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Summer Issue

Vol 31|No 6|Summer 2021


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You can order Laptop Thinking and Writing here

A school without a librarian
is like a ship without a rudder

By Jamie McKenzie (about author)

As we emerge from the monstrous grip of the pandemic, the importance of quality, valid information has become even more important than ever before, and the role of a school librarian in steering a school forward is paramount. Sadly, in many schools, the librarian has been eliminated entirely, assigned to four schools or replaced by an aide with no training in library science or information literacies.

The nation’s public school districts have lost 20 percent of their librarians and media specialists since 2000, from more than 54,000 to less than 44,000 in 2015, according to an Education Week Research Center analysis of federal data. Many districts lost librarians even as student populations grew by 7 percent nationwide. For example, over the past decade in Denver public schools, student enrollment increased by 25 percent, but the number of librarians decreased by 60 percent. Source -- Ed Week



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What has changed?

Identifying reliable information sources has always been a challenging task, but some groups and individuals have recently made the search even more daunting by falsely assaulting the credibility of normally objective sources while promoting false claims and stories that have no basis in facts.

A skilled school librarian can help both teachers and students locate information that is dependable, good, well founded, well grounded, authentic, definitive, attested, valid, genuine, sound and true while equipping them to debunk that which is false.

In 1969, Neil Postman delivered a presentation at the National Convention for the Teachers of English [NCTE] -- “Bullshit and the Art of Crap-Detection

the phrase, “crap-detecting,” originated with Ernest Hemingway who when asked if there were one quality needed, above all others, to be a good writer, replied, “Yes, a built-in, shock-proof, crap detector.”

Postman was writing at a time when the US Government under President Nixon had been falsely claiming success in the Vietnam War as was revealed in the Pentagon Papers printed in the New York Times in 1971.

Now we have an ex president falsely claiming that the 2020 election was stolen and a band of followers challenging the value of vaccination.

As the New York Times reported in December of 2020 . . .

After bringing some 60 lawsuits, and even offering financial incentive for information about fraud, Mr. Trump and his allies have failed to prove definitively any case of illegal voting on behalf of their opponent in court — not a single case of an undocumented immigrant casting a ballot, a citizen double voting, nor any credible evidence that legions of the voting dead gave Mr. Biden a victory that wasn’t his.

To build a credible case of fraud, one must provide evidence, but the Trump team failed to do this and every one of the 60 courts rejected the claims. Even so, a large percentage of Americans have bought the lie, hook, line and sinker, as the saying goes.

Why is the librarian so important?



The school decides to become information literate

This possibility was defined and outlined in "The Information Literate School Community." It was Linda Langford who first coined this expression here.

Information literacy has three major components, all of which contribute to learners being able to "make up their own minds."

1. Prospecting: The first component of information literacy relates to the discovery of relevant information. This prospecting requires navigation skills as well as the ability to sort, sift and select pertinent and reliable data.

2. Interpreting: It is not enough to locate numbers, text and visual data. The learner must be able to translate data and information into knowledge, insight and understanding. The learner must be skilled at interpretation. Huge number sets have little value if we do not know how to "crunch" the data and convert it into charts or other forms which show relationships and help us to resolve issues and questions.

3. Creating New Ideas: True information literacy includes the development of new insights. We cannot be satisfied with rehashing the ideas of others. We expect to see fresh knowledge. We expect more than thinly disguised plagiarism.

Translating such ambitious goals into reality will require the leadership of a skilled school librarian working with a committed and enthusiastic principal and team of teachers as outlined below.



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This article builds a case for a shift in the job definition of school librarians that will increase their importance, optimize their impact on student learning and require proper funding and staffing. There are nine elements to this shift.

Some of the material in this article originally appeared in a keynote presented to the teacher librarians of British Columbia in October of 2010 — "Catching that Fresh Breeze." The keynote struck a nautical theme with the teacher librarian seizing the helm and sailing boldly into the future with firm leadership and great ideas.

Leader

The school librarian helps the principal and the teaching staff to see the wisdom of making information literacy a prime goal of the school.

Given the dramatic changes taking place in the way we learn about the world, this is a time when teacher librarians can act as trailblazers and leaders — scouts, if you will, helping schools to mobilize for the new opportunities rather than reacting passively. While many are just trying to get back to normal after COVID, the time is right for new goals and new commitments.

Planner

Once the school recognizes the enormity of the shift taking place in the way people learn about the world and communicate, someone has to map out the stages in the campaign. What is the three year plan? Who will take responsibility for the tasks involved? The principal might do this, but it would be best if the teacher librarian were the prime architect of the plan, advising and encouraging the principal to keep things moving forward.

Researcher

Teacher librarians should be exploring future program possibilities and strategies to make sure they are advancing rather than delaying the growth of information skills. Because the information landscape is changing rapidly and dramatically in ways that might enhance the influence and the position of librarians, they will benefit by keeping their eyes on the horizon. It will pay to know what is coming before anyone else in town. Keep an eye on organizations like the Library Futures Institute launched in January of 2021. The coalition includes EveryLibrary, Internet Archive, PublicKnowledge, Readers First, and SPARC, and others. Other groups worth following include Library Futures and the American Libraries magazine.

Inventor

The programs of the previous century will not suffice. The astute teacher librarian will be building new kinds of lessons for teachers as well as for students and their parents to help everyone make sense out of nonsense and resist the cultural drift that undermines independent thought and discovery. A different skill set is needed to navigate the new landscape, but many are unaware of this need. The teacher librarian can alert the school community to the pitfalls, perils and opportunities that confront the earnest learner.

Designer

Few packaged programs will get the job done. In this decade, the teacher librarian can tailor learning to elevate the information literacy skills of everyone in the school community. Design is closely allied with invention. Invention is especially devoted to the origination of a program, while design is about translating that invention into daily lessons and realities. All teachers should be instructional designers, despite the current attempt by some so-called reformers to create teacher proof materials and strategies. Standardization and mechanization work fine in factories and fast food restaurants, but they are unhealthy for children and other living things.

Critic

These are complicated times. Along with some wonderful developments, schools and students are confronted with lots of junk and many program choices that are unhealthy. It takes some courage to question the value of some of these choices. There is often pressure to go along with what is fashionable rather than fighting for what is valuable. The teacher librarian should challenge the fads that reduce quality and divert staff and students from the important work.

Professional Developer

Teachers will need to augment their skill sets to meet the challenges of this new information landscape. There is no one else in the school better suited to help them through this transition than the teacher librarian. It is a wonderful opportunity to support one's peers as they struggle to make sense of what often seems like a jungle. Much of this work can be accomplished in partnership. Peer coaching may be one of the best models. It is not so much abut offering courses and classes as guidance and support.

Cheer Leader

Because the journey will sometimes be painful and awkward, encouragement is essential. Everyone is on the boat, but many do not realize they have been swept up and along with the changes. Moving from denial to acceptance requires quite an emotional adjustment. The teacher librarian can translate the change into something beneficial, thereby winning "take up" rather than resistance.

Advocate

All across North America library programs have been slashed in ways that are unconscionable. How strange that we greet the Information Age by laying off the very people who might help us to adjust to the changes with strength and skill. To reverse this trend, teacher librarians must take the fight to the streets. Members of the community such as business leaders should be recruited to fight for stronger programs. The health of these businesses will depend upon graduates who can make up their own minds, solve problems with ingenuity and manage complexity with self assurance and skill. Along with parents, these community groups can persuade a board of education to restore school library programs to a robust level. But it will not happen unless school librarians act forcefully to mobilize support.

It may take several years for a school to approach the goal of universal information literacy. The journey requires a substantial and sustained commitment to professional development and program development.

How does a school know when it deserves to be called an information literate school community? When the following characteristics are abundantly evident, the phrase is well deserved . . .

  • Invention: Much of the school program is dedicated to problem-solving, decision-making, exploration and the creation of new ideas. Both teachers and students are increasingly engaged in the discovery and building of meaning.
  • Fluency: Teachers are becoming more comfortable with the need to move back and forth between an array of instructional roles and strategies. Sometimes they take advantage of efficiencies associated with direct instruction (the sage on the stage). Other times they facilitate more active student participation and inquiry (guide on the side). They are building a toolkit of strategies.
  • Support: The school provides ongoing support for all learners to develop thinking and information skills. These opportunities are rich and frequent.
  • Navigation: Teachers and students are developing efficient navigation skills. They can find their way through the new information landscape (as well as the old) with little lost time.
  • Searching: Teachers and students are sharpening search skills. They apply Boolean Logic. They search with appropriate syntax. They employ powerful search engine features to carve through mountains of information on their way to the most relevant sources.
  • Selection: Teachers and students are honing selection skills. They know how to separate the reliable from the unreliable source. They recognize propaganda, bias and distortion.
  • Questioning: Teachers and students are extending questioning skills. They know how and when to employ dozens of different types of questions. Some are best to solve a problem. Others help in making a decision or building an answer. Some work best early in the search. Others come into play toward the end.
  • Planning: Teachers and students are acquiring additional planning and organizational skills. They sort, sift and store findings to enhance later questioning. They make wise choices from a toolkit of research strategies and resources. They learn when a particular stage in the research process might prove most timely and when a particular strategy might produce the best results.
  • Interpretation: Teachers and students are improving in their ability to interpret information. They convert primary sources and raw data into information, and then they proceed further (beyond information) to insight. They translate, infer and apply what they have gathered to the issue at hand. They are skilled at making new meanings. They pass beyond mere consumption of information. They create new knowledge.
  • Deep Thinking: Teachers and students combine deep thinking and reading with a wide ranging search for relevant information. This quest for information is but the prelude to the more important work . . . solving a problem, creating a new idea, inventing a product or composing a symphony. Information literacy includes awareness of the limitations of information and the types of thinking required to move beyond those limitations.
  • Commitment: All curriculum documents include clear statements regarding the information literacy expectations that are developmentally appropriate for each grade level.

How can we tell that our school is approaching a mature level of information literacy? We assess the Traits of an Information Literate School, rewarding between zero and four stars for each trait according to where our school has progressed on what is for most a five year journey.

• Zero stars = Not an explicit goal. No journey started.
• One star = Starting out on the journey with good intentions.
• Two stars = Making good progress with observable results.
• Three stars = Highly developed and effective
• Four stars = World class. Not much room for growth or improvement.

Note: In the table below, the term "learners" applies to both staff and students.

Trait
The Traits of an Information Literate School

Description

Rating
Invention Much of the school program is dedicated to problem-solving, decision-making, exploration and the creation of new ideas. .
Fluency Teachers are becoming comfortable with the need to move back and forth between an array of instructional roles and strategies. .
Support The school provides rich and frequent ongoing support for all learners to develop thinking and information skills. .
Navigation Learners have the navigation skills to find their way through the new information landscape (as well as the old) with little lost time. .
Searching Learners apply Boolean Logic. They search with appropriate syntax. They employ powerful search engine features to locate pertinent information. .
Selection Learners know how to separate the reliable from the unreliable source. They recognize propaganda, bias and distortion. .
Questioning Learners know how and when to employ dozens of different types of questions in the search for understanding and meaning. .
Planning Learners possess planning and organizational skills. They sort, sift and store findings to enhance later questioning. They make wise choices from a toolkit of research strategies and resources. .
Interpretation Learners convert primary sources and raw data into information, and then they proceed further (beyond information) to insight. They translate, infer and apply what they have gathered to the issue at hand. .
Deep Thinking Learners combine deep thinking and reading with a wide ranging search for relevant information. This quest for information is but the prelude to the more important work . . . solving a problem, creating a new idea, inventing a product or composing a symphony. .
Commitment All curriculum documents include clear statements regarding the information literacy expectations that are developmentally appropriate for each grade level. The school community persists with the literacy goal over time. .
© J.McKenzie, all rights reserved. This table may be duplicated and used on paper only by schools and teachers. All other uses, distribution or publication are prohibited without explicit permission from the author.


Written materials, art work and photography on this site are copyrighted by Jamie McKenzie and other writers, artists and photographers. Written materials on these pages may be distributed and duplicated if unchanged in format and content in hard copy only by school districts and universities provided there is no charge to the recipient. They may also be e-mailed from person to person. All other uses, transmissions and duplications are prohibited unless permission is granted expressly. Showing these pages remotely through frames is not permitted. FNO is applying for formal copyright registration for articles.


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