Assignment 1 for ETL401 Teacher Librarianship was one of the more challenging things I have done recently. For starters, it has been more than ten years since I have undertaken any formal study, and, although my job involves constant learning and reading, it has been a while since I have peered at assignment requirements, criteria sheets and notes on readings as a student and not as an assessor. The experience was salutary! It has certainly made me rethink the way I am teaching one of my classes, which is full of students for whom understanding an assignment and the writing style required does not come naturally. Academic literacy is very hard to acquire and shifting to the register demanded in a specific discipline is more than half the battle to become apprenticed to it.
One of the messages I am getting from the reading is that the role of the teacher librarian can be surprisingly political. That is – principals and school administrators can be reluctant to fund and staff school libraries properly. The provision of lap-top computers to students and faculty has, in some people’s minds, solved the information problem for schools. Why have a library when you have Google? The fact that students’ use of search engines is often ineffective and at times dangerously naïve is known but glossed over by those desperate to plug a funding gap. So one of the impressions I got was that TLs need to be prepared to state their case – -persuasively and repeatedly.
Education is always expensive. It takes a lot of human attention and effort to bring young members of homo sapiens even to the point of being able to write a recount of a school excursion. In her marvellous book Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Maryanne Wolf points out that unlike spoken language, we are not born ‘wired’ to learn written language. Unlike speech, writing and written literacy is not inherited and passed on automatically as part of the exchange between parent and child. Language acquisition is something we are predisposed to – but text literacy requires conscious and constant modelling, explicit teaching and ever-greater degrees of practice to attain fluency. All it takes, Wolf points out, is one generation to not have this heritage passed on to them, and it begins to die.
The Australian House of Representatives Inquiry into School Libraries (2011) included data that indicates that Australia is one of only 5 OECD countries where literacy has declined in the past ten years. Almost half the adult population – 46% — were judged by the Australian Bureau of Statistics to lack the prose literacy skills necessary for functioning effectively in our society. When we are expecting students to graduate from secondary school with the ability to handle themselves and information competently, to make decisions, and to apply learning to new and unfamiliar situations, we are asking for quite a sophisticated set of capabilities. A search engine and a keyboard – in fact, any technology – no matter how amazing, cannot in and of itself make this happen, any more than giving a young person a car and a set of keys in and of itself enables them to drive. And yet, I was saddened to see that the subtext of a great deal of the reading was that school libraries and teacher librarians are seen as redundant because now we have the internet. Yet, if the advent of ICTs and the internet was the powerful driver of literacy that some claim, then we would have sky-rocketing literacy rates – not the obverse.
One of the revealing things about the reading I did for the assignment was how much professional judgement is involved. There are the Professional Standards for teacher librarians drawn up by ASLA/ALIA, which are there to help individuals make judgements about where they should prioritise their work. They can also be us by TLs to argue for structures in schools that support them to meet these standards. But it was also apparent that no one individual could fulfil all the roles expected of them to an excellent degree all of the time. A TL needs to be able to discern what in her professional repertoire is needed and how best she can make an impact. But this needs structures that enable that to happen.
As I wrote in an earlier post, one of the big ‘reveals’ for me as a classroom teacher doing the MEdTL course was the emphasis on partnerships with classroom teachers and curriculum specialists in the literature. The TLs at my school seem very busy largely with classic librarian tasks – and I wonder whether if I did approach one of their team to collaborate on a project, an inquiry learning unit for example, whether I would be only adding to an already significant workload. How much freedom do they have to exercise that judgement in an environment where teachers and TLs have no planning time in common? How does one make a case for these kinds of changes when everyone in the education sector seems to spend their whole lives running breathlessly from one task and deadline to another and staff time is the number one and most scarce resource?
I feel as if even at this early stage of my studies, that the complexity of the TL role could get overwhelming. On the other hand, it is potentially very exciting – if a case can be made for the kinds of changes implied by the professional literature and the material coming out of the U.S about ‘embedded librarians’.
So, first assignment done. The writing style required was the biggest challenge for me as I tried to adopt the tone and structure and vocabulary that facilitates ‘thinking like a librarian’. It is a slow process and far from my background in literary criticism and theory. It was like walking in borrowed shoes. Let’s hope I am learning how to break them in.