Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Fall Library Conference Rich in Ideas

Tuesday, November 3rd was not only election day, and a day of meetings and planning for most teachers, for teachers of information literacy (i.e. school librarians) it was the Fall Library Conference, which was held at Brooklyn Technical High School. Organized by the New York City Department of Education's Office of Library Services, the event drew hundreds of school librarians from across the city as well as library and related vendors from around the country.

While it's absolutely crucial for school librarians to be integral participants in-house meetings, professional development seminars and planning sessions alongside their subject-area teacher colleagues, we also need to time work network with each other to share ideas and best practices in order to enrich our library programs. The Fall conference provides an opportune time early in the school year to do just that.

Praise is due to the organizers, who got the conference program out early through the Fall Conference Wiki, complete with a handy grid on the back page showing all the sessions and their locations, allowing attendees to get an idea of which sessions would be of interest to them. The absence of a requirement to register for each workshop made it even easier than at most professional conferences I've attended. This "freestyle" session attendance policy leaves participants free to change their programs at will, also a boon.

With about 80 session to choose from there was something for everyone. Again, this is due to the work of the Office of Library Services, who actively recruited speakers from among the ranks of school librarians. The sessions were conveniently coded for grade-level interest as well. E for Elementary, M for Middle School and H for High School. As a participant and a presenter of one of the sessions, I found the day gave me lots of opportunities to learn and to exchange ideas. I walked away with a list of things I wanted to start working on, which, to me, is the mark of a good conference.

Dr. Ross J. Todd of Rutgers University's School of Communication and Information and the director of the Center for International Scholarship in School Libraries, delivered an impassioned keynote address. One idea that really caught my attention was the concept of the school library as an "inquiry commons". As part of the Green School, one of the core concepts we are cultivating this year is that of "the commons" or the shared, sustainable pool of community resources, either physical or conceptual. In an August seminar with the The Cloud Institute, the Green School's partner organization, the notion of The Commons in general came up in our discussions as part of what a community needs to remain sustainable.

In his address, Dr. Todd urged us to think ourselves less as providers of information or collections books, but as teacher/facilitator/managers of a vibrant space that not only makes intellectual inquiry possible, but in all ways leads those who enter toward it. While my current library is indeed a room of books that teachers want to reserve because there's lots of space for their students to spread out and a group of internet-connected computers, I've been making small changes to help teachers and administrators think of the library as a place where students can get some work done without the pressures and strictures of the classroom. The Inquiry Commons idea, however, gives me a related, loftier and ultimately more sustainable objective to work toward.

In fact, I think by "getting some work done", I wasn't necessarily referring to rote work. What I meant, without having put words to it, was something more akin to inquiry: asking questions, wondering what the answers might be, gathering information and synthesizing that information into an original answer, which itself leads to further inquiry. That said, however, I'm currently taking small steps in this direction. For example, I have a group of three (sometimes four) girls who've been given administrative approval to use the library at lunch for the sole reason that they wander the halls endlessly during class hours as well as during lunch, and the cafeteria is on the same floor as the library. If they wander the halls of the second floor, they are effectively outside of their school, which is housed on the floor above. So they've been instructed to wander right into the library until lunch is over.

Initially, I let the girls do what they wanted to do as long as they kept their voices low. What they seemed to want to do was send and receive messages on a portal at cluster of computers. I started to ask their teachers how they were doing in class and the answer came back a resounding, "They never even come to class." I asked if I could get class work or homework assignments they could do independently (i.e. without having to read through class textbooks or be present at teachers' lessons). A science teacher volunteered some homework worksheets that were doable in and of themselves. I approached the girls and the two of the three who I didn't expect to do anything with them at all took them and worked on them, while the one I thought would be the most amenable said, "I ain't doin' that shit!" Baby steps.

On a subsequent day, I asked one of the girls who had done the science worksheet, who happened be in the library without her girlfriends that day, if should could write something, a personal narrative, using a Web-based word processing system. To my surprise, she agreed. She wrote a solid paragraph, albeit with lots of non-standard spelling in non-standard English, but it was actually compelling reading. It surprised not only me, but some of the teachers who had never seen her produce anything before. The student only gave me permission to show it one of the teachers at her school who she trusts and who said he'd give her credit for any work she did in the library. He says he'll try to catch her in the hallway soon and talk to her about her writing and work with her on expanding it. More baby steps.

In my building we have a wide range of student abilities. In a large chunk of the population, reading, writing, study skills and even social skills are what one might charitably call "emerging". Oddly, the library seems to attract the few students whose skills are well developed and who come to get new books (and are frustrated at how slow the process is and how little NYSTL money I receive to feed their reading habits), very few kids in the middle of the spectrum and a core contingent of students in extreme need of intervention. This last group insists that the library is a place to "chill" which, as far as I can tell, doesn't even wave at critical thinking or inquiry, at least not in a way that could be argued in academic language. They can be so disruptive it's hard to house them at all, and they often drive the readers away, which is a shame. However, if I can try to get the academically neediest of students who visit to calm down long enough to speak civilly to me, do some intellectual musing and put some of it on paper, then I'm going in the right direction.

For the time being doing worksheets, rote though they may seem to me, may be a good step toward eventually opening up to inquiry in the long term. Luckily, the school that has been sending me a high percentage of students in this needy group has been very understanding and supportive in terms of how much I can take on. With time I hope to increase my stamina, but I need to be realistic in how much I can handle. For now, as a worker, my contact with them needs to be in small doses and in small groups.

At the same time, it's clear to me that this is a population I need to focus on, where I can really have an impact. As much as I want to please the avid readers and as easy as it would be to work with the quieter kids, I can't let myself gravitate toward the path of least resistance, tempting as it is. I sometimes liken some of the more challenging students to injured, angry and frightened wild felines who leap out at you, as if from nowhere, with their claws fully extended. All they seem to want is to survive another day. With patience and persistence on my part, perhaps the library can play a role in slowly and steadily turning these students into the powerful lions they have the potential to become.

Bringing Dr. Todd's notion of The Inquiry Commons home to my schools from the Fall Conference helps me put language around the aims I have for my library. Together with my students, the readers, the resisters and the middle of the pack, we can all begin to push each other toward this goal.