Too many schools don’t have librarians, but if yours does and you’re not tapping their expertise to teach digital literacy, you’re making a big mistake. Librarians Julia Torres and Lois Parker-Hennion explain why you need them.
Resources and Readings
- American Street by Ibi Zoboi
- Octavia E. Butler
- Dear Martin by Nik Stone
- Stephanie Fallin
- Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
- Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson
- Refugee by Alan Gratz
- Assata Shakur
- The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
- The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
- Facing History and Ourselves
- Google: For Education
- G Suite for Education
- Wikipedia Help:Editing
- Teaching Tolerance: Digital and Civic Literacy Skills
- Teaching Tolerance: Digital Literacy Videos
Monita Bell: I don't think it's a stretch to say that I literally would not be where I am today if not for one of my high school librarians, Ms. Wilson. I was a library assistant during my senior year, and I loved being in the library. I pretty much had free rein to just quietly roam the aisles and dig into any books that caught my attention, when I wasn't working, of course. I really grew as a reader and thinker that year.
During one slow afternoon, Ms. Wilson and I were chatting, and she asked if I had considered applying to Alabama State University. I responded with something like, "Mm, not really." I had already applied to all the schools I was interested in, which were all outside my home state of Alabama. Alabama State was in our state's capital, Montgomery, the same city where Teaching Tolerance is located, about two hours away from my hometown, but not far enough for me at the time.
It just so happened that a recruiter from Alabama State, one of Ms. Wilson's friends, was coming to visit the following day, and she suggested that I speak with her. The next day I did, and I did go on to attend and graduate from the Alabama State University—go Hornets! I stayed in the area to attend graduate school, and then to work. And the rest, as they say, is history.
This is The Mind Online, and I'm your host, Monita Bell. This podcast comes to you from Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In each episode of The Mind Online, we'll explore an aspect of the digital literacy world, what educators and students alike need to know, and how educators can guide students to be safe, informed digital citizens.
The library is where I developed my identities as a reader, a writer and a researcher. As Rafranz Davis discussed with me in Episode 4, "Digital Literacy in the Classroom," librarians do more than check out books—they become a lifeline to resources, whether it be digital, active, community or whatsoever. We definitely need those roles in schools to help support this learning with teachers and students.
Julia Torres: Because the types of things that we are telling them they need to read are usually canonical works that they don't identify with, so students have come to associate reading with pain, with testing, with something that is compulsory.
Monita Bell: You're going to hear from two librarians today, Julia Torres from Denver ...
Julia Torres: If someone had put Octavia Butler in front of me when I was in school, if someone had put Assata Shakur in front of me, my whole life would have changed, my whole reading life would have changed. And so one of my goals, as an English teacher and as a librarian, is to make sure that happens sooner.
Monita Bell: ... and Lois Parker-Hennion from Orangeburg, New York.
Lois Parker-Hennion: In the beginning, we were a little bit distrustful of Wikipedia, and we'd tell students they couldn't use it for research. Then we started saying, "Well you can use it for research, but you have to go to the sources that the writer used." But now, we're really looking at how students can actually edit Wikipedia articles, and be part of that process.
Monita Bell: First, my talk with Julia Torres, co-founder of the popular initiative Disrupt Texts, whose passion for reading and literacy, as well as some serious creativity and ingenuity, led to her new role as a teacher librarian.
Julia Torres: My name's Julia Torres, and I am the teacher librarian here on the Montbello campus in Denver Public Schools. I'm a librarian for Strive Prep, for the Denver Center for International Studies at Montbello, and Noel Community Arts School. All three schools are located on one campus. The shared campus model is something that we're seeing frequently. We've got about 1700 students in the building, and so I'm the librarian for everybody.
Monita Bell: Okay.
Julia Torres: Yeah.
Monita Bell: Am I correct—this is your first year as librarian for Montbello, right?
Julia Torres: It is. Yes. We haven't had a library for the last eight years. At the end of last year, they had been working on getting the library back for a while. It was exciting. It was really exciting. I designed the programming. Together, with the director of library services, we came up with this plan, and then the community supported getting the financial piece together, and the board members support it as well. It took a lot of people and a very long time to make this happen, but it finally happened.
Monita Bell: What's the story behind why there was no librarian for eight years?
Julia Torres: Schools in DPS can decide to opt into library services or not. Basically what happened in our building is that folks, for a variety of reasons, did not opt into library services. The library physical space was here, but nobody could check out the books, nobody knew how to check out the books. The students just stopped really using it. Some kids would come and take books, but I would say that the majority of students were just like, "When is the library gonna be open back up again?" I got that question a lot as an English teacher.
Monita Bell: Wow.
Julia Torres: What we're seeing in a lot of schools across the country, especially secondary schools, is that librarians, as they retire, are not getting replaced. Then we're also seeing that schools are not opting into having library services.
If people really did an in-depth research, and many people have in the library world, about the disappearance of secondary libraries, I think they'll see some shocking statistics.
Monita Bell: I would just love to hear your thoughts on the importance of the school librarian. Why is it important to have those roles in the school?
Julia Torres: In my experience, I've worked with sixth-graders, and they're just coming out of elementary where there's a lot of reading programming going on. They love to read, and they self-identify as readers very readily. But then as we get into the older grades, I'm noticing that students, by ninth grade, most will tell you they don't enjoy reading. Then in 10th, 11th grade, it gets even worse, because the types of things that we are telling them they need to read are usually canonical works that they don't identify with, a lot of them are not culturally relevant, especially in my environment, and so students have come to associate reading with pain, with testing, with something that is compulsory, not something that they had a lot of choice or enjoyment in.
Then they also have feelings of shame around how fast they can read, and this comes from a lot of the testing that tests people's reading abilities, and then spits out numbers, which is something that's controversial, I think, because it's easy for a student to look at the tests, see no value in really trying to get some type of number, and just doing whatever. I've had students who have Lexile levels. They'll come out with a Lexile level that's in the 1300s under some conditions, and then rush through the same test and get a Lexile level in the 600s or 700s under other conditions. I would really question the reliability of some of these reading tests. Then also the types of passages that are on the reading tests.
Monita Bell: Transitioning now into the topic of digital literacy, what do you see as the school librarian's role in educating students around digital literacy?
Julia Torres: I think it's really important to make sure that our students understand argumentative writing, but then also research skills, evaluating resources, and then what a web footprint is. What's a digital footprint, what does that look like, what kind of footprint are you leaving? That's what I'm working on right now with students in the building. We are doing research skills with 11th-graders because as a result of not having a library, we also don't have consistent media literacy or research skills taught. I'm getting 11th-graders that have no idea what MLA is, or how to do a Works Cited page. They've never heard of that at all.
Then understanding how to evaluate sources, because many people will just, when they're asked to do research, they'll pull something from the first page of a Google search. They don't understand the importance of being able to look at a page and pretty quickly go through a process of evaluating whether it's quality, whether it's reliable, whether it is going to be useful for research, and then what is the validity of the author. Those are the types of skills that I'm really helping them learn, and then this whole piece about web safety.
I think that some people consider safety to be protecting them from realities of life that belong to our students in our most marginalized communities. It's their daily reality. It doesn't do them any good to pretend like it doesn't exist. I'm talking specifically about things like police brutality, and issues around class and race that people in other communities choose to protect children from.
Monita Bell: Right. From school to school, from district to district, the situation with the library can really look completely different. What I hear you saying is that your role is really also providing some consistency across the school and the education that students are getting around citation and research. Do you see that?
Julia Torres: Absolutely. Yeah, so I have a menu of options on my library website, and people can come into the library to do the media literacy piece. They can come in to do a structured language arts unit around theme, or author voice, or something like that. Or the third choice the teachers can opt into is doing a series of lessons to help nurture that reading identity, that reading life. I see my role, of course, as providing consistency, but also supporting teachers and students in those three areas. I see that as my primary role.
Monita Bell: What do you think are the best ways for teachers and librarians to work together when it comes to educating students around digital literacy, and what you see as the best practices, so to speak?
Julia Torres: Yeah, I would say that for digital literacy, we are helping students to learn how to evaluate web resources, and then how to negotiate the gigantic amount of information that's available in this digital world. How do they learn who they can trust, and what entities they can trust and who's trying to get their attention via this webpage for commercial purposes? Then also how are their opinions or biases being swayed or manipulated? Those are important things.
Then of course, always looking at that digital footprint. What type of personality do you have in this digital world—which is new, right? Because when I went to school, it didn't exist. There was no such thing as a digital footprint really, and there was no such thing as this other Julia who exists mostly in the digital world, and people are formulating opinions about her, and thinking that they know her. Then how do you make sure that your personality and the way that you show up in the real world coincides with what you're portraying yourself to be in this digital world? Then how are you interacting with folks and negotiating that space and consuming? We want students to think of themselves as producers of the content, but then also consumers, and looking at that through a critical lens.
Then another way is I think that teacher librarians can support teachers in broadening their ideas of what is worthy of academic study when it comes to literary text. We always want to cultivate and curate collections that will appeal to a wide audience. I don't want to just have things in my collection that are things that I would want to read, but I also need to not be censoring the things that children read so rigidly that I am only allowing them to see part of the world. Teacher librarians can really support teachers in having a wide variety. I'm always asking teachers, "What do you think we need in the collection?" Then asking students, "What would you like in the collection?"
Monita Bell: Oh, I love that. You're doing both. Yeah.
Julia Torres: Because I can even get a class set of Class Matters, a digital set of that, that we rent for the year, if a teacher wants to do that. Then the students can access it on their Chromebooks. Or I can get, I have the art teacher wanting me to have a set of books about graffiti art, and there are ways that I can do that, but we have to open up our ideas about what is worthy of academic study, and then also I think expand the notion of teacher librarian as just somebody who checks out books for kids, to somebody who helps everybody on campus have a really rich relationship with words and text that's varied and diverse.
Monita Bell: I like the way you were talking about the personality that you cultivate online. I don't usually hear people talk about it that way. Will you say a little bit more about that, and what you're doing as a librarian to help students think about the personality that they're nurturing online?
Julia Torres: Yeah. We do have portfolio requirements for our ninth- through 12th-graders, where they're collecting their best samples of work throughout their school experience so that at the end of high school, they have a portfolio of all of the great pieces that they've done. The schools that I serve on campus are grades six through 12. That offers students and myself a really good opportunity to see what your personality as a scholar, but then as an individual, looks like throughout grades six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12. How have you evolved?
Of course, some of the kids will look back now at some of the things that they produced in sixth grade, some of the seniors will, and they have ideas and opinions about it because the world has changed a lot. But when we think about a digital footprint and a digital personality, I think that it's important for folks to capture the evolution of themselves as thinkers, as learners, as people, but then how do your beliefs show up in what you're producing online. That's important.
Monita Bell: Yeah, yeah. You're also echoing something. I spoke with Matthew Johnson of MediaSmarts in Canada, and he was talking about this concept of a holistic K through 12 digital literacy education, which we haven't been thinking about it in those terms. A lot of times, we start thinking more about it in middle and high school, but when we get young people from early on, so consistently throughout K to 12 be addressing these concepts and issues. I think it's gonna have kids thinking at younger and younger ages about their online behavior, and how that is documented.
Julia Torres: Yes, I think so. I think it's really important to take seriously and leverage the audience that one might generate because right now, our students are really drawn to people who have these intense YouTube Channel personalities, or—
Monita Bell: —Or Instagram.
Julia Torres: Instagram personalities—yeah, they're really drawn to that. But then the question becomes, what are you using that audience for? Is it commercial purposes, are you changing the world, are you encouraging folks to think differently about maybe intellectual or academic activism?
There are students I know who have started nonprofits, there are students who are doing great things in the world using the internet and using the audience that they cultivate. But it's getting students, I think, to really not just be consumers of whatever is out there online mindlessly, but to critically evaluate what they're seeing and what they're consuming, and then look at their role in terms of production.
Okay, so I want to do something about the fact … I'm a student, I want to do something about the fact, for example, that we haven't had a library at my sister's school for a really long time. I am going to develop some sort of way of impacting that situation using the audience that I might cultivate online, but then also making sure that I show up in a way that is conscious of the fact that there are other viewpoints, and mine is just one. Maybe I'm contributing to a larger conversation.
Teenagers do tend to be very self-centered. That's, as you know, part of their maturation process. It's hard for them to really see that they are part of a continuum, they're a part of a larger picture. It's good and bad, right? It's really good for them to have a sense of self, and to have developed their self-interest. But then it's also really important for them to understand that there are other folks who are doing work that could help them, or that could support whatever their aims or goals are when it comes to changing circumstances in their world.
That's how we get into other conversations about sharing power. How do we leverage digital literacy to share power with students in a way that helps them to enact change in their world?
Monita Bell: We're talking about how you're engaging as a digital citizen in digital communities, and the responsibilities you have when you share things, or when you say things. Also, the power you have to make change through what you're producing online. It's all just wrapped into one, and I love that you just spelled all that out. Thank you for that.
Julia Torres: Thank you for bringing it all together. Sometimes I feel like I just ramble quite a bit, but I'm really glad that you are making sense of my ramblings, so that's [inaudible 00:18:30].
Monita Bell: No, no. It came full circle. It really did. I think it's something that certainly with our Digital Literacy Framework and this podcast, and just the work we do that we want to be bringing these things together and having people think about, because it's not isolated things. They're not separate from each other. They're all connected. You just illustrated that excellently.
Julia Torres: Thank you. Thank you. I think about that quite a bit myself because on the one hand, I have so many interactions on Twitter, and I have to take a step back sometimes and say, "Okay, this isn't real though." But then the question comes up, maybe it is real.
Monita Bell: Yeah. It's like, isn't it? Isn't it?
Julia Torres: It is real to a certain extent.
Monita Bell: Yeah, yeah.
Julia Torres: Those questions of what is real and what's not, how real is it, how much is it a part of your actual life and how much do we have maybe these separate lives that are existing in parallel or in concert? That's all something that's relatively new, that we are negotiating and figuring out alongside our students, which I think is really exciting.
Monita Bell: Right, and really important to acknowledge. Nobody has all the answers. In many ways, we have the same challenges. We all share these challenges of living in an increasingly digital world, like sharing an online life, and to recognize that. Yeah, a lot of things we are having to learn right alongside our young people, and that's okay.
Julia Torres: Yes. I think that's really humbling and important for all educators, not just teacher librarians, but everybody to understand is that I think we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to feel like we need to be the experts, but sometimes our students do know a little bit more about how things work than we do. For example, the psychology of likes and retweets and shares and doing the deep dive, and finding you can do some interesting things, back channel on some of these platforms. We don't always think that way because I think as part of a different generation, we're much more grounded and rooted in interpersonal relationships in the real world than we are in the digital world. That's where we can leverage some of their experience only knowing both worlds to try to learn from them.
Monita Bell: Right. Yeah, and tap into their creativity as well.
You were also talking a few minutes ago about one of your roles being to work with teachers, to help their students interrogate the literary canon, the traditional canon, which is directly related to your work with Disrupt Texts. I would love for you to just talk about Disrupt Texts. What is that and how do you think its aims might overlap with the aims of educating students to be critical, informed digital citizens?
Julia Torres: I am one-fourth of Disrupt Texts, which is a hashtag and a Twitter chat, that began with folks submitting through a Google form that Tricia Ebarvia created. They wanted to look at some texts that are taught throughout schools. Then Lorena German, and myself, and Kim Parker, and Tricia had had some conversations on the side. The four of us came together and decided that we were gonna facilitate this chat, this online space for folks to talk about the literary canon.
What has emerged from that is that we have this periodical chat that emerges, where folks can sound off about ways to look at our canon critically, to intervene, to disrupt, to think about the fact that the canon has remained white and male, predominantly white and male for so long, and how that is affecting our children, especially given the fact that our students are increasingly not white.
If we call ourselves people who are going to be serving our students, then we really have to make sure that we are meeting their needs, and that we are doing things that are going to be culturally relevant. We've got to make sure that we are not relying on the tried and true, but we are opening up the door for other texts that may have not been considered.
For example, and I always like to go back to this example for me. If someone had put Octavia Butler in front of me when I was in school, my whole life would have changed, my whole reading life would have changed. If someone had put Assata Shakur in front of me, my whole life would have changed, my whole reading life would have changed. But I came upon her much later in life.
One of my goals, as an English teacher and as a librarian, is to make sure that people are exposed to texts in which they can see themselves reflected linguistically, culturally, ethnically. My goal is to make sure that happens sooner in life, and not later.
Another thing that happens a lot is that we flatten people's cultural and ethnic identities. If you are Native American, then every story has to be about spiritualism and the ancestors—when we know that the experience of being Native American today is multifaceted, and it is as complex as any other identity. Flattening that by only putting certain texts or one text in front of them, and for the students ...
Monita Bell: For the stories of the past, and not the present.
Julia Torres: Yes. That is really problematic. That's really what Disrupt Texts is about, is looking at that anti-bias, anti-racist lens, looking at canonical works through that lens, but then also disrupting our notions of what is considered literary canon, or what should be considered literary canon.
I'm overjoyed that these days, folks are considering books like Dear Martin, like The Hate U Give, like Long Way Down, like Piecing Me Together, like American Street, like Refugee. They're looking at these other books that have traditionally maybe been sort of written off as young adult, and therefore “inferior.” They're thinking of ways to include those in curriculum. That is exciting to me because kids are responding really well to those books.
Monita Bell: They are. They really are. Yeah, it's an exciting time for literature.
Julia Torres: It is. I'm overjoyed. I was able to teach The Poet X and Long Way Down in my English classes. The response from the children was like nothing I've ever seen before.
Monita Bell: Thank you for laying down what Disrupt Texts is all about. How would you connect that work with the work of educating students to be good digital citizens, informed?
Julia Torres: You know, I think there's a lot of power when we open up the world of what students are able to access, either through reading books, literature, or through reading pieces that can be paired with that literature, such as essays, op-eds, various pieces that we find online. I think that there's a real opportunity there to open up their world, especially if, for example, you are teaching students in a rural area, and they don't have a lot of access to people who aren't like them.
Interestingly enough, students in urban schools struggle with a lot of the same structural issues that students in rural environments struggle with. That's lack of resources, and then there's not a whole lot of mixing of people from different background and groups who would be able to come in and offer different viewpoints.
I would say that one of the ways that this looks is often they will be discussing a text that we read, and we have to coach the kids about not just saying, "I agree because ... I agree because ... I agree because," 'cause a lot of times when you have students who come from similar backgrounds, no matter what the background is, they are gonna tend to agree with each other. Encouraging that ability to recognize diverse perspectives or other perspectives to respect them, to try to understand where the other folks are coming from, that encourages empathy, and that has the power to change the world.
The books themselves, of course, can encourage students to explore worlds that are not their own and to almost peek into another reality. But then when we look at the world of digital literacy, and all of the power that teachers and students have to find other voices that will add to the conversations that are happening around the texts, that's really important. Teachers will go out there and find all kinds of things to support learning about other viewpoints than those that originate just from an author's voice in a text. Remembering too that it just doesn't have to be an article that pairs with a text, but it can be a podcast, it can be a YouTube video, it can be a Twitter stream.
I met somebody on Twitter. She was amazing, a professor. Her name is Stephanie Folling. I asked her if she would be willing to Skype into the classroom. She did. Did a little lesson with my kids. It was so great. That was a whole full circle thing, and the students were able to read her Twitter thread and everything. It was fantastic. That's another option for bringing the online world into the real world.
Monita Bell: I know Shana White has done a lot of that, bringing people in that were literally ... They can see another person. They can hear another voice and actually have that person be in the room.
Julia Torres: Yeah, Shana's work is really important. I think that being able to look at the world critically, but somehow it results in empathy rather than judgment, is really powerful.
Monita Bell: Yes, yes. I talked with her for the podcast too, so I'm just so excited.
Julia Torres: Yay.
Monita Bell: Yes.
Julia Torres: Awesome.
Monita Bell: Yes.
Julia Torres: I'm honored to be able to share that space with her.
Monita Bell: You were just speaking a lot about the fact that not all schools have libraries, or librarians, or budgets for libraries. What would you say are the primary equity issues when it comes to good digital literacy education? What are some ways we might mitigate those issues so that all of our students can get free?
Julia Torres: I think the most important thing is that communities need to know whether they have secondary libraries or not. They need to find that out. Parents need to ask questions because, in suburban schools, no one's gonna take away the library completely, number one, because parent involvement looks a different way. Parents in my community are often disenfranchised intentionally, perhaps unintentionally. I think that's a distraction trying to cast blame anywhere. What we wind up with is a situation where if you don't inform people by meeting them where they are, then they're not gonna know what's going on in the school.
It can't be about, they don't check the newsletter that's posted online or they didn't receive the email. People need to be met where they are, and most often people are in social media spaces, but also a lot of people respond well to an actual face and a visit. Then board meetings. A lot of people don't know about when board meetings are happening. They don't attend them. I'm not speaking specifically about my community because we have great involvement from community members. They are a primary reason why this library exists. But in other communities, I know for a fact people are disenfranchised because there may be people who are in a Tigrinya-speaking population or an immigrant community, and nothing comes out in the language that they speak. Ignoring the fact that we've got people who speak a variety of languages, not just English and Spanish, is problematic.
We often don't bring information about what's going on in schools to parents where they are. That's problematic. Then also I do think sometimes that schools want to rush decisions through without taking the time to inform all parties, or sometimes the opposite happens and so many cooks are in the kitchen that nothing can get done. We really need to do better about striking a balance there.
First step is to find out whether you've got a secondary library in your community. That's especially urgent for people who are teaching, living, working in urban school districts, or rural. Second step is to find out if you do have a librarian, are they well versed in what it means to have a culturally relevant library space? Not in an accusatory way, but just asking some questions about the collection, looking at the oldest title in the collection.
Just because you have books, doesn't mean that those books are of interest to the students. Curating a culturally relevant current collection is really important. Then making sure that it's representative because we know that publishing has not been inclusive or representative of a wide variety of voices. That's something that we can only do so much about. What we can do is find the voices and the authors that are representative of a variety of lived experiences, lived realities and cultural backgrounds—and then putting those books into our libraries.
Then the third step, of course, would be to get the students. We need student advisory boards that say what they want in their libraries, and then we also need for students to advocate for using the library. Have book clubs, have library programming that does fun things, have maker spaces, have authors come and visit, do field trips to go see movies that come from book adaptations. Those are important things that will get students invested in having reading lives, and in having library programming, and the space that is for them.
Monita Bell: That was Julia Torres, one-fourth of Disrupt Texts, and the teacher librarian for Denver Public School's Montbello campus. Now a quick break.
Did you know that Teaching Tolerance has other podcasts? We've got Teaching Hard History, which builds on our framework, Teaching Hard History: American Slavery. Listen as our host, history professor Hasan Kwame Jeffries, brings us the lessons we should have learned in school, through the voices of leading scholars and educators. It's good advice for teachers and good information for everybody.
We've also got Queer America, hosted by professors Leila Rupp and John D'Emilio. Joined by scholars and educators, they take us on a journey that spans from Harlem to the frontier west, revealing stories of LGBTQ life that belong in our consciousness and in our classrooms. Find both podcasts at tolerance.org/podcasts, and use them to help you build a more robust and inclusive curriculum.
Next up, my conversation with Lois Parker-Hennion, an esteemed member of the group of educators who advise Teaching Tolerance on our work. When she's not doing that, she oversees the library at Tappan Zee High School in Orangeburg, New York. She tells me that, even in a school like hers, in which every student receives a Chromebook, she wants teachers to understand how important library instruction is.
Lois Parker-Hennion: My name is Lois Parker-Hennion, and I'm the library media specialist at Tappan Zee High School in Orangeburg, New York. We're a high school of about 1100 students, we're about 16 miles northwest of New York City. I've been here for 23 years, and I teach library and information skills on a flexible schedule, and I oversee the library.
Monita Bell: Twenty-three years. Wow.
Lois Parker-Hennion: Yeah.
Monita Bell: That's awesome. I also just want to point out, for folks, that Lois is also a member of the Teaching Tolerance Advisory Board, which is made up of K through 12 educators, as well as folks who work in schools of education. They're chosen for their exemplary work in education.
In the 23 years that you've been in this work, how have you seen media literacy education change?
Lois Parker-Hennion: I would say when I started, students were still using a lot of print resources for most of their research. They could access digital information—I used to have a CD-ROM tower behind my desk that I had to change, I think weekly, with new periodical information. I was teaching students how to use the microfiche reader-printer, which I'm really dating myself when I say that.
Monita Bell: Ooh, you are taking me back!
Lois Parker-Hennion: Of course, teaching students how to find information in mostly books in our online catalog.
Then eventually I started teaching students how to find information on online databases, and then a few years ago our district started using Google Apps for Education. Now I teach students how to save articles and citations right into their Google Drive, so it's really easy for students.
At first, the online encyclopedias were very much like the print encyclopedia. They were just digitized. But then Wikipedia came along and that kind of changed everything. In the beginning, we were a little bit distrustful of Wikipedia, and we'd tell students they couldn't use it for research. Then we started saying, "Well you can use it for research, but you have to go to the sources that the writer used." We advised them to just use it for an overview, but now we're really looking at how students can actually edit Wikipedia articles, and be part of that process.
Monita Bell: As a librarian, would you say that your job has become more complex? Just how would you characterize it?
Lois Parker-Hennion: I would say it's much more complex. We used to have students doing note cards, and standing up and making a speech, maybe using a PowerPoint slide. Now things are more interactive and students are creating YouTube videos, they're going on StoryCorps, they're doing educational videos, they're creating games, creating their own blogs. They're really interacting more with material.
In the library, for example, the students make book trailers that are included in our library catalog. Someone looks up a book, and they can watch a book trailer done by one of their peers to tell them what the book's about, and to try to sell it to them.
Monita Bell: Oh, that's cool. I like ... yeah, that's a cool idea.
Lois Parker-Hennion: Yeah. I think students are being more creators than they were in the past.
Monita Bell: How has this change over the years affected the way that you teach or engage with students?
Lois Parker-Hennion: I think we've always been talking about critical thinking skills, and getting kids to analyze things. But I think in the Google world, it's very easy for them to find facts, and they'll have five resources, but all five resources say exactly the same thing. So when they have to go beyond that and go a little bit deeper, it's difficult for them because they're not using books, they're using that first article that they find. Getting them to dig a little bit deeper and go beyond that surface information that they find in a Google search is one of the challenges, and one of the things that I try to teach students.
Monita Bell: What would you say are some obstacles to fruitful collaboration between librarians and teachers? Have you had conversations where you try to convince a teacher to maybe, "Let's get them in a library for A, B, C?"
Lois Parker-Hennion: Yes. I think one of the things that's paving the way for me, and I'm just gonna do a little plug for Teaching Tolerance's Digital Literacy curriculum, is that there's so much out there that's ready to go. I don't have to reinvent the wheel. There are an abundance of resources, Checkology, which is the new media literacy project, Facing History and Ourselves has some lessons. Depending on what their curricular area is, I'm sure we could find something that is almost ready to go, and then we can adapt it. I mean teachers always adapt things from other lessons that they find.
But I think the biggest obstacle in our district is finding time because teachers are feeling overwhelmed 'cause they keep changing the standards, and they change the Regents Exam. Those are realities that our staff has to deal with.
Monita Bell: Is there a time … I'd like you to think specifically now. Is there a time when you experienced a really fruitful collaboration, and students who were able to get all the things they needed, and the teacher was able to do what that teacher needed to do?
Lois Parker-Hennion: Yeah, I had a great collaboration, and we're still doing it. We'll do it again this year with one of our English teachers. We started to work on a wellness unit. We're integrating grammar, and all the things that an English teacher wants to teach kids, but around wellness.
Students were allowed to pick any topic related to wellness, and we gave them a little bit of background information, and we did a few exercises, a few meditations, and a few things just to tell them what makes a student feel well. Getting kids maybe away from their screens for a minute to take a breath and calm down. It was just delightful, 'cause it was a research component which was my main involvement. One student did therapy animals and they actually brought someone in.
I think we have to think of information as both digital and also reaching out to the community and resources that are in our community. It's not just what they read on a screen, or what they view in a video, it can be a real life person coming and talking about their area of expertise.
Monita Bell: I really love that example because like you were saying, you were able to emphasize the research skills, but it can be part of this full spectrum of learning. I love it. That's great, and you got the community involved.
We were talking earlier about the things that have changed. Can you think of any other things that it's like, "Okay, well this is not something we really had to think about before, but it's something we really need to focus on now"?
Lois Parker-Hennion: Probably 20 years ago we weren't really thinking about hate speech online as much. That's a component.
One of the things I've been thinking about lately, because I just showed the video, was Cory Collins' video about hate speech online and how to respond.
Cory Collins: In 2013, a teenage girl named Trisha Prabhu had a simple idea. What if she could stop the perpetrators of online bias and harassment by giving them a second chance?
Lois Parker-Hennion: Our district is talking a lot about empathy, and kindness, and trying to get kids to get off their phones, and have a conversation, and make contact, and shake hands with someone, say hello.
Cory Collins: Your digital footprint is forever and often public. Think of it like a digital tattoo forever inked on your forehead. Is this something you want your employers, friends, family or law enforcement to see?
Lois Parker-Hennion: That carries over to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, even the text messages, and having kids understand that when you can't hear the nuance in a person's voice, or see their gestures, or see their face, a lot of things can be misunderstood.
Cory Collins: Look, it's tempting to make prejudice messages with equally personal and insulting replies, especially when it feels like no one is listening. But research from the Dangerous Speech Project suggests that using a friendlier, more empathetic or peaceful voice can help deescalate an online conflict.
Lois Parker-Hennion: One of my colleagues in our middle school, she just did a unit where she had the kids. She showed them a meme that was Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones. She said it was someone else, and they picked that up right away. Then she did some sneakier ones, and then she had them create their own untrue memes and true memes to see how easy it is to create a meme that has untrue information, and how to search the information and find out what's true. I thought that was a great lesson that she's doing with the middle school students.
Monita Bell: That's important. They'll hopefully retain that down the line no matter what their future job or career may be.
Yeah, is there anything else you would like to share with our listeners? This is a chance for you to just pump up librarians.
Lois Parker-Hennion: Well, I just think that librarians can play such a key role because that's our game, is information, access, locating, evaluating, analyzing. And we're paying attention to how this digital landscape is changing. With the help of Teaching Tolerance and the other great organizations who have resources out there that we can learn from, and that we can share with others.
I just want to steal the mission statement of Teaching Tolerance [which] is that we want kids to play an active role as citizens in our country, a diverse democracy.
Monita Bell: That was Lois Parker-Hennion, the library media specialist at Orangeburg, New York's Tappan Zee High School, and a member of the Teaching Tolerance Advisory Board.
Thank you for taking the time to join me for this episode of The Mind Online, a podcast of Teaching Tolerance, which is a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. I'm your host, Monita Bell, senior editor for Teaching Tolerance.
This podcast was inspired by the Digital Literacy Framework that Lois was just telling you about. It offers seven key areas in which students need support developing digital and civic literacy skills, and features lessons for kindergarten through 12th-grade classrooms. Each lesson is designed in a way that can be used by educators with little to no technology in their classrooms. The Digital Literacy Framework and all its related resources, including a series of student-friendly videos, a professional development webinar and a PD module, can be found online at tolerance.org/diglit, that's tolerance.org/D-I-G-L-I-T.
This episode was produced by Jasmin López, with help from Dan Boyce and Lucy Huang. Our production supervisor is Kate Shuster. Teaching Tolerance Senior Writer Cory Collins assisted with the writing.
If you like what you’ve heard, rate, review and subscribe, and share with your colleagues and friends! When you share on Twitter or Instagram, use #teachdiglit.