Author: The Unquiet Librarian

I'm a librarian who loves learning, critical literacy, stories, learning, dogs, poetry, fabulous shoes, and good lip gloss; I'm also a 2011 Library Journal Mover and Shaker.

Mucking Around in the Questions: Libraries and Critical Literacy

“Teacher librarians have tremendous opportunity to enhance student understanding and engagement with the cacophony of languages, discourses and cultures that are clashing and merging in new communications spaces. Critical information literacies would give different takes on language, text and knowledge than do the acritical, print-based pedagogies of current library curricula. Researchers and theorists have documented the powerful influence of transnational capital and global media, which frame and are framed by the identities of youth, and which distribute educational services and products hand-in-hand with advertising and entertainment (Kenway & Bullen, 2001;McChesney, Wood & Foster, 1998). These economies and cultures of identity formation work in and through text and discourse. Considering that text and knowledge are forms of capital for exchange, issues of ‘truth’ and/or ‘error’ may still be necessary, but they are also insufficient. Instead, key questions for curricular activities of substantive worth to learners and library users should revolve around issues of who gets access to which texts, and who is able – socially, culturally and politically – to contest, critique and rewrite those texts. Based on these criteria, much of the literate work currently undertaken in school libraries is not as effective and empowering as diligent and well-intentioned teacher librarians are led to believe” (Kapitzke, 2003, p. 64).

Have you ever wondered if you are inadvertently impeding learners rather than helping them? Ever since my M.Ed. days in Language/Literacy Education at the University of Georgia, critical literacy has been a lens that has colored my work and way of thinking about our practice.  Like many librarians and teachers, I have striven not only to deepen my understanding of critical literacy, but I have also struggled to put action into practice behind the ideas in a K12 public school setting.

During my time as a Learning Strategist at the Cleveland Public Library in Ohio, precepts of critical literacy bubbled to the surface in my thinking and reading as I tried to better and expand my understanding our branch communities and to contextualize the challenges, hindrances, and successes our staff faced in opening up literacy experiences and learning opportunities for people of all ages.  Conversations there with my Knowledge Office colleagues Tim Diamond and Anastasia Diamond-Ortiz about critical literacy encouraged and broadened my questioning; these “think aloud” sessions eventually led to some helpful email conversations with Dr. James Elmborg, a respected academic librarian who has tried to advance greater conversation about critical literacy and its application to libraries.  In my year and a half here at Norcross High, I’ve had similar conversations with my fellow librarian Jennifer Lund as well as faculty and administration here, including people like Darrell Cicchetti, Emily Russell, Sarah Rust, Logan Malm, Hope Black, and John DeCarvalho.  In my blog posts of the last year for DMLcentral, I’ve attempted to think aloud some of the obstacles as well as possibilities of how librarians might rethink our practices in multiple kinds of libraries using Deborah Brandt’s concept of sponsors of literacy.   Here at the end of 2014, I find myself continuing to dwell in these ideas yet feeling a greater sense of urgency as of late to find concrete ways of taking more meaningful and intentional steps to integrating this into the collaborative work we do with our teachers and students.

For the last three years or so, I’ve increasingly found myself questioning everything I believe our profession and our values.  Many professional and personal events during this time have informed this self-interrogation, an ongoing period of questioning that while uncomfortable at times, is ultimately a positive one that has generated more questions than answers yet deeper and organic reflection that is similar to what I experienced during my graduate school years.   Through a series of events in the last few weeks, I stumbled upon a new reading, “Information literacy:  A review and poststructural critique” by Cushla Kapitzke; while a little dated (2003), many of the ideas feel especially relevant as my experiences as a librarian at Creekview High, Cleveland Public Library, and now Norcross High push me to challenge how I conceptualize information literacy and how a critical literacy stance might lead to more transformative and more germane practices.    How might we deepen research, inquiry, and literacy experiences by giving students the opportunity to look at texts and ideas through lenses of race, class, and gender to better understand the power dynamics, inequalities, privileging/silencing of groups of language and information and to perhaps make the invisible more visible, the strange familiar, and the familiar strange?  Kapitzke warns us that “Unless teacher librarians provide students with knowledge of the way language works to ‘evaluate information’, they could be considered culpable for disempowering the students they strive so hard to serve” (2003, p. 62).   Statements like these and readings of the last eighteen months have frequently given me cause to ask myself if my practices are indeed perpetuating barriers even when they are well-intended.

As we think about what effective practices are for contemporary school librarians (Fontichiaro & Hamilton, 2014), particularly ones that can have authentic impact on student learning and the culture of learning in a school, I can’t help but think of Kapitzke’s 2003 prediction:

“…radical change is inevitable. It will also be contentious because new forms of production challenge assumptions and practices reified in libraries, in disciplinary practices, and in the attitudes and beliefs of the textbook author cited in the introduction of this article.  Situated as they are at the nexus of teaching and learning, knowledge and technology, teacher librarians will contribute to or hinder this ‘inevitable’, educational change” (63).

How how much has actually changed in information literacy instruction and other kinds of literacy learning experiences in school libraries in the last decade?   As we begin a new year and semester in just a few weeks, I hope to think through these questions and wonderings more publicly with my colleagues both here at NHS and in other libraries and schools; I also hope to share our thinking and how we’ll apply that to our instructional design and practice.  I think there is a tremendous amount of fear in our profession (both education and all walks of librarianship) to openly speak about these messy aspects of our work, to challenge all that has been held sacred, and to accept we don’t have all the answers in a nice neat tidy package.  These fears are exacerbated by the emphasis on standardized testing, student growth models tied to teacher evaluation, and pressure for curricular conformity to meet state standards.  It is my hope, though, that the fear of hindering transformative practice and participatory opportunities for our students will spur us to take a bolder stance through a lens of critical literacy in 2014.   I look forward to continuing the conversation with all of you as teachers and librarians in a diverse range of settings (academic, public, medical, school, K-12, higher education, urban, rural, suburban) in the next year.

References
Fontichiaro, K., & Hamilton, B. (2014, September). Undercurrents. Knowledge Quest, 43(1), 56-59. Retrieved     December 15, 2014.
Kapitzke, C. (2003). Information literacy: A review and poststructural critique. Australian Journal of Language & Literacy, 26(1), 53. Retrieved December 10, 2014.

 

Processing Texts, Ideas, and New Understandings with Twitter Chats + Socratic Seminar

tchat1

Jennifer Lund and I had the opportunity to partner this month with IB Theory of Knowledge teachers Dan Byrne and Dr. James Glenn.  Our instructional design challenge was to think about how we might help student process the first chapters of an advanced text, The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why, by Dr. Richard Nisbett.  Inspired by our previous efforts with Socratic circles and Twitter chat with Emily Russell’s Language Arts classes, we all agreed this medium would help us meet our student learning targets.  After two short meetings and one extended planning session, Dan and James organized three student groups (Groups A, B, and C)  that combined students from both of their sections since our learning activities would take place during a period on a “block” in which both sections had the opportunity to meet together.  Dan and James designed the three groups to help us facilitate inner/outer circle groups for a Socratic seminar over the readings that would also incorporate participation through a Twitter chat.   Jennifer and I developed the discussion hashtag, the Twitter Chat etiquette mini-lesson, and the logistics for organizing our space in the library learning studio to accommodate such a large group.  Jennifer and I also served as co-facilitators during the chat by participating in the Twitter discussion, providing technical assistance to students, and helping students with the logistics of following the chat.  We also captured an archive of the Tweets with Storify and photos of the #toknisbett chat.

twitter chat 2 twitter chat 3

tok4

The student response to the activity exceeded all of our expectations, and we were delighted that student reacted so positively to the experience in their “grows and glows” reflections!  Students enjoyed hearing multiple perspectives and opportunities to participate in the discussion, the Twitter stream, the organization of the 70 minute activity, and the physical space and setup for our Twitter chat/Socratic circle discussion.  They overwhelmingly loved having the opportunity for organic and free-flowing discussion; many expressed a desire to have a longer period of time for inner circle talk.

In response to student feedback, we’ll think about how to better incorporate the Twitter stream into the face to face discussion as well as help students interact more in the virtual learning space; we’ll also help students think through strategies for helping “quiet” students speak up more and how they can support those who might feel awkward jumping into the face to face discussion.

In the video below, Dan and James share their perspective on our collaboration process, their reflections on the learning activity, and their thoughts on how this mode of learning benefited students.  I invite you to take time to watch the video as they share their rich and nuanced perspective:

We are already planning our next variation of a Twitter chat and Socratic circle that will incorporate our write around text on text strategies and a gallery walk to help students generate the talking points and questions for the next discussion.  We will also continue to think about how these strategies help us elevate writing/composing processes and literacies as part of inquiry and visible thinking. We would love to hear how others are using Twitter chats and Socratic seminars or something similar to help students take an inquiry stance on a text and/or topic!

New DMLcentral Post—Writing in Libraries: Processes and Pathways to Inquiry and Learning

http://dmlcentral.net/blog/buffy-hamilton/writing-libraries-processes-and-pathways-inquiry-learning

Writing in Libraries: Processes and Pathways to Inquiry and Learning | DMLcentral via kwout

I invite you to check out my latest post for DMLcentral as I explore the possibilities for writing literacies in libraries.  In this post, I share how we are using writing as a springboard for inquiry and engaging with texts here at Norcross High; the post also features a video interview with colleague and friend Sara Kelley-Mudie and her use of written conversation strategies.  Many thanks to our faculty here at NHS and to Sara for sharing their experiences and being willing to explore the boundaries of writing as a tool for inquiry and learning.  Please be sure to check out my previous posts in this series for DMLcentral that explore the ways libraries can and might function as sponsors of literacy.

Holistic and Individualized Formative Assessment of Research and Inquiry Processes

For the last two weeks, our students have been immersed in investigating information and constructing new understandings as they have been composing their research design proposals, revising sections of their proposals, and doing additional research after focusing and narrowing their topics and research questions.  As they have gone back and forth in refining their topics and questions and doing the subsequent additional research, we’ve seen our students move back and forth between confusion/doubt/uncertainty/discomfort and clarity.  Most students are not used to doing this sort of deep dive with a topic, making their own choices about the topic and research questions, articulating how they demonstrating growth in their learning, or selecting their learning products; consequently, the messiness of choice and ownership of their projects has been a new experience (and uncomfortable to varying extents) for them.  Sarah Rust and I have also experienced a spectrum of emotions in this inquiry process as well;  we know our students will grow from these experiences yet we too feel some of that same uncertainty and frustration as our students when they wobble or stall in spite of our efforts to scaffold and support with individualized feedback, resources, and reflective questioning.   Like our colleagues Heather, Meg, Marci, and Cathy, we provide  them strategies and feedback that will propel them forward and give them the tools to self-help, but as we have told them, we cannot make the decisions for them or give them the answers.   We stay calm and reiterate that we are focused on how and what they are learning, not grades—of course, this discourse is a departure from the narrative they have heard their entire school lives in our test-driven culture.

The individualized and fluid nature of working with 50+ students who are all doing different topics is also a newer experience for us and definitely for the students.   Over the last two weeks, any given day has been a potpourri of joy, exasperation, delight, and doubt as students have drafted their research design proposals for their multigenre projects.  This kind of work is where the collaborative partnership Sarah and I have is critical because you have an instructional partner to be responsive to these kinds of learning experiences and individual student needs.  Because we both bring different strengths to the table and can process what we are observing with student work together, we are much better positioned to truly help our students than if we were doing this in a solitary or prescriptive, rigid way.

After receiving the drafts of their proposals for their projects, Sarah and I have employed a variety of strategies to personalize the feedback for each student at their points of need.  Here are some of the action steps we’ve tried:

Individualizing and Capturing Feedback Through Mail Merge and Databases

I created a database in Word of all of our students in 2nd and 3rd periods.  Data fields I created included:

  • First name
  • Last name
  • Class Period
  • Comments About the Narrowed/Focused Topic
  • Multigenre Products Students Selected
  • Publishing Platform of Virtual or Paper (Word/PDF)
  • General Notes (comments about student self-selected learning targets, what they know about their topic at this point, what they want to learn, research questions, their working bibliographies, and search terms/strategies.
  • Next Steps–specific tasks and suggestions to help the students move forward.  These action steps could also include requests for students to schedule 1:1 help or to participate in some of the small-group help sessions we set up in response to the patterns of thinking and gaps we saw in the proposals.

rust-feedback1

rust-feedback2

I went through each proposal and typed in my feedback for each student in the appropriate fields in the database document.   I then used the Mail Merge wizard in Word to create a “form letter” that imported this feedback and printed out the feedback documents for each student on colored paper or in color.  Once I printed completed feedback forms, I stapled them to the research design proposal draft and returned to the student as soon as possible for them so that they could move forward or make revisions.  I also provided a copy to Sarah so that she could begin developing a list of needs to address and to prioritize which students needed her help and areas of expertise.  The master database provides us an archived record of the formative assessment to use as we look at student growth; it is also easily accessible to reprint should a student lose his/her copy of the feedback form.

It did take quite a bit of time to methodically go through each proposal and to generate the personalized feedback.  However, I so appreciate the opportunity to engage in this sort of assessment because it helps me get to know the students as learners.  This work also improves my instruction because I can easily see patterns of understanding and confusion and helps me to be a more reflective and effective practitioner as well as instructional designer.

Conferencing/Coaching/Triage 1:1 and Small Group

help help help help 2

 

help help 3

Using this information as our starting point, Sarah and I have  been meeting with students the last few days (late last week and all of this week)to discuss the feedback we’ve provided them ; we use the feedback forms as a strategic entry point for face to face conference/coaching conversation with students.   We have been organizing our 1:1 meetings and small group sessions through a variety of mediums each day:

  • Students can sign up for specific individual help each day—we have used large post-it paper and our Verb dry erase boards as our parking lots for students to indicate they need assistance or have questions.
  • Students can sign up for small group help or indicate they want to join a future small group work session through our Verb dry erase boards.  For example, after reviewing all the research design proposals, I realized I needed to do some small group instruction on additional search techniques with Boolean operators and additional instruction on mining Academic Search Complete.
  • For those who might be shy or reluctant to place themselves in one of these help request parking lots, we’ve also been sure to work through our class rosters and are checking in with each student so that we are sure to meet with EVERY student and “check up” on their progress, successes, questions, and worries.

Yesterday, Sarah called students up by the class roster whereas I started with my list of student requested help.  Today we approached the scheduling of the 1:1 conferences by working through the class rosters and having students first check in with Sarah about some of their recent process work; students then moved to my table for to discuss the feedback they received from us on their research design proposals.   We each set up a help area with our mobile tables and our green Hon rolling chairs so that we had comfortable spaces to talk to students and where they could spread out their work and/or where we could show them specific resources or skills on our laptops if they needed some concrete visualization or examples.  Some conferences are brief while others are more extended, but typically, each meeting can last 3-10 minutes—it all depends on student need and how the conversation evolves in the conference.  We also keep notepads, large lined sticky notes, and/or Google Docs available at the conference table to jot down notes from each meeting while students bring along their folders of their process work, drafts of their design proposals, and the individualized design proposal feedback form.

student conf notes

In just these first few days we’ve been meeting with students, it’s very apparent when students feel confident (and skills/processes/ideas they’re self-assured about as well) and where students feel fuzzy, unsure, and/or anxious.   We’ve also observed that most of our students are not used to this level of accountability, and some seem a bit uncomfortable with it when you are asking them questions to nudge them to dig deeper or be more specific with details; we sense many are also not used to these types of conferences that puts the responsibility and decision making on them as students.   We are framing this conference/coaching sessions from a stance of discussions to help them think through their choices, to clarify their own thinking/choices/next steps, and to move forward with their projects since we don’t want them to see the messiness and muckiness of inquiry as punitive.   These sessions have also helped us identify those who might benefit from some of our upcoming small group mini-lessons but who may not have initially signed up for assistance.  Last but not least, I believe these conferences convey to our students that each person matters and that we care about them and their topics.

Reflections

While we cannot do their work for them, we can give students every opportunity to get personal assistance in a low-key setting —we want them to know they cannot fall through the cracks or simply fly under our radars.  While I’ve done this sort of work before, this is probably the biggest chunk of time I’ve had in a collaborative partnership for this level of assessment and 1:1 student conferencing.  This approach requires us to be agile and responsive as each day is different and every student need varies.  This kind of conferencing/coaching is time consuming and messy; while the prep for the small group work is pretty straightforward, the 1:1 help is definitely open-ended.  I have been inspired and am improving my own conferencing skills with students by watching Sarah (who is a master at this process) and by my friend and fellow school librarian Heather Hersey.  Her post about the importance of conferencing helped me to think about focusing on all aspects of their inquiry work and design proposals rather than just sources or their bibliographies; it also inspired my idea for using the mail merge form and database to capture feedback and use that as a starting point for the student conferences/coaching sessions.

Sarah and I have also been discussing how intense this kind of work is and how you have to be comfortable with making adjustments as needed to timelines and your plans in order to be responsive to the students.    The processes are messy, yet this “mucking around in ideas” is the grist for the growth and critical thinking that happens as both we and our students problem solve, question, and revise our ideas and stances.  Neither of us has any idea how someone would do this kind of process-driven, organic, fluid, and reflective work alone!  We love that our combined talents help the students as well as each other; we also are appreciative of having someone else each day who can help you see things you might have missed or to think about a particular situation or challenge with fresh eyes.   We are also excited we can model collaborative learning for our students—how often do they get to be in a learning environment where there are at least 2-3 adults who can help them and provide them the kind of specific and personalized attention they are receiving?  Most importantly, this type of collaboration is a catalyst for inquiry work and for integrating more formative kinds of assessments that benefit students and impact learning.

We expect the 1:1 and small group conferences, coaching, and small group instruction to continue the next 7 days of school leading up to our Thanksgiving break.  I hope to share more images, video, written/video reflections and feedback from both of us as well as our students in an upcoming post later this month.   I’m also thinking about how to better integrate the conferencing/coaching/conversation aspect into the inquiry approach (and at an earlier point in time) with research using Cris Tovani’s conceptualization of these conversations as data and formative assessment (see her text, So What Do They Really Know?  Assessment That Informs Teaching and Learning).

Cris Tovani's Conversation Calendars

How are you approaching assessment with inquiry work?  How do you negotiate and embrace the challenges of time and fluidity with this approach to learning and research?  How do you scale this kind of learning experience when there are always challenges of time, space, and staffing?

Moving from Our Mindmaps to More Focused Topics with Question Lenses and Musical Peer Review

music activity-collage

In my last post that is part of this series, I shared how we used mindmapping after our second round of pre-searching to begin honing in our a more specific topic for our research.

After students shared out their mindmaps and big ideas, we asked them to look at their topic through different question “lenses” using an activity shared with me by my colleague Heather Hersey, a school librarian in Seattle.  Heather, who adapted her version of the handout from An Educator’s Guide to Information Literacy: What Every High School Senior Needs to Know (Ann Marlow Riedling, 2009), graciously shared her template with us, and we used it to help students look at their topic from multiple perspectives by “trying on” a question lens (see below).

Large Group Share of Mindmaps and Topic Triangles

This exercise was a stretch for the students as it forced them to look at their topic from an angle they might not have considered; we asked them to see if they could generate a question for at least 2-3 of the question lenses.  For some students, this was a helpful endeavor as it helped them in their thinking process about narrowing a focus even more for their topic; other students, though, were a little overwhelmed by the task and/or the cognitive dissonance that came along with the activity.   I love the activity because it is yet another way to encourage wonder, but in retrospect, I think it might have been more beneficial had we incorporated it sooner.   After conferring with Heather via email, I realized I missed that she utilizes it earlier in the pre-search process; I will consider following her lead on the timing in the future although I want to get student feedback on this aspect before making a decision for future efforts.

Once students had some time to muck around with this exercise, we asked them to then see if they could arrive at a more focused topic and compose a research topic statement or focused essential research question—we wanted to give them the option to write about their more focused in either format.  This statement/question writing was the springboard to an activity, “Musical Questions:  Broadening and Narrowing our EQs,” that we did on Friday (October 24) that we adapted from Marci Zane, Heather Hersey, Meg Donhauser, and Cathy Stutzman.   Sarah Rust came up with her own brilliant take on this activity:

1.  We arranged our tables in a conference style arrangement so that students could move about the “square” easily.

Musical Research Topic

2.  At the beginning of both classes, Sarah instructed the students to take out their document with the focused research topic statement or question they had composed earlier in the week.

Musical Research Topic

Musical Research Topic

3.  We explained that there would be four rounds of peer review; during each review students could provide four types of feedback:

  • a suggestion to broaden the topic statement/research question if needed
  • a suggestion to narrow the topic statement/research question
  • pose a question to nudge the peer’s thinking
  • share a constructive piece of feedback to help the peer with fine tuning that statement or question.

We asked that they put their names next to their feedback in case the owner of the statement/question needed to confer with them later about their statements or questions they had shared.

4.  We then explained that when there was no music, they would get up and begin walking around the table until music began playing (we let the students choose the music, and interestingly enough, they chose 80s and 90s tunes!  Their input made the activity more fun and gave them a sense of ownership).  Once the music started, they were to sit down in the closest chair and document and begin writing their feedback to the peer.   We gave them roughly 3-4 minutes to provide the feedback before stopping the music and starting our rotation again.

Musical Research Topic

Musical Research Topic

We honestly were not sure what to expect with the activity, so we were delighted by the positive response from our students.  We were also joined during our first class by assistant principal Christine Dailey who was there not only as an observer, but also as a participant—her jumping in and working side by side with the students was fantastic and of course, great modeling for our kids.  After the four rounds, we asked students to return back to the original seat and work and read over the feedback provided.  They then had an opportunity to pair-share with the person sitting next to them and to reflect on next steps or ideas that came from the four rounds of feedback from their peers.

Musical Research Topic

From what we observed, many students found this activity helpful in getting concrete suggestions for being more specific with the wording and in some cases, the scope, of their topic statements/research questions. We definitely would do this activity again as it gave students the chance to collaborate and work together  in a meaningful way as we continued to work through our research/inquiry processes! We would like to thank our students for their efforts, Christine Dailey for her time and feedback, and Heather, Meg, Marci, and Cathy for so generously sharing their ideas and experiences with us to create learning experiences that have helped us all as learners.

In addition, a big thanks to our New Jersey/Washington state friends for reminding us that the affective aspects of inquiry that our students are cycling through—confusion/frustration/doubt and clarity—are normal and that activities like these help mitigate some of the emotional lows or challenges our students are feeling, especially as the inquiry approach pushes them out of their comfort zones.  Even when you’ve experienced this process with students in the past, it is always reassuring to hear from others their approach to honoring that uncertainty and helping nudge students forward when they get stuck.  This same post has also given us some helpful guidance as we’ve wrestled with issues of grading and assessment of process-oriented, formative work.

In my next post, I’ll share how we are moving through the research design proposal process for the multigenre projects that students will be crafting.  The next couple of weeks will be interesting as students complete their proposals and move recursively between investigating, constructing, and expressing.   Until then, we’d love to hear your ideas and strategies for helping students narrow their topic statements and questions after pre-search–what have you tried that has been successful?  We’d love to hear your suggestions!