October was a whirl of a month that ended with a mega storm that swept me off course for a couple of days. I finally feel like I have landed and have some time to pull together some of the big ideas I heard at the AASL Fall Forum, the Institute on Teaching and Mentoring and the Virginia Association of School Librarians (VAASL) Conference. Audrey Church, Gail Dickinson, and Ann M. Martin gave the keynote address at VAASL on leadership. Each provided an overview of their journey and cited theories that had inspired them. Reference was made to Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People that struck a theme tying together one of the big ideas related to collaboration that I have culled from all of these events: Seek first to understand and then to be understood. And a related correlate: when someone else is speaking, are you really listening, or are you waiting for a turn to speak?
The Institute on Teaching and Mentoring, sponsored by The Compact for Faculty Diversity was an amazing gathering of minority doctoral students, mentors and faculty. The purpose of the Institute is “to provide scholars with the skills necessary to succeed in graduate study and to prepare them for success as faculty members at colleges and universities.” Several sessions were offered for faculty mentors, and in one: “The Internationalization of Mentoring as an Opportunity to Challenge Cultural Assumptions” the presenter, Stacy Blake-Beard, Associate Professor of Management at Simmons College made the remark that we should practice “inquiry not advocacy.” Since inquiry and advocacy are two major buzzwords in school librarianship, I was struck by her meaning. Dr. Blake-Beard was talking about cross-cultural understanding and I would argue that this is a productive way for school librarians to approach collaboration with teachers: as bridging the two cultures of the school library and the classroom. Diversity strengthens an organization because it provides for a much richer approach to problem solving and decision-making. Collaboration is different from cooperation because it doesn’t seek to smooth over our differences but rather to leverage these differences. This is particularly important when we are attempting to solve complex problems; and education is a complex problem. As we struggle to create a “culture of collaboration” in our schools, we should first seek to understand (inquiry) rather than to be understood (advocacy).
Judy Kaplan has provided an outstanding overview of the packed AASL Fall Forum on Transliteracy. One of the exercises that we did at our tables led by Barbara Jansen and Kristin Fontichiaro was to brainstorm possible questions that we might use in planning with teachers. Jansen provided the example of asking teachers if they were concerned that a particular assignment might encourage students to copy and paste. Asking this as a question invokes inquiry rather than advocacy, and provides a space for teachers to reflect on the purpose of their assignment and to possibly engage in a conversation about improving the assignment. This question doesn’t require that the assignment be abandoned. It might be that the teachers and librarian would decide to front-load this assignment with explicit instructions about how to take notes, give attribution to sources, and synthesize. Or, the assignment might be altered to become more creative and to encourage students to develop a product that is unique and individual. The question asks everyone to pause and consider alternatives without passing judgment.
Jean Van Deusen (1996) found in her case study of a school librarian collaborating with teachers that the school librarian provided leadership as an “insider-outsider” and that she asked challenging and often naïve questions that provoked thoughtful reflection on practice. As a practicing school librarian, I always took advantage of this position as an outsider to the classroom. I could ask questions like “what does that look like in your classroom?” or “what does this standard mean for second graders?” or “how have you taught this before?” Some questions led to deep discussions about student learning and assessment such as “What does this standard really mean?” “What do we want students to be able to do at the end of this lesson?” or “How will we know they have learned that?” Other questions led to co-teaching or sharing the work of delivering instruction. “Could we do that better if there were two of us? “ “Suppose I take half of your class while you take the other and then we swap?” “Would that be better with small groups?” Sometimes questions helped to integrate instruction. When teachers and I were trying to plan a lesson in science or social studies, I would often ask, “What skills are you going to be teaching in writing (reading, math)? Often I could find a book or other resource that met objectives in two or more content areas.
“Inquiry not advocacy” also suggests that we carefully listen to the answers. Inquiry is about more than asking good questions; it is about seeking understanding from diverse sources. In collaboration with teachers, inquiry involves listening to teachers as they talk about the diverse needs of their students, the meaning of their curriculum, and the nature of their practice. For brand new school librarians, or school librarians who have moved to a new school, this is good news. You don’t have to have the answers and you aren’t expected to know how things are done in this teacher’s classroom or in this school. You can ask the naïve questions and you can spend time listening and observing. Those of you who have been in a school for several years can still take this position as new initiatives/standards/textbooks are adopted, as new teachers join the staff, and as every school year starts anew. First, seek to understand rather than be understood. It’s not only good inquiry, it’s good mentorship, and good leadership.