Revisiting Book Tasting to Support Readers

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My colleague Jennifer Lund and I have been working with some of our ninth grade teachers this week as part of a unit they are doing with students to give students an opportunity to select a book and engage in self-facilitated reading.   As many of you may know, I used a strategy, “book tasting“, during my time at Creekview High to support inquiry and literature circles.  Jennifer and I decided to adapt it for this unit, but our challenge was tweaking it for eight sections of classes, a variety of readers, and completely open choices rather than giving students a pre-selected “menu” of choices to choose from as part of an inquiry unit.  We felt this would be an effective approach since we’ve noticed ninth graders sometimes are overwhelmed by all the choices available.   Because students here often ask for specific kinds of books (romance, mystery, a book like Hunger Games), we decided to create “sampler trays” of books by the most requested categories of books.    After some collaborative brainstorming, we decided upon these categories:

  • Romance
  • Action/Adventure
  • Mystery
  • Sports Fiction
  • Dystopian
  • Comedy/Humor
  • Gritty/Realistic Fiction
  • Hot/Popular Reads
  • Nonfiction

I created signage and we affixed those signs to individual book carts.  We utilized some previously created booklists and crafted some new ones to choose the books that would be the “appetizers” for each book cart/category.

bookcart

Because neither of us had done “book tasting” with this many classes at once or in a context in which students could choose any book, we then thought about how to tweak the activity to accommodate these needs and  complete it within a single 50 minute class period without rushing the students or shortchanging the selection experience.  After much thought, we decided this would be our game plan:

  • Introduce the activity and briefly outline the details of the book tasting with students.
  • Give students 10 minutes to “sample” our “trays” of tasty books.  Because we knew some students might also have definite ideas about specific books, we decided we would also offer browsing the stacks in the same area as an additional option.

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  • Work in three segments of “tasting” that would include roughly four minutes to read the first few pages of the book and then about two minutes to write a quick response and rating of the book using the book menu below:
  • Ask students to help with a few housekeeping activities upon the completion of the tasting:   A.  return books back to the appropriate cart with the book cover facing outward.  B.  Books from the stacks would be pushed to the center and we would clean up the “leftovers” afterwards; these books were then recycled either to the appropriate cart for its particular category or housed on the “Hot and Popular” cart.  Overall, most students did a great job helping us with these tasks.
  • Students then check out their books, grab a bookmark, and then check in with their teacher to share their choice.  We collected the completed book tasting “menus” as the ticket out the door.

We honestly were not sure how the activity would go—we had concerns our adjustments to the structure of the activity might be off, that we might run out of books and/or not have time between classes to replenish carts, or that our estimated timing/pacing would be way off, especially since we were working with multiple classes and diverse kinds of learners with a wide range of previous experiences as readers.

As it turned out, all of our fears were quickly allayed as the process flowed beautifully for each class on the first day.  Nearly every class section responded with enthusiasm and intense engagement with the activity.  Even the two sections that were not quite as stoked as the others (one was an early morning class; the other was at the end of the day) still participated in a positive way.  With the exception of the early morning class, all of the classes seemed very intentional in their book selections and interacting with the choices on the book carts.  Jennifer and I both felt the book carts as “sampler trays” gave the students a flexible structure to be more deliberate with their choices.  I like Jennifer’s take on the book tasting approach:  “The purpose of book tasting is to scaffold students’ making independent choices.”  We also observed students selecting books from both the carts and the stacks;  we also overheard conversations in which students shared opinions, questions, and recommendations to each other about books.  We also had students in each class inquire about specific titles, authors, topics, and series as well, so we used our laptops to do quick lookups in the OPAC.

Book Tasting with 9th Grade, 2/25/14

What struck us the most was how intently and deeply focused students were during the four minute “tasting” phases of each book in nearly every section; in many sections, some students would be so engaged that they would continue reading with a specific choice even after it was time to move on to another.   We used the book menu and the six minute cycles as a guide and tried to respect the needs of the students as readers if they lingered or finished slightly early.   One particular class shocked their teacher with their engagement with the books,  whispering to us “They hate reading!”, but in retrospect, we think that we perceive as disinterest or disdain for reading is really more about the lack of choices that is so pervasive in high school Language Arts choices. Overall, this variation of book tasting was tremendous fun for us as the teachers as well as the students, and we hope to do it again with other classes.

Book Tasting with 9th Grade, 2/25/14

A few brief reflections we think are share-worthy:

  • Giving students that quiet time to read and sample their books is crucial.   It is essential that teachers resist the urge to offer commentary to students or attempt to “coach” them into selecting a particular author or book—those behaviors defeat the purpose of book tasting as a scaffold to helping students have opportunities to select their own choices.   Respect students as readers and be a respectful observer, not participant.  Sharing ownership of the learning experience is at the heart of book tasting.
  • We paused to wonder how much quiet time our students have in their lives here at school as well as at home.  For a student body that is usually plugged into their earbuds and devices, the experience of reading without the buzz of music or a text may be new for some of our students.
  • The book carts are an accessible entry point for all readers but are especially helpful for those who might not have clear choices in mind but know there are certain kinds of books (like a mystery) that they might prefer.
  • Choice is such an essential element for learning.  The book tasting activity provides enough structure to support participation yet is flexible enough to not stifle students’ interests.
  • We plan to look at the roster of book selections from each class section and get a sense of what kinds of books students selected for their independent reading unit.

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Many colleagues expressed interest via Twitter in learning about this activity.  We encourage you to take it and adapt it for your students!   We hope this post will be helpful for anyone interested in using the book tasting strategies.  Some additional resources of interest:

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Twitter Chat + Socratic Circles

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A few weeks ago we co-facilitated write-around text on text conversations with Emily Russell’s Language Arts classes in the library.  The activity was such a hit with students and Ms. Russell that we decided to take our collaboration to the next level by combining a Twitter chat with Socratic circle discussions as the culminating conversation for the reading of The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.  I shared Ellen Hampton Filgo’s write-up of her experience as an embedded librarian via Twitter with Emily and Jennifer Lund, my co-librarian; we all felt this would be another great medium for “written” conversations.  Because she had been using Socratic circle discussions with her classes since August, Emily asked if we could combine the Twitter element with this method of class discussion. We all felt this would be a wonderful medium for incorporating a Twitter chat into the classroom.  After some date shuffling due to winter weather, we scheduled Friday, February 7 as the big day to debut this activity with our students.

We visited Emily’s classes the day before the chat to introduce the concept of a Twitter chat, share examples of real world Twitter chats, and then discussed Twitter chat manners/etiquette for constructive conversations.  We also reviewed the hashtags that Emily had developed for each class period since we wanted to capture each discussion with Storify.  Emily then reviewed Socratic circle protocols and explained how that would blend with the Twitter conversations.   Students prepared questions for the discussion by sharing their lines of inquiry via notecard with Emily, and these became the springboard of initial discussions to spark conversation and additional question the following day in class.

To accommodate students who did not have a smartphone or who did not comfortable using Twitter, we offered a couple of alternatives way of participating in the virtual discussion:

1.  Jennifer and I brought about 5 extra laptops to the room, and students could elect to use the laptops to Tweet with their own Twitter account.

2.  For students who did not want to use Twitter, we originally planned to have them pass us their questions via an index card.  However, we forgot that Emily has a set of mini-whiteboards that students use in class, so we had students write their initials and questions  or comments on the whiteboards.  When they were ready to “Tweet”, students held up their whiteboard, and either Jennifer or I acted as a scribe Tweeting their question or comment on their behalf along with their initials.

Emily had planned ahead of time which students would be in the initial inner circle; we posted this information on the whiteboard via a PowerPoint slide to help students get seated quickly.   Emily took  a few minutes to review the procedures for the day and to answer any last minute questions.  She also reminded students to show love for each other by helping classmates who might be struggling to jump into the conversation by asking them a direct question to give them a gentle entry point into the discussion.  Jennifer and I were in the room each period to actively participate in the Twitter chat to scribe Tweets for our “unplugged” students, to share resources of relevance to each class discussion in a responsive manner, and to interact with students in the back channel while photographing each class discussion.   I also wanted to project a real-time stream of Tweets so that all students could see the Twitter conversation in progress on the whiteboard.  Initially, I began by using TweetChat, but after one class, there seemed to be technical difficulties with the site, so I switched to tchat,io.  This alternative turned out to be a great choice, and I highly recommend it if you want a quick and easy way to follow a Twitter chat.

Much like the write-around text on text, there was an arc of energy building with the conversation both in the Socratic circles as well as the Twitter back channel.   Overall, each class felt energetic and engaged!  We were also excited that fellow Language Arts teacher and collaborative partner Darrell Cicchetti and two assistant principals came to observe what was happening—the adults were just as jazzed as the students!  One of the most interesting observations was to see students continuing to Tweet comments as they walked out the door.  Jennifer and I were busy the entire period for each class as “embedded librarians”, and in hindsight, it was definitely an advantage to have two of us to help facilitate the Twitter conversations and to help distribute laptops, answer student questions at the beginning of the period on how to follow the hash tag on their smartphones, and to act as scribes for our “unplugged” participants.

I was easily able to capture each class’s chat with Storify and embed those conversations into a LibGuide for this activity. You can also see photo sets for each class for the day on the LibGuide as well.

The following Monday, February 10, Emily collected student feedback—what she calls “glows” and “grows”—from students via notecards as we wanted student feedback and suggestions for the future from each class.  Jennifer took the notecards and compiled these highlights of student reflections:

  • Overwhelmingly, students enjoyed using Twitter (got lots of favorites, loves, fun).
  • “What I liked most about the Twitter chat was how we were able to be on our phones in class, but still related to school. Let’s do this more often!” -6th period student
  • “What I liked about the seminar was the way the class connected. It was fun because the tweeting allowed the class to be involved in an activity that they’re used to.” -2nd period
  • “Likes – being a part of the conversation without having to talk.” -2nd period
  • “The tweeting was also very academic because we were able to tweet when we weren’t in the inner circle. We should definitely do that again.” – 3rd period
  • “Shy people didn’t have to feel left out because they had the option of tweeting to earn points.” – 6th period
  • “People engaged inside and outside the circle.” – 6th period
  • “I liked the Twitter seminar because everyone was participating and no one was left out. I really did enjoy how when someone was in the inner circle the people that were in the outer circle were resounding to our conversation or giving opinions.” – 6th period
  • “I liked how the outer circle tweeted while the inner circle talked. It made sure that everyone was involved and gave everyone a chance to talk.” – -2nd period
  • “…everyone stated their opinions and disagreed in a respectful way.” – 2nd period
  • “Everybody was into it. It was really intense and good points were brought up. Everyone had something to say.” – 3rd period
  • “I felt that we were teachers on seeing each others’ insight of the Glass Castle. I would let people start off on a topic and let the conversations start.” – 3rd period
  • A few mentioned how fast-paced it was – some thought too fast.
  • “I didn’t like how fast we were moving from topic to topic. We also should have gotten more in depth with it.” – 6th period
  • “Super fun, fast paced; loved hearing and seeing everyones’s thoughts and comments.” – 3rd period
  • “Too fast. I feel like we rushed and there wasn’t enough time.” – 3rd period
  • “One thing I didn’t like was how fast-paced it was and it was kinda hard to read everybody’s tweets.” – 3rd period
  • “I basically loved and enjoyed everything from the desks were set up to how people were still tweeting after the bell rang.” 2nd period
  • “More seminars!” – 2nd period
  • “I would like to do it again. Maybe more than 1 a month. Usually we don’t talk a lot in class but Friday everybody wanted to talk and share their ideas.” – 2nd period

Overall, most of the “grows” comments were related to the oral discussion piece – wanting better questions or more time for discussion, people to speak louder.  We will also definitely think about how to address the concern about the pace of the discussion and strategies to help students adapt to that challenge.  A few were self-reflective in their communication skills; for example, “I will speak up next time” or “I will work on my discussion skills.”  The majority of students mentioned they liked that everyone participated, everyone was actively engaged, and getting to hear other people’s opinions/thoughts.

In closing, I think we all feel like this strategy was successful, and we are already looking forward to incorporating it into Emily’s classes again and hopefully encouraging other teachers in different content areas to try Twitter chats and Socratic circles as well.   Jennifer and I continue to be elated to participate as instructional partners and co-learners with our teacher and students in the library and in the classroom!  We sincerely appreciate our teachers and students being willing to try new strategies and to help us pilot these kinds of literacy practices together.

Literacies of Contemporary Civic Life Speaker Series-Metanarratives of Literacy Practices: Libraries as Sponsors of Literacies

I would like to thank friend and colleague Dr. Antero Garcia and the Colorado State University Department of English for the opportunity to participate in “The Literacies of Contemporary Civic Life” speaker series here in Fort Collins, Colorado.  I appreciate everyone who came out to hear the talk in person; we also captured video of the talk through a Google Hangout.   The joy in these experiences is not only having a chance to contribute to a conversation, but to also learn from others—my thinking has been pushed today through my interactions with the CSU English Department community as well as wonderful morning of discussion with fellow librarian Ally Garcia of the Clearview Library District.  I feel confident seed ideas that have been planted and nurtured today will find their way into future blog posts!

If you are interested in the ideas central to the talk, I encourage you to check out my ongoing series of blog posts from DMLcentral here; I will have a new blog post soon for this series that relates directly to some of the concepts in this talk.  Thanks to a historic winter storm that is battering Atlanta, my stay here is extended that will give me the chance to explore Fort Collins and relish some “found” writing time.

Informational Text Write Around Text-on-Text with Biology/Chemistry Classes

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My co-librarian Jennifer Lund and I are continuing our efforts to introduce written conversations strategies to students and teachers across content areas here at Norcross High.  Yesterday we had the pleasure of collaborating with Science Department Chair Logan Malm and her 9th Accelerated Biology/Chemistry students. Logan teaches three sections of this course that meets for approximately an hour and half daily.   Our collaborative efforts began when Logan, who was in the library working on a video project with her classes, saw our write-around text on text activity with Emily Russell’s Language Arts classes and became interested in how to incorporate that technique into her subject area.  Jennifer and I were excited by the prospect of partnering with Logan for the write-around text on text activity since this would be our first attempt to use it with 9th graders and in a non-Language Arts content area class.

Logan’s classes are currently finishing an ecology unit and preparing to transition to a new biochemistry unit with a focus on molecules and enzymes.  She decided to use the write-around text on text strategy as a way of  helping students  link the prior knowledge from the ecology unit of study to information they are about to learn in biochemistry.  She selected three National Geographic articles with a focus on enzymes:

Since two of the articles did not offer a print friendly option, I took them and converted them into single page printouts with Word; the third article I was able to keep at one page thanks to the print friendly option.  After checking with Logan about the number of students and groups, Jennifer and I prepped for the write-around by printing the copies of each article, getting our colored butcher paper for each group,  taping each of the three articles on every sheet of butcher paper, and writing the names of each group member on their sheet of butcher paper with the articles. Because Logan wanted to build a conversation around the concept of enzymes, she decided to use the same articles for each group and have them respond to the entire article since all three were fairly brief.

Photo by B. Hamilton

Photo by B. Hamilton

At the beginning of each class, we did a similar mini-lesson on how to participate in a write-around; however, we did make modifications to the “idea/writing sparks” for conversation to be more reflective of the informational texts.  After distributing colored markers and Sharpies, we cued the students to begin reading and writing.  We honestly did not know what to expect in terms of depth of responses, how long the students might write, or how easy/difficult it might be for them to engage in a sustained participation since this was our first effort with informational text in the context of a science class unit; the students also did not have any previous scaffolding for this activity like Emily Russell’s classes.  Because the class is a hybrid course that covers elements of two classes, it meets for roughly an hour and a half daily; we decided to see if the students could engage in the writing for at least 25 minutes (Emily’s students wrote for about 20 minutes).  We were pleasantly surprised in several ways:

1.  Each class wrote approximately 30-33 minutes; some could have continued writing had we not called time!
2.  Most of the written conversations were rich and nuanced just as the literary conversations had been.   Although the content was more academic and subject specific in nature, the written discussions still felt very conversational.  We also noticed students using more visuals/graphics/drawings as part of these conversations.
3.  The trajectory of energy and momentum to the conversations paralleled those of Emily’s classes—it is akin to a crescendo in music where the sound builds in loudness and intensity.  We saw the written conversations building in those same ways.
4.  Like Emily’s classes, students enjoyed using hashtags as part of their written conversations.  I think #maggot was one of the more popular hashtags of the day.

We all participated as co-learners in the process as well, which gave us an opportunity to model for students as well as “listen” and respond to their ideas.  Since we had the longer block of time for class, we were able to give students more time for the small group discussion/share/reflection that we incorporate after the silent writing time.    We also did a slight variation on the small group share reflection format and utilized the “3-2-1″ strategy this time.  After discussing their responses as a small group for about 15 minutes, Logan then facilitated the large group conversation.    We began the large group discussion with each small group reporting their reflections, insights, and questions;  some of the questions students posed included:

  • How did the deep sea shrimp evolve to primarily consume wood in an environment completely devoid of it?
  • Can scientists alter human enzymes to be better suitors for utilizing new resources?
  • Has the maggot healing been put into effect since its discovery?
  • What happens if the wood “goes away” for the shrimp and the trees/nectar “go away”  for the ants?
  • Is the tree and the ant more than one symbiotic relationship?
  • Are the ants able to think and care for themselves? Do they have the freedom to choose what happens to them?

Finally, the large group conversation then culminated with discussions around the key concepts in the articles (natural selection, enzymes, mutualism, adaptation) and questions that Logan posed to students.

Write Around Informational Text

Just as we’ve seen before with other groups, each class definitely had a unique vibe that was reflected in their work.   Two of the classes were very strong in terms of the quality of responses and interaction in the written and oral conversations.  A third class that is strong in creativity shined a bit more in the small and large group discussions than in the written conversations; some of the students in that particular class are very bright but not quite as mature right now as some of their peers.  While they struggled more to engage in sustained written conversations, we feel that they still benefited from the experience and that this activity can be a means to help them grow their skills in participating in this form of group think.  Overall, all three sections were delightful, and we are deeply appreciative of Logan’s willingness to share her classroom with us and for the opportunity to learn together.

Students seemed to feel positively about the experience as well.  One constructive suggestion we had from several students was to perhaps mix up the articles a little more.   One student recommended having three articles on the butcher paper for half the tables/groups, and then to use a different set of three articles for the other half.   While the focus of using the same articles at each table and giving students a chance to move about and respond to those was to help students make the connections to concepts of ecology and enzymes, we definitely think that the student suggestions are ones we’ll use in the future.  We also think that self-selected articles (like we did with the literary conversations) are another option to explore in content area write-arounds.

As I mentioned earlier, Jennifer and I were happy to see students engaging with informational text in a deep and engaging way through the write-around.  We both continue to feel a bit awestruck by how such a simple learning structure yields such powerful impact and dialogue with students; each time we have the chance to co-facilitate the written conversation strategies with teachers and students, the more excited we feel about the possibilities.  We are also delighted that Logan shares these sentiments in her post-activity reflections:

Impressions – LOVED this activity. It was really special watching the students write about scientific topics and develop questions based on their thoughts and the thoughts of other students. I enjoyed seeing them question the validity of certain claims, argue in favor of/against scientific ideas using their prior knowledge and create questions that they had after reading each article. This activity gave me a chance to see my students in a way that I have yet to observe. They had an opportunity to act like true scientists, and didn’t even know it! Overall, this was a wonderful activity that I will be doing again!

We look forward not only to working with Logan and her students again, but we also are happily anticipating working with other teachers and their classes, too.   Jennifer and I are delighted to contribute to our learning community and to foster these kinds of literacy practices that situate literacy as meaning making across content areas and units of study.   Our next efforts with write-around strategies will be on Valentine’s Day with Jeff Cerneka’s Health classes–stayed tuned!  In the meantime, I invite you to view the photoset from the this session here.

Collection Weeding as Dendrochronology: Rethinking Practices and Exposing a Library’s Sponsors of Literacy

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The Impetus to Weed our Print Collection

Since early September 2013, my colleague Jennifer Lund and I have been working on a large-scale and aggressive weeding project for our entire collection.   This initiative was driven by two factors:

1.  We recognized our collection was dated in many areas, and we also knew other areas were in demand and might need to updated, replaced, and/or expanded.  We also have been working with faculty and students to foster a greater inclusion of reading choice for students and to support a pilot of dedicated independent reading time in classes, so having a vibrant collection with titles of interest to teens is even more important.

2.  Our plan to reframe the library as a learning studio through multiple mediums would require us to rethink what it means to develop a print and digital collection in a more strategic way.  Additionally, we knew we would need to shift areas of the collection to be located more strategically in the physical space and to remove some shelving to open up space for other modes of learning.

Our intent was not to devalue the importance of a print collection, but instead, we wanted to rethink how we approach collection development to better meet the needs of our students and faculty and to better support the library as a learning studio.  We also felt that getting “knee deep” into the collection would allow us to see patterns of usage that sometimes aren’t readily visible with traditional reports.  We first began by generating a report in Destiny ( hat tip to Jennifer Helfrich, our Coordinator, Media Services & Technology Training for helping us remember the steps for this report:  Reports>Library Reports>Collection Statistics – Summary; at the bottom of the page the report lets you limit by time frame and number of checkouts) to sort the books by call number and to indicate how many times each book had been circulated within the last three years; we also included the copyright year in the report.   We felt these metrics and parameters would give us a starting point for consideration as we worked through the weeding process.

It is easy to judge libraries and librarians with larger and/or dated collections as “bad” or “ineffective.”  While this judgement may be warranted in many cases, I think there are just as many instances where weeding can reveal some of the larger and powerful influences that might hinder a librarian’s effort to continually craft a relevant and meaningful collection.  Before I delve into our experiences and reflections, I’d like to offer some thoughts on how collections fall into disarray and decay.

Reasons Why School Libraries in Georgia Often Have Large but Irrelevant and/or Poor Print Collections

Here in Georgia, there has been a longstanding fear held by many school librarians to take a bolder approach to weeding for a variety of reasons.  In the past, accreditation standards from SACS required a certain number of books per FTE count; that rule disappeared several years ago for Georgia K12 schools.  Another factor, the cuts to funding from the state for school libraries, especially after expenditure controls were removed a few years ago, also exacerbated fears that if one really weeded everything that needed to go, then there would not be money to replace those books and/or there might be backlash from the community over shelves that were not as full.  Even when expenditure controls were in place, many districts flaunted the law and did not give the full allotment to the school libraries.   Additionally, smaller schools were and are penalized for their size—in my first school library job, we had fewer than 400 students and in spite of receiving our state full funding, we received a very small amount (if I recall correctly, about $2000) that was woefully insufficient to update a collection that included a book with the statement, “One day man will go to the moon” (true weeding story from 2001-2002).  Schools with lower enrollments rarely receive appropriate funding levels to develop print and virtual collections.

I have long felt school districts should set aside additional monies on a yearly rotating basis to help school libraries, especially those in older schools, have the appropriate monies to update their print collections and now digital collections (yes, eBooks age, too!).   However, with the loss of expenditure controls, very few districts get their full allotment; I felt very lucky when I was at Creekview High to get my full funding allotment every year.  It troubles me that so many school districts in our state say they value reading on their websites and in their professional learning events, yet they don’t give their school libraries their full allotment.  Instead, districts repurpose that money for school libraries into other areas to make up for other budget area shortfalls (welcome to the era of local control in Georgia); this practice is now legally sanctioned since our state legislature removed the expenditure controls for these monies a few years ago.   Some districts also have some rather interesting rules about what can be purchased with that state money even though the state places very few restrictions on what materials qualify or quantity—I know several media specialists who are hassled about purchasing eBooks; in some school districts, you can only purchase print materials and eBooks for the collection and not equipment or other items like computers , equipment, or 3D printers that are essential to a larger scope of “collection.”  Others impose bizarre practices like having everyone do three orders a year—each order from a certain book vendor or jobber even if that vendor (who might be more specialized) doesn’t carry materials relevant to that age group or reading interests.

Other factors influencing weeding practices:  in some schools and districts, school librarians simply have lacked the authority to make these kinds of decisions without having to do excessive paperwork to justify every weed.   Finally, some school librarians were and are so short-staffed that they simply have lacked the time and energy to engage in a thoughtful weed of their collections, particularly if they are under pressure to focus time on technology, if they have been reduced to the managers of “stuff” in the building, if the school admin does not understand the importance of weeding, or if they are so swamped with instruction (a good problem to have!) that weeding goes to the bottom of the triage list.

Even though the literature on thoughtful weeding practices emphasizes it’s better to remove the “junk” so that people can see what is “good” on the shelves, many school librarians fear there won’t be support from building or district level administration if there is indeed an outcry as to why you are “throwing away books” or parents angry that you’ve suddenly removed materials, while poor, that count for Accelerated Reader points (gasp!).  The cumulative effect in older schools, including ones that might have moved to a newer building but were forced to bring over part of the original collection, has resulted in large collections that have books that are outdated, are in poor physical condition, and are no longer relevant to the curriculum and/or the community of learners.

This backstory and resulting effects are important to consider when we think about equitable access to quality libraries and learning experiences, particularly for students already marginalized and attending schools that lack equitable access to both quality collections in many mediums as well as rich learning experiences collaboratively co-facilitated by librarians and classroom teachers.

First Strike:  Fiction

Jennifer Recording a Book to Reorder

Jennifer Recording a Book to Reorder

We began our efforts in Fiction in late September since this is the area that gets the most usage with our students.   We printed sections of the bigger report we generated with the weeding metrics we incorporated and had our student aids highlight all books that had not circulated in three years in that section and then pull the titles out to the edge of the shelf so we could more quickly identify candidates for weeding.  We then loaded up a cart with a laptop to access Follett Titlewave to add replacement titles or additional titles by an author for a new order we would develop as we worked through Fiction, a notepad for any handwritten notes, and sticky notes to place on any books we might pull but might want to relocate or re-catalog if we felt they didn’t fit in Fiction.  We initially were cross-checking books against the printed report to verify circulation stats; however, we eventually abandoned this practice because the books at Norcross have stickers on the back where the due date is stamped upon circulation.  By looking at this sticker , we can  just look at that rather than the report to get a sense of a book’s circulation history.  We also realized the process would be far more time consuming than we anticipated at the beginning because we felt it was important for us to

1.  touch every book together and discuss its use in the media center and reasons why it might have been purchased (student request, unit of study, award winner, etc.)
2.  collaboratively decide and debate whether a book should stay, go, or be replaced (and if additional copies were needed) .

Although it would have been easier to have weeded books on the basis of those circulation parameters we established along with copyright date, that would have been misguided and frankly wrong.   We knew that every book had a “story” in how it came to be in the fiction collection, and it was important for us to weigh each book’s merits together—at times, we felt very uncomfortable about this as we questioned what “power” we might be wielding and if there were more democratic or more participatory ways to do so.  At the same time, though, we felt it was our responsibility to lead the process using our expertise while consulting with our community if we could not come to a confident conclusion.   This weeding project has been  a wonderful opportunity for me a newcomer to get to know the collection, a chance for Jennifer to get reacquainted with the collection firsthand, for us to get to know each other better, and to think aloud as a team as we discussed each book—what kids thoughts about it, why someone might have ordered it, why it was ordered with certain funds, how past and present purchasing policies influenced a book’s selection, and how a book might have once fit into a unit of study or special project.   We’ve had many moments where we have literally laughed out loud, felt surprise at some of our discoveries, and been outright baffled by purchases in the distant past.

Aftermath in Fiction

Aftermath in Fiction

While Jennifer and Adria ( previous NHS school librarian and a fellow UGA alum) had weeded sections in the past, Jennifer and I both agree that doing a wholesale weeding where you feel there is administrative level support to be aggressive with the weeding is a very different experience from weeding sections for the purpose of maintenance and updating.  We both also feel that this experience and approach can also be a great bonding experience for colleagues–whether you’ve known each other a long time or for just a short time, the conversations that emerge in the weeding process are often springboards to other conversations about philosophy and practice!  Through this weeding experience, which is still in progress, we also have had lengthy conversations about conventional wisdom related to collection development and traditional weeding practices—this kind of reflective practice is valuable for revisiting beliefs and questioning what you think you know and being more intentional with your practice.  As we Tweeted some of our weeding insights (we noticed that our teens did not seem to read many of the Printz winners), we involved thinking from our peers outside of our building and engaged in some truly thoughtful conversations and debates with other school and young adult librarians about the purposes and values of award winners and how to contextualize the purpose of those awards in purchasing decisions.  In late December, Jennifer shared this poignant reflection:

I thought I knew how to weed. I was wrong. I’ve weeded this very collection several times, but this time was different. I guess I just never realized how powerful this process can be and how beneficial it is to intimately know your collection.

In our efforts to embrace many mediums for learning, I think our profession has inadvertently devalued weeding and portrayed it in a narrow way depicting it as a gatekeeping, menial task.   Perhaps this is not so obvious when you have the luxury of starting with a new or newer collection, but this realization hits you square in the face when you take on the challenge of sifting through layers and years of history in a large and somewhat dated collection like ours.   I think Jennifer’s reflection is not only a testimony to weeding as a learning process for us professionals, but it also reminds me how important it is to work hands-on with your collection both through weeding and inventory—tasks that are sometimes viewed as drudgery or as of late, written off as an insignificant practice not worthy of our efforts in some circles of school librarianship, a perspective I think is short-sighted.  The reality of trying to balance our roles as instructional designer and partner, information expert, instructional leader, and program administrator can definitely make people feel that weeding and inventory are not at the top of the priority list in the grander scheme of our work; however, these are responsibilities that are related to our larger scope of work and impact both physical pace, collection development, and people’s perception of what libraries are about.  Carving out time to do this sort of work ultimately helps us contextualize the work of our other roles in our schools and the ways a library might function as a hub of learning.

We completed Fiction in late fall; even before we finished weeding that section, we noticed circulation statistics increasing in this area and students selecting books in the collection with lower circulation jumping off the shelves because of greater visibility after the weed.  We are now preparing to move the fiction books from their current location to the rotunda where seating and reference books are housed; we’ll be using the “fiction nook” physical space as a new learning studio within our larger library studio once we remove the shelves and receive our new furniture we’re in the process of ordering (thank you Gwinnett County Public School District Foundation and Principal Will Bishop for your financial support of our library as learning studio).

Nonfiction:  A Work in Progress

We began tackling 000-599 of Nonfiction in November and thought we could finish it by mid-December; we actually just completed this section about a week and a half ago.  We thought the weeding of nonfiction would go more quickly, perhaps because of the date/relevance/timeliness issue that is often a major metric in this area, but we found ourselves tackling it in the same painstaking manner as we did the fiction books.  We definitely had lengthier and more involved conversations about how these texts relate to curriculum and the shifts that come with focal areas of study as faculty members leave or change curricular areas, state and district standards change, and how testing impacts project-based, inquiry driven learning.  The rise and availability of digital content on a particular topic through web resources, databases, and eBook acquisition also are factors in the use (or lack thereof) of nonfiction print materials.  Although it was very easy to choose many books for weeding, there were just as many that received in-depth review and discussion before made a final decision together.  We also were able to identify pockets of this part of the collection that needed updating and began a new book order to address these needs; in some instances, we decided to weed the print copy of the book and replace it with the eBook format in our Gale Virtual Reference Library.

It was also in this section that we found some of the more interesting and outrageous discoveries.   While terrible book covers were a common find with our older fiction titles, we found more antiquated books in nonfiction. Whether it was a retro style bibliography card, a book on how to deal with hijackers (written prior to 9/11), or even a book that clearly was something in the vein of a former librarian’s personal tastes, we caught more glimpses of policies and influences driving collection purchases at different points in the school’s history.  We also discovered many finds from the 1980s and 1990s that were outdated in terms of factual accuracy and no longer related to the curriculum; the design, length, and style of these texts are markedly different from contemporary nonfiction titles.  We were also struck by how dreadfully unattractive many of the covers were!  We also discovered many texts that seemed to be a better fit for an academic collection and could only surmise that they were purchased for projects in the distant past, perhaps when teachers felt they could devote more time to research projects and in-depth exploration of a topic over an extended period of time with their students.  Other books may have been purchased in the past to target a student demographic that is no longer part of our student population.   It is in this section Jennifer and I have had multiple conversations about the shifting sands of curriculum and how we can balance that reality with student interests and passions related to nonfiction topics.  We also found several inconsistencies in cataloging and other cataloging choices we plan to amend in order to place the book in a section that will make more sense to our students.  Other decisions we made in this process:

  • We began selecting books that might be better suited for “coffee table” style display rather than on a shelf that is clearly not designed to accommodate or showcase it size and content.
  • We have marked books, like test prep for ACT, SAT, and AP, to be pulled out of nonfiction into a special collection that will be more visually and physically accessible to students since there is demand for those kinds of print materials.
  • Thinking about new signage and visualizations for the end panels to better indicate what might be find within a Dewey section.
  • Exploring ways to retrofit our shelves to be more aesthetically pleasing and more conducive to discovery of books through browsing.
  • Researching how we might retrofit our shelving to be mobile and how to add casters to the bottoms of our shelves that have metal foundation panels.  This conversation is part of an ongoing conversation about the need for contemporary shelving in high school libraries and what features can make our print collections more accessible.

We’re gearing up to resume weeding in February; we’re juggling those efforts with some new and exciting collaborative projects with classes.  We’ll resume with 600s and hope to complete the remaining sections of our collection by the end of March.

Weeding as Process to Expose Sponsors of Literacy

Unlu 1

Since this fall, I’ve been thinking the dendrochronology, the cross-dating and study of tree rings as a means to discover influences in a tree’s growth in any given year (climate or stress), as a metaphor for weeding and how looking at a cross-section of collection can expose past and present sponsors of literacy in a library community.  According to the University of Arizona Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, the purposes of dendrochronology research are:

1.  to put the present in proper historical context
2.  to better understand current environmental processes and conditions
3.  to improve understanding of possible future environmental issues

I would propose that the purposes of weeding a collection of any kind are similar in nature.  If we view weeding as  more than just the removal of materials and instead conceptualize it as a process of inquiry and discovery,  we can then begin to peel back layers and explore policies, philosophies, and other forces that have shaped not just the collection but the culture of learning and literacy practices in both the school and the library; we may also see clues that can reveal how library and literacy practices have influenced the “environment” of learning in a school and vice-versa.   Who and what have been privileged over time, and where is that visible or invisible in the collection?  The process of weeding a collection can help us  better understand the sponsors of literacy and learning that have shaped past and present practices and hopefully give us insights to more effective, thoughtful, and strategic decision making and practices for the future.  Additionally, it could be interesting to contextualize and situate weeding practices and insights as a form of ethnography of objects.  I lack the research methodology knowledge at this time to speak more knowledgeably on this prospect, but I think it’s an interesting thread to pull for the future.

If we think of weeding as one means as a way of exploring sponsors of literacy and learning in and through a library, we might consider these influences that can act as sponsors in both positive and negative ways:

  • Purchasing policies—values reflected in formats that may or may not be privileged, limitations or lack thereof  for number of copies one might purchase of a title, and how certain funding sources may dictate or limit what can be purchased with those monies as well as rules for purchasing and how the authority of individuals involved in purchasing may approve or validate (or not) certain kinds of materials and content.
  • Popular trends in terms of content, topics, and publishing.
  • Beliefs of library staff, faculty, students, administration (building and district level), and community about reading. 
  • Funding trends, funding sources, budget histories.
  • Book challenge policies and history within a school district  and how those might influence content selected for purchase.
  • How mediums for purchasing (purchase card, purchase orders, rules related to budget audits for districts) might influence what is bought from different vendors.
  • Bid pricing policies and vendors approved for librarians to use in purchasing.
  • Personal and professional values of librarians (see Mark Dressman’s Literacy in the Library); beliefs about what children/teens need and/or should read; beliefs about purposes and roles of the library in a school; use of physical space and how it is impacted by print collections.
  • Identifying information about a book (example: funding source) included in processing; relevance of placement in collection, visibility of circulation history of a text to a patron.
  • Corporate influence in imprints or types of books pushed/marketed toward certain groups.
  • Collection practices taught at any given point in history.
  • Percentage, identification, and arrangement of fiction, nonfiction, reference, biography, story collection, etc.
  • Physical location of specific areas of collection and what values may be conveyed by placement.

Just as tree rings might show conditions of drought or flood, I encourage you to think of these “environmental conditions” in my working list above as forces that influence the ways libraries function as sponsors of literacy through their collections.   What clues of the past can we see through weeding to better understand the present and move forward more intentionally into the future?  How can weeding illuminate these sponsors of literacy and help us to elevate the positive influences while mitigating or stopping the negative ones that have impacted collection, library services and instruction, and the larger school culture?  I’m interested in what these sponsors of literacy look like across multiple school libraries in our state and nation and how they impact practices that may privilege or silence children and teens along lines of race, class, and gender, particularly when we look at school libraries that serve children and teens who may be marginalized by poverty and geography.

Final Thoughts and Wonderings

  • While my post is situated in a school library context and comes with its own unique challenges, I suspect that our experience translates to a large degree to weeding practices in public and academic libraries.  How might we thoughtfully share our experiences and rethink as well as develop new practices together?
  • This experience only reinforces my belief that libraries are not the neutral spaces we portray them to be and that looking at our work and practices through a lens of sponsors of literacy is important to elevate our awareness of our positional power.
  • How will practices of weeding print collections inform practices of weeding other kinds of collection in the not so distant future?  Whether it is a virtual collection of eBooks, a guitar collection, a seed library, or something else, no collection can be static.
  • How do we negotiate the challenges of doing this time-intensive work with other pressing areas of our work in our libraries and learning communities?
  • How do we begin to address the challenges I outlined at the beginning of this post to address factors that create and/or exacerbate stagnant collections?
  • How might we make collection development and weeding practices more participatory, organic, and nimble, especially in the face of mounting budget cuts in multiple kinds of libraries?
  • How might the metaphor of tree ring study and weeding as one way of unpacking sponsors of literacy and accumulating layers of history reframe other practices of our profession?
  • What data visualization methods might also help us expose patterns in collection and weeding data/statistics?

As you can see, this experience has exposed new insights for us while leading to new lines of professional inquiry.  I’ll continue to dwell in these ideas as Jennifer and I jump into the next phase of  our “Great Weeding Process” once more in another week and hopefully complete our work by the end of March.