Archive for the ‘Libraries’ Category

As we celebrate Banned Books Week in the library this week, the seventh grade students and I have had some great discussions about reading and the ultimate decision makers about materials purchased and held in a library.  Just who can decide what we read, and should they have that power?  Amidst these enlightened discussions regarding freedom of speech, I read an article regarding the banning of The Catcher in the Rye in a Florida School (“Martin County Mom Trying to Get Catcher in the Rye Banned from Classes“).  What I found interesting was not the fact that a mother objected to her child reading a book with profanity.  Frankly, that happens all the time, and as a librarian I have no issue with it.  Parents, after all, are the primary educators of their children.  But why do parents think they have the right to challenge what is being read by other students, or worse deny them the right to read those books?  The books that are challenged and ultimately banned contain ideas that can inspire reflection and conversation from both a negative and positive standpoint.  They can inspire exploration of ideas and moral stances.  Without the exploration of this literature, personal philosophies may go unexamined.

Freedom of speech grants the freedom to explore many different ideas, even those that may be unpopular or unfamiliar.   It is truly frightening to think individuals believe that they have the right to censor those ideas that they find offensive, to the detriment of the entire community.  It is hard to believe that these actions continue in 2010.


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Yesterday I had the opportunity to talk to some former students who are now seniors in high school.   After the ceremony honoring them (that’s another story), the young men came into the library to talk to me, and a simple conversation about school evolved into an educational policy discussion.

First, they told me about their “silent” library.  They laughed as they told me how they can’t talk in the library, and are threatened with demerits if they do.  “It’s different than here,”  they said.  (I never was known for a quiet library).  I have always tried to encourage discussion and sharing, and have tried to make the library a fun space that students would be happy to come to and stay in.  After all, in a student’s world where social learning and exchange is commonplace and constant, imposing silence seems not only artificial but stifling. We have to encourage enthusiasm and collaboration. And that sometimes results in more noise than most find acceptable, and may look a little chaotic, but it seems to work.  

We talked about past lessons and research, and how I had changed things to incorporate some newer tools like our class wikis, twitter, googledocs, and wallwisher.  All our middle school students have gmail accounts that they use to login to other sites and to communicate with the faculty.  I don’t think of any of these things as revolutionary; conversely, I think they’re a pretty basic step into web 2.0 tools appropriate for students this age.  If anything, I think we could be more progressive than this, and I’m working on incorporating more collaborative tools into their lessons.  I thought my former students would laugh at their simplicity, but the reaction I got was quite different.  My high schoolers look at each other in astonishment.  It seems that social media tools and most types of communication are being blocked at their school.  “They don’t trust us,”  they said.  They laughed as they told me that the school has a twitter account, but they’re blocked from reading the feed at school.  “We can’t use any of that stuff” was the general comment.

That got me thinking — how are schools preparing students for the 21st century, if policy becomes more restrictive as the students get older?  I always thought with maturity comes increased responsibility.  Where have the benefits of social media gotten lost?  Or perhaps, more scarily,  why have they yet to be recognized?  Who is driving the policy that is preventing young adults from using the tools they use now in every other facet of their lives, and will continue to use in the years ahead?  It’s a little scary when middle school curriculum and policy is more progressive than high school policy.  When 18-year-olds recognize the absurdity of a school’s blocking and filtering policy, what does that say about the educators who are perpetrating it?  Out of the mouths of babes —

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Over the years, I’ve found there are some simple steps you can take to encourage students to read more.  This isn’t based on an academic study or survey of thousands.  It’s mostly common sense tips that I’ve found that work.  So here goes —

  1. Know your students.  What do they like/not like?  What are they talking about in class (not necessarily tied to classwork).  What bores them? What do they find funny?  All these things indicate what they might be interested in reading in print.
  2. Know your collection.  What do you currently have that’s popular, and how can you expand those holdings to appeal to the students?  Do you need more copies of the same title, or just more books written by the same author?  Is your collection lacking in certain topic areas, or on certain reading levels? 
  3. Read everything you can.  This doesn’t just apply to the books, but to the publishing companies releases about the books, publications’ reviews of new titles, and other librarians’ and teachers’ thoughts on blogs or through Twitter. I find School Library Journal and my PLN on Twitter to be the most valuable resources.  The more you know about what quality materials are available, the better your purchasing decisions will be. 
  4. Read everything you can Part 2.  Read as many of the new titles as you can.  The more knowledgeable you are about the materials, the more you’ll be able to talk to the students about them.  And knowing their scope will allow you to associate similar materials for referrals.
  5. Be enthusiastic!  Excitement is contagious.  The more enthusiasm you show when talking about books with students, the more excited they’ll be about reading them.  I call it “The Oprah Effect.”  Whenever I talk about a new title in the library and how great it is, I always have a long line waiting to check it out.  Granted, my power doesn’t have the scope of Oprah, but it sometimes feels as if it does.
  6. Give them freedom.  Let students read what they want and when they want (within reason).  Don’t be rigid about titles and genres.  That’s not to say they shouldn’t be exposed to all different kinds of literature, but let them enjoy their favorite kinds without restriction.  Reading needs to be a pleasurable experience for children to choose it over the myriad of options available to them in their free time. 
  7. Be willing to listen and discuss.  Students often return after reading to a book wanting to talk about it.  Give them the time and attention.  Engage in a discussion.  Offer new reading suggestions.  You’ll develop a trusting relationship that will continue to grow.
  8. Model reading.  This may not seem obvious, but letting students see you read, and letting them know that reading is important to you can have more power than you think.  Find the time, even if it’s just a couple of minutes a day.

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As I put together my presentation for the students explaining the Acceptable Use Policy, one thing is clear: the new policy represents a major shift in thinking: it centers on trust and responsibility.  In the past, our policy concentrated on behaviors that were not allowed.  It was a list of can’ts and don’ts, and was extremely long, attempting to cover every possible action or behavior.  It was no one’s fault but my own; I wrote it almost ten years ago, when after reviewing the examples used by other schools, it seemed reasonable.  Of course, it’s undergone several revisions during that time to cover holes in the policy brought to light by student behavior.

But last spring, I began to rethink the policy and its focus.  If we are preparing students to be the most efficient and effective users of information, then they must be given guidance as to location and evaluation, and the freedom to use those tools. This means turning over the responsibility to the students to explore the information on the internet, and trusting that the ethics they’ve been taught will guide their behavior.  Setting up artificial boundaries by banning certain web sites is not only ineffective, it’s impractical.   Digital citizenship involves choices and ethics to guide those choices.  Banning information violates all these precepts.  After all, most would agree the practice of banning books is abhorrent.  Why has it taken us so long to realize banning sources on the internet is no different?  It’s time we shift our thinking and hand over the responsibility for ethical behavior to the students.

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Libraries Without Books

The New Library?

The New Library?

For the last few days, social networking sites have been abuzz with talk of digital libraries, and libraries without books.  It started with an article posted by CNN, “The Future of Libraries, With or Without Books” which discussed the evolution of libraries from buildings that housed books, to centers of information, providing a community service.  The author noted, with amazement, that the library is no longer the library of old, and neither is the librarian.  This was not news to librarians.  The fact is, our jobs are constantly evolving to provide the best information in any form, and to instruct patrons on the most effective and inefficient use of that information.  If that means a larger digital collection, so be it.  Of course, access to materials and information can’t be impeded.   That’s why the Boston Globe article that followed, “A Library Without the Books” focusing on Cushing Academy’s new library without books, was so shocking. One of the major functions of a library is to provide free access to all materials.  Cushing’s  decision  to exclude a major form of information seems problematic.  Is every piece of information necessary available in digital form?  And if so, are tools to view this information available to every student?  Is home access free and available to all, regardless of economic status?  Any barrier to access  to information would be contrary to all that libraries and librarians stand for.  While a totally digitized collection seems progressive and forward-thinking, if it impedes access or learning in any way, it is taking a step backwards — even with a coffee bar.

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A New Approach to Reading

Every year, a saddening trend comes to my attention as I analyze the yearly circulation statistics of our school library.  Reading decreases as children get older.  In our library, the number of books checked-out (which is the closest correlation to books read) peaks in fifth grade, and drops significantly by eight grade.  I’ve tried everything I can think of to increase older students’ interest in reading: purchasing the newest books, reading and speaking about new arrivals with enthusiasm, creating interesting displays, planning special reading programs, etc. , but nothing has changed.  This summer, my principal suggested we read The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller, and coincidentally a member of my PLN posted a link to an interview with the author.  Her theory is simple: let students read what they want to read.  The New York Times featured an article on a similar theme, “A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like.” 

This reading workshop idea is catching on across the country and in my own school.  Several of our classroom teachers have overhauled their reading programs along these lines.  Giving students choice doesn’t seem like such a novel idea, but apparently it is.  Today alone, more books were checked out by middle school students than usually go out in a month.  Students were not dissuaded from choosing something short or less than serious.  The only requirement was that they read.  Maybe the solution has been this simple all along.

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The library of today

Photograph courtesy of Darlene Fichter, University of Saskatchewan

Once upon a time, a library was a place for quiet place for reading and research, where the librarian easily maintained total control with a “shhh”.  Today, a library is an active place where students are involved in multiple processes with many tools once thought verboten.  They gather information from multiple sources: YouTube, Twitter, Wallwisher, GoogleDocs, Wikis, etc.  These sources were once banned from school use by many Acceptable Use Policies because of horror stories of student misuse.  But today, participation and sharing via these Web 2.0 tools is essential for the full spectrum of learning to take place.  Just think how restrictive a project would be if source information was limited to books and selected websites. 

But it isn’t easy for educators to loosen the reigns of control.  Students’ safety has always been an concern, and rightly so.  This philosophy of student protection resulted in overly protective and limiting AUP’s.  But recently, a member of my PLN sent a quote that I found enlightening.  “Don’t condemn the source of information, but its improper use.”  This made me look at the school AUP again, and begin to consider an alternate approach: one where ethics of information use were stressed, rather than a list of approved and banned sites.  This requires a radical trust by teachers and librarians to allow students to use sites that may have questionable material, for directed research and information sharing.  Students must be given the skills to make the decisions to find the information they need.  That is an integral part of the research process.  By limiting sources, we are also limiting student’s growth.  It’s time for a major leap of faith.

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