Librarian, Meet the Left-Handed Whelk

The job of librarian is one that continues to show up on polls as one of the most trusted professions.

Like many independent schools, my school has several signature programs intended to distinguish it from other area schools. Since our campus includes a bayou that is just south of the Manatee River, which feeds into the Gulf of Mexico, all of our students learn a ton about marine ecosystems. At the high school level, the Marine Science signature program includes the required 9th grade Biology course followed by three years of Marine Biology electives. Marine 3 is a research-based seminar in which students design and complete a year-long study; they ultimately write a paper, create a scientific poster, and present their findings at RISE (Research and Independent Study Expo) in early May. Five to ten students pursue this path each year, which earns them the Ocean Academy graduation distinction. Many continue their marine studies in college.

RISE: Marine Presentations

Enough with the advertisement—oh wait — let me also share with readers that teachers are requested to supervise student boat and kayak trips, so we also get to spend classes out on the water with students!

Just an “average” monthly boat trip for the students

If you ask our students why they’ve chosen to devote many of their electives to the Ocean Academy distinction, you’ll get a variety of answers.

“Concern for our planet.”

“Love the teachers.”

“My older brother said it was like a family.”

“Labs on the water.” “Get to fish during school.

To recap the past few paragraphs. Ocean Academy graduates have had some sort of Marine focus in science classes each year they’ve attended the school, and students in Marine 3 have taken, you guessed it, 3 years of Marine Science. Also librarians are a trusted profession.

I think this is a powerful program for all the reasons students mention. As a coastal community, we’ll be affected by climate change sooner than some further inland, and many of our families are deeply connected to local waterways. Because it doesn’t have an AP designation, it draws those students most passionate about marine science, not the ones most focused on their GPAs and the weighted bump they receive from AP courses.

So many seahorses

They aren’t always the ones who have excelled in previous History and English research papers, the projects more typically associated with the library.

So unlike the world they are close to entering of university research and discipline-specific librarians, they are stuck with me. I’m no academic slouch, but I lack almost all of their marine knowledge. I last took a science course that wasn’t labeled “information science” in the year 1999. They know more than me. Years more.

But they often don’t trust their own deep subject-specific knowledge, and our first few classes together are always an interesting dance of questions and responses. Many assume I’m asking them questions I already know the answers to, as I would with courses where I have more of a background. “Why is Lady Macbeth jealous?” “How did planes influence WWI?” etc.

Bayou on a foggy morning

But this is a different use of the librarian’s knowledge. When I ask what they mean by a ghost crab trap, I want to know the definition so we can look up synonyms. For their paper on cast netting, I am being serious in asking if they need to plan their collection time around tides or time of day — or whether either of these factors even matter when monitoring water quality? I’m curious if a “water goat” is something used at the individual or municipal level because we are eligible to apply for grants if this is something that would make sense to purchase for our bayou.  And when they tell me they are looking into a whelk’s “left-handedness,” come on, that’s just like click bait for librarians to follow up with more questions!

This is one of the first times that they are the content experts, and I want to help them learn to own that expertise. The teacher will help with experimental design, but I can use the “reference interview” to get a handle on the scope of their experiment, specialized vocabulary related to their topic, and ways to search in scholarly journals. I can help them parse an academic paper and design an academic poster, even if I can’t assess if all the information is factually correct. I can tell them “I don’t know” and that some questions are better directed to their teacher. In this project I’m no longer teaching them information skills as they progress; instead, I’m helping them build their confidence in using the library as a targeted resource to stay up to date on their topic. It’s the closest they can get to researching in a college library while still in high school.

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