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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 19, Number 3, Nov./Dec. 2006

The teacher-librarian
A students’ best bet to acquire information literacy skills

by Lesley Edwards

One of the truly gratifying aspects of my job as a secondary school teacher-librarian is the work I do with teens helping them to become better at finding useful information on the Internet.

I remember the Grade 12 student who appeared in the library with panic written all over her face. "I spent all weekend searching the web for information for my project and couldn’t find a thing. The assignment is due in two days." I asked her what her topic was and immediately pulled up three great sites using a Google search. She looked at me incredulously. "How did you do that?" she asked. Now this was a hardworking, intelligent student and yet she was flummoxed by a simple search. She had no idea how to use keywords effectively.

I remember a class doing a project on substance abuse. They had been given clearly defined questions to answer and yet several of them were having difficulty. When I checked with them to see what keywords they were using for their search they replied, "Shrooms." With a little coaching they were able to come up with the term psilocybin, which netted them sites from sources such as Brown University’s health education page. They learned that a search using slang results in sites that offer unreliable or biased information. I then directed them to the links provided at the bottom of Brown’s page where additional reliable information could be found.

Without expert guidance, how many students will learn to use a directory like the Librarian’s Internet Index at http://lii.org, or go beyond the first page of Google to discover how to do an advanced search? How many know about the great online databases that many schools and all public libraries subscribe to? How many know that even the creator of Wikipedia does not recommend it for student use? And finally how many know how to evaluate a web site for accuracy, authority, and reliability?

Try this at home. Do a Google search using the keywords "Martin Luther King." The first hit seems great, but closer examination shows that it is hosted by Stormfront, a white supremacist group. Similarly, the first result of a Google search for "In Flanders Fields" takes you to the American Arlington Cemetery site, the second is a Belgian museum with nothing about the poem. The eighth is hosted by a Canadian white supremacist group—the Canada First Immigration Reform Committee. There are great teaching and learning opportunities here, but those "teachable moments" are too often lost when teacher-librarians are not part of the research process.

Public librarians also offer great information services but are more likely to provide the answer teenagers need rather than teaching them how to find the answer for themselves. When a class comes to the school library to do research, I make sure that part of their session includes learning and practicing information literacy skills.

For me, teaching information literacy is all about the process, the skills of finding information, judging its quality and usefulness, paring it down to essentials, and recombining it in ways that challenge the user to employ higher-order thinking skills. It’s about using information ethically and with integrity. We don’t hand teenagers the keys to the family car without training them to drive, so why are we so willing to turn them loose on the Internet without strategies for navigating successfully and staying safe? Who better to provide solid Internet-use strategies than a teacher-librarian?

Lesley Edwards is a teacher-librarian at Seycove Secondary School, North Vancouver.

For further information, read the following:

• "The Crisis in Canada’s School Libraries: The Case for Reform and Re-Investment" by Ken Hancock at www.peopleforeducation.com/librarycoalition/Report03.pdf.

• A report prepared for the National Library of Canada, "Elementary and Secondary Schools: The Role, Challenges and Financial Conditions of School and School Library Resources in Canada" at www.collectionscanada.ca/9/14/index-e.html

• "School Libraries and Student Achievement in Ontario" at www.accessola.com/osla/graphics/eqao_pfe_study_2006.pdf.

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