The Joys of Middle School

So this year I started a new job (I would like to write an entire post about recent life transitions, but given how sporadically I post to begin with, I can’t make any promises).  I’m working at a school spanning grades PreK-12, and, among other firsts, it is my first time teaching formal classes to middle school students.

There are both joys and growing pains that come with this experience.  There are certainly those students in these middle grades who test my patience, get on my last nerve, and are the source of my gray hair.  But there are also the amazing, insightful, kind, hardworking, and super-smart ones, who make me wish I ONLY had middle school students.

One of the challenges for me is teaching all of the important library skills (research, evaluating sources, citations, etc.), while also promoting a love of reading.  If it were up to me we would spend every library class talking about books, looking for books to check out, and reading.  But libraries are about more than books (don’t get me wrong-I love this aspect of my job as well!  I think it’s both important and interesting, and I love teaching those skills, and seeing students go through the whole process or completing a project, from initial brainstorming to final product).  As a result, it can be difficult to find a balance between the projects and the book promotion/checkout.

Initially, I was planning to allow 10-15 minutes for browsing and checkout for middle school, just as I do for my elementary school classes.  It quickly became apparent that this wasn’t going to work, though, as there were a number of students in each group that refused to check out books, and used that time to chat/fool around/cause chaos.  Then, I stopped doing any type of in-class checkout for middle school; middle school students can use the library during lunch and break, so I told myself that if they really wanted to check out books they could do it on their own time.

But this didn’t make me happy-I felt as if I wasn’t truly doing my job to the best of my ability, because I do still want to promote reading and give kids the opportunity to browse and find books they’ll love-there’s no point in having a library full of books if no one is reading them!  So I thought there had to be a better way to find a balance, and I decided to start small, though there are a couple of really great ideas that I’m working up to.

I see each middle school class twice during each cycle, so I decided that on one of these days, the last 10 minutes would be reserved for an activity called “What Are You Reading Now?”  I had a couple of goals for this short time period: quickly booktalk whatever I’m currently reading, to show students that I have a reading life too; highlight some library books we have from a particular category/genre/theme to make students more aware of what the library has to offer; and have students briefly share what they’re reading, so students can get recommendations, learn about new things, and see reading as somewhat social.

I decided to “pilot” this with my sixth graders, because they’re overall a really great group, and I thought they would be most receptive and responsive to it.  Even still, I thought they might take some coaxing, so I was planning to do my booktalk and then see if there were MAYBE a few kind souls who would volunteer.  Well, before the words were even completely out of my mouth, hands shot up in the air.  Students were incredibly enthusiastic about sharing what they were reading.  Almost every single student wanted to talk about their book choices, and they were reading an incredible variety of stuff, from Rick Riordan to the physics of roller coasters.  I had a similar reaction from my second group of sixth graders, to the point where we ran out of time before everyone who wanted a chance to share got to speak.  It was great to see them all so excited about reading, but I didn’t get very many checkouts.

I then expanded this to the fifth grade class.  Several of them shared what they were reading, and then I booktalked THE IRON TRIAL by Cassandra Clare and Holly Black.  I left them with a cliffhanger, of course, and all of a sudden everyone was clamoring to check out books.  We only have one copy of the book, so there were a couple disappointed kids, but several put holds on it, and the boy who did check it out asked me to put a hold on THE COPPER GAUNTLET as soon as I get it (it’s on order right now).  But then.  My favorite thing happened.  A girl asked for other fantasy recommendations while she waited, and I got to introduce her to another great fantasy series, DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE.  And then, after the class was dismissed, a boy CAME BACK IN AND ASKED IF I WOULD RECOMMEND A BOOK FOR HIM.  I was so excited!  He wanted a fantasy book with a lot of action, and he really likes THE YOUNG ELITES, so I hooked him up with GRACELING.  I definitely still had the boys who would rather sit off to the side and do nothing, but all but 3 students checked something out.

It hasn’t been perfect, of course.  I tried it in seventh grade and only had two students willing to share, and I haven’t been able to try it with the eighth graders yet.  I’m hopeful that once it starts happening consistently, I’ll see students more excited about reading for pleasure, along with the added bonus of increased circulation.

This is just laying the groundwork for some of my other ideas, including book speed dating, genre of the month displays, and free reading Fridays.  Unfortunately, the YA section of the library is a bit underdeveloped (probably because middle and upper school students don’t check out a ton), so I’m waiting for some book orders to come in so I have the books necessary to support these endeavors.

Anyway, to make a VERY long story short, I have loved getting to know the middle schoolers, as students and as readers, and seeing them enthusiastic about reading and eager to check out books is one of the many joys of my job.  (I bet you were expecting a sarcastic post after reading that title, weren’t you?  FOOLED YOU!)

I hope that I’ll be able to provide more updates on life in the library soon.  Until then, happy reading!

More Thoughts on Peer Instruction

Peer instruction, a technique in which students answer questions, present arguments as to why their answer is correct to a partner or small group, and then answer the questions again, this time with (hopefully) a better understanding of the concept, has proven to be a successful way to engage students in learning experiences.  This method is beneficial because it gives students more than one potential teacher, and the more ways something is explained, the more chances a student has of understanding the concept.  Additionally, it makes students think critically about their processes for arriving at answers, and come up with a well thought out argument in defense of their answer choices.  Learning how to think critically is as important as learning the content or skills, so this is a definite benefit of peer instruction.

Despite its obvious advantages, is peer instruction something that could work in a secondary library?  I think it could, with some adaptations from its original format in college lecture courses.  Ryan Campbell, a secondary teacher, has some tips for adapting peer instruction to work in a high school class, including writing clearly defined learning objectives, using peer instruction for skills as well as content, and limiting the time spent on direct instruction/lecturing. [1] (More of his tips can be found here.)

These tips are helpful for librarians in addition to classroom teachers, particularly since we are often teaching skills rather than content.  In a secondary library lesson, the librarian may teach students how to evaluate a website to determine whether it is a reliable resource, and then implement peer instruction with questions related to this skill.  Students may be given a website to evaluate, and then have to explain to their partner or group members why it is or is not a reliable source.  This could be adapted for different skills, or even different situations.  Although it strays somewhat from the original technique, students working on a research project could explain to a partner their process for locating information on a topic, new information they learned about their topic, how they are planning to present or publish their new knowledge, etc.

Peer instruction empowers students by allowing them to take on the role of teacher, while at the same time helping them to develop important critical thinking skills.  It is definitely something that could be beneficial in a library setting.


1. Campbell, R. (2012, June 19). Does peer instruction work in high schools? [Web log post]. Retrieved from


Peer Instruction in the Library

So, last time, I started talking about what peer instruction is, how it works, and why it is beneficial. Now that we know what it is, we can talk about how peer instruction can be used in the library.

Peer instruction was initially designed for, and has mostly been used in, the university setting; however, I think it would still be a useful technique in elementary or secondary schools, though some modifications may be necessary.  What would peer instruction look like in an elementary setting?

In the library, the skills being taught aren’t content area skills, but rather information literacy and inquiry skills. After the librarian teaches a mini-lesson on, for example, using the library catalog, she could ask students questions, such as how to find a particular book in the catalog, or why a particular search was unsuccessful. Students can answer individually (perhaps by using clickers, or another tool like Socrative or PollEverywhere, depending on the available technology). Students must then defend their answers to a partner or small group.  Finally, the librarian has all students answer again, and is able to see if the percentage of students who understand has improved.

While the questions asked in the library might not have the same concrete answers as those in the content area classes, the process of students explaining to one another how they figured something out, and helping others to understand a concept or idea, is very beneficial, despite the different setting. The librarian is teaching students the basics of the skill or concept, but the students must describe their thought process, present an argument for their answer, and, at times, teach other students why and how to do a certain thing.  Students are sometimes better able to explain things to other students than the teacher, so this technique can be a useful one for teachers and librarians.


Peer Instruction

So for the second half of IST 663, we’re shifting from discussing educational theorists to discussing effective teaching and learning techniques.  For the next few weeks, I’ll be talking about peer instruction and how it can be used in lessons in the library.

So what is peer instruction?  It might not be what you’re thinking.  Peer instruction moves away from the traditional lecture method to help students get more involved in their own learning.  Developed by Professor Eric Mazur at Harvard University during the 1990s, peer instruction makes learning more interactive and helps students to become more engaged in what is going on. [1]

In a class using peer instruction, there will usually still be a short lecture.  Then, students will be given a question or problem to work on, and will report their answer to the professor (either electronically, for example via clickers, or just on a piece of paper).  After this, students will work in pairs and try to convince their partners that they have the correct answer.  Following this, they will report their answers again to the professor. [2]

Using peer instruction helps students to really understand the underlying concepts of the material they are learning, it makes learning more interactive and engaging, and helps students develop oral communication skills.  Students, in effect, become the teachers, and in some cases are able to fill this role more effectively than their actual teachers, because they so recently figured out the concepts themselves, and better understand what might be troublesome to their classmates. [3]

While peer instruction was developed at Harvard and has been used frequently in college classes, I think there is also a place for peer instruction in the library.  More on that in future posts.


1. Redish, E.F. (2006). Peer instruction problems: Introduction to the method. Retrieved from

2. The George Washington University Teaching & Learning Collaborative. (n.d.) Peer Instruction: Eric Mazur’s Techniques. Retrieved from

3. Lambert, C. (2012). Twilight of the lecture. Retrieved from

Multiple Intelligences and the Classroom

So, we already know that Howard Gardner theorized that there are different types, or modalities, of intelligence.  People have varying levels of the different types of intelligence, and as a result, have different preferences for how they learn and show what they’ve learned.

We know from this theory that it is important to present information to students in different ways, so that students have a greater chance for success in learning that information.  But it is also important to give students a choice in showing what they know. [1]  Therefore, when students are completing assignments and projects, whether in the library or in a classroom, giving them options for how they would like to share their work will allow more students to be successful in that assignment.

Perhaps, for example, students have been studying animals in science class.  They have developed research questions about their chosen animals, and have come to the library to use a database to search for more information on those animals.  After they finish their research, the teacher would like them to share what they’ve learned with the class.  This is an opportunity to give students choice.  Students with higher linguistic intelligence may want to write a traditional report, or use an online tool such as Voki that allows them to orally present their information.  Students with higher spatial intelligence, on the other hand, may want to do something more visual, like a PowerPoint or Glogster.  Students who have higher musical intelligence might choose to write a poem or song, while students with bodily/kinesthetic intelligence may want to build a model, or create a game to show what they have learned.

Students learn differently, based on the areas in which they have higher intelligence, and allowing them to choose how to show what they have learned gives them more opportunity for success in the classroom.


1. Big thinkers: Howard Gardner on multiple intelligences. (1997). Retrieved from


Mnemonics are interesting devices that help us to remember things.  Whether in the form of a song or rhyme, acronym, or visualization, mnemonics can be very beneficial tools when learning and memorizing important information.  These are particularly great for students-when I was teaching, I used to use songs to help students remember how to find perimeter and area in math, or learn a list of all helping verbs in English.

They can definitely be used in the library as well.  At my school, we no longer have a basic computer skills class for students, so I’ve noticed that a lot of kids come into the library without any basic typing or computer literacy skills.  Doing a project using a web 2.0 tool takes longer than you would expect because students aren’t that familiar with a keyboard and don’t have basic typing skills.

I noticed a few of the main things students were having problems with, and I came up with this mnemonic to help them remember a few basic typing skills.  This definitely isn’t comprehensive, but it does include a few basic things that would be important for word processing or typing for an online project.  So here is the HANDY mnemonic:

Screen Shot 2014-02-16 at 1.00.17 PMI would go over these items before we began work on a project, and then have it hanging up as a reminder, as well as referring to it for review before other projects down the line.  Although I came up with it for third graders, I think it could be used with 4th and 5th grade students who need the reminder as well.

What mnemonics have you used with your students?  Is there anything in particular that has worked well?

Howard Gardner and Multiple Intelligences

So, I thought I’d bring this blog out of hibernation in order to write some things for a class I’m taking this semester on motivating 21st century learners.

One of the goals of the class is to learn about a number of important educational theorists and their impact on teaching and learning; one of these people is Howard Gardner.  Gardner, a professor at Harvard, has spent the last few decades working on a number of things in the field of education, including designing performance-based assessments, interdisciplinary education, and using multiple intelligences to create more personalized curriculum and instruction.[1]

The theory of multiple intelligences is probably what Gardner is most known for; this theory suggests that rather than intelligence being one single ability, there are different types, or modalities, of intelligence.  People have different intellectual strengths, and these play an important role in “how people represent things in their minds, and then how people use them in order to show what it is that they’ve understood.” [2]

When Gardner originally posited this theory, he said that there were seven different intelligences; as of now, people currently think there are nine, including visual-spatial, verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic, and existential intelligences.  More detailed descriptions can be found here.

Why is this important to education?  Well, with our current emphasis on standardized testing, the intelligences being assessed are generally only verbal-linguistic and logical-mathematical.  Since kids learn differently, and there are, at minimum, 7 other ways for them to think about things and show what they’ve learned, both instruction and assessment need to evolve to meet the needs of all kids.  Teachers have been, and need to continue to, move away from lectures and memorization to more diverse teaching methods, to project-based learning and assessments that don’t just focus on language arts, math, and filling in multiple choice bubbles.  More on how this can be done next time.


1. Biography of Howard Gardner. (n.d.) Retrieved from

2. Big thinkers: Howard Gardner on multiple intelligences. (1997). Retrieved from