Advocacy: part of our role?

From 1991 to 2002 I was an active committee member of the Australian Library & Information Association (ALIA) – and gladly gave up many hours of personal time to attend School Libraries Section (NSW Group) meetings, ALIA NSW Branch meetings and national ALIA Renewal meetings – only leaving when I returned to classroom teaching in 2003. (Sadly for the local School Libraries Section, it did not survive the “renewal” program of ALIA, or the retirements of many of its committee. Try as we did, we couldn’t tempt too many new/young TLs to commit to advocacy from a professional association stance.)

What other strategies can TLs can use now, to make sure that we do have the ongoing/evolving support of “politicians, unions, and professional associations”? Yes, of course every student in Australia deserves equity, but has recent Australian research demonstrated that it really is the “services of a professional qualified teacher librarian” in NSW that increases student achievement of outcomes? What else can NSW TLs and their professional associations do to convince other states’ powers-that-be that they need trained teacher-librarians in every interstate school?

As I said a previous post, NSW TLs can (and do) at least send messages via our actions in schools to the people making the decisions about NSW schools. Furthermore, we can make presentations at annual NSW DET and ASLA NSW conferences, (as I have been doing these past three years since returning to teacher-librarianship – so far no interstate invitations, but I’m willing to travel). The whole point of evidence-based practice is so we can actually prove that TLs make value-added contributions to our students’ educations. Then, hopefully, we find ways to bring those successes to the attention of the other states’ stakeholders, demonstrating that they are missing out on a crucial human resource: a trained TL.

Something very dramatic does need to happen to alter the current state of play. If the advocacy load should not be on the already-overburdened NSW TL, how will the politicians and unions suddenly be convinced to take up advocacy on our behalf, especially if we decide we are simply too over-burdened to do it ourselves?

We can blow a lot of hot air their way, sure, and write lots of letters and blog entries – and the other states can gnash their teeth in jealous misery – but it is solid action research that is going to provide the evidence for change. We have a prime minister bequeathing grants for new BER school libraries – all over NSW – over the next two years. Isn’t that a strong sign of someone noticing the work of NSW TLs? (Why wasn’t the money shunted into other types of buildings?)

NSW TLs do need to commit ourselves to proving that these promising, current efforts are going to be worthwhile. Unfortunately, that’s more advocacy work for us. A lot more.

School libraries leading learning: Day 1

Ian McLean by Carol Thomas

I set the alarm clock for 6.00 am this morning, fully intending to swing past the school, on my way to the railway station to attend the first day of School libraries leading learning, the NSW State Conference of ASLA and the Department of Education and Training. (To my horror, it was still pitch dark outside. My dog looked at me, quite bewildered, and wanted to refuse the only chance he’d have to relieve himself, and I eventually decided to phone in the last-minute instructions to my replacement in the school library. By sheer luck, it wasn’t a heavy teaching load day; much of her day was to be spent policing the preview browsing of the annual Book Fair, which starts in earnest next week.)

I’ve spent many snatches of time over the last month, tinkering with the text and images I intend to use for my talk on Saturday (“Working with wikis”), and I was a little daunted, judging by comments in the organisers’ emails that most of the other presenters were beavering away on PowerPoint presentations, but I had decided to upload my speech notes and dot point headlines to a page on the school library wiki instead. So, unless there’s a power glitch at the conference tomorrow, I can demonstrate the wiki – live – at the same time as I flash up my notes. That’s the idea, anyway. We’ll see. (In fact, I’m tempted to revamp them a little, to incorporate some of today’s ideas – see below; if the notes had been a physical handout I’d printed off during the week, I’d have been stuck!)

Today there were fascinating, insightful and encouraging speeches from Dr Ross J Todd (Keynote, plus “Guided Enquiry: from Information to Knowledge”) and John Callow (“Literacy & Diversity: from Shakespeare to Second Life”), both of whom took their areas of expertise to the next level, with the challenges of Web 2.0 high on the agenda. I know Ross as a lecturer and tutor from my UTS days (retraining as a teacher-librarian in 1990). and then as Scan‘s Research Columns touchstone. John, I’ve known since he visited my previous school as our then-DSP (Disadvantaged Schools Program) literacy advisor, and again through Scan when I commissioned him to write some articles about visual literacy and the then-“new learning environments”. I thoroughly enjoyed their sessions and I am glad that ASLA NSW’s website will have their PowerPoint presentations available to attendees. I did take notes as well, but on paper. With a pen. The old-fashioned way. 😉

I also attended a Judy O’Connell session on “Learning is a multi-modal conversation”, which opened up an enormous number of possibilities, although many of the Web 2.0 facilities Judy uses in her current school are blocked to NSW DET schools by our firewall. If teacher-librarians are yet to come to terms with blogs and wikis, then Facebook, My space, Twitter and Second life are going to be very daunting indeed! Judy also challenged the audience to consider why no one appeared to be: using their mobile phone (to send off live shots of the conference proceedings direct to their blogs); or tapping away on Twitter (on their laptops) while she spoke; or seeing the conference as a live feed to overseas locations. Interestingly, such phenomena has been slow to hit our shores – or at least this conference – and this is clearly the next wave of information-sharing habits which will become status quo for conference audiences verysoonnow.

In fact, a brochure I read a few weeks ago, about an upcoming Australian tour by Jamie McKenzie (of “From Now On” website), actually encourages attendees to bring their laptops to the interactive keynote sessions of that event. Well, I’ll have the school laptop with me tomorrow, for my session, but I’m afraid I hadn’t thought that having my head over its keyboard while Judy and the other speakers delivered their talks today. And I’d actually made an effort to turn off my mobile phone – as a courtesy, I’d thought, to the speakers.) I guess it was a reminder that today’s youth (seemingly) have no trouble doing two or three online tasks at the same time. Judy’s words were certainly food for thought.

What was even more daunting about today’s proceedings was the revelation that studies are showing that students are, in effect, “powering down” when they come to school – not only their Web 2.0 devices, but also their brains. Lots of today’s youth can’t wait till they get home from school so they can start being creative and networky on their Facebook, My space and other online social networking pages. Tapping that moth-to-flame attitude in schools seems to be one of our educators’ current challenges. I eagerly await the arrival of my school’s first interactive whiteboard.

I was part of an afternoon panel, with Ross and Judy and Jan Radford. Our topic was “How do you see Web 2.0 working in Australian schools?”. I was expecting a typical four-people-behind-a-desk arrangement, with general questions at the end. In fact, the four speakers were each given ten minutes at the microphone across the other end of the stage. We were going alphabetically and, with a name like “McLean”, I’m quite used to having a turn towards the middle – in fact, I was set to speak first! Mmmmm. Another challenge.

In my session, I aimed to give a pocket history of my own learning curve, and the recent steepness of that curve as I embraced Web 2.0 ideas – but I hope I was also successful in conveying the energy and excitement that the students’ learning had produced. Ross, by virtue of a surname ending in “T”, went last and he was able to give a wonderful, succinct summary of our reported achievements – and even mentioning a few of my points I’d managed to meander away from. He also offered three important culminating points (which I hastily scrawled down) because they’ll make my Saturday solo session so much stronger.

Essentially, Ross challenged us to:
* have a clear vision for the future of learning we wish to see in our schools, with the teacher-librarian in a leadership role
* build from our own experience, and learn by doing
* chart the learning – ie. demonstrate excellence through evidence-based practice.

Well, I’m off to make sure I have all the clear links I need in my speech for tomorrow – the syllabus outcomes, my pre- and post- mini-survey results, and the great student quotes about their emotional responses to the wiki tasks.

Tomorrow – Day 2! Wish me luck!

The glass half full

A teacher-librarian colleague recently said, on a listserv, “I think we need to be a bit more open with what’s happening in our schools in relation to the library.  As we are all aware, we’re pretty isolated because we have no-one else in a similar position at the school.”

While I agree wholeheartedly that teacher-librians do need to be prepared for those feelings of isolation when things get grim, there are certainly already many effective avenues we can go to for support: professional associations (ASLA NSW and ALIA); “Scan” articles left in key locations around the school; other professional literature; ringing the School Libraries and Information Literacy unit (NSW DET); networking with local TLs and valued, like-minded staff members; and input (and a sympathetic ear) from the Teacher’s Federation contact person. Etc.

When I was doing my teacher-librarian retraining in 1990 at University of Technology Sydney (UTS, Kuring-gai), there was a lot of emphasis on TLs being proactive (thanks Ross J Todd, Barbara Poston-Anderson, Jill Buckley, Michelle Ellis and Joyce Kirk).

I often read horror stories on the teacher-librarian listservs – about TLs not being appreciated – but I can honestly say that, of the eight or nine long-term Principals I’ve had over my teaching career, they’ve either already been staunch or open-minded supporters of the school library (and the teacher-librarian), or else I’ve helped to educate them into being supportive. I once proved to myself – in a large school – that the effective way to the Principal’s ear was through the executive staff – one by one… until they were all on-side. My side. My proactive message, proudly modelled for all to see in collaboratively planned and negotiated lessons every week, eventually won through – because it wasn’t ever only me repeating the mantra of what was to be the TL’s desired contribution. (And I shocked even myself, turning a “non negotiable timetable set in stone with no team teaching” into a fully cooperative timetable after only one full year at the school).

And if I’ve somehow led a charmed life and simply fluked it into good schools with good Principals my whole career, I apologise. I reckon I’ve made plenty of lemonade out of my piles of lemons over the years.

Since when have Principals been the enemy? (So much for the old stereotype of the Principal married to a teacher-librarian.) I think that it’s great that Principals swap notes about what their TLs do. Because surely no one is going to be convinced to downgrade their TL’s contribution – on the whim of another Principal’s misguided opinion –  if the whole staff at a school hold that TL and their work in high regard. Surely, even the most stubborn, unconvinced staff can be won over, person by person, if you have to.

The poster also mentioned TLs being used as “dogsbodies”. A few times, as TL, I’ve been delegated a job that might be considered a dogsbody’s job. Current case in point: distributing The School Magazine to teachers every month, which no one else wanted to do any more. I made it my special duty last year (and this year): mentioning exciting ways to use it in staff meetings, finding the links to class programs, printing out free online guidebooks, and (even) making teachers feel a bit guilty for not using the resource wisely.

Custodian of the school web site? Suddenly the school library became the hub where all material for the web site is generated and maintained, and integrated into collaborative planned and/or taught lessons in the library.

I know of other TLs who have inherited Stewart House Rep, SRC Coordinator, School Yearbook Editor, School Historical Artefacts Cupboard Custodian, Chess Club, or Choir – and each can become either an intrinsic joy of the job, or an unwanted albatross, depending on the way you look at that glass: half full, or half empty.

School libraries leading learning

I’ve been invited to speak at two sessions of the State Conference of ASLA (Australian School Library Association) NSW Inc, which is being coordinated in partnership with the School Libraries and Information Literacy Unit (NSW Department of Education & Training).

This is quite an honour, especially as I cast my eyes down the list of guests – what the ASLA website is calling an “exciting line up of challenging speakers”.

When one is deep into daily life at the so-called coalface of primary education, the many deadlines of every day go whizzing past at typical breakneck speed. It’s often a shock to pop one’s head up above ground, ever now and then, and realise one might actually know enough to start imparting some of that knowledge to one’s colleagues in other places of learning. You know, I didn’t know I knew about wikis and blogs until I started doing my own, and I certainly didn’t think I’d know enough to be using them with students in teaching and learning situations (so soon) – until those first few attempts bore sufficient fruit to make me want to gloat about it (just a little). It was almost: “Look, everyone, look what I did – and on purpose…!”

During the week, our school newsletter came out, reprinting one of the Kindergarten students’ jointly-constructed fables from last year, along with the URL for the School Library’s wiki. One of the Stage 1 teachers reported that her whole class were engaged as she read the fable to them aloud. As several of the Early Stage 1 graduates are in her new class, it was quite amusing when they proudly claimed ownership – in February 2008 – of certain phrases, words and punctuation devised last November.

‘Irritated’!”, says one student confidently (every time he hears someone reading the fable aloud). “That was my word in that sentence.”

A parent noted that her child is able to read back to her all four wiki fables, even though the texts are a higher lever, jointly-constructed, language that is of a more difficult standard.

These little anecdotes, so often forgotten a few minutes after they are told, are invaluable for spurring me on to bigger and more challenging projects. And note that I really don’t mean those infamous “projects on cardboard” that some of us know way too well.

The conference is themed: School Libraries Leading Learning, and will run from Friday 28th to Saturday 29th March, 2008. The three main strands will be Quality teaching, School libraries in a Web 2.0 world, and Literacies. On the Friday, I’m joining Dr Ross J Todd and Lyn Hay on the panel, “How do you see Library 2.0 working in Australian schools?” On the Saturday, I’m running a workshop, “Web 2.0: Working with wikis for K-6”.

I’m very glad I spent some of January getting my thoughts in order, and that I made many notes and recorded my observations last term. Just as I experimented with including elements of diverse, “new” strategies (such as Circle Time and Guided Inquiry), it is exciting to think that people may soon be utilising my ideas and experiences re wikis with Kindergarten, and creating something else quite unique with their students.