Venn Librarian

Reflections about the intersection of schools, libraries and technology.

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More testing thoughts

Posted by lpearle on 9 February 2016

A couple of weeks ago I was chatting with a friend about my job and recent developments in library land, and the topic of testing arose.  As always, I’ve been very happy to not be working in a public school with all that mandated testing, but we still do see students studying (and taking classes) for AP exams.  Only one school I’ve worked at had a full compliment of AP courses, while the others have had more or less depending on their focus.  Hackley, for example, had gotten rid of the humanities AP classes but still had science and math courses (although that was under discussion); PCS only offered an AP for Calculus, but didn’t classify the course as AP.  My current school has many “honors” and “advanced” classes but nothing called AP (which is a designation that only those who submit a curriculum for approval can use).

I’m of two minds about the AP.  As my British and French friends have repeatedly said, having some sort of national test allows universities to determine the academic readiness of the student.  That’s a fair point: knowing that someone in rural Kansas has the same knowledge as someone at an elite East Coast prep school does help in the admissions process.  But… it bothers me no end that while we’re all too ready to decry Common Core or No Child Left Behind, we’re also all too ready to give millions of dollars to a company (College Board; not-for-profit, but still!) to not only test our students but to approve our curriculum!

Following on that conversation, a colleague told me that he had to submit his curriculum to the College Board but hadn’t quite followed their rules and guidelines.  He’d learned that they’d sent it back unapproved and so, over a long weekend, he’d spent about 30 hours dotting ever i and crossing every t they required… submitted it late Sunday and got approval early Monday.  So clearly “they” didn’t even really look at what he’d done, just made sure that the ‘tasks’ had been completed.  Says quite a lot about the company that also administers all the SATs, doesn’t it?

Over the next week or so students are going to start thinking about their courses for next year.  Some will have to take required classes to meet graduation requirements, most will have some leeway with electives.  The advanced and honors classes will be filled with those who are thinking about taking the AP in April, looking to prove their academic worth to college admissions counselors.

I wish that weren’t the case.  I wish that one company didn’t hold so much power over our students academic careers.  I also wish there were some way we could come to a consensus that would take their power away while still allowing for some sort of level playing ground in terms of education, so all students have an equal chance to prove they know US History or Biology, or whatever.

 

Posted in Student stuff, Work Stuff | Leave a Comment »

Testing… testing…

Posted by lpearle on 27 January 2016

This is my fifth school and the fifth iteration of EXAMS.  Each school has done things differently, but somehow the student stress remains.  Even though my own school days are very far behind me, my memories of exams (trisemester or semester) are that there was less stress, less sense of impending doom.

Of course, “everyone” says that students today are overstressed, overscheduled, overwhelmed, etc.  Schools have started to try to ameliorate the scheduling and the stressing, and sometimes that has an affect on testing.  For example, Hackley School decided to do away with finals and moved exams to March.  Reason?  Having midterms in January, so close to Winter Break, meant that students didn’t truly get a break because they knew that those tests were looming.  Having a final in June meant that students took a test and then got it back on “Class Day” and then told, essentially, ciao.  Got an F? Ciao.  Got an A? Also ciao.  No way to celebrate and build on your expertise and no way to recover from a disaster. March, prior to APs, gave students an alternative that meant they could practice for an AP or have a final project that gives them an opportunity to prove themselves in a different way than by taking a test.

That seems sensible and after a year’s worry (OMG!  This is 2/3 of the way through the year?  how will I remember the ‘extra’ information??) students and faculty seem to have a good feeling about all this.

When the test happens aside, I wonder about the why of having a final (or midterm).  Why don’t we just have a regular test in class?  One of the people who works with me teaches Chinese when she’s not in the library (ok, it’s really the other way around but I like to think she’s primarily “mine”) and she’s giving an exam.  But why couldn’t it just be a regular in-class test?  What difference does the extra hour make?  Isn’t language cumulative, so each unit builds on the previous one, which means that if you do a regular test (or one over a two day period to encompass written and oral) you know whether or not the student is learning the material .  Why do you need to give one two hour exam that explores… what?  What more can you ask, beyond simply asking for more?  The same holds true for other subjects, not just languages.  And for subjects that are unit based, why, once you’ve moved on from a unit that you covered in, say, October, do students need to recall the information in January or March if they’re never going to use that information on any other assessments that year?

This week is Exam Week which means the library is filled with students madly trying to cram information in (or back in) before sitting down for two hours to prove their knowledge.  We have students working in groups, in pairs and as solo studiers.  We’ve purchased coloring books and Crayons to create a #nostresszone feel in some places.  Today bags of candy were handed out to give students something to keep them going during their tests.  That hasn’t stopped the stress and as the day wears on it’s worse as they finish one  and anticipate the next.

I get having students write essays to showcase their immediate writing skills (as opposed to the edited and thoughtfully considered essays they’ve handing in as homework).  I get quizzes and tests.  But the need for one exam?  or two? that totally disrupts the flow of school and adds so much stress to the system?  No matter when we hold them, it seems odd.  We’re talking a lot about teaching the essentials and about changing how we teach. Maybe a good start would be to change how we test.

Posted in Student stuff, Work Stuff | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Minor Musings

Posted by lpearle on 15 January 2016

Some things to think about while I digest ALA Midwinter and hiring new staff…

Books, Reading, etc.

  • While I’d love to teach this exact class, since I’m on the Alex Committee for the next couple of years it might be possible to figure out a way to create something similar with those books.
  • More Shakespeare thinking (this time from JSTOR and the Folger)
  • This year we’ve been working with the 6th grade English class and creating book recommendation materials.  Here’s an idea. And another one for increasing vacation reading from Katie: bring the books to the kids.
  • Don’t you love year end lists for personal and professional collection development?  I do.  Here’s stuff from The Hub, Semicolon

School Life

Tech Stuff

Etcetera

Posted in Books, Collection Development, Links, Musings, School Libraries, Student stuff, Techno Geekiness | Leave a Comment »

Rethinking School

Posted by lpearle on 7 January 2016

While students were wending their way back to school post-Thanksgiving Break, we faculty were doing “professional development”, in this case, the first of three sessions with Charles Fadel. The big question posed for this particular session was “what is the implication of technology on already stressed minds?” particularly since our world is increasingly interdependent (and fragile: just look at Ebola or IS as “stressors”).  Much of what we spent the day on made me think and question to the point where I felt it was necessary to take a step back to see if my questions were relevant later on.  And you know what, some of them were/are.

First, the takeaways.  Aka “the good”.

Fadel asked us to think about the word relevance with respect to education.  What is relevant today?  Can we still teach the way we did and the things we did? Can “old” still be relevant? Looking at different subjects, we need to do a deep dive into them and ask what about each subject actually matters?  why does it matter?  And – most important – who determines this? students? faculty? parents?  So much of our lives is now automated (eg, Google Translate, or other translation apps making foreign language acquisition irrelevant, or easier, but perhaps leading classes into deeper dives into cultural understanding or the literature written in that language) it’s worth thinking about what we’re doing in a school.

We’ve been told that virtual reality is the Next!Big!Thing! but what does that mean?  Do we need it?  Can we integrate it?  and why would/should we?  When we take our cues from tech leaders we need to remember to have thoughtful discussions about exploration and integration, not just expeditious implementation. If we don’t address the negatives, we give ammunition to the naysayers!  We also need to remember that much of what’s being developed is by ASP boys/men and Silicon Valley startups, not by people who work with a diverse population of students.

So, our mission as an independent school with resources should be to buck the system and to teach students that it’s ok to not always do things, to not always buy into prevailing wisdom but to question things and find new ways to make things relevant, useful, worthwhile, even if it means sticking with the old.  Fadel acknowledged that all this tech is a vast social experiment and we don’t know what the end results will be, if this will ultimately be a good thing or a bad thing.

At bottom, we need to determine what are the essentials:  what do students really need to know? and then ask how we can best teach those essentials.

Now, the questions.  Aka “the bad/iffy”.

I’m always curious about so-called education experts who have little to no experience in a school as a teacher or administrator, or whose experience predates the rise of the internet.  Fadel falls into the former category, and his first few slides, in which he cited PISA as an area for concern (yes, but… we’re not a small, homogeneous country with a mandated unified curriculum and the results are an amalgamation of every school in the US, from high achieving independent schools costing thousands in tuition to low income public schools with students who may not even speak English as a first language or who may have learning issues independent schools can turn away) and VUCA as our “watchacronym” (we’re an independent school, not central command at NATO!) didn’t allay my concerns.  It was also curious to me as a librarian that he never cited his sources or research, even when alluding to the work of Alan November or danah boyd.  When consultants come to say Thou Shalt, my response is Why?  Shouldn’t change be part of a collaborative community conversation?

That aside, the bigger question for me was what about the ethics of all this: are we perpetuating privilege when we talk about these things?  just because we can do something does it mean we should?  There’s a digital divide (read this!) and experiential divide that is widening – I think of the students my nephew and cousin teach, students virtually given up on by society and hoping to avoid jail/irrelevance/hopelessness by getting at least a high school degree or GED, and then I look at the students I work with and wonder what we really mean when we talk about educating students for the world to come.  Will my cousin’s students get in to college, something my students take for granted? And if not, will exploding the curriculum, teaching the “essentials” and then deep diving into other topics help them as they work in relatively menial jobs? Or are we mandating for the type of education where a segment of  HS students take basic classes and then do vocational training the rest of the day while the rest get to get a “real” education?  And what about the sustainability of all this?  Shouldn’t we think about climate change, resource limitations and energy issues before considering implementing technology programs that have equipment that require updating/upgrading every few years?

What the next two sessions will look like is unknown.  They’re in June, and until then, I’m suspending judgement about whether this was useful for long term change.  The questions that he asked and that he (unintentionally?) raised will perhaps be answered before then.

 

 

Posted in Ethics, Student stuff, Work Stuff | Leave a Comment »

Diverse Diversity @ #ALAN16

Posted by lpearle on 5 January 2016

Diversity was a minor theme for the various professional development opportunities I had during the month or so before Winter Break.  I’m always mindful of the fact that “diversity” doesn’t only mean “skin tone”; when I was co-chair of my school’s accreditation self-study, we tried to think about all of NYSAIS’ definition of diversity when discussing the school’s culture:

How does the school officially communicate its policies and practices with respect to differences in ethnicity, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age, socioeconomic level, physical ability, and learning styles?

Sometimes we do better at one, sometimes better at another.  When I hear #weneeddiversebooks I think about the diverse diversities and what books are doing to address them.  How does this relate to ALAN?

Last year there was a lot of discussion about “boy books” vs “girl books” and that carried over to this year.  One panelist asked why no one asks where are the strong boy characters, simply because strong boy characters are the norm.  Why can’t we have a world where that’s assumed equally for boys and girls? When one voice (male, or white, or Christian, or whatever) is always the authority/norm in books, it starts to carry over into real life because that’s what readers internalize.  Protagonists are protagonists, period.  Why don’t we say, “the protagonist” rather than “the girl protagonist”?  Because if it’s a girl (or not white or poor or some other diverse subset) that’s what we notice.  And isn’t that a shame?

The myth of diverse (by ethnicity or race) books not selling was also addressed.  They do sell, but part of the problem is that the publishers are small presses without the big ARC/promotion budgets of the big houses.  Why are so many English books translated into other languages, and not vice versa?  What about diverse authors, and getting their story out?  We were reminded that diversity is not all conflict, it can just “be” and still make for an amazing book.  Just look at science fiction/fantasy/speculative fiction: they write around diversity and outside themselves all the time and no one questions those authors about using an authentic voice (and it was repeated: did not being a wizard make JK Rowling’s world less authentic?).  The big takeaway was that maybe we should promote diverse books by not framing them as diverse, but as being about the story, as in “this a coming-of-age story” or “this is about first love”.

We were reminded that there were other diversities (see, it did all tie in!) that aren’t being as discussed, and where are the authors who are writing about these issues? Poverty, the not-college-bound, the disabilities (cancer, something other than OCD/ASD, a physical limitation), teens in prison, etc. are also missing from our shelves.  The reality of these lives is that they’re not easy, not everyone accepts them and sometimes, life hurts.  We need books that also say that while we may have depression, asthma, grief, etc, we aren’t depression, asthma, grief, etc., we’re human.  Let’s remember that, as Laurie Halse Anderson said, adults know how to handle “dark” while teens are turning to fiction to learn how to cope.  And Margi Preus eloquently said that every student reading is doing research into their future lives, books are a door to that life.  So let’s open up the canon, add some new books that maybe weren’t taught (or published) back when we were in high school!

Posted in Books, Collection Development, Conferences | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Minor Musings

Posted by lpearle on 22 December 2015

The past couple of months have been filled with work stuff and some interesting (read: thought provoking) professional development.  As I digest all of that and distill into posts, here’s a round-up of other things catching my eye.

Books, Reading, etc.

School Life

Tech Stuff

Etcetera

  • Carol Dweck on how her research is misused
  • Is your school talking about equality and diversity? Read this.

Posted in Books, Collection Development, Links, Pedagogy, School Libraries, Student stuff, Techno Geekiness, Work Stuff | Leave a Comment »

How happy are you?

Posted by lpearle on 23 November 2015

Several years ago, Michelle Obama said that she’s only as happy as her unhappiest daughter… at a recent department chairs meeting, a department chair said that she was only as happy as her unhappiest department member and opened a conversation about what that means.

In every school I’ve worked in, and at most of the schools my friends/peers work in, we have conversations about student stress and what we can do to alleviate it.  Does that mean changing the schedule, building in more “down time” during the day? Does that mean creating customizeable experiences, allowing for them to pursue a passion rather than the cookie-cutter graduation requirements?  Does that mean designing workshops that teach them time-management and stress-reduction techniques?  What about working with parents to help students find a schedule that both “builds the resume” for college and gives them time to relax?  Or convincing students to unplug before bed?

At MFPOW there was talk about teachers finding Flow – those moments when a class is going really, really well, when you know that this is what you were meant to do.  The question of how to increase those moments is a difficult one to resolve, as into every job a little boredom must fall (personally, I hate shelving – I think I’ve mentioned that before).  In some ways it reminds me of my response to a question while on a job search.  I was asked “is this the perfect job for you?” (trying to assess my interest in the school, etc.) and I immediately said, “nope!  The perfect job would pay me about three-four times what you’re going to pay me, ask me to work only 10-20 hours/week helping students do research, and give me the rest of the time to read… but since that’s incredibly unrealistic, this job will be a good substitute.”  As far as I know, no one can be “in flow” all the time, but can you have a life that is more “flow-focused” than it is?

So, let’s get back to that unhappy department member.  What is making them unhappy?  The reality is that we, in schools and particularly in libraries, are not good at saying “no” to add-ons.  In September, everything is cupcakes and unicorns, but by November we’re too busy to pee.  Our “free” prep periods are filled with getting ready for a new class or helping students understand past material or grading.  After school there might be coaching or club advising responsibilities.  In independent schools we often advise students, acting as filters/buffers/facilitators between teachers, parents and students.  Grades are often far more than just computing an average, they’re comments and explication (and if you teach and advise, you’ve got those comments to create after reading all the teacher comments). Committees – check.  Department meetings – double check.  Cover class for a sick colleague? Oversee recess or dismissal?  Teach an extra section?  check check check.

Where are the conversations about teacher stress? Yes, students are important and helping them manage their stress is important.  But isn’t it equally important for us to work on how to be less stressed?  isn’t it critical that we model good habits for our students?  If we don’t know how to say “no” and work ourselves into an exhausted frenzy each year, are we really doing our students any favors?

What pleases me inordinately is that MPOW is willing to talk about this – perhaps we won’t come up with any real solutions, or perhaps solutions will differ per department and grades taught.  But opening the conversation, recognizing that there are stresses on faculty that need to be addressed and examined is a great place to start.  One challenge for all of us is finding time to learn something new in terms of pedagogy or technology, integrating it into our classes and practice, and that contributes to the stress.  Another is all the “outside” stuff (the things we don’t learn in professional training or aren’t explicitly in our job descriptions) and finding ways to do a good job at those and at our “real” jobs.

I’m struggling with this – who isn’t?  And as a department chair/library director, I’m also “unhappy.”  Wouldn’t it be nice if, by the end of this academic year, there was a clear way forward and an end to the cycle?

Posted in Life Related, Student stuff | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Where I am… and where I’m not

Posted by lpearle on 6 November 2015

Many of you are in Columbus, enjoying all the #AASL15 has to offer.  I’m still here, at work, because – for me, I do not claim to speak for anyone else! – that conference has lost its meaning and it felt like an unnecessary expense for me or MPOW.  Instead, I’ll be at ALAN in a couple of weeks, getting one last blast of YA literature goodness before starting on …. drum roll please… the Alex Award Committee.

We’re busy weeding and discarding (NYT Indexes, anyone?  What about some Reader’s Guides? no? no takers?), rethinking what needs to be on our shelves and where collections are placed.  We’re also establishing our Instagram and Twitter presence (follow us!), in part with the help of one of our community service volunteers.  Resource Guides are being built as a few research projects trickle in.  Luckily, we have until January before they really need to be 100% there.  Students considering Senior Projects are also a focus, and I really need to create a spreadsheet or database to help them find places that they could intern or volunteer or research at or in or with (yes, that’s a lot of prepositions at the end of that there sentence).

In between working on all of those, the life of the school goes on, with assemblies and student productions and other events.  I’ve done one of my chaperone duties (a fact of life in boarding schools, and this is far less onerous than MFPOW’s was) with another on the horizon.  Plus reading!  According to Goodreads, I’m 15 books behind schedule so either I lower expectations for this year or I get back on that couch and read read read (you know which one I’ll be choosing, right?).

Finding that life/work balance is important, and I’m seeing my younger staff members do a much better job of it than I did at their age and stage in my career.  It’s inspiring that they get how important family, friends and outside-of-the-bun interests are, and how they consciously make time for that.  Despite all the work stuff on my plate, I’m not taking work home with me as much (reading does not count!).  That’s the lesson I think we all need to learn: when to work, when not to work and how to find a balance between the two.

Posted in Life Related, School Libraries | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

What’s on your shelves?

Posted by lpearle on 26 October 2015

With one exception, the school libraries I’ve worked in have needed some serious collection pruning; MPOW is no different.  Usually it’s the problem of having a lot of stack space and not enough time/staff to really weed what’s there.  I’m of the firm belief, however, that pruning and judicious deletions are an absolute necessity!

Why?  Well, if you’re researching a topic and go to a shelf that is completely packed with books, many of which are old, possibly out-of-date, and look as though they could fall apart as you’re reading them, you’re less likely (as a high school student) to use that resource.  And finding those “gems” that actually will help you with your project can be a real challenge.  My goal, as a school librarian, is to have students spend some time doing the finding but to be able to spend most of their project time reading, reflecting, synthesizing and then presenting a cogent argument.  Often, because of the state of the collection, the finding takes more time than it should, compressing the reading/reflecting/synthesizing time.

There’s also the problem of old sections that were incredibly useful that are no longer.  One school had a major project that asked students to imagine life as Jew during the Nazi era or as someone hiding the Jews.  So the shelves were filled with memoirs and biographies that met that need.  However, by the time I arrived, the project was long gone (over ten years) and the students were researching other things.  We needed to choose the best of the books from the previous project, get rid of the rest and collect resources that would meet their current research needs.  I’ve worked in schools that have changed the foreign language offerings, dropping German and Italian in favor of Chinese.  Do we really need a lot of dictionaries in those languages, or do we need more Chinese-related materials?  The sea change I’ve seen in how my English departments are approaching their work also affects our collection; none of the departments in my past four schools has asked students to use literary criticism or reviews – yet the shelves were filled with Twayne’s, Bloom’s and those Gale “[genre] Criticism” books.  That’s an easy weed, particularly since they’re now available on-line should we need to add them back into the collection.

Our on-line resources also need to be reviewed.  At each school I create a database spreadsheet, monitoring the ROI on our subscriptions (ROI = $ per search).  The goal, for me, is under $5 per search.  One database, requested by the department chair, was nearly $70/search.  After two years, I was able to convince the department that it wasn’t fiscally prudent for us to continue subscribing.  What that means is that we (the librarians) have to know what else is out there, looking for resources that will enhance our print collection – not, as some fear, replace it! – as well as meet the needs of students outside the library.

I’ve often said that there’s a middle ground between the school library with tens of thousands of books that never circulate and gather dust (so the school can brag about sheer number of volumes) and the school library that is purely digital (which can seriously limit student research using current, non e-available resources).  My hope is that at MPOW we’ll successfully get there.

But that’s just for the non-fiction books, right?  Well… no.  We also need to look at the fiction.  For the first time, I’m working in a school where the adults are just as engaged with the fiction collection as the students, perhaps more so!  That’s great, and gives us a great incentive to ensure we’re buying adult titles (like the NBA and Carnegie longlists for literary fiction, or the Reading List for genre fiction). We also have to ensure we have great YA and MG fiction for our students.  One problem I’m seeing right now is that while we’re a library serving grades 6-12, we’ve mostly collected for grades 9-12.  Whoops!  So this year, the focus will not only be on pruning, but also adding great books for our younger students.

Again, stay tuned for more on how it’s all going.

Posted in Books, Collection Development, School Libraries | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Minor Musings

Posted by lpearle on 16 October 2015

Books, Reading, etc.

School Life

Tech Stuff

Etcetera

Posted in Collection Development, Life Related, Links, Privacy, School Libraries, Student stuff, Techno Geekiness | Leave a Comment »

 
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