Embedded Librarians + Effective Teaching

The articles and chapters for this week really synced with my thoughts and frustrations surrounding my future as a school librarian.  Pardon me if I write a little too much about my outside experiences in this post, but it is all too interconnected for me to focus too closely on just the readings.

Just last week I posted on my other blog, almost jokingly, about how great it would be to have a school librarian embedded in every classroom (at least I’d have no problem finding a job).  It seems like many of the key proponents of collaboration between school librarians and classroom teachers expect that school librarians are able to spend 30 hours co-planning, -teaching, and -assessing with every teacher, every week. It is almost like they are saying it would be great to have two teachers for every classroom and that one of these teachers should be a teacher-librarians because of our particular areas of expertise. Of course, this isn’t possible in the reality of one or fewer FTE school librarians in most schools, and yet the collaboration cheerleaders do not seem to realize exactly what they are proposing.

Of course, the idea of having one librarian devoted to a single building, a school, is its own form of embedded librarianship. Students and teachers have a librarian committed solely to them, rather than having to turn to a public library and public youth librarians across town to meet information needs.  The issue remains, however, that most school librarians have not become “member[s] of the[ir] customer communit[ies] rather than service provider[s] standing apart” (David Schumaker, as quoted in Matos et al., 131).

Why this disconnect? Why are school librarians, by nature embedded in their customer communities, often not seen as truly integral? I think that Matos et al. identified one key reason:  “the faculty/students have to support the concept of the librarian in their building for it to have a chance to succeed” (132).  Teachers and students may be content to have a school librarian, but I would not necessarily go so far as to argue that most of them “support” their school librarians. They may not understand what the school librarian does or can do for them, or should be expected to do. Students may enjoy listening to stories read aloud and teachers may appreciate the release time or getting help with teaching or grading citations, but if that is all we do are we really worth supporting?  Alternatively, if that is all we are perceived as doing or as capable of doing, why would students and teachers support us? 

I think school librarians can learn a lot from the embedded librarian model in terms of how to become an integral part of the community instead of “standing apart.”  The way to earn this support is through relationships—healthy, reciprocal, and authentic relationships—with students and teachers.  We need to become a part of the school community by breaking down (or at least knocking on) the doors that contribute to the so-called culture of isolation in schools (meaning the tendency for teachers to isolate themselves in their classrooms rather than sharing and learning from each other).  We have to communicate, build relationships, develop trust, and meet our community where they are both cognitively and physically. The stronger the relationships, the more “embedded” we will become and the more we will be able to effectively serve our communities.  The way to build these relationships is to be where the community members are and being available when their needs arise—this might mean a combination of:

  • having the school library open before and after school, during lunch, and accessible throughout the school day
  • having a strong online presence including instructional screencasts, virtual reference (or access to virtual reference services that might be provided by entities other than the school, such as the public library), and online resources
  • teaching in the classrooms, library, and computer lab
  • providing technology and research support and instruction, as well as reader’s advisory, whenever the need arises
  • communicating with students about their interests
  • communicating with staff about their teaching and learning goals and philosophies, curricula, resource needs (including variety of topics, formats, and reading levels), and interests/concerns
  • communicating directly with students, parents, and teachers through a blog or other means of sharing library news, resources, services, and your own learning

In a university or other type of institution in which distance can be an issue, I can see the value of webinars, but I did not list them here because within a school everyone is pretty close together.  Recorded and archived video instruction might be helpful, but if a school librarian is available to give a lesson it is far preferable to do so in person so that the lesson can be more interactive and adaptive to individual student needs instead of artificially virtual. Kids might like staring at screens, but television doesn’t hold the draw for this generation that it did for the previous one—they are far more accustomed to screens that they can communicate with, like live webinars to some extent, but more like video games and web sites that they can interact with personally and at their own pace.  I cannot imagine getting a class of 7th graders to sit through any webinar I have ever attended—it’s too much “talking at”—you’d lose their attention within the first two minutes and they’d either be doing something else or contributing inappropriate content to the live chat. Maybe live webinars could be a volunteer service provided by school librarians to homeschool students in the community.  Perhaps schools in extreme climates could use them for instructional purposes if weather has closed the school for more than the allotted number of snow days.  Or rural schools could reduce costs by conducting school entirely via webinar once or twice per week, if the Internet infrastructure in the area were reliable enough. But I am not sure how webinars would fit into most K-12 schools at the present.

The other issue with my list of ways to communicate and build relationships with students/faculty is the lack of virtual communication. Where are kids? They’re on their phones and online (which is increasingly one and the same).  But this is not where schools are or where school libraries are for a number of reasons, not least of which is the prevalence of prohibiting electronic devices in schools.  Sure, students might use the school’s computers for schoolwork purposes, but they cannot have or use their cell phones, tablets, laptops, etc. at school. Having personal electronic communication devices at school opens up lots of potential issues as well as opportunities.  If it were more common for students to have iPads or cell phones in school, the options for virtual reference would skyrocket.  Of course we don’t know how welcoming students would be to teachers intruding on their “spaces” (e.g. facebook, texting, etc.), and maybe we do not want students to be able to ask us anything at any time—we want to raise independent thinkers and problem-solvers, after all.  But accessibility, communication, and relationships are unquestionably important for becoming a valued member of a learning community and an “embedded” librarian. 

This leads me into “Effective Teaching: Examples from History, Mathematics, and Science,” chapter seven on How People Learn. First, how cool that Dr. Bob Bain from the School of Education was highlighted as an effective teacher!  Second, how can school librarians (especially in schools with flexible schedules that result in students only coming to the library for instruction when the teacher identifies a need) build upon the lessons from this chapter? How can we teach students authentic inquiry processes if we are only called in to teach students how to create a bibliography or how to conduct a search in Gale? As Montgomery expresses, “These sessions give librarians the opportunity to create a connection with students but also give the perception that the librarian is a guest presenter” (309). I feel like school librarians are taught all of these best practices in 21st century education like how to teach lessons that promote critical and creative thinking, problem solving, using technology to enhance communication and understanding, synthesizing, etc., and yet in the “real world” the opportunities to employ these kinds of lessons belong almost solely to the classroom teachers.  School librarians are expected to teach the mechanics, whether or not the rest of these elements have been learned by students. I’m sure I am just being apocalyptic here, but I don’t know—this is just what I’m experiencing and feeling right now.  Hopefully I can figure out a way to change or avoid this as a professional.

My ideal is to begin working closely with teachers when they begin a unit that will culminate in a research project in order to tap into the students thinking from the very beginning.  That’s where the opportunity is to work with a teacher to structure a lesson that develops 21st Century Skills—not at the end of a unit.  Before a unit even starts, we have the opportunity to co-plan with the teacher, sharing our expertise in areas of technology, information resources, comprehension, and 21st century skill building.  Even if we are not going to co-teach an entire unit, having a place at the team planning meeting means that we can help shape lesson units that we are proud to be a part of.  During the unit, we can participate in lessons that set the stage for inquiry, exploration, and problem solving, as well as technology, notetaking, communication, and citation.  This way we can put into practice the kind of teaching that Bransford et al. encourage in chapter seven, both through the instruction we provide directly to students and through working with teachers to create inquiry-based learning experiences. 

I will post on the webinar experience separately in the interest of keeping my posts relatively short and cohesive. (Hah.)

Works Cited
Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning. “Effective Teaching:
     Examples in History, Mathematics, and Science.” How People Learn: Brain,
     Mind, Experience, and School. Ed. John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown, and
     Rodney R. Cocking. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 2000. 155-189.
     The National Academies Press. Web. 24 Mar. 2011. <
Matos, Michael A., Nobue Matsuoka-Motley, and William Mayer. “The Embedded
     Librarian Online or Face-to-Face: American University’s Experiences.”
     Public Services Quarterly 6.2 (2010): 130-139. Informa Ltd. Web. 22 Mar.
     2011. <>.
Montgomery, Susan E. “Online Webinars! Interactive Learning Where Our Users Are:
     The Future of Embedded Librarianship.” Public Services Quarterly 6.2 
     (2010): 306-311. Informaworld. Web. 22 Mar. 2011. <

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