Saturday, April 23, 2011

I am not the expert

I’ve been trying to catch up on my GoogleReader and Instapaper links (still to tackle--my Diigo Unread items. I love that technology has created a variety of ways for me to keep track of what I’m missing), so if you’ve been staying current these stories might be old to you (and, full disclosure, I started writing this post almost a week ago. You don’t even want to see how behind I am on doing my dishes).

There have been a few posts I’ve read that have really resonated with me as I try and keep my head above water in the craziness of spring research season

The first is Seth Godin’s post Moving beyond teachers and bosses:

If you view the people you work with as coaches, and your job as a platform, it can transform what you do each day, starting right now.
I have a friend and colleague who I talk with a lot about the idea of coaching, particularly when it comes to working with students with executive functioning issues; she is way better versed in these topics than I am, and I’ve been working on incorporating her ideas into what I do.

A lot of students--and not just those with executive functioning challenges--see the teacher as the “gatekeeper,” the person who says “stop” or “go” (sidenote: every time I use the word “gatekeeper” I think of the movie Ghostbusters. Just FYI). I sometimes get frustrated with students who won’t or can’t take the next step in an assignment without first getting clearance from someone else, but then I remember that a lot of schooling trains students to not trust their own judgment about what’s right, what’s wrong, and what comes next. It’s a hard habit to break. So even though I know “what comes next” I try to make that a collaborative discussion with the student, to have the answer come from them. You would be amazed (or not) at how much resistance students put up to the idea that they might be in charge of the next step of the process. We (and by “we” I probably don’t mean “you”) train students to believe that they can’t make decisions about their learning, and then get frustrated when they refuse to take charge of their own learning. Why they aren’t more annoyed with us I don’t know.

Next I read Doug Johnson’s excellent response to Godin’s post; the reactions in comments about content expertise are also very interesting, but I think focusing on defining who the content expert is kind of misses the point.

It’s not about who the content expert is. No ONE is the content expert. EVERYONE is the content expert.

Learning communities are wholes that are greater than the sum of their parts. It doesn’t matter how much you know unless you have someone to share it with--someone who wants to know, and will ask you questions, and will push you farther in your own learning.

It’s not about the information, it’s about what you can DO with the information. Knowing a lot of facts does not make you an expert. If all you have to offer your students is a list of facts, you are not a teacher. You are an encyclopedia set. Probably an outdated one.

My professional goal is to make myself obsolete. Okay, not really, but kind of. If I, as the librarian, am seen as “the only one” who knows about finding sources, evaluating information, creating citations, creative commons and fair use (and so on) then not only am I overwhelmed with trying to teach everything to every student on my own (and not having it reinforced in the classroom), but then students see it as a specialized, localized skill--something you only have to do in the library or when Ms. K-M asks. But if it’s something that’s happening in all classes all the time and being practiced and reinforced by teachers, then it’s a “real” skill.

One of the reasons I love being a librarian so much is because I teach skills, not content. And the skills I need to know and be able to teach are always changing (which is why I don’t think I’ll ever really be obsolete). I learn from colleagues in other libraries (through blogs, and Twitter, and professional journals, and conference presentations and you get the idea), and share with colleagues in my school, who share with their students, who share with each other. . . and who sometimes discover something new to share with me. And then I share that with my learning community. If I didn’t think it would delay this post even longer, I would draw some sort of diagram to illustrate this idea.

The structure that Godin alludes to (and that I think many picture when they picture schools or workplaces) is strictly hierarchical, with the “expert” at the top. But expertise is, I believe, more of an iterative process; if you believe you’re the expert, at the top of the hierarchy, you cut yourself off from the opportunity to learn from others. An expert is not someone who has learned a lot, but someone who is always learning.

I love that moment when something clicks for a student--when they figure out how to do something, whether it’s navigate an advanced search, organize resources, or create a way to showcase a new understanding of a topic. And often these are things I know how to do and could easily have shown them, but if I simply lead through the steps all they’ve learned is that I, their teacher, knows how to do something. When we give students the opportunity--and responsibility--to develop their own expertise, we are making them active participants in their learning.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Silence in the library

I have not been doing much writing lately, not because I have not had things I wanted to write about, but mostly because I have not had (or made) the time for reflection; writing, for me, is often how I bring clarity to and organize my thoughts. And while I have a lot of ideas bouncing around my brain (and it does sometimes quite literally feels like they're bouncing around), spring is also the busy season in the library, so between that and several other side projects going on, there's very little time to sit and reflect and write.

One of the projects I've been occupied with is helping students organize our Day of Silence, which we held on Thursday (the national Day of Silence was Friday, but we had parent-teacher conferences). I had five classes that day, so staying completely silent myself was not a realistic option, but I instead chose to stay silent during the optional speaking portions of my day--between classes, lunch, etc. (though I was not perfect on that count, I did try. Talking is a hard habit to break).

When working with students who were staying silent, I usually stayed silent myself. And while I don't think this is usually the best way to work with students all the time, just staying quiet while working with a student definitely has its advantages.

There is value in pausing both before asking a question, and before answering one. If a silent student had a question, they would usually take more time on their own to figure out what to do next, rather than asking right away. I work with a lot of students who, at the first hint of uncertainty, ask for help. And while I'm glad they ask for help rather than give up, it's also gratifying to see them take the few moments of extra time and figure out the answer for themselves. The silence seemed to create a permission to pause.

I also ended up taking more time to answer, and by staying silent there was less temptation to just give the answer--I really needed to guide (and point and gesture) students to where they were going. I know we all know the importance of giving time for students to answer questions, but I hadn't thought as much about giving myself time to answer questions. Taking time and how we use and organize our time has been on my mind lately as I read and think about executive functioning (more on that later as I wrap my head around some ideas).

My library can be a noisy, active place (particularly when there are multiple classes in here doing research), but with so many students staying silent on Thursday, it was a much quieter space--even though it was quite crowded. And while I love the activity and bustle of students working and being noisy, the relative quiet created an environment where it was possible for students to immerse themselves in what they were doing with little interruption. I have always thought of school libraries as a place for both collaboration and contemplation; unfortunately the physical layout of my space makes it difficult for both types of spaces to exist at the same time, and it was nice to have a day where the focus was more on contemplation.

Many students talked about how hard it was to be quiet all day, and even though I wasn't silent all day, I understood what they were talking about. I have, as I mentioned above, been feeling kind of disjointed lately, with no time to be quiet and reflect. Finally having that time (even in short bursts) was kind of unsettling. When I had a new thought or idea I had to just. . . sit with it, rather than sharing it immediately. And while it was challenging--and sometimes frustrating--it was also a nice change of pace.

I also thought about the ways we communicate without talking. By staying silent we do lose out on the opportunity to share our ideas and develop new ideas collaboratively, but I believe we also gain a lot by focusing so much on what others are communicating non-verbally. The words students took the time and effort to write carried more weight. I also had to tune in more carefully to hints like posture and facial expression to let me know how a student was doing. There are a lot of things our students tell us without words, things that matter as much if not more than the words they use.

And outside of the implications for teaching and learning, there was a lot I got out of the day. Forty-one students participated, almost a quarter of the student body, and many more showed their support in different ways. My first year here (which was not that long ago), one student participated. It's hard for me to put into words how powerful that was, and to listen to students reflect on the experience.

It has me thinking a lot about how, on an ongoing basis, we can create that silent space, the space to listen, and the space to have your voice heard.