CU Boulder Symposium Keynote: Literacies for Every Season of Their Lives

Many thanks to my colleagues at UC Boulder for the opportunity to participate from afar in your symposium today! Thank you so much for inviting me to be part of your day of learning and sharing.

Links of Interest:

Designing Successful Learning Structures for Literature Circles with Sarah Rust


While literature circles are not a new concept, teachers are always looking for strategies to help students successfully interact and develop sustained conversations about texts.   If you are thinking about literature circles for any grade level or subject area, you will want to listen to my interview with Language Arts teacher Sarah Rust as she takes us through her planning and design process with students:

Sample Conversations:

Scenes from a Literature Circle Meeting in the NHS Learning Studio:






Scaffolding Student Presearch and Topic Ideas with Reading Frenzies

Photo by Sean O'Connor

Photo by Sean O’Connor

Like many of you, we’re always looking for ways to support students in their presearch processes.  Finding starting points for topic selection is often difficult for students, especially if they have little or no experience in choosing a topic.  In late March, we collaborated with Language Arts teacher Sean O’Connor and his freshmen classes to incorporate a blend of brainstorming/writing around topic ideas and a learning structure, Reading Frenzy, he learned earlier this year from Nancy Steineke at a workshop in New Orleans.   Like us, Sean is a big fan of the work that both Nancy and Harvey Daniels do with inquiry, literacy, and ways to facilitate conversations for learning.  Below is a video interview with Sean about the processes I have outlined below:

Sean kicked off their inquiry with having students write around motifs they had studied throughout their novel unit of To Kill a Mockingbird.  Students used our large blue post-it notes to brainstorm historical and current topics related to a motif of interest; they then moved about and posed questions and feedback to their peers using smaller post-it notes.

sean2 sean3 sean4


This activity was the springboard to the reading frenzy, a learning structure that is flexible and gives students opportunities to skim, scan, and discuss multiple texts in a set time period.    After we looked at the ideas students generated from the brainstorming/write-around activity, I pulled a wide range of articles related to their topics of interest from the web as well as our databases (Academic Search Complete, MAS Ultra Student Edition, various Gale databases) trying to include a variety of reading levels, publications/information sources, and perspectives on the issues and events.


Students passed around the articles and read them; they also discussed what they were reading with a neighboring buddy as something of interest got their attention.  As students began thinking about more specific topic ideas as they read the article, they requested additional articles, and I was able for the most part to either produce those on the demand to go or to provide them the following day in class for follow-up.  Other students who read an article that resonated with them requested I print additional copies, and I was more than happy to do this.  After the first class, I decided to make article categories to make it easier for the students to go directly to piles of articles of interest to them.


We love these structures because they support students who already have a topic idea as well as those who might be a little less certain about a topic interest.  It can also introduce new topics or more nuanced aspects of a topic to students.  This investment of time ensured students enhanced their understandings of the novel’s motifs and connections of that motif to contemporary as well as historical events.   This process also reinforced our efforts this year to really focus on helping teachers and students find ways to narrow or “crop” topic so that they can hopefully engage in deeper and more thoughtful inquiry.  We feel this entry point is a particularly effective way to scaffold students who may have little research experience OR more experience at “reporting” vs. researching (see the blog of my colleagues at Letting Go for more on this idea).  These activities prepared students to move forward strategically into presearch and to find articles on their own.  They have now narrowed and refined their topic and are composing their research design plans to Sean.  We are looking forward to seeing where they go from here with their research after our spring break as well as using the reading frenzy strategy with other classes!

Musical Book Tasting+Padlet: A Recipe for Participation


Last week, Jennifer Lund and I tried a new variation on our musical book tasting activity we piloted in January.  Our LSTCs, Hope Black and Logan Malm, wrote a grant for a set of Chromebooks for teachers and students to use with a focus on cloud based applications and resources.  After consultation with ESOL teacher Dr. Melinda Byrne, we decided to have students post to a class Padlet wall for their book tasting activity using the Chromebooks rather than the traditional paper ticket we had used with other classes.   Because these classes were a little smaller than what we usually see and because these classes had used Padlet in the classroom, we felt this would be a meaningful opportunity to use the Chromebooks with students; we were also curious to see how public responses to books during the book tasting might impact student interest and engagement.

When students arrived, we helped them log into the Chromebooks and the student wireless network.  We then helped them navigate to the LibGuide for our book tasting and the Padlets we had created for each class section.   Finally, we reviewed the procedures for the book responses on the Padlet and incorporated the See Think Wonder structure since these classes utilized it frequently as part of Dr. Byrne’s classroom instruction.   Our initial example response was in paragraph format, but after our first class, we realized that numbering responses made more since to align with the response directions we provided students and we adjusted our examples for the subsequent classes accordingly.

We then jumped into the activity with the same structure as before.   We noticed two big differences with this variation of book tasting:

1.  Students seemed to take more care with their responses since they were visible to peers as opposed to private with the paper “tickets” we used.   I’m always intrigued by the private/public (both positive and negative) aspects of student responses.

2.  Students seemed more focused on the reading during the “reading time” and not worried about trying to complete the responses.

Dr. Byrne shared these reflections on the activity with her four sections of classes:

This was such a fun day for our ESOL kids! Each student was able to “taste” a sample of several books during one class period and provide thoughts and comments about each book.

Padlet provides a great opportunity to publicly share the thoughts and ideas from EVERY student. Many times, reticent students are hesitant to speak aloud in class, but they are all comfortable responding electronically! This was a really unifying activity, and it allowed some our less vocal students to shine as brightly as those who are comfortable in the spotlight.

Incorporating the See-Think-Wonder MTV routine into the exploration process took the book tasting to a higher level.

The use of Chrome books was a fantastic way to ensure that all students were able to have a positive and engaging experience during the book tasting. Many of my students don’t have cell phones, so activities that incorporate individual cell phone responses alienate a portion of my student population. Using Chrome books allowed for full participation.


One of the terrific elements of Padlet is the ability to export the responses in multiple formats; whether you are using the Padlet responses as a formative or summative assessment, the ability to archive student work is a tremendous asset, particularly if you are looking at student growth over time.

The only challenge we encountered was with the log-in process with the Chromebooks.  Because we are not a Google Education school at this time, we are not able to do the simple one-step process.   The alternate procedure for logging in students and connecting them to the student wireless network, while not difficult, does involve several mouseclicks than can be potentially confusing for students, especially those new to the Chromebooks.  Aside from that, the Chromebooks worked beautifully, and we’re excited to explore other ways to utilize these as mediums for learning with our teachers and students.  A heartfelt thank you to Dr. Byrne and all her students for such a terrific day—their enthusiasm is truly energizing!  We also are grateful to our colleagues Hope and Logan for helping us facilitate the activity and their support of learning in multiple formats.

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.

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.