Monday, August 11, 2008

Ross Todd, James Herring, and more ...

Day 5: Tuesday, August 5

Today began with keynote speaker James Herring, a Scottish academic now working in Wagga Wagga, NSW, in Australia. Insights into the IASL converence and his address to participants can be found on James's blog. His talk, Reading Websites, challenged us to think about student reading abilities when they are applied to electronic sources. Which websites work with students? who teaches website-reading? what are the differences in skills required to read a website's text, photos, and video offerings? what strategies enable students to read websites effectively?

Teaching students to search, suggests Herring, may be overrated; we should give them websites they can read in the form of hotlists or pathfinders. Finding too is overrated. We focus students to find information by skimming and scanning, but students need help with comprehension. Images and image creation are underrated, as are the skills to comprehend them. Students need help understanding images, learning from them, thinking about them, interpreting them, and communicating them. Students need to be taught to ask, what do I see? what does it mean to me? why would I say this? what was the purpose of the image?

Important considerations were these, and ones that were strongly linked to what Dr Ross Todd of Rutgers University in New Jersey observed later the same day in his presentation of the study of Delaware teacher-librarians. Entitled "Building Capacity and Continuous Improvement of School Libraries," Dr Todd began in clear delight to tell us about the recent legislative changes that have occurred in New Jersey, so new the ink isn’t dry and the academics and members of the NJ Association of School Librarians are still gasping at its implications for their work.

To support student achievement in New Jersey, school districts must “provide for an academically rigorous, personalized environment to prepare students for post-secondary and/or careers after graduation.” A priority for instruction is the provision of library services connected to classroom teaching, including “access to computers, district-approved instructional software, appropriate books including novels, anthologies and other reference materials and supplemental materials that motivate students to read in and out of school and to conduct research. Each school district shall provide these library-media services under the direction of a certified school library media specialist.” (NJASL, 2008; for more detail, click here.

Todd then talked more about the Rutgers study for the Delaware Governor’s Task Force on School Libraries. Recent studies (Slavin, 2008; Gore and Ladwig, 2002; Kuhlthau et al, 2007; Scholastic, 2008) provide a context for Todd’s research. Research evidence on school libraries traditionally included data about the infrastructure of school libraries -- the staffing, resources, technology, as well as the curriculum, reading, literacy and other literacies initiatives, usually describing its informational role in schools. Ross saw that what was needed were insights from teacher-librarians about the nature of instructional activities undertaken in their programs. It was time to illuminate the formational and transformational roles.

As key players in the gathering of research evidence about school libraries, Todd believed, teacher-librarians lead and enable dynamic school library programs to meet the school’s goals for student learning; he set our to document and support improved instruction and achievement, that is, to build capacity and thus to implement strategies for continuous professional improvement. He sought answers to questions such as, how do teacher-librarians develop reading, and how do they understand the impact of their program on student learning and achievement? how do they engage collaboratively with teachers in instructional activities? how engaged are the teacher-librarians with professional development? what do they see as the barriers to their work? what learning is enabled by their programs?

Ross concluded that teacher-librarians’ instruction for information literacy in school libraries focussed on the found and not on engaging with the found. It was likely to be centred on knowing about the school library, different and various resources, research strategies, and skills for evaluating sources, often in isolation rather than as part of an instruction partnership. Further, instruction for information literacy focussed on information sources, their location, formats, quality, and use, not on the processes on constructing new meaning or deep understanding of the curriculum, such as interpreting, identifying key ideas, organizing ideas into meaningful structures, critiquing, creating information products, and sharing the new ideas.

Information technology skills in searching, using databases, evaluating websites, and using the internet ethically were more likely to be taught in high schools, often again not in instructional partnerships.

Teacher-librarians engaged in a variety of reading promotion activities, but there was a noticeable decline in these activities in high schools and too many of these activities were passive in nature. School libraries could do more with discussion, lit circles, for example, and creative output to promote the love of reading.

So, teacher-librarians could describe improvements in reading, information literacy, use of information technology, and attitudes to the library. But fewer than half of the responding teacher-librarians were able to relate learning outcomes to students’ acquisition of deep knowledge or understanding about curriculum content. They were more likely to identify what they did than clarify what the students had learned.

Teacher-librarian responses suggest two aspects of their work, the lack of flexible scheduling and the clerical/administrative responsibilities, that constrain their instructional role.
Todd’s study also identified issues with levels of resources available to students, low participation in interlibrary loans, low budgets and budget decreases, and limited online search capability for school library catalogues and access to computers and school library websites.
What became clear was that there were some common characteristics of successful or “robust” programs which were highly integrated into the learning and life of the school:
  • A qualified teacher-librarian
  • Available support staff who freed the TL for instruction and reading initiatives
  • Flexible scheduling that enabled collaborative planning and information literacy instruction
  • Collections of 15-20 books per child
  • Commitment to staff development for information and technology literacies
  • Budgets of $12-15 per student per year, ensuring a current and vital information base
  • A networked IT infrastructure for access and use of information resources 24/7

Todd’s key recommendations for the Task Force findings sought to place the locus for action squarely on the shoulders of the teacher-librarians themselves. The focus would be on issues of professional practice and on building the spirit of continuous improvement for “ourselves.” The recommendations included:

  • Building school library programs on a stronger foundation of evidence-based practice in order to show the ways school libraries contribute to achievement
  • Shifting the focus from instructing for simplistic information skills to stronger collaborations tied to content and skills outcomes
  • Developing service and instruction for reading and literacy programs based on achievement gaps and learning need
  • Creating an integrated approach to professional development where school librarians work with educational leaders to build opportunities for improved student achievement
To date, mini-courses using evidence-based practice have addressed building collaborative instructional capacity, planning, and literacy. The key principles for these mini-courses include sharing expertise across the educational arena, teachers, district consultants, teacher-librarians, and curriculum leaders committing to work together to build the capacity of school libraries; engaging with available research data to identify gaps and needs and create appropriate instructional programs; and linking planning and processes for capacity-building to school goals. School librarians must take a systematic and sustained approach to action, using research and experience to identify where school libraries can intervene in the school improvement process, for collaborative partnerships, and thus build active support for their work and their programs.

Some were overheard, in response to Todd's talk, wishing he had come to their state from his Australian roots in Sydney where his career began in teaching and teacher-librarianship and then at the University of Technology before he came to the US.

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