Many of us fondly remember school librarians from our student days. They could match us with the perfect book as if they knew our every thought, whim, and interest. Today, school librarians still perform such book magic, but they do much more—and much that's valuable to teachers.
As schools try to provide professional development that builds teachers' expertise, we propose that they discover this "more" that school librarians can offer. You might be surprised at what the librarian down the hall can contribute to the teacher or the grade-level team facing new challenges. Because librarians know most of the teachers and students in the building, they are uniquely positioned to help put students at the center of teaching and learning. But just as Waldo is always hidden in plain sight in a crowd scene in "Where's Waldo?" puzzles, librarians' expertise too often blends into the background in a school filled with many resources and specialists.
It's time to find Waldo and bring all he has to offer into our professional learning. Here are three examples of how teachers and librarians might collaborate or coteach to feed teachers' professional growth—and increase students' thinking and engagement.
Beyond State Birds
Let's start in elementary school. Consider the state reports that many 4th and 5th graders create as part of meeting social studies standards. The student "researches" one of the 50 U.S. states and reports on the state's bird, flag, tree, flower, animal, and capitol. Students' final reports are frequently slide shows of these facts.
Imagine what this project might look like if the school librarian and a team of teachers worked together. Let's take a look at an elementary school in which the librarian and a team of 4th grade teachers worked together to tackle the 50 states. At this school, the librarian (whom we'll call Leah) met regularly with the 4th grade teacher team to discuss where she could help with their students' research. These teachers expressed an interest in converting their traditional "states" project from a simple reporting task into a substantive effort that would enforce research, writing, and speaking skills.
As the teachers and Leah brainstormed, they decided to reword the project's major question into one more likely to produce high-level thinking: "Many of our clothes, games, and sports equipment are produced in other countries. But can we discover things we often use that are produced in U.S. states and territories?"
With both teachers and the librarian guiding them, students began asking questions at home and school, such as, When our school was constructed, where did the glass, bricks, paint, and concrete come from? What about the furniture? What products do we have at home that come from different states? Where is our food grown? What about the plants and trees in the yard? Who would know, or who could help us find out?
Students recorded the answers to these questions and used an online curation tool called ThingLink to keep track of their initial findings. With this tool, a user posts an image onto an online page, then adds radio buttons under each image. When someone hovers the mouse over a button, an annotation or a URL related to the corresponding image pops up.
The 4th graders scanned in maps of various states with images of products that they thought came from that state. When they hovered the mouse over each product, a message popped up saying something like, "Mr. Smith told us the lumber for the school came from Wisconsin" or "Mrs. Haines suspects that the concrete for the school came from Utah."
Students used the Internet to dig further into this tentative information and make more discoveries, with Leah and their teachers helping them find credible sources. They added this evidence to their ThingLink maps.
As the culminating activity, students reflected on the big ideas they'd discovered through their research, such as this one: Many of the common products we discovered that are made in the United States are actually produced in parts of the country very close to us, while others are made far away. The class invited parents who worked in businesses related to the products they researched to come to the school and talk with students about issues of manufacturing, agriculture, and commerce. These guests and the students discussed where people might want to live if they were interested in a career in producing particular products. This let the students practice speaking and listening skills as well as engage in metacognition about the topics what Loertscher, Koechlin, and Zwaan have called a "Big Think."1
Great project, you may be thinking, but does it show a librarian providing professional development for teachers? Actually, yes. Leah enhanced teachers' learning by
- Reviewing the research process. After asking teachers to select research skills they needed to teach, Leah taught the 4th graders the pieces of the research process that teachers indicated they needed most help with—for example, helping students learn to judge the quality of information found on the Internet.
- Reviewing with teachers the best online resources for research into manufactured products and natural resources.
- Showing all members of the team how to help students use these resources for research.
- Helping teachers learn how to use ThingLink.
Collaborating in Online Spaces
In another collaboration, librarians and teachers formed a powerful coteaching team to help students bring change to their community. Two librarians from different middle schools were intrigued by a project they saw at the New York Makerfaire, a showcase of projects that use cutting-edge manufacturing technology like 3-D printers to create products. A group of college students had received a grant to host such "maker projects" for children and teens throughout Philadelphia. The college students guided the children and teens to transform junk they found in the neighborhood into useable inventions, such as a home for a pet or a patch for a damaged skateboard.
The librarians took the idea back to their schools' interdisciplinary science and language arts teacher teams. They discovered that the local parks department wanted to apply for a federal grant to create summer projects for kids, but hadn't firmed up a plan. Using Google Hangouts, the librarians gathered parks department officials, grant writers, and teacher teams from both schools for a brainstorming session. The group decided to have small teams of middle schoolers in the teachers' classes design and propose a variety of projects that would address community problems.
With librarians facilitating, student teams gathered ideas, researched them, and wrote proposals for small grants. Web 2.0 technologies like Google Docs enabled students to propose, write, revise, and get feedback simultaneously in real time, using their own ideas with help from outside experts. This process demonstrated the highest level of the SAMR model of four progressive levels of using digital technologies to affect learning—the Redefinition level. At this level, technology makes possible what was previously impossible. (See The SAMR Model: Background and Examples for more information on SAMR.) Students presented their ideas at an open house for parents and businesspeople, who chose which grants to fund. The superintendent contacted a few school-friendly local business executives, who promised that if a grant application was not chosen by anyone else, they would fund it.
These projects integrated the Next Generation Science Standards and the Common Core English and language arts standards. With their proposals, 8th graders practiced selecting, organizing, and analyzing relevant content.
School librarians provided just-in-time professional learning for the teachers involved in this authentic work. Teachers learned how to use Google Hangouts, Google Drive, Google Docs, and other Web 2.0 collaboration tools, as well as a variety of information resources.
Partnering to Flip
Now let's consider how librarians might give high school teachers the support needed to try flipping some classes. Two math teachers who were attending a day-long workshop on flipping the classroom as part of a districtwide professional development day were feeling a bit overwhelmed. At lunch, they saw their school librarians and asked whether these colleagues could help them make a plan for how to try flipping in their classrooms.
The librarians and teachers came up with a plan: They would ask their school principals to come to the two teachers' math classes to invite students to participate in a "major semester-long experiment"—and then to report their success with flipped learning methods at semester's end. Later that day at the districtwide event, these educators saw two of their principals and asked them on the spot to try out this plan. The principals agreed.
The teachers and the librarians then assembled a wide variety of short instructional videos that students could watch at home to prepare them for the math workshops that would take place during class time. They made several videos available on each concept so students could select the video that best suited their learning needs.
The tech-savvy librarians found a way to have students electronically rate the videos they watched, and they brought this data to the math teachers' department meetings. After reviewing students' choices and assessing what kinds of videos contributed to students' success during class time, teachers expressed interest in learning how to create their own videos and post them on YouTube. Their librarian peers taught them to do so. Students in flipped classes got in on the act; they asked the math department to sponsor a video creation marathon, during which students produced videos on math concepts that they were studying.
The school's administrators visited these classes from time to time to motivate students and praise their work. After several weeks of flipping classes, teachers noticed increased student engagement and understanding of high-level math concepts. By the end of the semester, 95 percent of the students in flipped classes met or exceeded the expectations of the classroom teachers and the librarians by creating videos for peers to use and by mastering the math content. The students also outperformed students in other math classes in the school being taught through traditional methods.
The professional development provided by these librarians led to a series of teacher- and student-produced math videos that are now available for homework help and class preparation. Students became so engaged in the new practice that they presented administrators, teachers, and librarians with a list of suggestions for improvements if the flipping experiment were to continue into the second term.
Look No Further
So where's your Waldo for professional development? You need look no further than partnering with your school librarian to deliver just-in-time learning that is specifically designed for teachers' needs.
For more ideas and examples like those described here of how librarians, teachers, and administrators can work together, you might consult the action brief recently released by The American Association of School Librarians and Achieve (Implementing the Common Core State Standards: The Role of the School Librarian).2
This brief gives more than 100 examples, drawn from the experiences of librarians, teachers, and administrators, of how school leaders can move the library into the center of teaching and learning and use an information- and technology-rich environment to fuel everyone's learning.
In a Big Think, as described by David V. Loertscher, Carol Koechlin, and Sandy Zwaan's book, The Big Think: 9 Metacognitive Strategies That Make the End Just the Beginning of Learning (Hi Willow Research and Publishing 2009), students and relevant adults reflect on a just-completed learning experience and pose three questions: What did we learn, how did we learn it, and how could we learn better next time?
This brief is also available free at http://achieve.org/publications/implementing-common-core-state-standards-role-school-librarian-action-brief.
Kathryn Roots Lewis is director of media services and instructional technology for the Norman Public Schools in Norman, Oklahoma, and chair of the Supervisors Section of the American Association of School Librarians. David V. Loertscher is professor of Library and Information Science at San Jose State University and coauthor with Carol Koechlin and Sandi Zwaan of The New Learning Commons: Where Learners Win.
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