Feeling my way as a teacher

This month, I’ve been participating in the Instructional Skills Workshop (ISW), an intensive three-day program that involves presenting mini-lessons, peer feedback, and discussions on learner-centred teaching practices.  

My experience with teaching is not extensive. While I did have opportunities to assist with library instruction and co-teach some classes in library school, I had never designed or developed an information literacy (IL) lesson before starting my current position. While I had crammed as much as I could about learning outcomes, active learning techniques, frameworks and standards, and educational philosophies, the idea of creating an IL lesson on my own was daunting. 

When I first started my position in the summer, I had grand plans to explore and be creative in my teaching, and spent time perusing Project CORA, ACRL Framework for Information Literacy Sandbox, and various library instruction books and guides, particularly around critical approaches. But when September rolled around and my calendar started filling up, exploration and creativity went out the window! As a new librarian, lesson planning took longer than I had anticipated, filled with constant questions of “am I doing this right? Is this going to work?”

I was extremely grateful to my colleague who shared their detailed lesson plans with me, and I heavily relied on what they had already created and delivered. While it was amazing to not have to create lessons from scratch and approach faculty with IL lessons that they were already familiar with, I also felt that I wasn’t developing my own teaching style and philosophy. I was reluctant to take risks or try anything new.

While the ISW program isn’t focused on information literacy, it’s been a valuable opportunity for me to learn and to try out (and fail at!) new teaching techniques and learning activities in a relatively risk-free environment. For example, I’ve explored looking at evaluating sources and peer review through online recipes, which was a fun for me because I got to talk about my current obsession with Bon Appétit! Last week I tried designing a 10-minute lesson around mapping out research journeys and exploring research strategies based on everyone’s personal journey. I ran out of time and didn’t feel super great about how the lesson went, but it was a great opportunity to experiment with learning activities that involve giving over control to the learners.

I’m not entirely sure if I’m going to try to take any big risks in my IL classes next semester. In the ISW, I didn’t have to consider what faculty want, the pressures of an assignment, or even the challenges of teaching in a large classroom. The context of the one-shot class is another thing to consider when thinking about experimenting with new teaching techniques. As a new librarian, I’m still feeling my way. But I did gain a bit more confidence in my teaching while participating in the ISW, and the opportunity to try new things was invigorating. I’m hoping that confidence will encourage me to try new things, however small, in my IL classes. 

One of the small goals for my teaching next semester is a suggestion one of the ISW facilitators made: make the implicit explicit. I hope to make my teaching decisions (the why am I doing this) more transparent to the classroom and also for myself through written reflection. 

I have one more ISW session left this upcoming Friday. While I won’t miss watching recordings of myself teaching, I will miss the dedicated time spent on talking about teaching. I’m definitely going to try and find more opportunities to share teaching practices with my colleagues, other librarians, and other instructors.

How Did You Learn to Teach?

If there’s one regret I have about graduate school, it’s that I never learned to teach. No courses on education are required as part of the curriculum, and the one class I remember being available was offered during an already overloaded semester for me. None of the internships I had involved information literacy instruction. So, I arrived a fully-fledged librarian without having taught (or been taught how to teach) an information literacy session. Meredith Farkas’ blog post on this topic made me realize I’m not alone. Her informal twitter poll shows that more than half of the librarians she surveyed didn’t receive information literacy training prior to starting to teach, and I’m sure there are many more out there.

By the time I was interviewing for jobs, I knew this was an area I would need to actively develop, partly because it was essential for the types of jobs I was interested in and partly because I thought I would really like it. When I started at UVa and needed to set my goals for the following year, learning to teach was at top of the list. Am I all the way there yet? Definitely not (it’s not exactly a finite goal). But I have made some strides towards getting more comfortable planning and teaching classes. Now that I’m wrapping up my instruction obligations for the semester, I thought I’d take a look at how I got here.

Digging into the literature

I knew I didn’t know enough about information literacy to teach it, so the first thing I did was dig into the literature to get up to speed.  Following along with Zoe Fisher’s 100 information literacy articles in 100 days project was a great primer, and I highly recommend her blog posts summarizing her findings. I also started following instruction-focused blogs like the excellent Rule Number One and following their reading recommendations. When I started to feel unsure about how to turn the abstraction of the framework into practice, I sought out lesson plans and activities written by other librarians. Browsing through Project CORA (Community of Online Research Assignments) and the Critical Library Pedagogy Handbook Volume 2 have been particularly helpful. This reading helped me lay the intellectual and theoretical groundwork for teaching, but I wasn’t yet sure what it looked like in the classroom.

Observing classes and co-teaching

Next, I shamelessly asked as many colleagues as I could to shadow their classes. I sat in on classes ranging from general library orientation sessions for first-years to discipline-specific research methods classes for upperclassmen. Watching experienced teachers in the classroom is probably the most helpful thing I could have done, since it gave me something to model my own teaching after. Co-teaching was another useful step in my learning process. Partnering on workshops and classes helped me gain confidence in lesson-planning and in the classroom. It feels a little bit like teaching with training wheels. If things go awry, or an idea you have is wildly off-base, there’s someone there to help gently correct you.

Just going for it

After reading so many blogs and articles and Twitter feeds and watching experienced colleagues, I started to feel paralyzed. No activity I thought of seemed creative enough. I was scared someone would ask me a question I couldn’t answer, or that I wouldn’t know how to facilitate an engaging discussion. On the morning of my first solo class of the semester, I took a moment to think about what I was really nervous about, and realized that I had started to fear that I would be responsible for the instruction session that turned a faculty member off the library for a decade. I had made the stakes feel way too high for myself.

I tried to reframe the things, and just think about myself going into a room full of people to learn and to help other people learn.  There was no article I could read or lesson plan I could write or class I could observe that would replace the experience of just trying it. And you know what? That class went really well. Since then, I’ve had a few more classes – some have been energizing and I left feeling like I had really hit the mark; a few have felt awkward or were received unenthusiastically, and the world didn’t end.

What makes these experiences feel so high-stakes is what Veronica mentioned (and problematized)  in her last post: you often have to work hard to get into the classroom in the first place. As someone whose departments do not have a strong history of library instruction, the few opportunities I had this semester to teach one-shot or multiple sessions in a course felt like critical breaks, instead of opportunities to learn. Taking some of the pressure off of myself – and remembering that I’m still learning – helped me approach them more openly.

For those of you who were launched into positions with teaching responsibilities without any training, how did you learn to teach? And for the experienced teachers out there, how would you recommend continuing to grow?

Following the road of assessment

This Fall semester has been taking off like a rocket. It’s been a little less than a month, but library instruction has been taking up a good chunk of my time. At my institution, American University, we have a program called College Writing. This program requires all incoming freshman to take at least one section of College Writing.

Every faculty member that teaches College Writing is paired with a librarian. At least one library instruction session is required and it’s up to us to shape the lesson so that it’s relevant to the student’s’ current assignment.

This semester is a bit different. I had a total of 18 sections of College Writing, compared to the nine sections I had last Fall. I was prepared for a busy semester. Oh boy, has it been busy and it’s only been 2 weeks!

I could be as detailed as I want about my routine, but it’s basically a chain of communication. I ask the faculty member about learning outcomes, what they want out of this library instruction day, what skill level their students are at, and are the students quiet? Do they participate? Details like these help me out a lot, since I will only see the students in the classroom once or twice in the semester.

As I scheduled classes, reserved rooms, and worked on my class outlines, I struggled with how I would incorporate assessment into my lessons. Assessment is a topic I have been thinking about for a while. To be honest, this was a subject that I had been avoiding because it was something that made me uneasy. I have always told myself “I’ll do it next semester” or “I’ll find more information about it later.”

However, it’s been a year since I have started my job at American and decided that this semester it was time to incorporate assessment into my library instruction. When I think of assessment, I tend to think of a ton of data, a desk full of papers everywhere, and an endless amount of work (OK, I like to exaggerate). Now, I do have some forms of assessment in my classes, but it’s in the form of the questions I ask the students in order to evaluate their familiarity with not only the library, but the resources that we are using in class.

Assessment comes in many forms, but I specifically had one method in mind. Over the summer, I worked with another colleague in doing library instruction for the Summer Transition Enrichment Program (STEP). This program provides incoming freshman with preparation for academic success. STEP is a 7 week residential program that helps students with the transition from high school to college. They have a class that is very similar to a College Writing class, meaning, they have a research paper due by the end of the program. One of the components of that class is a library instruction day. As my colleague and I started preparing to co-teach one of the classes, she asked what form of assessment I do for my College Writing classes.

Immediately, I felt ashamed. All the time I had put assessment off and this was the moment where I finally had to own up to it. However, I have awesome colleagues who don’t poke (too much) fun at me. She talked about the post class questionnaire that she usually did with her students. Together, we came up with a couple of questions for the students in the STEP class. It was not a long process whatsoever, but I came to see that there is actually nothing scary about it, like I had thought.

There are many different types of assessment, ones more complicated and time consuming than my little questionnaire. However, I wanted to start small and with something I was comfortable with.  My library instruction classes only started last week, but I remember getting back the questionnaires and leaving them on my desk for a couple of hours. I was afraid to look at them. What if the students did not learn anything? What if they hated me? What if I was the worst librarian ever?

After a couple hours, I needed to log my classes into our stats. I counted the questionnaires and look through them. To my surprise, the students did well. Now, this is an assessment to help me analyze what the students had trouble comprehending and also the areas where I need to do better.

And guess what happened? I found one area where I realized I needed to explain better and spend a little more time on. It’s only the beginning of the semester and I have already found ways to improve upon and this is what it’s really about. To me, assessment is an opportunity to learn about your teaching and improve as you go along.

As someone who is new to this, I want to continue to learn about assessment. There are a couple of resources that one can turn to:

-Look at your own institution to see if they offer any workshops on assessment. What resources do they offer to help their staff or faculty?

-Research other institutions to see if they have assessment in place or an assessment toolkit

-Research the literature on instruction and assessment to see how other institutions go about it

Finally, your colleagues will be your most valuable tools. What assessment do they do? Take them out for coffee and ask them!

I still have a couple more College Writing classes, but I am going to make it my goal to incorporate even more assessment for next semester’s classes. In other words, I am going to make myself accountable. For next semester, I will write another post on how I plan to incorporate more assessment into my teaching, but I also want to know from our readers, what assessment do you do for library instruction? Stay tuned!

Starting from the bottom and teaching my way to the top

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Jessica Kiebler, Reference/Instruction Librarian at Berkeley College.

My journey into the world of librarianship started with my failure to get a job as an elementary education teacher. I’ll never know if that was due to the over saturated job market or my newbie skills, but one would think that with my undergraduate degree in elementary education, I would be ready to take on library instruction like a fish to water. However, I was never truly confident in front of 30 screaming children so while the transition to libraries wasn’t surprising, getting a job as an instructional librarian was a bit daunting. So if I didn’t want to teach, then how did I end up in an instruction position at an academic college instead of a public reference librarian? Good question. After five years as a librarian and one year in my current position as a Reference/Instruction Librarian at Berkeley College, I decided to reflect on my journey from uncertainty to confidence.

You have to start somewhere

More than a year after graduating with my MLIS, I began working as a solo librarian at a small nursing college that needed a librarian to create their library. Yes, create a library from nothing but shelves, an ILS and a computer. Thankfully, the Director of Education had purchased hundreds of books before I had started and I began the task of cataloging them and organizing the physical space. Not only was I in charge of reference, maintaining the collection and all policy creation but also designing an instruction program. It was an amazing opportunity to learn but also very intimidating in my first professional position without the assistance of a mentor or experienced librarian. I took everything I had learned from my MLIS program and my undergraduate pedagogy courses and combined it with my own research to create a basic instruction program to show students how to use the library resources. The resulting lessons were basic but worked for the limited time and prior knowledge of the students.

Smarter, not harder

As any educator knows, the best lesson plans can mean nothing if an instructor does not have classroom presence or presentation skills. My lack of confidence showed through to my students so while my lesson plans were well written, my pacing and poor question prompting did not create a cohesive experience. I was also dealing with a short amount of instruction time combined with a student body who had little to no computer skills. This made getting experience in teaching actual information literacy very difficult because my classes became so much more about getting students to access the library website or about how to navigate a browser. As it became evident that this was not isolated to my first few cohorts, I had to start teaching smarter, not harder. I made notes about common issues students were having so I could create visual aids that would be on the screen while I walked around and assisted. I made time in my lessons for the common computer questions since I knew they would distract students from learning the steps to get the resources they needed. So while I thought these initial problems were distracting me from teaching, it was actually helping me to learn the constant juggling act that is teaching.

Frequently, I would be ready to move on from the initial login process (our students needed to login to the library website to access any resources) and a student would come in late or say they needed help because they had missed the instructions. In my first months that would have thrown off my thought process and I would have paused the whole class to assist. I learned from my mistakes by preparing the classroom beforehand with login information on the board so students could troubleshoot on their own or with the help of a fellow student. I no longer let those distractions keep me from moving on to my next thought or stall the class. Having a fellow librarian or mentor may have helped me make these progressions faster, but doing it on my own gave me the confidence that I could conquer anything. The challenges of working with limited time and support also forced me to get creative and create resources outside of the classroom that I could use to support students in accessing the library. Since we didn’t have LibGuides, I used free tools like Google Sites and LiveBinders combined with physical handouts and a YouTube page of screencast videos. These aids were incredibly helpful to students who felt they couldn’t absorb everything in one session or who needed a refresher later.

While I made steps to improve my lesson plans each term, I felt unable to move past the limitations of my environment. I updated slides, made handouts clearer and created more effective examples but I wasn’t moving towards a more engaging classroom experience. I felt stuck in the rut of assessing with the same handout and seeing the same issues with student responses month after month. I was proud of what I’d accomplished on my own but knew that I might need some guidance to improve even more. I just didn’t know how much more I would come to learn.

Joining the A-Team

In April 2014, I was hired as a Reference/Instruction Librarian at Berkeley College where I currently work. After two years at my previous position, I knew I was capable of standing in front of a classroom, delivering a lecture, and walking students through technical assistance but I wanted more. I was now working at a college with many majors and would be instructing in the schools of Liberal Arts and Health Studies on much more than just how to access the library website. Would I be able to craft effective, engaging lessons on information literacy objectives? Would I be able to deliver these lessons with confidence? My imposter syndrome was on high alert in my new position.

While it might have worked for me before (although slowly), I didn’t want to rely on my own persistence to improve. I contacted our Information Literacy Coordinator and discussed my concerns about my own teaching: “I’m nervous about trying new assessments. I’m not familiar with these classes. And how do I incorporate information literacy into a database lesson?!” He said not to worry and that it would come with practice. I had the core skills necessary and I could see some sample lesson plans that were already created to get used to teaching in this new environment. Having these road-tested lessons did help my confidence a bit but I still struggled with pacing myself and being comfortable with the silence that can follow when you ask a room of students a question. I knew if I wanted to improve I had to once again find a way to learn from my mistakes.

Tools for success

One tool that helped me more than I thought possible was creating an instruction journal. Immediately after each classroom session, I wrote down all of my impressions from my teaching:

  • How many students were there?
  • What did I teach?
  • What did I do well?
  • Where did I slip up?
  • Were there interesting interactions with students?

Getting those ideas and feelings out on the page created a place for me to archive them so I could go back and improve and also a way to reflect on what could have been better. Since I frequently teach the same courses, I would read through the journal before similar sessions and prepare myself to practice certain skills. This helped me to focus my energy on what needed work and just do what I knew how to do for the rest. I don’t share my instruction journal with anyone so I feel confident in writing whatever feels natural for me and to really be critical (or complimentary!). It’s also a great tool to go back to for yearly evaluations so I can find places where I excelled to point out to supervisors. I also made notes on any fun things I might want to try in the future once I felt comfortable with meeting the basic course objectives.

Finally, success

Finally, I had an instruction success that felt like the culmination of my 5 years of work. While doing outreach to English faculty to plan instruction, a new professor suggested a scavenger hunt lesson which she had done at a previous institution. The concept reminded me of a recent article I had read about creating “stations” for students for a library resources lesson[1]. I crafted a lesson geared for our library – from objectives to rubrics – and the professor loved it so we scheduled a session. On the day of the class, I pored over my notes to make sure I had the sequence of events down. I was sure I would mess up some part and have to backtrack. But I was wrong. I focused my energy on the skills I knew were my weakest – pacing, not being scripted or attached to a Powerpoint, giving students prompts if they aren’t quick to answer my questions – and the session was a success. Students not only completed my worksheet, they did so with thoughtful answers and even made insightful comments in our post-instruction discussion. It was a rewarding experience that I hope to continue.

Final reflections

I have now been a librarian for 5 years. I still have not conquered imposter syndrome (many librarians say they never do) and I know I can still improve my instruction skills. But I’ve learned that you don’t always need formal instruction to take on new skills. So much of my journey was done by coaching myself and learning from others – librarian bloggers, education authors, fellow librarians, my own students, and my own mistakes. I also relied on my fellow team members to help me work through ideas I had for future lessons which always bolstered my confidence. I sometimes felt like asking for help would make it seem like I wanted to take my colleagues’ ideas – especially as the newest member of the team. But when you work with a real team, they’ll understand when you’re looking for guidance and not hand-holding. I frequently felt so inspired by their work that it was easy to come up with my own ideas for lessons and assessment. You may also feel like asking for help means that you aren’t qualified to do your job but asking for help means you are willing to do the work to do better. I feel much more confident in the classroom these days and have even created engaging lessons that I’m proud of. Those pep talks and failures can show you that there’s so much more ahead than behind you.

[1] Fontno, T. J., & Brown, D. N. (2015, February). Putting information literacy in the students’ hands: The elementary learning centers approach applied to instruction in higher education. College & Research Libraries News, 76(2), 92-97.

Being “Human” In the Classroom: A Case for Personal Testimony in Pedagogy

I’m three months into my first year as an academic librarian and it has been a whirlwind. Conversations with many of my LIS friends confirm that the transition to professional librarianship presents invigorating ups as well as exhausting downs. Something I have been trying to focus on is embracing the ups and moving quickly and gracefully past the downs (with a little reflection). In the spirit of trying to get better at this, I’d like to share the best “up” I’ve found in my short three months as an Information Literacy Librarian.

If you have the opportunity, use your personal experience in the classroom. I know that this is incredibly scary. Being vulnerable as a (new!) instructor is terrifying. Further, balancing vulnerability with expertise can sometimes be a challenge. Yet, Maria Accardi recently gave a brilliant keynote on library burnout in which she held, “I think to truly see each other, to respect and care for the souls of students, means aligning the emotionally vulnerable parts of your self to the corresponding parts of the student” (p. 13). Moments of vulnerability in the classroom, while intimidating, can foster unbelievably rich and meaningful dialogue. I’ve even had students approach me after class to ask me about a specific part of the testimony I shared, which can lead to subsequent conversations about their own research. I’m still struggling to figure out exactly why this happens, but a recent Twitter conversation sparked some ideas:

sharing experience tweet

why does it work tweet

april's response- connects learning to experience

I so appreciate April’s observation that it creates a stronger connection between experience and learning. Accardi adds that students are whole people in the classroom and that they “bring with them all of the things that make them human—their stories, their beliefs, their filters, their talents, their challenges, their emotional baggage, everything” (p. 12). Why can’t librarians be whole people too? Why can’t we bring the same baggage into the classroom? And doesn’t being “whole” make us more approachable? Doesn’t it make research more approachable?

I believe that it does. So how does one even start to integrate more personal experience into their teaching? Many of the tactics I have tried stem from an intensive research project I’m currently doing. I’m completing my first peer-reviewed article for In the Library with the Leadpipe and I have found that this provides rich testimony for many different research issues.

For example, I recently asked students to articulate what their research process looks like. They spent a few minutes drawing their process, from the time a research project is assigned to the time that they turn it in. We then tried to combine their ideas into one complex research process on the board. I was currently going through my own research process and I used this opportunity to challenge them with trials I had faced. I asked the students questions like “but what happens if you’re tracking down citations and you suddenly realize someone has already written the paper you’re writing?” and “how is research continually part of the writing process?,” often providing tangible examples from my article along the way. Before we knew it, the board was covered in arrows, illustrating the iteration necessary to do quality research. After the class, the professor came to my office to thank me. She said that she thought that the activity might have been the first time her students have had to articulate exactly what their process looks like. She said that she thought it would definitely help the students be more thoughtful researchers. I also believe that it made iteration and revision “okay” and maybe even reduced some library anxiety.

research process

My sample research process that I use as a starting point for this activity (adapted from NCSU’s “Picking Your Topic IS Research” video)

I have also used my experience with Leadpipe to facilitate conversations about how peer review works, blind vs. open and more collaborative forms of peer review, and the time it takes to complete vetting processes. This often sparks a more thoughtful and nuanced conversation about the pros and cons of peer review, which moves students away from peer-reviewed-equals-good-and-popular-sources-equals-bad conversation.

I have also plugged our citation management system, Zotero, in these conversations. I have a single-spaced twenty-five page document of notes and draft citations for my article (no, this is, unfortunately, not a joke). I might risk compromising my “expertise” with students by sharing this fact and letting them know that I wish I would have used Zotero at the beginning of my project. Again, it is definitely nerve-wracking to be vulnerable in this moment. But I think it makes me more human and illustrates to students that research is a continual learning process, even for librarians.

Sharing your experience can be as simple as sharing tidbits about how you approach research. How do you figure out what the scholarly conversation is? What tools do you use to start your research? Do these change after you know the important scholars or disciplines for your topic? For example, I often share that one of my favorite ways of entering the scholarly conversation is by reading more about my general topic area and then finding claims I’d like to challenge or push back on and doing citation tracking from there. You can even reflect on the research you did in undergrad or graduate school. How did you use class readings to guide your thesis development? How did you organize your research? The point is not to show that you’re perfect. The point is to show that imperfect research can be successful too and that librarians can help guide students through this process because we’ve been there.

This work is not always easy. I have definitely noticed that sharing personal experience in the classroom can be harder or easier because of class dynamics, faculty involvement, or even student level. The reality is that it is difficult to build trust in the classroom when sometimes the space doesn’t even feel like your own. I hope to continue to brainstorm how sharing personal experience can go beyond the one-shot session. For example, I am currently thinking through how I might use some of this testimony in my research consultations with students.

How do you incorporate your personal experience into your teaching?