An Answer to David Wee’s “I Have No Idea What I Am Doing…”

By CD McLean (Berkeley Preparatory School)


This post is my first in a couple of years.  They don’t have a login for me yet, so the top bit says Christina, but don’t blame her if you disagree with anything in the post! Blame me (CD McLean).  I was in a bit of a quandary about what to write in my first back to blogging post. What would be the most interesting subject? What would capture AISL librarians’ attention? I thought about doing one on collaboration as I have a big collaboration project coming up with our new personal librarian program kicking off in the upper school this school year.  Then I thought, why not go topical?  Perhaps an entry on plagiarism might be thing since we had the speech kerfuffle at the Republican National Convention; we could look at the ins and outs of plagiarism and how to examine it in the classroom.  In the end though, I fell back on the tried and true for intriguing: David Wee. As most of you are whenever he posts, I was enthralled by David Wee’s post on “I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I AM DOING…”.  And I heard his call for comments and thought, “I will answer the call.”  Also, I frequently stand in the middle of the library staring out at the students and think “I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I AM DOING…” 😎

What does it mean to be “information literate?”

 A good question, but I think perhaps the question needs to be “what does it mean to be information literate to librarians and to administrators and to department chairs? (And perhaps should we check those people to see if THEY are information literate?) Wesleyan University defines information literacy as “ a crucial skill in the pursuit of knowledge. It involves recognizing when information is needed and being able to efficiently locate, accurately evaluate, effectively use, and clearly communicate information in various formats.” However, the American Library Association (ALA) defines it as “… a set of abilities requiring individuals to “recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.””

Student Looking for Book on Library Shelves (photo from wikimedia).

The difference between the two: the university librarians added the clear communication. What do you think of these two definitions? Are they enough? Is the added clear communication enough for your students? Or do you need something more?

A third definition comes from the Association of American School Librarians (AASL) and AASL has taken a more skills-based approach at the definition. Consequently, it is a bit more detailed. Their definition comes from their Standards for the 21st-Century Learner. While AASL does say that the definition of information literacy has become more complex as resources and technologies have changed” (meaning: Hey everybody, this is tough!”), I think that the closest they come to a definition that we can use is on the right hand side of their pamphlet where they define the skills for the 21st-century learner. 

Cover of the front page of AASL’s 21st-Century Learner Pamphlet (via AASL website).

Learners use skills, resources and tools to: 

  1. Inquire, think critically, and gain knowledge. 
  2. Draw conclusions, make informed decisions, apply knowledge to new situations, and create new knowledge. 
  3. Share knowledge and participate ethically and productively as members of our democratic society. 
  4. Pursue personal and aesthetic growth.

So, out of the three definitions, which one do you prefer? All in all, I like the AASL definition best.  IMO, it is more comprehensive. It allows for us to teach ethics (plagiarism, copyright), that the other two definitions leave out. And I really like number 4: Pursue personal and aesthetic growth.  Every year I wrack my brain for how I can help students achieve this.  This year it is my goal is to create research projects that help students pursue personal and aesthetic growth.  I’ll keep you posted.  What are your goals for the new school year related to information literacy?

What does it mean to be “college ready?”

Short bad answer: a diploma.  Real librarian answer: Well, that’s the rub, isn’t it? At several of our conferences, we have had panels of lovely college librarians tell us what they are looking for in their  college freshmen.  I think the part of the problem lies with us.  Are we passing on the information we receive?  By passing on, I mean, adding this info to our scope and sequence?  Do we go back and talk with department chairs and then redesign projects?  We are certainly not the only people responsible for making our graduates college ready, but I think we do bear responsibility for making them information literate and able to research at the college level. We are part of the team.  We need to help our team be the best it can be and part of that responsibility is passing on information about how we can redesign or look at projects differently so that our students can be better able to succeed in college. 

One group activity that we all might do is a quick survey of our own graduates and then share that information with the list (or, share it with me and I will compile it for my next post put in the subject heading graduate survey).  The end goal of the task would be to take the results and then publish them in an NAIS, AASL or another publication so that we are disseminating the information discovered.  This survey is something I did with my former students. It was quick and dirty, essentially, I asked them to send me research assignments that they had been given.  I also asked them to tell me whether they felt that they had been adequately prepared by the library department.  I also asked about how they conducted their own research in college and what resources they used, if they felt there was something we should have taught them, but didn’t, if there was something that we did teach them that they were thankful for.  On the whole, they said, we did a great job on the humanities side, but we needed more upper level science writing/research assignments because that was what they were encountering in school and they didn’t know how to do it.  In particular, one graduate spoke of a free science database (the PDB) that they were using for a science research project. Because of this info, I was able to go to the Upper Division Director and ask about the state of research in the Upper Division.  The library had been off the curriculum committee for two years.  I think it is because of this that we have been reinstated for this coming school year.  If any of you remember my talk from the Tampa conference, energetic persistence is my first game plan. If that doesn’t work, then having an elephant’s memory does.  I never forget what I have asked for and I ask for it year after year until I get it.

Are colleges truly doing a good job of preparing young adults to be thoughtful and productive citizens?  

IDK.  I think it depends on the college and the student.  If that is the mission of the school, then yes, but for the majority, no.  

If no, do we continue to build PK-12 curriculum around helping students be “college ready” or do we bravely go where other schools have not?

I think this all comes back to your school’s mission statement.  Ours is that we put students into the world who make a positive difference.  So from a Berkeley Prep perspective, we are invested in making sure that our graduates have a solid character and service learning foundation.  My school has added a director of community service and she has done amazing things with our students.  Or rather, I should say, she has been able to spotlight the amazing things our students have been doing.  Our Global Scholars Program is doing more community service oriented items.  Even in the library, where we did fundraising in the past, we have kicked it up a notch and have embarked on a major community service learning project with middle division that we hope will connect with upper division in time.  Our student library proctors are leading the charge on this effort and will be mentors to the 8th graders. 

How much of my collection should be eBooks vs. print vs. databases vs. audiobooks?

OMGosh.  I have nightmares about this question.  I also have tours that come through the library with tour guides who say, “One day print…” you know how that sentence ends!  We will be renovating our library in the Spring and it will be all packed up and we will be completely electronic for at least five months, perhaps more.  So, we are facing this question of purchasing more databases for this year to use. The question being, what if we like them?  Do we keep them?  What does that do to my budget?  

A very tiny survey of Battle of the Books students from several Bay area schools showed that the majority of them preferred print books to electronic or audio, but we are still putting our money on Overdrive and audiobooks. I think this is a “If you have them, they will use them” situation. Our entire collection isn’t electronic, but it’s a slow slide.

What platforms should I use to host my eBooks and audiobooks? 

IMO whatever works for your situation. Currently, we use Overdrive for fiction and audiobooks because they have a consortium price that is amazing; they have collections for both lower and middle and upper; and when we did the original research, we liked them best.  So, most of our kids are trained on this device.  Our public libraries use this platform as well.  

How many eBook and audiobook platforms is too many?

I was going to say not more than one.  But then I realized that we have Overdrive for fiction and for reference eBooks, we have Gale, Ebsco, and so on and so on.  We also have ACLS Humanities Ebooks, which is a completely separate platform and we have onesies out in the Destiny collection from other sources.  So, in an effort not to be a hypocrite, you should have lots!

Should I have my own “library research process” like Big6 or ISP or should we be aiming to contextualize library skills/concepts/tasks into a broader framework like Design Thinking?  

Please let me know on this one.  We don’t have my own library research process.  But we are working with history to come up with one that is similar to Guided Inquiry for this year so that we can have a process that follows our scope and sequence. Lower Division has committed to Guided Inquiry.  I feel like Guided Inquiry is the closest one that will allow me to design projects that achieve that #4 skill AASL talks about (see above definition).

Is it okay to rip the DVD of our legal copy of Supersize Me so students can view it within Vialogues on our Moodle site? Guidelines don’t count. I want someone to tell me yes or no and if they’re wrong, they get fired or sued instead of me.

Look.  If people can’t even tell if there is one monkey making three faces or three monkeys making one face, then how can we really know the answer to anything? 42.  Either way, I’m not going to answer that question or David’s.

Is the return on investment for EBSCO Discovery worth it by measurably getting many more student eyeballs on my expensive database content or is it still a not-quite-ready-for-prime-time thing that everybody is excited about and signing on for until two years from now when we’ll all want to move on to something else that is still not-quite-ready-for-prime-time?

We aren’t going there…bleeding edge and all that…

I know library research skills are necessary and important for students’ future success, but how do I get teachers to believe what I believe?

Energetic persistence and an elephant’s memory (“Why, Martha, are you still doing that luau project in March?  I have just the thing for you!  If you come by tomorrow, when I have your favorite snack in my office, we can chat about it.”)

Why do we have to change libraries into “Learning Commons” rather just calling them libraries and adding/evolving the functionality and work that happens within a “library?” (Modern hospitals seem to still be called “hospitals” without the messy historical baggage associated with the fact that physicians used to use leeches to suck blood from sick people. Things change, people, move on!).  

I’m a librarian and I work in a library. End of story.

Is coffee bad for me or is it good? What about salt? Butter? I’m a librarian. If I can’t figure out what to eat or not eat, how am I supposed to teach students in a health class what sources of information are to be believed?  

Coffee good. Coffee with chicory, better! I’ll stop there. And I want coffee in the LIBRARY…;-)

MLA 8 has landed. Should I stay with MLA 7 for this year or make the jump in August?

Now you might look at my comment on bleeding edge and have bet that I would arguing sticking with MLA 7 for this year.  You would be wrong.  MLA 8 is out.  The books are out.  Whether the English department likes it or not, MLA 8 is here to stay.  One way that you can make yourself indispensable to your English department is to point out that you and your library staff has MLA 8 books and are all trained on MLA 8.  Additionally, you would be OVERJOYED  to give them all a brief primer on how to teach the new MLA 8 style to their students.  MLA 8 is not bleeding edge, it is concrete, here to stay, in your face, deal with it, change.  Be the happy, helpful librarian that those overwhelmed teachers need to help them deal with that one more thing they didn’t want to learn! 

Easybib Schools got murdered. Easybib Scholar didn’t look worth the cost difference for my school needs so we planned to migrate to NoodleTools, but now Easybibwhatever it is called now is, supposedly, free. Go or stay?

I am biased.  We have been a Noodletools house for 14 years.  In those 14 years we have had exceptional service and service that has grown from not just a works cited generator, but a research platform for students. I have gone from one or two history teachers, to a committed history department.  It connects with Google docs, allows for notecards, outlines and also allows for all of those to be printed as well.  Everything is electronic, paperless and allows for teachers to grade online, at the bank while waiting in line for a teller (which my US History teacher tells me he does). Photos can be saved, colors can be used, everything can be moved around and shifted according to the neatness or messiness of your process.  We happen to love it.  We have complaints at the beginning of the process from those complainer kids, but when it comes to the end and they put their notecards together and they see what they have and realize that their paper is all there, they are converts. Amazing converts. My answer is go.  We love it.  And it will be updated to MLA 8. 

What am I not doing that I should be doing? I don’t know what I don’t know…

You are way ahead of the game, Mr. Wee.  Because you are a seeker of knowledge, you may be in the  13.5% of people who are early adopters or you may be in the early majority, two key early adopter groups from the bell curve for the adoption of technology chart that explains the innovation adoption lifecycle.  Or we could look at the more humorous and more likely scenario of the Pencil Metaphor put out by Australian teachers.  

The Pencil Metaphor: I believe Mr. Wee is one of the Sharp Ones.

Cohort 21: A year-long PD experience


This year, I’m taking part in a year-long, embedded PD experience called Cohort 21. Run by two EdTech gurus, and an incredible group of facilitators and coaches, Cohort 21 gives educators in Ontario the chance to examine their practice, discuss pedagogy, learn about new and innovative technology tools, and to make connections across schools.

As well as learning about new ways to use EdTech, and think about how we teach and assess students, as part of my Cohort 21 participation I’m required to develop and research an action plan. It can be on anything related to my practice, from student assessment and feedback, to a new technology tool I’d like to try with my classes to designing an online course. I have decided to focus on our library schedule and booking system, and how I can make it more efficient and accessible to faculty. I’ve written about my library schedule before; I am a paper schedule user. We run a fixed and flexible schedule concurrently in the Lassonde Library, and I’ve found that on the whole, a paper schedule works well for us. We like the opportunity to have conversations with teachers about their classes and assignments when they call in to book time with us, but we know this can be inconvenient for teachers who are used to booking services online. In particular, this year we seem to be trying to keep track of too much; we have two librarians, four potential ‘bookable spaces’ in the library, iPads, and Chromebooks, often all in different places at the same time. This is a week in our booking schedule from November. It’s becoming a little unwieldy.

library_schedule Nov15

My initial thoughts about a new solution for a library schedule can be seen here, on my Cohort 21 blog. During our second Face to Face session, we used the Design Thinking method to think deeply about our action plan topics; you can read how I’m starting to research what solution might be best for us. You can also read a detailed walk-through of the Design Thinking process and my thoughts about a re-designed library schedule here; you’ll see I’m still seeking the ‘answer’ – if, indeed, there is an answer!

(Aside: If you’re interested in Design Thinking, and how you can use it in your library, check out the AISL 2016 Summer Institute.)

One of my favourite things about Cohort 21 is the people! Collaboration is key in being a successful librarian, and Cohort 21 has allowed me to network and collaborate with teachers outside my school – the members this year teach across all grades and disciplines. There are two librarians taking part this year (me and Jen Weening from Country Day School). A number of librarians have participated in Cohort 21 since it began in 2012 – click on their name to see their action plan and final reflections: Tim Hutton from RSGC, Sara Spencer from The York School and Laura Mustard from St. Clement’s.

When I first joined Cohort 21, I thought it was all about using technology in the classroom; something I’m comfortable with, and love to experiment with. But Cohort 21 is so much more. It’s about being a better teacher, being more responsive to my students and their needs, learning about what is happening in the classroom across the province and being the best teacher I can be. Our third Face to Face session is coming up at the end of January; we’ll be working further on our action plans, and talking about where to go from here.

You may find the following resources useful:

Cohort 21 twitter feed, hashtag: #cohort21
Cohort 21 website, action plans, member blogs

New Year’s Resolutions

In Tony Schwartz’s opinion piece for the New York Times titled Addicted to Distraction, the executive and author laments his inability to sit down and read a print book. Citing numerous reasons for his lack of focus and several bad habits that had also gotten out of control, Mr. Schwartz “created an irrationally ambitious plan” to right these behaviors and in essence, went cold-turkey for 30 days. Over the time period he aimed to reduce the amount of time he spent on the internet to re-establish his attention span, start eating better, and get more exercise.

He admitted that he had some success over the 30 day period of abstinence, noting that he stopped drinking diet soda and gave up sugar and carbohydrates. But he failed completely in his quest to modify and cut-back on the time he spent on the Internet. As we start off the year with new resolutions, I was humbled by his efforts and results. And he honestly characterized his use of technology and the internet as a need to be constantly stimulated or a way to get a “fix.” His struggle was a portrait I could identify with in relation to my own technology use and reading habits, and that of the students I teach.

Mr. Schwartz’s experience kept resurfacing in my mind as I read Sherry Tunkle’s new book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. In her book, Tunkle explores the idea of distraction in the classroom and the “hyper-attention” behavior we see in some of our students. In her chapter on Education she writes, “There is a way to respond to students who complain that they need more stimulation than class conversation provides. It is to tell them that a moment of boredom can be an opportunity to go inward to your imagination, an opportunity for new thinking.”

Ms. Tunkle’s book is based on the idea that with technology we have greatly limited our face-to-face communication. The inability to connect through discussion has occurred virtually everywhere from the dinner table, the workplace and in the classroom. And she readily admits that “we want technology put in service of our educational purposes.” But she argues that we have to be intentional about the outcomes we want from utilizing the technology otherwise it may be distracting the teachers and students from focusing on one another.

Over the winter break, like many of us, I tackled a growing pile of print items to-be-read and took a brief hiatus from my daily technology habits of searching, sending emails, and collecting data. The winter break also provided many opportunities for socializing and I found that having such a rich variety of opportunities to converse with friends, neighbors, and family was extremely fulfilling. The combination of these two factors – conversing more and using technology less – led me to create two New Year’s resolutions that I think will have lasting results. First, to engage in more discussions from the simple water-cooler chat to more deliberate and proactive conversations about new resources to enrich lessons. I know that I learn a lot from those I meet and share with, and in 2016 I want to continue to foster and nurture that growth. And second, to create a mindful plan for using technology in my life. This week was a victorious balance and I look forward to 50 more weeks where I am productive and still have the ability and time to engage in deep reading and conversation.

What are your technology and classroom related New Year’s resolutions?

More “un-fancy” things…

Each year, our 8th graders spend a week in Boston and are required to complete a month-long research project studying a topic that relates in some way to the trip. Because the librarian before me was incredibly organized, I have files for each project dating back to the early 2000s. For years, the final product was a five-page historical report, with many intermediary steps such as 40 notecards, a page outline, and a full MLA bibliography. In recent years, however, the project has been amorphously shape-shifting, as we’ve experimented with modernizing the assessment. David Wee just shared his experiences with teaching note-taking in the 21st century, and I feel the need to do the same with research projects.

This week has been a librarian’s dream….well, if you’re a librarian Energizer Bunny supplied with chocolate-covered espresso beans. Our 8th grade has four sections, and all week is collaborative interdisciplinary chaos. Students are being given two class periods in which to work with three educators —the History teacher, the English teacher, and me— on hand at all times to assist. As someone with a flexible schedule, it’s phenomenal to have the gift of time and the opportunity to work individually with students.

Thinking back to old-school quality research skills, here are some other ways that the project seems to be working well:

    • In the past, topics were limited to history and the topics necessitated that students write reports:
      • Lowell Mill Girls
      • Samuel Adams
      • James Fennimore Cooper
      • Wampanoag Indians
      • Boston Massacre
    • Now, all the 8th grade teachers are working collaboratively via GoogleDocs to develop analytical questions across subject areas. It’s not possible to simply “wiki-up” the answer:
      • How did depictions of the Battle of Bunker Hill differ from the American and British perspectives?
      • What characteristics best describe the Sons of Liberty and how did they go about seeking change in the colonies?
      • How did harnessing water power change the energy budget of Revolutionary times?
      • How have the Boston Red Sox and Fenway Park played a role in Boston’s history and identity?
      • How have burial traditions changed from Revolutionary times?
    • These topics are more comparative and often ask the students to answer a how/why question without the stress of coming up with their own thesis statement. Middle school students benefit from learning what goes into analytical research questions so that they are more comfortable developing their own questions in future projects.
    • Students are able to choose their own topics from a list of 75 instead of picking a topic randomly out of a paper bag. I consider this a huge win for the kids! There’s more buy-in from students who are invested in learning more about topics they’ve chosen themselves.
    • By giving students 300 minutes of unstructured class time after returning from Boston, we’re helping them learn time management. We are able to monitor student progress on a minute-by-minute basis, eliminating the black box surrounding student work that’s sent home.
    • In a somewhat ironic librarian move, I requested that we get rid of the requirement for a “printed book source” and instead offer a range of source choices, of which each student must choose at least three. This means that students are able to choose the sources that best fit their individual topics rather than trying to pigeonhole a source that doesn’t quite work just to meet an arbitrary requirement. (In case you’re interested, the possible sources include the following: book, reputable website, primary source, EBSCO database source, Encyclopedia Britannica article, newspaper article, magazine article, informational brochure, and educational video.)
    • I’m a fan of choice; however, there is one additional source that is a requirement for each student. Since we wanted the students to pay attention during the Boston trip and to take advantage of the expertise of docents at each site, they were required to submit three interview questions to their advisor ahead of time and to interview one expert while in Boston. This lets them practice speaking with an adult in a “professional” setting and gives them direct answers to their questions. I love it!

And here’s the twist. While it might seem like all is well and good, I do have questions about the project in its current form. It is difficult if not impossible to create a project that will engage every student and will build skills for future endeavors. Here are some of the questions I’ve been asking myself:

    • I requested that we broaden the list of possible sources. Therefore, I want to say that giving students the latitude to choose the best sources for their individual topics has been an unmitigated success. It isn’t true. Some students are confused by the different choices and feel like they don’t know where to search for their topics. They turn exclusively to their trusty friend Google. On a case-by-case basis, this is easy to solve, but it doesn’t address the quiet students who want to remain under the radar. When should we be teaching students the best types of sources for individual projects, separate from evaluating sources of a particular type on a particular topic?
    • Whenever you give students the latitude to work independently in a classroom setting, some use the time more wisely than others. For every student who diligently uses every minute, there is another who has gotten off track with cat videos. Then there are the aforementioned quiet students who assert “I have everything I need” whenever you stop by. However, my most urgent question is about the students who stick by the teacher needing constant approval without advancing independently. How do you balance your time with students during unstructured class time?
    • Next up would be the iPads themselves. I have already spent 4 ½ periods today answering bibliography questions. Some of our digital natives don’t know how to italicize, double space, indent, or otherwise meet the requirements of MLA style. And the mobile versions of websites can hide the publication information that you need to cite a source correctly. Do you foresee a major change in specific formatting requirements in the coming years?
    • The format of this project has shifted from a paper to a: “Product: The way you demonstrate your expertise is up to you.  Product should involve creativity or analysis. How can you most effectively and engagingly show your findings?  What skills do you have and how can you utilize them?” This comes shortly in the project description after the Product Objective, which I wholeheartedly support! “Use research to demonstrate expertise on your topic through analysis or creativity.” Again, I struggle with the balance between too much and too little freedom. Many students have chosen to write a five paragraph essay because it is a more familiar format to them. Others are designing posters or padlets. One girl is creating a comic book, and a few are writing a series of letters, such as between a mill girl and a miner and a doctor to his patients. I see some students spending more time on research and others on aesthetics. Some formats make it easier to demonstrate expertise in a subject. I also wonder how to keep grading fair across formats. Is a three minute video comparable to a five paragraph essay or a poster? And do we have teachers have the expertise in each format to gauge the quality of the student’s research as well as the quality of a particular format?
    • Writing takes practice. And that practice must be supported with feedback and revisions. And that takes time. And students don’t necessarily enjoy it. And it can be time consuming for all involved. Does that mean that it isn’t worthwhile? I will be working with the English and History department chairs to determine the approximate number of pages that students have written historically compared with the current year. Our upper class teachers have expressed concern that our students’ writing is not as strong as it used to be. If this is a direct result of fewer writing assignments, is that something we need to address or should we focus more on assignments that demonstrate greater digital literacy?
    • I have been working to align research expectations over the Middle and High school years. My ideal would include two research-based projects in each grade, one with a creative output and one with a written output. The projects could be split across disciplines and would give students the opportunity to practice the research process. We are getting there but aren’t there quite yet. Does anyone have a model they could share?

Just like Dave’s note-taking conclusion, I have no one-size-fits-all solution. There is a team of smart dedicated teachers who want to teach the research process in an approachable and engaging way, and this iteration is a work in progress.

Calling All Writers! Writers Cafe Success Stories

by Joan Lange, Librarian, Pope John Paul II High School

How does the library mission to prepare 21st century learners relate to creative writing?  Should librarians expand their role of guiding students in information and research skills to a more active role in encouraging creative writing?  In an online Global Education Conference , Tony Wagner, author of The Global Achievement Gap, stressed the following as “survival skills” in today’s world:

Oral and Written Communication
Creativity and Imagination

In fact, the senior executives that Wagner polled listed the inability to write convincingly “with voice”–finding an authentic voice in writing–as the number one deficit in their employees.

Six years ago, our library Teen Read Advisory pondered a similar concern about creative writing. One teen pointed out that creative writers were “invisible” at our high school (creative writing seemed underappreciated or writing kept “secret” by fledgling writers). From that meeting, an idea for a Writers Café began to form. Six years later, our annual Writers Café continues to be a much-loved event that celebrates creativity and imagination in an open-mike, café setting.  This article will describe some ways our school reaches out to encourage creative writers and will offer some practical tips for a library-sponsored Writers Café.

Create a Display on Writers about Writing

Feature the words of writers and books on the art of writing in a library book display. Quotes, such as the following from Anne Lamott, stress the importance of students finding their own passionate voice:

All the good stories are out there waiting to be told in a fresh, wild way.
What you have to offer is your own sensibility, maybe your own sense of humor or
insider pathos or meaning…everything we need in order to tell our stories…exists in each of us.
Anne Lamott,  Bird by Bird:  Some Instructions on Writing and Life

 “Be a voracious reader”

Bret Anthony Johnston, editor of Naming the World and Other Exercises for the Creative Writer, offered the following advice to writers during Nashville’s Southern Festival of Books:

  • Be a voracious reader. Apprentice yourself to literature that you love.
  • Enjoy it as a reader first, paying attention to where you connect with the story.
  • On the third and fourth reading, begin to examine the structure; how do you explain it on a craft level.
  • As Saul Bellows observed, “Every writer is a reader moved to emulation.”

Johnston’s book offers a wide range of creative writing activities from noted contemporary authors, such as Joyce Carol Oates, in order to “provide tools in a toolbox for a student to ‘take a risk.’”

Incorporate Visual and Performing Arts

Educator and author Barry Gilmore’s book Drawing the Line suggests using famous artwork or photos as poetry prompts.  Students write through the eyes of a character in the artwork, using sensory words to describe the mood/conflict/setting of the scene. This activity was used with interesting results in our Public Speaking class.  One student used a photo of children in a Holocaust camp to write her poem. An excerpt below shows how concrete details depict inner emotions:

A few strands of barbed wire are all that separates
these twelve children from freedom…
Still, hope lingers through the air like a butterfly fluttering
searching for a spot to rest its tired wings
One girl stares past the prison where she had thought
she would breathe her last breath
And wonders about what’s left for her now,
waiting on the other side,
Morgan Roth, “Hope”

Field trips can be opportunities for writing as well.  While at a Thespian conference, two theater students did a fast-write exercise and created dynamic, short monologues that were later performed at the Writers Café.

Writing is a Cross-Curricular Activity

Foreign Language teachers have encouraged students to write poems. Latin students used a Latin motto such as “Carpe Diem” or “Mormento Mori” for poetic reveries.  They have also retold Greek myths.   AP Spanish students dramatized pressures of teen life in poems after studying the works of Latin American poets.

In Morality class, a student researched the sex slave trade and was inspired to write a poem from the perspective of a teen mother who promises to save her child from the fate she suffered.

Don’t Forget the Newspaper Staff!

Humorous editorials, satiric book reviews, and poignant opinion pieces came from the online school newspaper.  Give these journalists even greater readership through a featured spot at the Writers Café.

Special Guest Authors

Teachers, local authors, and musicians have showcased their creativity at the café.  On two occasions, country music artists have worked with our Hand-in-Hand students, those students with learning disabilities, to create heartwarming songs.  One teen boy’s experience as the assistant manager of the basketball team was told in a song, “My Season with the Team.”  In a joyous moment of the song, this teen called a play that led to a winning basket for the team.

Promoting the Writers Café

Use contests to involve faculty and students and help promote the Writers Café.  In a Fairy
Tale contest, teachers creatively explored their inner psyches and wrote why they connected to
a particular character.  Students were challenged to correctly match the teacher to the chosen character.  For instance, the school nurse wrote the following clue:

            Favorite character: Gretel from the story Hansel and Gretel.
Instead of panic, she used her intellect in a stressful situation, saving the day.

Teachers also dressed as their favorite book character or author, and students were asked to predict which teachers would be characters such as Tinker Bell or Nancy Drew , or authors such as Agatha Christie or Ernest Hemingway. Dress Down Day video and photos of costumed teachers helped build anticipation of the Writers Café.

Create an album of memories with photos posted online (and linked to your LibGuides).  Writers Café 2014 and a photo slideshow of Writers Café 2013.

Organizing the Event

Backdrop. Theater Dept. sets up brick wall backdrop, add a pole lamp, a few stools and a microphone and the stage is set for a poetry reading.

Decorations. Art students and student volunteers created a variety of table decorations.  Ceramic votives; abstract plaster sculptures; book sculpture; bird houses and origami birds; and “messages in a bottle”—lines from poetry and stories cut apart and curled inside clear, corked bottles–are just some of the decorations they have created.

Program.  Use art images/photos from art students to set off themes of writing performances.

Bookmarks.  A nice take-away from the event, create bookmarks to feature excerpts from the writing performances.

Free Refreshments.  Offering refreshments prior to the event makes an enjoyable gathering at the Writers Café.

Teen Seating.  Families and friends are invited to the Writers Café, but creating comfortable seating close to the performance stage is a must so that teens have their own space to support their peers.

Literary Magazine. Our English Department publishes a literary magazine that has been distributed the evening of the Writers Café.

Student Emcees.  Librarians helped with the planning and organized student volunteers–now it is time to sit back and enjoy the Writers Café as selected student(s) emcees the event.

Learn from Success Stories of Other Schools

In sharing our school’s experience with writing events, I hope other librarians will write in and share their success stories.  How do you encourage writers and showcase this creativity to the school community?