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Today's Media Specialist

Trading in traditional stereotypes for computer know-how and research skills, media center specialis

Fighting an age-old stereotype is tough-just ask a media center specialist.

"One of the great frustrations of all of us who work with libraries, and particularly school libraries, is the attitude we hear unbelievably often. Librarians are perceived as a special interest group. Libraries are perceived as special education programs," says Keith Curry Lance, director of Library Research Service, a unit of the Colorado State Library that generates research and statistics to aid decision-making in library and information management.

It's not just the plethora of technology or resources available that make media specialists so important. They are among the most important teachers and facilitators, Lance says.

Not only does high-tech equipment in media centers give students more options, but the knowledge of media specialists keep students and teachers abreast of how to use technology for education, how to find information, and how to distinguish such information from the good, bad and ugly.

"When [some people] think of a library, they think of librarians that whisper 'shhhh,' with buns on top of [their] heads," says Madeline Wood, library media specialist at Samuels Elementary School in Denver. "They still picture us that way in magazines and chronicles. But libraries are so much more dynamic now. The kids are always busy doing all sorts of things. Learning kids aren't quiet kids."

The LRS recently released studies in Alaska, Pennsylvania and Colorado showing that students in schools with sufficient library collections, qualified library personnel and strong collaboration with teachers perform better on standardized tests.

Schools with well-developed library media programs average 10 percent to 18 percent higher reading scores. And when library media staff collaborate with teachers, average reading scores increase by 8 percent to 21 percent, the study shows.

"One of the things we try to do with teachers is that when the curriculum is being written and instruction is being planned, we remind teachers that you have resources-you have the media specialists to help students with learning experiences," says Clara Hoover, high school media specialist and curriculum facilitator at Millard Public Schools just outside Omaha, Neb. "And we have to keep reminding teachers that you have a great person there. Ask me."

During the past few years, increases in the range of services offered through technology allows students to use media centers as research resources and artistic studios to create projects using pictures, sounds and words.

Collaborative planning and high quality programs

Wood is among several media specialists featured on the LRS Web site. She was recently part of a committee of school librarians in Colorado that created lessons geared toward the Colorado state standards so that other librarians across the state could be successful in helping students achieve.

She notes that through collaborative planning with teachers, each unit at her media center includes an assessment tool by which students are graded. For example, Wood points out when fifth graders study Native American myths and folk tales, they read two stories and create a Venn diagram to study similarities and differences between the stories. They also write a short piece about it, with each section of the writing graded with points.

"The library goes right along with classroom teaching," Wood says. "I teach them how to take notes, and the teacher teaches them how to turn that into paragraphs."

"I'm the information specialist," Wood adds. "I teach them how to gather information and how best to use it. I teach them about copyright laws, plagiarism, what's good information, what's bad [and] what they need to find. When kids try to research they can find a million Web pages. I teach them how to find the best one."

Heidi Graham is among the library media specialists acknowledged for model school library programs in a book titled Igniting the Spark: Library Programs That Inspire High School Patrons by Roger Leslie and Patricia Potter Wilson.

Graham and former specialist Sue-Ellen Shaw at New Smyrna Beach (Fla.) High School created a program where they brainstorm with teachers for ideas on student centers that focus on history, reading, literature, art and science. Centers use various media, including computers, laser discs, videos, audiocassettes, books and maps. For example, one class studied ancient Rome through a teachermade HyperStudio program and CD-ROMs on the topic. Students answer questions or do map activities for a history lesson. A laser disc, video and the Internet are used to study mythology, legendary Pompeii, Roman aqueducts and road systems.

"We felt that the kids could learn better, retain more and be involved in their own learning if they did some of these active type of things," Graham says.

The Sept. 11 tragedy was among the units that Helen Adams and a social studies teacher wanted high school students to study. Adams is president of the American Association of School Librarians and a high school library media specialist and technology coordinator for Rosholt Public Schools in Wisconsin.

Students chose such topics as chemical and biological warfare, anthrax, Islamic fundamentalists' treatment of women, Pakistani relations with the U.S., or potential changes of U.S. policy toward the Middle East. Students then research these topics on the Internet with Adams by their side.

"I have some starter sites because there's a massive amount of information on the Internet on these topics," Adams explains. And the University of Michigan offers an archive of "everything from anthrax to Uzbekistan," which is accessible via a link on the school homepage.

Adams says she also steers students to newspapers, in print and online, and videotaped programs on Islam, such as a PBS program or a local documentary.

In Westminster, S.C., Deborah Roberts Stone, media specialist at Fair-Oak Elementary School, says collaborating with teachers is ongoing, with meetings early in the year and after school. And she often holds short workshops for teachers on how to use new software, organize files or create folders to store e-mail.

Sufficient learning tools compliment the leaders

Graham rattles off the list of technology in her Florida school: CD burners, scanners, 14 laptops, digital cameras and computers hooked up to televisions so students can view PowerPoint presentations in class.

"The technology has just gone crazy," Graham says. "One of the things I do a lot is teaching students and teachers how to evaluate Web pages. When they come in, the materials are already evaluated."

Graham also helps students develop outlines and bibliographies for the Senior Exploration project, which requires seniors choosing a career to study and take part in job shadowing for 15 hours outside school.

And she tutors the Cudas boys varsity basketball team after school. "In the five years I've done it, not one kid has flunked out," Graham says. "By doing that, it gives me credibility with other students."

At Adams' media center in Wisconsin, students have access to 20 computers, a digital camcorder, iMovie software, and a Web-based catalogue so students on computers at home can look at the catalogue and see if a book, video or program is available in school.

The media center is also home to a distance education classroom studio. It offers a range of rare courses, such as AP psychology, calculus and French, to students in a consortium of eight schools so that small numbers of interested students in each school can take them.

Adams says she and her staff also do workshops with teachers on how to keep up with technology, and do troubleshooting on Macintosh or Windows. "It's very time-consuming," Adams says. "I never feel I'm on firm footing. It's like I'm always dancing really close to the edge trying something. Have we made the best move to buy certain software? Should we add more RAM to the machine?"

And Adams stresses the importance of the staff over the equipment. An LRS study in Colorado, concludes that a well-staffed library will bring higher achieving students.

"We have chosen to perhaps not have quite as much equipment and put a lot of money into staffing," she says, adding that her district has six library staff members.

In Lee's Summit, Fla., Floyd Pentlin is library media specialist at the North High School, where students in physical education go to the center's computer lab to surf the Internet to create a pamphlet on a disease.

"We have never been so visible and never had so many opportunities for leadership in the building," Pentlin says. "Previously our job was selecting resources. So much of the focus of what went on was within the walls of the media center. ... With the advent of technology so much of what we do reaches out into the building. We truly work with every single teacher."

Each class doing research in the center has one of three pods with six computers to use. The center also has access to specialized CD-ROMs, five digital cameras and digital video editing access as part of the TV studio, Pentlin says. "We use it for classes and any student who wants to do a video project. ... We can have them editing scenes and inserting music and titles."

Gail Petri, library media specialist at Fyle Elementary School in Rochester, N.Y., works with teachers in an online collaborative science project called "Journey North," an animal migration site. Her school studies Monarch butterfly migration from Mexico. Students research the butterflies on the Web site, create paper butterflies and mail them to students in Mexico, who then send back similar letters in the spring, she says. "I think that's the key," Petri says. "Introducing what's out there to teachers ... [to] involve kids in real-life events."

In the past year, Catherine Beyers at Southern Bluffs Elementary School in LaCrosse, Wis., added a digital projector to the computer lab for multimedia projects. Third-graders creating a slide presentation on themselves use a gooseneck camera that plugs into a computer. The students then use the Apple video player to grab images, which is saved to their picture file and then imported into a slide show.

The computer club meets after school at the center to work on a CyberSurfari, an online treasure hunt teaching children to be more critical Internet searchers. And the center offers microscopes and slides so students can take water samples of and learn about the Mississippi River outside their building.

Stone in South Carolina says her state requires media specialists to be classroom teachers first. At her center, fifth graders create electronic books on ocean animals using a computer lab connected to the media center. Stone says she selects appropriate Web sites and then meets with the teacher to create an outline of what the students need to learn, instructing them to use various resources including electronic databases, encyclopedias, and nonfiction books. Students then use note cards to gather information and put it together.

Books and reading will never go away

While his library has gone hightech, Stone still holds storytime with students. "We're not dropping the old stuff but we're taking on a lot of the new," Stone says. "It's frustrating that there's too much to do and not enough time to get it done. My bottom line is that I ask myself-how is what I'm doing affecting student achievement?"

And to avoid being "overwhelmed," she says she puts some work on the "side burner" to stick to the long-range goals.

As far as the future of media centers, some see similar pictures, but still stress the importance of reading.

"I see more of the same where technology is changing faster and students are coming to us much more literate, at least in the use of technology," Adams says.

"I see it moving more and more away from books and going to iBooks," says Wood. "Once you learn to read then you can start reading to learn."

Angela Pascopella,, is associate features editor.