16 October 2011

Conversation Starters

The fall conference season is in full swing here. I've been busy the last two weekends with travel and presentations. A few were sessions recycled from previous conferences, but for new audiences. Science teachers want a different bent than librarians, even if the essence of each set of materials is identical.

But I also wanted to do something different with a conference session...something more personal for participants...something to engender the kind of conversation that isn't easy to have with a group of strangers in a one-hour block of time. As much as I hear people rail about how their PD isn't "engaging," I have to tell you that I've been in any number of sessions over the years where people wanted sit-and-get, and left when I provided more "constructive" sessions. Go figure. Anyway, I built an odd duck sort of session this time, never sure if it would sink or swim, and took it out for an inaugural run. I was pleasantly surprised with the results.

We started here:

I'm sure responses would vary with the median age in the room, but let's just say I had the card catalog, Reader's Guide, notecards, and ink pen age group. And this is okay---because as clearly as they could remember all of these things, it was the process that stuck. The most common response was "outlines" as an organizational device for thinking. As much as I remind people that technology is not (just) about the stuff, setting this personal context to drive the rest of the conversation was powerful in its own way.

I used four video clips from Desk Set to prompt the rest of the discussion. I chose the story arc about putting a computer (a 1957 version that nearly takes up the whole room) in the library and its impact on the people working there. These clips were meant to explore the research process further and have participants think about where they started and how they use both analog and digital tools today.

The first clip introduces Spencer Tracy's character, Richard Sumner, as he arrives to measure the library. But the librarians haven't been told why he's there (and he doesn't tell them).
So, the inquiry process starts with developing questions and determining a plan of action. This was tied to standards for students as their starting place. It was also connected to the lifelong takeaway (the "Essential Understanding," if you're a UbD fan) is that asking the right question matters, because that drives everything that comes next in the process.

We then moved on to a clip where the computer has been installed and the librarians have to face off with it. A question that took them three weeks to answer takes the computer mere seconds.
We then dug into the need to search, catalog, and organize. It's the next information literacy standard for students...and the next part of the process. And the computer (EMARAC) does a tidy job of that.

Believe it or not, this section of the presentation engendered the most lengthy discussion. We could have spent the full hour on this idea. Why? Because how you search, catalog, and organize is very personal. Some like post-it notes and mindmaps. Others like Evernote and Delicious. What tools you choose and how you put information together that makes sense for you is very individual---and yet, how many of us have been forced into the "Thou Shalt Have 10 Notecards" box? Also, as we make a shift from the analog to digital age, how do we accommodate students (and teachers) all over the spectrum? I'll talk about this more in upcoming posts.

Which brought us to this question for discussion:
Uh-oh. Our librarians have been pink-slipped. But the third clip shows that the need for the human element arrives in the form of evaluating information. EMARAC looks for information on the King of the Watusi's and finds a review of the movie King Solomon's Mines, as opposed to facts about the king himself. The computer operator types in "curfew" instead of "Corfu," resulting in even more hijinks. All while the librarians watch from the sidelines. We talked about the need for building a functional "baloney" detector within students. Fair Use is embedded with that, as well.

And finally, we discover the pink slips were a mistake. This solves one problem for our heroines, but they're still going to have to make peace with the elephant in the library. But they start to figure it out when there's a question for them about how much the Earth weighs. Hmmm...maybe EMARAC might be useful.
This question guided us to our final standard for students---one requiring them to share solutions and seek feedback. There's not an "either/or" option with technology anymore. But we do have to figure out where the pieces fit and how to use them wisely.

As you might imagine, an hour was a very tight timeline for things. It got rushed at the end. If I did this again, I would definitely look for a 90-minute time slot. I can even see this as being a 3-hour workshop, with plenty of time for table groups to not only explore the questions, but kick around some solutions for their own situations. What bubbled up a lot in the room was frustration with trying to go back and have these same conversations at school with people who aren't interested in thinking about technology, but who are teaching the research process to students. Those are important things to talk about, but we just didn't have the time or capacity.

I would really like to do more of this type of session. It's sort of a middle ground between a regular conference session and the unconference style. It is a structured discussion about some deeper ideas and personal connections, only the participants don't know that's what they're getting. When program descriptions limit you to no more than 25 words, it's difficult to cue both content and format.

I am always a big fan of conferences. Yes, some presentations are awful. (I attended one eye bleach-necessitating one this month. It was so bad, even the presenter's computer fried itself halfway through the session and refused to cooperate any further). Yes, the formats can be a bit stodgy. But I like that people are coming together to learn. In a time of shrinking budgets, fewer attendees are seen at these events. I think this is all the more reason to make the time that we have in these sessions more meaningful in terms of how people can be conversation starters when they return to their schools.

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