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As the educational landscape changes, a school librarian rewrites the book on research and learning.
This isn’t your parents’ library—or yours, for that matter. Librarian Joyce Kasman Valenza, PhD, is working to give students at Springfield Township High School, in Pennsylvania, exciting, interactive learning opportunities by tapping into online resources and tools. “I don’t think my kids have been more interested in research than they are now,” Valenza says. “They are building research projects.” She makes sure Springfield students have a world of information at their fingertips, whether brainstorming on web-based mind maps, Skyping with authors and experts, or synthesizing and storing collected media on Wikis. Throughout the research process, students can write, gather sources, upload media and embed their video reflections, which loops Valenza and her teacher partners into students’ progress and needs. “We instantly get a window into their brains and can respond to them in ways we never could before,” she says.
The result? “My kids are doing pretty amazing work,” Valenza says. Take for example, Hamlet Remixed. In the past, students would simply memorize and recite soliloquies. Now they visit YouTube to see how different theater groups have performed The Bard’s passages. Armed with various perspectives, students then apply personal experiences to the Shakespearean text, and with this 21st-century twist the soliloquies that once seemed archaic become relatable and personal. This process of remixing, reproducing and recording content to tell new stories has opened up exciting possibilities. Among other things, students have produced movie trailers for important events in history, including the Cold War (the Bay of Pigs and the Rosenberg trial) and the Civil Rights period. The ability to create projects such as these imbues “old” subjects with a shiny new appeal. Says Valenza, “There has never been a better time to teach than right now.”
Shhh… Studying Has Gone Off the Shelf
As hooked up as Springfield Township High School seems, Valenza notes that the technology revolution began slowly. The excitement has since caught on. Seeing students motivated and engaged has convinced even the more hesitant teachers to embrace the ever-changing landscape that is online learning. “Wikis are now like pencils and paper for us, we are so comfortable with them,” she says. “Some of these things are so easy; this isn’t brain surgery. They help us do the things we’ve always done in more scalable, collaborative and engaging ways.” Still, the initial learning curve and slight discomfort of tackling entirely new ways of presenting knowledge or producing content can be intimidating, especially as kids seem to master the technology so effortlessly.
As polished and impressive as the latest tools seem, the objective is ultimately old-school. “It’s never been about the technology. It’s about writing, communicating, evaluation, synthesizing, creating,” Valenza says. Textbooks remain in the classroom—for the time being, at least— but now teachers can ask students to fill in the holes or scale the limitations that come with a set number of pages, strict publication deadlines or other concerns. Valenza notes that students have taken the opportunity to come up with addendums for this decade. “Wiki allows us to make textbooks personally meaningful,” she says.
Information sharing and collaboration are among the most exciting aspects of an online educational community. In the past, students did projects for teachers’ eyes only. “Why should kids spend so much time doing things that only teachers will see?” Valenza asks. In light of the latest technologies, that concept may be going the way of the dinosaurs—to accommodate the new giant of the information age. “What we’re doing is building an academic digital footprint,” says Valenza. Luckily, the Internet is such that people won’t have to wait for archaeologists to discover it.
Librarian Information Specialist Joyce Kasman Valenza’s blog on School Library Journal, NeverEndingSearch, won the Edublog Awards 2009 Best Librarian/Library Blog. Visit the Springfield Township High School’s virtual library, which she maintains, to see students’ inspired projects and learn more about how they are using the latest technology tools.