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 If the model of textbooks and teachers as the source of all knowledge is outdated, then the idea that a school media center can contain all of the instructional resources the school could ever need is equally obsolete.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.


The School Game

I think I first became aware of the school game in middle school, though I was certainly playing it long before that. Do what the teacher expects of you. Don’t cause trouble. Complete the work that’s given to you. It doesn’t have to be your best work, but it has to be on time and “good enough” for the grade you want. Do your homework, or, at least, most of it, most of the time, in the classes where the teacher checks. Get grades good enough to keep your teachers and parents happy, and to get you into a good college. In college, get reasonably good grades that will lead to a respectable degree. Use the degree to get a good job. A good job is a job with regular weekday hours, where you don’t get dirty and the work is mentally challenging instead of physically challenging.

3156285617_26dbd2a6db[1]I played the game pretty well, so I was labeled “smart.” I got into a good school and got my degree. Then, I got a job, went to grad school, and got very good at the school game. Now I make pretty good money and work pretty good hours. I don’t have to shower when I get home from work, and I’m not physically sore when I get up in the morning. I’m living happily ever after.

But playing the school game has very little to do with learning anything. I have to admit that, throughout my education career, I really didn’t think very much about learning. I didn’t care if the subjects were particularly engaging or relevant. Tell me what I have to do. Give me a list of requirements to get the grade I want. That’s as far as my meta-cognition goes.

Along the way, I did learn a few things. I learned how to write in high school, partly due to teachers who saw something in my freshman and sophomore work that I, frankly, still do not see. I learned about logic, thanks to a teacher who threw a unit on the subject into an algebra class. I learned about frames of reference and points of view and primary sources from a brave but tenured teacher who refused to follow the textbook in his history class. I learned that there are multiple versions of truth, and how to analyze a person’s motivation when assessing the credibility of his account. Later, I learned to make connections between seemingly disparate subjects. I learned that environmental issues and social justice and cultural tradition can play important roles in educational technology and online communities and the future of education.  While playing the school game, I managed to actually learn a few things along the way, even if it was by accident.

The school game is why open-ended experiences are so frustrating for students. A teacher in a MOOC can’t tell you what you have to do to be successful in the course. It’s YOUR journey. You have define your own success. Many project based learning activities allow students a wide latitude in demonstrating their learning. Often, they’re lost without specific guidelines. How many words do you want? How many slides? How many bullet points? Schools thrive on the familiarity of the game.

Public education is playing a different version of the school game right now. Common Core is standardizing what we’re teaching in American public schools, and PARCC and other consortia are designing assessments to measure whether students are learning those standards. This part is good. While I believe there should be some local decision-making in the curricular process, it’s wise to standardize the core curriculum, rather than having dozens of states or thousands of schools working in parallel to establish what are essentially the same guidelines. It’s also clear to me that we have to have common, valid assessments to measure what students have learned. Those assessments have to accurately determine whether a student has met the standards. We tend to go off the rails a bit here, because the tests don’t necessarily match the standards. But in theory, they should.

And in that theory, when the test measures the learning that we value, the most efficient way to teach the curriculum is to prepare students to excel on the test. Again, we’re assuming the test measures the learning we value, and that’s a big assumption. But if it does, teaching to the test is a good thing, because it actually teaches the learning goals we set out to achieve.

What happens when students don’t achieve? Well, lots of things happen. There are interventions, both formal and informal, that are attempted by the school. Parents and mentors and tutors are involved. Remediation and focused interventions are implemented. In some (not all) cases, it’s merely a matter of getting the student to take more interest in the school game.

And if the student still doesn’t achieve? Well, if that happens a lot, with many different students, something is wrong. If the failing students all have the same teacher, it may indicate a problem in the classroom. If they’re all in the same school, it may indicate a larger school-wide problem or a culture that does not promote or value high academic achievement.

In other words, the school, or the teacher, is not playing the school game. We’re quickly reaching the point where bad things are going to happen when the school stops playing the game. Teachers are going to be labeled “ineffective.” They’ll lose their jobs and be unemployable. Schools will receive more oversight, an accountability nightmare that makes improvement more difficult. Parents will be given more options to take their children — and the money that their children bring to the school district — to private entities. These private schools may or may not be playing the same game, but from what we’ve seen so far, the rules are very different.

How do we keep this from happening? We play the game. We embrace the game. We focus our schools on getting our students to perform as well on the tests as they possibly can. We’ll be the success stories. Our teachers will be outstanding. All of our children will be above average. We’ll be on time and under budget. We just have to stop focusing so much on things that aren’t being measured.

Sure. We can continue to argue for a better system. We can lobby for more inquiry, problem solving, digital literacy, collaboration, appreciation of global cultures, development of communication skills, and more practice with innovative thinking. We can argue that we need more control over what’s being taught in our schools. We can argue for the A in STEM to make it STEAM. We can talk about educating the whole child and building character and making patriotic American citizens Under God.

But right now, we need to play the game.

Photo credit: Mike_fleming on Flickr.