What’s Wrong with this Picture?

aiminghigherTake a look at the language in this subway advertisement informing the community about the new high stakes tests rolled out in NYC public schools this spring. This spring, who’s aiming higher? Who’s raising standards? Just who does the NYC DOE think “we” are?

Seems like it’s not the same “we” whose children are taking these new assessments. According to this sign, “WE’RE not satisfied teaching YOUR children basic skills.” Not “our” children; “your” children.

The increase in testing for students has a parallel in increased testing for teacher candidates. But that’s another post.

If you want to read more about how these assessments impacted children in New York State (OUR children), look here, here, here, and here; for more on summer testing, look here and here.

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The New York City Council Testimony, or My Leslie Knope Moment

Yesterday, I had the privilege of giving an invited testimony before the New York City Council on the shortage of school librarians in New York City public schools. This was my first experience participating in any organized form of government other than voting. I was extremely nervous (I probably haven’t been that nervous since the night before my dissertation defense). I was asked to speak to a few specific issues, including the path to certification for school librarians, the career outlook for my students, the challenges they face and best practices for school libraries.

I was also asked to offer recommendations for how to address the shortage, which made me feel both completely underqualified and absurdly powerful.

The main event of the morning was the testimony of the representatives of the DOE Office of Library Services. The question and answer period lasted for over an hour and was highly contentious. By the time my panel–the last group of speakers– was called to speak, there were about five council members left in the room and maybe four citizens remaining. I was asked to give my testimony in 3 minutes. Rather than trying to speed-read, I summarized my testimony, which met a mixed response. As you will see in the video, the Council chair was ready to be finished for the day and was disappointed that I wasn’t eager to join him in blaming the DOE for the shortage.

(I think I maybe used too many hand gestures; a rookie mistake. Lately, all the public speaking I do ends up video taped on the Internet and I look and sound like a cartoon character… )

I was naively surprised at the Council’s efforts to blame and shame DOE Library Services for the shortage, and I do not agree that this is a NYC DOE-specific problem. To attribute such a complex problem to one single factor seems like a misstep. In my testimony, I assert that among other factors, a large part of the problem is our nostalgic view of school libraries. Until administrators, principals and politicians grasp the new role of school librarians and school libraries, they will continue to be undervalued as antiques, precious like card catalogs.

Check out the entire hearing or fast-forward to around 3 hours 40 minutes to see me try to summarize four pages of testimony in 180 seconds.

The New York City Council – Video.

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CST for LMS: Put a bird on it

Tonight I taught–weirdly–one of my favorite workshops to my LMS students. It’s test prep for the New York State Teacher exam in the content area of school librarianship, or the CST for LMS.

(A little nostalgia: my first job in NYC was teaching SAT prep for the Princeton Review. I enjoyed telling my students that the SAT wasn’t a test of intelligence; rather, it was a test of how well they could take the test. That same year, The Big Test by Nicholas Lemann came out, which inspired even more question of testing among me and my 17 year old pupils.)

The CST for LMS is more of the same. It’s not a test that tests how well you can manage a library program in New York City, or, I would argue, most public schools anywhere in the US. It’s a test of how well you understand a very particular school library context that only exists for most of my New York City teachers-to-be on the CST.

This context is the domain of the Disney LMS. I picture her humming a happy tune, checking out books at a pristine and uncluttered circulation desk with a bird perched on her finger. We closely read of the Frameworks, or study guides, for clues about this LMS and generate key words that describe her and her work: partner, collaborator, intellectual freedom, research skills, supportive, student-centered, etc.

It’s not that any of these are bad qualities for school librarians, or for any teachers to have. It’s just that the Disney LMS can be a bit of a doormat. She never has any opinions.  She stands up for the theoretical right of that challenged book to exist in the collection, but does not advocate for the students who need that book because it tells their life stories. My students often say of the right answer, “But my cooperating teacher/I would never do that!” to which I reply, “This test isn’t about you. It’s about that LMS with the bird on her finger.”

Ok, so no standardized test can evoke the project-based methods and critical strategies we actually teach our LMS students. Still, what is disturbing to me is the amount of cognitive dissonance my students must recruit to do well on this test. Student teachers who work in libraries that serve five “campuses” within one building, juggling five budgets and five populations; students who teach children reading far below grade level; students whose children live in homeless shelters: these pupils are not in the Disney library, and yet, this exam only validates that experience. Thus, a large portion of my test prep is designed to help my students take the exam from a different context.

What does this say about how the educational community views school library work? How should LMS’s view their own practice? I hope that the new assessments address the real skills our school library candidates need in order to thrive in real schools: resilience, critical thinking, compassion, and a collaborative spirit.

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Post Sandy Hook: Random Thoughts about School Violence

Earlier this week I was visiting a student teacher at a school in Brooklyn, not to far from where I live. As I was getting ready to leave, we were chatting with her cooperating librarian as the phone rang. She excused herself to take the call, then returned seconds later to say that there would be a lockdown drill that day at the school so certain preparations should be made. I thought to myself, that’s deep, and probably a really smart thing to do. Looking out the fourth floor window, I thought to myself, if someone came in here guns blazing, there’s nowhere to go but down.

I’ll never forget the day of the Columbine school shooting. I was working at my first post-college job at Afropaedia, LLC, sitting at my desk (which was also on the fourth floor) and gazing out the window at the traffic in Harvard Square, when one of my co-workers came in and told me that two teenagers had opened fire at a school outside of Denver. For the first time ever, I watched live news as it was happening on my computer screen for the rest of the afternoon. There was nothing more we could really do that day except try to comprehend what had happened.

Today, I had a very similar kind of afternoon in the wake of the Sandy Hook, Connecticut shooting. My first inkling of the incident was from Twitter, which I had visited to take a break from grading papers. Totally not the mindless departure I had expected, it kind of derailed the rest of my afternoon. My heart was pounding as I saw news images of children not much bigger than my daughter being carried in their parents’ arms away from the school.

As a parent and a teacher educator today, my heart just broke. I’m sending my child into a school system that has to respond to school shootings with preparedness (and, I’m glad they do). I’m preparing teachers to go into those same schools as professionals. I felt a completely different sense of purpose today as I went to pick her up, so lucky to have my kid home safe, and full of gratitude for her teachers who keep her safe all day.

At a certain point, though, this weird wave of exhaustion washed over me, thinking about the conversations that will repeat over the next howevermany news cycles about the second amendment, how schools need to be more prepared for crises, what kind of music the gunman was listening to on his iPod, how media images of violence inspire kids to kill. It’s such a red herring. The real issue is gun control: limiting access to guns, and also changing social perceptions of weapons, teaching children that guns are NOT TOYS, and that violence is NOT PROBLEM SOLVING. Social services across the board, mental health care, the works. I am all for popular culture analysis, but like that Brooklyn school, let’s keep it real. Every time this happens, and nothing changes, it just ups the ante. Every time we just critique culture without trying to change that culture through policy and education, we’re just spouting empty discourse.

On our way home from school, we stopped into a local bakery to get a cookie (why not?) and there was a TV, volumeless, showing President Obama’s response to the shooting. Per habit, I always try to face her away from ambient TV, and in this bakery, she’s much too busy choosing her cookies. But I watched Obama wipe the tear from his eye as our cookies were placed in their white wax bag. I can only hope that he is as weary of these bullshit conversations about Marilyn Manson and The Basketball Diaries as I am and ready to take issue with the real issues here.

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Worked the Common Core Today… And Yet…

I’m still no expert on the new Common Core Standards. After the workshop I attended today, sponsored by DOE Library Services and led by the unstoppable and amazing Olga Nesi, I definitely have a little more purchase on how to work on Common Core lesson planning for the library with my student teachers, and the sense that I have a lot of support in that practice. However, the overwhelming sense I got from this PD (besides being overwhelmed) was ambivalence about these new standards.

Here are a few of my concerns:

1. I felt a lot of push pull in that room today. School librarians are being encouraged to champion the common core because they’re all about research skills, which is what we do. This is our chance to become indispensable!

And yet… we’re also very critical of the fact that there are assessments in Kindergarten, assessments before we’ve actually had time to teach anything, assessments as soon as the kids walk through the door. Do we really want this to be the definitive thing about school library work: that we can support Common Core across the curriculum? Is this what school librarians should be hitching their wagons to? I’m nervous, and I think others are, too.

2. The common core emphasizes process over content. Instead of focusing on teaching facts, we teach students how to gather, articulate, and make inferences from facts in order to create arguments and conclusions. This is a good thing, and again, validates the work of librarians (and philosophers!).

And yet. Do we want to throw the baby out with the bathwater here? What about process AND content?? I’m reminded of Lisa Delpit’s “The Silenced Dialogue,” which argues that the skills/process debate in education is a fallacy, and that what we need to be talking about is how to remedy the fact that some kids desperately need to be taught basic skills before they can engage meaningfully in process-based work. Which leads me to…

3. Equity. This very issue came up today in our workshop, when we were talking about how to scaffold a fairly sophisticated lesson on inference for sixth graders. How can we scaffold this lesson for the students who haven’t had any prior experience with research? Where is equity in the Common Core? It’s still one-size-fits all.

4. The cabinet problem. Olga kept using this analogy today: imagine the Common Core as instructions to build a cabinet. Does it matter if the instructions are about building a cabinet with pine or oak? She argues, not really. What matters is we know and understand how to build the cabinet by following the directions and understand how to use our tools. Ok, I get it. It’s a helpful analogy and it’s powerful. Because for so long, kids haven’t been asked to make anything; they’ve been asked to take tests.

And yet! (I have mixed feelings about the “maker space” trend, but that’s another post…) Where is the criticality in the Common Core? Do we want kids to build IKEA furniture or to IKEA hack? Where is design? Can young people build a better world if all they do is read blueprints, not make blueprints, or dream impossible structures? Or if they don’t care to problematize the blueprints or the structures detailed in them as not accommodating the needs of those who dwell therein? We need to dwell deliberately, critically, and with care!

5. Why should kids care? Can you become Internet Famous if you work the Common Core? Will the Common Core get you to American Idol, the NBA, or any closer to developing the next Apple Corporation? The common core loves non-fiction! And these (rarefied) TRUE STORIES are the stories our kids are loving right now.

And yet!! We still can’t deliver on these “American dreams;” could we possibly alter them? The biggest problem we have might be overcoming our own cultural myths. But that’s another story (pun intended).

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Not Bailing on Brooklyn: One Post-Sandy Story

I live in Brooklyn, and earlier this fall I was experiencing a little Brooklyn-fatigue. (Maybe you were, too? Have you heard that Parisians say, “c’est tres Brooklyn!” to describe a culinary zeitgeist involving food trucks? But then again, that might be hyperbole…) I love artisanal cheeses just as much as the next guy, and I am totally down with locavore cuisine, but I was starting to feel like I might live in the most navel-gazing, self-congratulatory community in America. And the irony seemed to me that over the past decade, my neighborhood had become less edgy, increasingly white, gentrified and suburban-feeling. I said to my husband as we walked home from dinner one night, “We may as well live in the suburbs. Look, every car parked on our block is an SUV!”

Enter Hurricane Sandy. We were unscathed, never lost power or Internet, but our neighbors did not make out so well. I’m not referring to our brownstone dwelling neighbors, but to our neighbors in the Gowanus Houses, just a block from our home, and the Red Hook Houses less than half a mile away. Thanks to my Twitter feed from Occupy events and Free University, I learned that the Red Hook Initiative was collecting food, water, clothing and flashlights for the thousands who were still without power and had lost so much in the storm surge, and organizing volunteers.

The Thursday after the storm, since classes were cancelled and there was no way to get to work, we walked over to RHI with all the water we didn’t use during the storm. We left the water, but were told to visit the Miccio community center down the street if we wanted to help out further. I definitely did want to help after our surreal walk from unscathed Carroll Gardens to Red Hook, where evidence from the flooding was everywhere and neighbors were sharing stories in front of the one open deli just on the edge of the water line.

Later that day, I went to Miccio with an artist friend to help out in any way we could. As we walked through Red Hook, we saw devastation, but we also saw a community digging out, and they weren’t doing it alone. People in rain boots and rubber gloves were everywhere to help the residents and businesses whose buildings had flooded during the surge.

When we arrived at Miccio, we were put to work immediately distributing donations (the lead volunteer told us that because we taught college students, we could strike the right balance between sympathy and efficiency to keep the line moving; “like retail,” he said!! Hmmm.).  A row of tables faced the double doors of the center’s large rec room. Behind the tables lay the bounty of donations, categorized by type, and outside the doors was the beginning of a line that snaked around the block of people patiently waiting for these goods.  Our job was to speak with each family one by one about what they needed: prepared food, toiletries, clothing, cleaning supplies? Then runners would go to the various stations and grab appropriate items. Blankets, diapers, cleaning gloves and brooms were all coveted items.

As the afternoon went on, I was amazed at the organization of this place; donations kept appearing, and peoples needs were met. “Does anyone speak Cantonese?!” someone would shout, and a Cantonese-speaker would be found. The people who came for donations (who would be without power or hot water for over a week ) had so much grace, and those who came to give gave earnestly, with no thought of tax receipts or recognition.

For the rest of that week, whether I was going to Miccio or the grocery store, I always noticed people walking to and from Red Hook in their rubber boots covered with dirt, riding bikes with baskets full of flashlights, batteries and food, and yes, even SUV’s packed to the gills with cleaning supplies and coats.

So, I won’t be bailing on Brooklyn (or hating on it!) anytime soon <wink!>.

Seriously, though, I have been doing a thought experiment lately that I am hoping could be made real in the aftermath of Sandy. What if everyone gave what they could, financially or with time and effort, when there were people nearby in need? What if my bourgeois Brooklyn enclave always advocated for our neighbors who have less? Not just with toilet paper and flashlights, but with enduring resources that would benefit our community as a whole? What if, for example, we began to invest in the public schools in our neighborhood because that, too, is a basic need like shelter, blankets, food and water? It’s just a thought experiment, but here’s hoping that’s the legacy of Sandy.

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The Unmentored Intern

(Not to sound like Andy Rooney, but) I get a lot of letters at this time of year. Really, it’s more like emails and phone calls. These calls, from well-meaning school administrators, principals, and HR offices from public, private and charter schools, tend to share a common theme: interns. They want graduate student interns to run their school libraries.

To be fair, these folks are responding to a real problem with what they believe is a viable solution. Budgets are being slashed, they are struggling to staff their schools, and they figure that rather than “excess” (one of our euphemisms here in NYC for “let go”) a classroom teacher, they can get rid of the librarian and keep the space running with a bright and eager graduate student.

However, this doesn’t work for a few reasons. First, if the school is a public school, certification is mandatory for all teachers, in both classrooms and libraries. If a student intern is working alone in the library, and is not certified, this is a violation of NYSED mandate. (Moreover, public secondary school libraries in New York State are mandated to have a certified LMS once they enroll more than 100 students, so many schools are in violation of this mandate simply by excessing their librarian; see these regulations and these more specific to school librarians).

Second, and more troubling to me as a teacher-librarian educator, is the fact that these internships assume that student interns can run a library based on their sheer ingenuity, without any supervision or mentorship. At SILS, as in most teacher or teacher-librarian education programs, the student teaching experience is the cornerstone of our curriculum. We pair our students with experienced LMS’s (3 years certified, per NYSED) who can model both their administrative and pedagogical skills. Working with mentors means that student teachers experience modeling, receive valuable feedback, and develop a reflective practice that helps to bridge their role as a (graduate) student and teacher.

Finally, interns are a source of unpaid labor. As Steven Greenhouse wrote in the New York Times last spring, in our difficult economic times, internships are proliferating. He notes that it is troubling that such internships are often offered up as the gateway to gainful employment in your chosen field, yet they are only accessible to those who can afford to work for free. More troubling in the context of schools is the statement this makes about the extent to which we value school librarians as professionals.

This issue isn’t unique to the school library. I recently responded to a post on our school’s listserv for a library intern to point out the legal tension with students working unsupervised in a library and make clear that SILS can’t give credit for such internships as practica. I received a dozen messages thanking me for making a statement, and a majority of them weren’t from my school library advisees. Students remarked that the dearth of jobs but glut of unpaid internships were causing them to question the point of graduate study beyond providing a free labor force in the positions they’d actually like to occupy professionally.

I will be the first person to extol the virtues of my grad students (both the school library and the general SILS population whom I teach). They are bright, creative, talented and eager to gain the experiences that will help them in the job market. But placing interns in positions that one belonged to salaried librarians isn’t preparing them for the job market, and it doesn’t seem to be preparing a job market for them.

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