Snapshot: Chris Swerling
Interview by Sasha Nyary
Since her first job as a librarian, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, GSLIS adjunct Chris Swerling (’76) has pretty much done it all — and most of it in leadership roles. She is currently in the middle of her first semester at Simmons — she’s teaching LIS 431, the instructional strategies requirement for students in the School Library Teacher program. Her day job is a combination of coordinating the school libraries for Newton, Mass. and working as librarian teacher at Mason-Rice Elementary School in Newton Centre. Swerling has taught at Bridgewater State University and Wheelock College, served on numerous committees, including the grants committee of the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, written reviews for School Library Journal, and presented at conferences, most recently at the 2009 American Association of School Librarians (AASL) conference in Charlotte, N.C., on the topic of teaching note-taking to elementary school students. Swerling is one of only two nationally certified library media teachers in Massachusetts.
Q: What is the proper name for a librarian who works in schools?
A: I call myself a library teacher. That’s my certification, that’s what the state calls us. About five years ago AASL had a nationwide discussion as to what we should be called — teacher librarians, librarian teachers, school librarians, librarian media specialists, or simply librarians. The Mass. Library Association invited comments as well, and there was a lot of very thoughtful discussion about what people thought their job was, and what they saw as their role in the school. My feeling is that “library teacher” reflects my job, my role, with one foot in the library world and the other in the education world. We avoid a lot if there’s consistency, if we use a common language. We start building a common vision of what our role is with all the stakeholders — parents, teachers, and administrators.
As you know, only high schools require librarian teachers in Massachusetts, as part of the accreditation process. Unfortunately, many communities have been forced to cut them in the lower grades.
It goes back to that common language, and establishing a common skill set among students. If you have access to a library teacher from kindergarten through high school, skills can be scaffolded. Students have a specific skill set as they move into middle school and then into high school. It’s been taught to them, they’ve used it, they’ve applied it. Teachers have worked with library teachers, and vice versa. As projects are being designed, and research is being required, kids are gaining specific research skills. By the end of fifth grade, typically, students have learned to navigate the online catalog and do a beginning advanced search. By the end of eighth grade, say, they’ve learned Boolean searching. In high school, students really hone these skills, and focus in on the ones they need to be life-long learners, or to head into higher education.
Not just the name, but the entire body of knowledge school librarians need to know has changed dramatically since 1976, when you were starting out.
The whole field of education has moved toward a collaborative model. It’s about teams now. The field is collaboration, classroom teachers, working together, designing and developing research projects, curriculum, what you want the students to know, and taking a look at what they’ve done. How did they learn it, and what do we do when they didn’t?
How does the internet and technology in general affect your work today?
Reading continues to be at the heart of what we do. Every time I use the internet I realize how very skilled children need to be as readers today. A lot of the education of the future is going to involve self-directed learning. For instance, manuals have disappeared. You have to go to the help menu and figure it out yourself. So you have to be able to clearly define the questions you are asking, and then frame the question, and select the keywords that will help you get the answer. You have to have skill in reading, in developing researchable questions; you have to be able to form the questions you want to ask to get the information you need.
Evaluating your resource — is it worth spending time with? And if it is, is this useful to me? You have to be able to skim through web pages, to know to spend time with some and eliminate others. Another skill set is organizing your resources. We teach kids life skills, that they need to take care of their own work, to store it, and save it. Do you put things into a backpack or do you email it to yourself? How do you save the articles that you found useful so that you can go back to them?
Knowing that they use the Marshall Cavendish databases at the high school, I got them into the middle schools. The library teachers now have a common resource to use with classroom teachers. By the time the students get to high school they’ll have a facility with those databases, and know how they are structured. They won’t be stumbling and fumbling around as they research. They’re applying the skills they’ve gained — it’s scaffolding! Librarian teachers and classroom teachers work together at each level to identify what kids know, and make sure they know it as they move onto a higher level and dig deeper into the content. And the databases are licensed for use at home, so they’ll be able to use them 24-7.
Reading continues to be at the heart of what we do.
Do you address computer safety?
We teach kids to be ethical users of information. We actively address cyberbullying. We have to teach kids how to interact in an online environment, even when you can’t see somebody. When you think you’re anonymous you think you can get away with something. A lot of time kids just don’t get it, and they must understand about respecting others’ rights.
I collaborated with a second-grade teacher on a note-taking curriculum to teach kids about plagiarism. The idea is that from the first time they do research, students will hear the words, “take notes in your own words” echo in their ears. We kept it simple: Put the notes in your own words. Use key words. Use short words. We used graphic organizers to help them organize, and we gave them different strategies.
Librarian teachers tend to know a bit more than the classroom teacher because this is our area. We are continually dealing with the social and ethical piece of computers; we’re reading articles and studies. We’re leaders in our school; we’re the information resource. I’ve held many parent coffees on the issue of cybersafety. It’s a continually evolving field — what I talked about five years ago was very different. It was pre- YouTube, pre-Facebook. Last year I started talking about social networks with 5th graders even though they are supposed to be too young to be using them. That’s what came up. This is the world they are going into. They need the tools to participate responsibly.
What do you have to do to be a nationally certified library media teacher?
It is a rigorous process and the best professional development I have ever done. You have to provide evidence that you have achieved a standard of teaching, so it really forced me to analyze my teaching and become a reflective practitioner. I achieved national board certification in 2002, which was the first year it was open to library media teachers. Something like 50 percent didn’t pass that first year. I had to provide evidence of teaching in four areas — my box of documentation weighed five pounds! and included evidence of my communication skills, ability to integrate technology, and ways in which I collaborated with classroom teachers. It was months of hard work. I had to videotape myself teaching a lesson and then analyze it and provide evidence of student learning.
How does it feel to be back at GSLIS?
I really look forward to being with my class on Thursday nights. It’s an opportunity for me to learn as well, and to grow by being in contact with them. I have a great respect for my students, many of whom are working full time and are pursuing a dream. They come to class and give their all — everyone is talking, asking questions, sharing thoughts and ideas. It’s totally energizing!