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Why Do You Ask?

From asking questions that require an answer To asking questions that require a conversation.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Media Specialist classes and Subject Headings

I am taking a class on Cataloging for Media Specialist certification purposes in the state of Georgia. I could complain about the rules for Georgia certification in the field, but what's the use. Suffice it to say at this point, Georgia has some of the most restrictive avenues for certification, and yet state test scores are 46th in the nation. Seems to me, the state Professional Standards Commission would welcome training from some other state prep programs. But that's just my opinion.

Anyway, I finish reading Everything in Miscellaneous by David Weinberger this summer. The book's title is not as accurate as perhaps Everything is Personal would be. It is not so much that information is categorized under miscellaneous as his point was information has personal meaning, and we should be learning how to categorize information for personal retrieval purposes.

So, I am "struggling" with the traditional methodology of school library cataloging practice, and the idea that our students (middle school - shoot -- k-12 really) could not care any less about how we classify information and what headings are acceptable and which sub-headings can be used, and what order is correct. I understand the idea of consistency, really I do. But my question is, when information can be so personalized, and all students can write reviews of books in our Online Public Access Catalog (OPAC), why are we so hung up on a "proper" way of organizing Subject Headings, and how can one way of organizing be consider "better" or more "correct" than another?

We are using the Sears List of Subject Headings. The Library of Congress uses their own Subject Heading List. Bloggers use their own way of tagging information. I noticed this evening that Vicki is tagging things with an hz08 tag to organize her Horizon Project 2008 material. I'm sorry, Vicki, but that is not an acceptable Subject Heading ;-)

So where are we? I'm getting a brain-full of information on how to categorizes, catagorize, and organize material based on a past paradigm. I am not saying there is no value in it. I am asking how valuable this paradigm will be for our students, or for that matter, anyone.

I seldom have students (okay never) ask me what is the correct Subject to look up when they want to find out about spiders. They conduct a generic search on "spiders" to find the books call number.

Students ask me everyday if we have a book like another book they have read. It seems that there could be some value in tagging books with an "other books like this one" list, instead of comparing subjects.

As an example I will give you this one from last week.

Student: Mr. Murry, do you have any other books about spiders?

Me: Sure. Let's go over to the non-fiction side (in the 595 area), and I'll show you what we have. [We arrive at the books]

Student: No, not those kind of spider books. I just finished reading a book to my little brother about the spider who spins the web on the farm. Then she dies at the end. He wants me to read him another one like it.

Me: Do you mean Charlotte's Web?

Student: Yeah! That's it. Do you have any other books like that one?

Me: Sure. Let's go look over on the other side of the room.
The subject headings from WorldCat for Charlotte's Web are:
Animals-Fiction (over 15,000 books on WorldCat)
Pigs-Fiction (over 2000 books on WorldCat)
Farm life-FictionFantasy
That means if I go to our OPAC, search for Charlotte's Web to see if there is anything like the book, I would have to search by those subjects. Not very likely that many middle school kids will take the time to search through all the books with such broad subjects. They will get too many books that are too young, and others too mature, that they will just go home and tell their little brother they couldn't find one.

But what if the student could begin a way to classify their own information with the help of friends, teachers, librarians that created a list of similar books instead of subject headings? Would that help? I think so. It would be personal, but useful to others if they wanted to look at the list. Shelfari works this way. It is a social network for book junkies.

I am trying to work all this stuff out in my brain. I know that what we are doing now does not seem valuable to the students (and teachers). Finding information and material is not as difficult as libraries try to make it. Most book orders we get come with full MARC records as a file we add to our OPAC, and if I can't get it that way, I can copy the information from some other library's OPAC. I just think it is work that is unimportant in a connected world. It seems like busy-work at the graduate level to me. Or maybe I'm just tired of going to school. Who knows?

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Fisher is Asking Good Questions

Over at Remote Access, Clarence Fisher asks why more school curriculum isn't tagged in Technorati. He then asks his real question, "What does this say about how current many of the topcs that we teach are?"

I think I understand where Mr. Fisher is going with this - in a nutshell, that modern curriculum isn't attractive or meaningful to our students in the 21st century, and that teachers/and web authors are not tagging their information so that it can be found.

My short answer is that the reason our curriculum has little meaning is not that the content isn't valuable, but rather that we do not have enough artistically-trained teachers who know how to reach their students...because teachers have been trained to concentrate on the curriculum/standards instead of the students first. As I review the Georgia Performance Standards, I am overwhelmed with boredom at what teachers are asked to present. But again, it's not what is presented, but rather how it is presented that can make the difference in the way students receive the information they are being force-fed.

Mr. Fisher's second question, to me, has the greater implications for teachers who want to figure out ways to reach their students. The question he asks is, Have you noticed... "how few of the webpages that you access, looking for resources you can use in class, have RSS feeds to bring the latest news to you?

My answer is two-fold. First, the majority of educators probably wouldn't understand how or why they should use RSS feeds to keep up with current news, and second, the sources I would likely use to reach my students in the classroom can have RSS feeds, even if the authors do not provide a feed of their own. That's right...I would use a service like Page2RSS to create my own feed to pages that could be helpful to me in the teaching of my students. Though not 100% reliable, it would likely serve me well enough.

I would also use the Google News RSS feature on topics I knew I would be presenting to my class. As a matter of fact, I am in the process of conducting Google searches on the Georgia Performance Standards for grades 6, 7, 8 Social Studies topics. When new news items make their way to the Web, I can receive an update. It's a great service that Will Richardson discussed at the 2006 Georgia Ed. Tech Conference last November. He used Darfur as an example. Powerful! For the teacher who doesn't understand the RSS thing, they can even have email updates on their topics. Too cool, too easy, and too few teachers are using it.

Again, it is not that teachers are hurting for curriculum, material, knowledge, news, or lesson plans. Teacher are lacking in the skill to find, collect, evaluate, analyze, and use information that would assist them in making their students more interested in the content they are presented...the art of being a good teacher. As an old history teacher once said, "History is not boring. Everything we find exciting has happened sometime in the past." History is boring when we present the material in textbooks, handouts, and from the standards. History comes alive when we can illustrate that the human condition has not changed that much, even if technology has. I wouldn't try to hook middle school kids on the issue of slavery by talking about antebellum America. I would hook them by reading today's article from allAfrica.com about how Mauritania's government made slavery illegal...in August 2007. I might even consider using something like illegal immigration (a topic of great debate in our city of >40% Hispanic population) and how local companies recruited workers from other countries to take jobs at a lower pay than normal. I might get in trouble for that one though.

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Monday, September 03, 2007

Do Leaders Fear the Artist?

As I find myself at the beginning of a different focus for my writing and reflecting, I am reminded of something from my past. The artistic, free-thinking (which may be the only kind), counter-cultural, non-conformist is seldom appreciated for the work they do until they are gone. They leave a legacy. I'm okay with that.

I do not see myself as a person particularly artistic. I can't draw, play an instrument, sing, dance (although my wife and I are going to begin next Spring, once she is out of school), or do anything most people would consider artistic. But I have always appreciated the work of those who are artistic. I look at art in a very personal way...I know what I like, and can tell you why I like it. I know what works...for me.

I wish teachers had the freedom to choose to find the things that work for them. The "scientific approach" that most teachers feel forced to follow restricts their ability to find what they are good at in the classroom. I wonder if the reason so many teachers leave before five years is because they do not have the courage, or encouragement, to find what they can do well in the classroom?

I am not in a traditional classroom any longer, but I have been told by the people whose opinions count most to me, my former students, that I did a good job. I wasn't like other teachers. I was fun, fair, and was able to motivate my students to do their best. I hope that is somewhat accurate and true. I still teach, just from the position of a media specialist. I promote reading, research, and self-interest learning. It's not the same as being in the classroom, but I still get opportunities to do what I do best for young people.

I have known for years that I do not fit the traditional mold of a teacher. I never wanted to fit that mold. When it comes to teaching, or preaching (man, that seems like a loooong time ago - late 1980s-early 1990s), I did not find it effective for me to follow the "examples" of others. By that, I mean I did not do well when I tried to copy what others did-and were good at doing. I tried to copy others for about five years into my adult life. I was miserable and ineffective. I chose to change, and I began doing what I was good at doing. I was happier, more effective, and began to get noticed for my work. I did not really enjoy the getting noticed part. I think that is the character of an artist. My art is seen in the lives of my students and athletes. I am a motivator for young people. Frankly, I have "given up" on motivating adults...they already have their minds made up, and I consider it a waste of my personal talent to spend much time trying to change their minds, behaviors, or practices.

I have always believed that God gives us talents, interests, and opportunities to develop skills. I have been blessed because I believe my God-given talent is to work with young people. My personal interest is to work with young people, and I have been given opportunities to hone my skills in how to be effective working with young people. I have little more for which to ask. I am motivated by people who have found their calling, because I can relate to the emotional satisfaction that comes when you are doing what you know you are on earth to do. So I offer one of my favorite, motivational videos, which happens to be a commercial for Apple. I think the reason I like Macs better than Windows-based computers is because they promote the work of the artist - they help people Think Different. I appreciate that.

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Sunday, September 02, 2007

Miguel Shares a Story About Teaching as an Art Form

Miguel Guhlin has become one of my favorite edubloggers. He has a humble tone, he is down-to-earth, and he has the knowledge to make his readers think. In a recent post (same day as this one) Miguel discusses the need to take action. We do indeed suffer from paralysis by analysis in the education world. More data simply postpones action, and yet we want to be able to claim that we make data-driven decisions (See Jeff's comment in my previous post).

In the midst of Miguel's commentary, he quotes an education student, Karlana, as saying,
I feel the problem educators face today is that current generations are so involved with the television, Internet, computers, video games, and anything else under the sun, that we now have to compete for that even shorter attention span than what educators had over a decade ago! Educators now have to become quite innovative, and that in itself is quite a unique challenge. You have to not only figure out what the students are involved in and interested in, but also find a way to integrate this information into using technology in order to get quality work out of the students.

I must confess, I did not want to copy the whole thing here, but Karlana has just written a piece of a conversation I had with my son less than 2 hours earlier. Brant, my son, is an education student as well. He was studying before we took our dog for a walk. During the walk, Brant relayed some general information about attention span; that it is about 1 minute for each year of age - 5 year-olds have about a 5 minute attention span.

I took the conversation as a time to impart my limited wisdom. I asked, "If that is true, then how do 15-year-olds sit for 90 minutes to watch a movie?" It was a set-up question. Brant said, "Good point." I didn't want him to cave so easily, so I led him a little. "Don't you think that's why there is a different camera angle, scene, or something visual every 2 to 3 seconds...to provide a false change so the movie keeps your attention?" Again, Brant said, "Good point." He is a math guy. Few words, just get to the point kinda guy. But I could tell the wheels were spinning in his head.

I told him the attention span issue is one of perspective. If the material is good, you keep attention longer. If the material isn't good, you have to change your angle...not camera angle, but your angle of presentation to the students. Unfortunately, in the climate of high-stakes testing, standards, and the scientific (if you do A, and then B, your students will know C) process of canned teaching, most material we present to students isn't that good...in their eyes...which are the only ones that matter.

Teachers, good teachers anyway, must be able to change their angle of presentation for their students. That, my friends, is an art form. It is akin to the director getting 20 shots of the same scene to tell their story. Then the producers choose which scene is the best.

Karlana and Brant will have numerous exposures to the science of teaching. Karlana and Brant, I think, are both asking the question (though they may not know how to word it), "What I'm learning in my ed-prep program may not be enough to keep the attention of my future students...heaven knows it didn't keep my attention. I want to be a good teacher for my students. What is it that I am missing?"

Karlana and Brant - you aren't missing much. Know your material. (You probably already do.) Keep in touch with the youth culture as you get older. What motivates them? What keeps their attention? Why is it that they can play Guitar Hero for hours - what is it about the game? You know what motivates you, and you're not too far removed from the K-12 classroom that it won't work in the beginning of your career. Take the curriculum you are given to teach your students, find the methods that your students will stay attentive to (the art form), and plow forward. You will not learn this in your ed-prep program.

By the way, thank you Mr. Stein for teaching me how to calculate percentages, change them to decimals, and have a clue what that all meant, by using the backside of baseball cards in 8th grade. He wasn't my math teacher...he taught science. I don't think I ever learn math from a math teacher.

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