Educators That Rock!: Joyce Valenza

Joyce Valenza in a photo by Jim Graham.

This week, findingEducation spoke with Joyce Valenza, an information specialist and author who manages the Springfield Township High School Library in Erdenheim, Pa. Valenza is also a blogger for School Library Journal, a former tech columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer and a lecturer on education issues and technology.

Valenza sets the bar exceedingly high for librarians. Inspired by the benchmarks set by the American Association of School Librarians (AASL), she recently published “14 Ways K-12 Libraries Can Teach Social Media” (Tech & Learning, 21 Sept. 2009) and her own Manifesto for 21st Century School Librarians, which calls for librarians to acquire the necessary skills to guide learners in new and emerging information and communications landscapes.

“If you call yourself an information professional, you have to be a professional in the information landscape of your time,” says Valenza.

fE: What made you want to become a librarian?

JV: I grew up loving books. And I loved helping people. It was a way to connect those two things. When I was 16, I got a job as a page at the local branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. And I worked with a very cute library intern… He started feeding me stuff that was not the stuff my friends were reading, [such as] existential literature. He had given me Kobo Abe’s novels. And I was blown away by that trust… I was reading good stuff anyway—J.D. Salinger, Sylvia Plath. But this was stuff they hadn’t taught me about in school. That job became so much fun. I wanted to connect people with books and information just like that library intern did for me.

fE: How are libraries different today than 25 years ago? And how are librarians different than they were 25 years ago?

JV: If you have to think of the room in the house where the library is, it’s the kitchen. It’s where you get stuff. But it’s also where you make stuff. And it’s where you share stuff.

Among many strategies, librarians are using online pathfinders to gather resources together. They were around in the old days too, but now they live online in a variety of flavors—wikis, PageFlakes, blogs, social bookmarking tools, Google Custom search tools—gathering quality content as well as aggregating real-time information feeds. In our French Pageflake pathfinder, for instance, we link to textbooks and Le Monde and Le Figaro and the Eiffel Tower Webcam and podcasts for French students. Other pathfinders guide learners and teachers to breaking global and national news, science and environmental news, and more.

In some ways, what you’re doing at findingDulcinea, librarians are doing every day in a way that’s really, really relevant locally.

We’re having kids do it too! They’re learning how to set up their own iGoogle pages so they can have their own personal information portals. Students also use new online survey and polling tools to conduct authentic research. Their research is more transparent and interactive because they organize and share in their research wikis. They discuss books on Nings and wikis too.

And we’re also having students communicate the results of their best research using digital storytelling tools [and]… They’re using Animoto, VoiceThread and to share their work with audiences beyond our school. And as we share, we’re teaching about Fair Use Guidelines, use of Creative Commons content, the importance of finding your own voice and the importance of attribution in a remix/mashup world.

fE: Do you think books have become less important?

JV: I don’t think they have. They now share the shelf, or the virtual shelves, with our e-books, audio books and Playaways. At the high school level, we use the International Children’s Digital Library to explore picture books in the languages our students are studying. I don’t ever want to say that books aren’t important. That’s what got me in here in the first place. I think there are many different types of books right now, and there are many different types of ways to read.

fE: In a dialogue with Howard Rheingold and Frances Jacobson Harris a few weeks ago, you discussed project-based learning and the issue of students being over tested. Do you think students are over tested?

JV: My guess is that when they land in academic or business environments, they’re going to have fewer bubble tests. Instead, they’ll be asked to develop a meaningful thesis or argument, defend a point of view, invent, create or present something compelling.

You hear this from people like Daniel Pink and Thomas Friedman, and Malcolm Gladwell: What we value is the creative mind. The mind that can take the information that it’s learned to invent and inspire.

So, do we drop everything and make sure that people who are not up to grade level can get up to grade level, or can we do that and create amazing video productions that address the issues of genocide in Darfur or peace in the Middle East? I think we can do both.

fE: What advice do you have for librarians as libraries are changing?

JV: I don’t see any excuses for not knowing and teaching about the search, organization and communication tools of the moment. Librarians must be the information technology leaders in their buildings. How do they do this? You read a lot. And you build your network. I’m not telling you to read every blog in the world. I’m telling you to develop a network that you can leverage for your particular needs, your practice, your library. Twitter just happens to be my main strategy. Shrewdly choosing your network may be all the work you need to do.

fE: What can parents do to support students in school?

JV: Take a look at the library Web page and arrange a visit. On parents’ night, stop in the library as well as your child’s classroom. If there is no library Web page, if there are no databases available for children, you should really question why. Ask the librarian to present workshops for the PTA so you know about how best to help your child with his or her research and communication projects. You should feel comfortable phoning and e-mailing your librarian to ask questions or for support.

Your librarian is the only person who knows how each teacher teaches, and the entire curriculum of the school, and every level of what’s happening. Parents will learn so much if they collaborate with librarians.

Some 2.0 Tools Joyce Can’t Live Without:

Wikispaces for Teachers
Google Docs
Google Custom Search

And so much of the stuff she collects here:
New Tools Workshop: Eight (or so) Easy 2.0 Pieces to Piece Together

Related Link Resources
American Association of School Librarians: Standards for the 21st-Century Learner
Springfield Township Virtual Library
Springfield Pathfinders
School Library Journal
Tech & Learning
Information Fluency Wiki
New Tools Workshop
The Future of Education