Moving on Up

“Moving Up Day.” The vocabulary might be unique to our school, but the idea is common. 

For us, it’s the day shortly before contracts go out when we invite students to proactively “move up” to their next grade. For our younger Falcons, this is about 30 minutes of their morning. Teachers read a book with the class, talk up highlights of the year, and tour their classrooms. The domino cascade stops after grade eight, which is a half-day adventure to the Upper School. When the 8th graders move up, they join a high school already full of our regularly-scheduled 9th-12th graders. We just add six sections of 8th graders rotating through eight twenty minutes sessions, an Upper School Spirit Activity, and the long-awaited morning cookie break. (When I interviewed, I thought this was a euphemism for a snack break. It is not. Our Upper Schoolers can purchase freshly-based Otis Spunkmeyer cookies each morning at 10am. Unless you are an 8th grader, in which case cookies just appear mid-morning, no purchase necessary.)  

one of the cookie tubs

It speaks well for the profile of our library that we are included in one of the time slots, along with academic subjects and college counseling. This is my first year with another librarian leading the activities. Planning together made me review what I had done in the past.

Keeping in mind that the ultimate purpose of the day is to get students excited about the year to come by giving them a preview of highlights, I can say now that I completely missed the mark in my early years. This is not the time to teach the intricacies of EBSCO or how to cite sources for a non-existent project. I allowed them to check out books one year, something they can do any study hall any day of the week. There was potential in the library orientation scavenger hunt. Except that it was 19 questions that spanned the print and digital collections and students don’t attend the day with technology. Luckily since it was an activity far too long for the time allotted, we could limit to the print portions.  

For two years we joined forces with student representatives of the Honor Council. They talked about teachers’ expectations for the Honor Code and broke into small groups for activities. There were a variety of potential “gray zone” infractions that groups had to order from least problematic to worst, justifying their reasoning. I love that this was a student-led activity, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted the library to be students’ first thought when they heard the phrase “Honor Council” rather than the variety of resources the library provides to all students.  Since the Honor Council had a dedicated presentation to the 8th grade later in the spring, we amicably parted ways here.  

Middle schoolers really REALLY hate “helpful Susan.”

In winter of 2021 the entire Moving Up Day was a brief walking tour of Upper School hallways. No one wants to revisit that year. Moving on…. 

Because we have a really strong research program that encourages student autonomy, some years we have adapted an activity we use with our Upper Schoolers that’s intended to get them thinking more generatively about potential topics. We preselect books on all manner of odd subjects and students grab one that looks intriguing. They have two minutes to look anywhere in that book to find the craziest piece of trivia. Then each student pairs off with a classmate to decide whose is more interesting. Winners move on to compete against other winners until we have the class vote on the final champion.

Toilet facts vs. ambergris origins – some popular choices for this activity

We tend to think of the library as the metaphorical heart of the Upper School, and as a combined Middle and Upper library, it should be one of the places Middle Schoolers feel most comfortable in the Upper School already. The last few years we have added the Visible Thinking Routine of a Compass activity with anonymous post-it notes on posterboard. What better ways to tailor time than to hear directly from 8th graders their perceptions about 9th grade?

North (N): Need to know              
Ex. How exactly does block schedule work?                      
Is there more or less homework?                      
How do you get selected for May trips?
East (E): Excitements              
Ex. Advisor doesn’t collect phone!              
Studying in the library!
West (W): Worries              
Ex. More homework                   
Keeping track of schedule                  
Getting into college
South (S): Suggestions                  
Ex. More manga in the library                  
Let you have your phones in every class                  
Start a trading card game club

When I graduated from library school, I felt like I had to manufacture a learning opportunity each time I engaged with students. Hence those content-driven early years. Now I think about building connections with people and strengthening the association of the library as a generally friendly, helpful space. Thinking back to their Compass questions, most will be answered naturally weeks into 9th grade, just by virtue of being a 9th grader. But as with ancient Roman toilets and medieval library cats from the trivia game, they don’t know what they don’t know about our library either.

While the slides used this year are simple, they reinforced the conversation taking place. This is your library. Study anywhere. Play chess at the back table. Put a piece in the endless 2000 piece Pixar puzzle. (Please do that—it’s been out for close to three months now and still isn’t complete.) Record your podcast in the Pod. Print. Hang out after school. The book poetry provided an immediate energetic exploration of our collection, along with setting the tone that this is not a library of silence. The slides, along with the Upper Schoolers using the library, demonstrated the variety of ways students can use the library as a space or as a resource. The Compass activity gave students a voice from day one.  

Turns out we excel at puzzles up to 1500 pieces. Not 2000.

I spent so much time when I was younger trying to maximize every minute. Thinking through years past, while some activities have been better than others, there’s no one right answer, no one ideal use of this time. I would love thoughts from others on how your instruction has changed over time or ideas you’ve used to get people feeling welcome in the library.

Building Book Recommendation Lists

I’ve been compiling booklists since I started out as a librarian. Currently, the two biggest lists I work on for school are our Holiday Reading/Gift-Giving Recommendations, and Summer Fun Reading Recommendations. How I compile the lists has morphed over the years, and I thought I’d share how I do it now, and would love to hear about others’ methods, too.

We divide our lists into three levels. Formerly we used Middle School, Upper School, and Adult, but changed that to Middle School (grades 5-7), Crossover (grades 7-10), and Upper School/Adult (grades 9-12/adult). We further divide each level by genre/category, which can be somewhat flexible; for instance, one year I found so many wonderful new short story collections that I added that as a category. Sometime genres that fit well for Middle School don’t fit so well for Crossover and vice versa. I use “Romance” as a category only in the latter, along with “Supernatural.” “Humor” as a category I use only in Middle School. MS and Crossover have eight t0 nine genres/categories, whereas we divide the Upper School lists into Fiction, Nonfiction, and Graphica. MS and Crossover genres/categories include six books each; US lists can run longer in each category.

As to how I build the lists, I start with last year’s lists, and do my utmost not to repeat a title. I have a database spreadsheet with columns for genre, main character gender(s), and diversit(y/ies). For each genre, I strive to balance the genders of main characters, and make it at least half diverse, preferably more to reflect our school population. I also strive to ensure the titles represent a diversity of diversities, including religious, disability, race/ethnicity, and LGBTQ.

When possible, I prefer to populate the lists with new or new-ish books, starting with titles from our new books lists. When I’ve exhausted those, I move to my wishlist database, best-books lists, library catalog, etc. Sometimes I struggle to find good, diverse books in every genre, and I do end up re-using older titles—occasionally even old favorites still in print—if I can’t find newer books to fill the lists.

We post our lists on our LibGuides, in tabbed boxes. Recently we’ve stopped creating new guides each year, instead shifting the older boxes to a general “Reading Recommendations” page and building the new lists in the same guides. Using our judgement about what will circulate, we buy many of the titles in eBook format. We also display print titles in the library, and advertise the lists through parent and faculty communications, among others.

How do you build your recommended-books lists?

Bringing Sources into Conversation: Teaching Literature Review to High School Students (Part 2)

As I mentioned in November, I have become a huge fan of having students read and write literature reviews before heading off to college. Working with students in those upper-level electives that use scholarly sources, I have found that they completely misinterpret what that section of papers is doing and how they are meant to interact with it. More importantly, I find that literature reviews help with basic and highly specific skill-building for which alums express appreciation when they transition to college. In addition, I have several highly collaborative colleagues now (in our AP-equivalent Advanced Topics Statistics, Biology, and History Research and Writing classes) who collaborate on teaching how to build lit reviews, and also invite me to hang around as students work, involve me in draft reading and feedback, as well as assessment.

For my first several years at this school, AP/AT Statistics was the only class that undertook functional literature reviews, and the teacher made time available some years for me to come in and teach students what a lit review was before they wrote it. So, I had several opportunities to experiment. I will admit that, in part, this process has gotten easier as students have had an increasing number of years building relationships with me prior to my appearing for this lesson (in year two, students stared at me stony-faced over a sample lit review about whether dogs feel jealousy and in year three the lit reviews on women and swearing got the same response – in years nine, ten, and eleven, the same lit reviews go over very well among my gender-diverse girls school students, because they are unsurprised that I plumb the Ig Noble award-winning papers for funny, readable, and informative examples).

In any event, over the years I found some methods that worked better than others at teaching students particular skills inherent in lit review writing, but I still found the outcomes of student work quite inconsistent. No matter how I explained the basic building blocks of lit reviews, not all students seemed to get it – or, at least it took more, one-on-one discussion over time to drive the concepts home. So, this year I took on a new approach – and this one seemed to yield much stronger results.

What is a lit review?

This year, I did not tell students what lit reviews are for or how they are organized. Working in pairs or table groups, students read sample lit reviews. Each student would have a different paper. Their task was to compare, discuss, and answer: 

1. What job the lit review was doing? and 

2. What are the building blocks of lit reviews? 

We would then work to synthesize their observations as a class, which gave the classroom teacher and myself opportunities to add observations, clarify details, answer questions, and correct misconceptions. We always pause to look at an example of a sentence that address a single study and one that reflects on several studies that arrive at similar findings.

We do this work on paper — lots of annotating takes place, and we want them focused — so most students had their computers closed. One student took notes for the whole class to refer back to ask they worked (examples). I also gave them Assiya’s (my dedicated Lit Review Research TA) FAQ that I shared back in November, of course!

Creating conversations

In the second round, students looked for signs of “conversation.” How could you tell that authors are bringing sources into conversation with each other? What words did they use to demonstrate a conversation was taking place? Students discovered signal phrases – a concept I learned from The Harker School’s Lauri Vaughan – and transitions in their texts, and I gave them hard copies of the transitions template from They Say, I Say, and a handout on signal phrases with lists of sample verbs. 

(Sidenote: I get these documents into the hands of students every chance I get. They really help students to bring sources into conversation. A former Research TA and I analyzed multiple grade-levels of History writing from the same cohort of students, looking for how they were using evidence and hallmarks of strong skills. We found that precise and varied verb selection was at least highly correlated with good use of evidence. Since then, I encourage those students who do not naturally jive with synthesizing from multiple sources to let verbs lead their way; it is really helpful for them to pull out the list and just ask themselves which fit what they are seeing: are these sources contradicting? building upon? supporting? advocating for? Classroom teachers love that students use more variety than “said….said….said.” I encourage students to keep these docs next to their computers for reference whenever they are working to bring multiple sources into conversation.)

I do not know why I did not try this method years ago. Clearly, having students observe for themselves and puzzle out the “rules” of lit review was so much more effective than telling them.

Organizational schema

The final step of the lesson, which I have used for the last eight years or so, was to give students a set of notecards and have them practice organizing lit reviews based on different prompts. (I have two sets I use, here and here.) For each set of cards, I have three questions, and students work in their groups to pile notecards into the paragraphs they would create to answer each. For dogs, the questions this year were:

  1. Do dogs feel jealousy only over “their person,” or any person?
  2. Do dogs distinguish between social and non-social recipients of their person’s attention?
  3. What method is most effective for testing secondary emotions in dogs?

For each of these questions, most of the studies conveyed on the cards could be used in a lit review. However, for each of these questions, how the sources would be grouped would vary. A lit review might be organized thematically, methodologically, chronologically, etc. This exercise reinforces the idea they discovered earlier in the class that lit reviews are not “serial book reports” (a paragraph going into depth on each source) but synthetic documents.

I’ve come to love working with students on lit reviews, and feel quite passionate about the feelings of agency and accomplishment that they engender. Do you collaborate on any lit review instruction or creation? How do you approach this work?

Blast From the Past: AISL Conference 1996

As I was thinking what to write for my December post, I thought back to when I was a baby librarian in my 20s, attending my first AISL conference. That was in 1996, when AISL was less than ten years old, and I was living in its “hometown” of Washington, D.C. As the conference also took place in D.C., that made attending it easy! At that time in my life, I wrote my grandmother long letters about everything I was up to, which included the conference. I dug up the letter that included my description, and what follows is a slightly-abridged version, with some added comments. I sadly didn’t find any photos I took at the conference, but here I am at my first school, Edmund Burke (rocking those 80s shoulder pads), along with a view of my library. Note the card catalog—it was the dark ages!!

April, 1996

The AISL (Association of Independent School Librarians) conference was a tremendous success; I’ve never had so much fun at a conference before! It began on a Wednesday at St. Alban’s, with continental breakfast in the library. At the local conferences I attend most people already know each other and don’t really talk outside their groups, but here, few people knew each other, so everyone talked to new people. People came from all over the country, and it was wonderful to discuss our libraries and find out we all have the same types of problems with students, faculty, teaching, equipment, budgets, etc. That’s the drawback of working at Edmund Burke as a solo librarian; no one really knows what I do so it’s rather isolating. I loved talking to people who not only understood but were interested in what I was saying! [2023 note: That conference, and the camaraderie, completely sold me on AISL, and I am so grateful I found the association at the start of my career.]

              The morning’s program focused on library facilities; planning a new one, moving, etc. An architect discussed the tendency of architects to ignore function in favor of looks, resulting in things like odd corners no shelves can fit in, solid railings behind which kids can hide, useless light fixtures, insufficient wiring, etc. They showed slides of lots of lovely libraries, and pointed out difficulties with all of them! Rather daunting, especially as the librarians who had undergone this process spent more time at their library than at home, and really immersed themselves in the project and the school. The dedication that requires!

              That afternoon we took school buses to visit some local school libraries. The first stop was Madeira. Their library is quite new and elegantly beautiful, though the lights are inconvenient. I spent much time talking with a local librarian about her automation system, which might work for Burke. I apprecited the chance to talk to someone from my local association without having dozens of other people clamoring for her attention! One thing I got out of the conference was many helpful suggestions and advice about CD-ROMs, automation, and technology in general. Since we’re just starting out with automation, I need to learn a lot more.

              Our next stop was an elementary school; Langley. They have a British librarian, and it was the only library we visited that had Enid Blyton books. Also, one of their librarians is a published children’s author. They have a wonderful story room; they painted all the walls as if you’re looking out over the parapets of a castle into a pastoral landscape. If you peer closely, you can even spot some unicorns. Apparently it was a real school community project, and took a long time (and some hair-pulling) to complete.

              Last, we returned to the cathedral and quickly glanced through the National Cathedral School’s library before heading to Georgetown Visitation, which has a spacious campus in Georgetown. They hosted dinner in the library, which used to be a barn. Again I was amazed that even though I was constantly talking to different people, everyone was pleasant and interesting and intelligent. [2023 note: I cannot imagine, twenty-seven years later, what on earth would have made me amazed to find that out! Now I just take that for granted with AISL!]

              The next morning we started again at St. Alban’s, with lectures on women characters in books for children, fiction and nonfiction. I heard the lectures on women’s history, women in music, women in math, and women in fiction. I was most impressed with the women’s history speaker; I guess I had never really understood before that women’s history was not just biographies of women, but the entire history of the gender, with entirely different landmarks from that of men. For instance, World War II was dreadful for men, but wonderful (in some ways) for women who were able to join the workforce. I’d never thought of it like that before.

              That afternoon included museum tours. As I live in DC I opted to go to work instead, but went out to dinner in Georgetown with several nice librarians from out of town.

              On Friday we left from St. Alban’s in busses and drove to the Library of Congress. After an orientation movie, we split into tour groups. My group visited the children’s section, located in an eyrie on a balcony above the incredible Jefferson reading room (circular). What an amazing place to work! The architectural details stand so close (arches, pillars, carvings), and bronze statutes perched on the edge of the balcony look out over the room. Michaelangelo and Bacon stood in the section where we were; larger than life. We discussed the children’s section and its various successes and problems (all LC has had funding problems like most government agencies), but I think the best part of the tour was simply the location.

              The children’s librarian had to take us back to the new building for our next tour, and to save time, we took the tunnels under the street. There were miles of them, all busy with people. We also saw a book tram–a tractor hauling bins of books on a special track.

              Our next stop was geography and mapping, which takes up an enormous amount of basement space. Acres, literally! We saw all sorts of maps, and most interesting, a scanner that could take antique maps and reproduce them so exactly on a massive color printer that from a distance, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. We also saw old fire insurance maps showing every house and street and building in every town in America; not possible to do anymore because people are afraid to go to the inner cities to measure buildings. Apparently the maps are still useful in that people can research the locations of old chemical plants, because the maps always list the products of particular buildings.

              That afternoon we went to the National Archives. My group took the walking tour first, through many sections the public never sees. Their stacks are narrow and dark and well hidden, and the building is honeycombed with levels. Originally they’d planned to build an atrium under the dome, but discovered they needed the space for documents. Of course we also visited the Constitution and the Magna Carta in the main public area. The lecture covered some school packets of primary source material the Archives has gathered. They have one on Jacksonian America, and are just working on a Women’s History packet. The speaker discussed the power of petitions before women could vote.

              That was alas the end of the conference for me, but I had a truly wonderful time!

Back to 2023. After having moved home to the west coast almost twenty years ago, I wasn’t able to attend as many AISL conferences as I used to, but each has still been a wonderful experience. Thanks to all those organizers who pour their heart and souls and time into creating those experiences.

Help me build a fantasy search lesson: Search instruction from popular fiction

While you might be surprised at how passionate I once was about Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, you will become less surprised when you hear why. Below you can find a little post I wrote on my very short-lived blog back in 2010, entitled: “A Searcher’s Review of Twilight: Book Vs. Movie Through the Eyes of a Search Geek.”

Originally, I only had one idea for a research skills lesson analyzing search choices in MG and YA literature. But then, several years ago, I came across this little gem in Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles, in which Scarlet is trying to figure out what the deal is with Wolf:

(Scarlet, p. 171-172)

So — new fantasy: What if we had a dozen or more research-related quotes from popular novels and could design a class where students picked one and came up with a short real-world lesson based on the fictional account?

My ask: Can you think of a brief passage from a book in your collection that speaks to or demonstrates thinking about research skills? If you email me directly or put them in the comments below, I would be most happy to compile a list of useful passages for the group.

In case we do not get to this new lesson, here is what I wished I had a class to teach to back when I read Twilight:

A Searcher’s Review of Twilight: Book vs. Movie Through the Eyes of a Search Geek

Well, it is that time again—the Twilight New Moon video is now part of our lives. Pre-teens and teenagers spend untold amounts of time mooning over Bella and Edward… providing, believe it or not, a great example of better quality, iterative searching.

Of the books’ strengths and weaknesses, what annoyed me most wasn’t the endlessly repetitive conversations, or the thousand uses of the word alabaster, but rather Bella’s very poor online search skills.

Bella, the heroine, tricks a member of the local Quileute tribe into telling her about love interest Edward’s secret:

In her agitation over this revelation, Bella naturally decides to hop online to verify the vampire claim. And that is what she searches: [vampire].

Bella reads though the site, “looking for anything that sounded familiar, let alone plausible,” (134) and comes up blank.

Meanwhile, my mind is fairly screaming, not about the revelation of Edward’s true identity, but rather about the fact that her friend gave her a perfectly good, highly specific and potentially powerful, search term, [cold ones], and it does not even occur to her to use it.  By sticking with a more general term, she not only opens herself up to many irrelevant hits, but fails to uncover pages that might have information matched to her specific information need. Like searching for [plant food] when you want to know what to feed your Venus fly trap. She ends up frustrated by her search process, feeling that it taught her nothing of use.

By contrast, movie-Bella has a search style that is worlds stronger.

In the film, instead of revealing Edward’s hidden identity, Bella’s friend darkly hints that Edward is somehow related to an old Quileute tribal legend, but refuses to say more. Bella then undertakes an iterative search process, in which she reads for search terms and folds them back into her search process to get more specificIn this example, Bella takes stock of what she knows, and goes online to find a more information (search: [Quileute legends]). She finds a book on Quileute myths, and homes in on the term cold one, which she then takes back online as her next search. Using this specific term, she finds precise information, which in fact allows her to build a list of attributes that she has recognized in Edward—speed, strength, and cold skin—and leverages that knowledge to add new ones—immortal, drinks blood—confirming for her that Edward is a vampire. A much more successful and satisfying search experience, if a weaker execution of the plot. This type of iterative searching is one of the key skills that I teach students, educators, and parents in my classes.

With the second movie in the Twilight Saga selling like crazy, and two more to come over the next two years, both the Twilight and the search lovers in your class can enjoy the opportunity to dig in.

My take away: No one wants to hear they have to run multiple searches to find information. So, use something kids do want to hear about to get the point across!

on inviting AI to the research party…

It’s research party season, people!!!

This year we decided to put AI on the guest list so we invited AI to come to our recent research party! #DaringIKnow!!!

AI RSVPd and came…

Based on ubiquitous rumors that have been going around about AI’s questionable behavior around town, though, we were, quite honestly, a little worried that AI might be one of “those” party guests. You know, those guests that show up at a perfectly nice research party where everyone is having a great time enjoying the potluck dishes that people brought that start with the same letter of their first names. “I’m Dave and I brought dolmades!” Nobody is making too much noise. Nobody is getting too drunk. Nobody is gathering supplies to go and TP the neighbor’s yard…

You know, and then “that” guest arrives. One thing leads to another and before you know it there are 14 police cruisers in front of the house and everyone knows that the party is over and it’s time to go home all because AI just didn’t know when to stop…

I mean, I dunno about you, but I’ve heard that at some research parties, AI has been known to say racist and sexist things… AI has been rumored to assertively make statements that seem to be just wrong or really out of context and then being unwilling to say EXACTLY where they heard what they’re asserting or cite their sources…

You might be wondering, “Yeah, Dave, with all of those concerns why in the world would you even want to invite AI to your research party?” and you know, at some point life is really short and I guess sometimes you just gotta take a chance and invite new guests to the party every once in a while. Who knows, sometimes when you invite new guests they inject new ideas into your conversations and prevent you from being bored out of your skull! Sometimes when you invite new guests to a party they help you think of things you’d never considered before and open your eyes to new horizons! And, well, I’ve also heard that AI can be super charismatic and entertaining so I kind of just wanted a chance to meet AI for myself.

I get it, though, sometimes when you invite a new guest to your research party, you find out that they’re a great guest at SOMEONE ELSE’S party, but they just don’t fit in very well at yours–looking at you EBSCO Discovery Service.

Or… You know, they bring a potluck dish that just doesn’t agree with your system and gives you projectile diarrhea for the next 48 hours, but in the end you’ll never know unless you take a chance and get to meet them in person for yourself.

  • Who: IB Diploma Juniors
  • What: IB Extended Essay Research Support
  • When: Fall semester of Junior Year
  • Where: The Library
  • Why: Providing topic selection and research support for IB juniors embarking on their 4000 word IB extended essay independent research paper

Given concerns over some of the things we’d heard about AI at other parties, we decided to have some house rules in place. We told AI that the party started at 10:00, but we had all of the other guests arrive early so, you know, we could set some house rules in place.

Pre-Party House Rules

We started our discussion on house rules for AI with our junior guests based on the IB’s statement on AI.

Pre-Party Introduction to AI

We had our high school educational technologist, Dr. Pennington, come and talk to the cohort about ChatGPT version 3.5 which is the version that has been approved and loaded onto high school students’ school iPads. Dr. Pennington shared information about large language models, the dataset that was used to train ChatGPT 3.5 (training data for 3.5 stops after January 2022), types/forms of data NOT included in the dataset (firewalled/paywalled), etc.

ChatGPT and Our Big Wicked Research Problem…

In almost 24 years as a school librarian the big wicked research problem I’ve always struggled with is how to most effectively help a human who is learning about a topic find entry points and keywords that can be used to connect them to relevant and pertinent sources so they can learn more. The process is slow and the process is hard! Think about it! I have a BEd in elementary education, an MEd in curriculum and instruction, and an MLIS is school librarianship. When I am researching information in the education arena, I typically know the vocabulary of the field of study. I know the names of prominent educational theories, prominent educational theorists, movements, schools of thought, etc. that all can be used as entry points that lead me to relevant and pertinent information.

If I am seeking information about pancreatic cancer on the other hand, I find myself limited to launching my search into what I know is an extremely multi-faceted topic with a search on [pancreatic cancer] and, honestly, nothing much beyond that…

Aside: Looking at you faculty members who completed your last degree in the 1990s and “know how to search” and roll your eyes when we talk to you about how help students be better searchers… #DunningKrugerEffect 👀

ChatGPT, Meet Wicked Problem…

At this point we had ChatGPT come in and take a seat at the table. Rather than have everyone talking with ChatGPT all at once, we had groups of students meet ChatGPT together. We let them know that ChatGPT seemed to be on its best behavior when we started the conversation with a prompt that gave it some context for the TYPE of conversation result we wanted to get and some contextual information about a topic.

We launched our demo conversation with ChatGPT using a prompt on [coral bleaching] and we had students brainstorm the kind of information a perfect reply would give us. We decided that a perfect source would tell us all manner of information as an introduction to a topic.

What kind of source typically provides an understandable introduction to just about every aspect of a topic you might need to know? Why… A textbook!!!

We had students prompt ChatGPT with [Build me a table of contents for a textbook on coral bleaching]

ChatGPT 3.5’s resulting table-of-contents, then gives 16 year old me, entry points to search that significantly increase my chances of getting me to an aspect of coral bleaching that might help me narrow a topic beyond [coral bleaching][bleaching mechanisms] [coral symbiosis][physiology]

But Wait, We’re Still in the Topic Selection Process so There’s More…

Too often, we see students want jump from, “Yay! I know three search terms so now I’m going to SEARCH, SEARCH, SEARCH” without thinking quite enough about, “So… What can I do with what I have right here in front of me.”

With the IB Extended Essay, students can choose to write their independent study extended essay on anything they choose, but they do have follow topic treatments established by the IB. We had students take a list of all of their IB courses and take the ChatGPT table-of-contents headings and see which ones they could turn into essays the fit into different disciplines.

“Coral Symbiosis and Physiology could be written as a chemistry EE, biology EE, or environmental science EE”

“Conservation and mitigation strategies could be written as a global politics EE or an environmental science EE.”

***Sorry! I had pictures of students’ work and notes, but I lost them… 🤷🏻‍♂️

From here students seemed to take to the prompting and iterating extremely easily. [Build me a table of contents for a textbook on coral bleaching in Hawaii] and we sent them off to explore topics that they might want to eventually write commit to for their extended essay.

Serving Some Tea at the Party…

Students had a good time and, I think, quite a bit if success using ChatGPT to get their heads around and into different topics.

Over the course of their time with us in the library we also raised and discussed the issue of bias in AI training datasets. One, I think, very enlightening and effective activity involved simply putting the Independent Ideas blog post Canva, AI, and the Biases Baked Into Everything, by Sara Kelley-Mudie up on our monitor and asking the cohort, “So, what do you all notice about this? What do you think?” I thought that it was an incredibly easy way to get kids to see that, though the output product in Sara’s blog post was a visual image, that the very same kinds of biases are baked into sources of all kinds and that sometimes when they’re in printed word form, that they’re not always as readily evident for us to see.

Parting Gifts…

As we wrapped up our ChatGPT party, we wanted to have a feel for what kids thought and how they were contextualizing ChatGPT as a tool for in their research toolkits. Starting when they come to us in middle school, we draw a very rudimentary “mind map” of the internet on the board to help them get their heads around what they’re searching when they’re searching in Google or Bing or Duck Duck Go and the differences between websites and databases.

“When you search my name on the world wide web, like when you search Google for example, you don’t see email that people have sent me because it’s a different part of the internet. Likewise, Google searches don’t surface database content because the content is paywalled and can’t be indexed by bots…”

We asked our cohort, “So where do you think we should put ChatGPT?”

Kids thought that it needed it’s own space on the internet, but some argued that in their minds, it probably had a bridge that linked to the WWW because (though it isn’t Google) the data it scapes is of the same nature as is being searched by Google.

The parties that followed had much more traditional guest lists. We got a chance to catch up with our old acquaintances Masterfile, Academic Search Complete, and JSTOR. I mean, don’t get me wrong, they’ve always been and continue to be very nice guests to have over. They’re not as flashy or charismatic as ChatGPT, but you know, in today’s world I’m trying to be open minded and accepting of a wide swath of friends and learn what I can from each of them.

Have you invited AI to any of your library soirees or research parties? If you did, please hit leave a reply below and tell us how it went!

Happy, almost there to winter break, all!!!

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)

Worth a 1000 Words?: Judging a Book by the Cover

Despite having a perfectly decent copy of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I ordered another one this Fall. This order was not driven by increased patron demand either, at least not at the time of the order, but reflected an intention to create demand for that older copy as well as the new one. At the time of purchase, I  was seeking a copy with an interesting cover for a book display.  I realized I do indeed judge a book by its cover. at least when “selling” books. And I think potential readers do too.

Seeking readers, I frequently promote books with covers out as new books and by themes, most recently Halloween–and soon, Christmas. I also highlight books on the shelves, but only those with compelling covers will do.  As well, I create digital slideshows of new items, and thematically.  With the rise of face-out shelving, bookstore type shelving, books with good covers are becoming ever more important to the collection.  In these cases, a picture is indeed worth 1,000 words.  In order to entice readers to embrace various texts, I first need to capture their interest visually.  I notice authors are placing more attention to covers, often acknowledging graphic designers and cover development in their acknowledgements. 

Covers are important to self-publishing as well.  A quick Google search indicates easy templates for creating one’s own cover, including from well-known sites such as Canva. One could now create appealing covers with Dall-E or other AI programs.  So, the question becomes, in this market, with these resources, why publish a book with a bland, boring cover? And there are many, especially in nonfiction.  I once nearly weeded a book while browsing the stacks, thinking the book looked old, possibly decades old; it was published two years ago. The truth is if I think a book looks dated and boring, how would patrons feel?  The truth is many  readers judge a book by the cover. Maybe they still choose a book despite a boring one, especially if reading an eBook, but covers can certainly help “sell” a book.

So, what makes a good, interesting cover? Beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. But some recent covers I have liked include those for Remarkably Bright Creatures and Yellowface, both very different yet compelling.   In terms of nonfiction, Traffic by Ben Smith attracts the reader to take a look as does Shakespeare Was a Woman and Other Heresies. There are many factors involved. But in order to appeal to readers to engage with 1,000 words, we first need good artwork.

Connecting Outside Interests With Your Job

The other day, I was thinking about how librarians find ways to connect their outside interests and talents with their work, such as how I incorporate my love of writing into my career. Here are many of the ways I do that, and I would love to hear how others connect their interests and talents to their jobs!


I review almost everything I read in GoodReads, both for my own use—remembering what I read—and for school use. I often add my GoodReads summaries to catalog records as a “general” note to offer more information about the book, and may also use those summaries in booktalks. As I usually summarize every story in short story books I read, I find those helpful when searching for a short story about something specific, either for a teacher or for an AISL query. The tags and stars I add to reviews also help when I’m looking for books to recommend or add to a to-buy list.

In addition, I write professional reviews for a couple of library magazines, which requires more meticulous work than a GoodReads review. It also gets me reading and thinking about books I might not have otherwise encountered, and helps me hone my ability to write concisely. And it’s always nice to open a magazine and see your own name there!

While I’m not sure if blurbs count as reviews, I write those as well, for our new middle school fiction. We paste them onto bookmarks that go into books on display, hoping to interest students in the books. My colleague also writes blurbs, and she captures the key, intriguing points of a book more concisely than I, I must admit.


For eighteen years at my current school (and five years at my previous school) I ran the middle school literary magazine. While I’ve given it up due to lack of student interest and lack of time, I always enjoyed reading student writing and finding unexpected literary gems.

I also run a “Writing Time” club for students who like to write, but can’t find a moment in their packed schedules. While some students occasionally share writing and ask for feedback, for the most part, we just write.

For ten years, a colleague and I ran a picture-book writing project for our school’s Project Week, and I’m considering reviving it this year. It’s based on the book Written & Illustrated by, by David Melton, and I always love helping students craft their stories and create their books. I also participated with the same colleague in a poetry-writing Project Week project, and learned how to write sestinas and ballads along with the kids. I wrote a ballad about a pony-riding mishap when I was a kid; the ballad was more fun than the incident, and kids always appreciate the chance to laugh at teacher mishaps!

I run multiple contests each year, as I wrote about in two AISL blog posts (Contests Part One, Contests Part Two), and many of those involve writing. It’s fun to think up things that require some creative writing and thinking, but in a one to three sentence form. While most entries are not winner-level, many always impress me.

I recently read a KQ article about a “Reading Quest” that motivated me to create my own version. The authors mentioned that students loved poking around in the quests to find the cute drawings the authors had done. Since drawing is not my strong suit, I peppered my quest with characters saying ridiculous things, instead. I tried this out with our 6th grade, and it went pretty well—though I don’t know if the jokes helped!

Over the years, I’ve enjoyed writing silly skits to introduce various contests, activities, and so forth. While I still do that, where I mostly flex my skit-writing skills these days is in scripts for videos my colleagues, students, and I put together to advertise my library’s eBooks. Writing about those videos was part of my first AISL blog post this year, and the skits are always such fun to write and film!


For many years, I wrote articles on books and other library matters for VOYA magazine, which unfortunately appears defunct. That is one reason I’m happy to be able to write for the AISL blog!

For the retirements of two recent colleagues, I chose “patter” songs (such as the Major General song from The Pirates of Penzance) and wrote lyrics about my colleagues. I asked the choir teacher to perform them at the faculty end-of-year party, and she did a wonderful job. I had such fun writing these, and was especially proud that I managed to use the word “defenestrate” in one of the songs!

Though I quickly learned that the traditional publishing world is too rejection-heavy for me, I continue to write novels, both fanfiction and original. I’ve self-published a couple through Amazon so I could have a printed book to my name, and as they were YA titles, I donated copies to my school library. (Shameless self-promotion: Summergreen, and Tales From Camp Brightlake.)

Your Turn

How do you bring your hobbies, interests, and passions to your job?

Bringing Sources into Conversation: Teaching Literature Review to High School Students (Part 1)

Over the past few years, we have had an increasing number of courses that ask 11th and 12th graders to write literature reviews, most frequently employing approximately ten sources. It turns out to be a wonderful assignment to get at the idea that scholarship is conversation, and one that I would like to see every student experience before heading off to college. It turns out you read scholarly papers a lot differently when you understand what a lit review is, and it makes the work of college much more meaningful.

In my next post, I want to share how I have arrived at teaching lit review after many years of experimentation. But this week, I want to feature the FAQ put together by Assiya Memon (’24), my first Research TA dedicated to supporting student understanding of literature reviews. Assiya’s comprehension of the genre is magical; she has an innate sense of the work, the tone, and the “moves” (as Graff and Birkenstien might say) of a strong literature review.

At the end of last year we interviewed every student on campus who had written more than one lit review in their time at our school. We asked about what they learned in class, what they figured out for themselves, and what tips they would most want to offer future students. Assiya went through those interviews looking for common themes, added a bit of wisdom of her own, and made the following tip sheet. My gratitude to this insightful TA, who personally tutored four sections of Stats and Advanced Bio students through the lit review writing process with humor and grace, even as she worked on her own college applications. (Find Google Doc version of this tip sheet here.)

The Literature Review: Reminders, Tips, & FAQs

First, a few reminders:

What claim are you making?
A common misconception students have about writing a literature review is that it is similar to preparing for a debate—that you are on the hunt for sources that prove your research question right, and should leave out studies that are contradictory to that narrative. While researching, remember that you are not yet arguing the claim of your study, but rather that the study you want to conduct is relevant. Do not shy away from disagreement in the field; let your research be comprehensive and acknowledge the brilliant back-and-forths that have been had! Maybe your research question will change to reflect the existing research, or maybe it’s perfect the way it is. Keep your mind open!

Does it feel hard to find the proper professional “tone” for a lit review? Do you just “not like research”? Remember that you already exercise many of these skills in other classes! While certainly not identical, you know how to put primary sources or quotations in conversation in humanities essays, or write narrative and transition-based problem sets. Your job with the lit review is to consolidate what research already exists, trace how scholars have bounced off each other’s work, and summarize it for your readers. Treat it like putting together a discussion or relevant historical context if you get stuck!

Lastly, literature reviews are unquestionably tricky. It’s easy to get lost in the research process, the narrative flow, or the quantity of sources—regularly stepping back and checking in with teachers/librarians/peers for feedback on what you’ve written can go a long way.

FAQ/Common Challenges:

➡ I’m encountering a lot of unfamiliar vocab in these studies! How much should I Google?
A: Note down any frequently-used terms that you do not understand. Remember that you’re doing a lot of research on a lot of cool new things: a librarian-approved rule of thumb is to only look up a word once you’ve seen it five times!

➡ There doesn’t seem to be much unique or original research done on my topic.
A: First, try refining your search. Talk to your teacher or a librarian if you think there are relevant studies out there that you just aren’t finding. Otherwise, it might be time to step back, recognize that there may not be enough with which to conduct meaningful analysis in a high school class, and consider widening your scope. 🙁

➡ Uh oh… system overload… too many sources
A: It’s hard to resist overcomplicating your lit review, especially if you’re passionate about what you’re researching. Avoid spending too much of your valuable time clicking through rabbit holes; intentionally focus on what studies you need to contextualize your research question. Remind yourself that you don’t have to use every source you look into (even if they’re interesting or cool). If a source doesn’t play a meaningful role in the discussion, it might be better not to reference it! More studies referenced ≠ better lit review.

➡ But I know that my sources are important for my lit review! How do I extract their significance without spending hours pouring over entire research papers?
A: You want to get to the findings—or “main idea”—of a study. All you likely need is the what, so what, and now what* of a given article. Remember to check its abstract, intro, and conclusion. Only delve into the rest of the source if those places are missing information that you know is critical to your lit review or your understanding. Again, you have a lot of sources to parse: resist the temptation to go on too many research deep-dives!

➡ I have so, so much citing and annotation to do…
A: The best thing you can do for yourself is to start citing/annotating early. Do not put it off. It’s remarkably easy to forget where you got a specific piece of information, or what significance a certain source had. Citing is a form of source evaluation. Utilize it!
— Plus, the empirical side effects to opening a fresh NoodleTools project the night before the deadline include extreme panic and exactly no hours of sleep. You don’t want that for yourself. Try your best to get rid of those 20 open tabs and stay organized with your research!

*”What, So what, Now what” is a reflection model that my teaching colleague, Helen Shanks, adapted as a framework for high school students reading scholarly work. I guess that routine may be the topic of Part 3 of this series of blogs…. TBM