ON LIBRARIES: Curiouser and Curiouser

In the opening to Chapter 2 in Alice in Wonderland, Alice describes the events unfolding by saying, “Curiouser and curiouser” going on to comment, “now I’m opening out like the largest telescope that ever was!” With this book, those words, and what occurs on Alice’s adventures, Lewis Carroll created a world antithetical to the Victorian education of his day.  In a society where students recited “How doth the little busy bee…” chorusing it by rote, curiosity was not encouraged.

But Carroll was right. Curiosity lets you open out like the largest telescope. Curiosity leads to innovation and growth for students and for ourselves. We need to introduce curiosity into more subject areas and bring it further into our lives as leaders. Where standardized tests are the “Little busy bee” of our time, curiosity must be cultivated and celebrated.

Schools and libraries have been creating Makerspaces and STEM labs which are giving students the space and resources to follow their imagination. They love the activity and become skilled at problem-solving.  In a Makerspace, students don’t worry about failure.  In that environment, they accept failure as part of the learning process.  It’s like their video games where they die, learn from it, and are then able to use the information to go back then go on to the next level.

In Makerspaces, students are asking themselves, “What if I …?”  “I wonder if …” Those are the questions of the curious, but problem-solving is not just for Makerspaces.  It needs to be everywhere. But what is happening the rest of the day?  What are classes and assignments like?

Unfortunately, there the emphasis is still on success and correct answers. As librarians, we need to lead the shift to have students focusing on and learning to ask important questions. In February 2016 I blogged about Quality Questions and spoke about the role of Essential Questions in creating learning experiences for students.  There is a link at the end to an article in Edutopia on 5 Ways to Help Your Students Become Better Questioners.  It’s still a worthwhile read, but we need to do even more.

Many of librarians use KWL (know, want, learn) charts with students.  I suggest adding a fourth column- “Q” which stands for “Questions I still have.”  Having them complete this final step encourages kids to think deeper and possibly explore aspects of the topic that haven’t been covered in the project.

Inquiry is the first Shared Foundation in AASL’s new National School Library Standards (NSLS).  In the Framework for Learners. The Competency for it under Think, the first Domain, reads, “Learners display curiosity and initiative by: ….”  From curiosity and initiative come the new ideas that will power tomorrow.  But first students must develop the ability to do so.  Our lessons must stimulate curiosity and the questioning that comes with it.

Explore is the fifth Shared Foundation in the NSLS.  In the Framework for Learners, the Competencies for Grow, the fourth Domain, states “Learners develop through experience and reflection by:…”  Reflection is an important word (and is used throughout the standards).  We grow through reflection because we think about what we know – and what we don’t.  And that should make us curious.

We need to give the student time to reflect and come up with questions that begin, “I wonder….?” and “What if ….?”  Questions that can’t be answered by a quick Google search.  And when they come up with these questions, ask them where they can find answers to their question.

As leaders, we must cultivate curiosity in ourselves as well.  It’s how we move out of our comfort zone which is the only way we grow as leaders. Is there a teacher in your school whom the kids love?  Consider asking if you can observe him/her during your free period.  You might learn so much, and the teacher will likely appreciate being recognized.

Reach out to your colleagues at other schools and other grade levels and ask questions. If you are at the elementary level, talk with the middle school librarian to see what students read and research at that level.  If you are at the high school also check with the middle school librarian to see what experiences they have had.  Middle school librarians can go either or both ways.

Be curious about your coworkers and their lives outside of school.  Sometimes we are like the kids who think the teachers sleep in the school because they can’t imagine them having a life past the school walls.  In getting to know the teachers as individuals beyond their subject/grade you begin building trust and relationships which lead to collaboration.

An article from Experience Life by Todd Kashdan discusses The Power of Curiosity.  The fact that curiosity increases intelligence and social relationships is logical, but you may be surprised to see how it increases health, happiness, and other benefits.  I love the ideas of thriving on uncertainty, reconnecting with play, and finding the unfamiliar in the familiar.

Curiosity, in my opinion, is a foundation of a growth mindset.  It makes the world a more exciting place – and you a more interesting person.

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ON LIBRARIES: Regarding Teachers

Students are our first priority, but teachers come in at a close second.  For the most part, they are the gateway to the students. If we don’t find ways to reach them, we lose much of our access to students.

Why don’t we collaborate more – or at least cooperate?  We are on the same team?  Aren’t we?  The answer is not simple.  Yes, we should be on the same team, but do you feel and act as if the teachers are on your team?  Do the teachers feel you are on theirs?

Too many librarians believe the teachers don’t recognize what they bring to students, and this is often the case. If they are not working with you, they have no idea what you are doing.  And they certainly can’t imagine what you could do.

The situation can be exacerbated by your reaction.  If you feel undervalued and even disrespected, your attitude creeps into your interactions with the teachers. They sense it and respond in kind, further setting up a “we/they” feeling.

It’s too important to let things continue if they are not working.  Your job responsibility requires you to at least have a professional relationship with every teacher. You don’t have to be BFFs, but you must be able to regard all of them in a friendly manner. The library is a “safe, welcoming environment for ALL.” That includes teachers, even if they never set foot in it.

Your challenge is to move from we/they to us.  If they don’t come in the library, you are going to have to meet them elsewhere. School and district committees are a good place to start.  Despite your heavy schedule, you need to make time for this because you automatically meet as equals on these committees.   As you bring your expertise to the discussions, teachers begin to realize how you can contribute to what they do.

Next, make your library an inviting space for teachers.  Food is always the perfect lure.  Have coffee (and tea) available if you can.  Bring in snacks both healthy and not-so-healthy that don’t need refrigeration.  Let teachers know you have this available. There are other ways to lure teachers in.  Having a color printer or a laminator are a draw. Even better, if your library has the space, create a “teachers only” area.

If you build this – they will come. You don’t have to stop what you are doing to greet them. Your students and classes come first. Leave a little welcoming note and/or any needed directions where you have the food.  You can leave some new additions nearby with a note saying these books are about to be put into the collection and to let you know if they want one of them first.  You can also put out magazines you think they would like.

On those occasions when teachers come in and you aren’t involved with students, don’t pounce on them with suggestions of books and websites and other resources.  Just focus on bringing them in. If they feek as though you are offering a sales pitch, they will stay away. Instead, use the time to get to know them as people.  What are their hobbies, interests?  Do they have kids?  Do whatever it takes to begin building a relationship. Reach out to them as people.  Personal before professional lays the groundwork.

You will know you are succeeding when some teachers bring in food as thanks or come to use some of the special resources you have available.  That’s your cue to take the next step with them.  Move from the personal to the professional. (Sounds backwards but it’s really the best way to create collaboration or cooperation.) Ask about what they are working on with their classes. Listen carefully to find out what the culminating project is or any difficulties they are having with the unit.

After the conversation, demonstrate your curation skills by gathering books and/or web resources.  Don’t wait for the teacher to come back in.  Deliver it in person if possible.  Otherwise, put it in their mailbox with a note saying, “Based on our conversation, I thought you would find this helpful.”

Teachers are as overwhelmed and feel as unappreciated and undervalued as you do.  The last thing they want is to take on more work.  Cooperating or collaborating with you sounds like it is just that.  You need to show them that being an Instructional Partner can and will make their life easier.

ON LIBRARIES: Still Feeling Alone?

Image by © Monalyn Gracia/Corbis

Feeling alone on a daily basis is a common challenge for many librarians.  It’s bad enough being the sole librarian in the school –or possibly the district—but when teachers don’t see you as one of them, you feel isolated. Why does it happen?  What can you do about it?

I’m not going to suggest you build your PLN or join library-related Facebook groups.  I already did that in my May blog The Myth of the Lonely Librarian.  I am also assuming you now have contacts with your librarian colleagues across the country.

And yet you still feel lonely.

It’s how the job seems to you every day while you are at school that’s the problem, and a lot of librarians feel this way. So consider this a deeper look at the issue.

First a look at the why.  In far too many places, teachers (and administrators) have a very sketchy idea what school

librarians do.  Teachers see their schedules as overburdened and from their standpoint at the elementary level you just read to kids or at the middle and high schools watch them as they work.  No grading.  Maybe no lesson plans.  Easy job. Some of you have even heard teachers say this.  Those of you who have moved from the classroom to the library may have had a colleague say, “Are you enjoying your easier life?”  It rankles because you know how far from the truth that is.

Trying to explain the range of your job and how challenging it usually is isn’t effective. If you tell the truth and say you are working harder than ever, your teacher friends won’t believe you and probably won’t really hear if you try listing all your tasks and responsibilities.  It’s better to just say, “Not easier, as much as different,” and leave it at that.

Now let’s look at what to do.  Start by changing your mindset.  Right now you are feeling angry and frustrated—and isolated. While the emotions are understandable, they won’t change the situation and may make it worse.

Whether or not you express your feelings, they are communicated. As I have said before, and research bears this out, much of communication is non-verbal.  People read your attitude from your body language and the tone in your voice you can’t always control.

A helpful switch can be: “I can win them over, one teacher at a time.” To do this, you have to work on building relationships.  And you will have to do that one teacher at a time.

Do you eat at your desk because you are so busy or do you join the teachers for lunch at least a few times a week? Join the teachers. Trust me. I know it’s difficult to do, but much is at stake.  As you build relationships you also build the foundation for collaboration/cooperation.

At lunch, don’t push your way into conversations, particularly at the beginning.  Listen for any mention of units they are working on.  Then prepare a “gift package” of websites and other resources. Email them with what you have, saying “I heard your class is studying this topic and I thought this would help you.”  Add you also have some books waiting for them in the library.  If you included a tech website or app, let them know you can show them how to use it with their students.

Do your best to arrange to do a “show and tell” for a portion of their grade level or department meeting.  Bring books and check them out while there.  You can take their names and the title back to the library to put then into the system.  Present one or two great new websites or apps such as the ones on AASL’s Best Websites for Teaching & Learning and Best Apps for Teaching & Learning. No more than two. You don’t want to overwhelm them.

And let’s face it – food is always a lure, so keep snacks and coffee available for teachers in a separate room for when they are there. Don’t besiege them with ideas for collaborative projects when they first stop by. Wait until they become frequent visitors, then mention an idea.

Slowly the teachers’ connection to you will build.  They will begin to see you as a helpful and possibly vital resource who makes their life easier.  When they initiate the contact and come to you for help, you have succeeded.

By not defending yourself and trying to tell teachers that your job is at least as challenging as theirs, you achieve your ultimate goal.  Instead, you’ll create a relationship where you work together cooperatively or collaboratively on projects, and you will no longer feel they are treating you as someone less than or not connected to them.

Initially, most teachers don’t have a good idea of what you do and what you can do for them.  But in actuality, unless you taught that grade level, you don’t know exactly what the teachers’ day looks like either. You certainly don’t know what your principal’s day is like.  When you build these relationships, you earn their respect and have them value you as a colleague.

What have you done to foster collegiality with teachers or administration?  Are you regarded as one of them?  Do you always say “we” when talking about you and the teachers? What challenges are you still facing? What support do you need?

ON LIBRARIES – Creating Collaboration

pieces fittingOne of the biggest challenges facing librarians is how to get teachers to collaborate or cooperate (for those on fixed schedules) with them. How can you break through that barrier and show teachers what you can do for them and their students?  Unless teachers are forced by the administration to work with you, they probably won’t – unless you change the playing field. To make that happen, remember we are in the relationship business.

Too frequently when you are at a middle or high school the teachers are too busy to collaborate with you.  They bring their classes to the library to do a project they haven’t discussed with you and often don’t want you input. At the elementary level it’s even more difficult. Teachers drop students at the library door and pick them up at the end of the period.  Many don’t care what you did with their kids as long as they had time to grab a cup of coffee and catch up with their work on their duty free period. To them, that’s what the library period means.build relationships

Build your relationships first, and keep building them. You probably already get along better with some teachers rather than others.  Consider how that relationship developed.  You might be able to use that knowledge to reach out to other teachers.

Email communications don’t build relationships.  Personal contact does.  It gives you the opportunity to look the other person in the eye. To smile at them.  To give them your full attention. To wait to respond until you are sure they are finished. In the process, you learn something about them. What they like.  What they do in their free time.  All the things that make them who they are.

When you reach out to them to propose a collaborative unit, you speak to that whole person. Offer your support and encouragement.  Ask what the next research project will be about and when it will occur.  Let the teacher know you would like to support her and her students by showing them how the library can make it a more successful experience.  Promise any extra work will fall on your shoulders.

working togetherConduct a careful reference interview.  Was this project done before?  If so what were the results?  Was there anything that disappointed the teacher or was particularly successful?  If it’s new, what does she hope to see in the students’ products?  What are her concerns? From there you can find out if there are any Essential Questions for it.  If not, get back to her with some suggestions and ideas for how the project might be altered and what parts you will take on.  Find tech resources that will showcase what students do and be shareable on your website and any places where parents and others can see it. Be sure to offer to check students’ works cited information.

Show the teacher your ideas and be open to any changes. You are there to help, and while you can carefully guide, don’t overpower.  You are building trust.  Since you have a relationship it’s already there to some extent but you are now expanding it.

When the project is complete, in a brief meeting – or an email at this point – review what worked and what didn’t.  Would the teacher want to do this again next year?  What changes would she like?  What would you suggest?thank you

End with acknowledgement. Send a handwritten note to the teacher, and perhaps one to the principal, thanking the teacher for taking the risk and giving you and the students this opportunity. In this day of texting and emailing, handwritten notes get attention.

To create a cooperative unit at the elementary level, use much the same techniques.  Find out what is being studied and offer to do a complementary project. See if the teacher would like to see the results.

How are you building relationships?  Is it helping you to increase your collaboration/cooperation with teachers? What help do you need?