Saturday, April 10, 2010

Student learning is our priority

Alison Zmuda opened her day-long conference, Librarians as Learning Specialists, with the statement, "Without a curriculum and a robust assessment system school librarians cease to exist."  I was invigorated to hear the repetition throughout the day that, "Student learning is our priority."  She focused on ways to re-design our lessons and align our standards with content curriculum areas and standards.

Two weeks later I had the opportunity to attend a conference hosted by Dr. Ross Todd on the topic of Evidence Based Practice and School Libraries.  He spent the early morning describing our "invisible evidence syndrome," and the afternoon focusing us on "learning outcomes" verified by "evidence based practices."  His message and Alison's mirrored and complemented each other.  They both agree, and write and speak about ways to alter the image and, in fact, the reality of what school librarians do and how we do it.

Alison offered more suggestions for effective teaching opportunities, while Dr. Todd filled in the blanks with more concrete examples of learning-focused, lesson-based feedback and assessment collectibles.  Talking with other conference attendees I discovered that my comfort level with this dialogue of true curricular collaboration and measurement of outcome extends from my business background.  Two other librarians at my table, responding throughout the day with nods and smiles, also came from previous business experience.  The two career librarians at the table generally agreed with what they heard, but did so with trepidation.  

Four years ago in the first paper I ever wrote about school librarians, a literature review based upon current school and library journals including quotes from Dr. Todd, I lamented the need for librarians to map their curriculum to blend with content areas, to find ways to assure progressive information literacy development from year to year and to find ways to document progress and achievement.  I am not sure what topics my classmates chose but even as an outsider I saw the need for this change in focus.  My advocacy has continued in verbal and written reflections for LIS classes and in my job as a high school library teaching assistant.

Working in a school population nearing 1500 students, this knowledge has been a painful load to carry as I have had difficulty figuring out any consistent ways to measure student achievement or growth across the information literacy continuum.  Collaborative opportunities are frequent, but convincing all teachers in a given content area / grade level to approach a project in the same way to allow us to give similar lessons and collect uniform data has proven virtually impossible.  As if a symbol of the failure, much to frequently, we are asked to do a "quick, basic database intro," or worse, teachers with low expectations assign information-driven  projects without library support.

Coinciding with the conferences I attended, however, I had the opportunity, as part of a required practicum, to work for five weeks each in two different smaller schools, a middle school and an elementary school, both with populations of closer to 500.  Suddenly the lights are coming on.  When all teachers for a subject / grade level can be counted on one hand (sometimes one or two fingers) the needs and opportunities are easier to identify.  As both Zmuda and Todd and other authors I have read admit, the process is still not easy or quick but I am beginning to see light in the woods that may indicate a path.

The beginning of the path lies in continued movement away from "the database lesson" and toward true collaboration with teachers to design lessons, deliverable products, and grading criteria.  As teacher-librarians, even as "information specialists," we need to step away from the role of information, material, space and student managers and aggressively into the role of information literacy teaching specialists.  It goes without saying that we must be comfortable with the AASL Standards for the 21st Century Learner, but to achieve success we must think simultaneously about core content area standards and how to blend the curricula to achieve success.

I still find humor in the sign in the back office of one school library I visited that says, "If it's not barcoded, it doesn't exist," but as I see our budgets crunching and librarians losing clerks or losing their jobs to clerks, and as I see librarians taking over book-rooms and managing study halls, I am increasingly concerned that we must pursue education over management if we are to survive.  I certainly do not have all of the answers; in fact I believe I still have more questions than answers but I am agressively seeking ways to make an impact, even one student or one teacher at a time.

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