Puzzles: A Problem-Solving Approach

I attended The Innovative Library Classroom (TILC) at William & Mary last week. It is my favorite conference, and I wanted to give it a shout-out just because it’s great (big enough to meet new people and get lots of new ideas, small enough that you can see everything you want to, the organizers are awesome, always great keynote speakers and presentations) but also because one of the lightning talks at the end of the day gave me an idea I wanted to explore some more.

The lightning talk was called “Reshuffling the Deck: Enlisting Students to Re-Envision an Active Learning Classroom.” (The presenters were Alyssa Archer, Charley Cosmato, and Susan Van Patten from Radford University, and Liz Bellamy from William & Mary.) They discussed getting a grant from Steelcase, creating an active learning centered classroom space, and how the librarians wound up finding a general-use layout of the furniture and kind of… leaving it that way. So they created little cutouts of the furniture available in the room and asked students to reconfigure it with different uses in mind. (It’s a really interesting process and if you get the chance to ask any of them about it, I recommend asking them for more detail than I’m reporting here.)

When I got back from the conference, I returned to my current project: redefining the reference schedule.To solve the math problem of fitting the number of librarians into the number of shifts, I’m considering lots of possible options, including reducing the number of hours covered during the day, changing the duration of each shift, making a two-week rotating schedule instead of the same schedule every week, and more creative (see: confusing; complicated) options.

At some point, I took a break to skim my conference notes (trying to take my own advice from several weeks ago) and I was thinking about this puzzle-like approach these librarians took with their space configuration question. Inspired, I cut up the schedule into different pieces and tried putting it back together. In doing so, I found a new way to break up the schedule that I’m going to put forth as our best choice.

I’ve actually explained my love of schedule-making by telling people “it’s like a puzzle made of time and people!” (which sounds fun to me, but earns me some weird looks, so maybe that isn’t a universal opinion) but I had always been envisioning more of a Sudoku puzzle (numbers to plug into boxes) than a jigsaw puzzle (physical pieces that can be reconfigured).

Now I’m finding other problems I can solve with this approach of “cut it up and put it back together.” I want to rearrange my desk to make it more reference-consultation-friendly, so I need to think about how I want to configure the things I use on my desk. (Come to think of it, my living room could probably benefit from this approach, too.) I’ve heard of doing a website analysis by cutting up a screenshot of the homepage, handing the pieces to potential users, and asking them how they would put them together in a logical way, much like the presenters at TILC did with their classroom. I’ve been trying to piece together a research agenda plan for a few months… maybe I’ll try treating that like a puzzle, too!

What problem do you have that needs a new problem-solving approach… and could treating it like a puzzle help?

Making the space: Researching beyond IRDL

I’ve spent the last week at the Institute of Research Design in Librarianship (IRDL). Most of the workshop has happened in the beautiful William H. Hannon Library on Loyola Marymount’s campus. Last month on the blog I talked about my preparation for this week-long research workshop. The week has been a whirlwind and it’s hard to believe we’re finishing up today (Saturday). I have learned a lot — about the research process, the projects my cohort members are working on, and about librarianship at a variety of institutions. I feel energized and excited about conducting strong LIS research. My research project has changed and evolved and I’m headed back to Penn State with a stronger version of what I submitted back in January.

Throughout the week, I’ve been thinking about how I’ve been intentional about creating space for this learning and research. When I was preparing for IRDL, my research mentor mentioned in an email that I should set aside my work for the week in LA. I took their words to heart; I put on my out-of-office message, alerted my co-workers that I wouldn’t be responding, and haven’t replied to anything. I put my work in Pennsylvania on hold and that allowed me to concentrate on the material being covered. I had the chance to develop my project, connect with my peers, and apply what I was learning.

And everything was okay.

My colleagues respected my time to be away and I had the opportunity to immerse myself in this work. This time pushed me to spin my wheels, read more of the student engagement and involvement literature, and craft a journey map template for student engagement opportunities. During our workshop days, I got to spend time with my peers and work through the research process together. We spent an hour crafting 10 survey questions and an afternoon deciding on a set of questions for a focus group. What I learned was that in order to get the data you need, you have to be willing to devote uninterrupted time to finding ways to ask good questions. A good survey just doesn’t happen; it requires thoughtful decisions, defined variables, and a pilot test. This stuff cannot be rushed.  

So yes, it was great that I had this time to think, process, and experiment. This time was exactly what I needed. But I know that once I’m back in Pennsylvania, all those other priorities will return. IRDL has been good for lots of things, including forcing me to consider how I should spend my time when I come home.

The question I keep returning to is: how do you create this meaningful space for research work? How can I replicate the work environment of this week? Can I find ways to be just as intentional about setting aside work for this work when I’m back in Pennsylvania? I have never been good about blocking time and asking for that time to stay uninterrupted. In order for me to do this project, and to do it well, I’ll need to start defining those boundaries more clearly. It’s a habit to be developed.

But it’s not something that I have to do on my own. Community is always an important piece of my librarianship and with research, community support is important. We built LibParlor to create community and now, after a week in Los Angeles, I have a new community to lean on. We tell the students we teach that research isn’t a solo process and that’s a good reminder for us too. Throughout IRDL, I have seen the strength of collaborating with others for surveys, interview questions, and inferential statistics. It’s better to tackle that stuff with someone else and I’m thankful my research network community continues to grow. And I know they will help hold me accountable for the time I need for this project.

While I’m still figuring this out, I’m sure others have some ideas. So, how have you created this space? How have you found balance between the day-to-day of your job with the time to research? How do you depend on and support your research community?


Featured image of the William H. Hannon Library, taken by the author of this post.

Assumptions & Expectations

May 31st was my son’s last day of first grade. His class had a pizza party, complete with cupcakes and cookies to round out the celebration. He had a fantastic year at this new school after a terrible one at his old school. He received two “awards” from his teacher, who handed out different award certificates to all the kids: the “Always Happy” award and the Mathematics award. This kid LOVES numbers and does math problems for fun.

My son is on the autism spectrum. He is in the regular classroom with supports. For those of you who speak the parent language of special education in U.S. public schools, he has an IEP and he is mainstreamed. He’s a lot like any quirky kid you’d meet at the park, but there are things about him that are unique. He doesn’t like loud noises (fire alarms are the worst) or persistent quiet ones (clicking ceiling fans). He may take a while to answer a question; so long, sometimes, that you wonder if he forgot what you asked him (he didn’t). Sometimes he doesn’t seem like he’s paying attention to what’s going on, but then he’ll ask a question, or say something, or point out a detail that indicate that he is fully present, aware, and alert. Sometimes he asks odd questions out of (what we think is) nowhere. His pattern of speech may sometimes sound a little different. He loves the outdoors, hugs, Legos, his bike, and oddball humor.

He’s also a constant reminder to me as I move through my day-to-day work, in and out of the library classroom, to check my expectations and assumptions of students. I’ve taught classes where the same student blurts out answers before anyone else can, or asks an odd question at what seems like an “off” time to be asking it. There have been other classes where students don’t make eye contact, appear to be somewhere else, or give blank stares. Sometimes students look confused. Sometimes they don’t answer questions. Sometimes they ask a lot of questions where the answers are things I’ve just said.

Those actions may be about me. Maybe my pacing is off or my explanation is confusing. I could be really really really ridiculously boring at that point in class. I could also seem like the kind of person who wants people to ask questions whenever they have them, no matter if it seems odd to others.

But those actions are also about them. Maybe a student doesn’t make eye contact and blurts out comments/questions because they too are on the autism spectrum. Maybe they look confused and sort of blank because they have issues with auditory processing, and I’ve given too much information or too many instructions all at once. They could have low vision, difficulty hearing, or could be in real pain that day (and everyday if it is chronic). They could be listening and processing everything I saw but not be able to externalize that interest and learning in the way I am used to seeing it.

There is so much we don’t know about the students we see once or twice a semester. Sometimes we have opportunities to really get to know them and sometimes we never see them again. In whatever time we have with them, we can drop our assumptions about what they can and cannot do. We can set expectations high for ourselves and for them, and do everything we can to support them in their learning so that they meet those expectations. (Check out Zoe’s last post on Universal Design in the classroom for some excellent ideas.) We can check any judgements we might be inclined to make about a student’s actions, facial expressions, or speech. It might feel a bit unusual at first, but if we practice it a little every day, we stop having to practice and we just start doing it.

It’s easier for me now that it was in years past, but I have practice at work and I have practice at home. Checking assumptions is hard work, but it’s a responsibility we have to the learners in our community. Beyond that, it also opens us up to a world of interesting people who can befriend, laugh with, and learn from that we might have otherwise missed. In setting aside our assumptions we leave room to get to know people. In expanding our ideas of what constitutes learning behavior and how we can support different kinds of learners in the classroom, we set the stage for all kinds of interesting education to happen.

photo of award certificate that reads "the always happy"

Accessibility and Universal Design: A report on the BTAA Library Conference

This month, along with several others from my library, I was able to attend the Big Ten Academic Alliance Library Conference. Every year, the Big Ten Academic Alliance (BTAA) chooses a topic of interest to libraries, finds experts and organizes speakers, and holds a conference on that topic. This year, the conference was about accessibility, and since one of my secondary job responsibilities is accessibility, I had the opportunity to attend. This was my first BTAA conference and my first conference that didn’t offer breakout sessions, so I was excited to see how it would play out.

There was a keynote each day, from Jay Dolmage and Amelia Gibson. Both were fantastic. Dolmage began by discussing the design of buildings, including libraries, with several examples of buildings designed around stairs. Though there may be a ramp or elevator available, it is not the focal point of the building. Of course, then, we must ask, “Why?” Why is universal design not prioritized? Why is universal design not the norm? Taking the buildings as an example, Dolmage then moved on to discussing universal design in other contexts, especially with regard to teaching and learning. Dolmage stressed the importance of “positive redundancy,” ensuring that there are multiple modes of engagement, such as having information for a lecture in slides, in a handout, and in an electronic form.

Amelia Gibson touched on similar themes as Dolmage, such as the existence of internalized ableism that must be identified and worked against. Gibson advocated for moving beyond ADA requirements and instead focusing on meeting individual needs, beginning with the premise that anyone who is at a school is there because they can succeed and that it is our job to help them succeed. Gibson also discussed the fact that identities, including disability identities, are intersectional. This means that challenges can be even greater for people of color who also have disabilities. Gibson asked us to consider the various reasons that people might not seek information or help from a library, citing cases where potential library patrons have faced ridicule for their child’s behavior because their child was on the autism spectrum, or cases where black patrons have been thrown out of libraries. For some people, concern about being in library spaces is real and justified.

Finally, a point brought up by both Gibson and Dolmage and throughout the conference was how often people with disabilities are asked to disclose their disabilities and how detrimental this is. People with disabilities should not be asked to disclose their status; instead, we should be creating inclusive spaces that do not retroactively try to account for disabilities but instead are designed to accommodate various needs right from the beginning. For example, there is no need for publishers to require an individual student disclose their disability before an accessible version of a document is supplied. Electronic publications could be accessible from the start or, if remediation is necessary, the extra step of disclosing a disability does not need to be mandated. There are also numerous reasons that people might not disclose their disabilities, be they financial (getting diagnosed is expensive) or out of fear of repercussions. Again, designing with accessibility in mind is key.

This brings us back to the idea of universal design. These principles can be applied in any library space, from making library instruction more welcoming to people with a variety of learning styles to working with vendors and publishers to ensure that content is readable not only for screen readers but for users who want to change the font size or color to suit their own needs. We cannot make everything completely accessible immediately; in many cases, accessibility will be an iterative process, with changes made over time. However, we can strive to bring principles of accessibility and universal design into our own individual practices as librarians to begin making changes today.

Overall, I found this conference extremely worthwhile. I often find myself a bit untethered at conferences, unsure how to choose which sessions to attend from a long list and drawn in several different directions because of all my different interests. This conference provided a more concentrated experience and, because of the more focused theme, there was enough time and space to delve into library accessibility in more detail than I’ve experienced in other conferences. Now it’s time to refocus, take what I’ve learned, and find more ways to incorporate accessibility into my work on a daily basis.


For more on universal design, get started by looking at the UDL guidelines website.

Read more about the BTAA’s e-resource testing initiative.

And check out the conference hashtag, #BTAALib19, for more on the conference.

Culturally Responsive Teaching: Reflections from MILEX

Last month I attended MILEX, a Maryland library conference. The subject was Culturally Responsive Teaching in Libraries, and it gave me a lot to think about. The timing was great: I’ve been looking forward to reflecting on my teaching practices this summer. As I’ve written in the past, library school did not prepare me for productively thinking about pedagogy, so I’m always eager to learn about different approaches from my peers.

Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT) was a new term for me (one of the reasons I wanted to attend this conference). Ashleigh Coren, the keynote, asked us to write our own definitions of CRT before sharing an “official” one. This exercise showed me that most of us intuitively grasp what culturally responsive teaching must include: understanding your audience, inclusive language, and Universal Design for Learning. Coren shared Gloria Ladson-Billings’ definition: “a pedagogy that recognizes the importance of including students’ cultural references in all aspects of learning,” with these main characteristics:

  1. Positive perspectives on parents and families
  2. Communication of high expectations
  3. Learning within the context of culture
  4. Student-centered instruction
  5. Culturally mediated instruction
  6. Reshaping the curriculum
  7. Teacher as facilitator

We spent the rest of the day exploring applications of CRT, discussing teacher efforts and exercises that successfully make space for multiple perspectives as well as those that were less successful. Here are a few of my main takeaways.

All of the presenters touched on the importance of disclosing a bit of who you are at the beginning of class. This might seem 101, but I truly never considered meaningfully introducing myself to students in a one-shot. I feel pressed for time and I assume they don’t really care who I am or why I do this work. I just launch in after a quick, “This is my name, this is what librarians can do for you” spiel. But CRT isn’t just knowledge of the identities, learning styles, and values students bring to a classroom, but an awareness of my own identity, worldview, and blind spots. These students are going to meet me for 50 minutes one day, and if I don’t share anything about myself, why should they trust my expertise? Why should I expect them to feel comfortable approaching me or admitting they don’t know something if I remain a complete stranger to them? This conference helped me see how the disclosure of personal information (to the degree that you’re comfortable) can build trust with your students.

For example, several people at the conference suggested sharing your pronouns as part of your one-shot introduction. I know a lot of librarians already do this, or have pronouns in their email signature or name badge. This not only reveals something about your identity, but also communicates a degree of inclusion, even safety, in your classroom. Again, this must be to the degree you are comfortable, but as a cis woman I see this as a simple change I can make starting today.

Another lightbulb moment for me: reach out to the faculty ahead of the one-shot and ask about the classroom culture. I never think to do this. I ask for assignment instructions, resource requirements, and maybe potential topics, but it would be great to know ahead of time if the class is shy, prefers small-group work, or has lively group discussions. Asking the instructor about her classroom culture also shows that I care about her students’ comfort enough to adapt my one-shot to resemble their classroom environment.

For me the best part of CRT is student-centered instruction, where the teacher is a facilitator rather than sole bearer of knowledge. For librarians looking to make one-shots more engaging, I recommend turning over some control to the students. For one thing, it introduces a little bit of the unknown to your classroom, which always spices things up. But also, as Coren said after her keynote, “students think they know less than they do.” In the reverse: they know more than they think they do, and I believe they know more than we think they do.

CRT demands awareness of the student perspective, but also appreciation for their insights and experience. No one is a blank slate. Anyone who has made it to college has encountered information already, using strategies that work for them. I don’t want to be an instrument of assimilation, telling students that there’s one right way to navigate ideas, that there’s one right way to measure truth. My way is not a blank slate either; it’s informed by my identity, my education, and my privilege. I want to foster a learning environment where students bring their own instincts and cultural values to the research process.

I wanted to end with specific strategies to make your classroom culturally responsive and welcoming to all, because the practical takeaways are always my favorite part of a professional conference:

  • Create a safe place for students. Disclose pronouns and establish ground rules for group discussion.
  • Introduce yourself and explain where you’re coming from.
  • Spell out library jargon. Specifically, write the words you’re defining on the board or in your slide.
  • Repeat directions. Go slowly.
  • Allow time for small group discussions before asking people to share their answer with the class (think-pair-share style). Lindsay Inge Carpenter suggested that collectivist cultures might favor this approach; it also helps shy people feel comfortable speaking up.
  • Make your classroom a “no stupid questions” environment. Tell students they won’t be punished for asking about plagiarism or other topics they might be nervous about.
  • Regularly do peer observation with colleagues.
  • Know that cultural competency is not a box to check, but a skill to build over time.

Correction: Originally I had misattributed Ashleigh Coren’s quote about student knowledge to her keynote. The quote came from the Q&A that followed, not from her formal address. This post has been updated to reflect this.