on my love affair with libguides, but feeling the need to have a wandering eye…

I’ve been a Libguides user for YEARS and I must say…

I ❤️ Libguides

I also know that I’m not alone. WAY BACK in 2014, CD McLean posted Libguides: My Most Favorite Tool.

I think the folks over at their parent company, Springshare, call them, “Lib [like liberty] guides,” but I don’t care and with my kids I’ve always referred to them “L-eye-b guides” since they’re guides to the library. I’ve heard other librarians argue that we should call them “research guides” since the platform branding really isn’t the concept we’re shooting for in our information skills instruction and that makes TOTAL SENSE, but I don’t care so I still call them “L-eye-b guides.”

Really, though, you know it’s been a long year. Let’s just all smile and agree to say it my way… Thanks for your cooperation! LOL!

If you’re not a Libguides user, no worries, it’s not all that complicated. At its most basic the Libguides platform is really just a really good and rather elegant web authoring and hosting platform. I think the reason that I’ve been so taken with Libguides over the years, though, is that it’s web authoring software that behaves like it was designed by librarians for librarians–the tools are tailored for librarians to very quickly and IMHO pretty intuitively organize content and resources the way that librarians want to organize content and resources.

A week or two ago librarian extraordinaire, Matt Ball, asked how people organized their database offerings to help students select the most appropriate database for their information need. The thread that transpired led to an interesting discussion that surfaced some really fascinating factors that librarians consider when creating the digital portal to their library’s resources and services. Things that people appeared to weigh as they organized resources for their students seemed to include:

  • What is your student population like?
  • At what grades or age groups is your site aimed?
  • Are all of your students Academic Search Complete or JSTOR power researchers or do you need to meet a broader range of research needs?
  • Are you a laptop school? iPad school? Other?
  • Is your curriculum structured and consistent where you know that middle ages primary source project is going to be launching in February so you can plan or are your students’ projects completely different from year-to-year?

Clearly, there were many more, but you get the idea. What I found fascinating was that librarians in the discussion indicated that they were having a lot of success with the A to Z database list feature in Libguides. As a librarian, I find this feature so freaking elegant! I LOVE it! But, alas, after I set it up, my kids found it bewildering and just wouldn’t use it.

We ended up using a more graphic approach to organizing our databases. Kids generally just wouldn’t read the scope notes and other text so I just got rid of all of it. It looks like here at Mid-Pacific we will be returning to all face-to-face instruction next fall so we’ll probably stick with our current database organization, but our icon only format only works if you have in-class face time with kids so they’ve been introduced to searching in Gale in Context: High School–otherwise known as that “pretty purple icon that’s probably a pretty good place to start almost any search” ahead of time.

I supposed this is all just a very long winded way of explaining, that as much as I love Libguides, I’m not really sure that I’m using enough of their elegantly powerful tools to justify my annual subscription costs. My program is decently funded, but I don’t have the luxury of a bottomless budget bucket and I’m finding that emerging digital resources like Sora for our eBooks and digital streaming databases that I’m think are becoming a new necessity are really forcing me to find efficiencies in my spending so I can stretching my budget as far as it can possibly go. Over the past two or three years I’ve thought long and hard about whether I can do what we’re doing on Libguides with Google Sites, Weebly, or other service. Each year, I’ve chosen to stay with my Libguides, but I’m finding it harder and harder.

Factors I’ve weighed in deciding to stay with Libguides or head off in a new direction:

I work with an younger librarian who is an amazing, talented, excellent, and hugely creative partner in the library, but I’m also a huge control freak. Our Libguides templates give us each flexibility to build research guides for classes with our own style, but keeps the look and feel on our site as a whole, consistent enough that no matter where you are on our site, you know you’re at the Mid-Pacific Library. .

We originally created “admin guides” that housed all of our main resources. When we were building project-specific research guides, we placed “linked boxes” on the new research guide. That new offspring box continued to be live linked to its parent on our admin page. When a database icon or URL got updated, replacing the new icon on the admin guide parent box automatically updates the icon on all of the offspring boxes everywhere else on our site. It’s elegant and saved us time which was hugely helpful when you’re a 2 librarian department in a PK-12 school with 1500+ students.

That being said, as time went on I found that as a 1:1 iPad school, our students seem to prefer a single long page that they scroll with most of the information in fewer boxes (Libguides boxes rearranged themselves and move around a page in a way that can be confusing when on a mobile device). That, combined with our move toward more icon and graphics dependent design lead to me doing far more “copying” of database buttons than use of linked boxes. I’m guessing there are better work flows to achieve what I do, but the result is that my work flow has negated the elegant linked box, parent box/offspring box capability of Libguides. When I last had to do a global update of some URLs, I was able to make do with a find/replace search from the admin page, but even now, I’m not super sure that I caught ALL of the necessary URLs that needed updating.

If I really had to, I know I could put together a simplified and probably a little more static web presence for my library. I’m just barely comfortable enough with HTML that I can make minor tweaks and get a page to do what I want it to do. That said, I think it would take more time and there would be some trade offs that wouldn’t kill me, but that I just really would prefer to not have to deal with if possible.

In the end, I think that I’ve continued to ante up the pretty significant subscription renewal because I am comfortable with the platform and I can get resources put together quickly with minimal thinking/learning as far as the authoring platform is concerned. I, honestly, don’t think that that is a wrong or a poor decision. It just, however, troubles me because those extra few hundred dollars mean fewer print books that get added to our K-2 collection or our MS/HS collection. Maybe I just need to get over the guilt and say, “It costs more, but I’m worth it! It’s OK to spend money on myself once in a while!” #LOL but also #Sigh

So that’s it… I’m still in love with Libguides, but I have wandering eye just to be sure it continues to be the right tool for my particular school’s needs.

How to you build your library’s web presence? If you’ve got a cost effective way to make stuff look good that you find works well, I’d REALLY love to hear (and see, so please share links to your library pages) about how you’re handling things! I love my Libguides, but I’ve got wandering eyes! 😉

PS–I’d love to see links to any and all Libguides alternatives, but if you’re a Libguides user, I’d love to see how you organize your resources too! Please hit reply and share a link to your site below!

Why I *SOMETIMES* Pull Books

Past Me wrote this post just over a month ago while on spring break. This isn’t the first time where I’ve looked at Past Me and said, “Whoa—you have no idea what lies ahead.” (See accepting AISL presidency while a pandemic loomed on the horizon.)

On Friday, the day of RISE, the half-day senior research symposium I coordinate, I received this email from the teacher who leads the Global Issues project:

On Fri, Apr 30, 2021 at 9:33 AM Chris wrote: I know its cray cray time of year, maybe we streamline it a bit…Chalk it up to crazy Covid and us creating an internal conference but I’d love to pop up there next week Wed. Thursday to get the kids resources and then we can focus on writing and revision the last week before IQ.  If you can swing that let me know, if not, no judgment!  Just honestly let me know what you think you can swing.

Yes, it’s possible for an email to both induce panic and reduce stress. For all my Type A planning, he is as equally Go With The Flow. I found him and confirmed that I could lower my involvement this month and it wouldn’t be placed on my permanent record. Considering I’ve been involved with this project since this year’s seniors were sixth graders and I was doubly involved last year while virtual, why do I feel like I’m losing my library cred? He knows exactly what I normally teach and can supplement accordingly, and the students still have two days of classes in the library, the only two days the library is open to students between AP Spanish and senior exams. They’ll search together for digital resources, supplemented by books as feels natural based on our conversations about their topics.

I have talked with a lot of people this year about being our own harshest critics. In the AISL  Libraries IRL session, we focused on the difference between factors we can control and those we cannot. And mindset fits here as well. In addition to my general eagerness to pull books this time of year…

  • The school moved up graduation by a week since it will be outdoors, and we want to avoid the Florida heat as much as possible. (You are correct to sense a domino effect on the exam schedule…)
  • Virtual students will take exams on campus, one student supervised by one proctor, almost doubling the number of proctors needed. I’m expecting five sessions rather than two. (Could this optimistically mean 10 hours of quiet work time?)
  • I am Lead Advisor for the Class of 2021 and Baccalaureate speaker the following week. (Yes I have a draft of my speech, but I’m reminded it’s not where I want it to be. Proctoring revisions?)
  • I am getting on an airplane for the first time since 2019 to fly to Maryland for Mother’s Day, causing me to miss a day and a half of school when I’d usually be working with the 6th grade. (This is the ultimate seesaw of guilt and gratefulness based on what I’ve learned about my own values in the pandemic. Family is key.)
  • In brainstorming for this year’s Global Issues project this winter, we planned an all-day “Coping with COVID” conference in conjunction with the Health Department, our global sister schools, and all 6th grade subject teachers for this Wednesday! The students are going to be so much more prepared for research the following week after watching experts talk about COVID responses from a variety of perspectives, in a format that models our approach to organizing their papers. (So instead of feeling like a delinquent, why isn’t this accomplishment where I’m focusing my attention?)

And we now transition from an honest assessment about how I’m feeling this weekend, compared with my feelings the first week of April, a week I camped near the beach far from school. I need to remind myself that this year can be a reset, and the post below will better reflect what’s happening in my library May of 2022.

While I feel like I’m backing down, I have a new “Coping with COVID” conference and a day in the classroom this week, 2 days in the library next week, and access to files on Google Classroom. Even if it’s not embedded librarianship, it’s not nothing. Anyone have tips on being your own best friend and not your own toughest critic?


Earlier this spring, a colleague and I presented at a summit on Teaching Global Writers. I’m officially the librarian for grades 7-12, but we’ve developed a transition project for World Cultures that we teach to the sixth graders in May. As we brainstormed about how we wanted to organize our presentation, focusing on our values, our goals, and our process, we had a slide about “items to consider.” This could also have been called, “what you might be concerned about,” but hey, positive language. Obviously, time was number one – for him, me, and the class. Also practicalities like how much scaffolding to offer and how to best help 12 year olds build long-term independent time management skills. But, we had this conversation more than once:

Me: I have to mention I pull books.
Chris: It’s fine. No one will notice
Me: There’s a photo of it.
Chris: Will librarians even notice?

First question after our presentation: “How do you find the time to pull the books?” First, remember we’re a smaller school with a print collection under 20,000 and only about 60 students in the sixth grade. So the scope isn’t what you might be picturing. It actually goes pretty fast. I have a million colored sticky notes in a drawer. I assign each class a color and pull out a bunch of tabs and write a student’s name from the roster on each one. Since the project is on “global issues,” a lot of the books are located near each other. So that one endangered animals book might have four tabs at the top.  I have a strong spacial memory, and I can pull a fair number based on a general recollection of where I saw them last and the shape of the spine. Until restrictions on campus guests this year, I have benefitted from a few long-term parent volunteers who I trust with the task. When in doubt, they’ll pull a few or put an asterisk by a student’s name, greatly streamlining my time.

Stacks of global issues books

I’m posting this because I think that as independent school librarians, we all have procedures that might work well for our own school but not for others. This post isn’t a push for others to implement this practice. It’s actually an apology because in the presentation, I answered the how but not the why. And whys are important for figuring out if there’s a reason for the how.  Here’s why I pull books for our sixth graders.

  • This is their official introduction to me. We have one day in the classroom brainstorming project ideas, and then the students walk across campus for their first time in the Sunshine Library as budding “Middle School researchers.” They’re both excited and intimidated by that walk, and that when they arrive; there might be seniors at a neighboring table. This is my chance to make them feel a little more comfortable, an immediate sense of belonging. It’s also a pretty good introduction to me as a person who will help support their research in this project and for the next six years.
  • I present it as a present just for them. Here’s a gift to get your project launched. As with the previous point, it helps to make a good first impression.
  • Do you all work with sixth graders? I hadn’t before this project. I hadn’t even worked with Middle Schoolers before starting at Saint Stephen’s. Newsflash: they need more guidance than 9th graders! Their projects can address any global issue, meaning there’s a lot of variability. Chris and I are most productive in individual research consultations with each student, especially because many students choose topics that are personally very meaningful to them. This gives everyone somewhere to start gathering background knowledge as we talk with others.
  • By this point, you’re probably asking why I don’t have them search the catalog for their own books. This actually started because we had some turnover in the library a few years back. We had a few months without a librarian, and I wasn’t sure what was being taught or when.
    • Necessity is the mother of invention. But it’s continued because…
    • We have limited time to complete this project, and it’s basically organized on top of my daily schedule with the Middle and Upper divisions to be shoehorned into when I’m likely to be freest. This is generally when students are already reviewing for exams but before they take exams in the library. I could spend a day teaching the catalog, a skill some know and some don’t, or I could move them towards higher-level skills of source analysis. There are three days total for research before they move back to the classrooms (hello exam library!) to begin creating their paper.
    • Even when students know how to use the catalog, we have two libraries. Sixth and seventh grade materials are often interchangeable and could be found in either. We don’t allow students to cross campus without supervision, so this ensures the books are in one place ready to be used.
    • Students have chosen global issues ranging from endangered rhinos to ebola to teen depression. Needless to say, as a k-12 collection, some materials are better suited to sixth graders than others. For this project, I’d rather they have success with a book in their hands than choose a book for which they are not the intended audience. I find small successes build research confidence, which I’d argue is an essential research skill.
  • By having books in their hands within a minute of entering “their new library,” class time is spent on reading, thinking, note-taking, and analyzing. I do want to note, also, that we don’t require books for this assignment. This isn’t about giving them a place to start.
  • We try to complete the project during class time so the work is fully the student’s. The books move from the cart to the children’s hands and back again. I would like to have more accurate circulation numbers, and while I could just check out the entire collection to a “Grade 6” account, this is almost as fast and much more representative of collection use. In checking the books out, I’m getting a reminder of each student’s name and photograph.
  • Which brings me to what is probably the main reason this is worth it for me.
  • The sticky notes have their names! I love our school’s promise. “Every student is known and every student is valued.” I crisscross campus past their playground multiple times each day and I pop into Lower School classes. Even though they generally know my name, I don’t know these kids. I have yet to have a kid piece together that I know their name because of a sticky tab poking out from the top of their book rather than because I actually know them. Virtually, Google Docs and Google Classroom is also a savior for this.
Pre-pandemic research time

In foreshadowing for a future post, I will share that I am not the person you should ask about work-life balance. I frequently stay late, and I have trouble moving to “non-work” mode even when I’m home. Taking my email off my phone was an incredibly smart decision for me. But this hasn’t been something that’s taken a lot of time, and I’ve noticed a lot of benefits.

Does this ring any bells? Is there anything that someone new to your library might be surprised you do? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

I might need a bigger boat: when vertical programming just won’t do

If you read my last post, you might end up thinking this one sounds somewhat familiar. I suppose that’s right. You see, I haven’t found a solution yet to the things I discussed in that post. I don’t have the answers, so I haven’t stopped thinking about what our students did or didn’t learn this year and whether or how that might matter. Think of this as part two in a series that I may or may not continue, but that for now still remains heavily on my mind.

Being a school librarian in this moment is more interesting than ever. We have that 30,000-foot view of what’s happening in our schools. Perhaps it’s just me, but I tend to look around at what’s going on and then insert myself into the action. Or sometimes I can see some kind of shift happening, tectonic or not, and again I have a chance to insert myself and help shape the change. I like the librarian’s high-elevation vantage point at lot. From here, I can be an observer and a participant, two roles I like equally. Even when things roll along perfectly pleasantly for a while, being a librarian is awesome. But now, now we’re on the precipice of big changes (at least at my school). Changes that might last a few years until we get back to “normal”, or changes that might stick and last forever. You better believe I want to be part of that, especially if it’s the latter.

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about my previous post. I wrote about the instruction we didn’t get around to this year, both in our research program and in other areas of the school. Now my interest has shifted a little bit and I’ve been thinking about how the 11th/12th graders will get out of this with most of our programs remaining mostly intact for their overall 4-year experience, whereas the same cannot be said for our 9th/10th graders. I mean, most of our 9th-graders just set foot on campus for the very first time a couple of weeks ago! They will be the ones for whom the program looks really different for the next couple of years, even though I don’t really know what that means yet.

While our 9th and 10th graders didn’t get even 25% of the research instruction they normally would have, our seniors really had very little of what some are calling “learning loss” (ugh, I hate that term) when it comes to the research program. They were already pretty skilled when the pandemic hit, so they completed their senior research coursework with only slight modifications. Meaning, they are ready to present at one or both of our big year-end events about what they learned this year, which is awesome. So we’ve got graduating seniors who made it through the best version of our research program ever, and 9th and 10th graders who basically did not engage in research at all. Here is the image that keeps coming to mind when I try to hold both of these thoughts at the same time:

the Buccaneer, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Do you know this ride? Basically, it swings back and forth, higher and higher (while everyone screams and hopes/fears that it will go all the way over) until it reaches this certain moment in which it begins to slow down. It begins to swing the other way, only a little less this time, and a little less the next time, until the ride steadily comes back to its starting point and everyone exits the ride saying things like, “I really thought it was going to go all the way!” This is exactly how I feel right now about all of this impending re-writing and re-imagining of things. I thought it was going to go all the way, people! I thought we had that program on lock! But that dang boat can’t resist gravity, so here we swing in the other direction again. And that’s fun, too, right? That’s why this ride is stuck in my mind. Going up, up, up is really fun and a little scary. Then coming down (and it’s really not down so much as the other way) is fun and also comforting, and it feels a little bit like a relief. Like it’s time for the next ride.

Nora, what IS your point? You are talking about amusement park rides, for goodness’ sake. This is a library!

Honestly, I’m not sure. As I write this, it’s Tuesday. On Wednesday we are staging one of two year-end senior research events via zoom. Our school really only has two big non-arts academic events, both at the culmination of our Research Program. The first is the Senior Research Fair, which usually operates much like a good old fashioned science fair, with students spread around the gym in front of their trifold boards. Some bring devices or models they’ve built, others have works of art or photography, some have tri-folds covered in charts and graphs. It’s a good time all around. The other event is the Senior Research Showcase, a more formal affair. At this event we usually have a keynote speaker, poster session from select students, and concurrent presentations from maybe 14-16 students who excelled in their research performance. It’s an evening event attended by ~250 students, teachers, parents, community members, etc.

Last spring both of these events were flat out cancelled. We shut our doors just a few weeks before the fair, and none of us had a clue about running a zoom event at that time. Many of the students’ projects were necessarily truncated by loss of access to survey respondents, focus group members, labs, supplies, and frankly, stamina. So we cancelled the showcase as well, since we all really just needed to get through the end of the year. Here we are a year later, and while we only just opened for hybrid, it’s been clear for some time that we have the know-how to hold these events via zoom and so we were eager to bring them back. The fair allows all seniors, even those who may have stumbled during their research this year, to show off what they learned. It allows younger students to see what seniors are doing, what courses they might want to take senior year, and what level of work they might aspire to produce. The showcase spotlights exemplary work and brings in an audience that may not see, on a daily basis, what these students are capable of. I love these events.

This year both will be on zoom. That’s really ok, and in some ways there are advantages to becoming free of attachments to physical spaces that bring their own limitations. I’ve planned the fair to within an inch of its life (and mine), and while I’m sure there will be mixups and errors, it’s probably going to go pretty well, perhaps even swimmingly. It’s just that darn Buccaneer that I cannot get out of my head! Tomorrow we are swinging all the way up, and in May when we have our showcase, we’ll be screaming “It’s going over! We’re so high up, it’s going to go over!” After that will begin the inexorable sliding back in the other direction, the deep breath, the squeeze on the shoulder, the gratifying clunk when the boat comes to a stop and locks into place. We’ll be firmly on the ground again. I’ll undoubtedly hop off the ride with a “what’s next?” wriggling around in my brain.

It’s clear that we’re no longer operating in the vertical, as is most comfortable when planning progressive skills-based programming like our research program has always been. I’ll need the boat to swing up for the current juniors as they begin senior year with their version of the research program more or less intact, and then back to catch the younger students whose research “gap year” will cause a ripple effect of some considerable size. It’s a bit dizzying, but in the fun way?

If this kind of thing is on your mind too, then we should be friends if we aren’t already. I’m ready to think outside the vertical. Maybe it’s time for spherical thinking? Pyramidic? Cylindrical? What do you think?

School Librarians in YA

One of my favorite things about finishing a new YA novel by a favorite or up-and-coming author is reading the acknowledgments. Truly! They always seem more interesting to me than in books for adult readers. I like reading which other authors they pal around with, who read first drafts, and get a sense of what they hope their readers find for themselves in the pages of the book. Often, my favorite part: something about all of us librarians out here, getting the authors’ books, and books in general, into the hands of students who need them. I love reading those words of appreciation and gratitude, and I am more than happy to oblige. I am so grateful to them for writing the stories that my students love.

This is why, when I am reading a YA novel and the main character, along with a friend or potential love interest, wanders into their school library, I brace myself. “Oh boy,” I think. “Here it comes.” The school librarian is so often, by my observation, portrayed as oblivious and bored at best, and a shushing, bitter crank at worst. Wouldn’t it be a lot easier for us to get more books in more readers’ hands if those readers didn’t expect us to act this way? I recently found an article by Peresie & Alexander (2005) which let me know that this observation wasn’t just mine; they pose the idea that these neutral-to-negative stereotypical portrayals are not just annoying to us librarians, but could actually be damaging recruitment to the profession. They make the point that if representation in fiction and other media continues to depict librarians mainly as middle-aged white women, it may be harder to increase diversity in the profession if few others can see themselves. This is surely concerning for the future, but in the immediate moment I worry that neutral-to-negative portrayals might influence whether a student seeks out our help with research, or sees the library as a safe space. They might influence whether classroom teachers think of us as collaborative partners and information experts. Taken to an extreme, they might be responsible for perpetuating misunderstandings of our roles in schools, leading to difficult, frustrating advocacy work or even library job cuts.

What gives? Maybe authors are, sadly, writing from their own experience or lack thereof when it comes to helpful, professional school librarians. Maybe the plot requires that characters sneak to a quiet corner of the school where no pesky adults are paying attention to what they’re doing. I am not interested in calling out specific books or authors for these portrayals. For the most part, I love their books, the bad librarian behavior is limited to a line or two of the story, and it’s not all about me, anyway. However, I guess I would ask authors to consider whether that negative portrayal of the school librarian is really necessary to the story, or is just a cheap shot at a group that is on their side. It’s easy to put a bespectacled shushing lady in the scene, but why is she there?

For a breath of fresh air, here are some YA novels published since Peresie & Alexander’s study wherein the school librarian, or sometimes a public librarian, is treated as a responsible, caring, and properly attentive adult who does their job well (though still sometimes stereotyped):

Call It What You Want by Brigid Kemmerer

The school librarian treats one of the main characters with kindness and understanding despite personal reasons not to, and gives him good books to read.

Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A. S. King

There isn’t really a librarian in the book, but librarians are mentioned as people who could and would provide reliable information about sexuality to a teen.

Americus by M.K. Reed

Librarian Charlotte helps the main character in his efforts to prevent the banning of his favorite book series.

Here Lies the Librarian by Richard Peck

Four young library students make a splash in a small midwestern town in 1914.

Booked by Kwame Alexander

The school librarian helps the main character love words and reading.

I am having a hard time coming up with many more! Any help?

Peresie, M., & Alexander, L. B. (2005, Fall). Librarian stereotypes in young adult literature. Young Adult Library Services, 4(1), 24-31. Academic Search Main Edition. Retrieved April 26, 2021, from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=asm&AN=18695646&site=ehost-live

Goals for next year: Visual note-taking and further exploration

I suspect we all have one (at least). Some project we were hot on going into March, 2020, and have left dangling since. Please bear with me while I share my dropped passion project here, to get myself geared up for next year; I encourage you to share yours in the comments below to kick-start your own enthusiasm!

Note-taking has been an interesting animal: not one that interests me a lot, or that I was ever trained to teach, but a skill that definitely falls by the wayside in an age of copy-and-paste-into-a-Google-Doc availability. We are a proud NoodleTools school (which the students love-we literally have a cohort of Seniors pushing to endow NoodleTools to graduates in perpetuity as their Senior Gift, that is how much they love it), but we have needed some additional ways to help students read meaningfully. In particular, our Middle School teachers focus heavily on plagiarism, and have started thinking about its relationship to reading comprehension. So, we began wondering what kind of note-taking lessons we wanted to offer as a strategy for asking students to slow down and prioritize understanding.

Our experimental solution: visual note-taking.

By some bit of luck, I got to work with both our seventh grade science class and our seventh grade history class on a pilot of this endeavor.

In Science, students were preparing to design experiments for our Middle School science fair. Often, when researching and writing their proposals, their teacher noted a tendency to parrot language that they did not understand. So, as part of the lesson when we talked about NoodleTools and writing citations as a form of source evaluation, we also practiced drawing for comprehension:

  • Slides I made for class included samples made by my Research TAs when I was testing the usefulness of the approach, and then took a passage on transpiration for which the class assisted me in collaboratively build a visual note (none of us knew what it meant when we started, but we did when we finished).
  • Drawing together on the whiteboard and then showing my notes let me emphasize the “very drafty” nature of my notes, as opposed to something one might create for an art show.
  • Small groups has short passages on circulation systems and respiratory systems in insects and earthworms. Their prompt was to draw notes that they could understand to help them unpack the meaning of their reading.

Many of the students were vocal about hating the process — they found it so much slower than just writing down random words and sentences from their reading. However, their visual notes made it clear that they understood their reading very well:




Some weeks later, we returned to this strategy in History. Students were doing research for a Renaissance Dinner Party: They each learned about an assigned historical figure, created a class presentation, and then had to seat ten people covered by the presentations around a table at a dinner party in such a way that no fights would break out and all guests would be entertained.

For the research stage, we returned to the idea of visual note taking. This lesson was a longer process, covering several days, and including a number of different strategies for communicating learning in a manner where the language of the articles they read would not suit (such as a fake Twitter where the historical figures chatted and threw shade).

  • At the end of the first day, the students compiled a list of advice for visual note-taking.
  • We once again practiced as a class with drawing “messy stick figures,” and students started comparing and bragging about the messiness they achieved.
  • Students did note that they wanted to demonstrate emotions/interactions and to be able to tell individuals apart. I brought in iconography from the amazing Good Tickle Brain* and looked at how Mya Lixian Gosling’s very simple drawings of Shakespeare characters (for example, Cleopatra and Juliet), which seemed to help a lot.

Some students still felt frustrated (particularly those who felt more successful and comfortable memorizing and repeating), but some really interesting feedback did come my way. It is anecdotal, but impressive:

  • The day that students had to hand in their visual notes on three articles they read for homework, a bunch were waiting for me at the library. They explained that they had found it boring to re-draw the same material, and wanted to check if it was ok that they took all their notes on one set of pictures.
  • Let me rephrase: They synthesized their notes from several sources onto one set of images. Students naturally moved from a linear set of pull quotes, article-by-article, to integrated knowledge.
  • An elated student stopped by to tell me about how her “super-smart, intimidating” uncle had come by for dinner. She often felt nervous with him, because he always wanted to know what she was learning from school: “and I remembered everything, without even *looking* at my notes!”

This pilot felt meaningful to me. Genuinely understanding and remembering content, paired with natural synthesis is a holy grail I will happily continue to pursue. Later, I developed (but have not tested) a theoretical self-grading rubric to use with visual notes, based on a Verbal to Visual post:


I was able to take another brief stab with our Chemistry classes when they were supposed to be looking at how a range of experiments were conducted, but students tended to focus on the outcome because they often could not visualize the experiments themselves. Sixth grade Science took on a drawing project this year to practice understanding relative dating and geology. And, with our History department’s Advanced Topics Research & Writing class, we now how three years of evidence of many students radically relearning note-taking for deep research.

But I really want to develop a much deeper understanding of note-taking, and get our students experimenting with different methods to find the best fit for themselves. I’ve also been dreaming of doing an exhibit of employee’s notes — showing students that the adults on campus have developed a range of methods that work personally for each of us. I worry that the hurry to “get through the workload” makes more work as students develop frictionless paths that feel like less work…but since they tend to sidestep understanding, I suspect they end up taking much more work in the long-term, with less actual learning.

So — that is something I am excited to get back to work on. How about you?

*And don’t forget to check out Good Tickle Brain — I doubt you will regret it!

Edible Book Fest During a Pandemic

One of our favorite events at my school is the Edible Book Fest. (I’m going to pretend it’s not just because we have a HUGE bake sale afterwards of all the amazing entries.)

Definitely not this year!
Sigh. Also not this year.

Clearly, this was not an ideal activity during a pandemic. We certainly couldn’t maintain social distancing throughout the day as the entire school came through the library to look at the entries and then outside to buy them. (You knew that wasn’t going to happen IN the library!)

After brainstorming with amazing English teachers, we came up with the idea that each entry would be a single cupcake and voting would be digital rather than in person. This served two purposes: safety during a pandemic and challenging the students to think more critically in order to distill their ideas onto a single cupcake.

Submissions were digital as well as in person, which gave students the option to photograph their entry before they made the potential entry-destroying trek to school. With their submission, students were able to choose their categories: Most Creative, Most Likely to be Eaten, and Most Edible Author. (Yes, you read that correctly. We gave them the opportunity to make cupcakes that looked like their favorite author!)

A screenshot of our digital voting form using Google Forms

Overall, I am extremely pleased with our pandemic-friendly Edible Book Fest. We learned a few things for next year when, hopefully, we do not need to take as many precautions:

  1. Require a digital submission in order to keep all the entries straight and cuts down on drop-off madness
  2. Offer digital voting for more flexibility
  3. Creating a new category for a cupcake-sized entry since it was so well received
  4. Emphasize critical thinking

One thing we did miss this year was the “Punniest” category, since we were trying to simplify the entire process. However, I did want to leave you with one of our favorite entries from previous years…

Get it? Haha

I’d love to hear some of the ways you successfully adapted programs for pandemic life!

Whimsical Wednesdays in the Library

While I know today is Monday, I want to share about the Whimsical Wednesdays I started hosting in the library for my middle division students. Like many of you, I see the library as a place of creativity as well as productivity and scholarship. I have loved being part of the maker movement and arts integration in libraries. Wherever I am in my career or program, I always want to share my own creative processes. This year as we all acclimated to new norms of navigating a pandemic I saw the opportunity to bring whimsy back to the library.

On Wednesdays after school I host an hour of creative exploration in the creative commons area of the library. I offer a theme or craft exploration for students based on my own creative meanderings and students’ interests. Some of the mediums we explore are journals, scrapbooks, upcycled book arts, book binding, zines and graphics. Actually, over the past couple of years I have tried to start a club or elective based on these concepts, but it did not make traction among my middle division students at the time. The impetus to try again came from a student and their parent asking about activities after school. I realized this as an opportunity to offer this creative hour on the day that I am already designated for staying later. This year our creative area was not open to the general public because of our safety precautions, but hosting Whimsical Wednesdays as a designated time under supervision re-engaged this part of our library.

To kick it off I pulled many of our crafts and art books from the 745s of the stacks along with some of the books from my own stash. These serve to inspire and instruct students to follow their creative whims. I also share my own collages, journaling, and art both in-the-works and finished to emphasize the process over the final product. In my own creative practice I have learned from local creatives. Through Keep St. Pete Lit I attended many intuitive journaling classes that sparked my own creative well. One of my library department’s professional development and mini-retreat activities was taking a bookbinding class together at Print St. Pete Community Letterpress. I have also taken online art and illustration classes from Minneapolis School of Art and Design as well as fallen down the rabbit hole of classes offered by Creative Live and Domestika. Bits and pieces of all of these endeavors are remixed in the Whimsical Wednesdays. I love facilitating a time and space of creativity for my students.

A Few of My Favorites

image by Courtney Walker

I have been heavily inspired by Sabrina Ward Harrison’s art journal Spilling Open: The Art of Becoming Yourself, and I show examples of her pages to illustrate expression takes many forms and to let them know not to be afraid to get messy. I have also found that books geared towards creative writing offer prompts that I tell students can take flight in any form of expression. Another of my personal favorites is PoemCrazy by Susan Goldsmith Woolridge; even though it is intended for poetry it can be translated to any medium as well. I let students know that any of the prompts that I offer are suggestions and they can use any form that moves them. The Brooklyn Art Library’s sketchbook project also has many sketchbooks to view online and a program for people to submit a sketchbook to their collection. I learned about them a few years ago when they had their traveling library in town. There are so many more books in this vain to make this a turn key program for busy librarians.

For professional resources, I always turn to The Library as Incubator Project founded by librarians , Erinn Batykefer, Laura Damon-Moore and Christina Jones (Endres). While the original blog is static now there are still many resources housed there, and they have two books that are great references for librarians. If any of you were at the 2015 AISL Convention in Tampa Bay they were the kick-off speakers and held sessions on The Book to Art Club and The Artist’s Library session. I am also so excited to see them back with AISL programming through the AISL Summer Institute 2021: Incubating Creativity hosted by member Melinda Holmes of the Darlington School on June 21, 2021. I will definitely refill my creative well by attending the online session with them this summer so that my Wednesdays with students stay whimsical.

Is my research program a house of cards? How the pandemic will lead to re-building, and that’s maybe not a bad thing.

As some of you know, I’ve been working to build a research program at my school for the past ten years with some really positive results. What started as a grassroots effort among ninth-grade teachers and myself grew into a hugely collaborative program that every student experiences across four years and a number of disciplines. Today, every senior takes a full year research seminar in one of the following disciplines: Statistics, Engineering for Social Good, Women’s and Gender Studies, Religious Studies, Psychology, and Biochemistry. Every junior completes a year-long research paper/project in a required Social Justice course. And every sophomore…..hmmmm, what do they do again? And the freshmen? Here is where the house of cards begins to teeter a bit, especially during a global pandemic.

The basic gist of the program is that 9th and 10th grade students complete a wide variety of research experiences in order to build skills, expose them to a variety of source types and research methods, and help them learn to communicate effectively. They do this in health, biology, religion, English, world history, and a few other places. We structure these experiences to happen on a staggered calendar so they are not completing multiple research projects simultaneously. Every teacher and discipline plays their part, everyone takes their turn, and by the time they get to junior year they have the chops to tackle the first really sustained project in the Social Justice course. This is the model, and it is a fragile one. Very, very fragile.

Why? Well, things change. Since I started this process we have had three health teachers, all of whom needed to be brought up to speed, trained, and convinced this work has a place in their class. We’ve had five biology teachers. Same goes. Rotations in each department happen, people retire or leave, new people come in, teachers switch up grade levels they are teaching, content changes, pacing changes, and so on. The 9th and 10th grade portions of this program have therefore always been incredibly dynamic. We don’t care what the topics are, right? As long as we can teach the skills. Source literacy in biology research is great, and that knowledge can transfer to source literacy in religious studies. The skills are the important part and the projects or experiences can change from year to year, teacher to teacher. That has worked both theoretically and practically since 2011. We constantly re-imagine, re-invent, and try new things. We adjust to the needs of the day. Yay for flexibility.

Now, let’s throw in a global pandemic, a school that has been closed for a year, a bell schedule with fewer instructional minutes to guard against screen fatigue and to protect the emotional health of our community. Throw in teachers being asked to cut, cut, cut! Cut homework, cut screen time, cut the fat. I am in agreement with all of this because zoom school is really, really hard. I am in agreement with all of this, and I am still kind of freaked out about what it has meant or will mean for this program I have nurtured for so long.

Working backwards, 

The current seniors were slightly less prepared for their senior research seminars because they went home mid-March of 2020 and we truncated their junior project to some extent to preserve everyone’s ability to make it through the crisis teaching and learning phase.

The current juniors did not complete their spring project in 10th grade for the same reason.

The current sophomores completed a scaled-back version of their 9th grade spring project for the same reason.

So, all the classes and projects this year needed to be modified to accommodate the missed opportunities for research instruction last spring. Totally fine, totally doable. Of course, that’s if this thing ends quickly and those projects go back to pre-pandemic times for spring of 2021, right? But of course that didn’t happen. The stopgap measures that one year ago we thought would be just minor inconveniences for one school year have grown into what I think will be a big ‘ol need for adjustment for the next several years.

Looking forward, 

This year’s freshmen did only one of the usual four research projects in which we teach critical skills like source evaluation, image citation, anything citation really, and so on. We might be squeezing in one more thing after spring break, but honestly, everyone is just SO tired I don’t know how.

This year’s sophomores are doing one of three usual research projects.

This year’s juniors are completing their junior project (hooray) and so are the seniors (double-hooray).

But do you see the house of cards? Next year’s juniors won’t be ready. Next year’s sophomores won’t be ready. And will we get those lost projects back, or are they gone forever? As I think more and more about this, I remember so clearly what it was like to build this program in the first place. It was really hard. I got a lot of pushback. Some people didn’t see the value. But (and this is a big but), it was also super exciting. I would find a teacher who was willing to listen and say “Hey, I have this really cool idea. Want to try it with me?” Some would say no, but others said yes and we would collaborate, co-teach, evaluate, iterate, and build. And then another teacher would see us doing that and say “Hey, what’re you doing over there. Can I try?” 

So maybe this pandemic has a silver lining when it comes to my beautiful house of cards? Maybe it’s a little like a healthy forest fire, and the undergrowth just needs to get cleared out periodically to make some space. Maybe it’s time to look again at the 9th and 10th grade model and see if it needs a little tune-up, or even a total overhaul. The 11th and 12th grade pieces are so strong now, so well-formed. Am I afraid everything could come crashing down? Yes and no. Yes, because I’m that kind of person and I have anxiety. No, because I’m deciding to spin this as an opportunity to innovate, which is what I think this program has always been. Think big, I say! How can I turn this house of cards into something better, stronger, more stable than before? I don’t have the answer yet, but the more I turn away from the fear and towards the excitement of building something new, the more confident I feel that we can figure this out. 

Do you have a house of cards? Has the pandemic caused you to re-imagine, re-invent, or totally overhaul research projects at your school? What did this year force you to change that turned out to be a positive? I’d love to hear how you are all coping with “lost” instruction, “lost” projects, and what you think next year might look like when it comes to student research. Thanks for reading!

Agency from anywhere: Why you should learn to edit Wikipedia, and teach your students, too!

Recently, my younger child declared I have a new motto. He even put it on a shirt for me:



“When life gives you lemons, write Wikipedia pages about amazing women”

My child observed that I spent the afternoon of January 6, 2021, watching coverage of the insurrection in DC while editing Wikipedia furiously, and that I used editing to manage my worries during other periods of uncertainty over the last year. He is not wrong, but here is how I see it:

  • From my armchair I tangle with systemic inequities arising from the specific guidelines meant to make Wikipedia “more reliable.” 
  • Even while sheltering in place, I have the ability to broaden the narrative of our nation and our world as it is shaped by a source which is, arguably, a de facto arbiter of truth in our time.

While I have been guiding students in Wikipedia editing lessons since about 2010, I worked primarily with upper elementary and middle school students editing Simple English Wikipedia. When I joined the Castilleja faculty in 2013, I took over a similar project my library director, Jole Seroff, had developed. Along with the project came her notes on gender imbalance among editors and how the skew towards male editors (85% of editors, and something like 91% of all edits) impacted the content we see when we access Wikipedia. A 2011 article in the New York Times noted that who edits impacts the emphasis of the source, comparing a four-paragraph page on friendship bracelets (“A topic generally restricted to teenage girls”) to the much longer page about “something boys might favor” like baseball cards. Setting aside for a moment the gendering of topics, it is notable that today these discrepancies remain:

Sources: “All page views: ‘Baseball Cards'” and “All page views: ‘Friendship Bracelets'”

Similarly, a study released in October 2014, noted that only 15.53% of English Wikipedia’s biographies were about women. A number of groups, including WomenInRed, have focused on adding biographies about females, and they count that number rising to 18.79% as of 15 March 2021. Mountains of evidence point to lower number of pages being written about women and topics to do with women, as well as fewer editors adding information and a significantly higher deletion rate of pages about women/women’s issues because the subjects are apparently “not notable” (especially regarding STEM-focused topics).

If the numbers are so grim for women, imagine what inclusion might look like for other individuals and topics related to minoritized identities.

During the 2019-2020 school year some of my high school students became interested in hosting an edit-a-thon, and I decided it was time to actually learn how to edit for real. I attended my first in-person edit-a-thon at a local library in February, and then everything shut down. In June, my students and I decided to host a virtual edit-a-thon for Upper School students, and the real fun began.

In preparation, a number of our school librarian colleagues kindly joined me in an experimental edit-a-thon, which sufficed to demonstrate that I had picked a terrible way to organize my event. However, that afternoon also demonstrated the value of editing in community, as we each noticed different aspects of systemic prejudices in the structure of this venerated source. For example, one of our number is a classroom teacher in an English department, with a specialty in Southeast Asian American Literature. When she decided to work on the page Asian American Literature, another of our number called our attention to the Talk page, where editors discuss issues and challenges that arise in writing the page itself. In addition, due to the very reasonable desire to keep an eye on coverage in specific fields, and point out what work needs to be done, WikiProjects on various topics rate the importance of specific pages under their purview, like this:

Talk page for Asian American literature

…in which WikiProject Literature (that is, people who are interested in Wikiedia’s coverage in the field of literature) rated the Asian American literature page Low-importance.

Similarly, I was reading up on Patricia Roberts Harris. She was the first Black American female: 1. ambassador, 2. cabinet member (third Black American cabinet member overall), 3. dean of a law school, and 4. director of a Fortune 500 corporation. Here is her talk page:

Talk page for Patricia Roberts Harris

Over time, that original meeting of teachers grew into a weekly editing group. We learn by doing together, and we have learned very well just how hard it is to prove notability for genuinely notable people of color. It was actually in trying to set up a middle school Wikipedia editing project in 2018, covering notable female activists, that I really ran up against to problem of databases containing predominantly-white-perspective sources and the challenges that ensued in finding articles about non-white, non-cis-male individuals. That lesson has held firm as I try to write about women of color and struggle to meet the standard that Wikipedia articles should be “based on reliable, published sources,” meeting Wikipedia’s definition of reliable sources. There is no question that these guidelines are needed so that people do not fill pages with self-promotional material, as often used to happen. However, there is also no question that the guidelines to block self-promotion make it extremely hard to write about many genuinely notable people, as well, especially if they are not media darlings.

As an instructional librarian, I focus on teaching research skills. Therefore, I find joy in digging and in piecing together sources and arguing for their reliability (when necessary), all while avoiding running afoul of Wikipedia’s “No original research” policy. I’ve come to believe strongly in the many benefits of teaching others to edit and editing in community. I now help run three Wikipedia editing groups for: alums from my college, my students and colleagues, and other librarians/teachers.

Editing Wikipedia is a way to:

  1. “Do the work”:
    1. Decolonize your mind – if the only astrophysicist you have spent time thinking about is a LatinX transgender individual, then the picture you have in your head of an astrophysicist will be of a LatinX transgender individual
    2. Make people with minoritized identities discoverable
    3. Create or expand or improve pages that will be seen by millions of people – the least-used page I have worked on has been accessed 14 times since March 1, others have been accessed several thousand times
    4. Give others access to role models – a.k.a.: the perfect gift — I add women to Wikipedia as graduation gifts for young women who might not easily see role models in fields that interest them
  2. Build information literacy skills (for students):
    1. Explore the notion that “authority is constructed and contextual”
    2. Develop a strong sense of what a range of authoritative sources might look like
    3. Synthesize evidence to create a narrative
    4. Practice writing in the register of an encyclopedia
    5. Experience gatekeeping and its impact on knowledge construction
    6. Question why needed systems give rise to systemic prejudice
    7. Encounter systemic racism and other systemic prejudices and begin to understand their prevalence and impact
    8. Construct authority

If you would like to learn more about editing Wikipedia with students or for yourself, please join Corey Baker, Amy Pelman, Linda Swarlis, and myself at the upcoming AISL conference on April 9 for “Equity through Editing: Contributing to Wikipedia for Social Justice Inside and Outside the Classroom,” or reach out to any of us for more information.

Did you get a “virtual promotion?”

Have you wondered recently if your job description actually reflects what you currently do? I started thinking about this as I was adding additional titles to our streaming services so teachers can show content to our face-to-face and remote students at the same time. We now have two campuses that require library materials: online and physical, which is vastly different than “just having electronic resources.”

My current job title is Director of the Rich Library. This implies that my work is centered in the physical library. I don’t know about you, but that is definitely not the case anymore. We have been face-to-face since August, but I’ve remotely visited classrooms, homes, meetings, conferences, and author festivals. I’ve made it possible for teachers to support their lessons without having to come to the physical library. Our virtual collection ROCKS, and it’s used by students and teachers around the central Florida area as well as on all corners of our 104-acre campus as we attempt to social distance. Clearly, my job in no longer just in the Rich Library.

Distance course isometric Free Vector
Attributed to School vector created by macrovector_official – www.freepik.com

I’d say that my position is now more accurately described as the Director of Library Services. This encompasses the fact that our services have moved beyond the physical space as well as taking into account both physical and virtual collections. I guess the question is: do you work to get your title and job description changed? Which brings up more questions… How important to our profession is it that our duties are accurately described? Does this impact the respect we sometimes struggle with on our campuses?

I’d love to hear your thoughts!