Transferring skills from arts ed to info lit

The last job I held before becoming a librarian was as a facilitator of arts programs, working 11 years for ArtsConnection, a non-profit that brought professional visual and performing (music, dance, theater) artists into public schools pre-K-12 throughout the five boroughs of NYC.

Each time I’ve changed careers, I’ve tried to carry over whatever I managed to learn in one field to the next. Here are four aspects of teaching that I came to value in arts education that have proved useful guideposts for me as a teaching librarian at Hostos Community College. I hope they may be of some use to other teaching librarians as well.

(1) Collaborative teaching partnerships

Then: Although we provided a diverse range of in- and after-school instruction, the most common project was a 10-session residency of workshops held once a week, in class, with the classroom teacher present as the artist taught.

Classroom teachers often had limited or incorrect assumptions about what our teaching artists, as visiting instructors, could offer their students. They didn’t want their time wasted.

Given our brief stays in each school, it made a huge difference when teachers saw the worth of our programs. An engaged teacher helped students make connections between learning in the arts workshop and learning in the classroom, even if there was not a direct curricular connection, and their very engagement gave students the message that the work in the arts was an important part of the school day.

Deciding to be an at least watchful or even enthusiastic presence during the workshop also gave classroom teachers an opportunity to learn more about their own students. Teachers often told us how their perception of a given student’s ability (to concentrate, take risks, create, inspire others, work toward a goal) was transformed by watching the student learn in the arts.

Planning and goals

The first step to getting teacher buy-in was our planning meetings. The classroom teachers and the teaching artist often started out with different vocabularies regarding student learning, and my job as facilitator was neither to force the artist into edu-speak nor to force the classroom teacher into artist-speak, but to help bridge a common understanding and shared set of goals.

Some (certainly not all) teachers, under tremendous pressure to raise English and math test scores, were reluctant to “give up time” and assumed that the arts work would at most give students a chance to blow off steam and have fun. Planning meetings allowed us to show how learning in the arts would help students build both particular skills within the art form and broader skills such as problem-solving, empathy, collaboration with peers, public expression, and creative discovery.

It’s not that teachers didn’t want those things, but they weren’t (usually) artists, and we couldn’t assume that they would see or articulate such goals spontaneously before the workshops, or see exactly how the arts could bring such learning to their students.

Laying the abstract groundwork of goals was always important, but the real buy-in came when teachers saw their students learning in the moment.  When teachers saw students engaged with something worthwhile, they were won over to working with the teaching artist as partners.

Now: Although academic librarians provide a diverse range of instruction, through workshops, reference interactions, consulations, online guides, and semester-long courses, our most common method of instruction is the one-shot workshop to support a course’s research assigment.

Professors in the disciplines often have limited or incorrect assumptions about what we librarians, as visiting instructors, can offer their students. They don’t want their time wasted.

I’ve found that professors who aren’t just grading papers in the back but actively observing and engaging in the research workshops (such as circulating as I do as students work in small groups or on their own) help students make connections between what they’re learning in the workshop and their classroom learning. Professors’ engagement sends the message that the library workshop is an important part of the course.

I have also seen observant professors change their understanding—not as much about their students’ abilities, but about the reality of how students grapple with their research assignment, or still have questions that the professor thought had been made clear in class. These observations help us in our discussions as we evolve our teaching partnership in subsequent semesters.

Planning and goals

In initial planning conversations, we often start with different perspectives and ways to assess student learning. Some professors may be reluctant to “give up time” and assume that all a library workshop could do is introduce students to the existence of EBSCO. Well-meaning professors who start conversations with a request to “teach them how to cite” or “how to use the databases” or even “how to research” as if that were a 75-minute task, remind me of those K-12 teachers who hoped that dance might somehow improve math scores. What they’re really saying is: please do something with my class that will be of use to them, and here’s what I assume that help might look like.

Just as we librarians shouldn’t always take a student’s opening query at a reference desk at face value, but instead use a patient, listening, probing reference interview to see what it is they really want and what might help them more,  I believe that these opening queries from professors offer us a similar opportunity to start a real planning dialogue.

Communicating goals in advance helps lay the groundwork. As teaching librarians, we know it’s not just being able to navigate a proprietary interface that counts, it’s a myriad of understandings, whether captured by the abstract intellectual concepts of the Framework or the liberating perspectives offered by critical information literacy; it’s also learning concrete skills and habits such as developing a focused inquiry as a more propulsive start to research in place of an overly broad topic, or distinguishing between kinds of available sources and learning how to use them strategically instead of haphazardly; it’s acquiring habits such as browsing the stacks because it turns out that books are organized by subject, or questioning every website they come across by asking, okay, who wrote that, what’s their agenda, and why should I believe them?

It’s not that professors don’t want these things, but they often aren’t thinking about all the particular elements of research that students confront. We can’t assume that most would articulate such goals spontaneously before the workshops, or see exactly how engaging in a research workshop could bring such learning to their students.

The real buy-in comes when professors see their students learning in action.  The more they see students engaged with something worthwhile, the more they are won over to working with us librarians as partners.

(2) Learning through authentic experiences in the discipline & student voice

Then: I learned that students’ being active in class is necessary but not sufficient for learning. When students had an authentic experience in the arts, going through real steps of experimentation, making choices, stepping back to assess, revising, and innovating further—rather than following pre-ordained steps to creating a product–their learning was much more meaningful. Those residencies that most allowed for students’ original vision to guide the project and for their voices to shine through were inevitably more powerful than a slick, more teacher-directed project.

Now: What are the authentic experiences in research? If we show students the library’s discovery layer or a database and indicate how to click a couple filters, but the student just prints out the first five articles whose titles happen to echo their keywords, we know that’s not engagement in an authentic research process.

As Anne Leonard said here in an earlier blog post, the complex and iterative process of research is something learned over time, and often students are still growing out of a conception of “research” as a quick looking up of set answers to imposed questions. Authentic research processes of defining their own inquiry, searching, selecting, reading, discovering new ideas and developing new questions, reframing their inquiry, and so on, are new to many of them.

The extent to which we can influence the structure of a research assignment varies wildly and we of course can’t force students to engage deeply. I’m also aware that our students at Hostos are often juggling work, family, and other obligations, and understand that not every single research project will pull in 100% of their effort.

That said, whether in workshops, at the reference desk, or in one-on-one consultations, we can ask them to do more than follow our examples of where to click on a screen, and can directly address the progressive nature of research and the idea of searching as strategic exploration.

Helping students follow their own paths through their research also means helping them understand good places to start, and showing them how to strategize their search, for instance knowing when they would be helped by first reading background texts to be able to confidently engage with more scholarly sources. We can to the best extent possible help students take as much ownership as a given assignment will allow.

(3) Big picture learning while planning the particulars

Then: The teaching artists we worked with were required to write out their plans for a residency, including learning goals. Some viewed this process as paperwork or as restrictive, but many came to value the reflection demanded by posing the questions: what do I want students to know and be able to do after this lesson? What are the larger understandings in the art form that they will start to build?

Writing out a lesson plan also helped artists determine the scope of what they could do, given the limited number of minutes and days in a residency.

Now: Although I don’t start out with the Framework as a base for workshops, I find that its larger understandings often slide organically into lessons. Here are just a few examples:

  • Any mention of needing to sign in with a CUNY ID in order to get access to database articles off-campus is an opportunity to show that information has value and that access is limited because of the way that publishers make money and that educational institutions comply.
  • When students say they already know exactly what their paper will say before having read any “sources to cite”, we can raise the idea of research as inquiry and of discovering new ideas. Two informal writing prompts I use in many workshops are “what are some things you already know about your research topic?” and “what do you want to find out that you don’t know yet?” These are simple questions, but kick off discussion in which we address the idea that the research process is not just about looking up people who reiterate what you already think.
  • Often in workshops, I’ll address the fact that they will encounter equally qualified and credible writers who sharply disagree on a subject, and that part of the students’ work as researchers and writers is to grapple with those arguments—understanding that scholarship is conversation, not just a canon of obvious, universally accepted, and unchanging facts.

Writing out lesson plans also helps me see what I can accomplish in one workshop. Sometimes I have heard librarians say they don’t have time for the bigger picture, but in writing down my exact plans, I have found not just things that need to be cut (I think a common librarian urge is to try to say too much), but also natural places for just raising questions and planting seeds; a lengthy exercise or discussion is not always necessary to integrate bigger-picture ideas.

(4) The importance of a teacher’s energy

Then: Although I had known this from many years of being a student, observing dozens of teaching artists each year and clocking literally thousands of hours of observation over the course of a decade showed me over and over that the energy you put out as an instructor is the energy you get back.

Now: I have seen some librarians and some professors who whether from shyness, self-consciousness, or perhaps a feeling that it is more authentic, teach with the same voice they might use in a one-on-one conversation, or in a small group meeting. In these cases, the energy and attention of students tend to untether and drift out of the room.

As for nerves, something I learned previous to my last job was that jumping in with gusto burns off much of the nervous energy, and the attentive response you get in return kills off the rest. As for the desire to remain authentic, I have found that after a while, your heightened “teacher voice” is just another equally authentic version of yourself.

Although I’m certainly not as skilled as a professional actor, I channel as best I can the kind of enthusiasm, responsiveness, and direct engagement that I loved in our most effective theater teaching artists, and I usually get great energy back from students.  If I’m tired or if it’s the third workshop in a day, I can feel my lower level of energy and a corresponding drop in the room, so I know it’s not just the lesson plan that makes a difference.

Although my lesson plans focus on what I want students to learn and be able to do, right before every workshop I stop and ask myself (knowing I may be distracted or stressed with other worries), “How do you want the students to feel?”

This question forces me to remember that I want students to feel happy to be there,  welcomed, excited about learning, and confident that they will be able to take charge of their research–and remembering that helps me to walk into the room with energy that reflects those aspirations.

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