Sunday, January 16, 2011

What my choice of footwear has to do with my being a good librarian. (Hint: Nothing)

Full, unsurprising, disclosure: I was never a cool kid.

Which may be why articles like this about the invasion of the cool librarians get my hackles up. Librarianship was supposed to be a place where I wouldn’t have to be “hip” in order to be taken seriously, a place where my substance mattered more than my style.

I have met “young, hip” librarians who are very, very good at being young and hip. What they’re not so great at is being librarians. Being young and hip doesn’t make you good at anything else besides being young and hip. So go be a trend-setter or work on Madison Avenue. But don’t act like, ipso facto, it makes you a better librarian.

I am playing post-conference catch-up with my GoogleReader, so you may have already had your fill of discussion of this article (whether or not that's true, you should check out The Librarian Kate’s excellent post on the subject), but since it still has me saying "and another thing!" while I make dinner, I figured I'd add my $0.02.

My students don’t like me because I have cool shoes, or tattoos, or like the same bands they do, ‘cause none of those things are true. I do keep up with general pop culture trends; even though I won’t be adding A Shore Thing to my collection, I am aware of Jersey Shore. I think it’s important for me (for anyone who works with teens) to be aware of what my students are interested in, and what’s important to them; it doesn’t mean I have to be interested in the same things, or find them as important.

So if I don’t have the latest style, or the same iPod playlist, why do my students like me?
  • Because I can help them find the just right article for the paper they’re writing.
  • Because I can find a book they’ll love to read--and then find another one that they’ll love just as much.
  • Because I can help them figure how to open the paper they e-mailed to themselves (and that’s due in five minutes)--and show them how to avoid the same problem in the future.
  • Because I can explain how to cite a source for the millionth time with the same level of patience as I did the first time.
  • Because I will sit and guide them through the research process for as long as it takes.
  • Because I find and create ways for them to find success as learners.
These, and many other things I do, make me objectively good at being a librarian, regardless of how subjectively “cool” I am.

I know that many of these articles about “hip” librarians are probably a well-intention attempt to push the librarian stereotype in the other direction. But stop it. Seriously. Just stop it.

I’ve written about this before: no matter what the stereotype, our patrons do not judge librarians collectively, they asses us as individuals. And while public perception does matter, it will not, ultimately, be changed by broad generalizations; they will be changed by each of us, one at a time, working with the people who come into our libraries.

But, despite the agita this gives me, I know, ultimately, that none of these articles matter. Just as we know the shushing librarian stereotype is nonsense, we know this is nonsense. And, more importantly, so do the people we work with. So who I am, and what I do, matter far more than any fluff piece.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Be my online friend, in real life

I met Abby Johnson at a reception Monday evening by saying, “Hi, I know you. My name’s Sara.” ‘Cause even though I’d never talked to her before, I did feel like I knew her; I read her blog, I follow her Emerging Leaders list on Twitter, and we (along with 80 or so other people) had spent an entire day in the same room on Friday for the official start of our ALA Emerging Leaders program.

The same feeling of knowing people I hadn’t met had been a common theme that day and throughout the rest of the weekend. And despite several such encounters, I never really mastered the protocol of introducing myself to someone I felt like I already knew.

Anyway, Abby and I were talking about how nice it was to be able to meet people in person before starting work on the virtual teams that are part of our Emerging Leaders project; as much as we (and by “we” I mean people who write about these things on the Internet) talk about how great it is to be able to work virtually and long-distance (and I’m not arguing that it’s not), I think those experiences are better and more productive when they’re built on real-world relationships. I know that being able to put names, faces, and conversations about Exhibit Hall strategy to the people I’m collaborating with virtually makes them far more real to me than if we’d simply exchanged Twitter names and e-mail addresses.

It is, I think most can agree, all too easy to forget that the people we connect with virtually are dynamic, real people unless we have a real-world connection to them. And I’m not just talking about being rude, or saying hurtful things, or assuming the worst of someone’s motives. It’s simply about being more able to give someone the benefit of the doubt because you have a real person’s image in your head. It’s a lot easier to empathize with someone when they’re more than just disembodied text on your screen.

Making virtual connections more real can work in the opposite direction as well. I’ve tried, unsuccessfully, several times to explain Twitter to my mom. I was able to explain how things worked, but a grasp of the “why” eluded her. Until I told her about #strandedatala, the hashtag a group of us whose flights had gotten cancelled used to organize ourselves while we were still in San Diego. Tuesday night I ended up having dinner with 18 or so people I’d never met—and never would have met if we hadn’t been able to use Twitter to organize ourselves. And, given that it was mostly East-coasters who were stranded, I made connections with several people from Connecticut. These real-world connections would not have been possible without an on-line connection—and those real world encounters will be made stronger as we continue to communicate on-line. And yes, it’s distinctly possible I could have made these connections strictly online, and made a professional relationship that way. But if I’d never had a real-world encounter with these people on-line, I think something would, inevitably, be missing from our on-line communications.

I’ve noticed, too, over the past several years, the value that communicating via Facebook or Twitter has added to long-standing offline friendships—even friendships I have with people that I see regularly, but even more so with people that I see less often. I know everyone complains about mundane status updates, but knowing about the details of day-to-day life is important to a friendship.

Think about where some of your most intense—if not long lasting—friendships happened. College, right? Living in a dorm? Where you couldn’t help but be immersed in the day-to-day mundanity of your friends’ lives? I don’t think that’s a coincidence. And that, too, is likely why not all college friendships—even the ones that seem most intense—stand the test of time. When you’re not immersed in the day-to-day, you lose that level of shared experience that contributes to a friendship. Online social networks make it possible to stay connected to the day-to-day of your friends’ lives.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t note that when I posted about multiple flight cancellations, and worrying about being stranded overnight or having to unearth my car when I got home, friends responded immediately with offers of a place to stay or a ride. To have friends reach out with offers of help, especially from so far away, especially friends I hadn’t been in touch with for a while, was, well. . . the word “awesome” comes to mind.

I know this blog is, ostensibly, student and learning focused, so I’m gonna try and bring it around to that. The chances are pretty good that our students will need to work virtually—both with people they do know in person, and people they don’t. This is the value in having students who are in the same school and in the same class work on projects that involve virtual communication; students can learn how to build on-line working relationships that are built on the foundation of an off-line relationship. And knowing how to do that is a crucial step in learning how to communicate productively with someone you don’t have an off-line relationship with.

Do teenagers always behave themselves when communicating in online environments (whether for school or not)? No. And we already know that. But they’re not going to magically figure it out either. Their world—our world—will involve virtual communication; isn’t it a good idea to teach them how to go about doing that? And where better to teach them in a classroom, where not only are they answerable to their peers, but there is a teacher to guide everyone through the process.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Travels with iPhone

I recently fell victim to the siren call of the smart phone. More specifically, a friend
recently upgraded to an iPhone 4 and gave me her old phone.

I recognized pretty quickly that having an iPhone was changing my behavior in small but
noticeable ways. My laptop (which is so old it's practically a desktop) gets turned on a
lot less frequently. My e-mail responses--those that are sent from my phone, anyway-
-are a lot more terse (though not always, as it will take more than a radical shift in
technology to curtail my verbosity).

And while having this phone means I'm checking Twitter and Facebook and my e-mail a
lot more frequently than I used to, in some ways I feel less immersed in (some kinds of)
information. I'm still not crazy about reading anything of significant length on the small
screen, so I find myself either not reading (or marking as to read later) links that I would
likely have clicked on if I was checking from a regular computer.

But traveling this week is when I really noticed the change the phone had made in how
I approach things. I am a very type A personality traveler. Before I go somewhere new
I have all my flight and hotel information printed out, a plan for getting between airport,
hotel, and other spots I'm going to (including, but not limited to, maps, addresses, public
transit info, and turn-by-turn walking directions), and a print out of my schedule if I'm
going to a conference.

This time, I have none of that.

What I have, instead, are apps. A conference schedule app, along with my personal
calendar for other events and details. A San Diego map app, as well as a conference
map saved to my home screen. A few other pages of info I'll need are saved there as
well. Everything else I'm planning (hoping) to access through my email.

This is very, very unlike me. And while I kind of like not having to carry and organize a
sheaf of papers, the fact that I don't have all those papers is kind of making me nervous.

I'm not ready to make any generalizations about my future behavior ('cause it's likely
one of the reasons I feel so unprepared for this trip is the non-packing, non-trip prep
work I had to do before I left), let alone anyone else's, based on this one experience.
And while I do have a lot of info for this trip on my phone, it is nowhere near well-
organized. But it is interesting to see yourself making such a significant change about
how you do something in such a short period of time.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Whole New Research Project

Every year the sophomores do a major research paper in their history class. And every year it is a disaster.

Okay, okay, disaster is too strong a word. Let’s just say that my vision of how the process will go and the way the process actually goes have less in common than I would like them to.

But every year it is a disaster in a slightly different way, and every year we tweak it and change it and try to make it better. Having done this several times, we’ve been able to really hone in on the areas our students really struggle with:

  • Most of the time students are learning the PROCESS of research at the same time they’re learning new CONTENT for their class. Trying to master (or even manage) both is overwhelming. Trying to synthesize everything into an essay? Oy.
  • Students are often so focused (and stressed) about the end product, that they want to rush past the process and right into writing the paper (they do a lot of the things I mentioned in my post about why I want to teach a stand alone class).
  • We usually require students to find and evaluate X number of sources; students then find X (or sometimes less than X) number of sources, enter them all in NoodleTools, read 1 source, and get all their information from that one source
  • Thesis statements? *sigh* Well-integrated evidence from their research to support that thesis complete with appropriate citation? *sigh times a million*

I realize, of course, that none of these issues are unique to me or my situation, which is some comfort.

However, this year we have a whole new schedule which is going to allow us to do something entirely different, and I’m really, really excited about it.

We’re on a modular schedule this year. Our year is divided into 8 mods; students take classes A-D during mods 1, 3, 5, 7 and classes E-H during mods 2, 4, 6, 8. Classes are 75 minutes long, as well, which I love (in years past students took 7 classes--all of which met all year long--and classes were only 40 minutes long; with that schedule it was hard to both introduce a skill and have students get meaningful practice with it). Also, this year all sophomore are taking Thinking & Writing, a class which I think pairs very naturally with teaching the research process.

Today, I met with the chairs of both the Thinking & Writing and History departments, as well as the other teacher of sophomore Thinking & Writing, about collaborating across all three departments on the research project. We wanted to make sure students we’re able to grapple with the whole process of research from topic selection to finished project, while also hitting all the steps in between.

So. In the 5th/6th mod (depending on individual schedules) students will, in their Thinking & Writing class select a topic for their History research paper, develop research questions, find and evaluate sources and then create an annotated bibliography of all their sources (this bibliography will also include a sentence about how they found and selected each source). We’re doing this to emphasize to students that gathering information from multiple sources and viewpoints is a crucial part of the research process. By the end of the mod, having done this initial research, they will develop a working thesis for their paper.

Then, in the 7th/8th mod in their History class, students will, building upon the research and thesis from their Thinking & Writing class, refine their thesis, find additional sources as needed, outline, and write their paper. Students will be able to focus on taking the information from sources and integrating it into their paper in order to support their thesis, using information to build a well-supported argument. Students will also create a presentation about their research findings (we talked briefly about doing some work on avoiding death by PowerPoint).

Time devoted to process, and time to devoted to content, honoring all parts of the research paper writing experience. I think this will help, too, students better understand that the habits of mind involved in the research process are not isolated to one project or one class; they really exist and are applicable across disciplines.

We’d been playing with and talking about this idea from the start of the year, but things really crystallized today and we were EXCITED. I came to the meeting prepared to try and coerce these teachers in to doing things the way I wanted, but they brought even better ideas to the table. I’ve been working with the History chair on this project all four years I’ve been here and I feel like I am reaping the benefits of having really invested time in building that collaborative relationship; I honestly believe that I could not have made this project happen two years ago.

Also out of this discussion came the idea (also from the teacher) that we should develop a research paper rubric to be used across all classes in the History/Social Studies department, with increasing levels of complexity in grades 10-12, and with separate areas for the content area teachers to assess and for me to assess. This is something I’ve been wanting to move to for a while, and to have the idea come out of someone’s mouth besides my own feels like a major victory.

I’m either starting from scratch or totally revamping everything for this project, but I think it will provide a great way to try out some of my ideas for the class I’m teaching next year. It’s going to be a lot of work, but after years of trying to shape the research process to look more like this, it’s exciting to see it really take that shape.