Secondary School Column: The Soulful Nature of Change

NOTE: This article is reprinted with permission from the author. The original article appeared on MassCue’s On Cue Online blog.

“If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s,

we rob them of tomorrow” – John Dewey 

Over the past month, I have weeded (discarded) approximately 4,000 outdated, older books from our library’s collection as part of current renovation efforts to create an updated, modernized, technology-rich environment for our students at Sharon High School. These renovation efforts were initiated several years ago by our Library Task Force of parents, teachers and students as we surveyed the wider school community to assess and prioritize necessary changes to our library’s design in alignment with our school-wide and district-wide goals.

It’s an exciting time for the library and library program as we work toward expanded possibilities that will meet students where they are today while also reinforcing traditional research skills. In order to prepare our students to thrive in a digital world that values collaborative team work, problem solving and creativity, our learning spaces need to foster those skills. In a world where information is instantaneously available through devices, we need to shift the focus toward teaching our students how to evaluate that information in order make new meaning out of it. The library as learning commons becomes a center of inquiry and beyond that, a hub of project-based learning, digital literacy, collaboration and creativity.

Nonetheless, even as a librarian who fully embraces the learning commons philosophy, I found myself in tears when I reached the poetry section and needed to discard the yellowed, dusty, older volumes of Frost, Dickinson and Yeats, to name a few. First and foremost, as a librarian, I am a lover of beautiful language, ideas and poetry. Essential Question: How to make peace with this process of change?

For many of us, books are sacred, soulful objects. They carry a symbolic weight that extends beyond their mere content and size. As physical objects, they are imbued with the gravity of the past and offer themselves to us as transmitters not only of knowledge but also, at times, of personal and collective history. As I discard the outdated copy of Yeats, I read with amusement the graffiti inside the cover, “John S. has the cutest buns in room 107.” John is more than likely now a grandfather. Still, I am discarding a tiny, if insignificant piece of my school’s history as I move that book to the discard pile. The ghost of my own father, a high school English teacher who wall-papered my childhood home with bookshelves lined with volume upon volume, is with me, and I feel the need to fully convince both of us that what I am doing is right.

What helps me is the knowledge that it is not about me and I don’t dare take this personally. It’s about my students, and what they need in order to succeed. They do not need moldy copies of yellowed, dusty books. Which is not to say that some of those classic poetry books don’t need replacing. But perhaps, in addition, I can work with our English Dept. to collaborate on signing up some student teams for the national “Poetry Out Loud” competition, to bring the essence of those poems to life as performance pieces. Perhaps, students could also create videos of their poems as interpretive art through Animoto, incorporating music and sound to learn valuable visual literacy and technology skills as well as literary analysis. I am excited about these new possibilities that allow for the teaching of trans-literacies.

As I complete the weeding process, I look to models such as Brown University’s Digital Scholarship lab: an amazing space designed specifically for collaboration, flexibility, and ease of use for scholars working on data-rich and visually oriented research, and at the high school level, Tenafly High School’s Lalor Library in Tenafly, New Jersey.

Moving full circle between past and future, I also look to the writing on the inside cover of the last book my father gave me before he left this world, “They Made America: From the Steam Engine to the Search Engine: Two Centuries of Innovators,” by Harold Evans. The handwritten page reads, “To Cathy- Here is your surprise Xmas present. It may, or may not, be useful, but it will certainly impress you, just as you have impressed me. Love, Daddy p.s. I hope it fits in your suitcase.”

Reading these words, I am reminded that even my bibliophile father would have supported my efforts as a librarian to pave the way for an innovative learning space for students. He was first and foremost, a teacher who embraced unconventional teaching methods to engage his students.

The very large book did indeed fit in my suitcase and made its way along with several other treasured volumes from California to Kathmandu and back home to Massachusetts. Of course, their owner valued the knowledge inside the books more so than a few unnecessary pairs of socks or sweaters.

Perhaps, it is possible to be forward thinking, innovative, sentimental and impractical all at once. Answer to Essential Question:

“Come gather ‘round people

Wherever you roam

And admit that the waters

Around you have grown

And accept it that soon

You’ll be drenched to the bone.

If your time to you is worth savin’

Then you better start swimmin’

Or you’ll sink like a stone

For the times they are a-changin’.”

–Bob Dylan

Cathy Collins is the librarian at Sharon High School

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