“Just teach the databases”: Better responses than eye-rolling?

A recent conversation with a colleague about that perpetual, one-time-a-year “collaboration” request for “just a quick introduction to databases” made me reflect carefully on why I don’t really get that particular gem of an assignment anymore.

This colleague had just received that same ask and felt saddened – as it did not resonate with what she thought students actually needed.

So, we began discussing what skills her particular students do need to move forward in the word, and then we began plotting a “database lesson” that would deliver one of those skills, instead. The process reminded me of a closely-held principle I’ve had since before entering school librarianship: what we teach is mostly thinking skills; any technical skills will need to be about flexibly adapting to change over time and across tools, in any event.

This is where I began to reflect on strategies I used in the early years at my school when this was a frequent instructional request. Now, I do teach the basic intro in ninth grade (and my colleague in sixth). Otherwise, whenever I was asked to teach databases, I instead taught a skill that was useful in a broad range of research situations. Of course, we used the databases to practice, so I was delivering on my colleague’s desires. These lessons include, but are not limited to:
*How search tools work (I’ve pivoted to using Stephanie Gamble’s lego method, far superior to my prior attempts);
*Mind mapping pre-existing knowledge to expose potential search terms;
*Using stepping stone sources (reading for useful search terms);
*Imagining sources (for example: most newspaper articles on sports do not mention the name of the sport, but tend to mention team names; articles on psychology do not tend to use the word “psychology” – unless it is in the journal title – but instead refer to specific conditions and possibly the subject group tested);
*Close reading of non-fiction to determine POV;
*Accessing multiple perspectives;
and so forth.

I have recently realized that this approach not only delivers more skills to my students that are more flexible across their needs, but it also demonstrated to my colleagues the greater range of what I have to offer and has led to many fewer requests for “just the databases,” and colleagues coming in the door looking for more meaningful and applicable (and less repetitive) engagements.

Shoe or phone?


We cannot be the only school library that likes to have power cords available for use by students in need. Sometimes phone but mostly laptop, requests are frequent and desperate, so we’re happy to help.

Except for the fact that we kept losing them. Despite what I thought were some well thought out practices for tracking these expensive accessories: cataloguing and circulating them, attaching metre-sticks to them, allowing use only at our desk. NOTHING WORKED.

Until we started asking for a shoe or a phone. These seem to be the only 2 things that a student will not leave the library without. We haven’t lost a charger since we started doing this 3 months ago.

(Okay – on one occasion, a Grade 9 boy wandered out minus a shoe but figured it out by end of day and was back with the charger. I call that a win.)

Dear Twitter friends, You make me better.

A few nights ago, I was stuck with some serious insomnia. I know I shouldn’t have my phone on in bed, especially if I can’t sleep, but I have a nervous twitch that makes me check my email/Facebook/Instagram/Twitter on a continuous loop throughout the day. (This is me admitting I have a problem.) So, here I was at 2am, scrolling through what I missed on Twitter that day, and I discovered a few of my new friends were participating in a #g2great chat. I had no idea what that was, but from their responses, it looked right up my alley!

It turned out that author Chris Lehman was guest hosting this chat, using his book ENERGIZE Research Reading & Writing as the catalyst for discussion. Goodness me, the discussion was so good that I ordered myself a copy of the book right then and wondered why I hadn’t heard of it before! I had so many ideas of how to turn research right on its head in our 3rd/4th grade classes next year — from throwing out note-taking uniformity to promoting student choice in topics (yeah, we’re still not there yet…) to explicitly teaching students to THINK about their nonfiction reading (an ongoing struggle). I AM energized, and I can’t wait to dig into this book! Thank you, Twitter!

But I do have to wait. See, a couple months ago, some Twitter friends were going bananas over Disrupting Thinking: Why HOW We Read Matters by Kylene Beers and Robert E Probst. This was along the same time I was taking the Visible Thinking class by Project Zero, so there was a bit of overlap between folks reading and doing both. Over and over again, I would see book quotes and sketch notes and exclamations of genius and adoration for this book.

So, I shared a stack of professional books at our last staff meeting, highlighting this one, saying that it was at the top of my to-read pile and hey, would anyone like to join me? Crickets. But a few days later, a teacher asked me if I wanted to do a summer book club with Disrupting Thinking — woo! We had our first meeting today, just three of us crazy teachers working on summer break, and it was great. Our conversations flowed from the topics in the book (we read the first third and will meet again two more times) to our own practice to possibilities for the future. I only wish we had taken notes! But again, thank you, Twitter friends, for inspiring this connection and growth opportunity.

There are definitely times when I need to unplug and just be. And there are times when it is so hard to be in a constantly evolving community, especially when I’m running low on time, energy, or effort. But when I’m up for it, when I want to be inspired or challenged, I turn to my carefully curated community of teachers and librarians on Twitter because I know that they’ll make me better. I hope I do the same every now and then!

Are you one of the awesome people I follow? Follow me @nataliesap on Twitter and @cfslslibrary on Instagram, and I’ll follow you back. 🙂

Interactive summer reading

I know it’s (only) April, but with just seven weeks of school left, my mind is on the finish line – summer! I don’t want to think about database renewals or cleaning the mess that is the workroom, nor do I care to give another thought to the book hospital that is overflowing with patients or the inventory that is calling my name. That can all wait until tomorrow (or the next day). No, right now, I’m planning summer reading!

For the past two years, I have created recommended summer reading magazines – my favorite picks from the year (here’s 2015 and 2016). I include them in my end-of-the-year library newsletter and send black-and-white copies in our end-of-year reports which go out mid-June. I print some in color and place them on our Parent bookshelf in the lobby, so that all who walk by can see and take them. I have ideas in mind for this year’s magazine, but I want to do more – I want this year’s summer reading to be interactive.

Lower school students do not have required reading over the summer, but I know they are reading voraciously. I have wondered about how to stay connected with students and their reading over the summer and have dismissed many ideas because I didn’t think they would work with our population. Send me a picture? Write me a letter? Blog about it? What’s a quick and easy way to collect and share our summer reading?

I am always looking to connect the right student with the right book at the right time, and now I find myself in need of the right tool. Books, I’m pretty good at and manage to stay updated. Tech tools, I always feel a step behind. So, please try not to roll your eyes when I introduce the new (ahem: four years old) tool that I plan on using for summer reading this year:

I don’t know why I hadn’t heard of Flipgrid until just recently, but I feel like I am seeing it everywhere nowadays. For those of you, maybe like me, who may not know what it is – Flipgrid is essentially a video discussion board. Imagine if Padlet and Voicethread had a baby (though I wonder about the ages of those two…). For my summer reading Flipgrid, I plan on taking video of myself talking to students about sharing their summer reading. Then, they can go to my Flipgrid page and add their own video about what they’re reading. In the end, I hope to have tons of videos of students sharing with me and each other. What I love about Flipgrid is how easy it is to use – go to the board, click the plus sign, and record yourself! It organizes the videos much in the same way as Pinterest, very neat rows, and students can watch each other’s videos.

I’m looking forward to introducing this next month and might encourage some beta testers to add videos of what they want to read over summer break. Have you done anything similar? Advice to share?

Thinking about design & delivery

At the end of this school year, like many of you, I compiled a summer reading list for my Lower School students and an annual report for their families. Though this is something that I have been doing for the past six years, I’m always reinventing how it’s done so that it’s most effective for my current community. To that end, I believe design matters.

For my summer reading lists, I have previously used Goodreads, in-text blog posts, and shared Google Docs – nothing too fancy or elaborate but what was simply needed to deliver the message. For the annual reports, I’ve exclusively used Pages, either modifying templates or creating my own design. Last year, I designed my summer reading list in Pages to look more like a magazine, something like the BookPage or the The Horn Book‘s publications, something more visually appealing. For this year’s summer reading list, I knew that I could essentially use last year’s template and just change the books. Nothing about the design really needed to be updated. But I challenged myself, used a new-to-me tool, and changed the look of it because I want to grow in the same way I teach my students – as a creator and designer and someone who thinks intentionally about audience and purpose.

I think that we, collectively, look for and appreciate well-designed media. Free tools like Canva help amateurs like me design something beautiful and professional. Honestly, I wish I had known about it sooner. Though it’s been around a few years, I hadn’t heard of it until recently – but I had seen many examples of banners and flyers created with it. Before this turns into too much of a Canva commercial (no, they’re not paying me), I will say that there are probably many other similar design tools out there. This is just the one that I decided to try out! Because I wanted my products to look like a magazine, I also tried out FlipHTML5 to create the flipping pages.

Lower School Summer Reading 2016

(Click the image for the FlipHTML5 version. Here’s the doc version.)


LS Library Annual Report 2016

(Click the image for the FlipHTML5 version. Here’s the doc version.)


Though I’m particularly happy with these two promotional products, I know that next year, I will be trying something new yet again. I have yet to brand myself like some libraries and librarians, and I don’t know if that will be my next step. I enjoy the freedom to be creative in whatever way inspires me and connects with my audience at the time.

As a side-note, I appreciate that this is also a way for me to grow as a technology leader in my school, to try out new tools and be able to knowledgeably recommend them to students and teachers.  For these two products, I learned how to use Canva for the design and FlipHTML5 for the delivery.

Is anyone else out there thinking design? Share your work! I’d love to have something new to try out over the summer. 🙂

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?

Accreditation (2.0)

I don’t know how many of you grew up going to private schools, but I have strong memories of the process of accreditation back from when I was a student. Teachers were nervous. Visitors watched our classes. Rumors flew that the school could be shut down.

Now that I’m on the adult side of the equation, accreditation is much less mysterious. Sure the process is stressful, but it’s ultimately helpful for us to reflect on and clarify our goals. I think it’s good for students to know that experts are examining how we operate; many didn’t realize that we voluntarily work with accrediting organizations (for us, FCIS, SAIS, FKC, and SACS) to demonstrate that we are meeting our mission. For this most recent visit, which concluded six days ago, we began preparing in earnest January of 2014. Our headmaster likened the experience to when visitors come to your house for dinner. Even though they won’t leave the kitchen, when you’re setting up, you’re fluffing the pillows in the bedroom and lighting candles there. That analogy totally worked for me.

In the libraries, we caught up on all sorts of tasks. We revamped our Policies and Procedures Manual. We updated the organization of the library’s electronic subscriptions webpage. We completed a thorough inventory and subsequent weeding. We expanded the Lower School library into an adjacent former computer lab. We felt pretty much ready for anything.

Except this form, which was the only information specifically requested from the libraries. (Perhaps I should clarify that this was the five-year check up visit, not the full one. However, with all of the information other departments were asked to provide, this still seems sparse.)

 Number of librarians:_____                            Number of clerks: _____

 Amount spent on books and periodicals: _____

Average monthly circulation of books: _____

Number of volumes: _____     Number of subscriptions: _____

Number of volumes per student: _____         

Number of volumes added last year: _____

Seating Capacity in library: _____

 Please tell me that some of you are cringing a bit right now. This isn’t the 1950’s. We’re a 1-to-1 iPad school. I don’t think that my print circulation statistics or the number of seats in my library hold the key to the success of my library program. In fact, I don’t even think they shed light on that success. I dutifully filled out the form, and with it, I included the following information to the school’s accreditation chairs.

 This is the type of document that makes me realize how much libraries have changed in the past few decades! Collection numbers aren’t representative of the library as much as how we are teaching students to wade through resources available to them in whatever format they find most beneficial. For example, our EBSCO database subscription contains digital access to thousands of magazines through its databases, but that isn’t reflected in our total number of periodicals. My circulation numbers are lower because we often reserve shelves of books for in-class use so students aren’t hoarding books that have a few pages on a subject when all members of a class are researching similar topics. (What about when students take pictures of pages with their iPads instead of checking out books?) Even items like library seating are less helpful when you’re working with a preschool population! 🙂 I think that our number of volumes per student is going to be lower than some schools because we’re a younger school, but we do seem to be doing pretty well overall.

So I’ve been thinking about questions that are imperative for libraries today. I understand the need to keep everything easy to browse, but I think a narrative approach (one paragraph short answer) would provide more substantive answers. Fun questions like:

How do you balance digital and print resources in your collection?

Describe a time when you collaborated to teach library skills.

How do you respond when people say libraries aren’t necessary because of the Internet?

 These are just some ideas I’ve been throwing around half seriously. I’m sure anything that was used officially would need to be more quantitative, but we’re more than our measurements. 🙂 Think about it before your next accreditation year. What do you think needs to be part of a library accreditation in the years 2015 and beyond? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

So you want to make a flowchart?

At many of our schools, we are currently celebrating the Christmas season, aka the season of giving. This seems to be the time when many families purge through their homes to clear out items to make way for new presents that will be arriving shortly. A few weeks ago, on a morning when I had two boxes of book donations set aside to mail to Better World Books, I had the following conversation with myself:

“Hey Christina, I bet people have no idea what goes through your head when they ask about donating books to the library.”

“Yes, I bet only librarians would understand that there’s a whole flowchart of questions I want to ask.”

“A flowchart!?! What a great idea. You should make that flowchart and share it with other librarians.”

Silly mind, how you trick me. I did indeed make a flow chart, and I can promise you that it’s not the 15 minute task that I envisioned. It was completed over a few days as I waited for classes to come to the library or proctored lunch or found other pockets of free time. And I’m sharing that process as well as the result because it made be reconsider some of the tasks that we are asking our students.

I have known teachers who have assigned students tasks like podcasts or mural.ly posters without knowing how to use the technology themselves. These assignments come to my attention because I hear from the students when they have questions about how to best use the technology to complete their vision. Teachers can be comfortable mastering the content while leave the technology mastery to others. I think this is good to a point. There is a limited amount of time that students will spend on an individual task and sometimes they get caught up on the “bells and whistles” rather than the “meat and potatoes.” (For example, rather than proofreading an essay for content, they’ll make sure that they have beautiful headers with page numbers and a perfectly-formatted bibliography.) Not always, but sometimes. Which is why it’s important to use thoughful backwards design and rubrics to make sure the focus is where it was intended.

In my case, I had a general idea, and I started by talking with the Technology Integration Coordinator. Did she have any ideas for good flowchart apps? She did not but suggested I play around with some to figure what I liked best. Totally fine, but we all know what kind of rabbit hole this slips into… I ended up settling on Google Drive’s drawing feature, and I began building my flowchart. Shapes moved and moved back and there were many iterations. At one point I actually cut out my little pieces from the printout and moved them around on my desk because manual manipulation was easier for me. For most of the time, I was thinking about how to organize it, not what to say.


Anyway, here’s the final result. I’ve included the editable link. That way, you can enlarge it enough to read it in your screen. Or you can save it and adapt it for your own population.



Discussions on the AISL listserv have shown me that Better World Books has been a more helpful resource for some schools than for others, and I’m betting that not every school has a consignment store. But I thought I’d share just a bit of what runs through my head when someone stops by with a box of books and tells me, “I think the library might want these.”
Do you accept unsolicited donations? Any other solutions that have worked well for your school in the past?

Making Gucci Changes on a Gap Budget

This was my first year to manage a library budget completely on my own. I had a relatively healthy budget (you can always use more, right? :)) but at the same time, I knew that I had a ton of work to do to bring the library up to speed–new website, databases to add, purchasing EZProxy, Libguides, and oh yes, books! We needed print, eBooks, $1,000 in textbooks to complete the reserve collection, not to mention replacing a scarily amazing VHS collection with DVDs. I was like a first timer on safari, treading through tall grass…looking about wildly with each PO I filed and Visa bill that arrived, just waiting for May to come and some tiger…I mean, some annual renewal fee to jump out and bite me.

I proceeded with caution through Spring Break. May came. I looked around. I’d made it. Better yet, I had money left over. WHAT?!? <insert raise the roof interlude here>

Before the July 1 deadline, I decided to make some high impact physical changes to get my students’ attention, to improve the ambiance and technological usability of the library, and quite honestly,  to attempt to set us apart even more so from other student lounge/study areas around campus to improve marketability.

Here are some before and after shots of my strategy this summer (click on images to zoom in):

beforeafter1a beforeafter2 beforeafter3 beforeafter4 beforeafter5

Since I began last August, I have done an inward cringe each morning when I walked in to see all the mismatched chairs and furniture. It felt like my college apartment, like a garage sale treasure hunt gone horribly, horribly wrong. Thankfully, I had enough budget to swing for new chairs. I went for the super comfy Hon chair with arms that flow down for easy push up to tables of varying heights and seats that flip up like auditorium seats for easy stacking away if/when the library hosts events and needs to be more open. Cost for 33 chairs, 4 bar stools, and unbelievably expensive delivery and installation along with lifetime warranty: $8900.

I ordered 4 bar stool versions of the chairs to be used at our Research bar. I’m hoping to house the student tech support group this year and will give them a desk right behind the research bar. *Note, the research bar is just a high table in the reference section where kids can bring laptops to do work. We’re also adding a customized wall mounted charging station by the research bar so that students can charge while they study. Cost: $400.

How to add power to a 1960’s building without everyone falling over power strip cords? Retrofit existing tables with outlets/ports. I am lucky enough to have an amazingly tech savvy department chair who has a PhD in Civil Engineering…she is going to bring a saw and is going to retrofit the two round tables in the periodical corner with outlets and charging stations. Most facilities departments have an electrical specialist–this person could do this. Each table will have one cord that goes to the wall with a plastic strip covering to avoid trips.  Total cost $850.

Disclaimer: notice that I said “Gap budget” and not “Old Navy”, or better yet, “Goodwill”–how good would that be for the wallet and for the alliteration factor? These projects do add up, but if your space is as dated as mine and if your goal is to add features that aren’t readily available in other study centers around campus, maybe you will consider adding one or two? If you’re lucky enough to have matching furniture, well then good on ya. You’re already on your way to a high impact space that is not only usable, but a highlight of school tours.

What other low cost, high impact, physical changes might you suggest for the rest of us?

Wishing everyone an AMAZING start to your school year! Can’t wait to hear about all the cool things you have planned.