ON LIBRARIES: We Make Connections

Two weeks ago I blogged on how we transform our facility.  Last week I discussed the first impression people get when they enter our facility and meet us.  Then they get to discover what we do, and in the process we transform learning and our school community.

connectionsWe make connections.  We connect people to ideas, ideas to ideas, and we connect people to people.  You may not have focused on this core behavior, but it’s there in every librarian.

People to ideas – This form of connection is obvious.  Our patrons come to the library, physically or virtually, and are connected to the information they seek. When we are doing our job well, they find more than facts. It’s usable information.

I had the opportunity to have a very long discussion with several bright high school students the other day. We weren’t in a library, but as a librarian, no matter my location I am still functioning as one.  The first thing I did was challenge them to begin thinking by asking their views on Apple defying a warrant and refusing to create a program to get past the encryption on iPhones in order for the government to access information on the cell phone of one of the accused terrorists in the San Bernardino massacre.

As I expected, among the five there were instantaneous opinions, with the students taking different sides.  I didn’t support either side but pointed out this was an emotional response either to their feelings about dealing with terrorists or how strongly they felt about their right to privacy. The common element was their emotion.  While this was a natural response and would always be present, once they recognized its existence, they needed to move on to finding evidence to either refute or support their gut reaction.  This would not eliminate their emotions but would allow them to see, that just as with websites and other information sources, bias is almost always present.  It’s not wrong. It’s just there and needs to be recognized in order for it to be factored into decision making.  This is teaching critical thinking on a visceral level.idea to idea

Ideas to ideas – One of the best parts of our job is helping students make the leap from an initial idea to another, making a new connection.  The original idea is a single piece of information. Seeing how another idea is related and may further illuminate the first is how new understandings and knowledge are created.  For me, making those connections are the “highs” one experiences in research.

It helps if teachers are open to allowing students to take those side trips off an assigned research project into an area of personal interest, sparked by making an idea-to-idea connection. The project takes on deeper meaning.  It becomes something that lasts long after the assignment is completed. This is when Enduring Understandings are made and students get the purpose of learning.

Librarians know that research is a messy process.  Students and far too many teachers think of it as a linear progression. This is far from the truth, but often it’s the way research projects are done. Even the best students grab for an argument, line up the sources they will use, determine an outline to present their information, check that they have completed all the steps, and heave a sigh of relief.  But when you can lead them to the connection that excites their mind, the back-tracking and shifts of directions make sense as they seek to put together something they can proudly share with others. Something that matters to them –personally.

people to peoplePeople to people – Making these connections is not as widely recognized an aspect of what we do, but it’s becoming an increasingly important part of our job.  In creating digital citizens, a number of librarians are connecting students beyond the walls of the library.  I know one librarian who worked with a science teacher and had students discovering how to deal with epidemics and pandemics (and why they show up regularly in the headlines).  In creating the best way to alert a population and cope with the crisis, students worked with scientists at the CDC.

On a very different level, we use our extensive networks to bring people together who otherwise might never know each other. Through my daughter, I learned her childhood friend is living in an inner city and knits and donates numerous scarfs to the homeless by “scarf bombing” different areas and facilities in the city. A librarian friend of mine works in a school in that city.  She was fascinated by the project and thought it was one many of her students would want to do.  The connection was made and her students are eagerly involved in a community service project.collaborative learning

Don’t overlook the people-to-people connection you need to have with other librarians.  It’s one my grad students are discovering.  Librarians are inclined to think of themselves as being isolated in their building. Some are the only librarian in their district. Who can answer their questions?  Where can they go for help?  The answer is other librarians.  I have blogged about PLNs and you need to be continually expanding yours.  Belonging to your state library association (and hopefully participating) and joining and being a part of AASL and/or other national library associations connects you to a wealth of knowledge with a few strokes on your keyboard or a text on your phone.  LM_NET is a long-standing resource many use.  The School Librarian’s Workshop Facebook group is another one that’s growing.

Are you making these connections for your students and teachers?  Are you making connections for yourself?  Welcome to the connected 21st century –and we are the expert connectors.


ON LIBRARIES: First Impressions

first impression“You only have one chance to make a first impression.” The first time anyone comes into your library they take in the message you’ve created.  They may not consciously realize it, but they have learned something about you and your program.

Many years ago I was a consultant for a school district wanting to improve its library program. I walked into one elementary library.  It was empty at the time, but it spoke volumes.  The first thing I saw was a poster opposite the entrance headed, “Library Rules.”  Among the items on the list were “No loud voices – speak in a whisper,” “No running,” and “Return books on time.” There were others in the same vein. You can probably come up with many of them.rules

Other than speaking in a whisper, many libraries have similar rules. What made this stand out was the sign was large, in a very conspicuous location, and it was repeated on at least one other wall. What this told me me is this library is all about rules.  What is most important to the librarian is people following them. It certainly wasn’t conveying a welcoming environment. Another take-away I had was the librarian was not a leader.  She was a protector of her territory.

You may be thinking you don’t want your library to be a disorderly place, therefore you need rules. Don’t you?  The answer is yes and no. Signs don’t need to be posted if students know what behavior is expected.  You can achieve that by example, and by discussing with students “how we want you to be in the library and why.”  I know one librarian who has three simple rules. “Respect yourself, Respect others, Respect the facility.”  That covers all that is necessary.  If you must have them visible, use a list created and designed by students and at call it “Our Library Rules.” That creates buy-in and community.

This is only one way a message is sent.  Step outside your library and then walk in trying to see it for the first time.  What hits your eye? Is it mired in the 20th century?  Are the shelves crowded? Are there places to relax appropriate to the level of your students? What is the balance of tech and print? Where is the circulation desk?  How good are the sight lines?

list of rulesWhat about the furniture? Can the tables and chairs be easily moved to accommodate different types of projects and group work? Do end caps invite browsing?  Are there areas for creating information as well as finding it?  Is the circulation desk too high for elementary students to approach it comfortably? Have you allowed for students with a disability?  It is the law.

And possibly most important, “Are there clear signs guiding users to the information and resources they want?”  Do you call it a “Circulation Desk” or “Check Out?”  Do you have a “Reference” desk or does the sign say, “Information?”

What about the displays?  Are all signs commercially made?  Is students’ work prominently showcased?  Is there something showing work in progress? For example, do you have dry erase paper on a wall where students can make comments? Do your displays change with the season and what’s happening in the school?

Some ideas require an investment of time and creativity.  It doesn’t cost much to put tables on wheels, although you will need your administration’s approval and probably willing custodians. Other changes require a substantial amount of money to accomplish and would require serious pre-planning or even a fundraising campaign. But could you apply for a grant from your local education foundation? i can help

You, too, send a message.  How are you when people enter your room? Are you engaged with students? If you are free at the moment, do you greet guests with a smile?  Do you do that with students?  Without saying a word, your library speaks volumes. (And the pun is intended.)

How are you sending a silent message that your library is an integral force in student learning and the educational community? Or are you saying “keep out”?

ON LIBRARIES: Leaders Transform

libraries transformALA’s Libraries Transform campaign is underway and school librarians need to be a part of it.  AASL has been promoting the concept of School Libraries Transform Learning since Midwinter 2015, but I suspect few of you have thought about the implications or what you might do differently.  Many of you wonder if any campaign will change how administrators, teachers, parents, and the community in general view you and the importance of school libraries.

Merriam-Webster gives the simple definition of transform as “to change (something) completely and usually in a good way.” In the more complete form it gives these three explanations:

  • To change in composition or structure
  • To change the outward form or appearance of
  • To change in character or condition

All three apply to what needs to be done.  Transforming is substantially different from changing or innovating. A change might move you backwards, and you all have seen changes made for the purpose of changing with no real plan in mind. Innovation brings something new to the mix, but it doesn’t encompass the range of a transformation. superman

Transforming requires a complete overhaul of everything, and to achieve that end the first transformation may have to be you. You can’t be a transforming agent unless you are a leader, confident in where you are going and how to get there.  A scary thought.  But you are a librarian and you don’t have to do this alone. There are many resources out there to help you.  Almost every week, this blog offers you ways to move out of your comfort zone and take on the role of a leader and, for those already there, how to lead on an even larger scale.

Too much is at stake for you to be focused solely on your daily tasks.  As you ready your program for transformation, you must be prepared to propose the changes you plan and how these will fit into a larger whole. Your enthusiasm provides the opening.  Your carefully designed plan shows you have thought through how to accomplish it, and by hitting the hot button issues, you get the support needed to bring it all to fruition.

The next step is transform your facility as the definition said “to change the outward form or appearance of” and by doing so you will also change the “character or condition.”  A few – a very few—of you might have access to funds that allow a huge make-over, but for the vast majority of you money is in tight supply. Fortunately many substantive changes can be made cheaply, particularly if you use resources on hand and once you know what you want to do remember to present it to your administrators and get approval.

Walk into your library as though you are viewing it for the first time.  What message is it sending?  Does it look much like one from the 1990’s or does it proclaim that it’s a 21st century library?  Fixed tables, computers, perhaps Chromebooks, but somehow it doesn’t feel as though it’s a a place for doing and making things.

When you have worked in a place every day, you take it for granted.  You stop seeing it, making it difficult to see what can be done differently. Start searching for library makeovers.  Look at Learning Commons sites.  You can’t get the fancy furniture and all the tech they have, but what is the message? How is the facility arranged?

Download pictures and create a vision board. Start dreaming and let others see that dream. How do they react? Do they find the possibility exciting?  Look for those places that have accomplished the transformation with minimum cost.  Check out the School Librarian’s Workshop Facebook group, there have been a number of posts recently about transforming library spaces, some cheap others more costly.

change aheadSome quick things you can do.  Look into putting your tables on casters so they can be easily moved into different configurations as students and teachers need. I did a library renovation in the late 1990’s and my tables were on wheels.  The custodians loved it as well.  I wish I had thought to put the counter height bookcases on casters. If you have cooperative custodians and are willing to unload and reload shelves (maybe get help) it still can be done.

Buy rolls of dry erase paper and cover tabletops.  Students working on group projects can get their ideas down, take pictures, and learn to think more deeply and creatively.  Think color.  Can you repaint sections of the walls to bring a more modern look?  Perhaps students in a high school design, marketing, or advanced art class can re-design the facility as an authentic learning opportunity.  Present them with challenge, giving them your vision and your dream board.  See if your local education foundation and/or parent organization can support your transformation with some funding.

Take pictures of the transformation as it is occurring and post it on your website or tweet it out.  Have a “grand opening” when it’s finished.

Now transform student learning.  With this new environment how will you work differently with students? How can teachers best use it?  And keep sharing all that is happening with the larger community.

Are you ready to Transform?


ON LIBRARIES: Quality Questions

essential questionI have blogged on the many aspects of this topic several times, but the subject is worth repeating. The questioning is only important when what is asked is worth answering.   Both your questions and students’ questions need to be significant.

Your questions should begin with the Essential Questions you focus on in framing a project.  My post on the topic in November 2014 noted that EQs can deal with concepts which are core to the discipline but not necessarily obvious to those not in it or look at broader ideas designed to open minds to the real-world implications of what they are studying.  Even understanding what they are, doesn’t make them easy to construct.

When I first wrote about EQs I suggested if you were faced with teaching the Dewey Decimal System (which you really shouldn’t ever do) an EQ might be, “How do libraries arrange material to help users find what they need?” After doing many of these, I don’t like that question because it only has one answer – by subject. Instead I would put piles of books on a table and ask them how they would group them so that others could quickly find what they are looking for? They might arrange alphabetically or color of covers. When they were finished, they would have to explain their thinking. Encourage the class to discuss how well that would work.  You could then guide them to recognize librarians had to deal with that problem and also came up with different solutions (Dewey, LOC, and now genre-based), but all these work because they have one thing in common – subject arrangement.  By having them work on developing an answer to the EQ they understand the how and why of classification rather than the specific answer.question sign

In an article in the September 2015 issue of Educational Leadership, Grant Wiggins suggests in studying the Vietnam War, a rather than, “Why did we fight the Vietnam War and was it worth it?, the EQs should be “Why have we gone to war? When was it wise, and when was it foolish?’ There are no right answers to those two questions, and answers will change over time and experience.  Of course, students would have to explain/justify their answers, and the second question cannot be Googled.

Beyond EQs are the questions you ask students.  They, too, need to be open-ended.  When I was an elementary librarian a long time ago, I foolishly asked such questions as “What do we call the person who writes a book?”  Not only was there only one right answer, but students were aware I knew that answer and their job was to find it.  This is not deep, critical thinking.

Ask a good question and then wait.  It’s really hard to do this but you want to encourage thinking time.  When you get a response wait again.  This lets the rest of the class reflect on what was said. For a follow up ask, “Why do you think that?” “Does anyone have any other ideas?”  Make sure your tone is one of interest nq marksot judgement. It must feel safe. The answers aren’t wrong, they represent one way of looking at the question.

Encourage students to question what you say. It’s all about not accepting facts being given to you, but about exploring deeper to find out what’s underneath.  With you as a model, students can learn to create their own Essential Questions and to learn to ask quality questions rather than focus on being able to provide the right answer.

Your guidance will re-connect with the curiosity that is innate in humans and the quality and depth of what they research will improve.  Thinking about a topic and developing questions about it is intrinsic to Inquiry-based learning and lifelong learning.  Creating a safe environment for questions provide the foundation that will help students in everything they do.edutopia

I once again recommend you check out Edutopia on 5 Ways to Help Your Students Become Better Questioners.