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Dispatches from #LibraryLife: Part 2

March 25, 2016

I have the great good fortune to work at two schools where the students work hard to balance the demands of work and family with getting educations. Their determination, their courage and their drive impress me all the time. Students’ curiosity as they learn makes me grin. Some of them don’t even seem to know how amazing and hardworking they are: I hear them talk about the many obligations that tug at them, and then wonder aloud why they’re feeling stressed or struggling, and I have to restrain myself from gaping at them. Can it be that they don’t know why they’re feeling just a little overwhelmed by the demands on them? Strong students! I’m in awe. Every day brings something new.

I’m especially in awe of students who are grappling with all of the above, and also working and writing in a new language to do it. Sometimes, it makes me sheepishly aware of how often I talk too fast, or use words that aren’t easy to explain or understand, or even analogies that rely on my own history of living nowhere but America, speaking English unquestioningly.

I had a lucky break with a student I was tutoring, trying to explain the difference between primary and secondary sources. I explained that the Quran could be a primary source, but the interpretations and scholarship about it would be secondary. And that a textbook is secondary, because it’s someone pulling together and rewording all the information you need in general ideas about a topic. She gets it and I had a proud moment seeing her explain to two friends.

Proudest moment of the past two weeks: The student who’s been in here since last week working on his compare and contrast paper, and seeking my help by name, “because I know you’re going to help me get it right.” When he printed out his paper, I got a fistbump AND a hug! And I might have been jumping up and down like a cheerleader whose team just scored a field goal. He wanted to offer beer or cookies in thanks, and I told him that his pride in his own great work was thanks enough. This is true. He left an hour ago and I’m still grinning.

I have explained comparing and contrasting different books in terms of football and basketball “Are you a Jets fan or a Giants fan?” “Nets or Knicks? Why is your team better than the other guys?”

Today’s paper topics have included: An Edgar Allan Poe short story, comparing Romeo and Juliet to Antony and Cleopatra (which took two librarians to figure out how you cite Shakespeare in APA format. Still not sure we nailed that), an annotated bibliography about Ernest Hemingway.

Reference question that made my day today: “Does anyone make tuna casserole anymore? And could you help me find a good recipe for it to make for Easter Dinner?” I gave her my favorite recipe with bonus tweaks.

Times I have had to hide behind the desk to conceal laughing recently:

  • the three students who are all from the same country, two girls and a boy, who always study together. The two girls are hilariously merciless scolding the boy, explaining things and trying to keep him in line. He’s actually pretty quick at getting the concepts, but they project this amazingly weary maternal air of treating him like a child who’s sneaking sweets before dinner.
  • I heard a student explaining the plot of Of Mice and Men to his friends and doing a great job of describing the plot. In 21st century urban boy slang. His friend scolded him for making an English class book sound like the urban romances she liked to read. Steinbeck might not have recognized his own novel, but I think he did a great job. Based on his booktalk, I’m going to read it!
  • Something I hadn’t thought about: one of the things you need to know in a language or a new country is how to swear properly. I just corrected a student’s personal essay that talked about the pranks that accompany youthful exuberance and the consumption of bottled beverages. Some of the dialogue included what we might call swear words. I explained that all profanity is not created equal: and that the F word is possibly serious business to say, and might want to be rephrased out of a paper that’s being handed in. Even if it was said during the aforementioned youthful exuberance.

Keep reminding students that they can’t break the databases, no matter what they click or type. I am hoping this encourages them to be curious and explore different ideas.

Sometimes, I’m able to help students with the actual writing, whether it’s looking over a finished essay for grammar and typos, or helping with the writing process. My evening library has a truly epic quantity of scrap paper, cut into squares about 1/4 of a normal sheet. These have been an excellent resource to dispense for scraps, to encourage jotting down notes or dumb ideas for a first draft. Also useful to encourage rearranging ideas.

Might have told a student to “smashy smashy” on her computer keyboard, to start churning out sentences of a rough draft. She is not a “rough draft” sort of person, it seems and looked pained at the idea.


smashy smashy is key to getting the first draft written.

I had a student come in who said she was stressed about one of her subjects (unfortunately, math, where I know I’d be more confusing than helpful) but it turned out that she was also wrestling with staying organized and on top of all that she had to juggle. Not sure I’m a paragon there (I think I just heard my dad snort, reading this. Hi, Dad) but I was able to help offer her some of what worked for me, and be a sounding board for her to explore some different ideas like setting phone alarms, or getting a tiny planner.

To all the students I’ve helped find things in the online catalog or on the shelves: Yes, the Dewey Decimal system is pretty weird, and sometimes counter-intuitive. On behalf of the history of library science, I’m sorry. it makes sense by osmosis and experience? (Library of Congress Classification is even weirder. So there.)

During a library tour, I was inspired to explain subject headings in terms of jelly beans. “You have a bunch of jelly beans, and you only have big buckets to put them in. So you have to make your best guess about fitting a jelly bean, or a book, into a larger concept or bucket. All the red ones go into one bucket. Green into another. Yellow into a third. And the red bucket’s got strawberry and cherry and cinnamon and bubblegum…And within the buckets, you can sort the jelly beans better by flavor and color, because you’ve already sorted them into a general bucket.”

It turns out, I can get a lot done with metaphors involving food. (Note to self, do not do this if a student hasn’t had lunch yet. Unless you can sneak them candy.)

This week, I’ve helped students find resources on: August Wilson plays, diphtheria, gun control, writing a business plan, August Wilson plays (different student), sickle cell traits, and Langston Hughes poems.

Library life is good.


One Comment leave one →
  1. March 26, 2016 8:14 am

    Sigh. I’m an English teacher with the heart of a librarian.

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