Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Reflections on #NTAC13-New Tech Schools Annual Conference New Orleans

After missing NTAC 2012 due to the birth of my daughter, I felt a need to make up for lost time regarding my New Tech schools background knowledge. In particular, since I am stepping into the role of literacy coordinator this year, my number one priority for the conference was freshening up my skills in that department.

After years of cultivating an image as a 'techie' librarian, this new 'literacy' title is both a homecoming and a fresh identity. The main reason for my new professional focus is my disillusionment with education technology. When I adopted the techie label, I truly believed that tech integration was the number one need for reaching students and facilitating learning. Now, I just see technology as a tool, not a panacea. It's become part of everyday life and the education landscape for better or worse, and its something we education professionals must understand and adapt our instruction accordingly. The big downside of ubiquitous tech and constant online connection is that most students let the cloud serve as their brain. As a result, I see a decline in inquisitiveness, weaker problem solving skills, and lower attention spans for literacy tasks, which brings me to the rest of the story.

The best thing about conferences, is meeting people that practice in the same field. NTAC is full of great people and I met many literacy coordinators and English Teachers that helped me prepare for the role. However, I was very sad (and a bit worried) to discover few Library/Media Specialists in the sessions. In my 3 days at NTAC, only one person I met was a fellow librarian and this was in a session about using books for building bridges. She was the presenter of that session, and I found it to be among the most enjoyable of the conference.

In other sessions about literacy, I learned some terrific classroom strategies for developing thinking and writing skills related to literacy. However, I couldn't help feel that something was missing.

What traditional librarians (ideally) bring to the table is an orientation toward reading promotion as well as a focus on information literacy instruction. Literacy Tasks as defined by the New Tech Network are generally focused on writing. While literacy and writing are strongly connected and the practices I see employed by literacy coordinators are sound and effective, I see a lack of an emphasis on information literacy, which is basically the ability to locate information and determine whether of not it is reliable information. Information literacy is an umbrella term for a giant subset of skills that includes many New Tech outcomes such as critical thinking, real-world tasks, persistence, work-ethic, and much more.

If we truly want our students to thrive in the complex information universe of the Internet, we will have to demand more of them. This means asking students to locate reliable information on their own and use the information in a practical way. This goes beyond 'text dependent questions' and other literacy strategies.

Information Literacy instruction and PBL are certainly a natural fit. However, there are no easy answers and simple strategies. The best way forward in my view is the bring more of us librarians into the collaborative process of project design! The starting point for this collaborative process is on literacy; the fundamental questions being:

1. How to we get our students to read more and read more complicated and diverse text?
2. How can we wean them off their Googling and scrolling habits?
3. How can we coach students to be skeptical and critical about the information they encounter online?

Of course these questions are by no means the end of the discussion, but I believe we need to ask them when talking literacy tasks.