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Demystifying Information Literacy: From Buzzword to Classroom Resource

In the throes of my first year of pre-pandemic teaching, when I was fresh and green and hardly older (or taller!) than my students, the term Information Literacy meant something quite different to me, and surely to all of us, than it does now. Information Literacy was once a vague set of rules and tools that were scribbled aimlessly on a mental sticky note and stuck to the side of a metaphorical laptop  – collecting dust in one’s periphery but never quite clearing into a sharp focus. Since then, the world has continued to turn at its promised pace as we have lived through a string of “unprecedented times” that I’m certain will be a truly riveting chapter in a history book one day. The utter bombardment of information and misinformation the public was forced to weed through, along with a growing culture of polarized media, and the breakdown of trust between news sources and the public, required us to start to think very critically about the information we were consuming.

Making sense of information became crucial in a tangible and immediate way. It could mean the difference between whether you keep yourself and your loved ones safe and healthy or not. It could determine if you sought medical care and what kind of care you sought. It could inform who you voted for, how you voted, and your trust in the voting system in general. On top of trying to think critically about the information I received myself, I was tasked with teaching my high schoolers how to make sense of it too as they experienced a seriously chaotic upheaval of their young lives. There was no real curriculum for this challenge that was tailored to students and digestible for a young audience. Information Literacy had been historically relegated to a quick lesson to be reviewed annually by English teachers through the groans and sighs of teenage opposition as they embarked on teaching the tenets of the classically dreaded 5-page research paper. The work I have been able to contribute to this summer is a direct solution to this very real, very problematic gap in Information Literacy tools for educators and students.

This summer, I have had the honor of working as an intern with the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives Education Department to help create a digital series of collections that explore and explain key Information Literacy concepts and ideas. These collections have been carefully and lovingly curated specifically for K-12 educators and students. Through the efforts of myself, fellow intern Jason Cavallari, and our fearless, funny, and fierce leader Sara Cardello, we have been able to help fill that gap and build a comprehensive curriculum that provides a toolkit of skills, sources, tips, and tricks regarding Information Literacy. We used the Smithsonian’s own platform of Learning Lab to create beautiful, immersive, and interactive learning experiences that detailed the “ins and outs” of our topics, sourcing most of the images and content from our own galleries and collections at the Libraries and Archives. 

over Page of Case Study : Internet and Media Sources collection. Image of Samuel P. Langley’s aircraft taking off over the Potomac River, with the left side covered by a charcoal gray rectangle with the aforementioned collection title in neon green.
Cover Page of Case Study: Internet and Media Sources collection.

The overarching theme of my contribution to this collection was maximizing its usability for educators. Though I am currently pursuing my Masters full-time at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and no longer breaking down Information Literacy to students, I wanted to make sure what were creating a true asset to those tasked with this undertaking. One of my first projects was to create a mechanism to elicit feedback on the usefulness of the tool as it currently stands and to disseminate this tool across teacher networks. Calling on my former Teach For America community in Eastern North Carolina, new and former colleagues, and local school teachers, we were able to gain some insight into how to enhance the collection for specific populations. 

Next, I analyzed the collections and looked for “gaps” in the curriculum, viewing the collection through the lens of an educator who would want to use our resources to build a lesson around. We then built those collections to ensure that our series was well-rounded and robust.  I figured the likelihood of highest engagement remained reliant upon this series being a “one stop shop” for those teaching Information Literacy. We wanted to ensure that individual work or group work could be done with the lessons we provide, that Information Literacy could be introduced in a day or that our materials could be used to build an entire unit on the subject, and that this series of collections became an all-inclusive toolkit that could be easily absorbed by all learners. I also sleuthed for connections between the content of our series, connecting dots and finding a flow for the collections to categorize them into groups. Our four major groups of collections revolve around the following topics: the Smithsonian’s role in increasing and diffusing knowledge, the many different types of sources and how to evaluate media and internet sources, core information literacy concepts, and information literacy in culture.  I then supplemented these groupings by creating a case study for all of them that further dissected their teachings and promoted Smithsonian Libraries and Archives content.

Cover Page of Case Study : Bias & Fact vs. Opinion collection. Image is of an older map of Africa, inconsistent with the names of countries or scale of the continent as we know it today, with the left side covered by a charcoal gray rectangle with the aforementioned collection title in bright fuschia.
Cover Page of Case Study: Bias & Fact vs. Opinion collection.

After my case studies were built, the majority of the remainder of my time was dedicated to creating an online course using the Moodle platform that pulled apart and restitched our content for an entirely different audience. The Moodle course is geared towards the life-long learner – an adult who is seeking to broaden their horizons on the topic, sharpen their information literacy tools, or simply just be introduced to Information Literacy as a whole. 

In addition to helping fill this gap, I’m most proud to have worked on a project that strives for the true democratizing of information literacy education. Our tools and resources are accessible for all, despite disparities in school funding. They are free to anyone and everyone – always. This project was such a labor of love for me, beyond the fact that I had longed for a resource like this as an educator myself, but because I truly believe in the message behind information literacy and the power that it holds. Albert Einstein once said “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious”. The lifeblood of Information literacy is being passionately curious.

At the core of information literacy is this notion of critical thinking, of a certain sustained and genuine curiosity. Knowledge is constantly heralded as the greatest equalizer, and learning how to be curious about knowledge is the mobilizing agent in making changes towards equality and equity. Information Literacy goes far beyond newspapers and magazines and teaches so much more than just identifying a source or how to properly use it. Information literacy is powerful and liberating. Information literacy models and rewards critical thinking by teaching how to ask arresting questions about bias and about motive and about implicit and explicit messaging. It lays the groundwork for justice and truth seeking through cultivating this passionate curiosity. Information literacy gives students, and everyone for that matter, that bright and flickering spark of eager investigation that can be lovingly tended into a flame that stokes change-making. Information literacy tells young people that it is okay to challenge the information you’re being given, what the information is teaching you to believe, the system giving you this information, and systems themselves.

This internship could not have better combined my past experiences, current schooling, and (hopefully!) future career into the most niche and rewarding learning experience. I’m honored and overwhelmed with gratitude to have been a tiny cog for a brief period of time in the radical, revered, respected, and ever-moving-machine that is the Smithsonian Institution.

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