Everything I needed to know (about business information literacy instruction) I learned in kindergarten (Guest post by Amanda Kraft)

Mr. Roger's 'neighborhood trolley' toy train

Amanda Kraft is the User Experience Coordinator in the Research & Instruction department at the College of Charleston (CofC) Libraries and serves as the subject liaison to the CofC School of Business and the Computer Science department. She earned her M.S. in Library & Information Science from the College of Computing and Informatics at Drexel University in 2013 but has been working in libraries since 2011 with experience in PK-12 and higher education.

I’ve been at the College of Charleston for about a year and a half, but whenever I’m introduced to a new faculty member or library colleague, they always end up asking where I worked previously. Generally, my answer depends on who I’m meeting and how long of an explanation I’m in the mood to provide. This is because my last, most recent position was Library Media Specialist and my last workplace was a PK-5 elementary school in rural South Carolina. Before my stint in the public school system, however, I spent approximately five years in college and research libraries (specifically, at my undergraduate alma mater’s library and a satellite campus of a local community college), so to avoid weird looks and unnecessarily awkward first impressions, I often tell new, curious people about my scholarly and academic work experience when they are trying to get to know me professionally—unless, of course, I suspect they might actually appreciate my unique career path. 

Last year at SOUCABL Conference, I was talking to Celia Ross, author of Making Sense of Business Reference: A Guide for Librarians and Research Professionals, about active learning strategies and pedagogy in general, and she suggested that I write something about how being an elementary school media specialist positively affected my ability to teach research and business information literacy. So, here it is. Here’s how my two years teaching kindergarteners, and the rest of the 800+ PK-5 students enrolled at my former school, made me a better academic business librarian.

Also, because I saw the new Mr. Rogers movie over the Thanksgiving break, this article includes a suggested soundtrack. Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood was my favorite PBS Kids show to stream in between highly impactful classes on library manners and the parts of a book, so each of the lessons I learned is paired with a fun and educational song. Enjoy, neighbor.

Time management is hard for everyone.

And by “everyone,” I mean educators of all kinds. If you teach in any capacity, chances are you are expected to do a lot of other things within a limited amount of time, regardless of how many classes or consultations you have scheduled. In the PK-12 world, this can mean teaching five to six classes back to back—and then, setting time aside to write next week’s lesson plans, complete book fair and other acquisitions and accounting paperwork, order (or reorder) books for your students and teachers, repair books and devices that your students (or teachers) destroyed, weed the collection, design creative summer reading packets, and draft authoritative yet kind overdue letters, etc. If you’re an academic business librarian, this means teaching and meeting with business and finance students and faculty in between irregular department and committee meetings all while trying to create and maintain library guides, develop both the print and electronic collections, and publish instead of perish. Oh, and then there’s all of the emails

We all do the very best we can for our students and faculty partners, but not all of us are comfortable taking time for ourselves—not even to eat lunch on especially busy days. Self care is something I learned to do, albeit not very well, as a library media specialist. You have to do it in order to survive in public schools, and I would highly recommend it in higher ed. This includes the basics, like getting enough sleep at night and eating (nutritious) food away from your desk and various devices, but it also includes breaking up your day with a walk around campus and, perhaps most importantly, walking out the door when you’ve put in your time for the day. Honestly, I’m still working on that last one.

Daniel Tiger (DT) Song Suggestion: “Take Your Time and Do It Right”

Assessment, or it didn’t happen.

Now that we’ve acknowledged all of the hats that we wear—or, at least, most of them—we can talk about classroom instruction, which in an ideal world, wouldn’t actually happen until instructional goals and entry behaviors were identified; institutional analysis conducted; performance objectives written; and criterion-referenced tests, instructional strategies, and materials developed. Instructional design snobbery aside, the most important thing I learned as an elementary school media specialist was that overall learning outcomes, as well as specific learning objectives and strategic learning activities, are necessities. Assessment isn’t just some tortuous, tedious thing that you are required to do in order to prove how busy you are.

In PK-12, statewide and national standards are required as the basis for every lesson plan, and you are expected to make the students aware of them as well. (Seriously, school district evaluators will walk into your classroom completely unannounced and pull students aside to ask what they are learning and why.) This is super fun for media specialists as they are tasked not only with embedding timely classroom curriculum standards into their lessons but also creating, and submitting for review, measurable learning outcomes through synthesis of the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) Standards Framework for Learners and the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Standards for Students (all while considering ISTE’s Standards for Educators, of course). Fun times, indeed.

While not exactly a prescriptive practice, the efforts of academic librarians are usually expected to align with their library instruction program’s learning outcomes as well as one or two or three of the ACRL Guidelines, Standards, and Frameworks. Regardless of whether or not they’ve actually taken the time to draft achievable learning objectives for each class they teach, one-shot and otherwise, academic business librarians put a lot of time and energy into information (and digital and data and algorithmic) literacy instruction, and they’re pretty damn good at it. However, as many academic and research librarians who are smarter than me have been writing for at least 15 years, we are not so good at assessing our work. Mostly, we’re terrible at analyzing and sharing data we’ve collected. But honestly, in my brief experience, so are school librarians (see the above section on time management). The bottom line is: Assessment is the only way to determine if your plan worked, which presumes there is a plan.

DT Song Suggestion: “Let’s Make a Plan”

Lessons must be planned and practiced.

This is especially true if you are a new academic business librarian without a solid background in business, finance, or a fundamental understanding of the information literacy skills and research competencies required for success in those disciplines or fields.

As I’ve explained above, learning outcomes are essentially plans and learning objectives are the details of those plans. As a library media specialist, I learned to make plans. I also learned to practice, practice, practice—because there is nothing worse than 25 to 30, post-lunch and pre-recess fourth graders staring you down when the directions you slapped together don’t make sense or the Google Slides presentation you so diligently prepared the night before is refusing to play nicely with the Apple TV. I mean, I would be lying if I said that I rehearsed any of my business information literacy classes by standing in front of a room full of pretend undergrads or even a real live colleague. I do, however, regularly do a run-through of relevant database searches before writing out my lesson plans, and whenever possible, I sit in on pitches presented by students. Before that, there’s lots of communication with professors about assignment specifics and potential research topics, vendor demos, and a slew of recorded tutorials to ensure that I’m making the most of my time in the classroom; and really, it could be argued that doing the same lesson, or set of lessons, once or twice each semester is practice.

DT Song Suggestion: “Keep Trying, You’ll Get Better!”

Every class is (or should be) different.

Isn’t it great that we’re all different with all kinds of backgrounds and personalities? It sure makes life more interesting. And in the same way, it makes each and every class that you teach a different experience regardless of how many times you’ve taught the exact same lesson for the exact same course taught by the exact same professor with the exact same signature assignment. When I taught elementary school kids, I had the great displeasure of working within a fixed schedule—despite the AASL’s position on flexible school library scheduling—which meant that each day, for six or seven school days in a row, depending on enrollment at the start of the school year, I taught a different class from each PK-5 grade level every 45 minutes. Often times, early on in my public teaching career, I would start a rotation with one lesson plan and end up with an entirely different one based on how each class or session went. I learned, eventually, that this was a grave mistake leading to harder rather than smarter work.

Because of the well-established one-shot dilemma, differentiated instruction in college and research libraries is a little different but ultimately the same. When I started teaching business information literacy, due entirely to content area insecurity, I was super preoccupied with getting all of the facts straight and disseminating any and all of the information that the students might need to succeed. I only recently started experimenting with a few, simple active learning strategies and flipping the classroom. I also assumed, that upper-level business and finance undergraduates had a basic foundation of library skills on which we could build a magnificent Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Again, I was painfully mistaken. As it turns out, every single (college) classroom is different, and sometimes—especially in “one-shot” situations without a whole lot of faculty collaboration, or even communication—the best you can do is guess where instruction should begin and end, encourage small group or one-on-one consultations, and reflect on your practice in preparation for the next round. 

In short, my “unique” teaching career has taught me that if something you or the students are doing in the classroom isn’t working, by all means change it, but don’t drive yourself crazy trying to right all of the perceived wrongs in the very next class or session. It’s a process with a lot of variables, and you’ll get another chance in another semester with another group of students.

DT Song Suggestion: “It Feels Good to Say, a Different Way Is Okay”

Administrators are administrators.

In PK-12 almost all of the administrators (e.g., principals, assistant principals, instructional coaches and technologists, executive directors, superintendents, etc.) were classroom or special area teachers first and, somewhere along the way, decided they wanted to take on more responsibilities and leadership duties. It’s also nice to get paid more (i.e., make a livable wage, depending on where you “live,” of course) and to not be tethered to a classroom for a minimum of eight hours each day. The motivation to take on more in higher ed is pretty much the same as far as I know’ so when it comes to dealing with the boss, the best thing you can do is put yourself in their shoes and speak your truth—or, at least, provide some insight into your daily experiences—in their language.

While I wasn’t technically “admin” as an elementary school media specialist, I was in a position of leadership. I supervised two, full-time staff members, as well as parent-teacher association/organization and community volunteers, and had to make many executive decisions as the director of the school-wide library media and summer reading programs. I was also the site-level web manager and technology contact to the district office, so I most definitely learned to consider all of the moving parts and parties involved before initiating a potentially tedious or frustrating conversation. I also learned that it is one thousand times better if you approach your administrators with a reasonable solution for everyone (or almost everyone) rather than a single problem affecting you. So, once again, make a plan. Then, be prepared to explain it in a way that demonstrates your feelings but also appeals to someone who may be more distant from teaching and learning and whose job it is to see the big picture. The same advice could be applied when approaching faculty members about redesigning “signature” assignments in consideration of business research competencies.

DT Song Suggestion: “Use Your Words and Say How You Feel”

Asking for help is smart.

When I first started in my current academic business librarian position, I had no freaking clue what I was doing, so I asked a lot of people for a lot of help including my predecessor who was contemporaneously promoted from department head to associate dean when I was hired. In addition to joining BRASS and subscribing to BUSLIB-L, I put in time with faculty, took a lot of notes, Googled a lot of acronyms, and read a bunch, all within the first couple of months. (I also carried Making Sense of Business Reference around with me like a hymnal.) When the Charleston Library Conference rolled around in November, I made it my business to attend sessions led by business librarians and attempted to talk shop over refreshments and at various social hours. Before I taught in public schools, I was not especially inclined towards reaching out—mostly due to the skeleton staffing at my previous places of employment and the hours for which I was scheduled to work—but I quickly learned that I couldn’t do it all. It just wasn’t feasible. Simply put, I learned that asking for very reasonable things (e.g., temporarily standing with a line of students while I use the restroom), from the paraprofessionals that I supervised and the classroom teachers whose students I taught each week, was totally okay.

Furthermore, it’s really inadvisable to go it on your own. Despite the special-ness of business and finance librarianship (see below section on its inherent badassery), there are things you and your colleagues can do to collectively lead in a feminized workplace with gendered workloads. There is basically no way that I could effectively serve as library instruction liaison to the entire business school, provide instruction to various first-year experience and introductory composition courses, and teach my own for-credit research and information literacy course without help from at least a couple of my (on-campus) library colleagues, professional and paraprofessional. Oh, yeah. I’m also coordinator for user experience research and design, which is in no way a one-woman job—or even one that should rest on the shoulders of a single department. My office mates may not be especially practiced in business reference, but in addition to being game for occasionally covering for me at the desk, they are most excellent at giving feedback on my lesson plans and other programming decisions I make.

DT Song Suggestion: “Take a Step Back and Ask for Help”

Perfectionism is dumb.

Perhaps the hardest lesson for me to learn as an elementary school media specialist was that perfectionism is for the birds. First of all, 60-hour work week or not, there’s just not enough time in the day (or enough money in your pocket) to do all of the things. Secondly, as I’ve suggested above, it’ll all change anyway. Hopefully, the lessons you teach and the programs you offer change for the better after you assess their effectiveness (either formally or informally), but you will most certainly make adjustments. I’ll admit it’s tempting to make it “perfect” on the first go, but it’s a trap. In my experience as an academic business librarian, however brief, business and finance faculty are far more interested in how fast you can provide access and instruction than any other factor, so do your best, assess, and adjust. That was my PK-12 mantra (and actual advice given to me by one of the paraprofessional staff members I supervised).

DT Song Suggestion: “Your Best Is the Best for You”

You’re a librarian, because you are trained to be a librarian.

I’ll end with a lesson that really should not have taken a drastic career change to learn: Librarians are teachers, yes, but a special kind. And guess what. Academic business librarians are a special kind of librarian that curate and provide guidance on the use of special kinds of resources to allow students to complete special kinds of assignments that hone specialized skills to be used in their future workplaces.That’s pretty badass.

Because we are so, so special, we need to stick together. This was hard when I was the only librarian at my PK-5 elementary school. But even as one of several Research & Instruction Librarians at the College of Charleston, I’m still on my lonesome as far as business research and information literacy instruction is concerned. But it’s okay, because as Celia Ross writes on the very first page of Making Sense of Business Reference, I am “a trained research professional.” I know what I’m doing and so do my library colleagues—whether they are the next desk over or the next state. They are the folx best equipped to help me grow as an academic business librarian and most likely to appreciate my roots as a library media specialist.

DT Song Suggestion: “You Are Special”

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