Bringing Sources into Conversation: Teaching Literature Review to High School Students (Part 2)

As I mentioned in November, I have become a huge fan of having students read and write literature reviews before heading off to college. Working with students in those upper-level electives that use scholarly sources, I have found that they completely misinterpret what that section of papers is doing and how they are meant to interact with it. More importantly, I find that literature reviews help with basic and highly specific skill-building for which alums express appreciation when they transition to college. In addition, I have several highly collaborative colleagues now (in our AP-equivalent Advanced Topics Statistics, Biology, and History Research and Writing classes) who collaborate on teaching how to build lit reviews, and also invite me to hang around as students work, involve me in draft reading and feedback, as well as assessment.

For my first several years at this school, AP/AT Statistics was the only class that undertook functional literature reviews, and the teacher made time available some years for me to come in and teach students what a lit review was before they wrote it. So, I had several opportunities to experiment. I will admit that, in part, this process has gotten easier as students have had an increasing number of years building relationships with me prior to my appearing for this lesson (in year two, students stared at me stony-faced over a sample lit review about whether dogs feel jealousy and in year three the lit reviews on women and swearing got the same response – in years nine, ten, and eleven, the same lit reviews go over very well among my gender-diverse girls school students, because they are unsurprised that I plumb the Ig Noble award-winning papers for funny, readable, and informative examples).

In any event, over the years I found some methods that worked better than others at teaching students particular skills inherent in lit review writing, but I still found the outcomes of student work quite inconsistent. No matter how I explained the basic building blocks of lit reviews, not all students seemed to get it – or, at least it took more, one-on-one discussion over time to drive the concepts home. So, this year I took on a new approach – and this one seemed to yield much stronger results.

What is a lit review?

This year, I did not tell students what lit reviews are for or how they are organized. Working in pairs or table groups, students read sample lit reviews. Each student would have a different paper. Their task was to compare, discuss, and answer: 

1. What job the lit review was doing? and 

2. What are the building blocks of lit reviews? 

We would then work to synthesize their observations as a class, which gave the classroom teacher and myself opportunities to add observations, clarify details, answer questions, and correct misconceptions. We always pause to look at an example of a sentence that address a single study and one that reflects on several studies that arrive at similar findings.

We do this work on paper — lots of annotating takes place, and we want them focused — so most students had their computers closed. One student took notes for the whole class to refer back to ask they worked (examples). I also gave them Assiya’s (my dedicated Lit Review Research TA) FAQ that I shared back in November, of course!

Creating conversations

In the second round, students looked for signs of “conversation.” How could you tell that authors are bringing sources into conversation with each other? What words did they use to demonstrate a conversation was taking place? Students discovered signal phrases – a concept I learned from The Harker School’s Lauri Vaughan – and transitions in their texts, and I gave them hard copies of the transitions template from They Say, I Say, and a handout on signal phrases with lists of sample verbs. 

(Sidenote: I get these documents into the hands of students every chance I get. They really help students to bring sources into conversation. A former Research TA and I analyzed multiple grade-levels of History writing from the same cohort of students, looking for how they were using evidence and hallmarks of strong skills. We found that precise and varied verb selection was at least highly correlated with good use of evidence. Since then, I encourage those students who do not naturally jive with synthesizing from multiple sources to let verbs lead their way; it is really helpful for them to pull out the list and just ask themselves which fit what they are seeing: are these sources contradicting? building upon? supporting? advocating for? Classroom teachers love that students use more variety than “said….said….said.” I encourage students to keep these docs next to their computers for reference whenever they are working to bring multiple sources into conversation.)

I do not know why I did not try this method years ago. Clearly, having students observe for themselves and puzzle out the “rules” of lit review was so much more effective than telling them.

Organizational schema

The final step of the lesson, which I have used for the last eight years or so, was to give students a set of notecards and have them practice organizing lit reviews based on different prompts. (I have two sets I use, here and here.) For each set of cards, I have three questions, and students work in their groups to pile notecards into the paragraphs they would create to answer each. For dogs, the questions this year were:

  1. Do dogs feel jealousy only over “their person,” or any person?
  2. Do dogs distinguish between social and non-social recipients of their person’s attention?
  3. What method is most effective for testing secondary emotions in dogs?

For each of these questions, most of the studies conveyed on the cards could be used in a lit review. However, for each of these questions, how the sources would be grouped would vary. A lit review might be organized thematically, methodologically, chronologically, etc. This exercise reinforces the idea they discovered earlier in the class that lit reviews are not “serial book reports” (a paragraph going into depth on each source) but synthetic documents.

I’ve come to love working with students on lit reviews, and feel quite passionate about the feelings of agency and accomplishment that they engender. Do you collaborate on any lit review instruction or creation? How do you approach this work?

The Onus of Collaboration

We are in the midst of a search for a senior administrator role at my school, and as I crafted my question for our open sessions with the candidates I got to thinking (again) about structures and unspoken norms within school communities. As librarians, it seems like we are always seeking, depending on, and managing collaborations. As an upper school librarian, my ability to get in a classroom requires collaboration. Even programs that are internal to the library cannot wholly thrive without buy-in or collaboration from other parts of the school. Here are my initial thoughts on the systemic ways our upper schools place the onus of collaboration squarely on the shoulders of librarians.

But first, two caveats. While some elements of this may ring true for LS/MS librarians, I cannot speak to that directly, so I am speaking particularly about upper schools. Secondly, what I say herein is about structure. Each of the issues in faculty-librarian collaborations I speak to here are not an issue with faculty, rather about why the expectation of collaboration resides unduly on librarians because of how our schools are set up. I expect we all have some examples of successful, ongoing, meaningful collaborations with exceptional faculty who really “get it.” Which is great. Truly.

And yet, in most upper schools, librarians teach at the invitation of curricular faculty. Our job descriptions all (I suspect) have a key statement along the lines of “support, collaborate, and co-teach with faculty,” a clear expectation that we will be working with faculty on research projects and instilling information literacy in our students through collective work with teachers. Do faculty job descriptions implore them to “collaborate and co-teach with librarians?” Nope. So, if there is no structural support that reinforces collaboration from both parties, is it surprising that the onus of collaboration lies on the librarians?

inequality by Creative Mania from Noun Project (CC BY 3.0)

Because it is part of our jobs, librarians can be evaluated on our collaborations and co-teaching, whether that is by the number of these collaborations or instruction sessions “co-taught” with faculty, or by the depth or impact of such collaboration. But, to what degree can that be a meaningful assessment when there is no equality to the expectation? A teacher may choose not to collaborate with librarians at all for a host of reasons–they feel they have too much content to cover to “give up” a day, they may not recognize that there is a connection between the library and the content or skills they are teaching, they may not have done it in the past and don’t want to do the work to change their course to find the time, or any number of other reasons. And while, sure, a librarian could keep at it with such a teacher, or work to convince them of the IL skills in the class they could help with, or even pitch a lesson idea, the only one invested in making that collaboration work is the librarian. I doubt many faculty have annual goals that mention library co-teaching, but I bet a lot of librarians have goals to work with more departments or improve or expand instructional collaborations.

Even successful collaborations can potentially fall apart from year to year through no fault of the librarian or ill will of the teacher–maybe they got sick and missed a day or two so they bump the library day to catch up, or perhaps changed an assignment that the collaboration was tied to so that the instruction session disappears. Or, a great collaborator teaches a different course, retires, moves to a new school. So now, the librarian has to explain why they have fewer sessions than in the past. Are teachers ever asked why they have failed to co-teach with the librarian?

Let’s also look a bit closer at the idea of co-teaching. According to Wikipedia, co-teaching is “the division of labor between educators to plan, organize, instruct, and make assessments on the same group of students.” When we consider the structure of a school, the “co” is undermined by the fact that one partner has a codified curriculum and one does not. Without IL as a formal curriculum in the school and without the librarian allocated time to teach, the underlying power dynamic will always disadvantage the librarian in collaborations and co-teaching. Inherently, this amounts to something more akin to librarian as guest-speaker than librarian as co-teacher.

If our schools are earnest about library collaborations and co-teaching, administrators need to distribute the onus of those collaborations between librarians and our faculty collaborators in a systematic way. If we are meant to develop information literacy skills in our students through faculty collaborations then we need to have school structures that support clear scope and sequence of IL curriculum as well as time to do that teaching. And, we need to be supported in creating and implementing assessment of that learning as well as the collaborations themselves. Then, when librarians and faculty come together to collaborate on a research project, or to plan to co-teach, it might look a lot more like sharing.

partnership by Gargantia from Noun Project (CC BY 3.0)

If you want to go fast…

I have been active in AASL and AISL since I began as a librarian 20 years ago. I won’t be at AASL in Tampa this year. I always learn so much at these gatherings, and I will miss the learning and the fellowship (not to mention the free books and swag 🙂). I served on this year’s AASL social media committee, and I will miss seeing my fellow committee members in person (our work was virtual), and will diligently read social media to follow along as best I can.  

If you haven’t heard me talk about it before, both my kids are/were rowers.  As my oldest is an English teacher and rowing coach (and Masters level competitor) at an Independent School in Princeton, NJ, I still follow the rowing scene closely (don’t get me started…). Today I saw this in a social media post.

True, that!  Attending conferences, especially in person has confirmed this over and over.  There is always something new to learn, even if it’s not something you can apply In toto to your personal practice. Meeting and talking with other Librarians brings us so much.  These takeaways can come in bits and pieces.  They will form connections to other snippets, many from your own experiences. You might make something no one has thought of before (and you can present it at your next conference)!

A few years ago, in Louisville, KY, I was fortunate enough to attend a session with a Battle Creek, MI high school librarian.  Her students participated the National Holocaust Memorial Museum’s History Unfolded project.  This crowdsourced collaboration allowed the students to learn just what America knew about Hitler and the atrocities in Germany, and when they knew it. These scholars-in-progress (aren’t we all?) searched and read newspapers on historical events from the 1930s and 1940s.  Their project culminated in town-wide exhibits, visits from Holocaust survivors, and an award from Michigan’s governor, among other accolades and opportunities.  

After the session (which was too short!), many of us gathered with the presenter, Gigi Lincoln, and chatted.  We exchanged takeaways, business cards, and a promise from Ms. Lincoln to respond to any questions we had.  For the next several months (until the pandemic), we exchanged ideas and resources and cherished the wisdom of Gigi Lincoln.

While I have not put the entire project into use, I have used many smaller aspects.  

Crowdsourcing:  The Library of Congress is crowd-sourcing its collection of musical theater sheet music.  Our musical theater students have been pouring over the collection…adding lyrics, composers, titles, and publishers to the LOC archives, while adding to their knowledge of themes, techniques, and the history of American musical theater. 

The Research Sprint: Gigi Lincoln spoke in detail about the “research sprint”. The state organization in Michigan provides a robust suite of databases to its school and public libraries.  However, these would not be enough for her students to find the local newspapers needed for information on the project. Gigi’s idea?  A “research sprint”!  Students visited Michigan State University’s libraries.  In collaboration with an MSU History professor, and the US History librarian, the students used America’s Historical Newspapers to search for information.  The students enjoyed lunch in one of the cafeterias and also had a tour of the MSU campus.  In our Advanced US History (offered through Indiana Univeristy) we didn’t travel far – we searched African American newspapers available at the LOC for an “in-school field trip”.  With the assistance of the History Librarian from a nearby college we spent four hours (and a pizza lunch) pouring over the magnificent collection, looking for evidence on the social accomplishments of significant African Americans in the late 1800s.  The kids loved it (and not just the pizza and Halloween candy)!  I’m always preaching the “community of scholars” (thanks Courtney Lewis!), but on this occasion, they experienced it for themselves.  

Attending conferences – whether local or far away – is one way to experience the “together” we need to continue to advance our practice and our profession.  I encourage you to take advantage of as many as you can!  And, registration is open for AISL 2024, in sunny Orlando.  Together we’ll go far!

Finding Treasures in Our Communities

A previous AISL article, “Exploring Our National Treasures,” highlighted the rich learning experiences that can be accessed through our national museums. This article will describe a successful collaboration that grew from relationships with local organizations in Houston, Texas. As a member of the AISL organization, I value the many ways that independent school librarians across the United States and Canada network to provide ideas and best practices for promoting literacy. But there is a special connection that forms within our local librarian communities. The Houston Area Independent Schools Library Network (HAISLN) brings together librarians who share ideas as well as serve on committees to recommend book titles for the HAISLN Recommended Reading Lists. In January, HAISLN organized an opportunity to build collaborations through a meeting held at the Holocaust Museum Houston (HMH). Librarians were encouraged to bring a teacher from their school, and together they toured the museum and learned about the museum’s educational outreach programs.

My school’s 7th grade ELA teacher, Dr. Matthew Panozzo, joined me for this HMH presentation, and we were impressed by the Digital Curriculum Trunks. HMH loans these trunks to schools so that students can read a variety of books about the Holocaust experience, and curricular resources are provided to deepen students’ understanding. As Dr. Panozzo and I toured the HMH museum, we excitedly discussed the possibility of broadening students’ understanding and empathy. The 7th graders had been exploring themes of social justice, and a class trip to HMH was planned in support of reading Elie Wiesel’s book Night. What if students read an additional book presenting the Holocaust experience and students were challenged to write a persuasive letter to an authentic audience, such as the HMH museum? With the identified audience in mind, students would propose the inclusion of their chosen book for the Digital Curriculum Trunks through 1) a brief book summary; 2) personal connections to the book; and 3) suggested classroom extension activities. This letter-writing component would provide a meaningful goal for the students’ independent reading and deepen student engagement.

Book Tasting
Students sampled possible fiction and nonfiction titles in a “book tasting,” and they submitted a google form of their top three books along with a brief explanation of their interest in the book titles. Through our school library’s print and ebook collection, most students were matched with book titles that presented a variety of voices and experiences of the Holocaust–without requiring students to purchase their own copies. This drove home the point to students that our school was privileged to have such wonderful resources–the HMH Digital Curriculum Trunks provide resources to schools that need book resources or that wish to expand their own classroom library reading materials.

Letter Writing
Here is a sample letter for the book The Light in Hidden Places that was shared with students.
The students’ letters identified a variety of themes and personal connections. Highlighted below are a few of the students’ connections and suggested extension activities.

The Light in Hidden Places by Sharon Cameron
Themes: Strengths of sisterhood and friendship.
Personal Connection: Fear–”breaking out in a sweat” while reading tense scenes.
Extension Activity: Draw an apartment space to hide Jews and note necessities, such as
access to food, water, sanitation, etc.

Alias Anna by Greg Dawson and Susan Hood
Theme: Importance of family and staying true to oneself and one’s passions (talent for music).
Personal Connection: Historical story takes place in Ukraine, and it reminds one of current struggles and conflicts in Ukraine.
Extension Activity: Create own alias and personal motivation (example: the character Zhanna took as her alias the name “Anna” and she was motivated to stay “Alive.”) Create a poster to visualize your alias and motivation. 

Resistance by Jennifer Nielsen
Theme: Courage, but also “feelings of guilt that come with saving yourself instead of others, even if it is the logical and safe thing to do.”
Personal Connection: Teenage point of view of the main character seemed authentic–conflicting emotions of difficult relationships and missing a family member or friend.
Extension Activity: Cast the fictional characters in the book and describe why a particular actor or actress would best convey the book character.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Theme: Personal loss, importance of building “new family” and friend relationships.
Personal Connection: Voice of the narrator, Death, helps the reader to better visualize and empathize with the characters and conflicts.
Extension Activity: What Would You Do? Step into one of the scenes of conflict in the book and discuss how you might have intervened or reacted to Nazi persecutions of the Jews.

Final Reflections
Dr. Panozzo shared the following reflection about the value of this independent reading and persuasive letter-writing project:

When it comes to teaching reading, it is important to provide students with multiple entry-points to learn about a topic. Visiting Holocaust Museum Houston, reading the class novel Night, and students selecting their own books provided various opportunities for students to engage with the horrors of the Holocaust. But it wasn’t just about learning of the devastation; it was about finding their role in always remembering to never forget. This project inspired a sense of  hope as they read about the different ways families and friends looked after each other. This project helped us see the injustices of our world through a lens of the past, offering clarity in uncertain and unsettling times. Lastly, this project allowed students to take up the baton of teaching our rich history to others.

This collaborative project was an experience of serendipity; we discovered “treasures” in our own community. We are thankful to the HAISLN organization that made possible our visit with HMH, and we are grateful for the HMH program, the Digital Curriculum Trunks that promote understanding of the Holocaust. And, we are thankful to our students who embraced this opportunity to connect with the important themes of justice.

The Times They **Keep** A-Changin’

Welcome to a new school year! This post, despite its title, is a cheerful (hopefully cheering?) look at changes still underway….

Current library door decorated by Christina Appleberry, Library Services Specialist


Show of hands: How many of you have returned to this year only to discover a new wave of changes to your program?

I may be the only one with my hand in the air, but I doubt it.

This week the ten-month-contract educators all returned to my school. Like many other schools, we have had a lot of shifting around: some new elements to our schedule and some new teachers; switching up who is teaching what class and changing out class deans, not to mention transitioning who is the lead teacher for any given class.

Amid this refresh, we have been discovering quite a few unanticipated changes that are a challenge to our program. For example, some tweaks to the school’s method of orienting new students – in order to avoid too much school time before the year formally begins, a response to the long arm of COVID-driven societal changes – is transforming the way we in the library will meet new students.

Similarly, I have intentionally ended the project that gave me the most relationship-building and instructional time with our 9th graders, the first year upper school students. During our January intersession, each grade-level has a special project. For the nine years I have been at my school, we have had the same (generally speaking) project for our ninth grade, and I have been on the teaching team since day one. During lockdown, the grade level-project was (by necessity) cut from an October-February, 40-50-hour project to being just 6 hours in January. We adapted the curriculum and the expectations, but we really needed to stop trying to figure out how to fit a big thing into a small box. As the newly minted lead of the project, I decided it was time to “murder my darlings” (to quote Arthur Quiller-Couch) and set that project aside altogether.

In doing so, I forfeit many hours of instruction and interaction with our ninth graders. Particularly, hours that colleagues were required to have me in their classrooms to prepare students for the project. Hours that I counted on to introduce the philosophy and basic logistics of upper school research education, not to mention time to interact at length with individual students and their four-person groups. It is a moment of letting go for the greater good. I am trying not to panic.

So – I am heading into this year well aware that there is very little that will be the same as it has been in past years. I have a lot less clarity than I have in about a decade about where my work will be situated in the coming year. All of this sounds very doom and gloom, but really – I am striving to remember – it is very exciting! I always strive to question what I have been doing, look it over, refresh it. It is tiring, but really a chance to question my assumptions, involve my Research TAs in decision-making and curriculum formulation, and learn. Well…here is my opportunity.

The truth is, I always have many more skills I want to teach than I will have the opportunity to undertake with students. Since I always have to make hard choices, I am focusing on the chance to pick what I think is most useful to students now, what skills they most need today. Might this year’s ninth graders not get some of the skills that ninth graders got five years ago? Certainly. Will they have a chance to learn something new and deeply relevant? Also, certainly. It is really mostly upside, with a side-order of hustle.

As I am writing, I am realizing that I want to frame conversations with colleagues as an exploration of what today’s students need that is different from past years. Approach with an assumption that change is in the air (as is the opportunity to keep what we have built in the past). It really is an exciting opportunity, now that I think about it.

So, thank you for listening. You have given me the opportunity to think through a scary moment to the excitement underneath.

Where will this year go? Who knows! I look forward to sharing the journey and hope that you will do the same. May you have a meaningful and uplifting new year.

1 week & 2 days until AISL2022!

The AISL2022 conference planning committee is hoping you will join us for all or part of 2 half-days of emerging, engaging & evolving. Here is some information we thought you might want about this event coming up March 3 -5:

What is AISL2022?   AISL2022 is this year’s annual conference for the Association of Independent School Librarians. We have a rich history of conferencing and connecting and while the conference is usually held in person, this year’s offering (like the last) is virtual in light of the current pandemic.

What do I get for $40? The conference includes 18 great programs, 4 exciting author panels, roundtable discussions, poster sessions, and, of course, the Marky Award and Skip Anthony lecture for you to enjoy. And the prize-giving that has been occurring during registration will continue throughout the whole conference!

What if I can’t get away from school? Registering allows you to not only take part in live sessions but to access all material after the conference, so you may wish to register even if you’re unable to attend at scheduled times. This wealth of information is only available to those who’ve registered for the conference. Note that programming is scheduled over 2 half-days rather than 1 full to better accommodate a variety of schedules.

I’m unsure about the virtual format. AISL2022 is being hosted on the Whova conference platform. Whova allows us to integrate sessions, speakers, and sponsors, providing you with one place to access all the conference offers – either on the web or using the Whova mobile app.

Tell me more about the Skip Anthony lecture. We’re delighted to once again feature wonderful authors as speakers at our celebratory Skip Anthony event. Rayna Hyde-Lay of Shawnigan Lake School in B.C. shares these details:

  • Pamela Harris will speak about her novel When You Look Like Us, the story of a brother searching for his sister after she goes missing.  Law enforcement and other community members don’t get involved with the search because she runs with the wrong crowd, and all the while he is trying to keep her disappearance a secret – until he can’t anymore. This is a lovely story of sibling connection, difficulties in families and community support.
  • Jenny Torres Sanchez : the author of We are not From Here is also great to follow on Instagram. The novel involves the struggle of three youths in their hometown and their decision to migrate to the USA.  It is passionate, filled with beautiful descriptions of tough decisions they each face, both while they are traveling and the decision to leave; this book “broke my heart and gave me goosebumps”.

I miss connecting with people! Join in on a Chat n’ Chew Lunch on Thursday, or Brunch with a Librarian on Saturday to connect with someone new (or old :). And use social media to connect online; see #AISL2022 on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

I miss connecting with vendors! In our pool of generous sponsors, we have 2 (FactCite and Overdrive) who will be hosting virtual booths; see the schedule for the time dedicated to those who wish to connect with them live online.

How do I sign up? Click here to sign up for AISL22! If you need to pay by cheque, just use the “alternate pay type” option.

One School, One Book – fingers crossed and breath held

[Correction: I originally credited one of the guides linked in this post to Amy Voorhees. The guide was actually created by Nancy Florio. So sorry for the error!]

The summer before I arrived at this school, someone made an attempt to start an all-school summer reading initiative. It did not work out. I don’t really know the details, but from what I gleaned in the aftermath, the book wasn’t chosen carefully enough, buy-in wasn’t built…I’m not sure what else happened. All I know is that there were boxes of unused copies of the book in my library storage room and a clear “don’t try this again anytime soon” vibe coming from pretty much everyone. So, I didn’t. Until now.

Thanks to a graduate of the class of 2021, we are launching One School, One Book for summer 2022. Brenna spent her senior year conducting research on books that are and are not typically assigned to students in independent schools through their English sources. She did this for her Honors Statistics Research course, one of our six capstone courses for seniors. She concluded not only that many voices are underrepresented in high school English courses, but that some types of stories may be better experienced outside of class and within different kinds of reading communities. In the end, she proposed One School, One Book (OSOB) as a new way the school can engage students and community members in reading experiences that act as mirrors for some, windows for others, and (we hope) provide an opportunity for community-building around literature.

Her proposal was approved, she graduated, and then it became time for me to make this happen. Eeks! For those of you who do this regularly, you rock. So far, it’s a bigger undertaking than I imagined, but it’s so much fun. While we’re experiencing a few novice hiccups, things are chugging along. We started by consulting the ALA guide and this excellent one from Nancy Florio at an AISL Summer Institute (thanks, Nancy!). We then set out to create our book selection committee, which consists of twenty-two members – a combination of current students, alumnae, teachers, staff, and parents. We drafted a mission statement:

One School, One Book (OSOB) brings the Flintridge Sacred Heart community together – students, faculty, staff, alums, and parents – to share a reading experience that amplifies the voices and experiences of  mis- or underrepresented individuals and groups. It is an opportunity to discuss stories that may diverge from our own lived experiences, as well as to find our own stories in the books we read. One School, One Book  is designed to engage our minds collectively, to exercise our compassionate hearts, and to open our arms to diverse and inclusive perspectives. 

Then we started talking about books. In the beginning, we created a list of thirty-eight books (curated by library staff and some committee members). After reviewing synopses and book reviews, we narrowed our list to five titles that the committee would read over the course of about two months. They were all YA titles, since we wanted to keep the books suitable for all students grades nine to twelve, and since we wanted the protagonist to be in that age range. We were sensitive to the length of the books and our students’ other summer reading and homework obligations, so books over 325 pages were excluded (a difficult choice!). And then, we read.

Committee members submitted written feedback as they read, but the best discussion came from the zooms we held during those two months. It was so much fun to talk with these amazing readers about the books in such detail. Would the story resonate with our community? What would our students gain from reading each book? What community engagement opportunities would there be? How will we create excitement around whichever title we choose? This has been, so far, my favorite part of the process.

Did I worry at one point that we wouldn’t agree on a book and that we’d have to delay another year and that the entire thing would crumble before we’d even really started? YES! Our entire committee agreed that if that happened, it would be ok. We’d try again next year with another batch of books. We wouldn’t be discouraged.

We voted, and though not everyone was head over heels about the same titles, we did have a clear majority winner. This summer, our One School, One Book selection is Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram. We are so stupidly excited about this book! It may seem odd to have chosen a book about a boy for an all-girls school, but it’s actually a great fit. Darius is a fantastic kid, for one. And a book about a boy may ensure that none of our students feel completely spotlit by our selection, which some of the other books may have done. Darius includes important storylines about friendship, family connections, depression, intergenerational communication, and living with multiple identities (not all of which feel ‘right’ all the time). It also includes soccer, tea, Star Trek, and lots of other topics that we can design activities and events around for the fall.

Now that we’ve chosen the book, it’s time to really get down to business. This is where novice hiccups will probably show up the most. We’re going for local bookseller sponsors, parent involvement, faculty buy-in, student buy-in, and the participation of our entire community. Will this effort flop like the one more than a decade ago? I really don’t think so (fingers crossed and knock on wood). We’ve been thoughtful and thorough so far, I believe. We have a great team assembled, I know. We are flexible. We are ok with some novice hiccups.  If this all works out, we’ll have an annual program in place that was started because of a student’s capstone project, which is pretty cool. 

So wish us luck! And for those of you who’ve done this before, please send advice !

Why We (Should) Write

I’m always surprised when wonderful librarians who are so erudite and thoughtful speaking on some area of their practice recoil when I suggest they write an article. Lack of confidence (which I don’t understand because they have so much knowledge) or the reason lack of time (which I completely understand) usually predominate as excuses.

But as David McCullough says, “Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.” To sit down and write out what you do or your accumulated knowledge about a given topic or book means organizing your thoughts and making connections for others which compels you to be a stronger librarian and more intentional in your work. As school librarians, it’s important to place ourselves in the shoes of our students. Seeing my article bibliographies when I open Noodletools or discussing how I organize my notes for a paper lets students know that I use the tools I’m asking them to use in their research and writing process (although they are mystified that I do it voluntarily).

Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard

David mccullough

Consider also the benefit to your relationship with teachers and administrators. When we complain that few of our colleagues and division administrators understand what we do, writing an article that demonstrates our pedagogical understanding of some aspect of our job draws the curtain back on what happens in the library and they are suitably dazzled. Getting the school’s name out in the form of your bio at the bottom of an article or in discussing what the school does well places librarians in a position of being seen as a positive advocate for the school, never a bad thing.

The connections I’ve made to other librarians through my writing have been invaluable. I’m a big believer that you get back what you put into the universe and writing is sharing a part of yourself. In everything I have written, someone has reached out to let me know how I helped them or sent an email that inspired an exchange that offered me more knowledge about my topic. Writing offers school librarians a chance to step out of our relative isolation and make contact with our compatriots outside of our school campus, an important aspect when we don’t always have a chance to mingle daily with someone who knows our job. 

What to Write About

School librarianship suffers from the fact that the majority of us spend our day putting out fires, ordering materials, navigating databases, and delivering amazing information literacy instruction in our library…and rarely mingle with other librarians. We assume everyone else does these activities like we do, and therefore don’t recognize when we are being innovative. I have never visited a single library (and pre-COVID I made a point of doing best practices visits to three to nine libraries a year) where I didn’t come away with a tip or practice idea that made me look like a goddess when I returned to my school.

While a little dated at this point, several chapters continue to have wonderful advice to offer new writers

Walt Crawford in his book, First Have Something to Say: Writing for the Library Profession, encourages writers to think of themselves as an expert rather than as an authority, a term which has a lot more baggage. An expert has attained some level of mastery (which we all have done) whereas an authority exudes a judgemental gravitas that the majority of school librarians thankfully don’t possess. You are an expert on a host of different topics relating to your work and people would benefit from reading about your perspective. If you’ve ever presented at a conference, write up your presentation into an article or blog post and share it with a wider audience. Publishing means your print article will be more findable in scholarly databases, or your blog article on an established website will be indexed more readily in search engines, so you would reach a wider audience than the 40 people in the ballroom of your conference session by also publishing an account of your work.

Think about what you love about being a librarian. Is it children’s or YA literature? Be a book reviewer or write articles about themes you’re seeing. Information literacy? Tons of magazines, both commercial and organization-specific publications, want to see writing on instruction. Professional development geared towards teachers? Now you’ve branched out from librarian-focused magazines and journals to broader educational organizations like ISTE and ASCD. Copyright and intellectual freedom are hot topics that affect our work and they are frustrating areas where people always need advice. And kudos to you if you have an area of “cross-pollination”; management, technology, engineering, higher education are all areas of expertise you might have from non-school librarian work you’ve done. Making connections between those areas and our work with school libraries could be of enormous help to the profession. 

Finding a Venue for Your Writing

Full disclosure, the vast majority of my writing opportunities came directly or indirectly from my volunteer work. My first writing opportunity was for the KQ Blog in 2004 after someone had heard me complain at an ALA conference (probably at the ISS Section table back when we would meet by section and committee at tables in a gigantic, cacophonous ballroom) that you couldn’t apply for National Board Certification without being state-certified. My momentary rant led to an offer to write the “anti” position for a pair of blog posts about whether state certification should be necessary for independent school librarians (Lewis 2004).

If you think that serving on a committee is out of your financial or time grasp, consider that many regional and state organizations (as well as ALA, AASL, and ISTE) now offer virtual committees rather than requiring that you shoulder the expense of travel to distant conferences. Offering to write for your membership organization’s blog or journal is a wonderful way to dip a toe into the writing waters and often gives a less intense introduction to the editing process than if you started with a more national journal or book chapter for an academic press. Remember that writing often comes from connections, but it also fosters connections. Considering that we have jobs dependent on fostering relationships and collaborating, seeing writing as an extension of that role should make this activity feel more natural.

Before you choose a potential publication, you need to decide which audience you’re aiming for. I separate this into “the choir” and “has no idea what we do.” “The choir” refers to the publications and blogs you read right now for your work which are squarely aimed at librarians. You can write assuming certain background knowledge and your content is usually more practice-focused. “The choir” also encompasses the weightier peer-reviewed journals where you might publish action research or ethnographic studies (I’m assuming you aren’t doing long-term statistical analysis as a practicing librarian but if I’m wrong, go, you! And write an article about that balance, please.)

“Has no idea what we do” probably triggers the faces of quite a few people you know; think about what roles they have. Independent School, the magazine of the National Association of Independent Schools, has been – along with their elusive and exclusive conference committee – the Holy Grail of librarians hoping to make our work more visible to the NAIS audience. Several years ago, an independent school librarian actually managed to co-author an article for Independent School that referred to the role of the independent school librarian and – I swear to you – it was the scene in Sorcerer’s Stone when Voldemort is “killed” by the infant Harry Potter, with ecstatic witches were setting off fireworks and shaking the hands of strange muggles because of their happiness. Independent school librarians sent congratulatory texts and “did you see??!!” emails across every known listserv as this glass ceiling shattered. ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) and ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) also have excellent periodicals that administrators frequently read and have even broader audiences. Getting the school librarian role in front of them and emphasizing how we increase student achievement is crucial work that can be accomplished through writing articles about our impact.

A fantastic anthology of short articles covering a broad spectrum of writing-related topics

So practically, where should you look for writing opportunities? First, I’d hit up your databases or walk into the nearest academic library which usually lets you do a search on-site using their resources. Take a look at what has been written about your topic and consider where there are gaps you could fill or if the information needs updating. Look at the length and tone of articles for individual publications to get a sense of their preferences. The below list links to the “writing for publication” page of each of the following venues where you can find their query and length requirements as well as formatting guidelines. Since many of them have themes for each issue and are looking for features or supporting articles on that theme, it pays to ask if your proposed idea could fit into a future issue if you’re not sure. Carol Smallwood’s anthology, Writing and Publishing: The Librarian’s Handbook is a treasure trove of infinitely readable short articles on a variety of topics related to writing for publication, including how to handle the query process.

On September 14, 2021, AISL hosted an informational webinar on writing for publication featuring Meg Featheringham, AASL’s editor of Knowledge Quest, the KQ Blog, and AASL’s e-newsletter, and Rebecca Morris, co-editor at School Library Connection. These knowledgeable editors had valuable information to offer to librarians considering writing, with great behind-the-scenes considerations they take into account when choosing manuscripts. Definitely check it out, not only for the great information but to see how lovely and not scary editors are.

Here is a list of potential markets for your articles, in absolutely no alphabetical order:

An Altruistic Approach

I’m assuming some readers might still feel reluctant about writing an article. Since librarians skew to an altruistic personality type, I’m going to take advantage of that tendency and connect writing to helping others. Has there been a librarian whose work meant a lot to you? Writing an article that demonstrates how you apply their work to your practice gets more people aware of them. You might have a wonderful teacher or librarian at your school who you want to help develop professionally and bring attention to their work; writing an article together helps you both. Finally, thinking about what articles would benefit someone new to the profession allows you to create work that helps your colleagues. 

Consider also that writing for publication can be a wonderful PD group to offer at your school. The power of faculty members coming together and being a little vulnerable speaking about what they do in the classroom and worries they have about writing can’t be overestimated. Your school librarian role helps you as a facilitator for this type of work, since you can help teachers brainstorm ideas, highlight your databases for searching for potential subject-specific publications they could target, and edit one another’s work (having a second set of eyes compare a manuscript to the publication guidelines is worth its weight in gold). Teachers will not forget your helping them promote themselves and the work they do while you strengthen relationships. You may help someone so well with their APA citation that they have you come in to teach their class the same skill!

Hopefully, you’ve found a few good reasons to consider writing, as well as an inspiration or two that gives you some idea of what you might want to share. Please consider the below list of committee members as your personal pep rally and don’t hesitate to reach out with questions. Librarians who write build community and a powerful practice, so make the library world a better place and share a piece of yourself. 

Want more help and advice? Please feel free to reach out to AISL’s Publications Committee members:

Debbie Abilock: dabilock@gmail.com 

Tasha Bergson-Michelson: tbergsonmichelson@castilleja.org 

Sarah Davis Sarah.Davis@viewpoint.org 

Christina Karvounis: KarvounisC@bolles.org 

Cathy Leverkus cathyl@thewillows.org 

Courtney Lewis cllewis@st.catherines.org 

Alyssa Mandel amandel@oda.edu 

References

Crawford, W. (2003). First Have Something to Say: Writing for the Library Profession. American Library Association.

Lewis, C. L. (2004), January/February). Independent School Library Media Specialists: State Certification Unnecessary. Knowledge Quest on the Web. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org.sapl.sat.lib.tx.us/ala/mgrps/ divs/aasl/aaslpubsandjournals/knowledgequest/kqwebarchives/kqwebarchives.cfm. (Totally not the link anymore – I have no idea if you can even find this outdated initial writing piece.)

Smallwood, C. (2010). Writing and Publishing: The Librarian’s Handbook (ALA guides for the busy librarian). American Library Association.

Adjust Accordingly

Remember Marie Kondo? I don’t know about you, but it seems like a lifetime ago when I watched her Netflix series and then bought her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and then actually tried to KonMari my life. I think fondly back to that pile of clothes I collected, holding up each item waiting to determine if this sweater or that pair of pants “sparked joy” and boy, in retrospect, the days when those were my biggest concerns seems unrecognizable. Even my husband got into the act, and we spent several days embracing our clothing, blissfully unaware of what the future held for all of us. 

Adjust Accordingly

Some of you may be familiar with the author and illustrator Dallas Clayton—he’s a big hit with the elementary school crowd—his biggest super-power seeming to be the ability to affirm children and spark joy during school visits.

I came to know about him from my days as an elementary school librarian and while I’m a good number of years and several thousand teens away from the lovely Shepaug River Valley and Rumsey Hall School, I still have a poster of his on my wall with this simple message. I believe I’m pretty good at the first three parts—it’s the adjust accordingly that I still need to work on.

Farewell to the 2021 School Year

Due to a fortuitous decision by our Head of School to power through Winter and Spring terms without any breaks, our school year is over, our seniors have graduated, our end-of-year meetings are complete, and most of our faculty have headed off for a well-deserved break. I have several more weeks of work before my summer vacation starts and will spend some of that in housekeeping activities—the behind-the-scenes tasks that might not spark joy, but are necessary to keep a library running smoothly and ensure a smooth opening in the fall: shelving books, cleaning study carrels, removing old signage, doing inventory. 

Once these tasks are finished, I’ll turn my attention to thinking about what I consider the heart of my work here as a librarian and that I personally get the most satisfaction from: how might I connect more fully with my community, what lessons can I change or adapt to make my New Student Seminar (NSS) more relevant to and meaningful for my students, and how can I create and nurture collaborative relationships with our faculty?

“Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast”

From emails on our listserv and posts on our blog, plus conversations with AISL colleagues, I’ve realized most of us expend a good deal of our time and energy strategizing how to forge connections with our faculty, especially those of us in middle and secondary schools where formally scheduled visits to the library are no longer part of the academic day. We middle and secondary school librarians need to make connections with faculty who are willing to collaborate with us on projects big and small and who allow us the opportunity to work with their students on critical thinking skills and the nuances of research. 

Although “show don’t tell” is frequently associated with writing, I see its application in the teacher/librarian relationship. There’s a distinct difference, I believe, between teachers telling their students to come see us vs. showing students our value by inviting us into the classroom. Without an invitation, we must rely on students reaching out to us for support on their own or planning optional programming that we know will not reach every student—and often not reach the students who need us the most. I recognize that the ability to self-advocate is an important skill for our students to develop, but I believe that sometimes students don’t know what they don’t know, especially in regards to understanding the myriad types of information they encounter on the internet. Management consultant Peter Drucker posits that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” and from my vantage point this highlights precisely why we need to incorporate embedded librarians into the culture of the school as one of the best ways to support the mastery of core competencies associated with information literacy and research skills. 

What Sparked Joy?

Now that my school year is over, I’m starting the process of looking back, seeing what I accomplished, what I didn’t accomplish that I wanted to, what I’m willing to let go of, and what I would like to hold onto as we reset for the fall.

Curating new resources to support our DEI initiatives
I am fortunate to have been able to work closely with our Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion on a number of initiatives and resources to support social justice. This work and my relationship with our DEI Director cemented my belief that while much of the work of the library happens within its four walls, we also need to reach beyond those walls if we want to be relevant in the life of the school. The resources in our LibGuide on Race, Racism, and Anti-Racism are used as a shared foundation for discussion on race in our Courageous Conversations among faculty and staff. As a living document, additional resources were added in response to the violence against the AAPI community. There is a tremendous value in this resource to our community as its pages have been accessed over 14,000 times since it was published last summer. I’m a numbers geek, so for me I see a great return on the investment I and two of my colleagues put into the creation of this guide. The Lunar New Year guide was created to support the joyful aspects of AAPI culture and the Black American Studies guide provides useful links to resource for a new course offering.

Working with our peer tutors
A value-added program that isn’t directly library related but is sponsored by our library is Peer Tutoring. Normally our 30+ peer tutors work out of the library during the 8-10PM study hall block Sunday – Friday evening. Due to COVID restrictions limiting one student per table, we had to completely rethink how we would offer tutoring. Student-driven suggestions resulted in a successful program offered over Zoom, in dorm common rooms, and toward the end of the year once again in the library when a change in restrictions allowed two students per table. Peer tutors who were studying remotely joined on Zoom from as far afield as China, Egypt, and South Korea. It was a wild year and scheduling was a challenge, but one the tutors met with grace and enthusiasm. It was an honor to coordinate the program and work with this committed group of young people to meet the challenges presented by COVID. Each week they collectively devoted over 50 hours in service to their peers and the school while juggling their own school work, sports, and other commitments. Three cheers for youthful energy and their ability and willingness to think outside the box!

Our Spring Peer Tutoring Schedule, a combination of online, in-library, and in-dorm locations.

Teaching New Student Seminar to a cohort of 4th Formers (10th grade)
Over the summer I took the Design Bootcamp course at Global Online Academy and adapted the curriculum of my NSS course to accommodate our newly hybrid learning environment. I designed as many lessons as I could to be self-paced with choice boards that encouraged engagement and student agency – a kinder, gentler curriculum. Using a combination of traditional formats and ed tech tools for assessment, I discovered my students were more engaged with the material and enjoyed sharing their thoughts and ideas with each other. Moving forward my focus will be on the social and emotional well-being of my students as they learn the skills this course covers to help them get off to a solid start.

A Choice Board for students to explore resources on time management prior to posting on a discussion board.

Supporting U.S. History Research
This is one of my favorite activities—collaborating with teachers to support our 5th Formers as they do a deep dive into a topic of their choosing for their long-form research paper. This year I worked with a number of U.S. History teachers and provided a range of instruction. Often I’m asked to meet with a class once at the start of a research project to cover the resources and skills students need to write this graduation requirement. These one-shot lessons—or research bootcamp as I have come to think of them—generally provide the least return on investment. I feel pressured to cover too much information in too short of a time and end up feeling that I have overwhelmed students. I’m sure they’re overwhelmed—I’m overwhelmed just thinking about it. I recall reading a post by Dave Wee where he wrote about no longer offering this as an option to teachers and I believe that if I “adjust accordingly” that’s where I’m headed next year.

On the opposite end of the spectrum I also teach the research process by scaffolding multiple lessons. This year I was fortunate to work with two teachers who chose to use this approach. One teacher brought both of his U.S. History classes in for 5-6 sessions over the course of the Winter Term affording me the time to break down the research process into manageable chunks. For these I gave a quick instructional session at the start of class and worked individually with students for the remainder of the block. Students had a week or more between each session giving them enough time to complete tasks and come for additional help if needed.

I’m also fortunate to have worked with one of our APUSH teachers on a fairly consistent basis throughout my three years at Kent, and we frequently collaborate on unique project-based assignments which are great fun for me and engaging for his students. This year we collaborated on three projects: for the first project, students focused on mining a bibliography to determine the author’s bias and present their findings that they supported with additional research; for the second project I joined the two APUSH sections he taught each day they met during our two week remote period in December. I followed the same scaffolded approach described above—the main difference being this was accomplished remotely on Zoom and was the only project the students worked on for that two-week period. Again, this allowed for in-depth instruction introducing more nuanced skills required for advanced research; for the third project students chose images from nine distinct eras aligning with those on the AP U.S. History exam that reflected a self-selected theme. I love this project as students learned how to analyze, interpret, and think deeply and expansively about primary source images. Plus, it culminated in terrific end-of-term presentations using Adobe Spark, which are alway great to explore. Needless to say, the return on investment for these types of projects is high, not only for the skills students are able to master and the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of their topic, but also for the solid relationships I’m able to develop with students that only comes from actively engaging with them.

My AISL Colleagues
I would be remiss if I didn’t include being part of this wonderfully knowledgeable group of AISL librarians. This group has been a life-saver: from our first Zoom sessions in March and throughout the summer where we shared our lemons and lemonade (thank you to Claire for your calm presence and tech abilities) to our annual conference to our book groups. We learned to be as kind to ourselves as we were to each other. We kept reminding each other of how hard it was to deal with shifting spaces, quarantining books, keeping programs going, and students coming to the library. Amazingly, with Past President Christina Pommer’s guidance we were able to pull off our first virtual conference – no small accomplishment in a year filled with firsts. I can’t stress enough, AISL has been a life-saver.

Final Thoughts

It’s going to take quite some time to process all of the mixed emotions and experiences I’ve had over the past nine months that we’ve been back at school. When I look back on all that we’ve been through and all that we’ve accomplished, when I put all of these experiences in a pile and hold each one up to see if it sparks joy, it’s hard to believe all of this was possible while living through a pandemic. I admit, I was terrified about returning to school in-person, but the view from the other side gives me an incredible sense of accomplishment and feelings of gratitude for everyone who worked tirelessly to make it happen. At the end of the day, when comparing the lists of things that are under my control, I must say there aren’t too many things I need to adjust accordingly. Oh, and yes, when holding them up to see how they make me feel, most of them have sparked joy!

Perfect is the enemy of the good.

If you are reading this, you believe that collaborations between teachers and librarians make a difference and are worthwhile. Whenever librarians come together, we invariably end up discussing collaborations – our successes and our frustrations.

“Making Co-teaching Stick” at AISL Boston

My AP Language students are just finishing a unit on Rogerian argumentation, making me think about the shared ground for collaboration between teachers and librarians. The best collaborations need shared time (for planning and for implantation), shared goals, shared vocabulary and shared respect.

We all have our *gold* standard of collaboration, that project that looks like it was designed to ace our MLIS Research Methods class. And we all have our practical “yay we collaborated because we talked” standard. Getting the foot in the door and setting the tone for research might be enough for some projects because it shows that the library skills are being integrated across the curriculum even if students don’t set foot in the library. For the purpose of this post, teachers fall into three categories:

  1. Eager Beaver collaborators look for any opportunity to co-teach. Students are used to seeing me in their classes and the teacher and I can finish each other’s sentences. This is where I spend most of my time, designing curriculum, in the classroom, and meeting with students.
  2. I Appreciate Libraries collaborators believe in school libraries. They tell their students to use the library and incorporate research but don’t necessarily include the librarian in their planning or scheduled library time.  
  3. Someday Maybe collaborators is the optimistic term for teachers who don’t fit into the above categories. These individuals don’t tend to see any connection between their curriculum and the library program. It’s (hopefully!) not that they dislike the library, just that they don’t see a place for it in their classrooms.

Recognize that teachers also feel the time crunch familiar to all of us. Many conversations with my Physics teacher husband led to my thoughts on how to best reach the I Appreciate Libraries contingent. Eager Beavers don’t need more encouragement, and Someday Maybes are, well, someday maybe when the time is right. But for I Appreciate Libraries; I can offer support in a way that enhances their projects while preventing me from trying to find a way to schedule three different classes during the same period.

Offer virtual help. The library webpage, libguides, slideshows, and help videos are available on demand for students in the midst of researching. Not as personal as a class session, but they can be accessed anytime students are researching. They also have the advantage of being available for multiple classes and shared between department members. 

“Some of the students were asking how to get to History Reference Center, so here’s a visual help sheet with arrows they can follow if you want to post to SSESonline.”

Offer in-person help at surprising times. Office hours, popping by classes, and having teachers recommend students meet with me during study hall have led to conversations and research consultations with individual students. I know I’m not the only librarian whose desk is next to a printer. A friendly question when students pick up work is a great opening for project assistance.

“I heard the outline is due Friday and it’s supposed to be at least two pages. How much do you have so far?”

Offer suggestions for next year. It’s hard to fix a project that isn’t working mid-stream. Personally, I’ve never been successful at it. Students are already working towards their goal, and the class as a whole gets a bit of tunnel vision. By taking notes on what’s not working and approaching the teacher afterwards, you can set the tone for a more successful project next year.

“I noticed those MLA bibliographies seemed to be in a new format that I’d call untraditional at best. If you want me to work on that before they turn them in next year when you do this, just let me know.”

Teach the teacher. I was surprised in a chance conversation in the faculty room earlier this year to learn that a teacher wasn’t bringing his classes to the library because he “knows how busy I am.” True, but my passion is teaching. I will put off cataloging and user analytics for any time with students. But also, sometimes teachers don’t plan ahead as much as would be ideal or our schedules don’t work. (Might I mention that you can all think of me next Friday when I’ll have 8 classes in 5 periods?!?) Many of my teachers know how to use JSTOR or evaluate websites after seeing me work with their classes before. It’s been really hard for me to think that it might be a sign of a successful program that teachers feel empowered to conquer these subjects on their own and that it’s really an endorsement of what the library offers, even though it feels like a rejection in the moment.

“I heard you’re evaluating health sites tomorrow. That’s awesome! Let me know if you want me to pop by or if your students have any questions you weren’t anticipating that we can work on in the future.”

Much as I want to collaborate with every teacher, I know that amongst all the classes, I’m reaching all the students in my Middle and Upper School in at least one of their courses. Instead of spending my energy worrying about teachers who aren’t looking to collaborate, I’m working on providing the skills that my students need for college and career readiness in a format that works for more of my teachers.

It’s time to think creatively. Please leave any suggestions or recommendations below.