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School, academic, and public librarians often cite collaborative partnerships as one of the greatest challenges of the profession—how do we invite collaboration, how do we nurture and sustain those partnerships, and how might those efforts translate into additional endeavors?  Identifying common goals and cultivating trust are two fundamental building blocks in this process, but libraries and librarians being sensitive to the needs of the community, whether it is an individual, group, or organization, is also paramount.

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As a school librarian, I have found over the years that my thinking and work as an instructional designer and learning architect are the tasks I dwell in most of the time since they are so critical to the ways that the library can impact the learning culture in very direct and important ways in the larger school environment.  Helping teachers craft inquiry driven projects and learning experiences is nearly always complicated by the tensions created by time constraints, standardized testing, and curricular mandates; negotiating these waters in a way that is respectful and sensitive to these challenges is a process that requires honest yet diplomatic discourse.  This design process can be especially tricky if an instructional partner is used to a solitary mode of teaching and/or is more content-oriented and can feel like a delicate dance.

As a new librarian here at Norcross High, I’m in the infancy stages of planting and growing trust “seeds” with faculty and students.  One of our English teachers, Ms. Steed, approached me in early November for help with a literary criticism research assignment she wanted to do with her students yet do so in a way that would help them be successful in a short time frame.   So how might a librarian help a teacher and his/her students in this kind of situation where extended inquiry, while desirable and optimal, is not an option?  I like to approach this kind of conundrum like I would any conversation for teaching and learning:  I take whatever material and ideas the teachers has sent to me and use that as a starting point for an ongoing conversation.  Here is a quick breakdown of what this approach looked like with Ms. Steed through a series of emails and a face-to-face meeting:

1.  Utilize the principles of backwards design:  what are the learning objectives of this assignment or learning experience?  What kinds of formative, summative, and student self-assessments will be used?  What will be the strategies and resources needed to support the learning targets?  Thinking through these questions can help teachers and librarians take a general overarching goal or desired outcome and be more strategic in thinking through specific learning targets, how we’ll know the students achieved those targets, and how we will scaffold them to get to those outcomes.  This approach is especially helpful when a proposed project has a powerful seed idea but the first draft of ideas might feel a bit muddied or unfocused.

2.  Focus on the Learner Points of Need :  By taking Ms. Steed’s initial email with a list of working topics, I was able to use that document as a springboard to open a conversation framed through backwards design.  Consequently, we were able to refine the menu of research questions and build in an open-ended choice option in which students could develop his/her own line of inquiry. The lens of backwards design also helped us determine that it was more important for the students to have starting point for research than to spend time developing search skills that were needed for this kind of research assignment.  While we agreed that developing search skills for using databases to find literary criticism essays was important, we both also felt that given the time constraints  Ms. Steed could not change, we wanted students to spend the bulk of their time actually reading the literary criticism, thinking deeply about those ideas and questioning, and then developing their own analysis and conclusions.  Consequently, we agreed that rather pushing the students into individual databases and having them wallow through the sea of information with no support, I would instead link students to saved searches (hooray for permalinks and bookmarks to saved searches in databases) that I had crafted with certain limiters to give them a meaningful and relevant range of results to browse and read.  While everyone might not agree with our approach, this strategy was one that would still give students the experience of using the databases yet have more time to fully immerse themselves in literary criticism essays.  Like Brian Mathews, I feel that it is more important for librarians to be “pedagogical” partners rather than info-pushers”.  You can see how I designed these springboards on the assignment LibGuide by clicking here.

(hat tip to Lauren Pressley for coining the phrase “meeting the learners at their point of need“–it is one I’ve embraced over the last few years!)

3.  Scaffold the Learning Experiences: while I prefer to do instruction face to face, I’m finding that doing so is not always possible in a school of 3600 students and 250+ faculty!  Since Jennifer (my wonderful fellow librarian here at NHS) and I were already committed to face to face instruction with other classes during Ms. Steed’s time frame for the research assignment, I knew they would need scaffolding not only in terms of resources but also through virtual instruction.  I made a checklist of all the kinds of mini-lessons, skills, and processes I would show in a face to face context;  I then proceeded to use our institutional Screencast-O-Matic subscription (which was super affordable) to record video lessons for all of those items on my list (thank you to my friends at ALAO for showing me this awesome tool earlier this year!).  Video topics included:  how to get to the research guide, how to navigate the guide, explanations of how to use the links to the saved searches for each database, and specific instructions for citing different sources in EasyBib; video tutorials were then embedded on the home tab as well as the video tutorial tab of the project LibGuide.   These embedded videos could be shown to the entire class by the teacher and viewed individually as needed by students; they were also helpful for students who might be absent on any given day.

4.  Assessment:  this is the one area that unfortunately, I’ve not yet had the opportunity to participate in although I’m hopeful I’ll be able to take more of an active role in this area since it’s one I feel is important for librarians.   However, in talking with Ms. Steed this week, she reported several positive outcomes as the students conclude their research papers:

  • Students liked the LibGuide and the organizational method we used.
  • Students loved having a starting point of articles yet the flexibility of choosing articles from within that range.
  • Students felt the linked search results helped them successfully choose a topic of interest to them and had the information they needed to develop their analysis.
  • One student reported how excited he was about his topic and how much he was actually enjoying reading literary criticism! (if you have worked with teens, you know this accomplishment is smile-worthy)
  • Through observation and in 1:1 conversations with students, Ms. Steed noted that students were engaging in a higher and more extensive degree of metacognition with the literary criticism essays; she felt the scaffolding strategies we had incorporated through the LibGuides page helped us achieve the goal of students dwelling in those texts and thinking more deliberately.

My hope is that this initial kind of instructional collaboration will lead to future work and design thinking that will help us, in the words of Kristin Fontichiaro, “nudge toward inquiry”and spark additional conversations about teaching and learning that will ultimately impact students in meaningful and positive ways.  By meeting learners–both teachers and students–at the point of need, we can nurture trust and build a climate that invites partnerships to help us identify challenges, wonder and ideate a range of solutions, implement those strategies, and learn from our experiences together.  Even when circumstances are not ideal, I do believe it is possible to open up entry points that can lead to more nuanced ideation, implementation, and assessment if we contextualize collaborative partnerships as a continuum of trust and relationship building, the anchors of libraries that embody participatory culture and learning.  Many thanks to Ms. Steed and her students for these first steps!

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