A Reading and Writing Autobiography

I’m taking an Adolescent Literature course at UNO this Fall and our professor asked us to write a Reading and Writing Autobiography, describing our relationship to reading and writing from grades 6-12.  It turned out to be a fun exercise so I thought I’d post it here:


I was raised to be a reader.  I have vivid memories of my father reading to me as a child and my mother bringing me and my little brother to the library every week to check out books.  I looked forward to summer reading challenges and buying books when the Scholastic book orders came through our classrooms.  I could sit around the house reading for hours, perfectly content.

In the years around fifth through seventh grade, fantasy became my preferred genre.  I disappeared into Lewis’s Narnia, got folded into L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time and its sequels, followed the The Hobbit there and back again, and came of age with Arthur in T.H. White’s Once and Future King.  I also enjoyed realistic and historical fiction.  Books that stood out to me as I read for pleasure in junior high: Hinton’s The Outsiders and That Was Then, This is Now; Lord of the Flies; anything by Stephen King; Go Ask Alice; Exodus; Clan of the Cave Bear; Animal Farm.

I read three books around ninth grade that changed me forever: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Night by Elie Wiesel and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown.  It’s not that I wasn’t aware of suffering or injustice in the world, but reading these books made me feel it in a way that I never could have by hearing a teacher discuss Civil Rights, the Holocaust or America’s westward expansion.  I learned that there were stories out there that revealed truths that people kept hidden.  That books could open up your world, give voice to those who have been silenced and help you question your place in history and modern society.  Reading gave me a social justice filter early on – still in development – and I was grateful for it.

As for writing, my junior high self loved writing poetry, monologues and short plays.  If I had any musical talent I would have written song lyrics.  My best friend Ami and I would share our poetry over the phone and these exchanges felt sacred.  We didn’t realize how terrible the poetry was at the time but it was fun and it helped us find our voice and try on grown-up ideas.  In ninth grade I had Mr. Kohlmeier for English class and he probably had the greatest impact on me as a writer than any other teacher ever has.  He was a little hammy at times, but he challenged all of us to take risks, to write like the whole world was reading, to analyze and respond to texts thoughtfully.  He shared great writing with us and got us reading each other’s writing, which was inspiring because there were some really good writers in that class.  It made you want to up your game – to hold your own amongst your peers.  Also of note, it was around this time that I realized how all of the reading I had done had helped me to become a better writer.

My relationship to reading and writing changed once I got into high school.  There wasn’t any time left for pleasure reading.  It was hard enough to balance required reading for English class with other coursework and extracurricular activities.  There were some required books I enjoyed reading (The Scarlett Letter; East of Eden; The Nick Adams Stories; Their Eyes Were Watching God; Hiroshima; Brave New World; anything by Thoreau or Emerson) and some I suffered through (David Copperfield; The Canterbury Tales; Hamlet; The Odyssey).  Gone were the days when I would comb library shelves or book stores looking for something that I wanted to read for fun.  I never visited the high school library unless there was an assigned research project, and only then to access obscure journals and literary critiques.  So my pleasure reading was eclipsed by my required close reading.  I try to remember this when I see students using the library to work and study, but not to check out books.  We put a lot of demands on high school students’ time.

Even though I read less in high school, I had excellent teachers who had high expectations for academic writing and took the time to model and provide feedback along with opportunities for revision.  I became a much stronger writer in high school.  My creative writing fell away, but I was well prepared for all writing assignments when I arrived for my freshman year of college.

Though I read some fantastic books in college, it wasn’t until I graduated that I rediscovered my love of reading for pleasure.  Once again, I found myself spending hours at a time with wonderful books: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay; Beloved; Guns, Germs and Steel; The Blind Assassin; The Known World; The God of Small Things; To Kill a Mockingbird (after all these years, still a favorite).  Both teaching and working with a great school librarian brought me to the joys of adolescent literature, and recently, I’ve started playing around again with writing poetry.

It’s amazing to look back on a life spent reading, and to look forward to many years more.  It reminds me how grateful I am to be a reader, how much joy and satisfaction it has brought me, and how lucky I am to have my life’s work related to one of my life’s passions.


Thanks for reading.  Let me know if you write a Reading and Writing Autobiography.

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Introducing Research Lab

The last couple of weeks have been fun.  I started my three different research units with my sixth, seventh and eighth grade students, a curriculum I’m experimenting with and calling “Research Lab”.  I like calling it that because A) I like naming things, B) I’m trying to get the middle school kids to play around with research, guided by their own questions, and even though I should know better as a former science teacher I associate labs – experimentation – with play, and C) this way of teaching is an experiment for me.  I have no idea if it’s going to work or even if it’s an effective way of teaching information literacy skills.

The challenge: My school library is on a fixed schedule.  We serve students in grades Pre-K through 8 and I see each class in every grade once a week.  I really am grateful for this opportunity to see all the kids on a regular basis, but while the elementary students will eagerly complete any task I throw their way and relish every moment I give them to look for library books, the middle school students are a tougher sell.  It’s not that they don’t like looking for books.  They do.  But if given too much time book browsing quickly becomes social hour.  And getting middle school students to complete information literacy exercises in the library when they know there are no grades attached, no real consequences for not participating, can turn into a battle of wills.  I expect this.  I’ve been working with middle school students for over a decade.  “Why can’t I just sit here and work on my homework?  Or better yet, why can’t I just sit here?”  Valid questions, maybe, but I suppose the answer is that I enjoy teaching and learning with middle school students too much to let our time together go to waste.  I want to explore research skills with them.  I’m excited about what I’m supposed to be teaching them.  And I know that as a school librarian, these skills should be taught in context and while collaborating with their content area teachers.  Those collaborations, when they occur, are rewarding, meaningful and really do motivate the students.  But collaborating with teachers – and I can’t imagine this is just me – is not always possible for now anyway not happening on a consistent basis.

So what do you do with a class of middle school students that you see on a weekly basis for 45 minutes at a time?  In the past I’ve lead them through discrete information literacy lessons – website evaluation, verifying data, creating bibliographies, understanding copyright and creative commons, finding copyright friendly media – but it’s all hypothetical and out of context.  “Trust me, your teachers are going to ask you to do this some day.”  It feels hollow, flat, unsatisfying.

Enter Research Lab, the idea I’ve been playing around with for a year or so as a means for re-framing how middle school spends their time in the library.  My goal is to take middle  school students through mini-research units that are driven by their own lines of inquiry.  I introduce a topic that I hope they get excited about, they ask questions they are interested in answering, and we try to answer those questions while practicing research skills.  It’s my attempt to unify the individual mini-lessons I was teaching before into a cohesive, meaningful learning experience.  If I can make collaborative units happen with classroom teachers, that will be the priority.  But when that’s not happening, it’s all about Research Lab.

Look!  I made a flowchart.  Click to bigify.

Research Lab Flow Chart

In this scenario, the research process is definitely more important to me than the research product.  All research will be done in class (no homework) and, as much as possible, written work will be created and submitted electronically using the iPad cart that my wonderful principal bought me to use in the library.  I’m hoping that the entire cycle will take about nine weeks, about the length of a quarter at our school, and that it can be repeated at least a few times a year.  I’m looking forward to trying a more holistic approach to teaching information literacy to my middle school students, but more than anything I’m excited about our research being guided by student-generated questions.  I’m hoping that students will be motivated to engage in these exercises if it’s in service of answering their own questions.  There is still no grade attached to what I’m asking them to do.  No stick, if you will, but hopefully a carrot in the form of a legitimate question about an interesting topic.  Will it work?  Only one way to find out.

I’ve been trying to make room for instruction driven by student inquiry for years.  Read about a grand idea that never made it off the ground from my days as a science teacher here.  Why has it taken me so long to start?  As a classroom teacher, there was never time.  There was always too much to cover, to much to get to before THE BIG TEST.  It would have been an awesome way to teach but I was too afraid to take chances with the curriculum when so much was at stake.  That sad state of affairs in education is for another post.  However, now that I’m a librarian with a little more freedom, I have an opportunity that I don’t intend to squander.  I’m still afraid.  What if the kids aren’t curious about topics I find interesting?  What if the technology doesn’t work?  What if the seven days that go by between class meetings, the weeks it takes to move through a unit, make it hard to sustain student interest?  I think I’m ready to let go of all that, more than anything because I want to feel like I’m really teaching and not wasting my students’ time.  I’m going into this knowing that it’s going to be sloppy and full of mistakes and revisions – like any good experiment!

And I’m excited to say that, a couple of weeks into this process, I’m really enjoying it so far.  Students are digging the topics I introduced (Deep Ocean Animals in 6th, Hoaxes in 7th, Women Disguised as Men in 8th) and have generated meaningful, open-ended questions.  But as this post is already overly long, I think I should stop here.  Remind me to tell you about how it all rolled out.

Things I’m still not good at: Sharing what I’m reading with students.

Things I’m getting better at: Embracing failure.

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Professional Resolutions for 2013

This time last year I was about to move into a new school building and anxiously waiting for an opening day collection to arrive from Follett, ready to fill empty shelves.  I’ve been a school librarian for a year and a half now, and in building a library program from scratch, I’m definitely proud of a few things: students love coming to the library; our collection is awesome; I have a cadre of parent volunteers who provide tremendous support and feel personally invested in the library.

All of this is great, but I still have so far to go.  One thing I miss about being a classroom teacher is the feeling that I was good at what I was doing.  Of course there was always room for improvement, for professional growth, but after ten years in the classroom, it was more about fine-tuning than it was about second-guessing myself.  I’m nowhere near that feeling as a librarian.

And why should I be?  I remember being a second year teacher.  I still had a lot to learn at the time.  And part of making the switch to the library was the promise of a new professional challenge.  I need to remind myself of this.  Rome wasn’t built in a day.  And I won’t be top librarian in year two.

Thank goodness for the winter break.  For the precious time needed to catch up on sleep, clear the head, regroup and reflect.  When I think about the changes I need to make in the remaining months of the school year and beyond, these resolutions are at the top of my list:

  1. Stop lesson-planning like a teacher.  I see my classes for 45 minutes per week on a fixed schedule.  That’s all the time I have with students to get through a lesson that involves teacher input, time for practice or group discussion, and some kind of assessment.  Take away the time students need to search for and check out books – a MINIMUM of 20 minutes, and that’s rushing the kids – and I have 25 minutes to teach a lesson, if I’m lucky.  The lessons I’ve been designing, from how to use an atlas to finding   books using the OPAC, are not fitting into this amount of time.  I’m still designing lessons like I have students in a 90 minute block, which would be lovely, but is just not the case.  It’s time to be realistic about what I can do with my students in the amount of time I have with them.  Which brings me to. . .
  2. Give students more time to look for books.  The scenario described above, long information-literacy lessons crammed into a short amount of time, frequently leads to short-changing students with their favorite part of coming to the library – looking for books.  While I believe that instruction in the use of information resources is important, it is equally important to give students time to explore the collection, to be more strategic in searching for books at their reading level or to discover subjects they don’t encounter in their core classes.  Too often I am sending them to the shelves with warnings like “Keep your eye on the timer.  We only have fifteen minutes to look for books!”  How terrible is that?  That’s no way for students to get to know the collection, to stumble upon new authors and genres.  Maybe it’s because I’m worried that from  the outside it doesn’t look “instructional” enough, maybe it’s my science teacher baggage, but I’ve been focusing more on developing research skills than a love of reading.  I need to devote equal energy to both.  My plan is to alternate, where one week students will have some kind of information literacy lesson with a short amount of time to check out books and the next week students will have the majority of the time to explore the collection and find the perfect book.  Which brings me to . . .
  3. Bootalks!  Why have I not been doing this!?  I have been reading books from our library like crazy.  Great books!  Books that I love and that I know my students would love.  I can’t believe I’m admitting this, but I rarely talk about these books in a whole-class setting.  I should be doing this every week with each class, sharing the books I’ve just finished, or showing them old favorites that I read when I was their age.  Even if I only booktalk one book at the beginning of each class, that would be a big improvement over what I’m doing (or not doing) now.  I just finished reading Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer over the holidays and was inspired by her call to serve as a reading roll model for students.  Kids need to hear adults talk about their reading lives, how we select books, what we liked, what we didn’t, what we couldn’t put down and what we couldn’t finish it.  And they need to hear it from us all the time.  At the very least, they should be hearing it from their librarian.  And finally. . .
  4. Expect and embrace failure.  This mantra could apply to any professional trial and error, but here I’m referring specifically to the roll-out of a new information-literacy curriculum for my middle school students.  This will involve the use of a new class set of iPads that have been purchased specifically for use in the library (yes, I love my principal).  Having gone without much access to technology in the library, I now have the ability to experiment with 1:1 computing, and I’m hoping it will lead to a more engaging and authentic approach to research for my middle school students than I have been able to give them so far.  I’ll describe my vision for middle school teaching and learning in the library in a later post, but as a guided-inquiry approach to research involving differentiation through student choice, I think it has the potential to be very messy, although hopefully very meaningful as well.  Add to that the fact that this will be my first time incorporating iPads into a classroom setting and we are looking at a very steep learning curve.  It could turn out to be a great learning experience for me and my students, but I know there will be a lot of setbacks along the way.  So I’m reminding myself ahead of time:  There will be screw-ups, let-downs and frustration, both from me, my students and the technology itself, and all of those will be opportunities to try again and improve.  It’s going to be messy, and I will let that be part of the fun.

Nobody who knows anything about teaching does it because it’s easy.  Here’s to mistakes, challenges, learning and growing!

Wishing all the best to fellow educators in 2013!


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