November 18, 2017

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In the Tech Mosh Pit: True Adventures of Nikki Robertson

Robertson (in foreground) and her students snap a selfie. Photo courtesy of Nikki Robertson.

Robertson (in foreground) and her students snap a selfie.
Photo courtesy of Nikki Robertson.

Nikki Robertson enjoys a sandbox just as much as her students. But instead of shovels and sifters, her toys tend toward digital devices and tech tools that fill the maker space at James Clemens High School in Madison, AL, where Robertson is the librarian and tech facilitator. Her goal? Get messy, get out of her comfort zone, and bring others along with her, whether they’re peers or her students.

“I just jump in blindly and expect the kids to catch me like a mosh pit,” she says, laughing. “I think that’s what’s best for them, too.”

Robertson’s enthusiasm about technology is well known in the librarian community, whom she connects with through her blog, “The True Adventures of a High School Librarian,” her library’s Instagram feed, SnapChat (jchs_library), and the TL (teacher librarian) News Night sessions she co-moderates the second Monday of every month.

“She makes a point to be transparent, share, and even walk through the steps she does with students whether they’re positive or negative,” says Sherry Gick, a library and instructional technology specialist with Rossville (IN) Consolidated Schools. “It’s infectious. I don’t even have to work next to her to see her impact.”

Robertson encourages other librarians to network with her in order to push their own digital learning skills into classrooms and libraries. Mistakes? Lost manual? 3-D printer confusion? To Robertson, those challenges are just part of the fun. If students end up showing her how to do something—and not vice versa—her mission is working.

“Everything I do wraps around that student voice and giving them a choice to discover who they are,” she says. “I let their talent shine rather than shove them into a cookie cutter.”

Her library is a recipe for personal discovery. Students might be programming LEGO Mindstorms or playing with electrical circuits or modular Cubelets (robot construction pieces). But they might also be deep into a Scrabble game. While technology gets Robertson’s heart aflutter, the line that runs through all her work is getting students connected—whether that’s with Arduino, an electronics platform, or through a card game. One student may start a project, and others will come in and finish. Collaboration, not ownership, is at play in her space.

That’s Robertson’s personal story as well. About six years ago, she began to see QR codes appearing on periodicals coming into her school library in Alabama’s Russell County. Curious, she researched the barcodes, and then got angry, wondering what else was out there in the world of education and technology that she didn’t know about yet. One night she emailed about five or six “education superstars,” she says, including Doug Johnson, Shelly Terrell, and Gwyneth Jones, expressing that she didn’t think she could do what they do. She woke up the next morning to words of encouragement from all. Now, Robertson herself serves as a lamp lighter.

“She’s constantly sharing what she is doing as a librarian, constantly helping me and others be better in our fields,” says Elissa Malespina, librarian at Somerville (NJ) Middle School, professional development chair of the International Society for Technology in Education’s Librarian Network, and a 2014 Bammy award winner. “I’ll see her doing something in her maker space and say to myself, ‘That’s so cool, I’m going to try that.’”

Malespina loved Robertson’s mission statement on her website so much that she asked if she could use it for her library’s site, too. Robertson told her to go right ahead—but added that she had taken the wording from Andy Plemmons, a media specialist at Barrow Elementary School in Georgia.

“That’s what we do,” says Malespina, laughing. “We steal and borrow ideas from each other.”

While Robertson is seen as a tech guru of sorts, that’s less important to her than her work as an educator. Digital toys and devices are fun—but it’s the experimentation, the challenge of learning something new, and the push to grow professionally that moves her to inspire all of her students.

“The technology is not where I see a big effect,” she says. “How do you make students feel, how do you lift others up? That’s the important thing. I don’t care about the technology. It’s the kids. I love the technology. It’s fabulous. But give me the kids.”

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Lauren Barack About Lauren Barack

School Library Journal contributing editor Lauren Barack writes about the connection between media and education, business, and technology. A recipient of the Loeb Award for online journalism, she can be found at www.laurenbarack.com.

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