Sunday, January 29, 2012

Stepping Up Our Game: School Libraries and Self Assessment

Sometimes I wonder why I still subscribe to so many professional journals.  It's not that the quality of these publications has diminished so much, it's just that the time I have to actually read them has!  Every month, a pile of new professional reading lands in my mailbox and every month I add it to the stack from the month before.  And yet, I can't bring myself to cancel these subscriptions.  When that elusive free time does present itself, I still love thumbing through the glossy pages, adorning each issue with a rainbow of sticky notes, while lovingly annotating the margins of particularly meaningful articles with scrawled notes and reminders.  Perhaps I am showing my age with this confession.  [old curmudgeon voice] Indeed, I can't wait to hear future generations of school librarians wax nostalgic when remembering how quaint it was to highlight text on the first generation iPad. [/old curmudgeon voice]  *sigh*

But I digress.

My faith in these subscriptions, however, was renewed a week or so ago during the 16 hours (but that's a whole other story) I spent trying to get home from ALA Midwinter.  I'm not a good traveler.  Don't get me wrong, I love visiting new places, I just hate the travel from point A to point B.  I discovered recently, however, that long flights (and even longer layovers) are the perfect time to catch up on the pile of professional reading I was complaining about just a paragraph ago.  So now, whenever I go on a trip, I grab a pile of neglected professional publications to dive into somewhere between taxi and touchdown.  It's the proverbial win-win.

Anyway, it was during this recent trip that I finally explored the December issue of School Library Monthly where I ran across an article on the school librarian's role in closing the achievement gap for African American males.  For me, this was an incredibly powerful read, not only because it highlights the fundamental truth that school librarians MUST care about the same things that all other teachers care about, but it also provides a model that can be used by teacher librarians to support the literacy needs of the African American males they serve.  What's more the same model can also be used as a self-assessment tool by teacher librarians who already understand and view their programs as essential components in the school's efforts to serve these students.

Note:  I REALLY wish I could find a copy of the entire article online.  However the model, outlined by Sandra Hughes-Hassell and Casey H.Rawson is composed of three successive levels, or approaches, of school librarian involvement: the Additive, Transformative, and Social Action Approaches.  I like these levels because they provide me with a clear benchmark with which to compare my own efforts.

Let's be honest, this is the level where most libraries start and stop what are likely good faith efforts to support programs targeting struggling learners.  We create displays during ___________ (Black History, Autism Awareness, Etc) Month and make sure that all of our reading lists contain some high interest/low reading level texts.  But then we stop.  This doesn't make us bad people.  But it does make our work less impactful than it could/should be.

Again, let me be frank.  Prior to reading this article, I felt pretty good about my program and its role in impacting the learning of my school's most at risk populations.  However, now I'm pretty sure this is where my  efforts land.  I definitely involve students in the selection process and create opportunities for discussion that go beyond the stand alone displays, but I can't boast much more than that.  Again, that doesn't make me a bad person.  What it makes me is eager to step up my game!

Now at this point, I've got to confess two things:  first, I don't know many libraries that are at this level and second, I strongly believe that the true value of this model is that it can be applied to student populations other than that of African American males.

One of the things I find myself saying over and over again is that in order to BE viewed as indispensable members of our learning communities, we must find ways to be the answer to the problems that keep our principals, fellow teachers and (hopefully) ourselves up at night.  (I stole this line from Deb Logan, by the way).   It may be that your school's focus is on closing the achievement gap for African American males - but it may also be that the students who need the most focused attention this year are English Language Learners or those with IEPs.  No matter what group of kids needs us the most this year, we must find and (if necessary) create ways to assess our efforts and THEN be reflective enough in our practice to act on those results.   Too often, we wait until the end of the year to place our work under the microscope - and then it's too late.

For most of us, January marks the half way point of this academic year - a time for buckling down and (re)resolving to actually do many of the things we promised ourselves (and our kids) back in August.  But I think it's also the perfect time to scrutinize the work we've done so far.  Instead of waiting for the annual report, (which will be here before we know it), I challenge you to a) consider which group of students at your school is in the most need of what you and your library can provide and then b) find or create a way to assess your efforts to be the difference for those very kids.  I know... I know... it can be a hard pill to swallow, but ultimately this process is incredibly empowering.   Whether it's this model or something else you've either run across or created, holding our programs up to the mirror of scrutiny may not leave us thrilled with what we see, but it will strengthen the impact we have on kids - which is, after all, what it's all about.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Snapshot of a 21st Century Library Program

On Thursday, I have the privilege of sharing some of the things happening in my library with about 60 school librarians and tech facilitators from all around southeastern North Carolina.  I love these kinds of things - mostly because it's a wonderful and rare opportunity to connect, face to face, with some of my counterparts.  Even so, when I was asked to present a "snapshot" of the kinds of stuff that keeps me on my toes on a day to day basis, I struggled with how to organize my thoughts.  On any given day, there's lots going on at my busy, suburban school, but having sat through too many disorganized and woefully irrelevant staff development sessions over the years, I wanted to make sure my thoughts were not only coherent, but also meaningful.

Also weighing heavily on my mind was a recent discussion I'd had with a group of teachers at my school about the formal ways in which teachers are evaluated.  It seems like our country is at a crossroads when it comes to how teachers are not simply assessed, but also viewed.  After a year full of extremes, (both in rhetoric and policy), I'm looking forward to (what I hope will be) the inevitable voice of reason: one that puts students first and agendas, politics and money second.  (I know... I know... but a girl can dream, right?) 

Anyway, all of this got me thinking about how school librarians are evaluated, or more specifically, what people expect from us.  I've written many times before about how I feel one of the major problems facing our profession is that of "terminally low expectations" that, sadly, some of our colleagues live up (or should I say down?!) to.  For a long time, school librarians have flown under the radar - a nebulous position:  clouded by the specters of stereotypes and camouflage by the knowledge that absolutely no one else in the building has a clue what we're supposed to be doing.  Truth be told, there are still plenty of teachers and, worse yet, administrators who don't know quite what to think of or expect from us.  What's more, while some librarians have thrived in this environment - others have taken advantage of a situation in which little was expected and, thus, little was delivered.  

It's unfortunate that it took the near collapse of our economy to make people take a closer look at school libraries and their impact on student learning. (And by closer look, I mean in some cases a complete decimation of existing programs and staff). Clearly, I believe in the work I do and know that a quality library program can have a tremendous impact on a student as a reader, thinker and creator.  However, not everyone believes this or has even witnessed it.  Therefore, it's up to us to shine a light on the good and important work we do: the work that directly impacts kids and furthers the learning goals of our schools - to reboot the concept of library and change what people expect from school librarians.

And thus, I found the lens through which I wanted to share my programs with my colleagues.  

So... I dusted off my "Librarians Are Ready" flyer and began plugging in some examples of how my library lives up to the expectations I espouse.  Honestly, even if Thursday's presentation didn't happen, this has been a good exercise in self-assessment for me.  By examining the qualities of a "21st Century School Librarian" and trying to find concrete examples of how I fulfill them, I was forced to a) evaluate the merits of much of what I do, b) face the gaps in my work and c) think about how to fill them.  All in all, a very valuable exercise.  What's more, it's one I hope to replicate in my presentation.

Rather than just stand up there and say "oooooooh! look at me!"  I hope my colleagues will spend some time thinking about their own programs and, in the process, discover some examples of how they are raising the bar for the rest of us AND maybe even leave with a few ideas.  

*fingers crossed*

In the meantime, here's the Prezi I'll be sharing with my new friends on Thursday.  As always, anything here is licensed under Creative Commons - so please feel free to use, share and change this as you see fit.  

Thursday, January 5, 2012

From Tech Trend to Teaching Tool: Taking the QR Code Plunge!

This post is a shout out to a group of fantastic teacher librarians who are “lunching and learning” this Friday in Fayetteville, NC.  Because I couldn’t be there in person (or virtually, for that matter) to share in the fun, I promised I’d put together a post about my use of QR Codes in the library for those in the group who are QR curious.  I know these fantastic ladies (and gents!) are going to have a great time today learning and sharing together.  What’s more, I’m thrilled that I can be a part of the experience in this way. (Thanks, Julian, for inviting me!)   So… let’s get started.

What are QR Codes?
First, some basics:  Even if you’re not familiar with the term QR Code, chances are you’ve seen these funky, pixelated squares popping up all over the place!  Technically, a QR (or Quick Response) Code is a 2 dimensional barcode that, when scanned, links the user to additional information.  Often this is a website, but can also be a text document, an image, video or audio file – the sky is the really the limit.  If it can be hosted online, it can be linked to via a QR Code.

Where do QR Codes fit into the library?
I know what you're thinking.  So what?  Well, as I’ve written before, I was something of a QR Code skeptic when they were first brought to my attention too.  To begin with, I struggled with how to make such things work in my school – where we are decidedly lacking in handheld devices and where students are not allowed to use their own smart phones during the instructional day. More importantly, however, while I couldn’t deny the QR Code’s inherent “cool factor,” the link between these 2 dimensional barcodes and student learning seemed fuzzy at best. I’ve written more extensively about what changed my mind here, but for now, let me share a few examples of how I am using QR codes in my library and/or how others are using them effectively in their corners of libraryland.

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QR Codes as Book Barcode Bling:  Books all over my library are adorned with QR codes that link to all sorts of stuff:  book reviews (mine and students), book trailers, author interviews, student projects and countless other web resources that either help pique a student’s interest in the book or extend their learning once hooked.  Kids LOVE scanning the QR Code on a book and checking out the related information. What's more, they love suggesting websites for future QR codes.  Truly, as I've said before, the first time I saw a group of students huddled around the computer taking a 360’ tour of the Sistine Chapel that was linked (via QR Code) to a book on Michelangelo, (which they then fought to check out), I knew I’d hit on something big.

QR Codes As a Means of Updating Outdated Library Materials:  I don’t know about you, but each year I struggle with the fact that I have no money to replace out of date non-fiction resources. This year, however, I’m using QR Codes to update out of date books.  I’ve written more extensively about this project here, but essentially, I’ve partnered with social studies and science teachers to link student created projects on specific topics, to QR Codes.  The students then help me find spots in our print resources that contain outdated information - once a spot is located (and believe me, there are plenty to choose from), we affix a QR Code that, when scanned, brings the student to new, better and updated info.  Within just a few minutes, an outdated print dinosaur is transformed into an up to date, INTERACTIVE book.  Amazing! 

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QR Code Library Scavenger Hunts:  My BFF and mentor, Gwyneth Jones (TheDaring Librarian!) has written about her use of QR Codes as part of a libraryscavenger hunt – particularly with students with special needs or for English Language Learners.  As Gwnyneth writes, QR Codes provide a visual clue and context for students as they explore library resources – not only does this help those students who might need a little extra scaffolding, but also, these visual connections make it more likely that ALL students will remember what they’ve learned through the lesson.  I love it!

QR Codes as Library Marketing/Parent Contact:
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Once again, this is Gwyneth’s idea, but I think it’s so great that I'm thrilled to shamelessly share it with you.  In this instance, Gwyneth created a QR Code tree and posted it outside the library just in time for back to school night at her school.  Parents are the target audience here, but anyone walking by with a smartphone can scan one of the codes on her tree and be taken to a website related to the library!  It's difficult to see in the photo I stole from her blog, but if you visit her post, (as you should), you'll see that each QR Code links to a different library resource: the library website, its facebook page, twitter feed, etc. As Gwyneth writes, it’s a great way to hook those parents who don’t necessarily want to stop by the library on open house night, but who, with a quick scan, can be instantly connected with the library's resources.  Genius!

HOW Do I Get Started?
Our QR Code Station!
A few posts back I shared what the answers to what I called  “QR Code FAQs.”  The answers to these questions provide you with specific steps for generating QR codes and setting up a QR code station if, like me, you are making magic at a school that has yet to join the wireless world or that has no handheld devices.  I would also suggest checking out Gwyneth’s comic tutorial on creating QR Codes.  She and I use different code generators, but the idea is the same and her tutorials are  always fantastic!  The important thing to note here, however, is that you don’t have to be working in a school this side of The Matrix to make QR codes work for you and your students.   Trust me, if I can do it, you can.  Where’s there’s a will, there’s a way!

Taking the First Step:
Although I’m sure none of you are old enough to remember them, (cough!) the marriage of QR Codes and libraries always reminds of those fantastic commercials from the 1980s for Reeses Peanut Butter Cups - in which unsuspecting peanut butter and chocolate lovers would accidently bump into each other on the street or in the roller rink, (seriously, who walks down the street, never mind roller skates, eating peanut butter out of a jar??), only to discover the genius of combining these two individually remarkable ingredients.  Just as unlikely a pairing, might be the library and the QR Code, (an  idea that was originally conceived by Toyota to help track vehicles on their assembly line).  And yet, when put together, what a tasty mash-up they make!  That said, the best way to get started, I think, is to spend some time thinking about the potential for QR Code mashups in your library.  For example... 
  • Think about your online bookmarks.  What resources have you been saving as favorites or to Diigo in the hopes that someday you’d get to share them with students/teachers?  How often do you email a fantastic resource to teachers only to get, if you're lucky, a trickle of response? Is there a way that you can connect these resources to a QR code?  And then, what’s the most impactful and effective way to make those codes available to your kids?
  • Think about your collection.  Are there resources in your library that could be updated through the use of a QR code?  Are there some old texts collecting dust in your non-fiction that COULD be relevant again if linked to an updated map, atlas or other information?  Have you found a book on a social issue that only presents one side of the story?  How could your students benefit if an alternate view was, literally, just a scan away?  What about your books on Careers?  Do they really contain info that will help prepare our students for the jobs of the future? How might a strategically placed QR Code transform these outdated texts into updated resources?
  •  Think about your students’ use of your library.  Are they getting the most out of its resources?  Do they really *know* how to find things in your carefully and lovingly curated collection?  How could you use a QR code scavenger hunt, like Gwyneth’s, to really CONNECT your students to their library??  Also, how could QR Codes make the library more fun?  I’ve got several QR Codes linking to THIS hidden in my non-fiction!  I'm not sure what they're learning from this scan, but I know it's a whole lotta fun!
  • Think about how you spread the gospel of library.  Are YOU the only one visiting your library’s website?  How do you currently get information about library programs and resources to parents, teachers, administrators and students?  Is there a better and more effective way to bring your message to the masses by using QR Codes?
  • And most importantly, think about your students’ needs.  What are the issues facing your kids that keep your principal, fellow teachers and (hopefully!) you up at night?  I’ve know doubt that your library collection and programs are designed to be the answer to those questions.  Even so, is there a way that QR Codes can help you effect more change for your students and school?  If so, I hope these resources will give you the tools you need to get started, but if you have more questions, feel free to drop me a note at jennifer-at-librarygirl-dot-net.  I'll do my best to fill in the gaps.
In the meantime, everything I post on this blog is licensed under Creative Commons, so if you want to snag the QR Code Flyer I created or use my bookmarks to solicit student suggested QR Codes, please feel free to do so.  What's mine is yours.

Have fun and happy learning!