The Wisdom of Students

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 —


Attendance at Educon 2.2 this weekend has only reinforced the idea that conversation between educators is perhaps the most important professional development tool.  Of course, it was wonderful to listen to the great minds in education present, but the most invigorating and productive sessions seemed to be those in which the group took an issue and began to discuss it.  The conversations that evolved grew in an organic way, producing conclusions and aha! moments that would have been impossible to reach on an individual basis.   The sad fact is that once most of us return to our schools, that the discussion will no longer take place.  Educators are not given much time to collaborate or discuss the “big” education issues during the school day.  Some of us are lucky to have time to eat lunch, let alone meet with other teachers on our faculty. 

So what is the solution?  Well, Twitter has become an invaluable resource to listen to educators around the world.  Best resources, best practices, and best tools are all being posted and discussed.  We’ve built a community that cares about the education of children.  Until this weekend, I didn’t know most of the members of my PLN, although I respected and admired their knowledge and dedication.  Had I never met them, I still would have benefitted from our conversations.  But this conference was a gift that allowed me to meet them face to face.  And I think we’ve all learned from the conversation.

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.

No Time for Assignments

Why are students always in such a hurry?  Is there really somewhere pressing to go or do once an assignment is complete?  As I looked at wiki postings from my eighth graders, I could not believe how hastily and incomplete a minor wiki posting had been done.  Students were merely to analyze their study time and habits, and to reflect on how they could best take advantage of their own available time.  I thought the assignment would not only be of interest to them, but would provide some practical information that would improve their study habits.  But they obviously did not see the value in the assignment, as most were incomplete and showed little thought.  To add insult to injury, several students handed me paper copies today, saying they had not had time to post their reflections.  They didn’t have time?  A little ironic that that was what the assignment was all about — time management.  I had to shake my head in disbelief.  What are they rushing to?

As I revised a lesson on search tools for sixth grade this week, research and statistics confirmed what I already instinctively knew: that things have changed dramatically in one short year.  Searchme, which I discussed last year,  no longer exists.  Bing has appeared and made a strong showing.  Google’s search share has increased.  Specific question and answer search tools have cut into market share.  And these are just the glaring examples.  If the tools themselves have changed so drastically, shouldn’t our lessons be changing to reflect these innovations?  It is discouraging to see the same assignments being recycled by teachers year after year, with little or no adaptation to take advantage of the advances in technology.  How are our students going to be prepared for future expectations when they have to take steps backwards to create outdated projects?  And why do teachers continue to insist on the completion of such futile assignments?  Again, I can come to only one conclusion: resistance to change.  But what, if not the needs of our students, is important enough to spur this change? Changes in technology must leave the boundaries of the computer lab and the library.  It doesn’t help to give students information and training if it’s never used in a practical sense to create an original product.  I’m beginning to wonder, though, when this will ever happen.  Technology training for faculty, sharing information on a faculty wiki, and face-to-face discussions have only produced a few converts.  When will the rest see the writing on the wall?  Only time will tell (if it doesn’t run out).

Back to Paper and Pencil?

PencilPaper_FullIt has been a revelation this week that students need a shift in mindset where technology is concerned as much as their parents and some educators do.  While most of us think of students as digital natives, willing and able to use anything remotely connected to technology, I have found just the opposite this week.  Some of my students were given a project on their class wiki to watch a presentation on plagiarism and to comment on it so that their classmates could read their thoughts.  It wasn’t a complicated assignment, and because it was online, there was no time designated for completion other than the due date.  In other words, it could be completed at home any time during the week.  This week, when the class came in, several assignments were still missing.  I was taken aback, because I thought I had made things so easy for them, not requiring that the assignment be completed in class or in school.  But because of this laxity, some students missed the concept that with freedom comes responsibility.  It was actually up to them to complete the assignment and when it fit into their schedule — they had to make time for it to meet the deadline. Unfortunately, some just assumed because it could be done at home, it lost all importance.  Somehow, in the big picture, it became very insignificant.  Somehow, it got lost.  I find it  ironic that easy access to assignments and information has made them less likely to be completed.  I thought students would be more than willing to take advantage of the technology.  I have been proven wrong.  Paper and pencil, anyone?

Excuses are Easy

acidbeat-afraidThere’s isn’t enough time.  It’s too hard.  We don’t have access to the necessary equipment.  What we’re doing is just fine.  These are just some of the excuses against embracing the use of technology in the classroom.  We’ve all heard them.  But are they a true reflection of  teachers’ feelings? After participating in an #edchat discussion on Twitter last night, some comments by members of my PLN reinforced something I’ve been sensing for awhile.  And that is, that all these comments are based in fear of failure.  All of us are trained professionals, who I think take pride in our classroom management skills and teaching techniques.  To think that something we’re unfamiliar or uncomfortable with is being introduced into the classroom, something that we most probably will not be proficient at, is unnerving.  And unfortunately, insecurity does not breed a willingness to change.  

But educators need to get past these feelings of inadequacy and embrace the tools that will improve teaching.  We need to step out of the teaching role that has become so ingrained, and become the students,  willing to experiment,  to try the unknown, and (should I say it?)  to fail.  There is no shame in not knowing everything, nor harm in making a mistake, even in front of a class.  Perfection has never been a requirement of educators, nor should it be.  Teachers should embrace the chance to continue learning and growing, just as we hope to inspire our students to do the same.  No one ever said it wouldn’t  be challenging, but then, only excuses are easy.