Tuesday, August 30, 2011

On building relationships

I was recently home visiting my parents in upstate New York. One night while sitting around chatting we somehow got on the topic of walking. I said something about how much I loved walking on the roads in their area not only because it was beautiful, but because drivers would actually move over in order to give you some room.

Then my dad started talking about walking to school in the mornings, which he’ll often do when the weather is nice. School is about 2 ½ miles from our house, if memory serves, and there are no sidewalks. At best there is a narrow shoulder.

He said that walking at that hour of the morning you see the same drivers every day. The first time drivers go past him, they’ll generally move slightly to the left—enough to avoid hitting him, but not giving a lot of room; my dad will then give a small wave of acknowledgment and thanks in return. The next day, the same driver—having received that wave of acknowledgment the day before—will move over a bit more.

And, in response, they get a bigger wave.

And so it continues—the drivers move farther and farther to the left, and getting bigger and bigger waves in return.

Eventually, the drivers are practically risking head-on collision ‘cause they know they’re getting that big wave.

The takeaway here is not that if we don’t spend time building relationships that we’re going to end up stranded in a ditch with a broken ankle.

It’s that small gestures have a pay-off. And that those small gestures, over time, can build something much bigger.

You don’t have to start with the giant wave/risk of head-on collision. That’s a lot to ask of either party at the beginning. But those first small gestures aren’t the end of it either—they’re the beginning. Each party in the relationship makes those small gestures at the beginning—and needs to see a return on their investment before willing to risk something more.

And that, over time, is how relationships of all kinds are built.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

A whole new card catalog

My library was automated about four years ago; in fact, I spent my first week on the job up to eyes in uncataloged reference books, deciding what to keep and what (like the encyclopedia set from 1981) was not worth keeping.

In moving the library collection out of temporary storage and into the newly renovated space, the old card catalog got left behind. I would see it every once in a while, and kept thinking I should grab it, but it wasn't until last year when they were doing some other renovations that I finally stuck a note on it that said "Please move to library."

I didn't know what, exactly, I wanted to do with it, but I knew I wanted to do something. I mean, just look at it--clearly, in addition to being full of old catalog cards, it is also full of possibility.

My first plan was to turn the catalog into storage for frequently-requested supplies--markers, tape, rulers, pens. . . you get the idea.

Around the same time, however, I began playing with some ideas around providing readers' advisory--namely, coming up with creative ways to help students who came in looking for books and requesting mysteries, or science fiction, or "a book about someone with a messed up life."

The first thing I did was create some lists in the catalog in order to help me have an easy reference for those lists, but I wanted to find a new way to get those lists to students (outside of searching the catalog).

And thus an overly-ambitious project was born.

I decided to use the top row of drawers for catalog cards, but rather than traditional catalog cards these cards would feature a select list of books, and be designed as a readers' advisory tool.

I took my book lists, focusing on high interest fiction and non-fiction, and came up with genre names that were reflective of the types of books my students regularly asked for. Then I created a card for each book, using the cover image and brief blurb.

There will still some old dividers in the catalog, so I made some new labels for them.

And labeled the drawers.

This project was A LOT of work and A LOT of fun. It was a great way to both refresh my memory and become more knowledgeable about my collection. I can't wait to share it with students--my goal is to have them creating cards and contributing to our readers' advisory catalog.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Introvert in Your Classroom

I read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain several weeks ago, and I am still reflecting on many of the ideas. Cain begins with a discussion of the development of what she calls the Extrovert Ideal--an ideal that many of us are, consciously or unconsciously, very familiar with. As an introvert, I have frequently felt pressure to be more extroverted, as many of the cultural messages we get assume that being extroverted is "right" and introversion is. . . well, weird. I have often felt like there was something wrong with me because I wasn't more extroverted

I know that my introversion has impacted my professional life. I'm terrible at networking. I find small talk conceptually confounding. I can do it, but not without a lot of conscious thought and effort, and I find it exhausting in every sense of the word. On the contrary, when I can connect with one person (or a small group) and delve really deeply into a topic I feel energized. But chit chat? Lost on me.

I could go on and on about this book, but instead I'm going to encourage you all to read it (it's perfect for introverts who could use some affirmation, or for the extrovert who just doesn't get it) and just highlight some ideas that resonated with me in terms of teaching and learning.

* The importance of asynchronous participation

L'esprit d'escalier is a lovely expression (generally translated as "staircase wit") that describes a feeling many of us have experienced; it's when you think of the perfect thing to say after you've left the room. Usually it's used to refer to that witty comeback that wakes you up at two in the morning, but for me it applies to all sorts of situations. That crucial question about a new project or initiative. An insight from past experience that would be useful to a colleague. The idea or input that's pertinent to the topic at hand. The feedback on an ongoing project. All of which I find next to impossible to offer up during most meetings. I am generally ready to speak up in a meeting precisely when we've moved on to a new topic--or after the meeting is over.

It can be hard for introverts to speak up in class. This is not even just about extending wait time after you ask a question (though that's always good). An extra five seconds isn't always going to cut it--some students will need an hour or two. Which is not really a reasonable wait time.

While it's an oversimplification, I've heard the difference between extroverts and introverts explained as introverts think before they speak and extroverts speak to think. The introverts in your classroom are busy absorbing information, sorting it for relevance, reflecting on it, and incorporating it into what they already know. Of course, the extroverts in your classroom are doing this as well--they're just doing it out loud.

This is where asynchronous participation becomes invaluable. The introvert who isn't ready to speak up in class may be ready to contribute to an online discussion later that night. Or do better sharing with one classmate rather than a whole group. Or asked to reflect on the previous day's discussion during the next class. It's important that the brilliant ideas that occur on the stairs have a place to be heard.

* It's not just about how much you participate

The person who comments on a blog or replies to a listserv with only the phrase "I agree" without adding anything more? I can pretty much guarantee that that person is not an introvert.

I struggled with this in graduate courses that required participation in online discussions. It was important to me that I not simply be reiterating the same information and ideas--I wanted to be adding something new to the discussion. Otherwise, what was the point?

For many extroverts, chiming in with agreement is a way to build community and show consensus, so echoing earlier ideas is an act of community-building. On the other hand, many introverts only see value in adding their voice to a conversation if they're contributing new information. Both motives have value, but it often means that it looks like extroverts are participating more.

This also happens in group discussions in class. We tend to value the input from people who are the loudest--regardless of whether they're the most qualified. Introverts' voices tend to be drowned out. Cain sites a fascinating experiment in which students performed poorly on a task (selecting and prioritizing resources needed if they had crashed somewhere) despite having an expert in their group--because that expert was an introvert and was easily shouted over.

Which leads me to my next big take away:

*Group work is not king.

During a library school assignment I described my ideal library as one with room for both active collaboration and quiet contemplation. I was particularly happy with this turn of phrase, and proceeded to overuse it as much as possible.

I deeply value many of my collaborative relationships with colleagues, but I think it's important to remember that collaboration and group work are not the only way. Cain points to several studies that show that we get some of our worst ideas when we brainstorm as a group. But group work has become the assumed ideal.

There is value in group work, and I think structured group work can provide an excellent venue for introverts to develop skills necessary to sharing their work in public and with their peers. But extroverts could also benefit from developing the skills needed to work independently and reflect deeply on a topic before sharing ideas.

*Sometimes it's okay when a kid sits alone. Really.

We will, sooner than seems possible, be welcoming new students to campus, and welcoming back our returning students. The first several days are a whirlwind of group activities and events. The mantra is that everyone must participate all the time. And I get that--having everyone together those first few days really builds a sense of community, and helps ensure that our new students make connections (and don't have too much time to get homesick). Introverted me is exhausted by these days, and my heart always goes out to the introverted students in the group. There is a lot of new information to take in during these days, and the more introverted students have a hard time finding time and space to process all of it.

Sometimes the kid sitting alone is not lonely, or distraught, or unable to connect with other people. Maybe he just needs a break to reflect on the day. And that's okay. More than okay. It's what that student needs.

*Extroversion is not the ideal. Neither is introversion.

We will have extreme extroverts and extreme introverts and everyone in between in our classes. It's important that we create environments where they're all able to not only use the skills that come naturally to them, but to safely and comfortably develop other skills. We can't "make" someone be introverted or extroverted, nor should we want to. But what we can do is try to better understand the different strengths we all bring to the table.

Further reading on introversion (in case I wasn't long-winded enough):
10 Myths About Introverts

4 Ways Technology Can Enable Your Inner Introvert

Are You Shy, Introverted, Both, or Neither--And Why Does it Matter?

Is Shyness and Evolutionary Tactic?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Poor Xerxes never stood a chance against those mice

While I was on vacation on Cape Cod I went to the Edward Gorey house, which was just a ten minute walk from where I was staying. It was his actual house, and his cousin was the tour guide, which made for a much more intimate experience than most museum visits; more than facts everyone there got some great stories.

Like many people, the Gorey work I'm most familiar with is The Gashlycrumb Tinies, and the Gorey house had an absolutely wonderful scavenger hunt devoted to that book. All around the house were small displays representing each of the scenes/deaths from the book--some were very obvious, many were incredibly subtle. Our tour guide pointed out many of them, but I was excited when I was able to pick out a few on my own.

X is for Xerxes devoured by mice.

G is for George smothered under a rug.

N is for Neville who died of ennui.

L is for Leo who swallowed some tacks.

And of course, A is for Amy who fell down the stairs.

I thought this was a really delightful way to engage visitors in the displays, and I think it would translate well to libraries. You could do the Gashlycrumb Tinies, or another alphabet book, or pick out some distinctive items or scenes from any book. The Edward Gorey house had a checklist you could pick up and use as you walked through the house--it would be neat to have something like that in your library that students could pick up when they had some down time in the library. It might even bring them into areas they might not otherwise go!