list ever since.

Also sitting on my list for several months has been Katherine May’s Wintering: the Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times. After reading an old NPR review sometime last fall, I’ve been intrigued by the narrative and mildly anthropological exploration of wintering, which May describes as “a fallow period in life, when you’re cut off front he world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider.” As someone whose personal “to-visit” list is topped by northern destinations, May’s inclination to also turn north for strategies to manage the cold and dark times in life piqued my interest (and also makes me want to make time for a sauna).

Meanwhile, on my desk at work, sits Attention Span: a Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness and Productivity, by Gloria Mark. I find no shortage of irony in my inability to focus on reading it between notifications on my laptop and students dropping by. I often intend to read something professionally useful in the earliest part of my mornings, between opening the library at 7:30 and the end of first period. While most of this year those have been books more specifically on pedagogy, Attention Span caught my interest to perhaps help me to understand our student’s device dependance (and that deep discomfort they feel at being physically separated from their phones when I have to confiscate ones being used against our device policy) and also think through those tensions of student stress at just how much homework they have, declining mental health, and simultaneously large amounts of free time during the school day used in academically unproductive ways. Perhaps understanding a bit more about attention will give me some insight, too, into how to physically structure our library space to serve the real needs of our students.

Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

Right now, in the early stages, there are threads from each that I want to tease out. I see the importance of cycles shining through. Nature and people cycle through seasons, we need dark and light, joy and sadness, energy and rest. Mosses thrive in moisture and go dormant in drought, only to reemerge healthy when the conditions are right again. Our attention needs both focus and distraction in order to maintain balance–we cycle out of deep focus to periods of rote engagement in order to restore our ability to enter periods of focus again. The restorative and calming power of nature is there too. Pause, look closely, notice the details. Kimmerer describes how her world changed upon first seeing a snowflake through a magnifying glass–that experience taught her that there was more to see if we look closely. Observation is akin to mindfulness in ways that appear through May’s writing, from nature walks to mid-night watches and restorative baking. I also see threads of a need for acceptance. May finds power in accepting winter as part of life. One cannot simply avoid that cold dark season, by accepting winter one can prepare and embrace the unique parts of that season. So too, with our attention. Times of distraction restore our ability to focus. Accepting that not all our time will be focused we can better consider how to be distracted well. These are some of the threads that seem to connect from all sides. As I turn the last page in these and the juggling act shifts, I look forward to where else the interleaving of pages will take me.

In the meantime, I’m really excited for the change in our cycle that comes with the end of classes. In my reflective mood, the exam period feels like an important liminal moment in our year. Soon we will have various ceremonies, formal and informal, where our students will transition. Our juniors become the senior class of 2024, our graduates become alums. The academic cycle moves us all into summer. And I, for one, am ready to accept the summer.

In Acknowledgement

I resent that what most students know about plagiarism is merely that “it’s bad.” Lately I’ve had the opportunity to glean an insight to how students see–and often don’t see–plagiarism in the work they submit, and it has gotten me thinking.

Mostly in my own teaching and writing experience, plagiarism is fairly easy and obvious to define–we focus on quoting, paraphrasing, and summary of the ideas of other writers, scholars, and primary sources. We assume plagiarism is coming from extant print sources–the original exists somewhere to be seen and compared against.*

Until recently, I’ve had very little practice with the trouble posed by ideas that aren’t so clearly traceable–like when a parent does too much work editing their student’s paper. What is too much? Our English teachers have eloquently articulated the ways that individual word choice, something that a parent or student may see as subtle editing, can actually change the inflection or specificity of an argument enough to substantively change the meaning of the paper. Our policy is that nobody else should take pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), otherwise it is not wholly the students’ own work. But, what about tutors? If the tutor never touches the student’s document but coaches them through the argument and structure of an essay is that the student’s work, or are the ideas really the tutor’s? At what point in that process does it become so muddy whose ideas are whose that the student feels like the ideas are their own? There is a lot bound up in the question of plagiarism, editing, proofreading, and tutors. Some of it is culture, some is about equity, others about policy, pedagogy, and more.

As my school works to unify, clarify, and share our policies, I found myself mulling over how these issues play out in “the real world,” that is, in publishing and professional writing. How can I draw on long established practices that, while there are legal consequences for copyright infringement, are essentially ethical and therefore not always absolutely cut and dry?

In scholarly writing, we rely on citations for attribution. But, citations are for the scholarship and evidence, not for how the writing process was guided by the ideas, conversations, editing, and peer review of others. And yet, those other contributions are indeed acknowledged in scholarship. The opening sentence of the acknowledgements for the historical monograph, To Her Credit, puts it nicely: “This study is born from an assurance that, when we break down an act into its component practices, the essential contributions of previously unseen individuals come into view. That insight is even more true with the publication of my book which would not have been possible without the generous help of numerous individuals and institutions.” She then acknowledges the contributions of thesis advisors, graduate advisors, faculty members, mentors, and seminars, all of whom shaped the way she thought about her subject and her scholarship. The graphic artist who produced the maps, the anonymous reviewers of the manuscript, the editor and copyeditor at the press all are credited for the role they played in the finished book, along with librarians and archivists. A scholarly monograph is never the sole product of one individual. Nor, would we want it to be so. The work is improved by the contributions of others in so many ways.

Fictional works are the same. Smart writers recognize the many people who influenced their work for the better. In There, There, Tommy Orange thanks writers communities, mentors, faculty, and his editor and agent. When Leigh Bardugo thanks two folks who “helped me find the heart of this story when all I could see were its bones,” you can feel the importance of their conversations and the impact on the author and the shape of her book. She also thanks folks who contributed to her knowledge needed for the book, for “help in thinking about sleight of hand and grand illusions,” and another for “helping me finesse the chemical weevil and auric acid.” Deborah Harkness does the same in A Discovery of Witches, listing the colleagues who “generously lent me their expertise as I wandered far from my own area of specialization.”

I suspect that our students don’t read acknowledgements. Which means that they also don’t see all of the conversation, support, and work that goes into a published work of writing. If we make the contributions of others more visible we create a novel (haha) opportunity to discuss the role of authors and contributors in creating new works. Once the work, and the need to acknowledge it, is visible and modeled for students perhaps they will be able to reflect more meaningfully on their own efforts. An English teacher who is clear that a student’s paper should only be their own could, for example, have students practice drafting an acknowledgment for their essay. If a student finds that they would need to include someone other than their teacher it is a cue that someone else’s work is being co opted as their own, and that they are committing academic dishonesty.

I admit too, that astute students may parry, pointing out that many authors do thank their family members (parents, spouses, siblings) for contributions, that those authors have editors who help to copy edit and polish the authors’ writing, so why can’t they have a parent edit their work or a tutor assist them with their assignment. I can imagine that “well then I’ll just put a line on my paper that thank’s my mom for helping me proofread,” will be brought up somewhere. And that is where we open the space to be transparent about the fact that their essay project is not a published piece of writing, the appropriate person to give feedback is the teacher, and that is not just about acknowledgement but about pedagogy. That a teacher cannot help them grow as writers when their feedback is on mom’s (or dad’s or big sibling’s, etc.) words and ideas. That essay writing and other creative and information driven projects at school need to be wholly their own for a host of pedagogical reasons. Rather than enumerate those reasons, I’ll simply suggest that anyone who is having this conversation with their students has made more meaningful inroads to a robust understanding of plagiarism and academic integrity than I have seen among high school students to date.

Please share your reflections in the comments! How does your school address the too-much-outside-involvement type of plagiarism? What has worked best for you in getting students to understand plagiarism and academic dishonesty?

*I’m putting a pin in the AI wrinkle to all of this for the time being.

References:

Sara Damiano, To Her Credit: Women, Finance, and the Law in Eighteenth Century New England Cities, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021.
Deborah Harkness, A Discovery of Witches, New York: Viking, 2011.
Leigh Bardugo, Crooked Kingdom, New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2016.
Tommy Orange, There, There, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018.

When our readers are writers

Today kicks off National Novel Writing Month–NaNoWriMo–and provides me, at least, with the chance to think about readers and writers–consumers and producers of books and information. In my past life as a liaison librarian at research universities the cycle of information literacy felt like a complete process. I taught a lot of undergraduate classes about finding, evaluating, and citing information (just like I do with my upper school students now), but I also worked with graduate students and faculty on publishing, sharing research, and scholarly conversations. We displayed research products, had sessions on metrics and predatory journals and lots more. The students and faculty I worked with readily saw themselves as creators as well as consumers of information. And they knew that the two were not separate or transactional, but an ongoing conversational process. As I prepped the library/writing support collaboration for NaNoWriMo, I realized that the information cycle feels very incomplete and spotty most of the time, and November is a great time to start to make it complete.

Like last year, our Writing Support teacher is hosting writing time during lunch in the library each day of November. I’ve built a collaborative spreadsheet where our participating students and faculty can log their writing throughout the month by day, time, and word count, and earn badges to mark their achievements–like hitting various word counts, writing 5 days in a row, attending the lunchtime writing blocks, etc. The library also has a display for the month that features books that were drafted or begun from NaNoWriMo projects. These are all pieces to support more of the creative (and creation) process for our community. I also plan to host a session on ways to share their work as we arrive at the end of the month so students can think about how to put their work into the world, and also how to think about intellectual property and copyright from the creators’ side of the desk.

NaNoWriMo Group Page
Individual logging page

I’m excited for the opportunity to work with our students as creators, and yet, it reminds me how infrequently I do this throughout the year. Some of the limitations for completing the information cycle are structural–I only get to work with classes when faculty invite me, and only have the time they allot. I regularly remind faculty that I can work with them and students on all parts of the research process and anything involving the using or sharing of information, but I still only get class time to talk about finding sources and citing them. Another structural piece is that the artifacts of student work go directly to the teachers and there is not a tradition yet for sharing those products beyond the classroom except in the arts. That said, opportunities exist–some initial work with our visual arts department has (hopefully) opened the door to more opportunities to work with students as creators. Our student publications are yet another way to work with students where they do see themselves as creators or information. These opportunities may be just the wedge in the door to help faculty see the possibilities to collaborate and inform their students about how knowledge is produced and shared in their disciplines, and how students can contribute their voices to the conversation. 

For now, I’ll be focused on our creative writers who see that the works they read influence the stories they want to tell, and who already know their voices belong in the world.

Classroom Management

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

Last Year

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

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

Next Year

1) Make expectations incredibly clear from the very start.

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

2) Start strong, then ease up.

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

3) Use space to my advantage.

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

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

4) Advocate, advocate, advocate.

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

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

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

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

Thinking Outside the Building

I have been a school librarian for three years, which of course means pandemic-induced library contortions are my normal. That said, there is at least one idea that came out of the constraints of pandemic protocols that I’m happy to continue for years to come. I call it my lawn library.

Last year, like so many, we started the school year fully in distance learning. By January we started experimenting with a hybrid schedule, and in late March most of our school was back full time. Our ability to circulate books varied, and we met student needs as nimbly as possible during distance and hybrid learning. While students were all back on campus every day by March, we were still hamstrung in the library–our health protocols prohibited browsing and book displays.

In practice, these restrictions meant that students could search the catalog and make requests through a Google form, then I pulled the books and delivered them to students. We had a quarantine period set up for returns so areas of one floor of the library were covered in books waiting out their decontamination period. It worked fairly well for our students doing research where I provided instruction in class and other supports. But, without physical displays and browsing, our fiction was languishing.

Taking it–Thanksgiving dinner, family gatherings, restaurant dining, etc.–outdoors was the answer to so many challenges during the pandemic, and so it was for our library. I took our largest and shiniest book cart, added some signs, sent some email blasts and Canvas announcements, and (with the blessing of our Health Services folks and a few bottles of sanitizer) loaded it with the newest additions to the collection and most enticing fiction and headed outside. Each day the rain wasn’t falling, I brought our lawn library outside during break and lunch so students could finally get their eyes on some books just for pleasure.

My view from the cart. Students were just starting to trickle out from picking up their lunches, and our talented jazz students were jamming on the piano.

And folks, it worked! Tentatively at first, but then in groups, students came. They browsed the cart and checked things out. Faculty started stopping by regularly, delighted that we had the titles right there that they were on long wait lists for at their public libraries. Middle school students ran to me and squealed in delight that they could check books out (our middle school library was sadly not able to circulate books at all last year, and the kids were missing it dearly). I swapped the books out regularly, and adjusted based on what students asked for (all the fantasy, folks).

The Lawn Library cart, loaded and ready to roll.

I admit that I probably wouldn’t have thought of such a simple way to get books in front of and in the hands of more students had it not been for the pandemic. Being forced to think outside the box–and outside the building–brought me to a solution, the usefulness of which will long outlast the health protocols that brought it about. Our library gets lots of student traffic, we are a busy place, but being outside we got in front of new students. And, we got on their radar when they were in a different mindset than when they came into the physical library. This year, I’ve suped up my lawn library cart with an elastic cord to keep the books in place as I rattle down the stone ramp to the courtyard where students still eat outdoor lunches. I imagine there will be more improvements as we continue.

How can we get outside our library boxes to surprise and delight our communities and ourselves?

I share my story, because I want to hear yours. What feats of ingenuity did you develop under duress the past two years that are worth sustaining? How can we continue to support the creative ventures that we all launched since 2020, even as the pressures and constraints that fueled them ebb? How can we get outside our library boxes to surprise and delight our communities and ourselves?

Around the World in 80 Books

I find upper school programming a delightful challenge, so this year I debuted a program for our upper school community to promote global reading. This year-long program–Read Around the World–started as a riff on Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, encouraging students to read books from a curated collection of books from 80 different countries.

Why? Well, in 2019, according to Statista, the top 4 US publishing companies published 98,800 new titles–a mere 737 of those titles were published in translation, fewer than 1% (0.74%). Even among those works in translation, there is not nearly the diversity one might hope for. Though there were 52 original languages of publication, 79% of the titles translated were translated from a European language, 14% from Asian languages, 7% from Middle Eastern languages, and a mere 0.2% were translated from an African language. Think of all the books we’re missing out on!

I know I’m preaching to the choir when I claim that through reading we are able to work towards eliminating what author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the single story” and the proliferation and reinforcement of stereotypes. The problem with a single story, she notes, is the way that it “creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” Furthermore, there are many stories that go entirely unheard when we read and engage solely, or primarily, with literature that is written by U.S. or British authors for American and British audiences in English.

That same data did make this program a challenge–to add exciting global literature to our collection that may not be readily found in our traditional lists, to read as much of it as possible, and to keep things equitable. To facilitate the latter, I selected a number of books from each continent proportionate to the number of countries within that continent.

To provide boundaries to the massive curation project that this otherwise could have become (it was big enough as is!) I gave myself the following criteria:

  • Works of fiction (most were novels, but there were some other formats too–poetry, short stories, graphic novels).
  • The author needed to be from the country and, when possible, currently residing there; there are certainly countries with extensive censorship and authors in exile. Ex-pat and immigrant authors will be another program for another time. I also preferred authors writing for their own country-folk as an audience, so I was often getting books in translation. Furthermore, in formerly colonized countries, I sought out indigenous authors.
  • They needed to be recent–most of the books were from the past few years. In a couple cases I had to dig deeper in time in order to meet my other criteria, but this was not the time for “classics;” I wanted students to be reading fresh works.

In the end, the list included 105 books from 81 countries, which allowed some elements of choice (some countries had 2 books to choose from) and permitted the inclusion of sequels. 

Digital Passport

Once I had the books, it was time to make it a program. For fun, I gamified it through our school’s LMS (Canvas) by creating a class for the program and badges for each country through Badgr, which allowed the process to be pretty automated once it was all built. In order to get students into the program “course,” they were invited to apply for a passport from the main library page through a link that added them to the program course. From there, they can get their passports stamped (with the badges) for each country from which they read a book. Badgr provides a dashboard so participants can see their badges/passport stamps, and what badges/stamps all other participants have earned. Students can also earn badges like “Globe Trotter” for getting a stamp from each continent and “Region Rover” for sweeping a stamp for every book in a continent. I’ll award prizes at random throughout the year by drawing a name from anyone who is participating, as well as at the end of the year to whoever reads the most globally. 

In addition to the gamification, the global books are on display all year organized by genre, with a rotating featured display each month of a particular region. This keeps the books visible while also allowing me to put fresh subsets in front of our community in new ways through the year so the program doesn’t get stale.

Europe books on a display. Covers from earlier displays (North America and Oceana) will be joined as the year progresses.

We’re only mid-year but I’m calling this one a success already. So far, books from the Read Around the World program have 66 checkouts. For one semester, I’m thrilled. Perhaps more tellingly, our global books account for a full 25% of all fiction checkouts so far this year (through January 1). I’ve also tried out new tools for gamification, acquired great books for our collection, and personally read books from Samoa, Tonga, New Zealand, Australia, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Iceland, Greenland, Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Brazil, Barbados, Nigeria, China, and Vietnam. I have more regions yet to visit!