I promised in my last column that I would return to Zmuda and Harada’s article, “Reframing the Library Media Specialist as a Learning Specialist.” I have been ruminating on it for a few months, and I still find it troubling. It calls for a model of librarianship very different from that practiced in many school libraries, and I fear that many of us face very real barriers to realizing that model. But it’s a good thing if striving for professional development leaves us unsettled, yes? As the biologists say, if you’re not growing, you’re dying. The continued health and relevance of our field demands the former.
First, I need to back up and explain why I find this article so troubling. My co-librarian and I have a pretty good library, if I do say so myself. We were honored in 2011 as Tennessee’s featured library on Nancy Everhart’s AASL Vision Tour. We have a beautiful facility that is well-used for classes, individual student work, group studies, teacher work, faculty meetings, and parent and community gatherings. We served an average of 340 students between classes and walk-ins each day last year, with up to 530 per day at several busy points in the year, along with fielding many many teacher requests each day. We collaborate frequently with classroom teachers, and our calendar is always packed. In addition, we serve many other roles in the school, from tech support to website administration to production aid for the principal. We have a lot of success in many ways, and we’re proud of it.
So when I got to Zmuda and Harada’s Table 1, a chart explaining how old ways of defining success equal bad practice and proposing new ways that equal good practice, it felt like a punch in the gut to discover that many of the successes we’ve worked for (and been rewarded and even envied for) are on the wrong side of the chart. We get so proud of our student sign-ins, circulation statistics, class bookings, and dramatic sprints down the hall to solve technology emergencies, but none of those things equal student learning. No matter how good we get at those things, they are tangential to the real goal. And if we keep expending our energy chasing those targets, we are wasting time and resources barking up the wrong tree.
I am deeply uncomfortable with having effectively read that I am, in my award-winning library, doing an excellent job of wasting time and resources. But as I said above, I am committed to choosing growth over atrophy, so I am willing to accept the challenge. Here are some of my first plans to approach a shift in practice:
•Learn to think in terms of quality, not quantity. Like many librarians, I suffer from a relentlessly thorough personality, so the thought of investing huge amounts of time on a collaborative project with a few classes that I can’t possibly offer to every kid is very troublesome to me. But wouldn’t I create better library users by investing time with one teacher’s really great project, and giving up a few surface-level orientations that the kids are going to smile and nod through and then forget?
•Give the “stuff” tasks to others. I spend an inordinate amount of work time answering “How do I double space?” and patiently explaining that the computer is not dead, it’s just turned off. Those things are valuable to my various users, so I don’t mind doing them, but if I could get my secretary and some student workers to take on those services, that would leave me more time to spend on student learning tasks. And as much as I love and defend working my circ desk, because it’s a great opportunity to talk to my students and build relationships that can translate into other services, checking out books is a “stuff” task too. Any way to shift this duty to someone else would free me to find other, better opportunities to talk to those students and build those relationships.
•Assess learning. I’m often cut off from students’ final products, and the result, if I’m honest, is that it’s awfully hard to know whether they actually got anything from what I taught. I need to insist on continuing the collaborative process through the end of the project. This will require more of my time and may limit me from doing something else, but again, the quality of each experience will trump the quantity of them.
•Target smaller student groups. One way to get back some of the time lost in the quality-quantity battle is to look at existing data sources to target kids who lack a particular information skill and just teach those kids in detail, instead of burdening a whole class with it.
Those are some of my thoughts and plans, and I hope that some of you readers may go read the full article and share your thoughts with me as well. And in full disclosure, I recognize that because my library is blessed in many ways—ample space, flex schedule, collaborative faculty culture, supportive principal, co-librarian and secretary—I am able to make some plans that will not work for everyone. There are many school librarians who face fearful barriers to the kind of practice they’d like to make. But choosing just one small thing to move forward keeps us growing instead of dying. Zmuda and Harada give us a good summary for why to make this change: “This isn’t about what the teacher or the library media specialist prefers, but what the learner requires.”