Several thousand school library professionals from around the country converged in Hartford, CT, November 14–17 for the 16th National Conference of the American Association of School Librarians (AASL). During the event—themed “Rising to the Challenge”—media specialists explored their evolving and expanding role as education and technology leaders through such shared learning activities as concurrent sessions; an intense, late-night “unconference,” in which the informal discussion topics were chosen by the participants; and an elearning commons that offered continuous how-to learning.
Prior to the conference, AASL members attended pre-conference leadership and technology workshops and a research symposium, and toured local schools with strong library programs. Conference exhibits opened on Thursday evening after a keynote by Tony Wagner, education fellow at the technology and entrepreneurship center at Harvard, who spoke about innovation.
Attendees on Friday and Saturday had their pick of dozens of concurrent sessions, and many were so packed it was standing-room only in the panel rooms.
Popular themes included strategies for meeting the Common Core State Standards (look for SLJ’s follow-up coverage of numerous sessions on the topic); gaming in the library and classroom; intellectual freedom issues; college readiness; diversity and serving the needs of all kids; better utilization of ebooks in schools; innovative ways to approach STEM, STEAM, and inquiry-based learning with children at all grade levels; maker spaces; best practices for effective collaboration with teachers and principals; and the innovative use of tech tools—especially free apps—in student learning.
Many popular children’s and young adult authors were also in attendance, including Libba Bray, Shane W. Evans, Faith Erin Hicks, Matthew Holm, Jennifer L. Holm, A. S. King, Jarrett J. Krosoczka, Steve Sheinken, Raina Telgemeier, plus storytellers such as Carol Birch, Bill Harley, and Valerie Tutson. They were on hand for meet-and-greets and signings, a special programming track, and appearances at numerous other learning panels throughout the weekend.
At “Boys Reading: A Focus on Fantasy” session, attendees were treated to a rambunctious, hilarious, and smart conversation session that only briefly touched upon the topic of how to keep boys interested in books. Rather, the panelists—Jon Scieszka, Adam Gidwitz, Neal Schusterman, William Alexander, and Tony Abbot—and moderator, Jonathan Auxier, discussed everything from fart jokes and swearing to the tribulations of growing up and the philosophical underpinnings of fantasy writing itself. Schusterman compared the genre to “falling into your own dreams,” while Gidwitz said that fantasy allows readers to “go into the dark forest…and bring what we learn back to our lives.”
The panelists, who bounced jokes off one another like veterans of a long-running comedy routine, frequently indulged in tangents. They quoted writers such as J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Ursula K. Le Guin; waxed poetic on the importance of fairy tales; and discussed the differences and similarities between fantasy and science fiction. Alexander told the captivated audience, “Science fiction and fantasy help us cope with the fact that we no longer know what kind of story we’re in.”
Many programs taking place during the two-day event focused on the perennial topic of gaming in the library. In “Game On: Using the Latest and Greatest to Entice Patrons and Promote Literacy,” Assistant professor Tricia Kuon and associate professor Holly Weimar from Sam Houston University in Texas shared their findings from an international survey of school librarians on the subject. Ninety-two of the librarians surveyed agreed that games should be used in the library as an educational tool. The presentation highlighted traditional games, such as chess and Scrabble, and the more modern apps for iPads or video games on Nintendo DS or Wii platforms.
Tackling the question of “Is gaming in the library educational?”, the researchers posited that gaming increases critical thinking skills, encourages socialization with peers, and aids in identity formation. And the most positive result of library gaming? “It’s like a spider web. Once kids come into the library for gaming, they keep coming back. They came for the games, but stayed for the books,” said Kuon.
Building digital literacy
Several sessions covered issues of intellectual freedom and the ways in which such challenges converge in the digital space and present new challenges to library media specialists. In “What Do I Do If? Intellectual Freedom Dilemmas in School Libraries,” librarians Annalisa Keuler, Christine Eldred, Karyn Storts-Brinks, and Dee Venuto presented four different scenarios and shared best practices from their own experiences, while online instructor Helen R. Adams and Debbie Abilock, co-founder of Noodle Tools, offered additional guidance.
Attendees participated in round-robin mini sessions on four “gray-area dilemmas” facing librarians: self-censorship, e-books and users’ rights, navigating challenges to resources containing controversial ideas, and viewpoint discrimination in Internet filtering.
Internet concerns were also raised during “Confronting the Elephant in the Room: Social Media Policies for a 21st Century School,” as librarians Frances Harris and Megan Cusik discussed how school librarians have to continue to advocate for updated social media acceptable-use policies (AUP) in their schools. In an era when colleges are Googling applicants, and many jobs are requiring a strong social media presence, schools without access to email, social networks, and other mobile tools that kids can use to enhance their learning, are divorced from the real world.
During this session, participants were given suggested guidelines and best practices for revamping AUPs to reflect the changing technologies and expectations. Cusik also provided examples of several social media-driven student projects that align with the Common Core Standards, including a crowd-sourced novel and a real-time analysis of a TED speech.
The topic of college readiness was examined in dedicated sessions that addressed the need for strengthening students’ research skills, in alignment with the expectations of the Common Core. For example, in their “Sink or Swim: Will You Students Rise to the Challenge of College-Level Research?” session, Pam Harland, library director of Sanborn Regional High School, and Elaine Allard, associate professor at Plymouth College in New Hampshire, presented an informal study of first-year college students and college professors that centered on the top five expectations both groups had when it came to research in college. There is a big disconnect between what the recent high school grads expected to be taught about research by their new educators, and the skills that professors believed that incoming students should already be adept at applying to their studies.
The top five skills these college professors expected freshmen to know and understand are:
- Research is a process.
- How to brainstorm.
- How to research.
- Evaluate sources.
- Stay organized.
Harland and Allard shared tips, resources, and tools with the audience to help them better equip their students for college-level research.
Exploring diversity issues
Diversity in children’s books has continued to be a growing concern for librarians, and several author-led sessions at the conference shined a light on the timely subject. Co-founders of The Brown Bookshelf blog, Kelly Starling-Lyons and Gwendolyn Hooks, shared resources and titles that feature African American protagonists. Ranging from picture book biographies, such as Don Tate’s It Jes’ Happened (Lee & Low), to young adult novels, such as The Summer Prince (Scholastic, both 2013), these books would make excellent additions to school library collections, according to the presenters. Hooks encouraged the audience to voice their concerns about the lack of diversity in children’s books to publishers. “It will take all of our voices together to make the change,” she said.
A panel of middle-grade authors presented ways their books could be used to inspire middle school students to become world citizens. Showcasing Padlet.com, a virtual bulletin board, Nathalie Dias Lorenzi and Lynne Kelly discussed how educators could introduce a book about different cultures or tough subjects through this social media tool by including links to build background knowledge.
Jeanne Mobley and Cynthia Levinson emphasized that teachers could tie historical fiction and nonfiction titles to the growing call for the use of primary documents and cross-curricular research in the classroom. Mary Sullivan, Tara Sullivan, and Ann Haywood-Leal focused on ways that young teens could develop different projects to help those in need, such as a penny and coat drive, in connection to books that encourage empathy towards others.
Mitali Perkins challenged the audience to continue to hold authors and illustrators to a higher standard of empathy, research, and authenticity. Perkins stated that middle schoolers accept “mirror books” more easily than “window books”—titles those kids can connect to because of a shared characteristic, rather than a work that gives them a window into an unfamiliar culture. Another resource shared during the session included the Teachers for Global Classrooms (TGC) Program, which provides a professional development opportunity for U.S. middle and high school teachers to participate in a program aimed at globalizing teaching and learning in their classrooms.
Teaching with tech
Tech tools—especially free apps—were on every attendee’s mind, it seemed. Sarah Ludwig, Dean of Digital and Library Services at The Ethel Walker School in Simsbury, CT, offered her top selections during “Breathing New Life into Book Programming with Technology“ (look for her roundup on The Digital Shift soon). The use of various apps was also demonstrated and discussed during round-the-clock tech sessions and meetups of the eLearning Commons—hosted by Carolyn Foote, high school librarian, blogger, and SLJ columnist. Beyond its “tech how-to“ sessions, the commons sponsored a challenge to attendees to each help three librarians get started on Twitter.
Best app recommendations were also traded during the unconference, hosted by high school librarian and SLJ blogger Joyce Valenza and her team of library leaders. It began at 9 pm on Friday night and ran through to midnight; within a party atmosphere—yet one of shared learning and enthusiasm for the professions—participants first broke into informal sharing sessions on topics ranging from maker spaces to the Common Core. Maker spaces was so popular a topic, in fact, that two discussion groups were formed to swap best practices and ideas.
Next up, participants lined up for the app “Smackdown” to share their favorite free apps—some familiar to the crowd, and some brand new—and the way that they use them with their students. Fortunately for those who were unable to attend, all of the participant-driven takeaways were archived online during the event by attendee volunteers. Prizes from key vendors were distributed continuously, which was exciting, but the energy truly reached a feverish pitch during several rounds of “Rocks/Sucks,” presided over by Dan Callahan, the founder of the EdCamp open learning concept.
Key issues—such as the integration of media and technology, the use of Facebook to communicate with students, and the “genrification” of collections and ditching Dewey—were debated, with those in favor and opposed to the topics rushing to cluster on opposite sides of the room, where they were given a chance at the mike to explain their choices.
Another highlight, according to Valenza? The enthusiastic endorsement of the event—and participation by—AASL leadership. “Among them were immediate Past President Susan Ballard, President Gail Dickinson, AASL Executive Director Sylvia Norton, Deputy Executive Director Allison Cline, and ALA President Barbara Stripling,” Valenza notes on her blog.
Saturday afternoon, attendees enjoyed a closing keynote from author and leadership consultant Peter Bregman, though for some, the true finale of the event was the author’s breakfast on Sunday morning. It featured bestselling children’s graphic novels creators Faith Erin Hicks, Jennifer and Matthew Holm, Jarrett Krosoczka, and Raina Telgemeier dressed in their pajamas.