5 Reasons We Still Need School Libraries

I’ve had several conversations recently about school libraries. As schools evolve to meet the needs of next generation students, the role of the library is increasingly unclear. If the model of textbooks and teachers as the source of all knowledge is outdated, then the idea that a school media center can contain all of the instructional resources the school could ever need is equally obsolete. The notion that even the best-funded school libraries could ever rival the wealth of resources available instantaneously from the smartphone in a student’s pocket is absurd. Yet schools do not seem to be tearing out their libraries, and with good reason. We still need them around. They’re still relevant. They still play a critical role in the teaching and learning that takes place in our schools.

10425308616_a1d3455806_z_d[1]Foster a Love of Reading
Elementary school is all about reading. We teach arithmetic and science and social studies and a lot of other things, but really, it’s all about reading. Until these learners are literate, it’s going to be difficult to teach them much of anything. In the early elementary grades, the library helps open the doors to the boundless worlds captured in the pages of books. We need our kids to be readers. We need our children to love reading. It’s nice if the books have a positive message or if they teach something useful. But mostly, we need books to convince kids that books are awesome. In my family, it’s often difficult to tear the children away from the books. The love of reading improves their reading level, enhances their vocabulary, and expands their cultural awareness. Along the way, they occasionally learn some content, too.

Teach Information Literacy
Back in the dark ages when I went to school, we learned about the Dewey Decimal System and the card catalog. I could tell that they didn’t have a whole lot to teach us in the library, because they introduced this stuff in third grade, and then went back and reviewed it every time we went to the library until we were writing term papers as seniors. I learned to hate the Dewey system, but I understood it very well. In today’s world, though, we have a whole lot of stuff to teach our children about information. The first, and perhaps least obvious, is how to find it. As it turns out, a simple Google search isn’t always the best option. There are other places to look for different kinds of information. There are search strategies that can save you a lot of time. And with the number of searches we do in a typical day, it’s probably worth investing a little energy to save some time on each search.

After searching, students have the problem of filtering. Two million search results does no one any good. How do we find the best resources — the most relevant pieces — for our needs? In an age of information abundance, this is a huge problem.

Once students find information, they have to evaluate its reliability. We all know that there are things on the Internet that are not true. But this is also the case with content in books and magazines, newspapers, so-called “fair and balanced” TV programs, and just about every other type of information we encounter. Our students have to factor in point of view, author motivation, and bias. They have to be able to determine whether a particular resource is reliable enough for their purposes, and that process is as much art as it is science.

Finally, once the relevant information has been found and vetted, students need help citing and using it. How does copyright affect what we can do with someone else’s work? How do we give others credit and avoid allegations of plagiarism? How do we take the ideas of others and add to them to create something new in a legal and ethical way?

Provide Shared Resources
Libraries have always been all about sharing. We can’t afford to buy every book we’ll ever want to read. And most books don’t do us a lot of good once we’ve read them. It makes much more sense to collect the books in one place and share them. Of course, the publishing companies hate that idea. As we move further down the digital path, they will hopefully learn from the battle wounds of their brethren in the music and motion picture industries, and not try to beat their customers into submission. There seems to be some good progress on that front, though the battle continues. Specifically, we have to find reasonable ways to share electronic resources among people who don’t have a single dedicated device on which they consume that media.

But even beyond books, libraries are spaces for shared resources. In all of the schools I’ve worked in, the libraries had computers and Internet access first. They were also the first ones to have scanners, color printers, digital cameras, and other resources that couldn’t be provided to everyone. Later, they got into the data projector business, and in some cases they sign out laptops to teachers and students. As we move forward, the library will continue to be the place to go for shared resources. Maybe they’ll have 3D printers and CNC routers. Maybe they’ll have video production equipment and facilities. They’ll probably have non-tech resources that teachers and students can use, too. In cases where it makes sense to share, our libraries are the place to be.

Help Us Curate
Do you use bookmarks in your browser? I used to. I kept losing them. Every computer I used had its own set, and I would forget to move them from one computer to another, or a hard drive would crash and I’d lose them, or I would switch browsers and have to deal with a new set of bookmarks. So I eventually switched to Delicious a decade or so. This fantastic service stores my bookmarks in the cloud. That means no matter which computer I’m using, my bookmarks are always just a click away.

Except I never use it. I don’t bookmark things anymore, because I found that I never actually go back and look at my bookmarks. If I need something, I just search for it.

If I were trying to collaborate on a project, this would drive everyone nuts. If I were a fourth grade teacher, and we were trying to work together to pull resources together for science and social studies, my approach of searching for stuff all the time wouldn’t really cut it.

As teachers, if we want to move away from textbooks telling us what and how to teach every day of the school year, we are going to have to curate our own resources. We have to organize links and content in ways that let us easily share them and use them without constantly trying to find things.

Who is the expert, in our schools, at organizing information resources so people can find them? That would be our masters of the Dewey Decimal system. I don’t think we should give a classification number to every web resource we find, but our media specialists can certainly help us put that information into an organized format that everyone can use. And we need their help now more than ever.

Space for Academic Collaboration and Discovery
Sometimes, I go to Starbucks to work. It’s not because I need a place that’s quiet. My office is certainly a lot quieter than a coffee shop. It’s not because I need coffee. I can make better coffee at home than Starbucks can. What I need is a comfortable chair in a place that’s busy but not distracting. I need activity around me, but not activity that’s interesting enough for me to pay attention to. I need an environment away from the interruptions of the office and the distractions of the computer. I need a place to read or think or write. And for me, Starbucks fits the bill.

Recently, CITE has become that space as well. When there aren’t activities scheduled in the training or conference room, I’ll occasionally go in there with a laptop and a cup of tea. It’s not as busy in there, but the environment is similar.

Our students need a place to work. They need a place that’s not so formal and uncomfortable like study hall. They need a place where they can work together if necessary. They need a place where they can relax a little and be productive. Our libraries could become those places. Comfortable chairs. Tables for four. Separate areas with little corners and nooks to allow people to find a spot, isolated yet together, to get things done. It’s a place where noisy is inappropriate, but where silence is equally inappropriate. Maybe there’s some music playing. Hopefully, there are some windows letting the light in. There’s a charger for my phone, and an outlet for my laptop. And I can sit in there and get some work done. I don’t even care about the coffee.

As we move away from printed books, and as we transition to a world where information is no longer scarce, we have to rethink our concept of school libraries.They still play an indispensable role in our schools. We just have to be purposeful about designing their transformation.


Photo credit: Margrit on Flickr.

5 Things Teachers Can Do to Save Their Profession

The teaching profession is under attack. The disgruntled parent is gossiping at the coffee house about some injustice done in the classroom. The taxpayer complains that the kids these days aren’t learning anything. Business leaders want to come in and tell the schools how everything should be done. Politicians simultaneously add more accountability measures from public schools while funneling more resources toward alternative education. And no one seems to believe that the teacher in the classroom actually might know what she’s doing.

7403731050_9a1ee480de_zThroughout my career, I’ve heard teachers lamenting the fact that they’re not treated like the professionals they are. Most of them have master’s degrees. They’re licensed professionals. Yet no one seems to take them seriously. Everyone wants to tell them how to do their jobs.

From a parent’s perspective, I have worked with about 50 teachers in three different school districts so far. My kids — currently in 7th and 9th grades — have had some outstanding teachers. And they’ve also had some awful teachers. About half of them were average. They had their strengths and weaknesses. They seemed to have their hearts in the right place, even if they didn’t stand out as stellar educators. Another third or so of their teachers have been horrible. Again, this is across five school buildings in three districts. There are some teachers who shouldn’t be in the classroom. I never would have dreamed that it was a third of them, but that’s been my experience so far. The others, that minority of teachers we’re delighted to see years after our students have left their classrooms, are special. They’re the ones who make this whole educational process worth the effort. We need more teachers like that. We need more people who are working to make a positive difference in kids’ lives. We need real professional teachers.

There are some pretty common sense things teachers can do — and not do — to encourage people to take them more seriously and to become the professionals they want to be. Here are five:

Stop complaining that you don’t have time. Yes, I know. You work at home. You have lesson plans to write, and papers to grade. I’m going to avoid the cheap shot of telling you not to make the kids do so many stupid worksheets, and you won’t have to grade them. And I’m not going to focus on three months off, because we all know you don’t really have three months off.

But the teachers in my school district work 186 days a year. That means they have 179 days off. Outside of education, most people work 240-250 days per year. That’s 60 days — a full 12 weeks — more. Sure, teachers work long hours during the school year, but so do doctors and attorneys and anyone putting their MBA to good use. And they don’t get overtime either.

I’m not saying you don’t deserve time off. And I’m not saying you’re not worth it. But let’s give the comments like “I can’t believe we have to come back to school already” and “why can’t spring break be two weeks long?” and “I just don’t have time to put anything else on my plate right now” a rest, shall we?

Know the content that you teach. I’m trained as a math teacher. That means I had more than 30 semester hours of college math, the very first course of which was calculus. If I can’t teach trigonometry or algebra II, I shouldn’t be in the classroom. Honestly, AP Calc and AP Stats shouldn’t be a problem either. The same is true across the content areas. My daughter’s middle school science teacher shouldn’t have fundamental misunderstandings about properties of matter. I realize that you may not have signed up to teach the class you find yourself in now. But you’re a professional, and this is all pretty basic stuff.

If one of my daughters is struggling with content, and that content is wrong, I will tell her it’s wrong. Usually, I’ll say something like “you misunderstood what the teacher said” or “she was trying to simplify it to make you understand better.” But that doesn’t have to happen too many times before the child figures out that I really mean “the teacher doesn’t have any idea what she’s talking about.”

Be an education expert. If I’m in a parent-teacher conference, your eyes shouldn’t glaze over when I mention Bloom’s taxonomy or UBD. You should have a philosophy of education, and it should be evident in your classroom. Your assessments should clearly measure your instructional objectives, and the grades you assign should be an indicator of what the student has learned, not what he has done. You should be able to defend the instructional value of everything you ask your learners to do.

You should not be ASKED to defend everything you ask your learners to do, but there are too many teachers in too many classrooms who aren’t being purposeful and intentional about their craft, and people are starting to ask what the hell is going on in the classroom because no one — including the teacher — seems to know.

I’m often amazed at the things we spend our professional development time on. We need to develop common assessments, because we’re not all on the same page when it comes to measuring student learning. We need to map our curriculum to content standards to make sure that the stuff we’re teaching is actually what we’re supposed to be teaching. We need to learn about professional learning communities, because working collaboratively to provide the best learning environment that we can for students is not something we already know how to do.

It seems like we’re constantly pulling science teachers together to teach them how to teach science. And we have to have a meeting of social studies teachers to go over the new social studies standards. And we need to work on differentiating instruction, because it turns out that our students don’t all learn the same way. And we need a model for intervention, so we’re not totally lost when our students don’t learn something the first time. And now you’re telling me that you want me to use something new and high-tech like the Internet as part of my instructional practice? That’s just going too far.

I think that many objective people looking at professional development schedules and topics might wonder what it is that these professionals are experts in. And they do have a point.

Be the professional you want others to see in you. Dress like a professional. Be organized and prepared and on time. Articulate your ideas clearly. Get rid of the cute fonts that keep people from taking you seriously. Know how to write in complete sentences that have subjects and predicates and verbs that agree and words that are spelled correctly. Use apostrophes and quotation marks where they belong.

Think of any two colleagues. Do you have their names in your mind? One of the three of you really needs to work on your written expression skills. If it’s not immediately apparent which of you it is, it’s probably you. If you need a refresher on basic grammar, ask any third grade teacher or any freshman English teacher to look at your writing. And for God’s sake, proofread your work if it’s going to be read by more than one person. I know you’re in a hurry. It’s worth the extra five minutes to make sure you look like you’re literate.

Be clear in your expectations. Most parents and students want to know one thing: how do I get a good grade in this class? You can eschew grades and assessment all you want, and that’s probably a very good thing. You can have the kids do projects and collaborate and work on activities that demonstrate their learning in all kinds of unique and innovative ways. You can motivate some of your learners to have a passion for the subject of your class, and they’ll do anything for you. But for most, it’s about the grade. If you tell them how to get the grade, and you’re fair about it, things will be much easier for you.

That doesn’t mean that you have to give up on your philosophy of education. It doesn’t mean that you have to compromize your principles or give up on common assessments. But it does mean that you should set reasonable expectations for your students, clearly articulate them, and hold students accountable for them.

One last thing: care. Care about your students. Care about your school. Care about education. This is a noble profession. You’re passing along our civilization, our culture, to the next generation. That’s important work. Take it serously. Love the kids. Prepare them for the world we’re leaving them. And people will treat you like the professional you are.

Photo credit: Audio-luci-store.it on Flickr


5 Things We Don’t Agree On

One of the frustrations with the current conversation in public education is that we’re not all talking about the same thing. We’re all experts in education, because we’ve all spent thousands of hours in school. But when it comes to some of the fundamental questions surrounding education, we’re not all on the same page. Here are five things we don’t agree on:

7632212948_5a2ca26f59_n[1]What’s the purpose of education?
Some make the argument that education is all about providing a basic level of literacy to the populace. We should teach our kids to read and write and do basic math. We should give our children the basic skills they need to function in daily life. Others point to career readiness. The point of education is to prepare learners to succeed in real jobs that will give them enough income to live without being a burden on society. Others point to higher education. K-12 education prepares students for college or technical school, which in turn prepares students to get good jobs.  A few idealists point to lofty goals like passing along our culture — our civilization — to the next generation, or to creating an informed, functional citizenry. But your view of education, including the degree to which the U.S. system is successful, will depend on which lens you’re using.

What do we mean by “learning”?
When I was a kid, we were told that knowledge is power. If you have the information, and you control access to information, you’re more powerful than those who don’t. That may still be true to a degree, but for the most part, everyone has the information now. If school is all about disseminating content to children, we’re wasting our time. They already have the content. Now, what can we do with that content?

We’re moving further up the Bloom’s pyramid than we give ourselves credit for. But if we want to measure this kind of learning, we have to ask better questions. We have to challenge students to think in new ways, to combine ideas from different areas, and to create something new. If you want to measure whether students have developed their problem solving skills, you have to give them problems that they haven’t seen the solution to. I’m not sure our high-stakes testing and assessment system will let that happen.

What’s the right balance between local and centralized control of education?
Whenever we don’t like something we’re being told to do, we drag out the old “local control” argument. Traditionally, education has been a local responsibility. We decide what to teach our kids, and how to do it. The government stays out of it. At the same time, though, we seem to welcome centralized standardization when we agree with it. If you have too much local control, then you find creationism showing up in the science curriculum, global warming being taught as a debateable theory, and any novel that encourages students to think and speak for themselves being labeled as subversive trash. The common core is not a bad thing, and most people who object to it actually object to the way it’s measured more than the standards themselves. If we do have standards, we ought to be able to leverage collaboration to make implementation easier for all of us. Part of the friction here comes from fundamental disagreements on some of the questions I’ve already mentioned.

Whose responsibility is education?
This is different from the last question. In the 19th century, American communities decided that it was the responsibility of the community to create and support local schools for the education of their children. Education was entirely local and community-driven. As time has gone on, the community has assumed a smaller role. Education is the government’s responsibility. Education is the parent’s responsibility. Now we end up in all of these convoluted strategies to try to make education relevant to the community as a whole. “Why should I vote for the school levy? My children are grown. I’m on a fixed income. I can’t afford higher taxes.” We need to invest in education because it’s the right thing to do. We need to invest in education because it will benefit our society and our country in the long term. There’s no short term return on investment. Support schools for the same reason that you still plant trees, even though you may not live to see them fully grown. Whether you’re a teacher, parent, grandparent, child, or community member, education is YOUR responsibility.

How does the U.S. stack up against other countries?
Education in the United States is better now than it has ever been. That’s not news. It doesn’t generate the same response as the reports claiming our kids don’t know basic math or that Finland provides a better education at a fraction of the price. But if our schools are changing — if we really are re-examining what we mean by “education” — then the scores our students earn on traditional knowledge-based tests are not going to improve. If we look at the tests that we’re using to measure students around the world, I don’t think we’ll find that our students are doing worse than other countries on the things we actually care about. Which takes us back to the questions on purpose and learning.

We skip these questions. Even in conversations about Next Generation schools. Even in discussions about appropriate professional development programs to transform learning. Even in deep, thoughtful reflections on what we’re doing in public education. We can spin our wheels around these things for hours without getting anywhere. But until we start agreeing on the basic parameters of what we’re talking about, we’re not going to get anywhere.

Photo credit: NikitaY on Flickr.