Mucking Around in the Questions: Libraries and Critical Literacy

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“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.


New DML Post: Narratives and Metanarratives of Libraries as Sponsors of Literacies

I have authored a new post that is part of a larger ongoing series I’m composing and researching for DMLCentral.  In this second post, I do some additional foregrounding of inquiry and reflection that will inform research and exploration of how this concept plays out in different kinds of libraries and communities.  These concepts and the fieldwork I hope to do resonate deeply for me, and I hope they will for you, too.

Thinking, Wondering, and Blogging at DMLcentral

I’m delighted to share that I have joined the blog team at DMLcentral-–I’m humbled and honored to write and think in this learning space as so many people who are part of the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub have inspired my work and pushed the boundaries of my thinking.  My first post, “Literacies and Fallacies“,  is now up if you would like to read the first of what will be a series.  If DMLcentral is not already one of the resources in your learning network, I hope you’ll consider adding this collaborative blog and curated collection of free and open resources that will offer you multiple perspectives, research, and and provocative ideas to contextualize your thinking about learning environments, ecosystems, and the dynamics that inform them.

“Teens and the Future of Libraries: Sharing Best Practices” Webinar Archives and My Questions for Thinking


Today I was part of the panel for the final webinar, “Teens and the Future of Libraries:  Sharing Best Practices,” in the collaborative month long series of conversations about  Teens and the Future of Libraries facilitated by YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) and Connected Learning TV, an initiative of the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub.

A Google Document with highlights from today’s conversation as well as a PDF of the Livestream Chat transcript will be available soon on the webinar page.  You can also watch the video archive of today’s panel discussion by clicking here.  I’m including below some of my talking points I included at the beginning of the conversation as well as a few that didn’t make the panel discussion but that relate to the larger conversation.

Many thanks to Jon Barilone, the “glue” who brings everything together, all the panelists and our host Jack Martin, and everyone who participated in the chat and/or Twitter conversation.

My Thinking and Wondering Aloud

I’d like to begin framing my thoughts and questions with a short story about something I observed last week.  Last week marked the beginning of the filming of Captain America 2 here in downtown Cleveland.  While I had heard a good bit of buzz and excitement about the filming and knew they would be shooting right behind our library, I was not particularly pumped up since I’m not into action/adventure movies.  However, I found myself more than fascinated and intrigued by what I saw once the filming began.  I was amazed at the army of people it took to make just one small filming sequence happen as well as the diversity of their talents.  I also noted they would shoot the same film sequence over and over–sometimes from the seemingly exact same angle, but at other times, from a completely different vantage point.  Assorted cameras and equipment were used to capture the shots from as many perspectives as possible.  By the end of the week, I found myself wanting to be an embedded librarian on a movie set!

You might be wondering what the filming of Captain America 2 has to do with libraries.  Much like our work as a profession at large–a bigger team of different members (as librarians, mentors, teens/patrons/communities we serve, our teens) all inform the bigger conversation with multiple perspectives as we explore questions/themes and add to this story of learning and libraries.  As I think about what practices of impact look like in libraries trying to embrace a model of connected learning, I find it helpful to take an inquiry stance on digital literacy and to look at our work through a lens of participatory learning and culture.  As I look back over the conversations from the webinars over the last month and my own thinking about my work as a librarian, four sets of emerging questions emerge for me:

1.  What theoretical frameworks/lenses are we using to contextualize our work to inform our understanding of connected learning model and to go deeper with our conceptualization?   A lens of critical literacy (Freire, Bakhtin, bell hooks/ work of people like Lisa Delpit, Deborah Brandt, Shirley Brice Heath)  can help us think more about alternative interpretations what we see in our libraries.   When we think about teens leveraging social media for learning, civic engagement, building online identity/digital footprint, cultural capital—-how do we do so in a way that is reflective and looks at our work from multiple angles?  What are the social/cultural/dialogic threads to explore, and how do we identify them and pull those for closer examination?  What blind spots might we have as public youth librarians and school librarians?  What trends/patterns do we see in our learning communities that inform the ways digital literacy is accessed and leveraged across multiple boundaries/spaces of learning/work/play for teens?  What is visible?  What is not?  What are the gaps?  How do we make the invisible more visible?  Who is absent and why?  How do we better engage our communities at large as what Chris Brogan calls “trust agents”?  Who else can help us?  I worry that certain forms of discourse in the narrative of libraries and learning may get privileged and that others may be excluded if we don’t utilize a lens of critical literacy to help interpret the practices and structures of power.

I’m also wondering how we might engage a little more intentionally about the skills and processes we cultivate related to academic interests/needs.  The work of academic and school library colleagues inform my thinking about this piece of the puzzle as well as work by people like Wendy Drexler and her researched on networked students as learners.  I’d like for our conversations to move toward more specific processes such as appropriation, distributed cognition, collective intelligence, judgment and evaluation, negotiation, and transmedia navigation and how we help learners leverage those processes in other contexts to sustain and grow their capacity to cultivate “playful” practices of creation, circulation, collaboration, and connecting and what those processes look like in participatory learning enviornements.

2.  What are our guiding pedagogical frameworks?  Learning outcomes?  Tools/strategies for assessing impact?  Qualitative/quantitative data? How do we keep learning (formal, informal) and people/human interaction/relationships at the center of what we do rather than becoming fixated on social media tools themselves; how do we better explore the ways they can either amplify learning opportunities OR how they may limit learning opportunities for others? What is empowering for one may not be for another–choices are important.

3.  Access is a starting point on a continuum but we must go beyond this starting point.  Issues of access may include:  A.  equity issues to content and learning opps as Mimi Ito has documented  as well as access to mentors/librarians/learning opportunities to grow capacity to utilize social media in ways that can help them (geographic barrier, funding issues for staffing and infrastructure, lack of innovative culture)  B.  filtered material, particularly in schools and the resistance teachers and librarians often get from IT directors who have more conservative interpretations of what CIPA and similar mandates require C.  access to a culture of learning that values and invites participation/provides opps for participation, collaborative knowledge building, multiple ways of knowing and participating.  These issues are happening against a backdrop of thinking about digital literacy in the context of Shirley Brice Heath’s work and that of others whose work reflects themes of critical literacy that showed how literacy is acquired, utilized, leveraged–how does the culture of the community impact opportunities for digital literacy?  How are those opportunities informed by economic, geographic factors AND community cultural discourse?  What gets valued? What gets discounted?

4.  Networking:  when we talk about cultviating networked learners (of any age), I think it’s hard to model that authentically if we don’t hone that capacity within ourselves.  I’m thinking about networking in three primary ways right now:

  • With our immediate communities (our colleagues, our community, our patrons)
  • As a profession, how might we think of ourselves as a larger learning community that is less siloed, and how might we cultivate more awareness of services/programming/educational opportunities  offered by our colleagues across different kinds of library spaces/types?   Who else has expertise we should tune into  and how are enlisting their help in this work we are doing?  How do we as professionals grow our own participatory literacy to be lifelong AND networked learners and more effective (and reflective) practitioners as well as leaders/ contributors to a culture of innovation in our library community?  How do position ourselves as co-learners with our teens, faculty, community mentors?    How do we nurture our colleagues at all points on the learning continuum? 
  • Partnerships between public and school librarians–how do we get beyond low hanging fruit (library cards, collection related aspects) to more fundamental partnerships to support common learning outcomes?  How are we supporting classroom teachers?  We both bring different kinds of expertise about learning and pedagogy to table–how do we harness and co-locate our expertise, translate that into action for our teens?  How do we acknowledge and honor differences in learning spaces without creating a binary or dichotomy that can be counterproductive to our collective work?

The roles of librarians are being remixed and re-interpreted by these challenges, issues, and lines of questions; in addition, the work we do will be more organic and strategic if we have the humility to truly listen to those we serve and engage in conversations.   Consequently, I think it is important that we acknowledge and honor the discomfort that often comes with the messiness of change.   As we forge forward (wherever we may be on the continuum) and think about innovation, I think adopting a discursive cycle of ideation, building and implementation, ongoing assessment, and reflection dovetails with the idea that theory informs practice and practice informs theory.   Looking at our work through these lenses and seeing ourselves as co-learners can help us be more inclusive in interpreting what we see (or don’t see) in our work and to better embrace these challenges as points of possibility.