The following are my prepared remarks for my Keynote at the Massachusetts School Library Association Annual Conference. I was much funnier in person as I thought of new things in the moment. I probably also spoke in more complete sentences, as this was a weird mashup of thoughts, ideas, and actual sentences I wanted to say. I’ll do the process in another post, I think.
Good morning, Librarians!
First, I’d like to thank MSLA and the Conference Committee for inviting me here today, and all of you for joining us this morning as we incorporate an unconference experience into MSLA’s conference.
I love the theme: Fill Up Your Toolbox.
You’re going to learn about lots of great tools over the next couple of days. I’m looking forward to that session on Blendspace tomorrow morning, myself.
There’s SO MUCH MORE to the library that goes beyond the tools, and I don’t always think that those tools even exist in either physical or digital forms. So I’d like to challenge you to think about the tools you already have at your disposal as librarians, to think about the tools you need today to serve your communities, and how you can best use them.
So first I’d like to think about what, to me, are four essential elements of a good library.
Let’s start off with the tools you have. This includes all of the standard stuff that libraries have traditionally had, like books, magazines, and videos. It also includes the newer stuff like equipment such as ipads, laptops, cameras, and digital things like databases and apps. I believe in the biz you call this the collection.
A good library doesn’t simply provide the tools, it has to provide the skills needed to use those tools. Research skills, citation skills, learning how to navigate the library’s systems are the traditional skills. In more recent times, with all of the new technology tools available, many librarians are responsible for making sure their students are familiar with the use of databases, iPad apps, Google Docs, and so much more. It also extends to all of those critical skills that may get short shrift in some of the more content-driven classrooms, like critical thinking and collaboration.
A library is a place of freedom. Every librarian I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with has taken patron freedom of access to information very seriously. I’m never more proud to have librarians in this country than when they’re defending the public’s rights to information. This is why Banned Books Week is one of my favorite weeks of the year.
What’s this really about? It’s about the freedom to explore. To find out new things. To learn things even when somebody doesn’t want you to. This week people across the nation won a great victory by having the FCC declare net neutrality, ensuring a continued free access to information. Librarians have been protecting and promoting that bedrock of democracy for long before the internet existed, and will continue to do so long into the future.
A place that feels safe, where one can freely explore without judgement. For a certain type of student, which most certainly included me, the library as a sanctuary means that it is a place that can feel safe even when no other place does. Librarians provide a place where people can be themselves in a world which increasingly asks them to put on a face.
Put these things together, and you have the building blocks of a great library.
So I’d like to tell you about my experience with libraries and how they changed my life.
I’d like to start with Middle School. Not because I never went to the library before then, but because that’s when I started to become aware of how the previously mentioned elements help build a place worthy, or not worthy, of being called a library.
First, a horror story.
The Middle school librarian. The first time where we had library as a class, a place and time where we were supposed to learn. It was a nice enough library in terms of the tools available to us at the time. Decent collection, encyclopedias and atlases, and was the first place I encountered a computer with a CD-ROM for electronic materials.
Tools. But not skills. No freedom. No sanctuary. A library in name only.
She gave us plenty of busywork research activities, but refused to provide the skills we needed to meaningfully access them.
She wanted to spend more time taking kids down a peg than building them up. It was certainly no sanctuary. Our time was tightly controlled and gave us no meaningful opportunities or the freedoms to learn more about the topics and areas that most interested us. It was a nightmare of a year in seventh grade.
Thank god for the town library.
Caring librarians with a wide variety of selections for all ages. I spent many a summer day here checking out and tearing through Christopher Pike and RL Stine books. Help with research projects. A safe place to go, so much so that it was probably the first place your parents would let you ride your bike to alone.
Tools. Skills. Freedom. Sanctuary.
High School. 2-3 hours every day after school until the bus would take me home. Where else would I go but the library?
A quiet place to go and work on homework, but also filled with a good variety of fiction. This library introduced me to Ender’s Game, which to this day is one of my favorite series of books. The librarians were always willing to offer a helping hand, showing us the things we needed to know to complete our assignments.
Tools. Skills. Freedom. Sanctuary.
It ended up being so much of a sanctuary for me my freshman year that I spent pretty much every day there after school. I was there so much, they started to ask me to help around the library. Which meant…
I Was a Teenage Librarian. This is, of course, not technically accurate, but it sounds way better than I Was a Teenage Library Page.
So I went back to the town library. I got my first real job here in the children’s room. New tools. New skills. New freedom of opportunity. My first chance to do read-aloud to young children. It was here I first encountered Officer Buckle and Gloria, to this day one of my all-time favorite read-aloud books. This wasn’t just a great first real summer and then after school job, it was giving me the skills and confidence to define a new path for myself that led me away from my previous considerations of going to college to major in business and instead look at Teaching as a legitimate path that for me that would provide me with the intellectual challenges and emotional incentives I was really looking for in my life.
Tools. Skills. Freedom. Sanctuary.
College. First time working in a much larger library, first real exposure to using electronic databases, helpful staff that would help you unlock the mysteries of these new tools, and always made sure there was a safe, quiet spot for studying. I can’t say that the library particularly stood out to me in any meaningful way other than as a functional place to accomplish the things I needed to do in college, but it still provided me with all of the essentials.
And then, I was a teacher.
I spent eight years teaching special education in Upper Darby School District, which in many ways is really an extension of West Philadelphia. If people could afford to get their children out of Philadelphia and its school system, very frequently we were the only place they could afford to move to. My students were overwhelmingly poor minorities with challenging special needs.
When I started teaching at DHMS, the library was a sanctuary, a place that I could take my students on frazzled Fridays, where they could enjoy the freedom to look through the stacks and find the books they were most interested in reading. They took library classes there and received the love, patience, and guidance that had not been provided to me in my own middle school library experience.
Over time, it became more than a place for my students, though. It also became a place where I could practice the skills I wanted to develop in terms of technology use. Through regular access to the library’s computer lab, I started to dip my first tentative toes into the dizzying waters of educational technology, at first starting off simply with things like spelling city and math practice sites, but eventually moving on to exploring the potential of having my students do things like build collaborative google maps.
Tools. Skills. Freedom. Sanctuary.
Unfortunately, the library alone was not enough. I was increasingly unhappy in the school overall.
I started teaching in 2002. Educational Policy wonks will note that this is the year that No Child Left Behind was signed into law.
When I arrived at DHMS, my principal made a point of saying that he didn’t care at all about test scores. He just wanted us to do what was right for the kids. That’s a noble sentiment which didn’t last forever. As possibilities of sanctions started to pile up, he came to care about test scores an awful lot, as did other administrators in the district. We started adding formative standardized assessments. I was increasingly told to use scripted programs, so much that I spent 2/3 of my day teaching like a robot from a script.
At the same time, the professional development I was provided was worse than meaningless.
Let’s take a look at this diagram again.
Tools. Skills. Freedom. Sanctuary. Key elements of a good library.
But they’re also key components of what a school community should have. But what happens to students and teachers when they aren’t getting these things they need from their school? Many turn towards apathy, which leads to students checking out of their classwork and teachers becoming cynical and burning out. If I was going to grow and improve as a teacher, I had to take my professional learning into my own hands.
I started to look elsewhere for the kinds of connections I needed. For an raging introvert like me, this was hard. Fortunately, I had the Internet.
Twitter turned out to be my main outlet for this. It allowed me to connect with other teachers around the world and discover that while I was lonely in my school, I was not alone in my ideas.
I’ve been on Twitter now for almost eight years. But the most important connections I would make, the ones that set the next stage of my career, happened in the 2009-2010 school year.
First, in 2009 I agreed to meet with a group of other teachers that I only knew through Twitter at this thing called Barcamp, which was a form of unconference. Whatever that was.
It turned out to be an amazing experience, where an eclectic group of techies, businesspeople, artists, and teachers came together because they wanted to share. There was no agenda when we walked in, because WE created the agenda that morning. It was incredibly powerful, so much so that the teachers gathered there that day became determined to repackage it and gear it specifically toward teachers. We called it Edcamp, and on a beautiful May morning, 100 teachers showed up to experience it with us for a day many called the best professional development of their careers.
The next month another Edcamp was held in Virginia. Soon after there was one in New Hampshire. Then they started to spread like wildfire. There have since been more than 600 Edcamp events around the world.
The other connection I made was Patrick Larkin, Principal in Burlington, MA.
My wife and I were planning on moving back to Massachusetts, and one day I was tweeting about the move when Patrick reached out to me to find out more.
A few months later I came to Burlington to work as a Tech Specialist.
I had supportive administrators, and I worked with some great teachers.
But we had a problem. Our school had a temporary librarian, who, while wonderful in many ways, was not equipped with the skills a modern librarian needs. When teachers wanted to do research projects, they came to me, because the kids were doing the research on the computer, after all.
Having a problem means trying to solve it, and I love solving interesting problems. The solution was clearly to find an awesome librarian. So of course I went to Joyce Valenza and asked her what the job description should look like.
While that’s happening, I had already started to work with a librarian to bring Edcamp to the Boston area. At MassCUE that year, I went to a session run by Laura D’Elia on animation tools and, on a complete spur of the moment whim, invited her to our first planning meeting. I had a good feeling.
After working with Laura to plan Edcamp, I knew she was the librarian we needed. So I recruited her, told my principal he needed to hire her, and she started working with me that Summer. Because we needed to plan together before the school year started, of course.
This became the most powerful and meaningful professional collaboration of my career. We worked tirelessly to provide the kinds of library and technology programming we believed our teachers and students needed. We made sure they had the tools, piloting and then helping the district to roll out a 1:1 iPad program. We did our best to incorporate the kinds of modern skills needed by students into our curriculum, and model the skills needed by teachers. We gave our students the freedom to choose and design their own projects, and teachers the freedom to try out new things with our assistance and without judgement. We had a core group of students as library pages and technology team members who knew they always had a sanctuary in the library, as well as making it a safe place for some of our teachers to come with their own challenges.
Were we perfect? Absolutely not. Did we have significant challenges in our quest to improve the quality of teaching and learning throughout our school and district. Definitely. But we always tried our best to learn and grow as teachers and leaders.
Tools. Skills. Freedom. Sanctuary.
So let’s go through those elements of a great library again. There’s an art to building a library that’s supportive of students, but how can you expand that to truly be the heart of your school?
Tools: new tools, including things like Edcamp and other alternative forms of professional development. Your most powerful tools available are your ideas. Your creative energies and output can completely change the learning environment of a school. Always work to provide teachers meaningful opportunities to discover and interact with the things and ideas they need in order to be successful.
Skills. Teachers are going to need a wide range of new skills in order to support all of those new tools. Not just use of technology, but also exposure to and support in better methods of teaching that emphasize inquiry and experience over rote memorization. Always model the kind of instruction you want to see happen throughout your school building.
Freedom. Take the lead in lobbying for the most wide-open information access policies possible. Make sure your teachers can access every tool that’s out there on the internet. Help them understand the power in giving students access to the wider world around them. Show teachers the freedom they have to become independent learners through the use of social media, which can expose them to a wider variety of materials, tools, skills, and styles so they can work on developing their best professional selves. Know about the variety of ways they could do this, give them lots of options. For me it was Twitter, but for other teachers it’s mailservs, Pinterest, Flickr, Facebook Groups, and Tumblr. If you know where to look, you can find amazing teachers in all sorts of places doing interesting things, so take the opportunity to choose the community that’s right for you.
Be a safe place in your school for people who are brave enough to try new things. Support teachers when they’re ready to try that great new tool or strategy. Prop them up when they don’t work out the first, second, third time. Help them get better. Celebrate their successes! Challenge them to take those successes as learning opportunities to chart the next thing they’re going to try.
If you’re taking advantage of these tools, you will be the best librarian you can be for your teachers and students.
More importantly, though, you will be a model for your school about the possibilities that exist today. Librarians today can and should serve an essential role in transforming the learning cultures of our schools today. We need our schools to be like our best libraries. So seek out the opportunities to be the change. Our students, teachers, and schools need you now more than ever.