I spent the last week of July at ACRL’s Immersion in beautiful Burlington, VT, on the campus of Champlain College. In five days I experienced beautiful vistas, met intelligent and hard-working librarians, and grappled with my own vision of what a teaching librarian should strive for. In reflecting on that experience shortly after it happened, here are just a few things that I learned. (Hopefully there will be more reflections in the coming months!)
The importance of building in time for critical reflection in everyday practice
I started this blog with a sense that I needed to deliberately reflect “out loud” about my teaching. The difference, now, is that I can steer this reflection with more questions that “What worked?” and “What didn’t work?” Though these are important questions, I will also begin to ask myself what my assumptions are, whether or not I am creating spaces for universally-accessible learning, if my plans are suited for active learning, or if they are just “activities,” and if my plans include any assessment elements.
How to take a more holistic approach with a spectrum of teaching and learning styles
I have been struggling with a style of library instruction that I call the “pointer,” where students spend 50 minutes watching a librarian point to resources, point to drop-down menus and filter buttons, point to shelves, etc. My style of teaching had admittedly been a reaction to this. I wanted to students to get more from my library instruction than a list of resources to look at, but instead a way of thinking. In my reaction, I neglected that some students really need and benefit from a “pointed” look at operational features of library resources. As my fellow Immersion cohort Amanda has already noted, my assumptions (we spent a lot of time talking about these!) lead me to ignore this generic-but-important part of instruction. Our teaching, I learned, needs to consider the holistic approach of generic (behavioral), situational (contextual), and transformative (critical) literacy perspectives (See Bruce and Lupton’s Chapter 1 of Practising Information Literacy). Our discussion of these literacy models and other learning theories (namely behavioral, cognitive, and social) showed me that a little bit of pointing (balanced with thinking and doing) can be a good thing!
I tell my students that research is a process, but I am reminded that teaching is one, too.
I’ve always appreciated the experimental/experiential and risk-taking elements of teaching, but our several discussions on student learning outcomes (SLOs) really tested my appreciation. I grappled with creating meaningful SLOs that allowed me to be creative in my teaching but also kept that creativity from getting away from me, or in other words, from being too esoteric or jam-packed for students to benefit from in a short period of time. I also learned that crafting SLOs is as much a trial-and-error process as research and writing are. In several instances, I started with a question (what is this session’s purpose, and how can I measure it?), I drafted a way to pursue this question (SLO), and I worked on improving it, sometimes by myself, but more often by workshopping them with my peers (peer-review, y’all! Duh.). Something I already knew–that teaching was an iterative exercise–now has a concrete method to inform it and make it more purposeful! More importantly, I was also reminded that part of instructional design is tapping into your teaching community of practice. When we resume our teaching loads in the coming weeks, I will challenge myself to rely on this and imbue my teaching with not just the ideas in the Frameworks or the bygone Standards, but with these foundational principals of purposeful design.
I’ll be attending the 2016 Immersion (Teacher Track) at the end of this month, and in preparation for this and for general maintenance of my teaching endeavors I’ve decided to unpack my teaching philosophy as a way of jump-starting my efforts in critical reflection. Lately, 3 things have been on my mind.
- I believe questions are one of our most powerful tools, as teachers and as learners.
In a letter to a senator, Helen Keller wrote, “I used to think that when I studied Civil Government and Economics, all my difficulties and perplexities would blossom into beautiful certainties; but alas, I find that there are more tares than wheat in these fertile fields of knowledge” (Story of My Life). Questions, at least in my life’s experience, admittedly, have only ever lead to more questions, which is not frustrating, but a mouth-watering promise to feed a curiosity that can never be satiated. And to ask questions is to assert power, which l use as a purposefully loaded word, in this case. Which leads me to my second point.
2. It is our duties as teachers to provide the most diverse (in the broadest sense of the word) materials in an environment that respects all forms of literacy and questions all forms of inquiry.
Power structures in the classroom are inevitable, which can be a barrier to those-not-in-power to asking questions. It’s imperative that I remember that diverse backgrounds create diverse sociocultural literacies (Elmborg, 2006), which can make it difficult for people to communicate freely in an environment that does not respect the legitimacy of different cultural literacies. This is something I struggle with, because as much as I want classrooms to be a safe space for questions and debate, this is often easier said than done. It’s also something, for me, at least, that is a constant pursuit, an asymptotic learning curve that I, as someone who was born into privilege, will always hope to approach. And in order to create the dialogue that so badly needs to be a part of a well-rounded educational experience, the person leading that classroom, whether she portends to upholding a hierarchical structure or not, is in charge of that. So it is just as important to ask questions as it is to invite them.
3. Fostering curiosity and the willfulness to pursue that curiosity is easier said than done.
I have lately been fascinated by studies done by psychologists and educational scholars on how to tackle difficult-to-measure and difficult-to-foster measures of success in the classroom. This may be because my only exposure to teaching (other than being a TA for literature surveys in graduate school) has been in subjects that students are classically averse to. I think that this kind of teaching warrants as much curiosity and grit as it requires from students. I think that being an effective teacher also means being a willing learner, opening up to the community of teachers that have already tackled and still tackle these questions, which leads to my last point:
4. Teaching and learning are about engaging in community, in one way or another.
I subscribe to the school of social constructivist teaching, where learners who are can actively participate in their learning communities are more likely to gain deeper understanding. At the least, this creates a democratic learning environment among peers, and ideally, it imbues the importance of active citizenship in the classroom. Whether classmates are communing with each other, or creating something with/for their communities, they are social activists in their own education. At its core, teaching is activism, and to engage productively with one’s community is to participate in social justice.
Confession: this is my return to the blogosphere, since I stopped reflecting on my graduate school experiences in 2010. I’ve been reluctant to write again, and I’ve been resisting taking this practice back up for many excuses, including a general disdain for the self-referential and occasional self-serving tone that blogs can assume, and a presumed lack of time that I would otherwise dedicate to various other work-related activities. Excuses aside, it’s time to shed my presumptions and get back to it! As a proponent of critical reflection, I think it’s time to jump back into the practice of evaluating my thoughts and practices as a teacher-librarian. So as I work on my self-serving reflections (!) in this public space (!), feel free to stop by, have a gander, rearrange some of the furniture, and help me give this space more feng shui.