ON LIBRARIES: Tell and Sell Your Story

This week’s blog is another entry in the ongoing discussion of the art of communication in an age of too much information.  It’s a reminder that data—even the beloved “big data” – is not what will carry the day.  For your message to be received you first must connect in some way with the receiver. Being able to make this connection depends on Emotional Intelligence (EI). EI is now recognized as a major factor in success in school and beyond, which is why so many schools have incorporated Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) into the curriculum.  The Core SEL Competencies are the same as those used to define EI.

Although you are probably incorporating SEL into your instruction, you may have not integrated it into your own advocacy program.  Emotions underlie all our decisions whether we are aware they are at work or not.  The more conscious you are of your emotions and those of the people you are speaking with, the more likely you are not only to be heard but to inspire action.

If your words have not yet penetrated the wall your listeners have built, Lisa Rabasca Roepe gathered These Techniques from Professional Speechwriters That Will Help You Get Your Point Across.  She presents seven ideas which are highly applicable to what you need.

Personify Your Data – Generalities contain no emotion. People hear them and can’t repeat them five minutes later.  If you want to discuss the problem of aging resources, don’t lead with a Titlewise collection analysis. Talk about a student who used out-of-date or incorrect information because the book she chose was twenty-years-old.  Or you can take one of those aging books and say, “Imagine what would happen if David (use a name to make the example more personal) was doing research on planets and found this book discussing Pluto.  If he researches what is known about Pluto from this book and other sources, he never discovers that Pluto is no longer considered a planet until after he turns in his assignment.” The story, focused on a single individual, captures attention.  You can then follow up with your collection analysis.

Know Your Listener – Be mindful of your listener’s attention span.  In my experience, principals have so much on their plate, they have a very limited amount of time to hear you out.  Get to the point quickly.  If they want more details, they will ask. When I would set up an appointment with my principal’s secretary, I asked for ten minutes and was prepared to finish in five – and leaving the data at the conclusion of the meeting. It made it much easier to continue getting appointments as I needed them.

Be Personal But Not Confessional – It’s always easier to connect with someone you feel you know.  Include some relevant stories of your experience. The most important word here is “relevant.”  The story about yourself should connect to and reinforce what you are discussing (such as my principal story above). Try to avoid topics such as politics, religion or others that lead to heated, not connected, dialogue.  It’s also best to steer clear of serious personal issues such as illness or loss, lest it seem like a bid for sympathy.

Be Specific – My husband reminds of this all the time.  He asks me, “Why are you telling me this?”  “What do you want me to do about it?”  We tend to slowly edge up to our request.  By the time we get there, our listener has tuned out. Don’t say, “I know you have seen our Makerspace and liked what the students are doing.”  Go right to what you want. “It is time to take our Makerspace to the next level.”

Aim for a Home Run – Play big.  Go for what you really want. The big idea captures attention.  Having done that, your back-up plan is likely to be approved, possibly with additional modifications.  If the issue of money is raised, you can offer ways to do your idea in stages or cut back somewhat. And your principal will know that you have big ideas that may well be used to showcase the school.

Re-enact Your Story, Don’t Just Tell It – Suppose you are trying to convince a teacher or administrator that books in the library shouldn’t be leveled. Don’t cite articles on the subject.  Make it personal by putting a face on the issue. Talk, for example, about Darrin, a boy who has hated reading. Last week he found a book in the library on his favorite baseball team, but it was below his reading level. You decided to break the rules and let him take it out.  Now he is reading so much more, and although he still wants books below his Lexile level, he’s more likely to improve because of this change.

Build a Story Bank – Be aware of the power of story and the emotions they carry. Keep track of incidents and moments that happen in the library which you can use at some later date. This may seem odd at first, but the more stories you collect, the more you will notice.

You can tell teachers, administrators, and others how important the library is, but, as you well know, that doesn’t mean they will hear you.  Bring story and the techniques of speechwriters to grab your listener’s attention, hold it, and get them to take action.

 

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ON LIBRARIES: A Different Approach Changes Outcomes

Many of you have tried multiple approaches to get your message through but making progress is still slower than you’d like. Sometimes you make headway with one or two teachers, and that’s a big gain.  Rather than focus on your frustrations, it’s important to look at what you can do to change your situation. Some self-reflection on how you present yourself might give you a few more tactics you can use to reach more of the faculty and possibly the principal.

In 10 Behaviors for Better Results, John R. Stoker reviews how we sometimes get in our own way and then offers ways to change the dynamic. There is an important theme throughout these behaviors – we can’t let our passion stop us from hearing the same passion and needs in our associates. He frames his ideas as responses to these ten questions:

  1. Are you so entrenched in your perspective that you don’t hear what others are saying? We know about active listening, but when we are passionate about what we believe, it is not always easy to practice. What is the other person’s perspective? Why do they see it that way?  Why are they passionate? Speak first to that.
  2. Do you really listen when others are speaking? Another reference to the importance of active listening. Because of our own beliefs, often nurtured by experience, we listen to hear the arguments, the negative, and overlook the possible areas of agreement. Instinctively, you prepare your defense and at that moment you tune out.  Without realizing it you’ve set up an immediate barrier.  You’ve probably been on the other side of this as well. No one likes to be ignored. Listen first.
  3. Do you push too hard to get the thing that you want? This is probably one of our biggest mistakes.  We finally have someone’s ear.  We have our message out – fast.  In the process, we overwhelm our listeners and they retreat.  Watch the other person’s body language for signs they are disengaging.  Be prepared to modify your request. If a teacher says s/he is too busy to come to the library, offer to send a cart with materials and an emailed list of apps and web resources. The same is true when proposing a project to your administrator. If you are asking for funds (and that is always difficult) consider spreading the project over several years. Would it work to just get approval for the project along with funding from alternate sources such as DonorsChoose?
  4. Do you assume that you know better or that you are always right? Even if you do, that can’t be where you start. My motto for years has been, “Do you want to be right, or do you want it to work? If you want to be right, it probably won’t work.” You need to be prepared for a solution that won’t be exactly how you envisioned it but will get you closer.  And in the discussion, you might get some new ideas which will be an improvement over your original plan. Plus, being seeing as a collaborator paves the way for your next success.
  5. Do you allow your negative emotions to determine what you say, do or think in the moment? When we talked with a teacher who has always shut us down, we tend to anticipate the negative and follow suit.  Your body language and your tone of voice communicate your negative feelings. This is when you must consciously must your mindset because this time could be your longed-for yes.
  6. Does your desire to play it safe or to be comfortably secure hinder your ability to be vulnerable and connect with others? This speaks to how we are as leaders.  The “don’t rock the boat” attitude keeps us from trying new ideas.  We worry about the possibility of failure and hide in our library.  After all, you have a ridiculously full schedule, why add to the stresses of your day by trying to add working with teachers to the mix?  Remember, we are in the relationship business, and if we are not building relationships, we will soon be out of business.
  7. Do you avoid heartfelt expressions of appreciation or gratitude? It pays to go further than just saying thank you. Handwritten notes make a big impression in the world of text, email, and emojis. Making sure you have informed your principal when a teacher has worked with you is another way to express your appreciation and one that the teacher will value.
  8. Do you take the time to reflect and focus on what matters most? Reflecting and focusing are two key components to success. Our days are so full we frequently don’t reflect on what we are doing or why we are doing it.  Throughout the National School Library Standards, we are encouraged to reflect. It’s an important habit to develop.  This question is also a reminder to prioritize.  This means not only our tasks but our relationships with family, friends, our colleagues, and our students.  When we become “human doings” rather than “human beings” we lose an important component of our life.  Being focused only on the next task makes us less approachable and keeps us from building vital relationships. (See question 6.)
  9. Are you empathetic and understanding of others? When you are a “human doing,” you are not likely to be alert to signals from others. It’s imperative that you be attuned to what is going on with your colleagues as well as your administrator (and your family).  If you want to build collaboration, you start with what they need, and they aren’t likely to tell you immediately.  You will often have to figure it out for yourself by staying connected.   
  10. Are you blind to your own behavior?   In his poem,To A Louse, On Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church,” Robert Burns said, “Oh would some Power the gift give us, to see ourselves as others see us.”   We rarely know how we are perceived by others.  We make assumptions based primarily on our view of ourselves, positive or negative. You can get some idea by watching the body language of those with whom you are speaking. Do they move closer to you or move away?  Do they feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and views with you? If you’re having challenges, return to the first few questions and look at how you can really listen, hear what others are saying and not push to get your own view out first.

Making the case for your program is not easy in our stress-filled environment. Learning more about leadership and advocacy is never-ending. Adding new techniques and skills is an ongoing and empowering part of our jobs. The more we can be a “human being” the more we’re likely to enjoy the journey.

ON LIBRARIES: About Agency

The term Agency has been around for several years and has reached the level of buzzword.  As such, you need to understand it and see how it fits into the library program, particularly since administrators are reading about it.  Being able to discuss Student Agency shows your leadership and allows your principal recognizing that you incorporate the newest educational thinking into your library program.

I admit I struggled with the term for a while.  It is used in various places in the National School Library Standards for Learners, School Librarians, and School Libraries.  The Glossary of Terms (p. 273) defines it as:

“When learning involves the activity and the initiatives of the learner, more than the inputs that are transmitted to the learner from the educators, from the curriculum, and the resources. It is the learners’ power to act. When learners move from being passive recipients to being much more active in the learning process, actively involved in the decisions about the learning, they have greater agency. (CORE Education 2014)”

I understood it when I read it, but it didn’t want to stick in my brain. Fortunately, the February 2019 issue of EL (Educational Leadership) has an article by Will Richardson entitled Sparking Student Agency with Technology that included a simpler, if more challenging definition. He explains true agency as:

“. ..the freedom to choose what to learn as well as how to learn it. Curriculum matters, but only to the extent that it is used to support students’ inquiry. In neglecting this aspect of independent learning, many schools are missing the opportunity to give students true agency over their learning.”

The concept is great.  There is no question in my mind that when students’ have agency they remember what they learn, they are engaged, and they aren’t bored.  Too many students still think school “sucks” or is a waste of their time. Student Agency changes that, but how do we incorporate it? It’s difficult to give students “voice and choice” when teachers feel bound by a highly structured curriculum.

The library is one of the best places to introduce student agency. Students need to determine what problem interests them and how they can solve it.  Agency involves inquiry-based, project-based and differentiated learning, sometimes called “personalized learning.” Makerspaces were introduced to be part of this, but these are limited by what you can provide.

Ross Cooper offers five ways to answer How Can Educators Best Promote Student Agency?  Although he is talking about the classroom, I think these fit even better in the library.

Create a Culture of Inquiry and Creativity – I am tempted to say “duh” – that is what is supposed to happen in the library. Cooper suggests the way to achieve this is to:

  • Learn to Let Go: In other words, don’t help so much. Allow kids struggle to find their answers, providing scaffolding as necessary.
  • Do Not Lock It and Block It: Too many places have blocked sources students need to solve the problems they are working on. That’s frustrating and stops the learning.
  • Teach Collaboration Skills: Yes, kids play collaborative games, but working on a project together is different. Give them the guidance they need before the projects start.

Emphasize Relevance over Engagement – This sounds contrary to agency, but Cooper is cautioning not to use your own interests to capture students’ enthusiasm.  It’s their choice that matters. If all students are working on the same project, even if you have given them free rein over how to present it, they don’t have agency.  They are not in control over their own learning.

Share Learning Targets – Let students know up front what you want them to achieve.  In other words, start with the end you want to achieve and let students decide which route they will take to get there. Give them guidance, if necessary, in the form of exemplars.

Facilitate Ongoing Feedback – Students need feedback from you, from other students, and from themselves. The last is the most important one. Some conferences (and the Antiques Roadshow on PBS) have a Feedback Booth.  Set up a table for this. It’s a place where students can stop and analyze where they are, where they are going, and whether a change of course is needed. They can speak with you, work by themselves, or tap a classmate.

Allow for Reflection and Publishing – In most school settings there is no time for reflection. Once something is completed, it’s on to the next unit.  Yet reflection is vital for growth and is essential for true agency. Cooper offers these questions to help students reflect on their work:

  • What additional questions do you have about this topic?
  • What strengths can you identify in your work?
  • What are you most proud of?
  • How could you improve your work?
  • What would you do differently next time?

The publishing aspect is also important. Students need to publicly share what they have created. Find ways to feature their work as much as possible.

Agency is a buzzword, but I think it’s more discussed than done. It needs to become the norm, and you can help achieve that in the library.