ON LIBRARIES: The Art of Communication

the-art-of-communucationI often say “We are in the relationship business” What goes along with this is without communication you can’t develop a relationship.  That shouldn’t be a challenge.  After all, we are always communicating, aren’t we?  Not necessarily the message we want.

Communication has three distinct elements:

  • the sender,
  • the message, and
  • the receiver.

If you remember the game of telephone you played as a kid, messages can easily become distorted, and in real life that distortion can occur within any of these three elements. In order to communicate effectively you need to be aware of how this happens and what you can do to prevent it. It is your responsibility to make sure the message is sent on a “clear channel.”Vector businessman online communicatiion connection business

Assume you are the sender.  Before you do anything you need to identify your receiver, your audience.  Is it your principal?  A teacher?  A parent?  Next you must consider what your message is.  Are you reporting something to your principal?  Offering help to a teacher? Responding to a parent query?

To be sure your message will not be garbled as it is received you must be sure it is in language the receiver understands.  Educators have jargon they use so frequently they are not always aware they are using it.  Scaffolding and differentiated instruction are quite specific terms for educators, but would parents understand them? Librarians have their own jargon as well.  We talk about information literacy and digital citizenship and don’t stop to think that not even our principals or teachers fully understand what we mean.

In communicating, it’s important you don’t make assumptions.  You might say, “Our teaching of information literacy ensures students are able to identify their need for information, locate relevant facts, evaluate them, and use them to communicate effectively.”  In essence you included the definition without either insulting someone who knows what it means or using a term they didn’t understand.

illusionYour next challenge is to select the right medium for the message. In the previous century, your choices were limited.  Do you want to talk to the receiver (in person or the telephone) or write to them (memo, report, or letter)? Today you have an array of options. To some extent it depends on what the message is, but there is a further consideration.  What is the users preferred source of communication?

If your principal wants e-mails, use that.  If he or she is a technophobe (getting rarer) schedule a meeting. Do the parents in your school use Twitter?  If they don’t it’s not a good medium for communicating with them. Do they go to your library website, your blog, or only like the print or emailed newsletters?  You need to take your message to where they are.

Besides language, the structure of the message is critical.  When you are tweeting you are limited to 140 characters. Conversations, emails, and memos have not such limit. It must be self-imposed.  Most of you are aware that text messages need to be fairly short and emails should also be brief.  If they are too long people skip some of the last part of the message. I work to keep these blog posts to a specific length and no longer, knowing they are being read on devices more than computer screen.

What isn’t as well recognized is how to craft a message, oral or written, to an administrator, and this works for others as well. We have a tendency to provide “background” so the receiver knows we are well versed in the topic and have done research, when appropriate, to be certain that what we are proposing is the best course of action. By the time the recipient gets your point, they have become lost in the verbiage.

As journalists have always known, “Don’t bury the headline.”  Lead with it. Give one or two supporting statements.  Particularly if the message is directed to your administrator let him or her know that if more information is needed, you will be glad to provide it. The same is true if you have a face-to-face meeting. Start with what you are seeking.

Note how this and all my blogs are written.  I keep paragraphs to a few lines.  Too large a block of text tends not to be read.  In my presentations I almost never have a PowerPoint slide with a lot of text.  It doesn’t work in today’s world.

Once you have “sent” your message, you may become the receiver. When you are on the other end you must do what you can to be certain you heard the message correctly. This means engaging in active listening and restating in your words what you understood.understanding

Although the focus here is on verbal/written communication, never forget the presence of nonverbal communication. Any written messages should be proofread.  We hit send (or replay all!) too fast. It’s not serious when dealing with your friends, but when communicating with administrators, teachers, and parents it communicates a message about your skills and how much you care about what you are saying.  When it’s important, I create my emails in Word first and then do a copy/paste.

non-verbalWhen you are speaking to someone, watch their non-verbal communication.  Are they subtly checking the time? Are their eyes glazing over?  Do you need to rephrase for their understanding or is it time to bring the conversation to an end?  Stay aware.

Good communication skills can be learned and can always be improved.  Practice makes perfect – or at least better.  How well do you communicate?  What’s your best medium?  What do you need to work on?

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ON LIBRARIES: Thankful for the Library as a Safe Place

Safe place2One of the most recurrent phrases in school library Visions (and sometimes in Mission Statements) is the library is a “safe, welcoming environment.” By implication we mean “for all.” We have read many testimonies to that truth from authors (especially, it seems) and others who found the library to be a refuge where they could escape harassment or the pressures of their lives in general whether a school or a public library.

While bullying has a long history, recent events have increased both bullying and fears in schools. In addition, the anonymity and overwhelming presence of cyberspace exacerbates the challenge. As librarians we have an obligation to ensure all our students feel safe—at least in our space, and as teachers to remind students the value in being their “better selves.”

A tall order at any time, but it’s one we can handle. At the elementary level, where you have more control over your lessons begin by using the Thanksgiving and holiday seasons to present a unit on thankfulness and giving. By reading appropriate stories and engaging students in discussions of what they are thankful for and how they would like to give to others, they begin to realize how kindness and generosity become gifts to themselves.be-kind

A member of the School Librarian’s Workshop Facebook group had a great idea.  Here’s what she posted:

                    After discussing, watching short videos, and reading books about kindness this week, my kiddos are writing and drawing one kind thing they promise to do to make the world a better place (kindergarteners drew themselves doing their kind act and told us what to write). I am covering our library windows with them to inspire kindness in our school. So far it’s looking pretty cool!

Besides books from your collection, look for stories of how kids have made a difference in the lives of others. What do they think of the possibility of doing the same?  What could they do?  It might become a class project done in cooperation with the teacher. If so – inform the principal.

Most elementary schools incorporate Character Education into the curriculum and you can easily work from that.  Take whatever theme of the month is being featured, then read and display books on the topic.  Challenge your students to share how they are incorporating that value into their daily life.

Character Education
Character Education (looks like Divergent factions, yes?)

If your school doesn’t do that, you can work with the 6 Pillars of Character from the Character Counts website. The six are:

  • Trustworthiness – Be honest • Don’t deceive, cheat, or steal • Be reliable — do what you say you’ll do • Have the courage to do the right thing • Build a good reputation • Be loyal
  • Fairness – Play by the rules • Take turns and share • Be open-minded; listen to others • Don’t take advantage of others • Don’t blame others carelessly • Treat all people fairly
  • Respect – Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule • Be tolerant and accepting of differences • Use good manners, not bad language • Be considerate of the feelings of others • Don’t threaten, hit or hurt anyone • Deal peacefully with anger, insults, and disagreements
  • Caring – Be kind • Be compassionate and show you care • Express gratitude • Forgive others • Help people in need • Be charitable and unselfish
  • Responsibility – Do what you are supposed to do • Plan ahead • Be diligent • Persevere • Do your best • Use self-control • Be self-disciplined • Think before you act • Be accountable for your words, actions, and attitudes • Set a good example for others
  • Citizenship – Do your share to make your school and community better • Cooperate • Get involved in community affairs • Stay informed; vote • Be a good neighbor • Obey laws and rules • Respect authority • Protect the environment • Volunteer

With a few minor changes the examples of how to practice the six pillars come from the website. You don’t have to do them all, and certainly not in that sequence. Obviously a few of the examples are beyond what elementary students can do.  Choose what works in your situation or highlight one a month for the next six months.

It may be more difficult to introduce these themes at the middle and high school level where you need to connect with a teacher to be able to create an appropriate unit.  Social Studies is your primary target but you might be able to work with an English teacher having kids research and create a project. If you focus on harassment and bullying, Health teachers are another possibility.

You can find many helpful resources on Teaching Tolerance a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.  Click on Classroom Resources for lesson plans that give the topic and grade level.  Southern Poverty Law Center also provides a free magazine to teachers and librarians that’s worth getting.teaching-tolerance

Much of this also comes under the heading of Social Justice, although I didn’t use the term because it has so many meanings and I wanted to focus on the importance of guiding students to becoming more caring people. Even without a unit on the subject, students should recognize through your modeling and behavior that the library is always a safe, welcoming environment for all.

What have you been doing to create that feeling in your library and your school?

ON LIBRARIES: Doing It Together

fishAre you a loner?  I don’t mean someone who doesn’t like to socialize. I am referring to the type of person who prefers getting a job done alone, without help from others. Since you are a librarian, you want to work collaboratively or, if you are on a fixed schedule, cooperatively with teachers. Doing it together would be the way to go.

For most teachers, their classroom is their kingdom and they run it the way they like.  Once they close the doors they are in charge. They are loners and they like it – and if they become librarians, they carry this outlook with them. Although librarians bemoan the difficulty they have in getting teachers to collaborate, the truth is, many teachers don’t like to collaborate with any one.

This is a generalization, of course. It doesn’t apply to all teachers, and with the formation of Professional Learning Communities (PLC) in schools, more of them are sharing their lesson plans and experiences with their colleagues, even if they don’t do so willingly.

I can remember when students hated to do a group project but today’s students by nature prefer to work with others.  They discover the latest app from their friends, game in partnership, and share information is their preferred learning style.  They are comfortable in the participatory culture.

I honestly believe most librarians are now this way as well but we need to recognize the presence of the secret loner within ourselves and the not-so-secret loner inside teachers. We often blame teacher reluctance to work with us on NCLB and the Common Core, but in reality it has always been this way.  The pressures have just made it more noticeable.together

How can you convince teachers that doing it together is better? (And convince some of you as well.).  Long before NCLB and the presence of computers in our lives, I struggled to get a science teacher to bring her students to the library.  She taught a special course called The Human Experience (THE) which connected science to everyday life.

THE was exciting and relevant. Among other things, kids learned about heart transplants and how they worked.  The course content was solidly packed and the teacher felt she had no time to “waste” in the library.  Sound familiar?

Because we had a good relationship, (you might remember how I have stressed the importance of building relationships), she grudging gave me one class period to work with her students on their current research assignment.  I discussed research strategies with them and showed them the resources (all print at the time) that would best meet their needs.

When the assignment was complete the teacher was extremely pleased. The kids had done a much better job than in the past.  What amazed her even more, was that the one day in the library had a positive effect on the rest of their projects during the year.  The next year, she sought me out to begin collaborating often.

together-2Not only did the students learn something valuable, the teacher did as well.  As a side note, the teacher went on to become a principal.  Her views on the value of the library and the librarian came with her on the administrative level.  It’s amazing how we affect our future positively and negatively by small actions.

I understand the inner resistance to working together.  Time is precious.  You know what has to get done.  Someone else might not bring the same commitment to the task.  It won’t come out the way you intended.  But that’s not all bad.

copyright Leo Lionni

In getting over my own “loner’ tendencies, I discovered some basic truths I think our students already know. No matter how smart you are, you don’t know everything.  And while someone else might not have as much knowledge as you on a given subject, the differing perspectives very often brings about a richer final product.  And like the teacher, we all learn and grow in the process.

Are you a loner or a natural collaborator?  How can you get passed any loner tendencies you have?  What have you learned as a result of collaborating?

ON LIBRARIES: Small Changes, Big Results, a More Welcome Library

welcomeWelcome to the Library

The words mirror the sentiment and the message you want everyone to receive when they step into your library, but words are not enough.  Some of you have signs outside your door or on a bulletin board just inside. Excellent.  But that won’t really convey the message. That’s telling, not showing and it doesn’t have the impact you want.

I blogged in December of last year about inadvertently sending mixed messages and spoke about posted negative rules and a library devoid of any student work.  Keeping rules positive – stressing what you are allowed to do and focusing on respect is important.  Displaying student creations does show the library is meant for them. But there is more.library-signage

In March of this year I blogged about transforming your library into a Learning Commons which I believe is ultimately the way to go. However, I am sure that many of you consider it too large a goal to tackle and I understand your constraints.  Split between schools, an overloaded schedule, and no help doesn’t give you time to take on big jobs.

You can make big changes in small ways, and you don’t have to do it all at once. To start, step outside your library.  Pretend you have never been in there before.  First impressions count, and although it really isn’t your first time to enter try to do so with fresh eyes.

Walk in the door and look around. What catches your eye?  Keep looking.  What message are you getting about what the library is about?  Is there anything off?  Is there something that is inviting you in for further exploration?

I once took over a library that was considered to be beautiful in its day, however the previous librarian had missed some things.  If you entered and looked to your left there was a wall of windows with counter height shelving just below them.  That’s what was beautiful.  The windows looked out on a scenic setting. Great idea by the architect.

But time and the exigencies of running a library had made some subtle changes.  Looking straight ahead from the entrance to the back wall, you could see the tall fiction book stacks.  Above them were an assortment of old shelving that had never been discarded. Libraries don’t have to be super neat. Those that are don’t have kids using them. (Mine were only at that “perfect” stage when the school year was over and the books were all neatly shelved and all magazines put away.)  But the clutter of the old book shelves was distracting.  They marred the attractiveness of the library.

What had happened was the librarian had stopped seeing her library. When you are in the library every day and have work to do, you no longer notice these things.  They have become part of your world.  Making time to see your library anew and spruce up what has been quietly disrupting the library environment will help you make some simple changes. You don’t need much time or money to do it.

When many librarians genre-fied their collection, they made sure to create great signage to help students and teachers find where the books were shelved. Signage is equally important if you are a Dewey library.  Remember signs are for your users, not for you.  You know that 500 is for Pure Science and 600 is for Technology, but they probably don’t.  Remember pictures are better than words and with clip art you can tailor them to what your students study and are interested in.learning-commons2

Counter height shelving is great for displaying books. Have different themes on different bookcases.  An appropriate sign will draw readers to the titles. Be sure to change them regularly or everyone will stop “seeing” them.

Some can displays can tie into your current bulletin board which should also change regularly. If you feel there isn’t enough time, try to get students to do some –under your direction.  If you are at the elementary level, contact a high school art teacher to find out if any of his or her students would like to take on the project for their portfolios

Next look at the “flow” of the library.  You naturally arrange your collection to follow the Dewey sequence (or alphabetical sequence if you genre-fied) but what about your floor plan.  How does traffic move when it enters your library.  Is this the way you want it to go?  If not, how can furniture be re-arranged to help it go in a better direction.  Do students have room to move around tables?  When your library is busy, step back for a few moments and consider whether the arrangement is working to help promote collaboration without creating unnecessary noise.  (I always had a fairly noisy library, but it was almost always under control—voices did not need to be raised to be heard.)

Do you like the way the computers are placed?  The printer(s)?  Does the arrangement work? If not, what needs to be changed?  You probably can’t do anything until school is out, but you need to know what you want done and you can start making and keeping notes.

Coffee and snack for break
Coffee and snack for break

Don’t forget about welcoming teachers. If you have the room, create a “teacher table.”  You can put a copy of a current education magazine such as Educational Leadership from ASCD and perhaps one or two new professional titles.

Keep the coffee pot on in your office and have snacks there.  It’s a tried-and-true way to bring teachers in. (It also brought in my IT people.) Once they are accustomed to hanging out there, you can show them some of your latest additions, mention a new website you think they’d like or want to use with students.  Start building new relationships with food and eventually you can branch out to collaboration or cooperation.

You have to show everyone that the Welcome Mat is always out at the library.

What are you doing to show the library is a safe, welcoming environment?