Friday, May 27, 2011

"thank you for correcting my citations"

I am (almost) done correcting the second round of spring research papers. There's a lot of good, a lot of almost good, and some. . . some with a lot of room for growth.

When I read some papers--papers where a student has pasted in the entire Works Cited entry into the parenthetical reference, or numbered their references and put the numbers throughout the paper, or (and this is my favorite) colored-coded their references and the information in the paper--I have to remind myself that when I started here four years ago the "official" reference style was some combination of Chicago, MLA, and a couple things some teachers thought "looked good."

It is a long road I am on, but I am making progress. I've got everyone on board with using MLA style. We're using NoodleTools, which makes a lot of things a lot easier. Students are telling each other how much easier NoodleTools makes things. And we've got a really solid research unit (that we'll keep developing and fine-tuning) that we do with sophomores that I think will keep paying dividends in the next two years.

I am, to be honest, a little worried about seniors; I know not all of them are fully prepared to do this independently. I wish I had another year with them, for all sorts of reasons. But I know that even if I got that one extra year with them, I would have two years worth of things I wanted to teach them. This is the first group of students I've seen all the way through--my first year was their freshman year. I feel some responsibility; it is hard to let them go.

One night a couple weeks ago I was thinking about this, worried that I hadn't fully prepared students, and that some of them just weren't getting it. I'd just spent hours giving feedback in NoodleTools--sometimes copying and pasting the same comments I'd made during the last round of feedback, which students had deleted without fixing or asking for help. I was having one of those "no one has ever listened to anything I've said" moments, and in my exhaustion feeling like nothing I was doing made any difference.

And then my e-mail pinged, and there was an e-mail from a student with the subject "NoodleTools." The body of the e-mail is the title of this post.

I almost cried. And by "almost" I mean I did.

This was not a student I had a solid rapport with, or worked with frequently--in fact, we'd had some less-than-positive interactions in the past. And what I loved the most about that message was the fact that I'd yet to e-mail students to let them know I was done looking at their citations. It'd been completely proactive on his part--seeking feedback, accepting it, and showing appreciation for it.

And that let me know that--even if every senior still has some (or a lot) to learn--that I've done something right in the last four years. That when these students go to college next year it is with a different impression of libraries and librarians than the one they came here with. That the library is a place where they can ask for help and find it. And if I had to choose between them knowing that and them knowing everything there is to know about MLA format. . . well, the choice seems pretty clear to me.

This is unrelated, but not. The student from my last post about mistakes? I was nervous about the next time he'd be in class in the library and wondering what he would be like. Would he show up? Would he be engaged? Would he not want to talk to me?

Well, he showed up. And he stayed engaged the same way he'd been up until then. He was already done with his own paper, so he was working with his peers, helping them find sources, and take notes--and referring them to me for help with citations. It was like nothing had changed, but also like something really powerful had. That really incredible act of forgiveness on his part made it easier for me to forgive myself. There's plenty of people willing to talk about "kids these days" but some of them are kind of amazing, you know?

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Everyone Makes Mistakes (So Why Can't I?)

First, a trip down memory lane:

I made a terrible, awful, horrible mistake on Friday. I was working with a student, reviewing his paper for citations, and I overheard another student saying something awful. One of those things that takes me to a very angry place very quickly. I responded without thinking and I yelled at him. Loudly. I just. . . snapped. And when the student tried to explain, I was still too upset to let him finish what he was saying.

Thing is, I misheard him. He'd said nothing like what I thought he'd said. I yelled at a student, and made him feel awful, for doing exactly nothing wrong. And the guilt is eating me up.

As soon as I realized what a horrible, terrible mistake I made, I apologized. Profusely. And the student, very graciously, accepted my apology. I don't think any long-term damage was done to our relationship. But still, it's eating me up.

This is not, by any means, the first mistake I've made while teaching. Not the first mistake I've made this year. Probably not even the first mistake I made that day (and it probably also wasn't the last).

I've been thinking a lot this year about resiliency and reflection and how to make students more comfortable with mistakes. I've always believed that learning is a messy process in which failure is inherent; most days I take the Red Queen's approach to impossible things and apply it to mistakes. I try to think of myself as someone who can make a mistake, admit it, fix the problem, and move on. I admit that I've sometimes had difficulty empathizing with students who hit (what seems to me) a small roadblock and completely shut down.

And so, in light of this encounter, I've been thinking about how we think about mistakes--whether a mistake is something you DO, as opposed to a mistake being something you ARE. And whether there are some mistakes that hit a little harder at our core.

As long time readers of this blog (or people who know me personally--hi Mom!) know, I work at a school for students with learning disabilities. Sadly, many of my students come to our school having been badly abused by the educational system; they've been treated as if their difficulty with learning--and the mistakes they make as a result of that--says something about who they are as people. And it's not a nice thing.

I pride myself on my ability to build relationships with students, to talk to them about difficult subjects, to guide them through a subject (whether that's the Battle of Gettysburg or the use of respectful language), and to do some calmly and rationally. Which is, I think, why this mistake is hitting me so hard. It hits much closer to my self-perception than using the wrong keywords for searching.

I know, ultimately, that this mistake is not all that defines me as a teacher, but it's been a good reminder of how debilitating a mistake can seem. It is helping me get a better understanding of how my students feel when they make a mistake while learning. When a mistake seems to be about who you are as a person, it's hard to simply move on. I still don't know how to help students with this process, but I feel better equipped to empathize with them as they move through the process.


P.S. If you have found your way here from the Salem Library Blog awards, welcome! And thank you! I'm overwhelmed and flattered to even be on such a list.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Summer Reading; or, It’s Not About the Books

Today, I held my first-ever Summer Reading Book Fair. Also, Seth Godin said something about libraries. At the beginning of the day, I did not think these two events would be related, but I wouldn’t be true to my English major roots if I wasn’t able to draw connections between seemingly unrelated events.

I announced the Summer Reading list during a all-school assembly last Friday (and this year the video played with sound, which was exciting) :

You can see my entire Summer Reading webpage here: Summer Reading 2011
(Have I ever mentioned that Summer Reading is one of my favorite parts of my job? If not, I’m mentioning it now. If I have, I’m mentioning it again.)

This year I’m working with our local independent bookstore to help students order the books they want to read and have them before they go home for the summer. And so I organized a Summer Reading book fair where students could come check out the books on the list and get help deciding which books they might want to read.

Eighteen students showed up--and I know 18 doesn’t sound like a lot, but trust me, it is. My school only has approximately 180 students, and about 50 of those are seniors. Which means about 14% of the students who will be participating in the Summer Reading program showed up (unless I’m doing the math wrong, which is possible, but I’m generally pretty good at percentages).

But more than the number of students who showed up, it was which students showed up. There were a lot of students there who not self-identify as avid readers--or even as readers. But they came and they wanted to know about the books. Some spent very little time, but several spent a long time--asking questions, debating between different books, and sometimes demanding I tell them which book they’d like better. One student came with his own personal short list of books he’d come up with after reviewing the list on the website. And students were talking with one another--recommending books and deciding on which books they both should read.

And this all got me thinking about Seth Godin’s post and Buffy Hamilton's amazing response to it and the bits and pieces of discussion I was able to follow on Twitter today.

The book fair was not a success because I had the books on display, or had computers set up for students to look up more info on the books, or because there was a Google form embedded on the page for me to gather feedback from students. It was a success because it brought people together in a particular time and space to talk about and get excited about books and reading.

If librarianship, in your mind, is about things (whether those things be books or computers or e-readers or the next shiny new toy), you’re doing it wrong. Librarianship is about people, and it’s about ideas, and it’s about bringing ideas and people together.

I admit to not having been as fully immersed as I am used to being (and would usually like to be) in the larger professional conversations that are happening lately; part of it is the time of year and the many projects I have going on, and part of it is that some of these discussions suck the energy right out of me, and I need all the energy I can hold on to in order to work on all these projects.

I know how important those larger conversations are, but they do often happen in an echo chamber where we argue about the trees while those outside are unaware of the forest (to brutally mix a metaphor). As Melissa Corey very eloquently pointed out, the changes we’re talking about need to be happening everywhere, not just in some libraries. But these changes do happen one library at a time. And right now I’m focusing on making those changes in my library.

I know that the teachers I work with have a different ideas about libraries and librarians after working with me. And I know the students I work with have different ideas about libraries and librarians after working with me. Everything I do is about changing expectations about what librarians can do and what libraries can be. And it’s not about the books, or the computers, or the physical space I work in. It’s about connections. It’s about people.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Then and Now

On September 11, 2001 I was alerted to the news by the phone. I was living in DC at the time, and my friend and roommate (who worked a block from the White House) called. She called several times, as I was still unemployed and not exactly a morning person. If I remember correctly, she left a message on the answering machine (yes, answering machine. Not voice mail.) My other room mate and I got up and turned on the TV; a TV that had an antenna made mostly from coat hanger and foil.

On May 1st, 2011 I was also alerted to the news by my phone. I was about to go to bed when I checked my Twitter feed and saw someone saying something about the President making an announcement at 10:30. So I turned on my TV (which is probably older than the TV I had in 2001, but is connected to cable). Throughout the evening I kept checking Twitter and Facebook while flipping channels for different coverage.

Ten years ago I turned to my friends to hug them and cry and wonder what was happening and fear for the future. We dialed family and friends over and over till we could finally get through. We talked to neighbors we hardly knew.

Last night I tweeted, "Almost 10 yrs ago I was unable to turn away from the news and feeling like I didn't know what to think. This feels like that, but different." I was alone, but still able to turn to others for conversation.

Ten years ago we did not go online to get information. We still had dial-up, and it was hard enough to get through on the phone lines to friends and family.

Last night I was on Twitter and Facebook and Wikipedia and and and myriad other sites looking for information.

Ten years ago I sat on my couch, with my arms wrapped around my knees, trying to figure out was happening and wondering what the larger implications for the world were.

Last night I sat on my couch, with my arms wrapped around my knees, trying to figure out was happening and wondering what the larger implications for the world were.

The technology has changed, but the emotions are the same. The channels for getting information are different, but the need for information is the same.