Sunday, April 15, 2018

There’s No Room for “Priceless” in My Advocacy

I’m rather disappointed by something that was shared with me online over the weekend, and that thing is a particular Libraries Transform campaign Because statement that apparently was voted the best submission to a National Library Week contest: “Because screen time can be pricey, but storytime is priceless.”

At first read—and that’s how the Because statements are meant to function, as quick and impactful points that hit home without requiring much though—it probably reads just fine. After all, yay, storytimes! Right?

Wrong. Let’s unpack.

This statement is at best an oversimplification and extension of false dichotomies that have been plaguing conversations in youth librarianship about how best to serve children and their families in our current landscape, which unequivocally includes technology. At worst, it’s outright exclusionary of the children and families whom we serve and who depend on devices for their very existence.

See, when we make statements like these, whether we intend to or not, we’re setting up a binary: in this case, with devices and storytimes at two opposite ends of a spectrum that has values of “pricey” and “priceless” respectively. The human brain is evolved to sort and categorize according to broad values, and so these sorts of binaries typically feel like they just make sense. Either/or, good/bad, strong/weak feel natural. The world makes sense.

Guess what? It’s a trap! Our brains have evolved to sort and categorize, but the categories we’ve ascribed as opposing ends of a spectrum are nothing more than social constructs. (We’re having more conversations recently about how binaries are false; if this conversation feels new to you, please take some time to research constructs of binaries related to gender, race, wealth, etc. It is your job as a human who works with other humans to do this work.) The reason this becomes problematic really quickly is that these constructs can typically be boiled down to two opposing positions: one thing has no value, and the other has all the value.

So let’s think about this Because statement recognizing that its syntax is deliberately constructed to have us ascribe zero value to one thing (i.e., devices) and supreme value to the other (i.e., storytimes). (If you don’t think that’s how this particular value dichotomy works, I submit to you the incredibly successful MasterCard campaign of yore.) This construction sets up a relationship in which inherent value is the bottom line descriptor. Storytime is inherently valuable and devices inherently valueless.

Value can be many things, but every interpretation here is reductive and false.

Devices cost money and storytimes are free, and we all know free is better than costly. What a ridiculous value judgment completely devoid of any realities of socioeconomic status or class.

Devices require a threshold for participation (cash, tech know-how, etc.) and storytimes are for everyone. This particular interpretation of value is complete and utter nonsense because storytimes are not for everyone. Do you offer storytimes in English? Your storytimes aren’t for non-English speaking families. Do you have storytimes only during weekday work hours? Your storytimes aren’t for children whose families work. Do you have behavioral standards for children who participate in your storytimes, and ask the “disruptive” ones to leave and try to come back another time? Your storytimes are demanding conformity to particular cultural norms and excluding children whose norms may be different. “Different” does not equal “worse,” but that’s the relationship this binary implies.

Devices inherently have potential personal risk and storytimes are universally beneficial. I call crap. On the one hand, there are many, many uses for devices that are outright ignored by those who like to articulate in every library forum they can find the same tired talking points about “what we don’t really know about technology and kids and so you’re a bad librarian if you use technology.” Once again, do your own research about the ways in which devices—in particular assistive devices, but devices generally—can and do positively impact the lives of children in our communities. On the other hand, to suggest that storytimes are always beneficial is utter nonsense. I read and hear all the time about librarians who share in their storytimes materials that deal in stereotypical representation of people of color, exclude any mention of persons with disabilities, show only one type of family (heteronormative), celebrate the traditions of only one culture (typically Christian), and otherwise diminish the histories and experiences of the very people gathered around our storytime rugs. Children who do not see themselves represented in storytimes—and in particular those who see their experiences excluded, negated, or denigrated—are not reaping the supreme benefits from storytimes that we like to think we’re providing. Rather, we may be causing more harm than early literacy goodness. Intention doesn’t matter.

Devices are bad and storytimes are good. This binary gets me the most annoyed because of how our own internalizations of bad/good get passed on to the kids and families we serve as though they were universal truths. If something is bad, and you use it, the implication is that you are bad. If something is good, and you use it, you are good. This easy use of the transitive property leads to straight-up shaming of parents and caregivers who are legitimately doing their best by their kids, all because their kids have touched an iPhone. Is one of your library goals making parents feel like they’re failures because of what they do with their kids, or because of what their kids do (or don’t do) in the library? Probably not, but by ascribing descriptors that translate to “bad” or even “not good” to broad tools like technology does just that. We shouldn’t assume we know how parents and kids are using devices, and ascribing a clear “bad” descriptor to them is both presumptuous and unnecessarily judgmental.

No matter how you’re opting to interpret pricey vs. priceless, this Because statement doesn’t tell the full story and in all likelihood perpetuates myths and behaviors—about both devices and storytimes—that negatively impact the kids we’re meant to serve.

Stepping away from the reductive values interpretations, there’s still the problem of why we’re even comparing storytimes to devices in the first place. They are not in a shared category to begin with, with storytimes being a service and devices being a tool. If there’s any relationship here, it’s that devices can be a tool to support the storyitme service—not that they are in the same category.

Let’s leave behind the false dichotomies readings here and finish with the worst case scenario of what this Because statement asserts: that devices have no place in storytimes, and so children and families who rely upon devices of any kind have no place there either. I have colleagues who can and do speak to this topic with more eloquence, expertise, and experience than I can, and once again I encourage you to seek out reputable resources should you find yourself needing some professional development in this area. For here, suffice it to say that this Because statement is essentially saying that children and their caregivers who depend upon assistive devices to communicate, participate, cope, and live are not welcome in storytimes. That’s disgustingly ableist.

Look, I get it. It’s catchy phrasing, and I’m hopeful that those who composed and promoted this Because statement didn’t mean to perpetuate unhelpful dichotomies or to exclude families who use assistive devices. But intention doesn’t count for anything in these conversations, no matter how pithy an advocacy statement may sound. Statements like this one only serve to oversimplify important issues deserving of real consideration and research, or to judge and alienate those children and families we’re mission-driven to serve. I don’t have room in my advocacy toolbox for that kind of thing.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Hands-on Learning & the Future of Learning

Libraries are at a juncture right now--a sort of identity crisis, if you will. Many libraries are reporting downward trends in circulation and other traditional output metrics. Yet many libraries are also seeing upticks in programming, gate count, etc.--indicators of participation in library spaces beyond materials use.

Libraries are using this juncture as an opportunity to assert ourselves as spaces for other valuable community resources, too: as hubs of democracy, as community hubs, and as learning centers, among other supplemental brandings. At ALA Midwinter’s Symposium on the Future of Libraries last weekend, I convened a panel of four librarians who, in our varied roles within varied institutions, have been thinking specifically about that role of libraries as learning centers. We shared what we’ve been thinking about learning in the public library. Today I’m sharing my perspective from my vantage point at my library.

At Skokie, we have age-specific program coordinators in our Learning Experiences department who operate on a level between the management team--who sets the strategic direction and goals--and the front-line programming staff, especially those in the youth and adult departments. It’s the program coordinators’ responsibility to translate the library’s programmatic objectives into practically implementable program strategies and offerings. We do this by taking the goals set by the management team above us, combined with knowledge we have about programs and attendees from the front-line programming staff, and figure out the best way to implement our institutional goals into programming priorities.

Based on what we’ve seen in program interactions in the past few years, what we’ve heard from our community, and what we’ve learned through our own explorations into the scholarship of learning, we’ve identified hands-on learning as a major priority for how we’re approaching learning-focused programming. Educational research points to hands-on learning as a successful strategy for facilitating meaningful learning at any age; in many educational communities, you’ll hear the phrase “hands-on learning is minds-on learning.” We’re taking what we’ve learned about hands-on learning and defined our focus broadly as workshops and opportunities that facilitate skill acquisition, practice, and ultimately creation. Hands-on learning is a core lens through which we’re considering, developing, and implementing educational programming options across all ages. If the library’s strategic goals and objectives are the bright light of a flashlight, hands-on learning is a lens that refracts that light into three key colors--or, in our case, three modes of thinking about hands-on learning.

Our first mode for thinking about hands-on learning is intentionally facilitating skills acquisition and application. We’re thinking a lot about how we can move beyond one-time exposure to a skill and better support patrons in creatively applying the skills they learn. Behavioral scientists call this moving from a task being “explicit declarative”--where you have to actively think about every step of a skill in order to execute it successfully--and moving to a task being “implicit procedural”--the type of thing you can execute and apply without much conscious attention. A great example of this in our library is our ongoing Be the Chef program series, a hands-on cooking class that incorporates simple cooking skill practice as well as following and executing recipes. Think about something like knife skills--that’s a perfect example of a discrete skill, and one that you really have to concentrate on when you first learn it. With time and practice, however, knife skills become just another skill in your overall toolbox. Participants no longer have to concentrate so hard on using a knife, and instead are able to apply their skill to larger projects. They’re able to do more and do things creatively because of a foundational skill they’ve acquired and refined.

Our second mode for hands-on programming is offering multi-day sustained learning opportunities--or more specifically, boot camp-style programs. These are multi-day programs on consecutive days that allow a smallish group of people--typically 12-16--to learn some basic skills, then put those into practice through guided challenges. For a robotics boot camp, for example, day one is about setting the stage with the basics: what is coding, what is the language and platform we’re using, what are the robots or objects we’re programming, etc. We spend that first day learning the foundations and taking baby steps putting it into practice. Then on day two, and sometimes day three, we really dig into those basic skills and creatively apply them in pursuit of a design challenge. It might be battle bots, or it might be robot races, or it might be creating a choreographed routine for a robot to follow. Whatever the challenge, it’s rooted in building sequentially on the basic skills. Multi-day sustained learning allows us to achieve deeper, more meaningful learning outcomes than traditional one-off programs, too, in which it might be days, weeks, or longer between when a patron comes to a program to learn a skill and when they ultimately have the opportunity to return and put that skill into practice. Multi-day boot camps build sequential learning over time into the fabric of the program.

CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, Skokie Public Library
Our third mode for hands-on learning is providing ongoing, facilitated access to equipment and supplies. This goes beyond traditional programs with finite learning goals and start times into the realm of staffed spaces like makerspaces, STEAM spaces, or DIY spaces. Whenever possible, if we’ve offered a class, a workshop, or an initiative centered around a particular skill--and especially a specific piece of equipment that the library has purchased--we’re going to think about ways to support patrons who dipped their toe into that skill in continuing to practice and apply their learning in a setting that works for them. With a program like Open Sew, for example, patrons who attended a Sewing Basics program--or even those who have basic sewing skills but no machine, or it’s been a while since they used a sewing machine--those patrons can come to our open hours with the sewing and embroidery machines and use the equipment. There’s always a staff person present who can help troubleshoot and give basic guidance, but really these types of facilitated learning times are about allowing patrons to practice, refine their skills, apply what they’ve learned to make discrete projects or to be creative. Open Sew becomes a hands-on learning opportunity where one patron is sewing a hem on a skirt, another is starting to piece together a quilt, and another is looking to talk to peers about sewing machines and simple projects.

These are the three modes of hands-on learning that we’re applying to our program offerings at my library--the program coordinators’ interpretation of what we can offer when we consider both institutional goals and the learning needs and interests of our community. I’m looking forward to applying the lens of hands-on learning as we think about our next round of programming.

How are you thinking about learning in your library?