Wednesday, July 20, 2011

It’s not about what we do, it’s about who we are

At the end of one of the sessions I went to at ISTE (yes, this is me finally writing my ISTE reflection) I had an interesting conversation with two English teachers about perceptions of librarians. They were definitely pro librarian, and both expressed sympathy about how school librarians were getting “beat up” lately, and asked me why I thought that was happening. One mentioned that she had been to a session about finding research, and said that “library/librarian” was put near the bottom of the list of resources for finding good research sources (it wasn’t clear to me whether that list had been generated by the presenters or the audience, but either way--ouch). She wondered why so many people still didn’t “get it.”

I don’t really have an answer for that--well, actually, I have lots of answers for that, but no “one size fits all” answer. But one of the core issues is, I believe, about relationships.

One of the issues that this teacher raised was that so many students seem to gravitate towards sites that they often KNOW contains less-than-scholarly information, which is something I’ve seen as well.
I told her that one of my theories about why students like Yahoo!Answers (and other similar sites) is because they feel like they’re getting the info from a person--even if that person is demonstrably crazy. They want to know that they’re getting information from a person--they want a connection to the information source.

This echoed an idea that had come up in the session we’d just sat through (The “Yeah, Buts”: Answering the Top 10 arguments against change)--an idea that I thought was one of the most important and relevant ideas I’d heard discussed during the entire conference:

Successful change is not just built on rational arguments; it requires an emotional investment and response.

This was an idea I’d been looking to hear more of after Buffy Hamilton’s amazing, beautiful talk about enchantment (a video of Buffy’s talk, as well as her slidedeck, is available on her blog, and you should all go watch it if you haven’t already).

So often we get excited about new tools and new ideas, but neglect to build the relationships that will help us bring other teachers along on our journey. And sometimes our immersion in technology can, frankly, lead to a kind of arrogance. Every time I hear a librarian say something along the lines of “librarians are the ONLY ones in schools who know about X” with X being anything from emerging technologies, to reading, to (in an article I read recently) knowledge production and consumption, I cringe. Really? How off-putting. That assertion is often accompanied by some thinly-veiled resentment that their expertise is not more widely recognized or valued. Obviously I know that there are many librarians who don’t do this, but I’ve seen it happen enough that it seems to be a trend.

If I were a teacher working in a school with one of these librarians I would not feel like my own perspective and expertise were valued or welcome--whether I were new to these technologies and ideas and just trying them out, or had developed my own knowledge and was putting it to use in my classroom. When someone else in my building says they’re the “only” one who knows how to do something, I don’t feel like they’re going to be receptive to what I may have learned and discovered.

Assertions of our own expertise--insistence on our own rightness--cuts off conversation and limits the possibilities that can develop when we take the time and effort to build relationships. It may mean having to answer what we think of as obvious questions (though I’ve found that answering “obvious” questions helps me refine my own thinking), and it may mean admitting that we don’t something. But that means learning something new. We shouldn’t just be collaborating with teachers in order to improve student learning--we need to collaborate with teachers in order to improve our own learning.

Because, to get back to my earlier point, we learn best when we learn from other people. We want to feel a connection to the people we’re learning from. I can be interested in an idea I read about and stumble across, but when I get to discuss (or hear someone talk about) how they actually made that idea happen in their school--that’s when I get excited about trying something new. Likewise, I get more excited about a new idea of my own when I’m able to share it with others.

This is, for me, one of the most valuable things about conferences--spending several days sharing space with 13,000 other people who are also excited about new ideas and learning, and making real connections with those people

And this is the feeling we need to bring to our students and teachers. If all we talk about is the STUFF we do or have, we are never going to get as many people on board that we would if we focused on WHO we are. We need to sell not what we do, but who we are. All libraries have different resources to offer, but the one thing that should be consistent across all libraries is that there is value added by the personal interactions you have with the librarian--whether that’s a personal reference interview or the value that’s added by organizing and building a collection in order to meet the unique needs of that school.

We all know students and teachers who insist they don’t need the library because “everything is on Google.” We know we have more to offer, but unless we focus on building those relationships, no one else will.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

What doesn't kill you, makes you a leader

I've been meaning to do a wrap-up post on my ALA and Emerging Leaders experience; the EL day was my main professional development experience at ALA, and I want to share some of my reflections on leadership, but I haven't been feeling very leader-y lately. I've been feeling far more sit-on-the-deck-reading-a-book-y. That feeling is not conducive to writing.

But then someone (I think it was Andy Woodworth) tweeted a link to a post by Jenica Rogers of Attempting Elegance (I'm not going to tell you how to do it), and it got me thinking again.

I remember my first day teaching. I was very lucky in that I'd gotten a job in the same school I'd done my student teaching, and so already knew many of my colleagues. They were very generous with advice and support. However, what I wanted to know more than anything was not what I should say, but what the students' reactions would be. I wanted some book that laid out, "If you say/do this, students will say/do this in response." Because what came next (and next and next) would build off how students responded and how was I supposed to plan if I DIDN'T KNOW AND NO ONE WOULD TELL ME.

I was, it is fair to say, a little anxious.

And this is kind of what leadership is like. I mean, it's in the name. You're leading. As in at the front. If you're doing it right, you're often doing things that haven't been done before, and you have no idea how people will respond, and that can be terrifying. And exhilarating. And, when it works out, awesome. And, when it doesn't, fodder for some great stories over drinks with sympathetic friends--and a some hard-earned knowledge of how to go about things the next time.

And that, too, is the point. The first time out in front as a leader is the hardest. Whether you rock it or fall flat on your face, the next time you take on a leadership role is easier--either because you have confidence from earlier success, or first-hand knowledge that failure will not kill you.

My first day as a teacher I was terrified because I had no idea what came next. Several years later, within my first few days as a school librarian, I was leading a previously unplanned PD session on the library for faculty. I knew it was a new library, I was new to the school, and there were lots of new faculty--and I knew if I didn't get in there early introducing myself and my vision of the library, it would be even harder for me to build what I wanted to. The ink wasn't yet dry on my MLIS, and I barely knew anyone's name. I had very little idea of what the future would hold (and most of the ideas I did have were wrong), but I did know that doing SOMETHING was far better than nothing. I knew that it was unlikely to be a disaster, but that even if it was it wouldn't do irreparable harm.

That, in general, is my leadership style--I like getting in the middle of things and seeing how they work. I plan, too, but at a point I have to stop planning and just *do* something; just as I didn't know what came next in teaching because I didn't know what the students would do, I don't know what comes next in a project until I can see how the first step actually turned out. Think of it as "fire, aim, ready."

But then there's this post that another friend pointed out: Don't Start a Sentence if You Don't Know How it Ends. This is the exact opposite of my problem. It takes me a LONG TIME to formulate a response to things. I tend not to jsut think through the end of the sentence, but sometimes to the end of the paragraph (this happens in my writing, too--I think and think and think about a topic and then whoosh! I've written two pages).

One of my hesitations about taking on formal leadership positions is that I am very, very introverted. And things like networking--which tend to involve small talk--take a lot out of me. And I'm just not very good at it. I could get better, I'm sure, but I really dislike small talk, so I'm not very motivated, to be perfectly honest. I need to feel a connection with someone first, and I'm much better at building deep connections with a few, than large networks of more casual connections. And in some ways that's definitely a strength, but it does make it more difficult to build the large networks necessary for institutional leadership.

(I have, perhaps coincidentally, been finding a lot of great articles on introversion lately, including this one: 10 Myths About Introverts and thinking a lot about how introversion shapes my practice, and how introverts fit in an ever-more-socially-networked world. But, as you might imagine, I'm going to need to think about it a bit more before I share my thinking.)

I'm still figuring out where I want to be in terms of formal leadership positions. I know that I have far too many opinions--and get far too frustrated by inaction--to not take on some sort of leadership role, if only informally.

I know I have areas of weakness I would need to develop in order to take on more visible leadership roles. I also know that some of the strengths I have make me uniquely suited to less visible leadership roles--and the strengths I do have are often areas of weakness for others. Do I have more to offer by sharing my strengths, or developing my weaknesses?

I realize, of course, that this is a false choice. Whether or not I take on visible leadership roles, developing my weaknesses would be a net good--and my strengths are, well, my strengths, and likely to stay that way. I guess, really, the question is whether leadership is more about playing to your strengths or being willing to work on your weaknesses. And I think in order to be a good leader you HAVE to be willing to develop your weaknesses--how can you convince others to try something new if you're not willing to? Even if you focusing on developing your weaknesses doesn't make you stronger, anyone with leadership experience knows that it will, at the very least, not kill you.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Prisons, Hamlet, and Education

On my run yesterday morning I was listening to an old episode of This American Life (yes, I know: most people listen to music when they exercise; I listen to NPR podcasts) about a group of inmates rehearsing and performing Act V of Hamlet.

I'd heard this episode before; if you haven't, I highly recommend listening to it. It's an amazing story in all kinds of ways.

While listening yesterday there was one moment that really struck me. Right around the 25 minute mark one of the prisoners/performers is explaining why he's involved in this performance group says, simply, "she makes us feel human, man."

Shortly after that Jack Hitt (the reporter) says, "One guy with a 3rd grade education level said he was surprised to find out he wasn't stupid, just uneducatated."

Those two lines--as part of this incredible story in which these men who have done truly awful things create a truly awesome (in every sense of the word) performance--really beautifully illustrated two of the fundamental things I believe about education:

1) If you treat someone like they are capable of something, they are more likely to believe that they are actually capable of anything.

2) In order to work in education, you have to believe that people are capable of change. Or, as I sometimes put it: if you don't believe people have the capacity for change, you have no business working in education.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The ALA/ISTE Marathon

I am now two days and 20 hours of sleep removed from the ALA/ISTE marathon; I am, for the record, still tired. I have mostly unpacked but still have piles (literal and electronic) of notes and information to go through and follow up on.

I'll be writing more here as I do that, but I wanted to give a snapshot as my thoughts take shape. The conference experience was amazing, but also overwhelming, and frustrating in some ways.

Doing two conferences back-to-back is exhausting, both physically and cognitively. Well, technically ALA and ISTE aren't back-to-back--they overlap significantly, which means you can't really do both. I ended up missing several things I wanted to see at both conferences. And while I'll be able to catch up on some of those things online, that's not really the point--if I just wanted to catch up online, I wouldn't go to the conferences.

Some of the things I missed weren't entirely my fault; there were two sessions I really wanted to see scheduled at 8:00 Sunday morning--the same time as AASL's Affiliate Assembly, which I had to be at as a representative for CASL. To have three sessions for school librarians all at the exact same time--particularly when there aren't a lot of sessions for school librarians--seemed like really poor planning, and was very frustrating. I want to become more actively involved in leadership at ALA, but I also want to be able to get something back from my professional organization. I think it's reasonable to want to do more at conferences than go to committee meetings.

My approach to ISTE was a lot different than last year, when I ran around like a crazy person trying to see everything. After one day at the conference I was feeling kind of fried, and knew that my ability to absorb information was maxed out. So I made a not-entirely-conscious shift in my approach to the conference. I found myself focusing less on the "what" (new ideas), a little on the "how" (ways to implement ideas I've been playing with) and far more on the "why" (as in why I do what I do).

The "why," for me, is what conferences are really about. I can (and do) find a lot of information about what and how all the time, but I go to conferences to connect with people and to get a little philosophical TLC--to be recharged by sharing a space with thousands of other people who are excited about the same ideas I'm excited about.