Some Thoughts on Collaborative Teaching

Work has been something else lately, which accounts for the radio silence around these parts.

Insert crow caw-caw sounds here

Not to return on a slightly negative note, but something has happened repeatedly this semester, that I wanted to consider.

The issue is, to put it in Kindergarten terms, playing nicely with others.

Little kids playing in a pile of leaves

Play as nicely as these children, who are totally not chucking leaves in each other’s faces. As seen on the hilarious blog It’s Like They Know Us –

So here’s the deal. I’m a teacher (though we’ll get back to that term in a second). If you’re reading this, you might be a teacher (*waves hello*).

And being a teacher is, in many ways, a solitary pursuit. We are in positions of control in our own defined space – we’re the top of the food chain in the classroom. Our vocabulary can hint at this – that is your classroom, these are my students. We are vested in this classroom situation, we take ownership of it, and much of our focus is how we, ourselves as individuals, can best reach learners. And this can hold true for non traditional educators as well; I might not have had a classroom at my museum job, but I still had students and a learning environment that I worked to create (me, me, me, right?).

And yet. A huge part of teaching involves being beholden to and answerable to and subject to outside forces – school boards and principals, parents, fellow teachers, departments, budgets, professional organizations, and so on. And an equally large part of teaching involves sharing our classroom, with observers, with campus partners who are engaging with our students, with guest speakers, with co-teachers, with testing days, with fire alarms, with so many things. There is this incredible tension in being a teacher, between control and subjugation, between solitary activity and cooperative activity, between individuality and the group.

Hosting a Visitor 

I know how difficult it can be to open up your teaching space to someone else. When I taught at a museum I would often make way for other teachers, people who were training, guest speakers. There were times when I cursed the arrival of a visitor since my lesson plans were in flux for the day and I couldn’t introduce a visitor into chaos; I had to plan ahead. And, when the visitor or trainee got started, there were times when I would bite my tongue thinking, I wouldn’t have done that, or, I would have explained that differently. And almost always, the visitor or trainee or whoever was great. It’s just that it wasn’t necessarily what I would have done, and I wasn’t the one doing it.

It isn’t easy to open your space up and to open yourself up to collaboration when you don’t know the person or group all that well. I’ve been in situations where I’ve known my collaborators or visitors very well, and then it was fun, and at times a relief, to hand things over, knowing that I could completely trust my learning environment and my students to this collaborative partner/partners.

Being a Visitor

But I’ve also been on the flip-side of this. As a librarian I’m generally the guest, the visitor, the interloper. So while I understand the issues that can arise with having someone come to your class, I also see how teachers can often have a hard time playing nicely with others.  Over the years I’ve been teaching, in museums and in libraries, I’ve had teachers and professors take up time I was supposed to have in class with other activities, change assignments on me at the last possible second, interrupt class, demand that I cover certain items rather than consult with me as a partner, refer to a class as a “presentation” or a “demonstration” rather than what it actually is: teaching.

Some Thoughts on Cause and Effect

Part of the problem, which I’ve experienced on both sides of the spectrum as both the regular teacher and the guest teacher, is that tension I referred to above between teaching being a fairly solitary pursuit and teaching being a group effort. I love collaborating and working with people when I have the chance to know them. Having a visitor imposed upon you from the powers that be can be a cause for anxiety, aggravation, and concern, even if the guest is in fact completely amazing. It’s still someone coming into your space.

Building up collaborative partnerships and relationships can help make classrooms a more dynamic and fluid place and can help the control freak in all of us teachers (I might be projecting here, but bear with) simmer down.

I firmly believe that learning can and should be a community process. Forging institutional partnerships, personal relationships, and professional ties with other educators can be both inspiring and useful. It was one of the reasons I loved working in museums so much, because the museums I worked at did well with building partnerships.

But the other part of problem I noted with both welcoming someone in and visiting someone else’s classroom is two-fold. It’s a problem of experience and a problem of recognition. And it seems to be acute in a university library setting.

First, experience. The fact of the matter is that many people doing some form of teaching at a university (professors, staff, librarians) have very little teaching experience prior to teaching at the college level. And this lack of experience, can, I think cause issues with playing nicely with others. It takes some degree of experience to comfortable cede control, or at least give the impression of comfortably ceding control, just as it  can take experience to talk with other educators as collaborators, to plan lessons out in advance but to still leave wiggle room for flexibility and contingency plans should things go awry (they will, don’t worry). At colleges, the first year students are often taught by the least experienced teachers and those teachers are typically the ones who have to share class time with other campus partners.

Second, recognition. There are many people who do some form of teaching on college campuses (and in non-school environments like museums and libraries and camps and non-profits for that matter). And many of these people aren’t always seen as teachers by other teachers and by outsiders. At least when I was at a museum I had the word “educator” in my title. It might not have been a conventional teaching position but most of the K-5 teachers I worked with recognized me as a fellow educator. Not so much in library-land. And this is a problem with instruction librarians in terms of how we explain who we are and what we do. And it’s also a problem with the environments we might be working in (such as colleges) where people don’t bother to ask what it is we do exactly.

Ideas and Actions 

So, what to do? First, librarians and other educators, traditional and non-traditional, need to keep advocating for themselves (as I noted in an earlier post). Second, librarians and other traditional/non-traditional educators should seek out and encourage partnerships. Because those personal relationships are key, in my mind, to making collaboration, shared class time and the guest speaker day and easier pill to swallow. In fact, it should be something fun not something to be dreaded.

Feel like this

And not like this.

And third, we (librarians and others) should really embrace our identity as teachers and seek out opportunities for professional development, learning, collaboration. To me, things like constructivist learning principles, and other educational views that advocate collaboration, shouldn’t just be about students, but about educators as well – how can we work together, learn from each other, and strengthen our own individual teaching?  How can we develop professionally even as we provide connected and meaningful opportunities for our students to learn from a whole range of people and places? (As a sidebar, I think that MacArthur and Mozilla’s City of Learning initiatives are on to something in terms of community collaboration).

In an ideal world all educators, traditional or not, would work to respect one another, recognize one another, reach out to one another. After all, it’s not easy to play nicely when someone else isn’t playing nicely with you.

Teaching with Micro-Content

Many eons ago, when I was an undergrad studying history, I became a big fan of micro-history which is, according to the fountain of knowledge that is Wikipedia, a history of something small, like a specific place or event. See The Cheese and the Worm by Carlo Ginzburg or The Great Cat Massacre by Robert Darnton, yes that Robert Darnton, for a good example.

For someone who appreciates micro approaches, the Internet is of course a goldmine. And it seems like the more hyper-specific and kooky and parodic the content on Tumblr and Twitter, the better. Mean Mad Men. Arrested Downton. United Airlanes. TNG Season 8. The Texts from Last Night craze. The list goes on and on (to infinity).  Funny as it is, I think that the digestible style of micro-blogging can lend itself to use in a classroom, regardless of how you feel about things like social media and attention spans.

Hyper-specific and relatively small content is something that students can create during an in-class activity, after all and focusing on content in the micro can give students the chance to be creative, focus on a very specific element in theme in a broader area of study, and practice skills, like writing in digital environments.

Two things I love about micro-content, and associated memes for that matter, are the ways in which they often engage in genre mash-ups and the ways in which they can have fun with anachronisms.  The pairing of humorous dialog, typically from the eminently quotable Mean Girls and Arrested Development, with more serious fare, like the aforementioned Mad Men, Downton Abbey (serious might need to be put in quotation marks here), Sherlock (again with the quotes), Game of Thrones, etc. can be an entrée to exploring genres and writing styles and content presentation to students. How can a few tweaks change a tragedy into a comedy and vice versa?

The other thing I enjoy, the anachronisms, can be found in dialog mash-ups – no one in a period piece being mocked would speak like the cast of Mean Girls, for example. But I also enjoy the myriad attempts to explore and re-imagine older media in modern settings, like Modern Seinfeld. As funny as it is, the premise of Modern Seinfeld really does fascinate me. Just how different would Seinfeld have been with modern technology? Half the episodes of the show wouldn’t have happened. That hilarious lost in the parking garage one? Solved immediately with a cell phone. Various dating crises? Fixed with the stalking power of social media.

I was thinking that it would be a really neat assignment to have students either add, or remove, a piece of technology to, or from, a story as a sort remix exercise and a way to think critically about the role technology plays in our daily lives and interactions. This is something that could be done in a book club group, an after school program, as part of an English class, a library session, etc.

There are a lot of examples already where people modernize an old story or add in technology – see all the Facebook accounts for things like Hamlet or the entire show of Sherlock (which is predicated on Sherlock Holmes having access to modern technology). It’s a rich thought experiment that can be applied to a huge number of works (Holden Caulfield with a cell phone, go). But I think the reverse would be fascinating too – how would Gossip Girl work in the pre-internet and cell phone era? What would Abed on Community do without his extensive DVD collection? Or even in a fictional dystopia (which, as I started trying to compile a list, I realized nearly every cool YA book is – but that’s a discussion for another day), what if the Hunger Games were a live theatrical event and not televised?

Can you think of any other works where you could take technology away or add it to facilitate projects on thinking critically about technology? Add your ideas below!

Adventures in Library Marketing

Over the summer, I presented at a Career Fair a for high school and middle school students at a local museum. The aim of the fair was to encourage kids to get involved with STEM careers and since I work a lot with technology I got picked to participate. I started by highlighting the fact that libraries don’t seem super STEM-related and when I asked my audience to play a word association game with the term “library” they all yelled out “books” and “shhhh.” Seriously. The “shh” made me laugh, but it also got me thinking a good bit about a question I ponder fairly frequently: who librarians are, what it is we do, and how do we, and can we, effectively communicate that to a broad audience.


Easy to understand jobs from the greatest movie ever made

For some reason I’ve spent my post-college years working at jobs where I have to explain what it is I do, or at least clarify what I do. When I started library school a friend of mine said it was good that I now had a “Fisher Price job,” something that everyone could understand, like a teacher or a surgeon or a firefighter. In reality, and perhaps unfortunately, I ended up having to explain what it is I do to people who are convinced they already know what librarians do.

It’s this issue of having people think they know what you do, when they really don’t, that presents some challenges and difficulties for people who consider themselves librarians. I had to emphasize the technology and teaching aspects of my job to secure my slot on the Career Fair panel, and that conversation is one I have on at least a weekly basis with people I’m trying to work with. While people might think of books and quiet when they think of libraries, my actual day-to-day job is about 90% teaching and other educator related activities (like curriculum and outreach events) and I can go days on end without seeing a single book. And this is true for a lot of librarians out there.

Libraries, and other cultural institutions like museums, have changed a huge amount in recent years, which I think accounts in large part for public misconceptions regarding what they do. And media portrayals and stereotypes don’t help all that much. Case in point: Ghostbusters, The Mummy, The Music Man, and Buffy.

ghostbusters_library-e1293405484897 7109

music-man_l giles-buffy

While I wouldn’t mind dancing at work or going on Mummy or vampire fighting adventures, none of those things are true.

As much as I roll my eyes and laugh at silly media portrayals (a bit redundant as most media portrayals of most professions qualify as silly to some degree) and stereotypes, libraries actually have a huge problem in marketing which impacts how librarians work with others (as a personal anecdote, a lot of faculty at the college where I work are completely clueless about what I do), how librarians get funding and collaborators for projects, and how to attract people to library services. And it doesn’t help that libraries themselves are so incredibly diverse – the strengths and needs of public libraries often differ wildly from those of academic libraries.

In thinking of some ways, for myself at least, to develop and deliver a strong narrative to potential partners and collaborators and users, I thought of master storyteller Peggy Olson. Really.

In the Burger Chef storyline on Mad Men (stay with me), Peggy and co. realize that they can’t get around the reality that Burger Chef is a fast food restaurant, and can’t escape everything that fast food entails. So, Peggy opts to draw people’s focus to something else instead, something that has positive connotations for people.

If people tend to associate libraries with books and shushing, then perhaps there are ways to tweak that narrative and shift their focus elsewhere. It’s something I learned in a writing class in grad school – start with the familiar and guide people to unfamiliar ideas; use the familiar as a building block and a transition.

There are definitely initiatives out there trying to tell a more up-to-date story about libraries, including Every Library, a nonprofit that works on library ballot issues, and SXSW Libraries Archives and Museums, a library advocacy group. And for my own part, I’m using the start of the school year to tweak my own personal narrative and think of new ways to let people know what I do and how I can work with them.

Teaching All the Literacies

I am a huge fan of Parks and Rec and my favorite episode might very well be Indianapolis, where, among other happenings, Ron Swanson is devastated to learn that his favorite restaurant has closed. In despair, he goes to a diner and orders all the eggs and bacon they have. All. Of. Them.

As someone who teaches students about technology and information literacy (more on that term shortly), I often feel like I’m caught in a vortex of all the things. I want to teach my students about all the highly interconnected and complex things (from how the internet works to copyright basics to evaluating sources to using digital media) in an often short period of time. On the flip side, I’m often asked to teach my students all the things by admins, professors, and various outside parties and all of those things don’t always line up with all of mine.

nearly-as-bad-as-soy-baconIt would be as if I thought I was getting all the bacon and eggs and someone else ordered turkey bacon on my behalf.

Aside from having high and sometime (often) divergent expectations as to what is and should be going on in classroom settings, I think a large part of the issue with all the things syndrome stems from how we define (or don’t) information literacy itself. I’ll be talking about managing expectations in the classroom another day; but, for now, I’d like to look at how information literacy turned into all the things and how you can run the risk of not having all the things delivered when you ask for a lot (here’s hoping Ron got all of his bacon and eggs though).

If you’re in the library world, you probably just “know” what information literacy means. But there are a lot of overlapping definitions floating around, from ALA’s official ones, which is currently two paragraphs and six bullet points long, to The Big 6 Information and Technology Skills for Student Success, which are shortened version of ALA’s outcomes in some respects. But are these definitions clear to people outside of library land? Or are they even agreed upon by everyone in library land?

I first read Digital Literacies: Concepts, Policies and Practices last year back when I was in library school and a chapter that I found of particular interest was “Defining Digital Literacies” by David Buckingham. (Check here for a download of the book –

Buckingham notes that literacy has become an “overburdened” term and I’ve certainly felt the pain of that in my own work – information literacy, digital literacy, computer literacy, technological literacy. These things are all so mutable and overlapping that it becomes difficult to describe what we, as educators, are doing. I see the connections, and I feel like most people in library land simply “know” how all of this fits together and what we mean when we toss out terms like information literacy (which is itself overburdened on top of the already weighed down idea of literacy more generally). But does this make sense to everyone else? Are official definitions of information literacy, like ALA’s, transferable and clear?

The library world, like a lot of other cultural and educational groups, sometimes have problems with marketing. When it comes to overburdened terms like literacy, and information literacy in particular, I think we need to be able to describe it clearly, and with a minimum of synonymous terms, in order to help people understand the value of what we are doing.

An article I read this summer, Bruce’s 7 Faces of Information Literacy rather underscored the overburdened nature of the term information literacy. Bruce outlines seven possible definitions for what information literacy is all about, ranging from the idea that information literacy is about using technology to information literacy is about using information to benefit society. If there are seven (!) possible views you could take on information literacy, no wonder Buckingham describes literacy as overburdened. It’s like a bad word program about how many possible combinations of things you can come up with (the answer is too many).

Maria reacts with horror to the idea of seven children, er, information literacy definitions

Maria reacts with horror to the idea of seven children, er, information literacy definitions

Bruce came to the rescue though with a follow-up article on informed learning (Supporting informed learners in the 21st century, citation below), which, in a nutshell looks at how we use information to learn. The idea here is to have people be aware of the learning process and the role information plays in learning. Here’s some thoughts from Bruce and co.

Information literacy education programs have tended to focus on standards and skills-based instruction, not always extending attention to helping students engage with content through their information use processes. (Bruce et al 523)

In other words, information using skills are building blocks for informed learning, rather than the end purpose (Bruce et al 525)

I like emphasizing information literacy as building block skills, and I think that this perspective can help some with all the things syndrome. I don’t have the time and resources and support needed for my students to learn all about the nuances of copyright and search skills and creating digital content and online security and all the other things I’d like to teach them. I’d have to enroll all of them in an information school or library school program.

But what I can do is focus on building-block skills that let my students learn how to use information; in other words, to help my students become information literate by developing strong critical thinking skills. Emphasizing information literacy as a foundational skill set, highlighting the action-oriented parts of information literacy (the use of information), and tying all of this together with critical thinking can not only help market library instruction programming, but it can also help to get all the things syndrome under control. Instead of cramming everything I, and everyone else, can think of into information literacy instruction, which can result in people learning nothing at all, I can focus on building up ways of thinking about and using information that are both transferable and foundational.



Bruce, Christine. “Seven Faces of Information Literacy in Higher Education”,

Bruce, Christine S., Hughes, Hilary E., & Somerville, Mary M. (2012) Supporting informed learners in the 21st century. Library Trends, 60(3).

Learning to Teach and Teaching to Learn

Greetings and happy Friday! I’m settling back in after a ton of summer travel and summer conferences. Well, if by settling back in I mean feeling overwhelmed and how is summer almost over and the first-years are coming, is that the Jaws theme song I hear?


Last week I attended a week-long teacher training workshop in Land of Maple Syrup and Ben & Jerry’s Vermont with a lot of fabulous academic librarians. I’m still processing all the new things I learned, but there have been a few takeaways in particular that have stayed with me this week.

At one point during the workshop we spent time (as teachers do) going over learning styles and learning theory. I know some people don’t think all that much of learning style tests and categories (I certainly don’t swear by them), but I feel that having some level of self-awareness about how you like to do things can never hurt. For my part, I made an interesting self-discovery during all of this – my teaching style is actually quite (and in some cases dramatically) different from some of my learning style preferences.

As a learner I favor time for writing and note taking; as a teacher I favor discussions and group activities. Someone mentioned to me at this training, that teaching, after a time, can diverge from, or even shift, a person’s learning preferences, which is something I hadn’t really thought much about before.

This got me thinking about how the act of teaching is itself a learning activity and how I could perhaps use teaching as a learning tool in the classroom.

I first started teaching in museum environments, which favor hands-on learning. And it was in museums that I rather quickly learned the value of activity-based learning and developed a style that is heavy on group interaction. Since the act of teaching was such an invaluable learning experience for me, I wonder if I can find ways to use it in the classroom now.

I posted a while back about the idea of letting students drive/take charge in the classroom to build confidence, give them a stake in their own learning, and help them approach material in a new way. Teaching something can definitely give you new insight into it. But I now wonder if mixing in activities where students are teaching each other, or me, can do more than give them added insight into the content we’re covering. I wonder if teaching can give students some insight into how they process, use, and share information. If my main goal is to teach my students information literacy and critical thinking skills, and if those skills are all about processing and using information, then perhaps the act of teaching itself can be a vehicle for building information literacy and critical thinking skills.
Aside from giving students time to demonstrate skills and teach one another, I also want to start being more transparent (and, dare I say, meta) and sharing my own teaching practices, learning outcomes, and overall thought processes with my students. Perhaps highlighting the ways I deal with and share information will spark some interesting conversations and will encourage my students to think about how they themselves handle information.

Let Autonomy Ring

I hope everyone had a good 4th of July (for those in the States at least. ‘Murica!). I’m still decompressing from ALA and travel for the 4th. ALA was overwhelming at times (though part of that was just Vegas itself), but one thing that really struck me about the conference was how many different conversations were happening about libraries – you get public, school, academic, and other types of librarians in one place and you’ll get a lot of chatter about what libraries are and what their value is.

This notion of purpose and value got me thinking of an article I read, skimmed really, back in my library school days, about autonomy and libraries. ALA prompted me to come back around to something I’ve been thinking a lot about –  how libraries convey value and what the values of libraries are.

Here’s the article: Audrey Barbakoff, Libraries Build Autonomy: A Philosophical
Perspective on the Social Role of Libraries and Librarians

Barbakoff argues that autonomy is one of the best things a library has offer. A library can give people the skills and tools and support they need to think critically, and think for themselves. Autonomy is about freedom (rather appropriate, given the recent holiday) – of choice, of information, of thought. This article was about public libraries and library advocacy, but it inspired me to think on a slightly different track – what is the value of teaching people to do things for themselves and are libraries actually cool with doing that?

The most American of Americans, who most likely appreciates autonomy and freedom

There is definitely tension in the term autonomy – there are implications of independence and going solo. So to what degree are libraries set up to support that, and to what degree do we want users to become completely independent – able to do research without consulting us at all?  Relinquishing our role as gatekeeper and expert can be daunting. The increasingly pronounced role of librarians as educators (something longstanding but not nearly as prevalent many years ago) and the role of librarians as gatekeepers, arbiters, protector of books and artifacts, shushers, and experts is not always a comfortable fit. Then again, librarians have never been entirely comfortable – we lend things out, but we want them back; we show people how to do things and send them on their way, but we want them to come back for more. Maybe the autonomy we really want to instill in users is the choice to use us and keep coming back.

Gaming the Library

I’m getting ready to head out to the ALA conference in Vegas tomorrow (American Library Association, for those who don’t know). I feel a bit like this at the moment –

It’s been an exciting day so far, with the World Cup Game and getting set for my trip, so I thought I’d post something fun before heading off on an adventure. The something fun I thought I’d ponder? Games.

I’m a big fan of Wil Wheaton and his webseries, TableTop, where he and some of his friends get together to play a different board game each episode – Settlers of Catan, Sabotage, Ticket to Ride, Pandemic. I love board games and watching Wheaton and friends celebrate games is a lot of fun.

As with most things I like, I thought “how can I incorporate this into teaching/curriculum design and therefore justify watching TableTop episodes at work?”

Just kidding (only partly). I do think that board games and game design can teach a lot of valuable lessons to kids of all ages (this is turning into an advertisement for an amusement park, or a Chuck E Cheese).

But really, board games are about strategy, playing nicely with others, working together (sometimes), thinking logically, and having fun with challenges. And the things I teach, whether it’s information literacy, tech skills, research strategies, etc. can all involve a lot of the skills needed to play board games and a lot of the experiences you can have playing board games.

I’ve done activities before, in tech classes at museums, where I’ve had kids design their own games, which teaches them a lot about communication skills, logic, planning, and creative problem solving. I’ve been wondering whether or not I could apply gaming to my current library work though. Board game night in the library would be a really fun outreach activity, but could gaming and game design be used in a classroom?

I play small ice-breaker games in a lot of my classes, whether it’s a bingo game to keep students engaged during an orientation session or a quick round of “is it a popular or scholarly source?” or “is it cited correctly?” to have some fun during a research skills class.  I would like to work on ideas to incorporate actual game design into my library classes, though. Maybe an activity where students map out a research strategy as you would a game? I plan to work more on this, so stay tuned for more ideas.

For now, here are some links about gaming, learning, and libraries.