Collaborative planning and teaching is the ideal in the teacher librarian’s world – that wonderful state when you can plan the aspects of an investigation that will be your responsibility and then team teach them in the library with the classroom teacher assisting (and learning.)
This approach is so successful because all the investigations into how the brain functions and how people learn suggest that learning in context is most likely to be retained and this is considerably heightened when there is curiosity about, a need and desire for learning, a connection to it and the expectation of success.
When the brain is confronted with new information, the data goes through a series of ‘filters’ to determine where it fits in with what it already known. Even without the 21st century science, Piaget called it assimilation and accommodation. while Marion Diamond’s book The Magic Trees of the Mind provides a very readable explanation of the learning process. Essentially when new information is presented to the brain, after being assessed for the fight or flight response, the brain seeks to associate it with something already known. If it finds it, the existing dendrites (the magic trees) assess whether they are being confirmed or challenged by this new information and it is assimilated into what is already known and the dendrites change to accommodate the new learning. If the new information challenges the existing knowledge and beliefs too much, it may be discarded and if no relevant connections are made it will be held in the short term memory but quickly forgotten if there is nothing to consolidate it.
So the argument for collaborative planning and teaching so that students understand the relevance of what they are being taught in the library curriculum within the bigger-picture context of a class investigation is very strong.
However, the reality is that more and more teacher librarians, particularly in the primary/elementary sector are being used to cover teacher preparation and planning time and there is little, if any, connection to what happens in the library and the classroom. Indeed, it is this coverage of this time as part of the ‘specials team’ that is keeping those TLs employed!! And so instead of the learning being just-in-time it becomes just-in-case and often quickly discarded.
So if this is your situation, how can you make the most of it so the students can maximise what is on offer? This is particularly so when you may only see the students once a week on a fixed timetable and their class investigation moves on in between library visits.
Know the curriculum
As is explained in The Scope and Sequence Hat having a step-by-step one-size-fits-all curriculum is not only difficult to develop but also ineffective if it has no connection to anything the students are doing. While the days of having students fill out a worksheet of responses after a brief introduction to a topic might seem attractive, their efficacy is very dubious and there is little evidence that what is learned in the library is then transferred to new situations in the classroom.
This was recognised when the Australian Curriculum was first structured and the elements of information literacy that had been the domain of the teacher librarian were embedded in the curriculum itself rather than being an adjunct as a cross-curriculum perspective. Now all teachers would be required to teach students how they could identify and information need, and then locate, evaluate, interpret and use what they discovered to satisfy it.
Thus knowing the requirements of the curriculum in relation to information literacy is a critical first step.
Each strand of the curriculum has aspects of information literacy and inquiry that are common to the others even if they are worded differently. All require the students to
- pose questions
- locate information in one form or another that will help answer them
- determine its relevance, currency and authenticity
- interpret what it is telling them
- combine what they discover to create new information
- present what they have learned so development and understanding is apparent
- use their learning as a stepping stone to taking action or even further learning
Of course, each year level requires a different level of sophistication but that is the beauty of a spiral curriculum that focuses on process rather than product and concept rather than content.
While the TL is primarily a teacher – hence our title- the teaching we do is different to that of the classroom teacher because we are trying to enable students to develop skills and understandings that transcend artificial subject borders and can be transferred to one degree or another to any situation throughout their lives. Whether they need to know the time the next bus will get them into town or whether they have to solve a complex scientific or legal problem, they have the skills to assist them starting with the three basic questions…
- what do I need to know
- what do I already know
- what more do I need to find out
While curricula may specify particular content that students must cover, understand that a topic is just a vehicle on which the deeper concepts and processes travel on and so it is very possible to use any subject matter to embed that which you want the students to know.
Thus the term lifelong learning has particular application for what we do.
Making the transition between the roles of a classroom teacher and a TL can be one of the biggest hurdles to be overcome but once it is done things become much clearer. So become very familiar with the curriculum for the year levels you are teaching and draw out and write down the information literacy aspects that are applicable using the headings from the Information Literacy Process as a guide. If your school uses a formal pedagogical model such as Guided Inquiry then map the elements of the Information Literacy Process on to that so you know where each fits. While this may be time-consuming initially, not only does it deepen your understanding of your teaching role but it only has to be done once because large-scale changes to overarching curricula are infrequent.
Consult with the teachers
This may seem to be easier said than done particularly if you are covering the only time a teacher has off class to plan. But there are ways and means.
If the teachers are part of a team that has a team meeting when you are available put yourself on the agenda of that at the beginning of the term.
If you have their classes while they meet, ask for a meeting before or after school or during a break. The school day is longer than the 9-3 “performance” time and so they should be willing to meet with you at a mutually acceptable time.
If face-to-face meetings are not possible, then use email.
If their response is that they don’t care because they don’t view the library instruction time as an integral part of their teaching, then they are tacitly giving you the go-ahead to do what you like.
Whichever method you use, armed with your curriculum document ask them which aspects they would like you to focus on, regardless of the content vehicle you hitch it to. It is important to help them understand that information literacy is not a lock-step process – indeed most of the models demonstrate that it is recursive as we switch back and forth between elements as required – and so it is not possible to effectively teach each step in one investigation, particularly with once-a-week visits. Try to complement their focus so you are linking but not rehashing what is being done in class. For instance, if the teacher is focusing on posing questions, then your focus could be helping the students locate the information and assessing it for relevance. Stress that with this approach you are able to lessen their workload rather than add to it.
Often new TLs ask how they can increase collaboration in planning if not teaching and sometimes they have an expectation that offering to lessen a teacher’s workload will be a magic wand that will have them clamouring at the door and are disappointed when they aren’t. But there are many reasons that teachers feel unable to collaborate from being protective of their program to not understanding what it is you are offering, so the most common answer is to work with those who are interested. Apart from the benefits, there is a belief that this will encourage other teachers to want a slice of the pie as though they absorb the increased learning opportunities by osmosis. But often the result is that the status quo remains, there are those who do and those who don’t.
Spreading the Word
If you are going to do the best for the students in your care then the more teachers you can work with the better. So even if a particular teacher shows no interest in what you do with their students it is important to keep the lines of communication open.
If full responsibility for planning and teaching rests with you, map out your program for those students for the term, including links to the curriculum outcomes they are addressing, and email this to the non-participating teacher. At the very least, it helps break down the notion that library time is unrelated to anything that is happening in the classroom and is, in fact, a valid and valuable teaching opportunity.
After each lesson, send a brief email outlining what was covered and even identifying those who grasped things and those who were struggling. Again this emphasises the teaching aspect and demonstrates that while your job may be different, as a teacher you are on an equal footing.
Unashamedly eavesdrop on staffroom conversations and if you hear a teacher expressing concern over an aspect of the curriculum or something they are doing or proposing to do that you can assist with, even if it is just resources rather than teaching, then email them with your suggestions.
Offer to run in-house professional learning sessions that demonstrate what you can offer and do to support what teachers are planning or doing.
Every little bit helps to educate about and advocate for the role of the teacher librarian and demonstrates that we are much more than keepers of the books.
Walking the walk
Having talked the talk, it is essential to walk the walk.
Once the focus of your sessions has been identified, use your own inquiry approach to plan your lessons. Use these two big questions to guide your planning…
What do I want the students to know, do, understand, appreciate and value as a result of my teaching in the short and long-term?
What evidence will I accept that learning has occurred?
Then using your own or an imposed format, plan your lessons as required by your school authority.
Link to classroom content wherever possible but don’t try to duplicate it – a parallel topic is just as valuable as the classroom investigation as it offers another perspective and shows the transference of knowledge, understandings and skills to new situations.
Use literature as a basis if desired – using open-ended question starters such as what if, how would/could/should, what could can open up lots of avenues for thought and investigation that can then kickstart further learning. My favourite is to read The Great Tasmanian Tiger Hunt by Michael Salmon and ask the children what Colonel Horsfeld-Smythe should have know about the Tasmanian Tiger to make his hunt more successful. Not only did it spark investigations about the life of the Tasmanian Tiger but it also opened up discussions about endangered and extinct species, conservation and even the ethics of hunting and zoos! And all the while the students were learning many of the elements of information literacy!
As accountability and data collection drive teaching more and more, for better or for worse, more and more teacher librarians are being asked to add comments to student reports. In a climate where it is often hard to remember each student’s name because you see maybe 200 students per day, being asked to write an individual comment that is accurate and defensible can be very difficult but nevertheless it must be done. Some teachers are happy with a blanket statement of what has been covered while others demand grades and specific comments. so devise ways that work for you that will allow you to keep track of progress and achievement so you can meet your responsibilities. It all adds to that advocacy that we are teachers first and foremost.
Wearing the prep-time hat can be a bonus and a blessing for all parties if we are prepared to make the most of the opportunities given to us. Rather than bemoaning that we have reality rather than ideality, we need to embrace it and make it work for us and the students.