Special Report
Reading & Literacy

As Information Landscape Changes, School Librarians Take on New Roles

By Madeline Will — November 09, 2016 9 min read
School librarian Michelle Luhtala co-teaches a lesson on news analysis to 11th and 12th grade students at New Canaan High School in Connecticut. She and fellow librarian Jacqueline Whiting frequently partner with classroom teachers at the school to teach media-literacy skills.

The school librarians entered the civics classroom with authority, calling the students by name, cracking jokes, and quickly pulling up their presentation.

The students, mostly seniors at New Canaan High School here, got out their laptops and connected to the presentation with Nearpod, an interactive-lesson platform. The focus of the day’s class was learning to tell the difference between news reporting and opinion online, with coverage of NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s controversial protests during the national anthem serving as the hook.

It used to be easy: Newspapers clearly marked pages as “opinion” or “news.” But these days, teenagers tend to get their news on Facebook or aggregation sites, and a clear label might not be on the story. To distinguish between different types of analyses, students have to be able to discern biases on their own.

That was the point of the day’s lesson, led by New Canaan High librarians Michelle Luhtala and Jacquelyn Whiting and civics teacher Kristine Goldhawk. The students’ task: Distinguish the differences among news articles, op-eds, editorials, and blogs.

The three educators circled the room, pointing out red-flag words or phrases, like “accused,” or rhetorical questions.

As the lesson progressed, the students seemed to be picking up the concept of bias, but there was still some ambiguity. “I don’t even know what an op-ed is,” one student muttered to her classmate.

After class, Whiting smiled, reflecting on the lesson. “We’re the last generation of people to know that means opposite the editorial page,” she said. “When newspapers may not exist anymore, no one is going to know that is a classification of content preceded by a classification of location in the paper.”

As she spoke in the school’s spacious, bustling library, teenagers were scattered all around her, but few were looking at the stacks of print books. Most were tinkering at the library’s makerspace, scrolling on one of the library’s computers, or working on homework in groups, with many using their smartphones, tablets, or laptops.

Welcome to the 21st century school library. Gone are the days when librarians spent most of their time monitoring the stacks and checking out books to students.

Now, Whiting and Luhtala see their role as school librarians as teaching students how to navigate and consume information online—and helping teachers embed those skills into their curriculum. To do that, they take on any number of job descriptions: They’re instructional partners, innovation leaders, and digital-literacy scholars.

“We have a really great collaborative, trusting relationship in this building,” said Luhtala, the library department chair. “I can be walking down the hallway and see an opportunity to touch base with [a teacher] and know that it’s going to be OK to do that. There’s a real symbiosis in our teaching.”

Before the lesson on news reporting versus opining, Luhtala and Whiting sat down with Goldhawk to go over the objective and the tools they would use to convey the instruction. Goldhawk, who said the lesson was prompted by students citing opinion pieces as facts in their essays, chose the Kaepernick controversy as the topic.

The high school is in its first year with a schoolwide Bring Your Own Device program, so the educators agreed to use the tool Nearpod, which syncs a presentation to all students’ devices, and a Google form for students to instantly submit their responses.

Luhtala suggested bringing in stacks of print newspapers for students to practice finding the opinion section, but Goldhawk declined, saying her students rarely, if ever, read print newspapers anymore.

After the initial planning session, Luhtala and Whiting took two days to compile articles and opinions on Kaepernick’s protest into a presentation, which Goldhawk approved. They then delivered the presentation to three classes, with the librarians tweaking each lesson immediately afterwards to respond to what went well and what didn’t.

Collaborative Support

Having that kind of collaborative support is immensely helpful, Goldhawk said. As a teacher, she said, she focuses on the content of the course—and having the librarians take over a session on digital or research skills is a timesaver that enhances the students’ education.

School librarian Michelle Luhtala said, like many librarians, her job now “revolves around trying to shift the way we think to meet the needs of millennial learners.”

“I would have never been able to go through, collect the right sources, and design [the presentation], because I teach three different courses,” she said. “If I had to come up with all the different technologies and try to figure out, ‘OK, what do I have to teach them about the research process.’ ... You can’t do that as a single teacher. If [my students] only get me, they’re not getting the whole picture. I can’t know everything, I can’t be an expert for everything.”

And the librarians stress the collaborative nature of the lesson, where the classroom teacher still plays a role.

“We don’t want it to be like, ‘Oh, we’re doing a side lesson on library skills?’ We really try to avoid that,” Luhtala said.

“It never feels that way,” Goldhawk said, “because it’s always embedded into something we just completed or something that’s coming up. It always feels like it’s purposeful.”

Teachers aren’t required to collaborate with the school librarians, so the librarians say that an important part of their job is public relations.

One way to spread the word, Whiting said, is easing teachers’ burdens. “We didn’t add something to their plate, we took something off their plate,” she said. “Once we make one person’s life a little easier, that person tells their friends and so on. It’s one positive interaction at a time.”

Now, Luhtala said the bulk of her workday is spent co-teaching—sometimes it’s for the entire class period; other times, it’s only for a few minutes. When teachers are absent, they will often offer that day’s instructional time to the librarians, she said.

Sometimes, she and Whiting offer group professional development to teachers, in addition to the one-on-one planning and support sessions throughout the year.

“When you build a culture of trust, it’s a beautiful thing to be able to feel like, ‘Yep, it might be in the middle of the period, but I know what they’re doing today, and it’s OK if I walk in and touch base,’ ” Luhtala said.

“We don’t see it as an interruption,” Goldhawk responded. “It’s your class as much as it’s mine; I just get to see them a little bit more day to day.”

Teaching Digital Literacy

While perhaps further along than others, New Caanan High’s reconception of the school librarian role is not necessarily an outlier.

The American Association of School Librarians has taken the position that through providing professional development and co-teaching, school librarians today should be “leading the way in digital learning and literacies.” And the association has pointed to numerous studies that have found that when school librarians are involved in instruction, student learning improves.

“School librarians are a critical asset in the school when it comes to teaching digital literacy, because we’re trained as teachers and as information specialists and as technology integrators, so we have the complete skill set that’s needed for this type of instruction,” said AASL President Audrey Church. “You can’t be an effective 21st century school librarian without teaching collaboratively, working as an instructional partner, and incorporating digital-literacy instruction” into the curriculum.

There’s partly a survival aspect to school librarians taking on all these new roles, Luhtala said. In times of budgetary uncertainty, the librarian position is often one of the most likely to be eliminated.

“One way to ensure that that’s not what happens to you is to make sure you’re visible, you’re a leader, you’re indispensable,” she said.

In many places across the country, budgets for school libraries were cut significantly during the Great Recession. Church said she hopes this vulnerability will change with the passage of the new federal K-12 education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, which emphasizes school library programs and digital literacy.

“We are very hopeful that some of the funding that comes as a result of that legislation might go toward school library programs,” Church said. “School librarians are needed now more than ever. Children are digital natives, but they’re not digitally literate. School librarians can make that connection.”

Teaching students how to navigate the internet is the “key motivating question behind what we do,” Whiting said. She and Luhtala work to build students’ repertoire of skills so they can encounter information online and discern whether it is credible and trustworthy.

“This,” Whiting said, pointing to the stacks of books in the library, “is a curated text collection. There is no book in this library that is going to waste a child’s time. But on the internet, that’s not the case. We can start by curating a digital library for them, but really, what’s important in their digital-literacy skills is learning how to curate that library for themselves.”

Resources Matter

New Canaan is an affluent community just an hour and a half outside New York City. In 2014-15, the high school’s per-pupil expenditure was $18,641. In comparison, the average expenditure per public school student on a national level was $12,296 in 2014-15, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

This allows the library to have both the resources and the staffing to support the co-teaching and the focus on digital skills and literacies.

Luhtala’s situation, AASL’s Church said, “is kind of what librarians would aspire to, knowing that their reality is very different from her reality.”

Not all schools have the devices and internet connection to effectively teach digital-literacy skills, she said.

In addition to resources, Church said having a supportive administrator can make a huge difference to building a successful school library culture. “The administration sets the tone as to how the librarian is perceived by the teachers, whether collaboration is an expectation or not,” she said.

A Balancing Act

Luhtala, who has been at New Canaan for 15 years now, said the library was “literally a tomb” when she first arrived.

It took her years to fully transform the program into what it is today: After her first year in the job, Luhtala said she wrote on her annual report that she had made some good strides at building a collaborative relationship with teachers, and it would be on track by 2009. An administrator wrote back, asking if that was a typo.

“I said, ‘No, it’s going to take seven years for change to happen in a high school,’ ” she said. “In 2009, we kind of looked around and said, ‘Yeah, it’s working.’ ”

Whiting joined the New Canaan library this school year, after 23 years teaching social studies. That classroom experience, she and Luhtala said, has been a bonus in her current work with teachers.

While the New Canaan administration supports the librarians’ collaboration with teachers, Luhtala said it has been challenging to move some educators away from traditional instructional strategies.

“My whole job revolves around trying to shift the way we think to meet the needs of millennial learners and not to force them into a box of learning that fits another model entirely,” she said.

But it’s a balancing act: “If you push too much and too hard, [teachers] walk away and they don’t come back,” she said. “They don’t have to bring you in. It’s not a requirement. There’s nobody saying this has to happen.”

“It’s a very fine line, but it’s kind of a cool tightrope to walk because every time you push the envelope just a little bit—like today,” Luhtala said, smiling, referring to the civics lesson. “It was good.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 09, 2016 edition of Education Week as As Media Landscape Changes, Librarians Take on New Roles

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