on school librarians and the daze of our lived lives…

By the time you’re reading this, most of you are likely to be finding your way through one of the amazing sessions making up the 2022 Association of Independent School Librarians Annual Conference. This year’s virtual conference features an incredible variety of topics! As I scan through the schedule, there are sessions on topics as varied as:

  • How to help students ask excellent questions…
  • Supporting DEI in our schools…
  • Supporting the college admissions process…
  • Cultivating a culture of reading…
  • Launching student library boards…

One of the things about being a school librarian is that, though we’re all “librarians,” our lived lives in our libraries can be SO VERY, VERY different than that of our colleagues in other states, countries, or even just a mile down the street.

I think that the uniqueness of our lived lives as librarians is a huge part of what has made librarianship such a very exciting profession for me, but also from time to time that exact uniqueness can sometimes make me feel like I’m the only one out here doing the work that I do… To clarify, I work with a wonderful, enthusiastic young librarian that I hope many of you get to meet in person at an in-person AISL Annual Conference some day, but I hope you get what I mean when I figuratively say, “…feel like I’m the only one out here doing the work that I do…”

Anyway, an AISL colleague recently inquired about librarianship in a project-based learning school. Our colleague asked,

I’m interested to hear from other Upper School librarians about project-based learning. If you work in a school that’s embraced PBL, I’d love to know more about how you’ve integrated it into your work as a librarian. How do you work with/support teachers & classes on project-based learning initiatives? 

I spent my first 14 years as a librarian at a very rigorous, rather traditional independent school in Los Angeles. I was part of a team of 5 MLS librarians at the middle school. Yes, you read that right, there were FIVE MLS librarians and a full-time library assistant that served our middle school. We had a seeming bottomless budget for purchase of resources and the curriculum was extremely consistent and stable. Every teacher who taught 7th grade history taught from the same team lesson plans, did the same research projects, and used the same summative tests and quizzes. We had the great benefit of knowing that every February, every 9th grader would come in with their history classes for an arc of lessons on locating and using primary sources that they’d incorporate into their papers and projects (yeah, no… they were just papers). We had a well developed list of research topics that the 9th graders would cover so we were able to identify topics that proved challenging for students and purchase resources to facilitate students’ success. It was rigorous. It was fun.

8 years ago, my elderly mom had a bad fall and it was time for me to leave “the best job I’d ever have” and move home to Honolulu to help with her care. As luck would have it, I landed here at Mid-Pacific, an amazing preschool to 12th grade progressive school that’s leaned heavily into project-based learning, and I realized that I ended up in a new “best job I’d ever have!” 🤣

Things I’ve learned about librarian-ing in a PBL school:

1) Goodbye “Just in Case” Collection Development – I had to jettison my “just in case” notions of print collection management. In my PBL environment, topics covered and research project assignments change. Every. Single. Year. I don’t have the luxury of knowing that every February the Middle Ages primary source project is going to run so I need to buy more books on the Cluniacs and how the Irish monks preserved literacy in the Middle Ages… Books that I bought for to shore up our print collection for “the food project, next year” sat untouched because the project never returned. The following year, the class had moved on to sound waves… #Alas

2) Think Systems and Frameworks, Not “Library Lessons” – I’ve had to learn to think about framing information literacy instruction in terms of systems and frameworks rather than discrete skills and processes presented in library lessons. Over the years we’ve worked and reworked our “research framework.” Every time it gets reworked, the language becomes less “librarian-ese” and more the language of ordinary humans. If you need a book of supporting documentation, your framework probably isn’t accessible enough for mere mortals who aren’t librarians to use so keep simplifying. Note: Making our stuff simple is REALLY, REALLY hard!!! #Ugh

3) Farewell One-Shot Library Lessons – The one-shot library lesson has pretty much become a thing of the past, here. They don’t work in PBL. If I’m being honest, I kind of doubt that they work in general. #SorryNotSorry #Shrug If we work with your class, we need to expect you to make time to see us 3-5 times over the course of the project because information needs and the skills/processes that kids need to know at different points in the process vary. Having tons of one-shot lessons littering up our instructional calendar means that I work SUPER HARD with no pay off in terms of student learning. It also means that I don’t have space in my schedule to book an arc of 3-5 lessons over 3 weeks with a class where those kids see how the different skills and processes come together in a holistic way and therefore, understand the process and the parts/skills utilized along the way.

4) Librarians Shouldn’t Be Teaching All the InfoLit – I know that this one might ruffle some feathers. I used to think “Maybe I shouldn’t say this,” but yeah, I seem to have reached an age where when I think that sometimes I just figure, “Whatevers… Let’s see what happens…” Hahaha! So here goes, I’ve adopted the philosophy that it is my job to be sure that good information literacy and research skills are being taught—NOT to teach all the information literacy and research skills on campus. That is just not gonna happen in a preschool-12 school of 1400 students with 2 librarians… More importantly, that’s JUST NOT HOW LITERACIES DEVELOP. You’ll never develop information literate young adults on 6 library lesson a year. Our job is to teach the teachers (and that’s usually in the form of library lessons). You watch me do this for 2 periods and you teach it in your 3rd and 4th periods. Teach your teachers how to fish. Going forward, when teachers have learned your research process and strategies they’ll design better research projects and assignments. Most importantly, teachers just have many, many thousands more opportunities to teach and reinforce the concepts, skills, and dispositions that further students’ information literacy development than I will EVER get to have with students as a school librarian. 🤷🏻‍♂️ If we ever hope to have an information literate voting public, librarians need as many friends as we can get! We need everybody to be teaching good information literacy skills, habits, and dispositions.

5) Hello PRESEARCHING and TOPIC EXPLORATION – Make presearching and topic exploration A VERY BIG FEATURE of the “research process” work that you do. In authentic PBL, students typically should be posing the questions for exploration, but… How do you know what to ask? How do you know what to explore with regard to the civil rights movement if you haven’t explored and had a good amount of time to “get the lay of the land.” You will likely end up with 20 projects on Rosa Park because she’s one of the only civil rights figure that a 9th grader might know… 

6a) Talk to Us, People!!! – Insist on CONVERSATIONS about project design EARLY in planning process. Teachers think they know what resources we have, but they don’t know what they don’t know. Sometimes I use those conversations to buy ebooks we need “just in time” (see #1) or sometimes those conversations allow us to let a teacher know, “Yeah, this is impossible to research given what we have and your requirements…” -OR- “Yeah, your 10th graders aren’t going to have success with Academic Search Complete so let’s do this…”

6b) Keep Talking to Us, People!!! – In the project design conversation, keep taking your teachers back to BROAD ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS. Some of my teachers want to throw out a list of 30 topics and have kids pick one and research it. “I’m doing “deeper learning,” but how, then, does the kid doing research on Farm Bureau programs during the depression learn about the other 29 topics? If they don’t go back to the bigger essential question, then that’s not “deeper learning” it’s just “myopic learning.” Good PBL builds in lots of opportunities to share out across a cohort FORMATIVELY. When I’ve seen GREAT PBL, teachers find ways to have student integrate the work shared by their peers into their final pieces. In the case of the class researching government programs of the Great Depression, students shared their initial research

Anyway, that’s the stuff that just is off the top of my head.

I’d love to chat with any of you you there who are librarian-ing in a PBL leaning school. What have you learned? What works for you?

That’s it for this month. I hope that we’ll cross paths in a breakout room sometime in the next few days (or on an email thread)!

Have a great #AISL22 Conference everyone!

7 thoughts on “on school librarians and the daze of our lived lives…

  1. This is awesome, David (once again!). Lots for me to review and digest but I wanted to note that I’d love to get a conversation going about what collection development looks like for others these days, or COULD look like. This may be related to me looking forlornly at a serious set of books I purchased for AP Psych just before COVID hit (the teacher was psyched but understandably has moved on with digital), but also me breathing a huge sigh of relief when a Gr 9 English teacher asked yesterday for non-fiction print reading related to Indian Horse (residential schools, indigenous history in Canada, etc), and I’d bought a good amount of this last summer I used to feel like I knew what I was doing but not so much now, andI need to address the slide I’ve made into high & miss…

  2. It’s super anxiety inducing, but we’re going to lean into downsizing our HS oriented nonfiction–focusing more on narrative nonfiction and less on informational or reference-y nonfiction. Honestly we’ve just decided to make the change so we’re still thinking through the process/criteria for HOW to do this in a way that allows us to redeploy the funds in a more pragmatically useful/impactful way. We’re shifting some of those funds and building investing more in GVRL and Sora. I would LOVE to get a working group together to to think through how to more thoughtfully move into this iteration of collection development!

  3. Yes, we are moving toward PBL and I find myself advocating for #5. More time to generate questions and allow ideas to percolate. Believe it or not, faculty and I are increasingly focusing on print books and providing students time to browse books, go through indexes, get a sense for what is possible and maybe even doing several iterations of generating a thesis statement. Instead of a short drop-in session, teachers are spending whole class blocks and in some cases a couple of weeks in the library. It is the most fun I’ve had as a librarian in years!

    • So true! We just had a photography class come and spend two class days browsing our photography books and databases to explore the work of photographers whose work they might want to emulate!

  4. With the virtual conference meaning we could double dip into both school and AISL (a double-edged sword indeed), I’m just getting to this now and would love to have discussed in a small group. Next year! I am in the midst (ideally, for those in my last session, this is one of the items on my ‘for the semester’ to do list) of cataloging each class and how they use the library. And thus I’ve been thinking a lot about 4. If I brainstorm with a teacher but they teach the lesson, or if I create a digital guide, but they reference it in class, the library skills are still being taught. It’s not helpful for life if only Christina=Librarian=Information Literacy. I want them making those connections in each class and as they go out in the world. Thank you, as always, for your reflections!

    • Case in point as I work through my backlog from the week—our History Department Chair asked all teachers in the department how they were addressing Ukraine in their classrooms. From a teacher I have not worked with all year: “We have read from and discussed articles from the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and Marketwatch, focusing on the big five thinking skills: historical context, causation, comparison, change over time, continuity over time.” I would rather they learn these information literacy skills as appropriate and find out by happenstance than have *complete control* (whatever that means) of information literacy instruction at the school.

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