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.


The Possibilities and Challenges of a Participatory Learning Environment: Students and Teachers Speak

I’d like to share with you a conversation for learning I had this morning with fellow teacher Lisa Kennedy and two of her students.   Lisa and I have been contemplating the aspects of the inquiry driven, participatory learning classroom that students embrace as well as the pushback we’re seeing from students (which includes some Media 21 alum).   The backdrop of prior student learning experiences, extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation, pressures of standardized testing and choices students make about using class time are layers of this learning ecology that we’re trying to negotiate as Lisa and fellow 1:1 netbook pilot program teacher Cleve Ard work through the tensions of shifting from a teacher centered classroom to a student centered focus.   The range of reactions to this model of learning from Lisa’s students mirror what Susan Lester and I have observed for the last two years:  a continuum of responses ranging from pure jubilation and a sense of feeling empowered and liberated to intense resistance.  In terms of student responses that are a pushback to this model of learning,  Lisa sees similar themes or motifs of student response that Susan and I witnessed, particularly during the 2010-11 academic year:

  • some students desire to be “spoon fed” knowledge rather than actively constructing it
  • some students expect  the classroom is the only site of learning and do not desire to engage in learning outside of the school day
  • some students privilege  classic literature over nonfiction texts (online and in print—memoirs, biography, journals, magazines, newspapers) as what counts as “real” reading and are concerned they aren’t reading “what we’re supposed to be reading” in an Honors or AP course.

For the last two years in my work with teachers like Lisa Kennedy and Susan Lester (Media21), I’ve been immersing myself in the discourse of a participatory learning ecology (and by default, the library as a site of participatory culture). In the last year or so, I’ve really started thinking critically about some of the pushback we’ve seen from students who are struggling with this model of learning and the reasons for that pushback—what are the stories behind this and what do they tell us about the bigger picture of the dynamics of education and learning in an educational culture driven by standardized testing and standards? Consequently, I’m wondering how do we effectively think about the challenges inherent in these narratives and the complexity of the layers we’re trying to peel back.  In the next couple of months, I’m hoping to look more closely at this challenges through the theoretical lens of scholars like Bakhtin as well as other critical theorists to hopefully have a better understanding of what I’m observing and to be a better teacher and practitioner; I also hope to draw on this to more thoughtfully contemplate how a model of participatory learning informs my conceptualization of “library.”  All of these wonderings reflect how I’ve become increasingly immersed in my role as learning specialist at my school.

In the meantime, I hope you’ll take time to watch this 18 minute video and listen closely to the ideas, concerns, and reflections, especially as they relate to matching learning tasks and assessments, the importance of failure, trust (or lack thereof) in a learning community, social/collaborative building of knowledge and meaning, ownership of learning, and inquiry.  A heartfelt thank you to Ms. Lisa Kennedy and her students for their honesty, constructive feedback, and willingness to share their thinking in such a public way and to help push our thinking.


Fontichiaro, K. (2009). Nudging toward Inquiry: Re-envisioning Existing Research Projects. School Library     Monthly26(1), 17-19.

Students Creating Content with Multigenre Learning Artifacts

Helene Blowers inspired me to think about a greater focus on content creation by patrons (in my case, students) at this summer’s GALILEO Gold Conference. As an English teacher for our district’s summer school program in June 2008, I enjoyed implementing a multigenre research project in which students created alternative learning artifacts in conjunction with a traditional paper to represent their key insights and ideas learned through their research experience.    You can read more about my initial efforts in these posts from 2008 (post 1, post 2,).   This past summer, I worked in our summer school program as one of the school librarians and was struck by how many of my previous students came by to say hello and to share how much they had enjoyed the multigenre aspect of the reserach project a year earlier—no small feat, obviously, for a learning experience to impress a teen to that degree!  I knew then that this multigenre work would need to resurface in the  fall as an integral part of my Media 21 project.  To learn more about the multigenre concept, please see my resource page I created earlier this year.

As part of their research and learning portfolios for their Issues in Africa research project, Ms. Lester and I asked students to create five multigenre learning artifacts that reflected a representation of information that stood out to them from either the reading of their book or their actual research.   The options included:

Here are some student reactions and thoughts on the multigenre aspect of the research experience:

from Maida:

I think that I learned more through multigenre projects compared to others.

from Danielle:

I have truly enjoyed the multi-genre project that we recently started. I think it is a good project because it forces me to look at the book from yet another point of view. It is almost as if I am putting myself in the characters’ shoes and telling their story.

from Zach:

The multigenre part of our research project has been my favorite activity from this year so far.  These multigenre elements have given me a new perspective of the events that are described in the book such as genocide and the lost boys.  I love being able to show my creativity while telling the story of the lost boys.

from Alex:

To be honest, I think that I am enjoying the multigenre projects for my research portfolio web site more than anything else.  I think that this portion of the project is my favorite because I could choose from a large list of projects.  I feel like I am more in charge of the multigenre aspect of this project than any other part that I have done.  I really enjoy the fact that I get to be more creative and let my personality come out in the multigenre project.  I like that artistic people can benefit from some of the multigenre elements, and people that like to write can also benefit from some of the multigenre elements.  Personally, I am enjoying both the writing part and the artistic part of this project.

We have seen some terrific representations of students’ interpretations of information and understandings, include original artwork, Glogsters, videos, poems, creative forms of writing, and even bulletin boards.  One artifact, though, that has really stood out to me is Betty’s “two voice poem” based on her reading of the novel Chanda’s Secrets and her research on AIDS.  Betty, who has given me permission to post her two voice poem here, has created a powerful snapshot of her thinking:

This kind of work has me thinking about several ideas and areas of inquiry:

  • What are ways to help students promote and publish their work outside of their Google Site and Slideshare portfolios?  Or to somehow catalog and promote their portfolios through our virtual and physical library space? How might student work become a new part of the library collection? How would this move fit into my framework of participatory librarianship?  Right now I’m thinking about ways to build a virtual student collection of work that could integrated into my catalog—suggestions are welcomed!—and ways to also promote this new part of our collection.
  • What are other possibilities for the multigenre menu that would speak to my efforts to posit transliteracy as a mainstream literacy?
  • How might a greater emphasis on content creation engage students in research and information fluency?

Imagine: The End of Multiple Citation Styles

William Gunn posed one of the most intriguing questions I have seen in some time:

I readily admit to feeling a sense of elation and relief at the thought of one uniform citation style instead of the current maze of style manuals we are often forced to negotiate.  What do you think?  What would be the pros and cons of such a simple yet bold move?  How might the simplification of citation style impact student research?   I invite you to contribute to the conversation at FriendFeed and/or here on my blog.