Sunday, June 26, 2011

What's all this talk about school librarians?

Articles (and responses to them) about school libraries and the people that run them are popping up all over the place lately.  I suppose that is one of the side effects of summer break.  Several school districts have cut back or eliminated the Librarian from their payrolls over the past few years, and evidently many of those have come just this year (in preparation for next).

I will provide links to a couple articles below, but for now, I'm taking my turn.

In one article (a response piece), the reaction says "iPads don't speak and don't teach."  To me, that statement is akin to the beginning of the robotics age in the auto industry: Robots can't weld. Um, yeah, they can. That's why they took over the job.  Well, I have to disagree with at least part of the iPad statement above.  iPads (or any latest tech) for visually impaired students have features designed to do just that: speak.  The devices can read books, tell the student where he/she is on the screen, etc. And, these programs will only improve over time.  Anyone remember the early days of JAWS?  It tried so hard to be a good screen reader.  Well, now it is up to at least version 10 with amazing results.  Not to mention the iPad's built-in VoiceOver system and there are other apps available as well. Just start searching and you'll find them.

Now, I know that wasn't the point being made, yet it was.  As for teaching?  That depends.  What skills are librarians teaching that are not available on electronic devices?  I have no idea, that's why I'm asking.  Many of today's apps are, unfortunately, "Skill and Drill."  The apps "teach" by throwing a math problem on the screen or a sentence for diagramming.  That is useless other than for review.  If apps are to TEACH, then there must be more depth, more intuitive adaptation taking place.  That is, the app (or program or web site or whatever) must be able to adapt itself to the learning.  As a student reviews a certain skill set, the program must be able to adjust difficulties, question types, etc, in order to help that student move forward.  Some apps "claim" to be adaptive, but all they really do is ask the same types of questions over and over until the child appears to get the correct answers.  That is not teaching.  That does not help the child understand WHY he/she missed the questions or how to reason in order to achieve the correct result.

So, tying this back to librarians in schools.  I believe we need librarians who are tech savvy that can teach critical thinking skills.  The Library many of us grew up with is dying for sure - Dewey Decimal, Books on shelves, Card catalogs, etc.  Those placed in charge of the resources available in the days of our schooling must now be willing to adjust their methods and resources for today's systems.  Our students are growing up in a time where "data" is everywhere.  Data is just numbers, words, figures, pictures.  What they need is someone who can help them turn that data into INFORMATION.  Information is the application of data for a meaningful purpose.  We are said to live in an "information age," but I think that is a misnomer (as it seems many things are these days, but I digress. often.).  We are in an "age of overwhelming data."  There is good data and bad data and students must be taught how to interpret the data they are bombarded with everyday.  They must be taught how to evaluate a website for FACTS vs OPINIONS, how to judge whether a particular Tweet or Facebook post is truth or fiction.  They must be taught how to recognize satire versus journalistic reporting. They must be taught how to determine whether a source is a "good" one and just what that means.  Google, Wikipedia, and other online sources *can* be great and useful.  But, they are only useful if the user knows and understands how to use them - and how NOT to use them.

I believe that in many schools, this could readily fall to the librarian on hand.  Why are librarians (which is actually not what most of them are even called anymore - they are generally "Media Specialists" now, and I will refer to them as such from here out) stuck inside the walls of the media center anyway!?  Media Specialists should be in the classrooms, helping teachers with the same types of skills mentioned above.  Our local district has "blocks" of time set aside for elementary students to go to art, to computer lab, to music, to the media center.  Are Media Specialists required to have lesson plans?  Do they have an agenda, a syllabus, etc?  If not, then they should - if they want to keep their jobs.

I have recently been put in the position of defending my job and I am a TECH person.  My job is vital to the main location where I work, but also to the schools which I serve.  I have to justify why I feel that way, and be able to explain it to others who do NOT feel the same.  Media Specialists must be willing and able to do that, too.  And, like my own position, I believe they can easily do so.  But, in order for their arguments to be effective, they must show their ability and willingness to adapt, adjust, and offer training to students in this ever-changing environment.  Districts are starting to hire (or have hired) Technology Integration Specialists.  Who better to serve in that position than the people already in charge of teaching responsible information gathering and interpretation?

The people with the money and power have to see a reason to keep any program alive - sports, arts, math, science.  Give them a reason and they will find the money. It happens all the time and we all know it (I did mention sports, right?).

External links:
NY Times "School Eliminating Librarians As Budgets Shrink"
"Invisible Professionals - Replacing Librarians with iPads?"
JAWS - Screen Reading Software

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