Thursday, August 2, 2018

The Value of Museums for Inquiry and Information Literacy

 Last week, I had the opportunity to visit the Shofuso House in Philadelphia. The house was a gift to the United States from Japan in the 1950s. As I listened to the docent speak, I was very conscious about the wide range of information I was receiving and questions that I had about it. I thought about the context of the gift, the considerations the architect made during the design process, the current status of the facility, and numerous other factors about the institution. A museum experience, such as this one, provides a perfect opportunity for us to consider our thinking process, to reflect on how we build knowledge, and to challenge our inquiry skills.

As I explore and teach information literacy, I find myself wondering how others take in information. One can choose to look at the pretty Japanese garden and just enjoy the beauty, for example, but that only scratches the surface -- How big do Koi get? How do they survive the winter? How do they keep that tree pruned? Is a big pruned tree like that called a "Bonsai" tree or is that just little trees? From where did all these visitors here today come? How many gardens in the United States were gifted to us by Japan? How about other nations? Do the United States ever gift gardens to other countries? How do these gardens help us cross cultural boundaries? What does a natural paradise such as this one mean to the citizens of this area?

Objects are underutilized in the classroom to encourage inquiry and I would like that to change. I have written before about the value of objects for education. I have encouraged my museum colleagues to partner with others to introduce their objects to teachers and students, but some of the burden needs to be placed with educators too. Cultural heritage institutions exist, in part, to help you with your mission to educate. Think about the following:
  • What kinds of objects will make your students more curious? 
  • What kinds of questions do you want your kids to ask? 
  • What connections between curriculum and "real world" should your kids be making? 
  • What information links should they be forming to better understand contexts and develop information literacy skills?  
  • What museums are in your area that can help?
School librarians, consider how you can use objects and museums to enhance your information literacy curriculum. How can you use object as a launching point into larger contexts? How can you relate objects to the written word? How can objects enhance the critical thinking skills you teach as an information specialist?

Information literacy involves layers of knowing and inquiry. It is our challenge as educators and keepers of objects to consider these layers, and to get our students/patrons to consider them too.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Curiosity Did Not Kill the Cat. We Are Killing Curiosity.

Have you ever traveled on public transportation with your head buried in your phone the whole time? I like to sit and look around for awhile. I'm aware of the people with whom I am traveling. I note things about my surroundings. What colors are around me? Is it hot or cold on this bus? Does this train sound like my beloved Boston (subway) T or Amtrak? I look at the ads. I decipher what I'm seeing. Then, I may bury my head in my phone or a book for awhile.

When I was in college, I remember constantly exploring. I'd walk through educational halls reading posters. I'd stop at professors doors and read quotes they liked to hang up. I actually put quotes on my own office door in my library as a professional, but I rarely see anyone reading my Calvin and Hobbes comics or my Teddy Roosevelt sayings about believing in yourself. If students wait outside my door, their heads are usually buried in their phones. How much are they missing about their surroundings?

According to the American Library Association, "Information literacy is a set of abilities requiring individuals to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information." For the school librarian, the process of cultivating curiosity is part of the teaching of information literacyThe goal of the school librarian should be to encourage students to slow down, look around, think, and ask questions.

When one passively absorbs information, one is not truly engaged with the building of knowledge. Passive absorption of information, such as when one reads though Twitter posts or snapchats, can discourage a holistic view of knowledge. Teachers must encourage students to absorb and decipher information. This involves helping students to be curious about everything that they encounter. This involves asking questions.

I recognize that I need information about the people and places around me so that I better understand my own place in the world. I submit that my students do not recognize this in themselves. Information literacy is endangered in this modern society because of multiple factors:
1. Too much information is overwhelming and tends to shut down one's desire to decipher what is really happening.
2. The ability to disseminate information is so easy that poor quality information abounds, making it more difficult to decipher good information from bad.
3. Modern technology encourages us to bury our heads in devices and to passively swipe left, burying our curiosity.
4. The fast pace of life, encouraged in part by almost instantaneous access to information, discourages people from listening attentively and slowing down to be fully present. 

Answers sometimes kill questions. When answers come to quickly, we forget to ask questions.

I want my students to ask as many questions as needed to ensure they fully understand the information in front of them. We should add our questions' answers to our store of knowledge. Shake them up inside of us and then thread a needle in and out of new knowledge to stitch the information to our sense of self. What do I know? What do I not know? What else can I learn? How can I make myself better through knowledge? How can my own knowledge, skills, and ability to learn help change the world?

Scientists don't fully understand curiosity, but curiosity is a rich subject for research. I do know that curiosity does not always come naturally, it can be killed, and it must be encouraged. Teach your students the 8 habits of curious people and help them cultivate them through continual inquiry. Curiosity won't kill you. It will only make you stronger. 

Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Importance of Reflection

There are few things in life more important than reflection. Where did I start? How did I get through my journey? What will I do better next time? Reflection helps us grow as individuals and as communities. It demands time to consider actions and encourages us to think of ways to improve in similar circumstances. This is integral to learning.

At the end of each project I do with my students, I require reflection. It is built into the projects and serves as a pause that cements into the brain what has been learned. Without reflecting, people fall into habits. Whatever we have done comfortably in the past, we continue to do. In practical terms in a school research setting, students jump on Google, type in a question, and use the first five Google hits to write their term papers. It may not be the correct way to do things, but it is easy and is what they have always done. That is not learning.

Reflection does not need to take a long time. It can be just a five-ten minute exercise for some.  It just takes good open-ended questions and prompts, such as:

  • Name three things you learned in this project
  • Why is it important to vet your sources?
  • What was the hardest part of this project for you?
  • What will you do differently to improve your research next time?

At the end of each project, I too reflect on what went well and what did not. I share my reflections with my co-teachers and my boss. Furthermore, I keep this blog, in part, to aid my overall reflection of my work. Beyond work, I keep a diary to reflect on my life. Taking time to think deeply about my actions helps me improve my future decisions AND gives shape to my life. I have a strong sense of self and purpose, in large part because of my reflection skills.

I find that my more advanced and thoughtful students will take longer with reflections, but for many, reflecting does not come naturally. In this fast paced digital era, considering past successes and failures might not occur if teachers do not build it into projects. My students quickly move from one activity to another - Get out of class, text a friend, play an online game, take a selfie...reflection serves as a means to slow down modern day distractions. It is my hope that even just a little reflecting time will help people recognize its value and build a desire for more reflection.

I ended the school year with a reflection exhibit that asked kids the following:

  • What are the two best memories you have of this year?
  • In what areas do you feel you have improved the most?
  • What are three new things you have learned?
  • What subject have you enjoyed the most?
  • What have you learned about yourself this year?
  • What are you most proud of this year?
Reflection reminds us that we are constantly changing and that the world around us is changing too. Considering how and what we learn allows us to better understand how we fit in the world. It should not be an optional part of education.

Monday, June 18, 2018

The Biggest Challenge

One strong librarian skill is sorting information. I constantly and automatically sort things in my head.

New plant for my garden: What other pinks do I already have? What other plants do I have in this family? What garden in my yard will this best fit because of the plants' size, habits, etc.?
New cleaning supplies for the house: Do I already have this kind of brush or that chemical? Will I store this one in the upstairs closet or downstairs? Will the tall bottle fit in that space? Do I need another storage space?
News story on the radio: How does this relate to what I already know? Is this similar to another story I've heard? Does it run counter to it? What other subjects does this relate to?

If you are in a business that requires you to sort information, such as genealogy, I'm sure you sort in your head too. When I was a young adult, it was surprising to me that not everyone sorted this way. I've spent my adult life trying to pick apart this skill to teach others and I think this is the biggest challenge of librarians. How do we get others to think about information as something that needs categorization? How do we show that this benefits our understanding of the world and keep us from being overwhelmed by information?

I don't know where I picked up this skill of categorizing everything. I'm not sure if it was learned or ingrained. When I was young, I spent many Sundays in my room turning on Channel 5 (in New York) on my small black and white television. I played the afternoon movie in the background and sorted things. I dusted and moved around collections of plastic horses on my shelves, I shuffled through baseball cards. I arranged my underwear by day of the week. I knew that this was not my siblings' idea of a relaxing afternoon, but I didn't give our different interests much thought at that point.

One day, when I was a young mother, I watched my daughter take her crayons and line them up by color on the step leading from one room in our house to another. My mom and I began calling the skill that my daughter and I both had "the librarian gene." Some Professional organizers seem to believe that this skill is fully learned. After watching my daughter, I tend to think it is at least in part innate. From wherever the talent comes, it is related to sensemaking and is critical to understanding the information around us.

Making sense of the world around us involves analyzing our organization of information that is new to us

I just finished grading my final research papers for the year. Those students who did best on them were the ones who best organized their information right from the start. They made headers for sections as they took notes; they kept track of sources; they looked for keywords that better allowed them to make connections between information; they asked questions about what they read and sought answers; they reflected on their own thinking. These students have an awareness that I had difficulty helping many others reach. Though there are many successes I can cite this past year in teaching information organizational skills to my students, I am greedy. I want to crack the shell of confusion that prevents many students from understanding.

The school librarian's biggest challenge? How can the teaching of organizational skills be applied to the often overwhelming world of information? I look to all of my organization colleagues for answers.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Dawn of Information Literacy

The Information Services Environment Relationship and Priorities

Back in March, I posted about Information Literacy in the 21st Century. I began wondering about the origins of the term. I have been promoting the importance of information literacy, but find that many outside of the library field are not familiar with the idea. I think it is important for information professionals to understand its development so we can better explain its value.

The term "information literate" seems to go back to 1974, when Paul Kurkowski discussed the partnership between libraries and private companies in the information industry. In "The Information Services Environment Relationship and Priorities," Zurkowski explained the need for readily available information to be balanced with capitalist venture. He held that the private sector and libraries could play mutually supportive roles and work to achieve an information literate society. In such a society, people would understand how knowledge is given form as "information," the tools for sharing the information, and how to leverage that information to propel a democratic society.

"Zurkowski’s voice was prophetic." He recognized that, "people were encountering an increasing variety of information-seeking procedures." They had multiple means for accessing information in diverse resources, yet most did not understand or properly use tools for gaining access (Badke, 2010). Zurkowski set the agenda for the future by saying, '[M]ore and more of the events and artifacts of human existence are being dealt with in information equivalents, requiring retraining of the whole population.”*  Of course, in 1974, Zurkowski was not addressing the information explosion that would occur two decades later when the desktop computer became a home staple and the World Wide Web dawned. His analysis of information partnerships and the information literacy need becomes even more important in today's information economy.

Zurkowski aimed to achieve an information literate society by 1984. Perhaps others did not fully understand his radical vision. Perhaps the Internet revolution has made that goal much more difficult to achieve. It is still a worthy goal and information professionals need to speak up about its importance. Our cause has roots and history that we can use to promote our agenda. What would it take to achieve an information literate society today?

* Badke, William. Foundations of information literacy: Learning from Paul Zurkowski. 2010 Available: [accessed May 20 2018]

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Vetting Sources

A couple months ago, my Curriculum Coordinator mentioned an article in the March 19th edition of the weekly The Marshall Memo, which provides a weekly "roundup" of information related to k-12 education. The article called "Why Students Should Not Use a Checklist to Assess Websites" discusses a Stanford University Study of the CRAAP test created and promoted by California State University at Chico.

The problem, say the [Stanford] authors, is that checklists don’t equip people to deal with “an Internet populated by websites that cunningly obscure their true backers: corporate-funded sites posing as grassroots initiatives (a practice commonly known as astroturfing); supposedly nonpartisan think tanks created by lobbying firms, and extremist groups mimicking established professional organizations. By focusing on features of websites that are easy to manipulate, checklists are not just ineffective but misleading. The Internet teems with individuals and organizations cloaking their true intentions. At their worst, checklists provide cover to such sites” (Marshall Memo, March 19, 2018)

I told my Curriculum Coordinator, "I agree and disagree with the article. It's not just about handing students a checklist. It's about using the checklist as a scaffold, explaining what each part of the checklist means, and having students justify their decisions."  I am providing you the checklist below.  It serves as a useful tool for my freshman and sophomores to think about what goes into a good web site. I wholeheartedly promote the benefits of using a checklist to discuss the validity and authority of information.

When teaching my freshmen to evaluate sites, I talk about Kim Jong Un and the Chinese government being fooled by an article in the Onion. I also talk about my student years ago who was trying to determine if a hatched Luna moth ate straight for a week and then died, or didn't eat at all for a week  and then died. The student had found two sites with .edu extensions with conflicting information. It turned out one was written by a lepidopterist and the other was written by a second grade class. The checklist reminds my students to consider individual things such as web extensions and web site intent, but forces them to then consider these individual elements as part of a larger whole. In the end, they must use critical thinking skills to determine the validity of a web site.

There is a lot that goes into evaluating web sites. A checklist, which a teacher/librarian can use to support students and model good searching habits, is a good starting point.

“Why We Need a New Approach to Teaching Digital Literacy” by Joel Breakstone, Sarah McGrew, Mark Smith, Teresa Ortega, and Sam Wineburg in Phi Delta Kappan, March 2018 (Vol. 99, #6, p. 27-31), Cited in The Marshall Memo.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Look for the Experts

According to The Atlantic, there were more than 1 billion web sites in 2014. In my first research lesson with grade 9 students, after discussing databases, I discuss vetting sources and authority with regard to researching Shakespeare and his times.

Searching for Shakespeare online gave me 45,800,000 hits in Google today and 34,900,000 hits in Bing.

Despite these dramatic numbers, students often look at the first 5 answers they find in a Google search and write research papers based on the information on those sites. I ask them to acknowledge this reality and then I ask them how they know that these top five offer the best information out of 45 million choices. How do they even know that it is good (accurate) information? In our first lesson in information literacy on the World Wide Web I tell them...

"Look for the experts."

I ask the students, "If the Internet did not exist [big collective 'GASP'], where would you go in the world to find someone or something that has information about Shakespeare and his times? Let's say I'm going to give you all the money you need to fly somewhere to find an expert. Where are you going to go?"

"Uh, London?"

"Absolutely!" I say. "Have fun on your trip!

Our discussion continues. We back up and I ask them what an expert is. An expert has credentials. We discuss what kinds of credentials are appropriate for a Shakespeare expert. In grade 10, I co-teach a marine biology research project. In grade 10, we talk about credentials in marine biology.

We then talk about where in particular they might find an expert. Their first answer is invariably a library. (Which gives me warm fuzzies all over.)  "YES! Which library? Did you know that there is a library called the Folger Shakespeare library? It's actually not in London. There are also University libraries in London and around the world with information about Shakespeare. Also think of museums. Is it possible that someone may know about something and not have a PhD?" I ask. "Maybe someone who has worked in a place for a long time?"

As a librarian, my database discussion acquaints students with where to find authoritative secondary sources. Using my background as an archivist, my inclination is to emphasize primary source materials and those who work with them. Asking students where in the world people find primary sources gives them a different perspective on authority.

I talk to my students about the types of places around the world that people work in various fields. We discuss the rebuilt Globe theater, the Shakespeare Trust, Elizabethan museums. We discuss their archives and artifacts. I explain how these types of sites often (not always) post information and publications for educational purposes.  We discuss media sites such as PBS and BBC and how such organizations often work with experts to put together documentaries and other useful educational materials. I provide students with links to these places to help them become better acquainted with authority.


I also add, "There is so much information about Shakespeare on the Internet, why would you settle for anything less than an expert?"

I caution that there are so many people who love Shakespeare and make web pages about him, there is quite a bit of information of lower quality. "Let's say, for example, that there is a neurosurgeon who studies Shakespeare as his hobby. Would you use his page or someone with a PhD in Elizabethan studies with a Shakespeare concentration."

A student asks, "Well, what if the neurosurgeon has been studying Shakespeare for a long time?"

"Okay," I encourage, "How can you tell if he knows what he is talking about? 

"Look for the word 'About' on a web page

"It may also say something such as 'My background.' If that neurosurgeon tells me that he's published about Shakespeare in a big journal, I'd use his work. Otherwise, I'd look for a true expert who has."

Determining authority and vetting sources is an ongoing discussion that must occur through the primary and secondary school years for students to develop a deep understanding of it. For students to be truly information literate by the time they leave high school, they must be exposed to a wide range of good and bad sources. In my next blog post, I will discuss a tool I use to help ninth and tenth graders to dig deeper into locating and vetting sites on their own.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Databases and the Research Process

We begin in databases for student research. Why use a database?

  • Sources have been vetted. (i.e. They have been checked by experts for accuracy and reliability)
  • Many sources in databases are not available on the Internet. They are behind a paywall.
  • Databases have been purchased with student projects in mind. (i.e. I purchase what I know they need)
  • Sources within the database are often written on a student level, with varying lexiles (readability) for varying student needs.
  • Databases provide multiple types of sources in a neat package, including magazine articles, reference books, academic journals, videos and audios
  • College-bound students will use databases for academic research. Acquainting students with database use now will save them from head-ache, heart-ache and possibly failure post-secondary school.
I've created several YouTube videos to help my students with database searching, combining information about planning for our search (which I discussed in my last blog post) with the beginning of the actual research process. Some learners may absorb information better from a video than lecture style in the classroom; they may benefit from a video that they can replay several times. This is a sample of one of my database training videos on YouTube.

Students learn about authority as part of their 9th grade English research project at my high school. Databases help ease them into understanding what a good source looks like before we unleash them on the Internet. (In my next post, I will talk more about Internet searching and high school students.) We require students to find one database article, one book source. (Yes, they actually need to touch a printed book), one Internet source, and one source of their choice. Their free choice is often a second database source as information in the databases on their subjects is plentiful and easy to find in comparison to finding a good Internet source via Google.

Where a college can have dozens of databases for student use, with many specific databases for varied majors and professions, high school databases are more limited. We use several including varied EBSCO databases, varied Galenet databases, and SIRS. Students must learn which databases suit their needs, gaining an understanding of how information is organized and shared. The goal is for students to understand that information comes from somewhere. I find that few students think about sources before they reach me. In the 21st century, information is just at their fingertips. I want students to realize that people give information form in their writing, video creation, and through images. People have varied expertise. Sources are of varying quality. You must carefully choose what kind of source you should use to support your point as a researcher or when you need to make critical decisions.

All-in-all, databases provide a container for information in various forms. While a pay-database contains information with varied degrees of authority, information has been reviewed prior to inclusion in the tool. While anyone can post anything on the Internet, databases are more selective, providing a good starting place for kids to think about information quality, quantity, and usefulness.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Research as a Process

"When you are given a research assignment, how many of you Google a question and take information from the top 5 Google results to write your paper?" The kids in the classroom look at me with saucer eyes. Some glance from side to side at their peers and slowly hands begin to raise. I shoot my hand into the air, though I don't think I have ever "Googled" a question. That not how we were taught in the relatively olden days. You would thumb through the card catalog looking for keywords. Moving to databases was a natural shift for us. Keyword and subject searching still ruled in the 90s. "It's okay," I say. "Almost everyone does it. You can be honest. I'm just going to teach you a better way today. You need to promise me that you will try my way. For this project, the process of finding the answers is just as important, more important, than the answers you find."

It's all about the process and inquiry. To teach information literacy, you must teach process and you must teach (as funny as it sounds) curiosity. 21st century kids want to jump to the answer. They are accustomed to Siri pulling an answer from mysterious parts and handing it to them on a silver platter. It doesn't necessarily matter if it is the right answer; It is an answer. People often think that's all they need. One thing we are lacking as a society (in general and happening only recently) is a natural sense of curiosity.
We have forgotten how to ask questions, allowing our search engines and news feeds to do the work of finding answers for us without question. Instead we should:
  • use questions to help us think critically
  • question and seek multiple points of view 
  • not only question ideas of others, but also question our own ideas
  • allow questioning to propel us toward a sound answer, not just any answer
We must teach curiosity as tied to process and inquiry. That's what we do for "The Shakespeare Project." This is a grade 9 assignment that reaches all students and encourages them to ask questions, identify keywords, perform close reading, and build skills for more in-depth research assignments as they continue through high school. Five years ago, I began collaborating with colleagues and re-molding this assignment into one focused on process - walking kids through it in baby steps.  We help the kids pay attention to their thoughts about what they are researching, how they are finding information, how their inquiry improves over the course of the project. We begin with a planning stage through the following:

  1.  Write a sentence explaining your topic. Underline the keywords. e.g. I am researching Life in Shakespeare’s London, which includes the occupations and treatment of workers in Elizabethan England.
  2. Write synonyms for your underlined words and phrases. e.g. "16th century," Renaissance, sixteenth century, jobs, work
  3. Write some questions you have about the topic. Be sure to broaden and narrow your focus. e.g.
  • What kinds of jobs did people have in Elizabethan England?
  • How much were they paid?
  • Were they treated well?
  • How many hours did they work and how much were they paid?
As students research, they are encouraged to continually note new words that help them find new answers. They are assessed based on continued questioning of their own ideas and the resources they find.

The process of inquiry is the key to success. In my next post. I will talk about the tools we use to propel research and how this early inquiry or planning piece sets the stage for finding solid answers.