Monday, June 25, 2012

Multiculturalism Made Easier

Most of us try to open our students' eyes to world issues and different cultures.  In fact, if you're part of an IB school, multiculturalism is The Prime Directive.  It can take a lot of digging, however, to find non-Western texts.

For film, at least, makes it a little bit easier to find films from other countries.  Their database is far from exhaustive, and I do question some of the choices (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid would teach what about American history, for example?), but overall, I like it.

You can search the database by era, region of the world,  subject or type of film.  A search on Colonialism for examples, brings up 3 pages of results, with films from  France, Germany,  Angola, South Africa, Cuba and more.

Bloom's Digital Taxonomy

What would you add or subtract? (double click for full size)

Upping the Google Game

Librarians have long used the Google Game to teach web searching.  So long in fact, it's actually a problem if you use the search examples from the articles, because students start finding  links to the articles themselves, rather than the results they need.

Google just made that a little easier. I stumbled across this today and thought "Wow! That would be so fun to do with the kids!" Google took trivial pursuit and added, well, Google, setting a new search challenge each day, and making it social if you share on Google+.

Here's their promotional video, which explains it a bit more.

Today's search was pretty darned easy.  I only had to use 3 search terms from the actual question to find the answer in about 5 seconds (the longer time in the screen shot is because I was going back and forth between Google and this blog post).  But it was still pretty interesting, because who knew that sad tears have different chemicals--and an opiate?  No wonder you feel better after a good cry!  One hopes that as students keep playing, the searches would get more challenging.   They also offer a gadget for your iGoogle page, so you don't have to search for it each day.

You could incorporate this into your usual lessons, or run it as an ongoing contest/challenge, which could be really fun.  I may do that next year, though since I'll be in China, which blocks Google of course, that may not play out!

On another note (and as long as I'm sharing resources!) I also ran across Compfight, a great search engine that searches Flickr creative commons. You can do that within Flickr of course, and the Creative Commons  search engine, but this looks a little less daunting, and is actually easier than searching in Flickr itself.

Once you type in your search term and get the results, in the bar on the left, just click on creative commons. How easy is that?

I've always found searching Flickr itself less than optimally intuitive. 

More importantly, it could be confusing for students (it certainly was for me!), because when I clicked on the pop up menu next to the search toolbar, it actually listed "The Commons" as an option for searching.  I thought "Hey!  They finally added that!"   But here are my results when I searched with that filter.
Blecch!  I had to go into Advanced Search, choose "Everyone's Uploads," then scroll down and select Creative Commons>licensed for re-use to get the results I needed.

I think it's important students know how to do that, but I'll also show them Compfight as an alternative.

Though I have to ask:  Compfight??  What does that name have to do with anything?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Tearing Down the Walls: Collaboration, Advocacy, and the Ubiquitous Library

Back in my English-teaching days, one of my favorite lessons involved teaching Robert Frost's Mending Wall.  The popular (and student!) mind usually reads this poem as an ode to non-conformity, with the mischievous narrator seeking to bring down the walls separating his property from that of his conventional neighbor through a series of provocative questions.

Playing the devil's advocate, I usually have the students convinced of the exact opposite by the end of our discussion. Because here's the thing: although the narrator playfully questions the wall's purpose in order to torment his neighbor, it is actually he who instigates re-constructing the barrier every spring.  Moreover, he is pretty entrenched behind the walls of his own thinking, referring to his neighbor as a caveman  (old stone=paleolithic), and believing he "moves in darkness."  Ironically, while mocking the neighbor for "never [going] behind his father's saying," the narrator also fails to consider whether his neighbor has a valid point of view.

And what I've been wondering lately is this:  When it comes to advocacy and collaboration, are librarians like the narrator,  insisting teachers tear down the walls of their classroom, yet reinforcing the library walls through our own collaborative vision?

In library school at Pitt, our professors pounded home the advocacy and collaboration mantra: get the word out, promote the library as a learning resource, work with faculty as a teaching partner, and always, always focus your efforts to "bringing them in" and proving your value.

Nor do I believe there is anything wrong with that, as far as it goes.  In my first position post library school, I walked the talk. The school never had a culture of the library; I worked to instill the sense of the library as a go-to resource and learning commons.  When teachers asked me to come to their classrooms, I tried to bring them to the library instead, because I wanted faculty and students to see instruction happening in the library.  Gradually, the library changed from a break-time hang out to a place where real learning was happening.  Over the course of my three years there, my collaborative lessons quadrupled, and I was pretty proud of that.

When I moved to Mongolia, the pattern repeated.  The school had never had a trained media specialist, so I again worked to establish the library as a place of learning and collaboration. Given the lack of adequate classroom space in the library itself, I went into the classrooms more,  but I would still always work to promote the library.  I had the mindset that "progressive" teachers collaborated with me and brought their students in, while "paleolithic" educators were control freaks who never saw the value in what the library could offer.

Then I taught a grade 10 English class this year, with the rather interesting experience of collaborating with myself.  English teacher me  would join with librarian me in teaching digital literacy and ethics. Yet when students had to research for a documentary project,  English teacher me balked at the series of eight lessons librarian me advocated for any research project (and I teach 14+ lessons to the 11th graders for their 2 year IB extended essay project!)

Wow.  That brought library me up short.  If I, of all people, couldn't convince myself to spend the necessary time on teaching information literacy, obviously, something was amiss.  Moreover, I realized my reasons (and the reasons of many of my "resistant" teachers) were valid: time.  I knew the skills were important, but I had a lot of other things to teach my students. Given that there were other ways to connect students with the necessary information, English teacher me opted for those: pathfinders, YouTube tutorials, etc, rather than library classes and direct instruction

Don't get me wrong.  I still believe the library should be the soul of the school, but I'm re-thinking what that should look like.  In other words:  The library isn't a place, it's a state of mind.

In my new school next year, the library has no walls.  When I first heard that, I thought "Say, what?" (I'm ashamed to admit I also thought "how do they keep control of their books?"). But the more I think about it, the more I love that, because it's a great metaphor. The library isn't limited to the physical space, or even to me;  it's a way of thinking, and it should permeate the school. 

What my teachers were saying, and what I wasn't hearing, was that I needed to accommodate THEIR needs, not bring them around to my vision.  This is at the heart of the current state of librarianship. Despite years of our best advocacy efforts, we still haven't convinced the public at large (or even many of our faculty) of our indispensability. We built it, but they didn't come.  Rather than blaming teachers, or students, or administration,  rather than wailing and wringing hands about how others "don't get it"(and I've done a fair amount of that myself),  we need to look at ourselves and ask why the vision we've created  is falling short.  Obviously, what we've been doing isn't working, so it's time to do something else.

I don't have the answers, but I do have a set of ideas and questions I've been pondering that at least start me in a new direction.  In no particular order, they are:

1. Re-think your thinking:  In the past, my lessons tended to be very practical and focus on skills: pre-searching,  web literacy, how to frame a research question, etc.  That's important, of course. Yet despite my best efforts, students still struggle with the whole research process,  and I've noticed over the last five years that many of their problems stem from an "I want a specific answer within the first 5 minutes" approach.  I want to revamp my lessons this summer to focus more on habits of mind, on ways of thinking about research and information-gathering. I'm not quite sure how I'm going to do that.  Most students don't have much patience for abstract though or theories; I need to figure out how to embed theory, but link it directly to their experience and show how thinking about research in certain ways will actually help their process.

2. Tearing Down the Walls.  Literally and figuratively.  I need to listen to the nay-sayers, and figure out how to address their needs while also promoting student learning. The library doesn't have to be tied to a physical presence (the space or me). I'm going to digitize and mobilize all of my lessons, making them available to students and faculty as downloads.  Thus, teachers who don't have time to collaborate, can still give students access to the information. This isn't anything new, of course. We've long tried to meet our patrons where they are through database linkage, Facebook sites and the like. But I think too often we make it about us.  What I can give you. How the library promotes learning. There is a place for that, but it limits our effectiveness if that's all we do.  We need to step out of our defined spaces, physical and virtual. I'm having a hard time articulating this, because it's still pretty nebulous for me, too. We need to make it less about the library, and more about the learning wherever and however that takes place.

3. Make it Really Participatory.   I've been blogging about participatory libraries and learning as conversation for months/years,  and certainly thought I was doing that.  My ego got in the way, though. While I've never been the librarian who doesn't want classroom libraries because "they should come to my library for that!", I have been territorial.   When I facilitated conversation, I usually directed it and I would shape it where I thought it should go. That's not true participation, because I wasn't allowing students and faculty equal space and influence.

Ugh.  That's a painful realization for me, because I've always prided myself on empowering students and NOT being the "sage on the stage."  While I instigated student surveys, faculty evaluations, and did take their feedback on board in general ways, it was usually only in areas where I already saw a weakness in what I was doing. When students told me, "Look, we hate Information Dashboards," I mostly ignored that because  I believed they were really useful and thought they should be using them.  I didn't rethink how I was presenting them, and that maybe I wasn't really addressing their needs.  I wonder if it's just me, or if this is a library problem as a whole?  We collaborate, but only within the confines of our own vision and the way we want our library to run, not within the real world of student and faculty needs? 

With so many resources and tools available today, too often we try to establish the library as the sole point of access. If we are truly to facilitate conversation/learning, we need to give students and faculty ownership in the library, seeing them not just as contributors, but as co-creators. This means de-centralizing, and allowing multiple access points to resources, whether we, personally, are there to deliver or instruct.

I don't know, as usual when I try these more philosophical posts, I'm all over the place--mostly because rather than defining and stating concrete objectives, they are a way for me to process my own thinking.  It's messy and amibugous, and I'm not even sure I have a valid point I'm trying to make. But I would be very interested to hear your thinking!

Monday, June 18, 2012

你 好!

OK, so this is probably a bit random for a library blog, except we're also about sharing resources, right?

I don't think I've mentioned here that I'm leaving Mongolia this year and have accepted a position at a great school in Beijing for next year.

In my various travels around the globe, I've been pretty pathetic about actually learning the language where I'm living.  Once I accepted the position in Beijing, I decided it was long past time to put in some serious language-acquisition effort.  If learning Chinese/Mandarin isn't worth one's time, what is?

I know there's also a huge rise in Chinese lessons in schools in the States, so here are a collection of resources I've found useful.

CHINESEPOD: I've had some private lessons with our Chinese teacher here in Mongolia, but I've also been using ChinesePod, which is great and  the lessons are a lot more practical!  You need to pay for full access to all the lessons, but they do have some free podcasts on iTunes.  And the paid subscription  gives access to one of the best, Flash-based, pinyin/tone charts I've ever seen. It's worth paying $29 for a month's subscription just to grab that.  Our Chinese teacher here loved it.

BBC Chinese:  If you just need some survival Chinese for a holiday,  the BBC offers 10 video lessons that would be useful.  Each lessons contains a user guide, pronunciation tips and a short video.

Serge Melnyk offers well-reviewed, free weekly lessons via iTunes.

The Asia Society offers a collection of resources for educators.

One Minute Mandarin:  The very basics!

Pop-Up Chinese:  Free iTunes podcasts for beginning and intermediate learners. They also offer annotated short stories as well as listening exercises.

Radicals:  I've been struggling most with writing the characters. Unlike every other language I've ever studied, Chinese characters have nothing to do with how the word is pronounced.  You just have to memorize the shapes and what they mean. My aging brain rebels!  What they DO have are radicals, basic characters that appear over and over in different combinations, and Emory University has a podcast that will help you learn them.

Basic Chinese:  A set of 10 lessons from the Peace Corps. Also lessons in Arabic, French and more.

Was I THAT Unclear?

It's taken me a couple of days to respond to Doug Johnson's post criticizing me (among others) for, basically, being a petulant whiner.   I'm both closing out the library and packing to leave Mongolia, so it's been busy.

But I'm here now.  And let me start by saying I stand second to no-one in my respect for Doug and all he has done for the profession, but I was really surprised by his response.  He either misunderstood my point(s), or I was more unclear than usual.

Doug stated,  "What I am hearing is that if I can't play in the game, the game ought not to be played at all. If the solution to a problem doesn't include me, let's just let the problem remain unsolved."

That, of course, is not what I meant at all.  And I implied--though could have stated more directly--that it would behoove the FCC to work with librarians (collaborate, even!), rather than implanting an expert who knows neither the students, the faculty, nor their skill level, who would bring in a cookie-cutter program, when there is a local expert already in tune to the school's needs.

 I would be--and am--thrilled to work with anyone to promote any form of literacy, digital or otherwise, and it is not whining to protest being cut out of the loop, especially for a program that, as it stands, is a mere addition the school's programming.  Doug, of all people, knows these skills need to be embedded;  a couple of after-school workshops are not going to do much towards addressing student needs.

More to the point, Doug is being disingenuous when he rather snarkily suggests that the complaining librarians expect the ALA to "save our butts,"  that "good" librarians (with it's implications that the complainers must be "bad" librarians), will "carve out roles for themselves," and just buckle down and "do their job."

Good librarians, librarians who are progressive, and collaborative, and open, and document everything, are being laid off in seemingly-historical numbers. I even referenced the recent cuts to Buffy Hamilton's program as an example, and no one rational could claim she is anything but collaborative, transparent and transformational in her program.   As budgets become increasingly tight, administrators, despite the proof right before their eyes, see cutting librarians as an easy way to save some cash without directly cutting the curriculum.

So, yeah, I find his "just do a good job and be proactive" a bit patronizing and naive. I didn't bookmark them, or I'd like, but I've seen far more than one article about award-winning library programs being cut.

Moreover, nobody expects the ALA to ride in on a white horse and save everyone's job. Nor do I think anything I said supports that interpretation.  I DO expect them to inform and educate  policy-makers, to promote the role of school librarians to the people I cannot. All of the program documentation I could do in the world isn't going to affect the national budget-deciders. But the ALA might, and I expect them to work at that and explain the process, even if it's after the fact. Otherwise, what am I paying dues for--20% off the ALA Store?  I don't think so.

What I HAVE been thinking lately is re-envisioning this whole advoacy thing.  A little preview of an upcoming post (once I'm home and over the jeg lag!):  I taught an English class this year, and had the interesting experience of collaborating with myself.  Here's the thing:  when kids were researching for a project, the English-teacher me actually thought "I don't have time to do the whole research lesson" rigamarole.  How's them potatoes?  It really has me wondering whether trying to get teachers to "jump on board"  the library train is the right approach, or whether we need to go a different route.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Did the ALA Just Betray School Librarians?

 Yes, I'll go there.

I admit that headline could have come from the National Enquirer, but it's a question I've been pondering this morning after reading a Facebook post by Buffy Hamilton, and her related Unquiet Librarian blog post.

As usual, I'm a bit late in coming to this controversy (Mongolian lag time), but it stems from Fran Bullington's protest on Informania to a NYT article describing the FCC's plans to establish a digital literacy corps, since the public school system fails to address the digital divide (my interpretation!)

More specifically, in an attempt to address the backlash, the SLJ published this jaw-on-the-floor article.

If you haven't yet, you should definitely read Buffy's post.  In her usual cogent and heart-of-the-matter style, she addresses key issues, so I'll try to do more than repeat her points.  Just know that whatever Buffy said--times two!

So here are my thoughts.

1)  The FCC is under-informed.  Of course, given government attitudes towards education and educators these days,  and their general approach to net neutrality (for example), that was a given.
Yes, there is a digital divide. I even agree that  schools on the whole are doing a poor job of addressing that, though the causes are another blog post.  But to bring in a corps of "experts" for "after school" lessons instead of utilizing (and funding!) the experts already in place is exactly the kind of government waste people get so angry about.

Librarians, of course, are (or should be) exactly the kinds of trained experts the FCC needs, and they know how to teach.  Funnel that money into funding libraries, sponsoring library-based  workshops for parents and the general public, and to mandating documented results of library/technology integration into the school's general curriculum.  The attitude that technology is a set of discrete skills learned after school, like a chess club, shows the extent of their pedagogical disconnect.  The skills must be learned as part of real learning and real assessment, integrated into the regular classroom. Moreover, any librarian technologically not up to the task needs either intense professional development or to find another job, because s/he is an anachronism and causing serious harm to the rest of the profession.

2) Just what the heck is the ALA up to?  That Digital Shift article reads like a Machiavellian piece of propaganda and crowd control.  They need to be much more transparent about a) exactly how they were involved in the decision-making process, and b) the ideas/information they contributed to that process.  What am I paying hundreds of dollars in dues for if  not for them to educate the powers-that-be and advocate for the profession? Never mind the unfortunate word choice about "quell"-ing concerns, with its connotation of silencing controversy.

3)  Where I do disagree with Buffy is her comment "it was never about thinking our jobs were being 'usurped.'"  I'm not that high-minded.  It may not have been my first thought, and this shouldn't be a turf war, but in this day of unprecedented attacks on education in general and libraries in specific,  the profession does need to be vigilant at large-scale attempts to outsource areas of our job for which we more than qualified, or we will find ourselves more thoroughly "weeded" than we already are.

Unfortunately, I can see this as just the kind of program schools would leap into, ever eager for a government dollar, and looking to prove to the public at large that they are 21st Century-ready. Who hasn't attended a school PD workshop at the hands of an expensively-hired expert that you were more than able to lead yourself?

To be honest, I already think librarianship is a dying profession.  Despite our best attempts at advocacy, people just don't get it.  I mean, is there a library program in the country that you would think is more secure than Buffy Hamilton's?  Her program (and documentation) reach a level I can only gaze at from a distance, yet even she faced personnel cuts this year.  And it's only going to get worse, if certain government officials have their way.  So, yeah, I do think that, within a larger context, we also need to be aware of ill-planned encroachments on our expertise and prepared to offer better solutions.

4)  There's the rub.  Solutions.  Why oh why is this even an issue?  Why, despite years of promotion and government lobbying by the ALA, does the country at large still not get it?  Why is it still so hard to convince some teachers of our usefulness?  That we can make their jobs easier?  Obviously, whatever we're doing isn't working, and we need new ideas, but I'm at a loss.   More worrisome, here's what a spokesperson for the ALA said in regards to this controversy:  We’re now alerted to the fact that we have to get a cultural change so people understand what school, public, and academic librarians do,” she says. “So we have some work to do, and immediately.”

EXCUSE ME!?!?   We are NOW alerted??  You're the leaders of a profession experiencing seismic shifts for at least a decade, and you only now realize that?  Pardon the profanity, but what the hell have you been doing the last ten years?  Obviously, the ALA was part of this process--why weren't they in there swinging for us? Advocating for our inclusion? Educating government in the ways we could be used. Equally important, why didn't we KNOW?  If they were being ignored by the powers-that-be, why weren't the rank and file notified and mobilized to petition, write emails, call the right people and protest?  

And so I ask again: Did the ALA just betray school librarians?