Virtual Visits with Authors & Illustrators in the School Library

Digital participatory culture provides us with opportunities to collaborate and communicate across the globe. For the past four years, I have been Skyping authors in my school library with 4th grade students. I am amazed at the willingness of authors to share their time and talent with my students.

This year, I asked both the author and illustrator of Giants Beware to virtually visit with my students. The author, Jorge Aguirre, and the illustrator, Rafael Rosado, were willing to share the process of collaborating on their graphic novel which has been nominated for the Texas Bluebonnet Award (a state award for books chosen by students).

Students asked interesting questions while Rosado created a live graphic picture on his iPad , signed and dated it, then emailed it to me immediately after the session. We decided to use Google Hangouts this year because we wanted all three of us to share live video (which is free and easy on Google Hangouts). My school library is in Texas, Aguirre lives in New Jersey, and Rosado lives in Ohio.  A LIVE virtual visit across the U.S. was exciting for the students and a great example of global participatory digital culture.


5th Grade Game Designers in the Library

A group of 5th graders joined me in the library learning loft after school this past semester to work on a gamification project. Because Project Based Learning has been emphasized in academia as a way to promote real world learning in the 21st century, the goal of our tech club was to conquer a real need that students have in today’s digital culture: understanding the responsibilities of digital citizenship and cyber safety. My role was to provide the space, the technology tools, and to facilitate the learning experience, but the project would be totally developed and designed by 5th graders.

The Project Began

Since I have a background in virtual worlds and machinima, I was comfortable with building in 3D and shooting video inside a game world. However, I had never played Minecraft and wanted to be sure the students understood the educational purpose of our club. Parental permission and school district approval were first and foremost before the students could begin work.

Initial problems

Because this was the first project in a virtual online game at my school (or that I am aware of in my school district), I needed to get support from administration. I was given the okay to use MinecraftEDU rather than the regular Minecraft game most likely because the “edu” clearly focuses on a collaboration of educators. After receiving approval from my principal and district administration, I was given a purchase order for a classroom set of Minecraftedu game licenses to use with up to 25 students.

I was already aware that Minecraft is currently a very popular game with children because the icon on my desktop caused a constant chatter in the library for weeks before the club began. “Hey, look- she plays Minecraft!” was heard in almost every class- even kindergarten. I decided to hide the icon rather than tell the students that only a small group would be able to take part in the Minecraft project.
Although I consider myself a tech savvy librarian, am comfortable in a variety of virtual worlds, and have embraced Web 2.0 and multi-media tools, I had a difficult time getting the server up. A private server would assure that students would not run into strangers. During the busy school day, I tried several times to host the server but never could get in and began to worry that we would not be able to get into the game on the first day of the Minecraft Club. My first student entered the library after school that day and together we had it running in less than five minutes, which led to a blog post on the concept of digital natives.

Critical Thinking Skills

Watching the students work in Minecraft validated my research in virtual worlds. This next generation of young adults will be quite ready to utilize 3D immersive learning and will not find it as complex as the generation ahead of them. It was amazing to see how quickly the students built homes and buildings and it confirmed the idea that there is something innate in humans that makes us want to create.
Although the students were immediately engaged in creativity, I found my role as teacher imperative to this project. The students needed guidance in identifying an educational topic that would clearly focus on an essential driving question. After the first few club meetings, the students agreed on the need to help younger children learn digital citizenship and cyber safety. The challenge for the project was to design a game that would help students understand those concepts in a fun and immersive way. Once this driving question became the challenge, the students took off building a maze inside the “Budder Library of Digital Citizenship”. Game design came naturally to them as they built levers to open doors when questions were answered correctly.

Students as Project Leaders

Since I had very little experience in the game, the students were empowered as leaders and felt they were teaching me. They had no idea that I could film inside the game (using machinima capture software) but one boy showed me that he has a Youtube channel and films inside the game himself using Bandicam. I thought I was a pioneer in 3D learning and was humbled to see a ten year old boy film machinima easily.
Another boy asked, “Do you know what a griefer is?” These students understood griefing and other gaming terms and taught me the user-interface (how to teleport, text, etc) with excellent explanation of shortcuts. I overheard them joking with each other about trolling which led to discussion about being good digital citizens in practice not only theory.

Our project took place over just a few months but I am proud of the accomplishments of my 5th graders in that short time.

The Students Graduate to Middle School

Whether or not this project continues to grow, I know that I learned as much from this experience as my students did. As they leave for middle school, I know they are hard workers and they understand taking personal responsibility for digital citizenship. In an ever-changing world of digital media, the future is in good hands.

Take-Aways from the King of Information Literacy in Schools

I was honored to introduce Mike Eisenberg at the Texas Library Association Convention 2013 in the exact same building where I saw Elvis Presley! I was just as excited to hear Mike as I was to hear Elvis. So I introduced him as the King of Information Literacy because he truly is a champion for teacher librarians.  Here are a few take-aways from a leader in teacher librarianship who is always innovating and continually evolving in the information age.

Embed information literacy learning opportunities
A teacher librarian can utilize online spaces alongside physical spaces. As we transform our physical libraries with flexible collaborative seating areas, we can also share tools for creating user-generated content. We can infuse high quality, credible sources into courses and curriculum. I had to rush off after Mike’s presentation to present on a panel about that very topic: Embedded Librarianship. (See my presentation below which validates his perspective.)

Embrace Wikipedia!
Currently, the top three information sources in the world are Google, Youtube, and Wikipedia. Let’s embrace them! The first “go-to” sources are a great place to start but not always the best or the only source for the problem-solving process. As information professionals, our role is to teach critical evaluation as learners face a flood of incoming information daily. For years, educators have been reluctant to allow students to cite Wikipedia but the accuracy of the content continues to prove to be as reliable as most print resources. Students today demand convenience and real-time access and the time has come to shift our thinking from the resources to the process of deep thinking and self-assessment (personal responsibility for learning).

Offer consultation-coaching services
Through wikis and online spaces, we can offer both synchronous and asynchronous learning opportunities to teach information literacy. Librarians today can be available physically, virtually, digitally, electronically, and even through augmented reality and mixed reality venues.  My elementary library is evolving into an exciting physical space that embraces new media and information literacy in all formats.

Thanks for a wonderful session, Mike, even if you didn’t sing Jailhouse Rock!

 (click below to see my school library/learning lounge-loft.)


Golden Traits of 21st Century Learning

21st Century Learning

That’s one of the phrases I keep hearing – along with “user-generated content” and “participatory culture”.  Yes- the old hierarchy ( I know you are tired of hearing me say this!) has toppled.  We can’t trust “the media” because information comes from the bottom up now, instead of from trusted published and peer-reviewed authority.


So,  my top priority as a teacher librarian today is teaching responsibility for critical evaluation of media and teaching what the ALA standards call “a disposition in action”.  This includes curiosity, a personal quest for meaning, ethics (they are not dead!) and an appreciation for all genres- surprise! literature is alive and well.

This makes us ask, what  is the difference between these new 21st century standards and the traditional standards for learning throughout the past centuries?

Well….the old standards valued the linear timeline of acquired knowledge and skills. The new GOLDEN traits for the future are adaptability and flexibility.  After over 20 years experience in education, I can attest to the importance of these traits today because every time I get a new skill down pat- version 6.7 comes along and I have to start all over. 

Listen to this tip (I repeat),  if you want to succeed as a learner in the future:


The golden traits of 21st century learning are adaptability and flexibility (assuming you actually want to learn).

I am irrelevant, therefore I matter

Lately, due to the push for educators to embrace 21st century learning and TECHNOLOGY (caps intended), I have felt my career as a librarian (what a quaint, out-dated and adorable word) has made me irrelevant.  I have become an example of my own philosophical “theory of opposites”- which I hope to write about one day, once I finish spending all my time learning and writing my dissertation. Just kidding- we are never done learning.

I am an example of my opposites as a truism because the moment I admit my irrelevance…I somehow seem to matter.  The more I learn…the more I realize I know nothing.

I opened a school library in 1990 and have watched the slow evolution, or should I say the sudden snap, as we close “the Gutenberg Parenthesis”.  The gigantic dictionary in my school library (it must weigh over 12 pounds) causes kindergartners to turn their heads, gasp, and ask “what is THAT?!”

That gargantuan, once respected, object is irrelevant and is only kept on a display stand as a relic.  The death of “the dictionary” is symbolic of the end of the high regard for the printed word as king of meaning.  One might agree with those who feel that the printed word was overrated all along.  The authors of books, for goodness sake, are people.  Each human being is both extremely important and ultimately expendable.  Any media format may hold important information, entertaining information, aesthetically pleasing information, or be full of nonsense- and there’s a place for that, too.

So…I join those who struggle to live on the other side of the Gutenberg Parenthesis, particularly because (as a librarian) my profession was based on the prior hierarchy.  My 20 year (plus) career has been wonderful and now I stand on sand that is slowly blowing away under my own feet.  I am in awe of that!  How lucky I am to witness it.  I saw it coming and I am already standing on firm digital ground.  But…I still secretly love the smell of books.

Thomas Pettitt on the Gutenberg Parenthesis from Nieman Journalism Lab on Vimeo.



Crowd Sourced Ebook

As I build a global professional network, I am grateful for the opportunity to meet colleagues (mostly virtually but sometimes physically) who struggle with the same obstacles in this fast-paced techno world. Having recently read and posted about the pessimistic outlook for the future (Nicholas Carr, Sherry Turkle, and James Gleick- all excellent reads), it is refreshing to collaborate with others who are hopeful about teaching the next generation of learners.  Two school library media specialists, Kristin Fontichiaro and Buffy Hamilton, are currently working on a crowd-sourced ebook for school  librarians with the goal of seeking best practices for 21st century learning.  I submitted a chapter proposal on virtual worlds in libraries, which is just one of the possibilities for new literacy formats.


What an intriguing example of new and exciting publishing opportunities! Writing, along with all traditional communication formats, is changing.  In my school library, I am currently presented with the opportunity to teach writing strategies with 4th graders.  I hope to share with them the excitement of new and innovative writing opportunities but also remind them of what all good writers have done in the past: write about what they know, what they are passionate about, take risks and try new genres, and revise, revise, revise.


With digital formats, like digital storytelling or blogging, revision seems different than with a pen.  The idea of digital revision is new territory.  I think watching the crowd-source ebook grow and change online is an example of taking a risk in a new form.  Collaborative digital revision-  I like that!

Library Treasure Boxes

I have a collection of tiny boxes in my library. Some small wooden boxes, some made of stones or shells, a tiny lacquered fairy tale box and some nestled boxes. I don’t remember how I began collecting them- maybe because I also make origami treasure boxes with students.


I put a quote on the topic of reading or books inside each box. I don’t tell students about the boxes, but quite often a student will discover them and ask about the little notes inside. I explain that the library is like a great big treasure box full of hidden treasures. I tell them they are welcome to open and read all the quotes in the boxes – but to please put them back.

The library as a treasure box may be my favorite metaphor. There are others, such as the garden (Ranganathan says the library is a living organism) which must be cultivated and weeded in order to grow and thrive.

I think what is appealing about the treasure box metaphor is that a surprise is waiting- hidden. At the door of the physical libraries of the past, the patron entered with an understanding that the highest level of understanding was somewhere nearby waiting to be discovered.

As we move toward searching online for our “information treasures”, the metaphor is dissolving. There is no physical container. There is no treasure box. There is a neverending list of hits- some relevant, some surprising- but all fluid and fleeting.

One may argue that the fixed idea (treasure of meaningful information whether fiction or nonfiction) was simply an illusion. Physical treasure boxes (and buildings) decay and disintegrate. Meaningful ideas changes and evolve. While we humans are alive, everything, both concrete and abstract, is in a state of change- being born, growing, withering, dying.

To believe in the meaning inside a treasure box is to believe in the magic of the moment.  I can remember believing in that kind of treasure as child… reading in a library.

Human-power or Algorithms?

A recent article suggests that human-powered searches may be on the increase due to social network sites.  The author argues that human beings can provide better search strings (more relevant or meaningful) than searching by keyword algorithms and lead information seekers to the best websites.  That seems logical, especially with the move toward user-generated content and a “push” instead of “pull” attitude toward information.  I repeat what I have said before, “the hierarchy of information has changed.”  But what, I wonder, about authority?  As a librarian, I have always valued the best in literature, the best in reference sources- the most accurate and reliable–not necessarily the most popular.  Will human-powered searches and social networks lead us to the best?  Does the cream rise to the top?  I am hopeful, but not sold on the idea that it will happen.  I guess my doubt springs from the observation that most social sites value entertainment over education.

This week, in my school library, I had a student hold up a World Book encyclopedia.  I told the class to take a look because I will never be ordering an encyclopedia again.  The words came out of my mouth before I realized what I was saying.  I am working inside a beautiful space that is dissolving and changing right before my eyes.  As fascinating as it is to watch, I am left with a question about librarianship in the future.  I wonder if Google would offer me a job.

Skype Visit with an Author

My students thoroughly enjoyed a recent Skype visit with author, Lisa Graff.  Her novel, Umbrella Summer, is nominated for the Texas Bluebonnet Award and students across Texas will vote for their favorite book in January 2011.  I used music from Creative Commons and posted the video on Schooltube.  The experience was extremely well-received, so I plan to utilize Skype again with other authors or special contacts.

Skype Tips:  Be sure to prepare questions ahead of time, so students will be ready for the Skype session.  Test the Skype connection before students arrive, to avoid technical problems.  (Actually, we crashed because I forgot to unplug my document camera and plug in my webcam!  After rebooting the computer, it worked perfectly.) Ask permission before taking pictures or video.  Thank the participating author or individual for taking time to communicate with students.