25 May 2011

Just model it.

We recently ended the Faculty Collaborative at Champlain. This annual event brings faculty together for three weeks to have conversations we've been vying for but for which we never have the time. Anyone that has met me or worked with me knows how much I love things like this. Nothing feeds my soul more than listening to and participating in conversations about our students, our teaching, our curriculum, or our institution. I am one of those people. I love it.

As you might expect, one thing that came up a lot was our students. Faculty expressed a drastic increase in their frustration over a lack of curiosity in our students. And a lack of reading. It's no question that reading habits have changed over the course of all Americans but particularly young people in the last decade or longer. TV, computers, texting, video games. There's a lot of ways to entertain yourself. "Back in my day", my dad would walk in the room if we were watching TV and turn it off, no matter what was on, and tell me to go read a book. I did and here I am, a librarian and avid reader. There doesn't seem to be as clear a way to get kids to read today. My husband and I have paid a lot of attention to the literature about early childhood development and reading. Hence, our daughter gets at least one book a day (more like five) and she is only four months. But, I digress. The point I want to make is that there seems to be a shifting tone to the conversation. A tone of great concern and of disappointment and shock. One professor suggested locking all the students' cell phones in one room and forcing them to the stacks to read. I smile even as I write that down.

I don't think there is anything new here in terms of adult incredulity at student learning or student interest or student apathy. But I do think we are facing a change in terrain. I suggested to faculty that they neglect to realize how much reading students are doing. Just a reading of a different kind. I credit my friend and mentor, Rob Williams, for pointing this out to me when I taught an online class. When I shared my assignments with him he reminded me how much reading and writing students are doing on discussion boards. Or how much reading they are doing just to attend the class. He pushed me to make the readings I do assign more essential, more vital.

Today, we had a candidate for our librarian position field a question from a faculty member on this topic. The professor asked how we can get students to take their position as student more seriously. The response from the candidate was that we need to make a case for reading, for books, for whatever we want students to read. We need to be compelling rather than admonishing. I agree but I also think there is a component that is missing there. We need to model the behavior. We, as educators, talk about and know the value of this in writing. My 15 year old niece was just telling me how she wished she were a better writer and I immediately responded that to achieve that goal she should read more. She immediately went on to say that she hates to read but I reminded her that she doesn't have to read fiction. She can read magazines, newspapers, history, science, sports writing....whatever it is, she should read more of it. Turn off the TV, I said, and read anything of interest in any format but pay attention to how its written. If you like something in particular, try to write in a similar fashion. Model it.

And that, to me, is a fundamental need that is often overlooked. In libraries, in the classroom, modeling the behavior and the type of questions we want to see from students provides essential scaffolding to their learning those skills. If we want students to ask questions in a new way, let's stop asking them questions in the same way we have always done. If we want students to try new things, experiment, and get comfortable in new information environments, I think we have to ask ourselves if we model that behavior. One thing that Champlain librarians do exceptionally well is communicate the amount of fun we have helping students find information. And that invites students to have fun with us. But I wonder what behaviors I expect from students that I don't model.

What ways do you model "good" behavior? What strategies do you use to engage students that brings results?

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