Voices in Education

In School Libraries, Differentiation through Curation
Curation is a concept that seems to appear everywhere today. Just about anything can be marketed as “curated,” from music playlists to personalized retail boxes of snacks and makeup. Anyone can be a curator, not just sanctioned experts—and that’s actually an important point concerning curation in the school library context.

Curation tools put content selection and organization in the hands of users, not just librarians. This year’s American Library Association conference introduced more formats, resources, and open access platforms. It’s clear that curating is a critical information skill for students. Curating digital content at the middle -school level could look like this:

In a science inquiry project on the Earth’s atmosphere, students curate meteorology collections about severe storms. They collect and add to their web-based collection diagrams and maps of the development of storms, links to weather data sources, images and videos, and articles explaining storms at their reading levels and appropriate for their areas of interest.

When students use digital tools to curate content as part of an inquiry process, the multimedia materials are easy and engaging to collect, view, and share. Depending on the tools, fellow students can comment, up-vote, or add new information. By integrating science learning and inquiry (or library) learning, students create accessible and dynamic references to build understanding and generate new questions.

Teaching students how to find and implement curation tools requires more than the how-to of simply bookmarking content, but curating for productive outcomes also affords students the opportunity to reinforce information evaluation skills and learn self-assessment strategies.

Curation tools, like ALA Best Websites honorees Gibbon and Blendspace, and some of my favorites, Learni.st and List.ly, are digital spaces for collecting articles, text, images, videos, websites, and other media. These tools make managing resources easier and more personally useful with formatting options (visual versus text), social media connections (for ranking and commenting), and options to search for and add content (RSS feeds, search tools). Curated collections are uniquely created, with intention and purpose. Increasingly, more than one tool is needed to curate a collection effectively. This is giving rise to an emerging trend: “app smashing.”

App smashing, a phrase attributed to educator Greg Kulowiec, is “the process of using multiple apps in conjunction with one another to complete a final task or project.” I hadn’t heard the term before the conference, but it was immediately recognizable to me as a way to mix and maximize app utility to fit particular needs. App smashing in K-12 libraries and classrooms becomes an exercise in creative thinking, requiring students to articulate needs and experiment with problems and solutions. An example is using one tool to create an image, another to record audio, and a third tool to combine these media products to build and share a digital story. App smashing embraces—and depends upon— placing choice and accountability in the hands of learners.  Guiding students in this process of selecting tools and managing workflow becomes a new way to differentiate instruction.

This approach to differentiation, especially when creating content, acknowledges diverse learning needs and takes advantage of varied interfaces and functionalities of digital tools. For informational apps and websites, differentiation is reflected in the individual learning paths, reading levels, and instructional supports offered in-site or in-app. Even when working within the same curricular content, differentiated resources and processes give students space and rationale to make choices, build confidence, and practice multiple literacies. When school librarians collaborate with teachers to plan instruction, they may suggest that students have the opportunity to select from a range of digital tools to meet their varied processes, preferences, and skills.

School librarians are enthusiastic and knowledgeable guides in helping teachers and students evaluate, select, and use digital tools. An important takeaway in considering these three themes—curation, app smashing, and differentiation in digital tools—is to be evaluative in thinking and practice, and encourage students to assume this stance as well. Often, discovering that a tool doesn’t fit a need can also be a productive outcome. Student content learning as integrated with inquiry and technology dispositions and skills is a multi-layered process that benefits from the collaboration of teachers, students, and school librarians.

About the Author: Rebecca J. Morris is an assistant professor in the Department of Library and Information Studies at the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She has a professional background as an elementary classroom teacher and school librarian. She is the author of School Libraries and Student Learning: A Guide for School Leaders (Harvard Education Press, 2015).