Fluency

One of my favourite “eduquotes”, and one that espouses why I feel the passion that I do for quality literacy teaching and learning experiences, is this, from Ludwig Wittgenstein;

“The limits of my language are the limits of my world”

The limits of our information fluency really ARE the limits of our world. The child/student/patron who comes to us with no concept or understanding of how to responsibly, sensibly and effectively navigate the seemingly unending flow of information we’re presented with is likely to be overwhelmed very quickly.

When we talk about readers who demonstrate fluency, or second language learners who demonstrate fluency, the generally accepted definition is the ability to express oneself with ease and smoothness, with the odd faux pas here and there.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about  information fluency – and how to best cultivate  that important fluency in the general community. I think schools and libraries (and in particular school libraries!) can, will, and should play a huge role in this.

But what does it mean to be fluent in “information”? What does “information fluency” look like?

There are a number of “formalresponses to this – but it mostly boils down to the idea that we need to teach students/clients how to find information, how to critically evaluate the information they find, how to form logical conclusions based on that information, and how to present those findings in an appropriate and meaningful way – sounds straight forward enough.

There are, however, less formal definitions of fluency. Reading this post about fluency got me thinking. Most of us can claim to be “information fluent”. Asking your average college/university student if they considered themselves astute users of technology would get you a “yes, absolutely” (even though nothing could be further from the truth – as “that” article proved).

The collective “we” consider ourselves  “fluent” because we can socially network, download apps, navigate with the GPS, use the full Office suite, google in the gaps of our knowledge, and perhaps even know the odd meme or two. (I can haz meme?) Using the formal definitions, the collective we are no more “fluent” than the corpulent American with a camera at Oktoberfest hollering “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” before passing out in a pool of their own vomit.

The challenge is to encourage the “fluent” to see themselves as learners, and to make the learning that will ensure seem advantageous, adventuresome and, dare I say it, fun. As the comments in response to the  blog which tipped off this post say, being fluent isn’t just about being technically correct.

True fluency is about being able to play with the language – to tell jokes, make notes, notice puns and swear. Perhaps the best definition is “You know you’re fluent when the native speakers ask you for directions and apologise sheepishly when you explain you’re not from around here”

In order to cultivate TRUE information fluency, we need to teach children/students/patrons not just to think critically, not just to form conclusions, not just to present their conclusions logically – but also to play with information. To really digest it. To use those conclusions to form ideas and arguments and thoughts and debates of their own. To think beyond the page, beyond the book, beyond the information. That, to me, is when one can claim fluency.

The times, they are a changin’

Come gather ’round people
wherever you roam
and admit that the waters
around you have grown

(With apologies to Mr Bob Dylan)

A quiet suburban street, a building with a bunch of books, some computers, some audio visuals, and some newspapers and a copy machine.

Once a week, a nice librarian reads a story for a group of children, and has them colour in a turtle, cut it out, and glue it on a paddle pop stick, and everyone goes home happy, with some new books under their arm.

Libraries can (and should) be so much more.

75% of brain growth occurs in the first 3 years of a child’s life. The importance of early learning is now in less doubt than at any other time in history. The Australian Government has recognised this, and is in the process of overhauling the early childhood industry, changing the regulations, ratios, and programming to reflect this importance.

The cornerstones of the Early Years Learning Framework ( EYLF) are “belonging, being, becoming” and these are all aspects which libraries can support and encourage; A sense of belonging to a community, of being an active participant in their learning and enquiry, and becoming literate and connected library users. What a great end goal for any library program worth its salt!

Outcome four of the EYLF talks about children as confident and involved learners, developing dispositions for learning such as curiosity, co-operation, confidence, creativity, commitment, enthusiasm, persistence, imagination and reflexivity.

I’d argue that these are wonderful qualities to foster in children and young people of all ages, not just in early childhood. Flicking the switch to a love of learning and reading is important, but equally so is keeping it switched.

Too often the sense of wonder and awe and curiosity is lost in children as they move through formal education. Libraries can play a huge role in giving children that space to pursue enquiry based learning – learning which is sating and which is born of a natural instinct to want to know more – at their own pace, and in an environment which is free from grading and expectations and pedagogy.

More than just “sit and hear the story” – there is so much scope for interaction, for discovery, for making and doing and sharing and growing. There’s parent education to be done, of course,  but there’s also mentoring, there’s community connections, mobile libraries, school and childcare liaisons, collaborative projects.

Much as we have Web 2.0, we need to have Library 2.0. Libraries have to move beyond their walls and become libraries which are in people’s homes, in people’s lives. Repositories of information and collaboration, which are then given wings and sent out to the world, only to fly back in  when people come together to share ideas, help each other, encourage a love of literacy and language, and celebrate the written word.

The wheel’s still in spin, but it’s an exciting time to hold on to the rim and see where it takes us.

or so sayteth DECS

but I never really “got” that. I understood that teaching was my calling. I felt, with every single part of me, that my calling was to work with children, and to lead them to a love of reading and learning and imagining and exploring, but I never thought of myself as inspirational, until one night, with an off the cuff comment, in a small business in suburban Adelaide.

You see it all came about from one parent, who said something to me once, in a corridor, and it changed me and the way I view the importance of what I do.

I teach reading skills, after school, to small groups of kids. I started at my place of employment as a “side job”- something not too intrusive, that I could work at while my little ones were small.  My eldest son started  attending this centre at 4 ½, as a pre cursor to starting school.

He’d been experiencing fine motor difficulties, and listening difficulties, and participating difficulties, and I had hoped that one hour, once a week of “Listen to the nice lady and do as you’re told” might be good preparation for school.

Said nice lady and I got talking, and she asked if I would be interested in undertaking some training in the reading program she was teaching, and in working a few hours a week after school. That’s how this phase of my teaching journey began – simple enough.

Undertaking that training was the end of a 4 year career break, and the start of a new phase for me. I learnt a lot about the program I teach. I learnt new games, techniques and ideas. But I learnt something much more.

I watched child after child come in for reading tuition. I watched timid children, sullen children and smug children all file in to be “filled up with learning”. What I saw was a lot of different coping mechanisms. Children who were coping by retreating and not wanting to be heard. Children who had tried to make themselves heard and failed – and who were quite cross as a result. Children who had decided that they weren’t going to learn this anyway, so what was the point, and by the way, teach, did you know I know HEAPS of stuff already?

In the initial phases, the timid ones cried a little and looked for Mum, but learnt that it was ok to have a go, and that even teachers make mistakes, and the main thing is to keep trying. The sullen ones slouched, but got on with the job, and allowed themselves a little grin when they saw the sticker and the bright pink “FANTASTIC EFFORT!” scrawled across the bottom of the page. The smug children took pride in being the only ones in Ms Brown’s class who knew that “those were called vowels, and every word has to have one”.

And as the terms went on, and their successes grew, I learnt something else. I learnt that it’s not just empty rhetoric, this “power of positive praise” stuff.  I learnt that you can, in fact, make a HUGE difference in an hour a week, and that the successes in reading can inspire success in other areas. This brings me to the point of this ramble – the corridor talk.

To my eternal shame, I remember every word this man said, but not his face, and not whose Dad he was.  I’d like to cover up that shame by saying I’ve worked with close to 1000 families in my 14 year career, and how could one possibly remember them all?, but that would just be bravado.

Regardless, after a lesson, I was approached by this gentleman, who asked if he could speak with me a moment. “Of course” I said, leading him into the corridor, with people coming and going all around us. Fearing he may be unhappy about some small slight, I braced myself for criticism.

 

“I just want to thank you” he said, quietly, “for working with my son. I was never much good at reading at school, and it’s really held me back. I saw him not getting it either, and that’s why I brought him here. You’ve made a difference to his life. I can see he’s going to have way more choices than I did, and I just wanted to say thank you.”

 

And as I stood, with a quiet tear on my cheek, and watched the boy smile up at his Dad as they walked away, I got it. That, right there, is why I do what I do.  That’s why I’m here.

I’d heard all the speeches before, the inspiring poems, the plaques, the coffee mugs that the children give you at Christmas with “NUMBER ONE TEACHER!!” On some level, I had thought that, maybe, one day, a child might remember me fondly and think about “the time in Year One when Miss Lucas read us the story about the whale, and then the very next day, a whale was in Sydney Harbour, and how did she KNOW?”, but I never thought I was making an impact, right here, right now.

I never really understood it until that moment. I never grasped the profound importance of what I was doing each and every time I showed up and stood up and shared little pieces of myself along with the program I was teaching. I never really felt like I was making a difference – until that night.

Building or Barn?

Anyone remember when Julia and Kevin had the great idea to kick start the economy and revitalize schools by throwing $16.2 billion their way?

How about the $2.4 billion to support the  effective integration of information and communication technology (ICT) in Australian schools in line with the Government’s broader education initiatives, including the new national curriculum?

If they are too far in the past to recollect, perhaps the recently announced $1.3 Million of funding from the Australian Government for the National Year of Reading 2012 campaign at the Literary Awards in Canberra?

There is but one small problem with all this – where the BER funds have built new libraries, more often than not, they’re staffed by the under-skilled, underpaid, under prepared SSO’s. Not librarians. Clerical staff. Who more often than not wear more than one “hat”, and who usually have no vested interest or passion for the field of information literacy.

The recent parliamentary enquiry into the role of  teacher librarians within schools highlighted what a difficult spot we are in. That we’re needed is in no doubt – the international and Australian based research shows time and time again that schools with teacher librarians experience a higher degree of success in numerous areas across the board.

The committee heard the voices of teacher librarians, course co-ordinators, principals and numerous other interested parties. They all indicated that schools with teacher librarians play a vital role in educating the next generation of globally aware, media savvy learners.

The role of the teacher, and more so the teacher librarian, is increasingly becoming “How do I find GOOD information?” and “How do I determine the good from the bad?”. No longer is our role “holder of knowledge” which we pass out, a piece at a time. Now, more than ever before, teacher librarians are like gate-keepers, standing as a guide, to help students navigate the tricky world of information overload, in a way which doesn’t curb their wonderful curiosity.

Why then, with all this information- knowing that teacher librarians make a difference, knowing that we’re needed more than ever before, and with these wonderful new buildings to work in – are teacher librarians in such perilous times?

Undervalued by parents, students, staff and fellow professionals. Budget cuts. Shortage of courses. Aging practitioners. Lack of good “PR” from teacher librarians themselves. The reasons are many, but the solution is simple.

Teacher librarians, both current and emerging, need to brand themselves as indispensable.

Are we going to allow the new BER buildings to be glorified barns? Places where the same sheepish carbon copy children file in and out, to use the Internet to access a list of sanitised and pre-approved sites, without any attempt to think outside the box, to access the hidden web, to utilise data bases – to stretch their wings and take flight?  Will the library become nothing more than a house of books and computers? The onus is not solely on the system to change, but for us also to be the change we wish to see in the librarian world.

With 2012 being the year of reading, with the parliamentary enquiry fresh in people’s minds, the time is now! They have built them, it’s up to us to come.