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!

Making the most of April 9th

Aways appreciative of PD opportunities, I have been particularly eager for ways to connect with others through virtual workshops, blog posts, Zoom meets, etc. during this heck of a year.

So I’m pretty excited about our upcoming AISL conference – but also a little trepidatious. To be honest, as incredible as the lineup is, it’s only going to be valuable to me if I have a game plan to focus as much as possible. While I appreciate virtual PD, it has proven far too easy for me to be interrupted and distracted. So here ‘s the plan –

In advance

I’ll make sure to carefully review the conference schedule in advance; with the banquet, presentations, seminars & table talks all happening in the span of just a few hours, I need to have a strategy (priorities with alternatives noted)

Being in the moment

I hereby acknowledge that taking part in virtual PD from my office is not going to happen in any meaningful way. Maybe my supervisor is supportive of me leaving school early to connect from home?  Maybe there’s a corner of my library, or even better, hidden away in my school? I’ll plan to put a sign on the door,  email on out-of-office, and phone on silent. I’ll also give myself ½ hour in advance to eat, fill my water bottle and take a bio break.

Wrapping up

A few years back, disheartened by the number of conference bags sitting in the corner of my office – filled with valuable notes not looked at since the day of return – I began using travel time home to create a list of actionable items that can be implemented either short- or long-term. I’ll do the same on Apr 9th. Fewer things done is better than more things stagnated.

After the fact

While I will miss sitting around with friends (preferably by a pool with drink in hand), nothing is stopping me from reaching out and connecting virtually – so join me in reaching out to someone! I took part in a recent AISL Zoom chat and ‘met’ some people I’d love to get to know better. Here’s to checking in with people we miss and making new friends!

How do YOU prepare to make the most of your online PD?

UN Sustainability Goals and our Libraries

Over the past year, how many free zoom presentations or conferences have you signed up for in advance, only to be too tired, zoomed out, or busy to attend? I haven’t counted, but for me that number would be embarrassingly high. Sometimes I suddenly have a class to teach, an unexpected meeting to attend, or I am just exhausted from the computer and life in general to feel I was open to learning. 

I have attended some really valuable presentations however, and I am excited to share about one in particular, that was short, kept my attention, and inspired new ideas. I am a longtime member of ALA and AASL, because I enjoy learning about what other types of libraries are doing and what I could bring to my library and professional life. In February I finally went to my first ALA Connect presentation, over zoom.

The email caught my eye with the subject line ALA Connect Live – Let’s talk Sustainability. Brentwood School teachers have highlighted the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in different projects, so I had some familiarity with them but hadn’t really thought about them in the context of our library. This presentation helped me make that connection and wonder why I hadn’t before.

Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015, provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future. At its heart are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are an urgent call for action by all countries – developed and developing – in a global partnership.

-from “The 17 Goals”

I am admittedly a bit late to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) party and grappling with how to incorporate them into my library, so I wanted to share some links and first ideas with you. Maybe sometime we can brainstorm together.

Here are the helpful slides from the ALA Connect presentation. The description is: ALA recognizes the important and unique role libraries play in wider community conversations about resiliency, climate change, a sustainable future, and what libraries themselves can do. This extends to being part of global initiatives to achieve sustainable development. Listen to learn about ALA efforts and new resources for you – and how you and your library can be change agents. This important ALA Connect Live included Loida Garcia-Febo, Chair of the ALA Task Force on UN Sustainable Development Goal and Casey Conlin, Coordinator, SustainRT.

Major takeaways: 

  • We can continue to learn so much from the different types of libraries.
  • ALA made the UN goals a priority by starting a Task Force, and has joined with the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) to promote them.
    • “IFLA’s consistent position is that access to information is essential in achieving the SDGs, and that libraries are not only key partners for governments but are already contributing to progress towards the achievement of the 17 Goals.” From IFLA’s page, “Libraries, Development and the United Nations 2030 Agenda
  • What if my student library advisory council took on the sustainability goals through a library lens? What would that look like? 
    • Would we discover alternatives to plastic book covers? 
    • Would we re-think our maker activities?
    • How will it change my collection development or programming?
    • What would my fiction book club read?
  • I will join the Sustainability Round Table next time I renew my ALA membership. They have great resources like the Earth Day 50 for 50 document, which has creative ideas for Earth Day programming such as fact checking science articles online about the environment, or hosting a clothing swap meet, or a “stitch club” where you gather and mend clothes instead of tossing them.
  • I joined the SustainRT: Libraries Fostering Resilient Communities Facebook group to keep up with conversations, and continue learning (and already sent our Food Science teacher one of the ideas: making a cookbook of recipes that use seasonal local ingredients).

The presenters used the amazing Los Angeles Public Library’s goals chart as an example, and in #4 Quality Education, they highlighted the Student Success Cards, library cards given to every LAUSD student and now also independent school students in Los Angeles. We just got the cards for our students this academic year, thanks to a presentation from LAPL librarians at one of our local consortium’s (SoCaLIS) conferences. 

OCLC has a 5 part series on the UN SDGs and libraries, and one session is tomorrow (Tuesday March 9th). See you there?

How are you using the UN SDGs at your library or with your students? Would anyone like to collaborate on how to bring these goals to the independent school libraries? Let me know in the comments!