Sunday, November 21, 2010

Going it alone

When I first started as a school librarian I was, if not 100% opposed to the idea of doing a stand-alone information literacy class, at least 93% opposed. I believed, in the way only someone fresh from a grad school program can believe, that the only really, truly effective way to teach information literacy skills was through collaboration with classroom teachers.

And I still believe that that is a GREAT way to teach information literacy. I just no longer believe it is the only way, and in my particular case I'm no longer convinced it is the best way.

I'm going to say what's obvious to any librarian working alone without a clerk--trying to collaborate with 40 different teachers in multiple subjects with various levels of expertise and interest is hard. Finding the time to really plan collaboratively is challenging, and doing that planning is difficult when the teacher you're working with isn't familiar with the skills/concepts you're trying to teach. And yes, I want my teachers to know and understand what I do, but when we only have an hour to plan it's hard to decide between teaching the teacher and planning the unit.

The other time difficulty is in scheduling classes; if Ms. X wants to bring in her A-block class during the first week of November, great. Well, until Mr. Y also wants to bring his A-block class during the first week of November. We're on a modular schedule this year, which I love for lots of reasons, but it makes shifting projects a week here or there very difficult, if not impossible. Shifting a project means shortening the time allotted to it, which means radically altering the project--and often short-changing the process.

And let's not even get into the issue of trying to make sure you're reaching all students using this approach. Depending on class schedules and teachers and courses of study, it's not uncommon for a student to either miss a skill completely, or get a double (or triple) dose of it. And while I suppose it's not awful for students to be taught the same skill twice, it's frustrating for them, and it makes it hard to hold their attention and focus (even when I try and give them more advanced skills to practice, they have a hard time differentiating those skills from the ones they see their classmates doing, and when I'm working one-on-one with students practicing these skills for the first time it's hard to find the time to get over to the student who may have been in the library learning this just last week. And they often know enough to be bored, but not enough to be able to help their peers. Frustrating). What I'm concerned about is students who somehow never get these lessons. The senior who claims they've never done in-text citation before. The junior whose website evaluation consists entirely of the words "it looks legit." The student who has never used a database for research. The student who "knows" never to use Wikipedia because "anyone can edit it" who then cites Yahoo! Answers in their research paper. Everyone's moving at a different pace and in a million different directions, and there is no way for me to keep track of it.

And then there's what is, really the biggest issue for me. Much like the "everything in one book" syndrome, it's the "everything in one project" syndrome. Students need to develop search strategies, find and evaluate information, organize, take notes, cite AND often learn new information related to their core course, synthesize it and create a paper/presentation. It's a lot to ask of one project. It's too much.

Many students are so overwhelmed by the idea of the final product of a research paper that they can't properly focus on the process. The product is, for them, what matters, and the process is what's standing in between them and that product. And while I offer to (and beg and plead with) teachers to grade different components of the research process, not many take me up on it, and ultimately I have no say over how different parts of the process are weighted and graded.

In one of the latest projects I worked on with a class, I asked a student to close her laptop while I was giving a brief overview of the resources that would be helpful for this project. She scoffed, "I'm writing the paper." For an assignment that had been given the day before, and on which she'd done no research. I asked another student how he was doing with finding and citing sources, as I'd noticed that he hadn't entered any information into NoodleTools. He told me that he was going to do what he always did--write the paper (on a fairly nuanced and detailed topic) and then find some sources that he could plug in. For those students--and many others--the product was the point; the process was an afterthought (at best).

And so, all that (which was was way more than I intended) being said, I have gone to the powers that be at my school with a proposal to teach a stand-alone information literacy course. And gotten a very enthusiastic response. It's very early in the process, but I'm excited about the possibilities. You'll definitely be hearing more about this as planning moves forward.

Do any of you school librarians out there teach a stand-alone information literacy class? What do you love/like/hate about it? Things I should keep in mind as I start planning?


  1. You have nailed it! We want to teach the research process in order to enable students to experience success both now and in the future while all they want is to complete the product that is being graded.

    I'm in my fifth year as a school librarian and have yet to achieve collaboration nirvana.

  2. I taught two different stand alone classes in two different middle schools for a total of 5 years. The problem with teaching the skills alone is that they are not reinforced in many cases. Then when the students need to use them for real research, they don't remember them. Also a stand alone class which is a "special" does not count towards the students' average, therefore, many students don't put much effort into the class because it doesn't count. Maybe if the teachers and administrators buy into the importance of information literacy a stand alone class can work, but in my experience, it is not a good idea.

  3. We started a course this year for 8th grade students that is semi-collaborative. The students come in once every two weeks for a research class on their history off-day. The class was 4 units in total and covered creating search terms, evaluating sources, taking notes, and creating bibliographic and footnote citations. My only concern is that the course ended up catering too much to the project, but I'm working to improve it for next year. Feel free to email me if you'd like to discuss.

  4. We don't really have "specials", so everything has weight in terms of grades (whether or not students think grades in a particular class are important is a larger issue).
    I do have a lot of buy-in from teachers and especially administrators, which is why I'm ready to do this; skills taught in one class are already reinforced in another. What I'm trying to achieve is everyone starting with the same foundation, and then being able to build on it. As I either said or meant to say in my post--I don't think this is necessarily the right solution for all situations, but I think it's (at least closer to) the right solution for my situation.

    Thanks for the offer, ricker--I'd love to be in touch as we both plan for next year. Always good to have someone to bounce ideas off of!

  5. I took a capstone history class in college that was similar to what you are talking about. We explored different ways to find research: primary documents, census reports, books, journals, etc. Each week we focused on a different type of medium. At the end, we produced a 20 page research paper on a topic of our choice, using the different sources we worked with. We all thought it should be an 8 credit class instead of just 4.

  6. I took a college class, Looking for Information, that touched on the different ways to find different materials. Your idea would be a similar approach. Students could also "research topics" they needed in a different class to get more out of the sources.

  7. I remember doing similar sorts of projects in my 8th grade (pre-Web) Library Skills class. We learned about different types of sources, what they were, how to use them; the final project was a bibliography for a hypothetical project. And while the wheres and hows of searching have definitely changed, I would like to do something similar with my students, so they really get a chance to explore different types of sources and searching strategies.

  8. I worked in a middle school for 9 years and taught a Library Skills class through the Lang. Arts teachers at each grade, so that I could have every kid in the school go through a curriculum right up through doing research. I had all the students scheduled in as soon as possible. It was effective, teachers knew to include the skills learned in their future assignments. And I could reinforce skills by simply referencing that they'd learned them in the skills class, to refresh their memories. (They really don't forget everything. You just have to stimulate them to search their memory.)

    At the high school level trying to integrate with teachers was much harder and I always suffered the frustration of knowing not all students got the same teaching. I would much rather have taught an Information Literacy class aimed at getting all 9th graders up to speed. And then working with teachers from there.

  9. Thanks for sharing--the set up you had in the middle school is exactly the kind of thing I'm looking to do. Good to know it's possible!