Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Waiting for the Trustees’ Decision - by Kate Girard

Guest blogger Kate Girard is a teacher-librarian in SD68.  She is a change-maker and a passionate educator who inspire kids - and me. 

“Every person deserves a place furnished with hope.”
                                                                    Maya Angelou

What do you do when you’re waiting to hear if your job is going to be cut?  Panic, talk to others in the same boat, seek the support of colleagues and family, rail against the system, defend yourself, despair?  Yes—all of these.   As a secondary teacher-librarian in the Nanaimo-Ladysmith school district, I’ve been through a gamut of emotions in the past few weeks.

But about a week ago, I made a choice:  I would not let the decision of the school board define my work.  I think of the words of the Canadian writer Alastair MacLeod who died on Easter Sunday.  MacLeod’s son Daniel recounted at the funeral his father’s advice when times got hard:  “He’d say, ‘Well, I s’pose we’ll all have to keep going.’”

MacLeod was also famous for writing the last sentence of a story when he was about half-way through:  It acted as a kind of lighthouse, he said, to guide him to his destination.  Well, I too know the last sentence of my story as a teacher-librarian.  I know where I’m going.  And I suspect most of my colleagues do as well.

Libraries are in the midst of radical change.  The technological era has transformed not just the nature of library materials but the very way we all interact with knowledge, stories, and each other.  Schools too are on the edge of a revolution in learning.

This past week, I was excited to read a presentation by Stephen Harris, founder of the Sydney Centre for Innovation and Learning in Australia.  Called “Factories No More,” it is a 2013 slideshow that suggests most schools are practicing a 19th-century model of learning.  (You’ll find the slides on his Tumblr blog called Imagine Learning.) In the factory model of education, the teacher stands at the front, dispensing knowledge and controlling the activities of students arranged in rows.  Whether a Smartboard is behind the teacher or iPads are on every student’s desk, the basic relationship of teacher-learner is unchanged.

Harris argues we have to “disrupt” this model.  He quotes Alvin Toffler: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn” (italics mine). How can we teachers unlearn the paradigm of the factory model and relearn a new kind of interaction with our students?  Harris proposes we re-design our learning spaces so we cannot revert to old roles and methods.

His own school is a flagship of modern design for 21st-century learning.  In fact, I used several photos of it when the Barsby Learning Commons Vision Team went through our initial design process.  At that time, we imagined a space that would support us in “disrupting” our pedagogy and at the same time welcome all who entered it.

However, as we know, funds for re-design are short right now.  Our process was stalled as I tried to find ways of paying for a renovation. But last week, my hope was rekindled when I saw some photos near the end of Harris’s presentation. These images showed an empty parking garage transformed into a learning commons, furnished with piles of reinforced cardboard boxes, with spaces defined by paper-covered walls.  This learning commons was created for the 2012 Sandbox Global Summit in Lisbon.

When I saw these pictures, I knew our team at Barsby could follow our vision.  We too can be creative and design a space that will challenge us to learn in new ways.  It might not be fancy, but our library can become a true learning commons—a place created by all of us, for all of us, and for the best of education for our students in the coming decades.

That’s what I’ve been thinking about as I wait to hear if my job will be cut.  I want this vision to come true, whatever happens to my teaching position.  In these hard times, I’ve decided, like Alistair MacLeod, “we’ll all have to keep going.”

Saturday, April 26, 2014

We Need Teacher-Librarians Now More Than Ever

Every year for the last many in our school district and many others across our province, librarians have been on the list of “fat to be trimmed” at budget times. Perhaps it’s because the idea of libraries and librarians is connected to the past, to hushed spaces and painstaking research copied out of aging encyclopaedias.  They no longer fit in the 21st century. We have technology now. Research? Students can Google it! Books? They can download them. And the books we still have in libraries? Check them out electronically! Indeed, our district proposes streamlining the business of libraries to a half-time district librarian to order books and organize digital resources, the purchase of a new library system to allow students more flexible electronic access to all our libraries and a library clerk to open the doors, oversee students and re-shelve the books. Who needs librarians?

We do.  More than ever.

You would think that we've had enough time to learn that technology in and of itself changes nothing. You need people to think of ways to use the technology in meaningful ways, to apply their deep understanding of pedagogy and curriculum to technological possibilities. Developing a collection of digital resources, for example, is as complex as curating a physical collection. Finding relevant, stable and accurate resources, keeping them constantly up-dated and organizing them to meaningfully support curriculum and classroom teachers in a way that is easy and consistent is not a task that can be done by an assistant. It can’t even be done by district personnel. Each school, each teacher, develops unique curricular perspectives based on their students need, their own expertise and passion, and what's already available in the school. Gathering resources to meet the individual needs of teachers and students in classrooms – and oh, how important this is! – is the work of teacher-librarians. Now, with the diversity in our classroom demanding a range of resources on every topic (in shifting proportions every year), with yet another change of curriculum looming in BC, with cuts to district resource centres and classroom budgets, we need teacher-librarians. More than ever.

And because of technology, we need them to support student research more than ever. In schools with ready access to the technology, we are moving toward personalized, passion-led student inquiries, student choice and big ungoogleable questions rather than “find and record” research. We are moving from the inevitable essay to videos, websites, and digital presentations through a variety of ever-changing tools from Prezi to Voicethread. How can a teacher alone support this transition? How can they ensure students have the skills and strategies necessary? Yes, technology has changed the game in libraries, but not so we can eliminate them; we need them now more than ever. Their lessons on citing resources have morphed from correct punctuation to discussions of creative commons, how to acknowledge video clips and what music you can use for your presentation and where to find it.  They have had to be on the front line of learning about technology tools, about digital safety and cyber etiquette, about credible sources and how to help students find relevant information – the needle in the proverbial haystack of cyberspace. In our current budget proposal, library skills would now be the responsibility of the enrolling teacher. Of course. I’m just curious to know when and how they are going to learn all of these new things along with continually updating materials and pedagogy in their own subject areas. Because one thing is certain: kids need to learn these skills now more than ever. Just handing students laptops and telling them to “do research” is like giving a ten-year old the keys to a car to pick up milk at the supermarket. We definitely still need teacher-librarians. More than ever.

But it is perhaps the traditional role of the teacher-librarian that is most important now more than ever: putting the right book in the right hands at the right moment. The just-right resource (today we include, of course, a vast variety of carefully chosen digital artifacts as well, which expands the role of the teacher-librarian rather than shrinking it) can make a profound difference, moving a student inquiry from frustration and disengagement to excitement and passion, connecting students to a complex topic, inspiring new thinking and – this might seem like hyperbole, but I've seen it with my own eyes – changing lives. I have watched teacher-librarians coax even the most reluctant reader, showing him first one book, then another, watching carefully for his eyes to light up and then pouncing, stacking similar books until a match is made. I have watched them go to the bookstore in the evening to buy the next book in a series if they've caught the imagination of a reluctant reader. “Look what I've got,” I hear them say to these students who, over the course of a year or two or three, with the teacher-librarian setting the bait, become hooked at last on reading. And reading, we all know this, changes lives. But this work can’t be done by an assistant or district personnel or a new electronic library system. This is the intimate, personal (personalized) work of teacher-librarians, quiet behind-the-scenes life-changing work. And it’s more important than ever as the attention of children is seduced by the many, many choices that technology offers.

I heard someone say, and I can’t remember who now, that librarians are stewards of important things. It seems ominous that we are proposing their elimination. In this rapidly changing world where new things flash and fade continuously and abundance threatens to bury us in trivia, we need teacher-librarians. More than ever.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Danger of Groupthink in Schools

As much as I continuously tout working together as a positive solution for education, there is a dark side that we are more vulnerable to than many other profession: groupthink. It explains what I think may be our gravest obstacle to progress: a continuous leaping from bandwagon to bandwagon rather than simply moving forward.

Groupthink, as explained by workplace psychologist Dr. Jennifer Newman on CBC earlier this month (Early Edition, April 3), is a kind of group peer pressure that leads to bad, even unethical or immoral decisions. Teams that lack diversity are most in danger of falling into groupthink and educators, given their very similar education and mindset (by and large, a certain kind of person chooses the profession), are a fairly homogenous group. Add a strong leader, either a charismatic or autocratic one, and the danger of groupthink increases. This is further exacerbated, in education, by the fact that most of us have never left school – high school to university and back to school as a teacher – because we are good at “doing school”, that is, doing what we’re told.

Groupthink begins, of course, from a positive position. We want to do the right thing. We want to improve. We want to get beyond talking in circles, dithering, and scattering our energies to move forward. Perhaps where the switch to groupthink occurs is at the point where we believe that to work together effectively we must have consensus and cohesion above all else. Dr. Newman points out that this focus leads to “dehumanizing others”: it is “us” – the cohesive team – against “them” – the dissenters.

The team then builds its coherence around a set of beliefs about what’s right and what actions ought to take place, gathering information and opinions that shore up their beliefs – and ignoring what doesn't. As the “evidence” stacks up, the team begins to believe that they have right on their side and grow what Dr. Newman calls “unchecked arrogance.” They have no need to listen to the dissenters: they are right. Even if some people on the team have a niggling feeling that something is wrong, they don’t speak up.  They want to be team players.  And more insidious, they fear rejection or even job loss. In fact, instead of dissent, the opposite happens: the team starts to hold back any information that doesn’t fit, and what pioneering groupthink researcher Irving Janus termed a cadre of “mind-guards” actively keep dissenting information back from the leader or team.

It’s hardly surprising that another symptom of groupthink is an illusion of invulnerability – whatever the team does will work because they are in the right! They succumb next to collective rationalization: if something doesn't work out as envisioned, it can be explained by the fact that “the others” are not being team players. After a while, as the group continues to shut out, exclude and guard against dissenting voices, the illusion of unanimity grows: “everyone” agrees (at least anyone who is anyone – or wants to keep the job).

Perhaps it isn't so dangerous in times of plenty. But now, “in difficult financial times, when hard decisions must be made” (the pat phrase), continued lavish spending on the in-group’s projects and special positions means deeper cuts everywhere else, even at the expense of foundational programs: libraries, for example, special education, the basic support for classrooms from secretaries to educational assistants to custodians, books, teaching supplies.

It is unsurprising that after a while, when the wildly optimistic promises are unfulfilled and the unchecked bad decisions (these deep cuts made to key programs, positions and resources to continue to fund the team’s vision) begin to erode the well-being of the enterprise, the in-group is dismantled.  Unfortunately, all too often, they are replaced by yet another strong leader who promises that the problem will be eradicated:  he or she will build a cohesive team!

And we begin again.