Monday, September 19, 2016

Culturally-Responsive Teaching

Reprinted from: -- since I wrote this article (along with my coworker/supervisee Cindy Conley), I think I can publish it on my blog as long as I give credit to ALA's Keeping Up With... online publication.

The United States will become more diverse in the next 50 years, with the percentage of minorities growing from 37% in 2012 to 57 percent by 2060 [1]. This change in population is reflected in higher education, and has implications for academic libraries and the services we provide. Librarians, as instructors and promoters of information literacy, must not only seek to understand the varied cultural backgrounds of their students, but must be responsive to these differences.
The term “culturally relevant teaching” was defined by Gloria Ladson-Billings in 1994 as “a pedagogy that empowers students […] by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes” [2]. Geneva Gay built upon this concept with the term “culturally responsive teaching,” which she defines as “using the cultural characteristics, experiences, and perspectives of ethnically diverse students as conduits for teaching them more effectively” [3]. Underlying the concept of culturally responsive teaching is the assumption of “otherness;” that is, in every society there are dominant ideas defined by the majority population, and those who do not fit into the dominant group are viewed as the “Other” while “the dominant ideologies embody power and influence educational policies and practices” [4]. Efforts should therefore be made to be more inclusive of “Other” students to compensate for this inherent inequality in our education system.

Understand Multiculturalism
Get to know your students, and build an understanding of multiculturalism. “[B]y being aware of the representative languages, cultures, and learning styles, librarians can make instruction more meaningful and relevant to their students’ lives” [5]. In order for our instruction to be as authentic and relevant as possible, “information literacy instructors must become sociocultural literate to demonstrate the uses for research in a variety of contexts” [6]. It is important for librarians to understand that “[c]ulture encompasses many things, some of which... have direct implications for teaching and learning. Among these are ethnic groups’ cultural values, traditions, communication, learning styles, contributions, and relational patterns” [7]. In the same way that teacher preparation programs are looking at better incorporating multicultural understanding in their curriculum [8], library science programs should also consider ways to educate librarians about cultural diversity.

Incorporate Students’ Backgrounds
Use examples in your lessons that reflect the cultural backgrounds of your students [9]. For example, faculty members might design case studies that incorporate multi-ethnic names and scenarios [10]. Similarly, librarians can teach about developing search strategies, identifying information needs, or evaluating authority using sample topics and keywords that are inclusive and sensitive to various cultural perspectives [11]. Furthermore, incorporating students’ backgrounds in instruction is a learner-centered approach to teaching which “places the student at the centre of the learning process” [12].

Diversify Your Teaching Methods
Design instruction that incorporates a variety of teaching methods, including active learning, group work, and open-ended questioning. Students from “Other” backgrounds have different ideas about learning “and respond to challenges in different ways” [13]. Many ethnic groups have different “protocols of participation in discourse” [14]. Some students may find answering questions intimidating because of language barriers, disability, fear of being “wrong,” or other reasons. Encourage students to share their experiences and opinions, but have alternate ways for students to submit responses or questions in order to accommodate different learning styles, abilities, and understandings [15]. Allowing students to work in groups can help support those students who learn better collaboratively [16] as well as allow English-language learners to practice language skills with their peers [17]. Bottom line: good instructional design leads to better student performance for all students.

Scaffold and Set High Expectations
Scaffold learning, and set high expectations for all students. The instructor should act as a bridge between students’ pre-existing knowledge and the next level of understanding [18]. “Starting with small goals and scaffolding upon student knowledge, teachers can create opportunities for students to experience academic success” [19]. Contrary to what some believe, being culturally responsive does not equate with “dumbing down” the curriculum. This misconception is largely due to the disparity between the backgrounds of most faculty and staff and those of the students they teach. “This disparity affects teachers’ expectations for their students’ optimal learning [...] the perceived differences in their students’ attitudes, lifestyles, and social networks define both their work and their responses to students” [20]. Librarians should keep these high expectations in mind in the classroom and in one-on-one interactions with students.

Collections and Programming
Libraries can influence culturally-responsive teaching through collections and programming.  Academic librarians can foster “diverse learning opportunities through culturally relevant library collections” [21] by purchasing works written by authors with diverse backgrounds and containing subject matter that reflects differing realities and perspectives, increasing opportunities for students to encounter views that might be different from their own. Libraries can also sponsor multicultural-themed exhibits and programs that promote diversity. These programs serve to educate students about different cultures while showing the library as a supportive, welcoming place for all students to study and learn.

Among the challenges many institutions of higher education face is their lack of diversity, especially among faculty and staff, as well as significant attainment gaps among minority groups.  Librarians as academics have the power to be “agents of change” and, indeed, have a moral responsibility to support and facilitate student learning [22]. As the “centers of campus” which serve all students, staff, and faculty, and by incorporating culturally-responsive teaching through our instruction, our collections, and our programming, academic libraries can have a significant impact on supporting diversity and student success at our institutions.

[1]  “U.S. Census Bureau Projections Show a Slower Growing, Older, More Diverse Nation a Half Century from Now.” United States Census Bureau. Last modified Dec. 12, 2012.
[2] Coffey, Heather. “Culturally Relevant Teaching.”  Learn NC. Accessed December 15, 2015.
[3] Gay, Geneva. “Preparing for Culturally Responsive Teaching.” Journal of Teacher Education 53, no. 2 (2002): 106-116.
[4] Atwater, Mary M., Tonjua B. Freeman, Malcolm B. Butler, and Jessie Draper-Morris. “A Case Study of Science Teacher Candidates’ Understandings and Actions Related to the Culturally Responsive Teaching of ‘Other’ Students.” International Journal of Environmental & Science Education 5, no. 3 (2010): 287-317. 
[5] Mestre, Lori. “Culturally Responsive Instruction for Teacher-Librarians.” Teacher Librarian 36, no. 3 (2009): 8-12. 
[6] Blas, Elise. “Information Literacy in the 21st Century Multicultural Classroom: Using Sociocultural Literacy.” Education Libraries 37, no. 1-2 (2014): 33-41.
[7] Gay.
[8] Atwater, et al.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Jabbar, Abdul and Glenn Hardaker. "The Role of Culturally Responsive Teaching for Supporting Ethnic Diversity in British University Business Schools." Teaching in Higher Education 18, no. 3 (2013): 272-284.
[11] Blas.
[12] Jabbar, et al 
[13] Ibid.
[14] Gay.
[15] Blas.
[16] Mestre.
[17] Blas.
[18] Jabbar.
[19] Coffey.
[20] Atwater, et al.
[21] Doll, Carol and Kasey Garrison. "Creating Culturally Relevant Collections to Support the Common Core: A Framework for Teacher Librarians." Teacher Librarian 40, no. 5 (2013): 14-18. 
[22] Jabbar, et al.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Maintaining Integrity in Higher Education

I was recently appointed as co-chair of my institution's Periodic Review Report (PRR) committee for Middle States accreditation, which is a unique opportunity as a librarian. As such, I've become more interested in issues related to accreditation, and in particular librarians' roles in this process.

This article in the New York Times highlights for me the importance of maintaining peer-reviewed accreditation processes in our non-profit colleges and universities. While these for-profit institutions may be well-meaning (I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt) running a high-quality institution of higher education involves a complex network of processes of which most people not working in higher education (and probably many who ARE working in higher ed) are unaware.  Nevertheless, state accrediting agencies are being criticized for not "more aggressively monitoring substandard institutions."  The sad thing is, the victims of the financial fraud of which these "for-profit colleges" are being accused, are often the most vulnerable -- low-income and minority students.

What can we as librarians contribute to maintaining integrity and quality assurance in higher education? A few things that come to mind are providing research-based evidence for curriculum quality, helping students assess their marketability based on career trends and data, and, in general, teaching people to be critical users of information -- including financial aid information -- that can help them make good choices regarding the institutions in which they enroll. The expression, "If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is," could apply here.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Standards and Frames: Can They Get Along?

A group of academic librarians in New Jersey have put out this Open Letter Regarding the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education. The letter essentially states that, while the Framework is good, we should not completely discard the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards. (The letter also points out some problems with the parallel structure of the "Frames," which is a separate thing.)

I'll admit, even though I'm an Instructional Services Librarian, and I am passionate about information literacy, and I have read through at least two iterations of the Framework for Information Literacy, and I think the Framework is a great effort that gets at the more conceptual, overarching meaning of information literacy, I haven't felt overly compelled to express strong opinions about the Framework either way. Partly this is because I am extremely busy as a community college librarian who wears many hats; but I also tend to be a "let-the-cards-fall-as-they-may" kind of person. Sometimes. When the stakes aren't extremely high.

And I guess I feel like I've got a firm enough grasp of info lit and learning outcomes and assessment and all that jazz that I don't believe that any particular document or iteration of that document is going to truly change what we are about as librarians, or what information literacy is. Because information literacy is something that exists in and of itself, and that evolves along with society and culture -- we librarians are just attempting to lasso this set of skills and concepts, give them neat categories and labels, and figure out how to teach and assess those skills and concepts. The Framework gives librarians an opportunity to think more broadly about these concepts and how they extend across a student's lifetime, and to use those ideas to help our practices to evolve -- just as all things, including information literacy itself, evolve. But perhaps I am getting too existential...

Bottom line: we needed this Framework, this heady and theoretical but imperfect document that takes information literacy to a new level of intellectualism and, I think, elevates it as an academic field. At the same time, I think these New Jersey librarians make some valid points; I signed their open letter in agreement. There are good reasons to keep, but update, the Standards -- not least of which is, they are still true (with perhaps some updating needed). Just because we now have the Framework doesn't mean that students don't still need to learn to recognize their information needs and access, evaluate, and use information ethically and legally. They very much do! And, as mentioned in the Open Letter, these Standards have now been infused in many colleges' and universities' general education goals, and other assessment guidelines.

So, "getting rid" of the Standards not only doesn't really make much sense -- it's kind of impossible. Sure, you could physically take down those pages on ACRL's website, and consider any old evidence of the preexisting Standards to be null and void -- but that doesn't mean they won't rise again, like the Phoenix from the ashes, as we attempt to develop concrete student learning outcomes for each "Frame"... At the same time, when writing SLOs, it's important to think about the broader, overarching understandings that we are trying to get at in our instruction, for those are the things that students will take with them when they leave us. The Framework gives us "labels" for those understandings, while also keeping us from falling into our old, compartmentalized, overly-detailed librarian ways when it comes to instruction.

The Framework and Standards: they can go hand-in-hand. Let's figure out how to make them talk together.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Limitations of Teaching Sources as Objects

Reading Holliday and Rogers' article, "Talking About InformationLiteracy: the Mediating Role of Discourse in a College Writing Classroom," has turned my brain upside down in the way I think about our information literacy instruction, and has even informed the way I work with students at the reference desk and in one-on-one research consultations.  It had never occurred to me that the very language we use in instruction actually serves to propagate students' perceptions of sources as "containers" to be "located" and "incorporated." The idea of using sources of information for the purpose of "inquiry" -- something that the new ACRL Framework is leading us to do -- gets lost as information has become a commodity to be "retrieved."

Even when faculty, with good intentions, try to guide students to "better" sources by restricting certain kinds of sources (for example, certain websites,) this only serves to emphasize to students the idea of sources as something for them to obtain, as a consequence eliminating the understanding of sources being more or less valuable because of the information they impart. This is something that I think librarians and faculty have always known and try to convey, but we are coming at it the wrong way. The use of "evaluation criteria" checklists as the predominant tools used to teach how to evaluate sources (which I personally have come to despise and refuse to use in my instruction) tops off everything else to create a complete package of denigration of the use of information.

Friday, June 15, 2012

I love the ideas espoused in this article from George Mason University, The Learning Library in Context: Community, Integration, and Influence. While the college or university library is often described as the "heart of campus," the article describes how the arteries and veins of this heart can intertwine themselves with the entire campus and the academic curriculum.  The library "pumps blood" into the efforts to instill in students the critical thinking and lifelong learning skills that colleges and universities aim to help students develop.

Some pertinent quotes (emphases mine):

"Rather than an external "add on" to the educational experience, the library, as information resource and gateway, is a primary catalyst for cognitive, behavioral, and affective changes in students -- as they interact with information resources as directed by faculty, as they complete assignments and study with peers, [...] seeking connections and making meaning in more self-directed ways.  The learning library, rather than a repository of materials or a study hall, is therefore an agency of change in students' lives" (124).

"In the Vygotskian sense, the learning library is the constructivist laboratory for students to make their own meanings, but only by moving through a series of 'zones of proximal development' with research strategies and information sources and with the coaching and guidance of more knowledgeable others"(124).

"Because of the continually changing nature of information access[...] students need a conceptual foundation for research. This approach fosters the underlying processes, mainly critical thinking and problem solving, that allow them to adapt to new situations" (129).

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Why You're Wrong About Community Colleges

Great article!  I especially agree with the part about the collegiality of the faculty and staff at the community college where I work, and our shared dedication to student learning. Also, I am equally as in love with my job as this blogger.