Category Archives: teaching

Affinity love


I made my FYS class do an affinity wall. No one cried. Not even me. In fact, it was an incredibly successful exercise.

I had always been somewhat amazed at the affinity wall that my team created in grad school while working with a local toy store in project management class. The insights we gained were nothing that any of us could have come to on our own, even though the information we had in front of us was the exact same information on hundreds of little post-its. Our final recommendations were based entirely off the insights we gained from our affinity wall. Yeah, it was a lot of work, but it was completely worth it.

When I came across a very similar exercise in Gamestorming by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown, and James Macanufo, I knew I would be doing an affinity wall early on in my FYS class. We are working with the idea of resilience in class. In order to create a group understanding of what resilience is and then build future assignments off that understanding, I first had to establish what the class knew about resilience. Enter: Affinity Wall.

I handed out small stacks of post-its and asked the class to spend 5 minutes brainstorming everything they could think about resilience – words, images, ideas. Each word, image, or idea got a new post-it, and each student needed to have at least 5 and could have many more. All the post-its were put on the whiteboard and then the fun began. I asked the students to rearrange the notes to put things together that seemed to belong together. There doesn’t need to be a defined reason, just a feeling. Soon large collections of things will start to develop. Once a majority of the post-its had found a group, I walked around with a marker and started loosely defining the groups that I saw developing. Notes that didn’t seem to belong anywhere got put in a “parking lot” and the others needed to find or make a group. When all of the notes had found a spot, we created a label for each of the groups. I would read aloud some of what was inside the circles and the students would shoot ideas back at me for what to call it. Sometimes there was complete agreement and sometimes we used a couple of words. In the end, we had a much deeper understanding of what resilience is and what it looks like. I now have a touchstone on which I can base any number of other assignments and reflections. We will be using it all semester.

There are, of course, any number of different brainstorming techniques and approaches. I like the affinity wall because it requires input and participation from every member of the class. I love a technique that requires the students to do most of the hard work of thinking and participating while I act as a guide. Every student has literally touched the project, and I hope that this means they have more buy-in to the end result. We’ll see as the semester goes on. In the mean time, you can see a transcribed copy of our affinity wall here.

Happy first day of class! Here’s your syllabus.

I realize I didn’t have to make my syllabus pretty. I did it anyway. I’m a big believer in creating materials that engage and invite exploration. While I don’t always have the time to dedicate to making the prettiest possible materials, I put the effort in for this instance. I was heavily inspired by work that others have done on their syllabi, particularly Tona Hangen’s highlighted in this article from ProfHacker.

syllabus 2014

syllabus 20142

syllabus 20143

I used my beloved InDesign as per usual. The images are all ones that Col. Chris Hadfield (whose book we will be reading in class) took from space. The first is of a former-island-now-peninsula in Italy and the second is the mouth of the St. Lawrence River in winter.  The colors look slightly different on screen but you get the idea. Have a great start to your school year!

The Collaboration Question

While I was traveling this summer, I had lunch with the fantastic Kristin Fontichiaro at my favorite falafel place in all the land – Haifa Falafel in Ann Arbor. We landed on the subject of librarian/teacher collaboration and talked about the roots of librarian dislike of teaching a class solo. I’m still thinking about it.

As librarians, I think our default reaction when asked to teach a class without the professor present is one of resistance. We might feel that this indicates a lack of respect from the professor or a lack of buy-in on the importance of library instruction. We may rely on the presence of the professor to subtly communicate to students that library instruction is important and to manage class behavior. If asked on short notice and/or while the professor is still on campus, we might feel that we are being asked to babysit a class at the professor’s convenience. And sometimes we might feel we are being tested by the old guard professors for our ability not only to think on our feet but also to be effective in our instructional goals without their support. I have been in each of these situations and felt all these things at different times myself.

But what if, Kristin asks, the professor is asking out of profound respect? What if their request represents complete confidence in our ability to do our job well instead of representing on-call convenience? As Kristin said to me, “I don’t let just anyone take my classes.”

Obviously, each interaction between librarian and professor is different, but what if, instead of raising our hackles at professors’ requests to take classes without their presence, we choose to read their request as confidence? How would that mindset effect our interactions?

Kristin and Jo Angela Oehrli wrote two interesting articles for Library Media Connection on collaboration between teachers and librarians. Each have been both a classroom teacher and a librarian and have lots of insights on what makes collaboration work and what points of miscommunication seem to happen frequently. The articles are written for a school library audience, but there are plenty of solid pieces of advice that apply to all teachers and librarians. Citations:

  1. Fontichiaro, K., & Oehrli, J. A. (2014). Turning the tables on collaboration part I: planning for success. Library Media Connection, 34(4), 36–38.
  2. Fontichiaro, K., & Oehrli, J. A. (2014). Turning the tables on collaboration part II: reflecting on success. Library Media Connection, 34(5), 34–36.

3 Design Tips (plus miscellaneous advice)

Image credit: Austin Kleon

Image credit: Austin Kleon

I’ve received a few questions lately about how I go about designing things for my library. There’s some good info in past posts if you follow the “design” category, but I thought I’d put together some tips and strategies in a more formalized post.

I use InDesign almost exclusively for my design work, but you don’t have to. I like it because I like control. Haha. InDesign is an Adobe product that you can access through a subscription to Adobe Creative Cloud. I happen to have a desktop version from before Creative Cloud existed. If you’re not in the market for the whole Adobe suite, you can pay subscription access to just one or two products. You can, however, do similar work in other programs like Publisher and Powerpoint. I learned InDesign through a combination of help from slightly more informed friends, Google, and Lynda, which I have access to through the Northern New York Library Network. I can’t say that I use it “correctly” but I get the job done. I’ve heard good things about this book, and I’ll be adding it to my office soon.

There are two, no three, things that will help your poster level up, no matter what software program you’re using: fonts, color, and layout.

  1. Free fonts are great. I never pay for them. My two favorite free font sites are Dafont and 1001 Fonts. Browsing is helpful if you have a specific idea of what you’re looking for (see below on inspiration). I often use Pinterest to help track down free fonts and font combinations. I even keep a board for fonts specifically. Another thing to keep in mind about fonts is dingbats. You don’t have to figure out a way to make artful frames, curls, and tiny robots on a computer screen. There’s a dingbat for that. Save yourself the headache.
  2. Limiting your color palette and using color wisely are the difference between chocolate chip cookie dough and superman ice cream. Colorzilla, a browser add-on, is a good place to start and help you pick up exact colors that you like from the web. Pinterest is another good place to look for color palettes. They’re mostly for home decor, but there’s no reason you couldn’t use them elsewhere. Sometimes I really care about getting an exact color, like the colors used on my school website, and sometimes I just use a standard color picker in the software to slide around until I find something I like.
  3. Layout is the most fundamental piece of poster design. What is the hierarchy? How much info is necessary? Does the flow make sense? Is it clear? I like to block out rough shapes on a piece of paper before going to the computer, and then I constantly check the layout on screen and also in print. Printing out a rough copy on a standard sized piece of paper helps you make the little tweaks in color, gradient, size, and shape that make a difference. I can’t emphasize how powerful seeing your design in print can be.

When looking for inspiration, I often do an image search in Google, especially for an event poster. I take advantage of the fact that other places have art school students who help with graphic design for events. I don’t copy directly, but I do use the images for text layout, fonts, color combinations, and other assorted pretties. I have a board on Pinterest to collect poster ideas because I’m already on Pinterest, but you could just as easily use Evernote Web Clipper or something else to save the images for future reference. For instance, for the Student Speaker Series poster this year, I started with the top image, which inspired the following pieces of advertising:

Inspiration image

final poster

I also teach a class on poster design for culinary capstone students who present their capstone in poster format rather than as a formal presentation or paper. You can see the subject guide here. I’d like to present the workshop to campus in general this year, since it is one of my favorite workshops to teach. I’m happy to share my materials for this workshop. Just send me an email.

Happy designing!

First Year Seminar update


Here’s what my current process for planning my FYS class looks like. Merging two ideas in the comments from Kristin and Ilana, I have created a giant post-it note calendar of the semester. In the process, I learned that our weeks during the semester actually run Wednesday-Wednesday with the last Wednesday being a Monday. My head hurt a bit thinking this through and I scrapped my first plan to number the weeks. Who needs it when we already have a lovely, lovely calendar where Wednesday is always in the middle of the week and never rearranged?

Obviously, this wall-based approach wouldn’t work for planning multiple classes, but it’s working for me now. I have a rough sketch of crucial assignments, outings, and special lectures in place. Now it’s a matter of filling in the blanks with the slightly more mundane, day-to-day class stuff – readings and discussions, building and scaffolding.

I found that library instruction was one of the last pieces to fall into place for me. This class needs intentional structuring for library instruction to be really useful. If I had trouble envisioning where library instruction fits, I’m sure others do too. I’m wondering how I might help FYS instructors create meaningful assignments that address the required library instruction component. We typically do a lecture about evaluating information for FYS, although we change it up on request. Some instructors choose to include a debate for their final project, which is a natural fit for discussions about quality of information. Others do a “Global Journeys” project to help connect students to the world at large. Still others choose to go a completely different path. I will be contacting other FYS professors to see how we might work together to make the library instruction really useful.

The texts I’ve chosen are A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, a classic for FYS here in the ADKs and an excellent text for helping students connect to a very forested place, and An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Col. Chris Hadfield, which, besides being just fascinating, will provide some concrete examples of life skills in action. I’m also planning to use some exercises from Gamestorming by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown, and James Macanufo to help open the class and bring everything together at the end.

In the mean time, I’m also considering tweaks to our current FYS library instruction. What do you do for instruction in first year classes?

New challenges

Red is dead by Éole, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  Ã‰ole 

Big challenges are in the works for me in the fall. After two years of working to build an effective library instruction program (an ongoing process, of course) I’m stepping up and slightly sideways to the next level in teaching activities – a full semester course. I will be teaching a section of First Year Seminar, which is required of all incoming students. FYS is an interdisciplinary, discussion-based course designed to explore questions of meaning, value, and responsibility. It is meant to help incoming students make connections to the campus, the Adirondacks, and each other. I’m thrilled to be teaching alongside a number of more experienced faculty, all of whom have different approaches toward the same goals. Each section has a different theme. I have titled mine “Cultivating Resilience.”

Course description: How do we handle change? How can we overcome setbacks? How do we recognize and cultivate resilience in our lives and the lives of others? In this section of FYS, we will be analyzing and understanding strategies for resilience by examining different environmental and societal responses to challenge and change. Assignments will take place in and outside of the classroom as we question the nature of resilience in the Adirondacks, in ourselves, and in others. Through critical thinking, classroom discussion, reflection, reading, writing, and videos, students will develop strategies for cultivating resilience in their own lives to help them succeed in the college classroom and beyond.

I hope that this theme will allow the class to be flexible enough to meet the inevitable challenges inherent in FYS as well as to follow the interests of the students and directions we might want to explore along the way. I’m nervous about the planning necessary for a full semester course. I plan workshops and large scale curriculum, but I haven’t yet had to fill 2-3 days a week with unique material for 14 weeks. Any tips and tricks out there that you more experienced teachers can share?

And in other news, I’m going to ALA! Anyone interested in meeting up? I’m excited to be exposed to new ideas and catch up with friends I haven’t seen in way too long. Most importantly for me, I’m excited to meet new people and get the chance to talk through ideas and approaches to instruction and assessment. My colleagues are fantastic, but I’m a one woman department, and I crave interaction with others that do the same kind of work. Interested in effective teaching, assessment of instruction and reference, and/or outreach activities? Hit me up at meggan[dot]frost[at]gmail[dot]com or @doubleG2718.

** it’s worth clicking through on the image above **

30 minute citation class

Attribution chart from Austin Kleon's new book Show Your Work.

Attribution chart from Austin Kleon’s new book Show Your Work.

Here’s the outline for the citation class I was having trouble wrapping around my head. It is based on this idea from Iris Jastrom. This little workshop was at the request of a 300-level Canadian Studies class that wanted me to cover MLA and APA citation. I prepped handout packets for small groups to examine in the activity. I used one each of book, journal, and newspaper in order to bring up more questions of what kind of information is valuable to a citation. The class lasted about 25-30 minutes.

Citation has many goals. Avoiding plagiarism is only one of these goals and the least interesting reason to cite. These goals have to do with the fact that writing is inherently communicative, and communication happens primarily within a community of inquiry (a group of people interested in and questioning the same kinds of things).

Why do we cite? Here students brainstorm ideas that I type up on a blank Powerpoint slide for why we cite which can include but are not limited to:
  • to share information
  • to join a scholarly conversation.
  • to reflect the careful work you have put into locating and exploring your sources
  • to help readers understand the context of your argument
  • to help people who may share interests find more information
  • to give credit to the authors and ideas that have inspired your work
  • to illustrate your own learning process
  • to participate in your community of inquiry
There are three interlinked rules that all citation styles strive for:
  • Rule of Least Confusion (get your readers to exactly what you want them to see)
  • Rule of Brevity (Accomplish the first rule as succinctly as possible)
  • Rule of Readability (Think of it like a code.)
EXERCISE: Working in groups, look at these three articles and build your own citation style that fulfills the three rules of citation and that reflects the values of the “community of inquiry” that is your class. Report back what you decided to include, exclude, and why. Questions to consider: What pieces of information does your community value? What pieces of information would you need to find these sources on your own?

Comparing MLA and APA
The pieces you choose to include reflect the things your community considers to be important. These things might be different depending on the kind of material we’re using. Can you tell which of these citations is a book and which is an article? Bonus points if you can tell me which citation style this is. How do you know? MLA is designed specifically for the humanities, such as languages and literature. You notice that the author’s full name is used and the date appears late in the citation. This style considers who wrote it and the title of the article to be the most important pieces of information. This is because most work in the humanities isn’t time sensitive and is focused instead on the people doing the work and their ideas. APA highlights authors and dates. It is used by the sciences where information is very time sensitive.  Consider a book on climate change from the 1970s or a computer instruction manual from the 1980s.

Where do I find help?
This is where I talk about the citation page on the library website, the books on permanent reserve, and the ability of the databases (if you’re looking for articles ) to cite automatically. I always give a caveat about the database citation feature because I regularly find errors in the citations they produce such as titles in caps lock or no spaces after periods. I tell students that the auto cite feature can help them get to a perfect citation but that they will just want to double check that everything looks standard before handing in their papers.

In the sense that the professor was very pleased, the class was quite successful. 30 minutes is a long time to hold attention on citation, and by the time I left class, the students were ready to move on. I think the exploratory activity was a great way to get students to consider a standard of academia that they probably had never examined before. This would probably work even better in a lower level class without such preconceived notions on that is “correct” in citation. I will probably tweak this again the next time I teach citation, but I’m glad to find an approach that satisfies my need to do something more than talk and wave my hands in class. I’d like to incorporate the attribution chart at the top of the post, too. It’s visual and neatly sums up everything.

Well, you could teach citation.

I counted it as a major victory last semester that I wasn’t once asked to teach citation. In my experience requests for teaching citation come in conjunction with other instructional goals, and usually in classes with required library instruction. “If I am required to have library instruction, I guess you could teach citation” seems to be the subtext of these requests. I loftily assigned subjective meaning to this lack of requests: No one asked me to teach citation because having seen what I do in class, they now know that I have more to offer than that. Possibly true. Of course, then again, I just got a dedicated request to come and teach MLA and APA (in the same class, no less) without any curriculum imposed required library instruction. So there’s that. Jessica Olin wrote a great post on why she’s still a citation curmudgeon, and I find I fall firmly into that camp.

I’m not exactly sure where the idea that librarians are experts on citation came from. We work with the materials. We may be more helpful than your average academic at determining what the material is, and therefore, what form to use to cite it. But teaching how to properly cite is not the business I want to be in.

For one thing, writing a citation is basically just following a set of directions. Once you’ve determined what type of material it is (a legitimately confusing process at times) all you need to do is fill in the blanks, follow the form. It’s that simple.

Secondly, I am not the one who grades the papers. I should not be making the final determination on whether a bibliography is correct. The professors grade the papers. The professors are the final word on whether or not a bibliography meets requirements, not the librarians. They are the experts in their fields and should be making all judgments on what is professionally appropriate in context.

Thirdly, there are so many free and easy places that can help with citation. We have a dedicated webpage to citation resources on the library website. We have materials on permanent reserve. Our databases cite with the click of a button. There is Easy Bib and Citation Machine, which many of our students come to campus having already used. While it is true that professors may not know about these resources, I think that most citation instruction requests come because the professors themselves don’t want to teach it, not because they feel a librarian is more qualified.

I did not say no to the citation instruction request I received today, but I did make it clear that covering the resources requested would take no more than 10 minutes. I also suggested a few other lesson outlines that might be of use such as how to manage research or how to use research effectively. No go. I truly believe that face time is valuable time with students. This is why I didn’t say no even though I feel my skills are better used elsewhere. I am working to move away from point and click instruction as much as possible and I’m struggling to teach students how to cite follow directions in a way that is not painful for me or for them. You know the kind of lesson I’m talking about. The kind where you stand up in front of the classroom and just show people where to click on a website, talking the whole way. This is just as boring for me as for the students.

I’m in a bind, here. Does anyone have an engaging, active lesson that they use to teach citation?

So, how’s that teaching going?

I was excited to get back into the classroom this fall after a relatively light spring of instruction sessions and a very quiet summer, but nervous too. My job in this library looks very different depending on the season, whereas other librarian jobs can stay largely the same no matter how many students are on campus. It seemed a very long time since I was in the classroom. Reality, it was only about 4 months.

Anyway, I’ve been reflecting on last year’s experience and how I was feeling at that time versus how I’m feeling these days. What a comfort it is to have some previous work to fall back on! I do all my lesson planning in Evernote. Each note with the name of the class and the name of the professor. Not only can I see a long list of possible places to start on any given class, but I also have a history of exactly what I did last time in any particular class.

Last year, I kept the instruction program largely intact. I wanted to make sure that I fully understood the campus and my approach to instruction before I started changing anything. This year I have started to really dive into planning our instruction program overall. What do our students need? Where and when do they need it? Where can library instruction fit into mid-level courses? What does an appropriate arc of library instruction from freshmen through senior year look like? What skills does it make sense to address right away and what skills can wait? What skills can be taught asynchronously through videos and what skills need guidance?

This spring I took part in a writing curriculum assessment focused on the final papers in English 101. Dork that I am, I had a great time doing this, and it was incredibly informative not only for the library instruction program but as for me as a teacher. I was gratified to discover that the things I saw in the papers were largely the same things that the more experienced professors saw. I’m on the right page.

While I’m trying to answer the big questions above, I thought I’d revisit some of the ideas I talked about around this same time last year surrounding how I plan classes. Like I mentioned above, I love Evernote for planning classes. It’s easy to see scope at a glance and to click between lesson plans. When printed from the software (not from the website) the lesson plans print automatically in larger-than-12-point font, which makes them easy to see from a podium or table. It’s easy to add a syllabus or assignment linked into the note. I recently started using the checklist feature to keep track of the professors with required library instruction. Last year, at the suggestion of Char Booth in Reflective Teaching, Effective Learning (seriously, go read that book right now), I kept an ongoing note for each semester where I recorded my reflections for each class I taught. Recording one good and one bad observation is a place to start.

In every lesson plan I try to keep in mind the “what’s in it for me” principle for the students and clearly state that at the beginning of the session. I also make sure to write 2-4 objectives or goals for each lesson, although these are not always stated to the students. I think this is something that happens more often in K-12 settings where teachers have formal teacher training than in a library setting. Writing good objectives isn’t always easy or quick but I achieve an incredible sense of peace by clarifying for myself what I think is most important for the students to do/know. The trick is stating clear objectives with action words and making sure to include the methods by which those objectives will be achieved (“Students will (action words) by (method of achievement).”). Objectives help to focus a lesson to its essential pieces. (See also the short article in the most recent ACRL News by Linda Scripps-Hoekstra titled “Eight Tips from the Trenches: How Experience Teaching High School Informs My Approach to Information Literacy Instruction.”)

I am responsible for assigning classes to other librarians, which also means providing them with materials and lesson plans. As a result, I tend to write very detailed lesson plan outlines (with objectives) so that I can easily pass them off to someone else. I include time estimates in these plans as well, to keep me and the other librarians on track in class. I also put a “prep list” at the bottom of the things needed to teach the class: websites, materials, handouts, etc.

As a general rule, I try to put as much hands-on or discussion based learning into my sessions as possible. I get bored listening to myself talk. Having the students do actual work is more interesting for them and more interesting for me. I’d prefer to structure a lesson so that, by way of class activities and discussions, they have learned as much of my objectives as possible without me standing in the front and waving my arms around. I believe this is the best way for students to learn, but it’s selfish, too. I have the most meaningful interactions with students individually and in small groups. I can increase the likelihood of this happening by, well, putting them into small groups.

What really helps you when you’re planning classes?