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?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Struggling with citation

Last night I dreamt of citations. I spent my sleeping hours much as I did my waking hours--dragging students through the process of creating a citation in NoodleTools, and then begging, pleading, and cajoling them to use in-text citations. It’s not a traditional nightmare, but I would have much preferred to spend my sleeping time being chased by a bear. I feel like it would have been more restful.

I am struggling mightily with the teaching citation this year. I am amazed and a little appalled by the number of juniors and seniors I have who claim they have never had to create citations before (most of whom I know for a fact I’ve taught how to cite). Several want to just be able to print a list of URLs (the quality of some of the sources students insist on using--and their reluctance to even try a database--is a topic for another day). Even students who are on board with creating citations are either flummoxed by or giving me push back on creating in-text citations; several claim to “just know” very specific statistics, and have no source to cite.

To be fair, there have been a handful of new students who, upon going through the steps needed to create a citation in NoodleTools, have said, “Well, that was easy!” And even students who are getting a refresher (willingly or unwillingly) do well with the process when they actually start it, many of them needing very little guidance.

So what’s the stumbling block? I think there are several. I don’t think students are universally held accountable for the need to cite; they think of it as something you do for the research paper in History/English/Science class, but not something you have to do unless it’s part of the requirements. Or only for certain teachers or assignments. I think we need to have students cite regularly and consistently on assignments big and small, just so they get in the habit. And the consequences of not citing need to be clear and consistent; if a student is handing in a major research paper with no citations, that’s a big problem that needs to be addressed.

I know many students also simply struggle with the format of citation, even using NoodleTools. It can be hard to figure out what information is which and where it goes and why or even how to classify the source you’re citing.

I have really good analogies (usually involving food) to explain almost every part of the research process, but I have yet to come up with something for citation that clicks with most students. The biggest issue seems to be helping students understand WHY they need to cite. I’m less interested in having perfectly formatted citations (and can empathize with students who get frustrated with the details of creating a proper citation); there are tools that will help students with that. But getting students to really grasp when and why to cite? That’s the really important part, and harder to teach than what goes in which part of the NoodleTools form.

I also wonder how much of this difficulty with the concept of giving others’ credit for their work comes from a lack of students’ investment? pride? ownership? (some combination of those three words embodies the idea I’m trying to express) of their own work. If they don’t feel like they are authors (with a real, genuine audience, and pride in what they have written and created), why would they understand that another author might want credit for their own work?

Citation is, in a way, about empathy; it’s about understanding that someone would want credit for the work that they’ve done. And if you can’t imagine yourself as creating anything that someone would read and use, how can you put yourself in the shoes of someone who has? I think a big part of fixing the issue with citation is helping student come to see themselves as authors and creators of work that worth sharing and getting credit for.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Murder in the library!

When I got home from the wonderful CASL Conference on Monday, I walked into my library to find the following:

Crime tape blocking off the second floor!

Shell casings left on the floor!

Bullet holes in the shelving!

More bullet holes!

And more! Someone was a really bad shot. . .

But the killer eventually hit his mark!

I, of course, knew this was coming. My friend Shawn, who also teaches Forensics, wanted to stage a crime scene, and I eagerly volunteered the library. I wanted to play the victim, but my teaching schedule didn't allow it--maybe next time!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

How do you make students comfortable with failure?

Seriously. I'm asking how.

I'm working on an I-Search project with the 9th grade Thinking & Writing classes; kind of a "get your feet wet, learn the basics" project. We've talked about defining a topic, identifying key words and ideas, where and how to search, evaluating sources, and citations. It's a good way for me to get to know more about them as researchers (so future instruction can be better designed), and for them to both explore a topic of interest and get a bit more comfortable with the research process.

But many of them are struggling. And I'm struggling. Not necessarily with the process or the ideas or the few things about research that are nice and neat and linear--just the parts of research that aren't nice and neat and linear. Which is, you know, most of them.

Research, I think many of us would agree, is an iterative process. You search, there's new questions and dead ends and unexpected turns, so you regroup and refocus and re-search. And that's difficult and uncomfortable, especially when you're just starting out as a researcher, but you get better at it--and, if you're anything like me, you begin to enjoy the journey of research almost as much as the answer you find at the end (assuming you even get to the "end"). I know not everyone comes to enjoy the process of research, but my hope is that students at least become comfortable and confident with the ups and downs of the process.

Only that's really, really not happening for a number of my students, and a lot of their frustration is kind of heartbreaking for me.

For those of you who don't know, the school I work at serves students with learning disabilities--dyslexia, ADD/ADHD, executive functioning disorders, etc. These are kids who, oftentimes, have been really and truly beat up by the educational system. They have been made to feel stupid. They have been exhorted to "just try harder" when they really are trying their hardest. They have often been denied the supports they need to learn. And a big part of what we do here--particularly in the first couple years--is put in those supports and help them learn how to learn the way they learn best. We take what had been a messy, unknowable process--learning--and give it structure and sequence.

Only that doesn't work for research. There's no way I can create an authentic research assignment that also proceeds in a linear fashion. Throw in website evaluation and citation and you have three often messy, confusing processes.

Frankly, sometimes I'm surprised that more students don't break down in tears or give up in frustration.

And I don't know what to do. I know that I need to create authentic research opportunities for my students. I know that they need to get comfortable with the ups and downs and ins and outs of the research process. But when they experience initial failure, they often shut down--and I get it. Years of being made to feel like you can't learn will wear a kid down. And it breaks my heart when I see a smart kid who assumes that they're struggle with research is a reflection on them, and not a reflection of the fact that it is a difficult process for everyone.

So how do we make students--particularly students who believe that failure means there is something wrong with them--comfortable with the idea of failure being part of the process?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

School librarian bingo

In recent weeks::

  • I had a Twitter conversation with Buffy Hamilton
  • I received a congratulatory e-mail from Sara Kelly Johns
  • Doug Johnson complimented a comment I left on his blog
  • Gwyneth Jones commented on my blog--and follows it!

I feel like these are key squares on the school librarian bingo card.

Also, my picture was in AL Direct this week, which is all kinds of weird and awesome. Mostly because they used the picture from this blog. You know, where I’m dressed up as Super Librarian. The other librarian pictured (Alicia Blowers, the other AASL-sponsored Emerging Leader) looks like an actual professional adult. I look ridiculous. Particularly because you can’t see the cape.