Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Indispensable Librarian: Michelle Luhtala

I mentioned a few posts back that I had a wonderful opportunity to spend a few hours with Michelle Luhtala, winner of ALA's 2010 Library Program of the Year Award. She generously shared information about her program, and allowed me to do a quick interview with her on making libraries relevant for the digital age. I certainly learned a lot from her; I hope you will, too.
The transcript is below.

JH: The big thing in library circles these days is all the layoffs, districts thinking an aide can do our job. How can we help the public understand our relevance, because I don’t think we’re doing a very good job of that.

ML:  You’re right, and I think there are several things we can do.
First, if you are indispensable to the faculty, that definitely helps and pushes collaboration to the forefront of our role. Sara Kelly-Johns says our role as information specialists is being pushed down the hierarchy of our job description and our role as instructional partner is being pushed up.

Professional development is also where we really need to shine. If we are perceived as leaders in our districts on the PD front, if we’re on the schedule and we’re on the agenda, it helps us gain visibility in terms of “Oh, wow, this person is really an expert,” and that is a great thing. We should be on curriculum development committees and across the curriculum--we have opportunities in all the disciplines because we work with all kids and all teachers, with opportunities to embed technology and information literacy across the curriculum.

We must embrace our role as 21st century educators and embed 21st century curriculum across the board. In our district we’re very aware of the need to engage students not only as learners, but as collaborators and contributors to knowledge, to democratize the process of almost demote teachers in their roles as educators to facilitator, so that kids learn by doing.

It’s also really important that we not lose sight of our role as reading specialists, with, again, that same paradigm shift. Engaging students as contributors to the book selection process and democratizing the selection process is very important. We have so many technologies out there--BookShare, Facebook, VoiceThread--and if you use those tools you can really engage learners to not only participate in the booktalking process, but to be able to do it regardless of assigned face time with those kids. They can do it independently; you can continue your booktalking and reading throughout the summer months, because you can step back from the process and let it happen. If students are included in the selection process, they’re far more likely to participate and continue that discussion.

Finally, we need to be more aggressive in providing evidence for the impact of our instruction. Because we don’t have assigned class time, it’s hard for us to collect data from students, but because of emerging technologies, we have a plethora of opportunities and resources to be able to start doing that. We have access to students via email, Google Forms, polling with Poll Everywhere.

Even kids who don’t have access to internet outside school have cell phones, so if you pose a question, just text a number and your answer, yes or no. It feeds into a spreadsheet and you have collected data. We have so many tools to collect data that take very little time. All we need is imagination and curiosity. Also, read blogs, articles....we come up with solutions all the times just by listening to people. (laughs) A degree of selfishness helps--”How can I use that for me?” is a really good question to ask. Also, we don’t have to be experts in a certain technology before we try it and launch it. That’s going to push us into 21st century leaning.

JH:  You mentioned we need to embed ourselves in the curriculum and the schools. What are some specific ways you’ve done that?

ML:  One of the most effective ways we’ve done this is to use an online course platform [e.g. Moodle] for the library program. Two years into the process, we now have over 200 documented lessons for projects across the disciplines in our school. The first year was labor intensive, but the second year was enhancement and as we go they just keep getting better and better.

We have a block for each project, with associated resources and the actual assignment; we have suggestions for using the public library, our own resources, which search terms might be advisable, how to collect resources in a way that works best for this project, tips on tech glitches they may run into along the way. The beauty of this is, if twelve kids come up saying, “Hey, I’m having problems with blah, blah, blah,” put the answer on the Moodle and all kids can consult that.

By using Moodle in this way (I’m saying Moodle because that’s what we use, but there are other tools out there), we’re modeling for teachers how to use this technology in a way to really improve instruction. It’s been instrumental in terms of building collaboration. Teachers can see others’ work, so it has standardized instruction in a good way that helps students succeed. It doesn’t minimize the individual touches teachers add to their projects, but it does allow a certain uniformity. It also standardizes our library instruction--if we have 12 sections of history, chances are I may deliver instruction in a different way for the classes. But with this they all have the same set of resources, and it’s complementing and supporting the students. It also differentiates, because it provides extensions for the high achievers and allows reinforcement for the lower performing students.

JH:  Again, you mentioned involving students and democratizing the library. How have you done that in your library?

ML:  Two words: participatory tools.

The online booktalking has definitely part of it. (You can see the NCHS library VoiceThread booktalks here). We also have an advisory board of students. They advise us on things like, “How do we want to handle silence during exam study periods?” Usually they come up with pretty sound solutions. We lean on them as resident experts; they can help out with technology. We recently surveyed the students and use the advisory board as ambassadors to get the students to actually take the survey. We told them “If you tell 15 kids, and they each tell 3 kids, we will have had some reach.” It was the second to last week of school, we got 140 kids to fill out a long, 15 minute survey. Out of 1300 kids during exam week, that’s pretty good!

Also, forums. Anything that’s participatory online really, really helps. Using photos, videos of them doing stuff...they are THE most narcissistic age group out there, so anything that involves showing them, featuring them, show-casing them, gets them to participate. Very often we’ll just walk around, take pictures, and put them on our Facebook page. That generates buy in, builds a conversation, and we can use their narcissism and exploit it to engage them.

JH:  Now, you say “Facebook” to a teacher or school librarian, and most people’s immediate response to that is “It’s blocked.” Do you encourage librarians to take on that battle to unblock these technologies?

ML:  Yes, absolutely. I think it’s very important. Administrators, in many cases (not ours...we have very visionary leaders) need to understand the importance of teaching sound practice, teaching that social networking tools can be used for productivity, not just collaboration and networking. There’s a productivity factor to these technologies that is completely under-utilized.

The thing about this digital generation is that they’re free with information disclosure in a way that really creeps out the older generation. Those of us who’ve read Orwell are like, “Oh, my God, are you NUTS?” They’re really free with that in a way that puts them at risk sometimes, so it’s absolutely part of our 21st century responsibility to impart instruction on how to manage your profile online. It also raises the bar in terms of accountability. (laughs) They’re much more reticent about sharing their latest red cup extravaganza on Facebook if they know they’re going to be using Facebook in classes. So if they have access in school, they suddenly have to be a little bit more accountable.

Does it invite bullying? I don’t think it invites any more than they are faced with now. Email can be used for bullying. Are they more active on Facebook? Yeah, they like it better. (laughs) But maybe they’ll like it a little less if we use it for school and that might not be a bad thing!

[There are teachers who] don’t WANT the school to infiltrate kids’ social life. One of the things we’re learning with emerging technologies is we’re all having a hard time drawing the line between our personal and professional lives. If we want to be efficient, sometimes it’s easier to check our email all in one place and not keep them separate. That’s part of the process of being a 21st century human being--you need to be able to compartmentalize in your own head what is personal and what is professional, and if they happen to be delivered on the same platform, that’s not sacrilege. That’s just functionality.

JH:  I read an article somewhere a while ago making the case that we should definitely be teaching these technologies, but we should use education-specific apps, such as Edmodo or something similar, rather than Facebook, because if you separate the academic from the social, it puts students into a different, more analytical mindset, rather than merging with where they hang out socially. What are your thoughts on that?

ML:  I can see a point there, but I also really value the skills they’re learning in their social Facebook world. I want them to feel the same skills they’re learning in that world can absolutely cross over into their academics. How many times has a librarian gone into a class and taught them a skill, then gone into another class with the same exact students, and watched them going back to the way they did it before you taught them, because it’s a different class? Kids don’t necessarily make the leap. What’s working here, they know how to do this here, but then they change environments and they don’t think those skills apply to the other situation.

I LOVE the way they’re thinking in Facebook--it’s one of the reasons I love Facebook. In Facebook they tag pictures, they upload pictures on a weekly, if not daily basis. They change their statuses four times a week, they network with friends, talk to friends, they contribute to knowledge, they inform other people about stuff that is going on. They don’t do that in school. The reason I like going into their tools, into infiltrating that world, is because I want them to use those skills in school. Not enough teachers are getting them to do that, and it’s our job as librarians to bring them into that 21st century thinking.

JH:  These are great ideas for drawing in students. How do you draw in the wider community-- parents, for example? Is that something you work on?

ML:  I think it depends on your district, your demographics--it depends on how many parents you have involved. If you have really involved parents, in some ways you want to minimize their involvement because you have helicopter-parenting going on and you want to increase students’ independence. You want to communicate directly with kids and really work with kids.

If you’re in an environment where parents aren’t as engaged and are kind of disinterested, then you definitely need to find a way to rope them in. We happen to have really involved parents in this district, so there are places where I have actually kept it just for kids. One way I’ve done that is to make things available in our Google Apps world, which is available just for kids in the community and not for parents. That’s a nice way for me to work strictly with kids.

The Facebook page is open, we do have a number of parents visit our website, who are subscribers, so we can keep them up to date and current there, and I encourage that. I do stress--and I really believe this--one of the most important tools in the community is your public library. Collaboration with them, instructional partnership with them, really helps in terms of visibility. We have phenomenal data about the success of our collaboration with the town library. Granted we’re just one public library and one high school; it’s much easier than if you have seventy schools in your district and 30 public libraires. And don’t forget college libraries! If you can capitalize on nearby resources and community organizations, you really, really should.

UPDATE:  It just occurred to me, I should repost Michelle's webinar info. She is offering a year-long series over at on Using Emerging Technologies to Advance Your Library Program.  While we've had the first session, it is archived, so you won't miss anything.  You can register here.


  1. What a great interview! I'm in a teacher training program right now and one of the themes that keeps coming up in all of my classes is the idea of democracy in the classroom. Ms. Luhtala gives some excellent insight about this. I really appreciate the way she promotes student involvement throughout the school, not just the library. I found it interesting that she used the word "demotion" when referring to teachers becoming facilitators. It's a shift for many, but I think I don't view it as a demotion. In fact, it made me realize that most of the best teachers I've had in my life have all taken on that role of facilitator. Thanks for sharing the interview!

  2. Hi, Jen:

    Thanks for the comment--Michelle's an amazing woman and I feel pretty lucky to have spent some time with her, discussing her program. I certainly learned a lot. If you're interested, she's running a series of free webinars over at EdWeb on integrating emerging technologies into the library. (I'll add the link to the end of the blog post)

    I do agree with you that shifting from sage-on-the-stage to facilitator isn't a demotion, but it does entail a willingness to give up control, and teachers with that mindset would see it as a lessening of their role. As I read on a Twitter post yesterday, "unlearning is uncomfortable"; it takes a while to realize that being a good facilitator requires more pedagogical skill than simply expounding at the front of the room for 50 minutes!