Get To Know CSL: Katie Fox on Library Research, Education, and Creativity

In a series of conversations, we are finding out about how the people of Colorado State Library derive meaning from their work, as well as some of the challenges and successes they have experienced. In this fourth installment of #GetToKnowCSL we have Katie Fox, the Research Analyst for the Library Research Service (LRS), a unit of the State Library. LRS provides library professionals, educators, public officials, and the media with research and statistics about the important issues facing libraries in the 21st century. This multifaceted service conducts and publishes studies, organizes Research in Public Libraries (RIPL) workshops, and hosts the Library Jobline website, just to name a few things. Find out more about what LRS does, and check out their regular blog posts, at lrs.org. Katie’s place in LRS is essentially to support libraries and library staff to do research and evaluations. Prior to joining the State Library, she was an information literacy librarian and a middle school teacher. She has an M.A. in Library and Information Studies from UW-Madison and an M.A. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Denver. Anyone who has met Katie can attest to her passion for libraries and library research, as well as her far-reaching curiosity, which I’m sure the following conversation reflects. 

Katie Fox

Mike: Tell me about your beginnings with libraries.

Katie: I think, like a lot of librarians, I’ve always loved libraries. I had an awesome elementary school librarian who was one of those magical school librarians, and she taught me the Dewey Decimal System. She really knew kids and books and made that magic happen. I was really interested in drawing, or whales, and she would show me where the best books were, so I think I was like, this lady is cool. Those super positive early experiences with libraries always made me feel like they were a place I felt comfortable. And then, we have this problem with middle school kids, high school kids, we don’t really see them in the library, and I very much had that same experience. Then once I was in college, I took this intensive creative writing class, and that was where I got the best library instruction in college. We were supposed to pick a topic to write about for the whole year. So mine was childhood, I’m always fascinated by childhood. We were meant to do research that would inspire our creativity, so I read about childhood in general, poetry about childhood, and using research to give more depth to my writing.

M: Did your research inform your poetry and change it?

K: Yes. I think that doing research that informed something that’s creative, that was a really awesome insight for me that is still with me. I had always loved being creative and loved doing research, but I hadn’t seen how they could inform each other before. And it helped me use the library more effectively throughout the rest of college because I had that experience.

M: Because you recognized the library’s potential.

K: Exactly. Which is a thing we always struggle with in Libraryland, is people actually knowing the full extent of what they can do with the library.

M: So, then, you became a teacher.

K: I did AmeriCorps first before I became a teacher. So, you serve in an impoverished community and you make poverty wages for a year–it’s considered a year of service. You work for an educational stipend, a reward that you get at the end which you can use for education. I was in the Reading Corps in Washington state, working in an elementary school and supporting kids with their reading. That was a really powerful experience for me, because I had done volunteering and service all throughout my life, especially in college. The techniques we were supposed to use to help kids with their reading were very strict. They were also evidence-based, so I struggled because I felt like there was no way these techniques could be helpful, but my supervisors also kept telling me the strategies were evidence-based, and I’m into evidence. One of the nice things about teaching is that you see there are a lot of philosophies about education, a lot of different ways of doing things. The way I was asked to teach reading while I was in Americorps was one type of teaching, one approach–but it isn’t the only one out there.

M: And so like philosophies in general, there is no one philosophy which can be said to be the philosophy.

K: Exactly. One school of thought has evidence, and they think their evidence is better than another school of thought’s evidence, sometimes there’s evidence that both work, and a lot of times the research is just bad, and there is research that is called evidence, but when you look at it you’re like, this is not that conclusive, this was not that well done, this is not many kids, you didn’t control for other things

M: Having some evidence doesn’t mean having conclusive facts.

K: Right, it’s not the truth. You’re trying to get at the truth, but you have to acknowledge that you can’t get directly at it, where it’s black and white and you’re done.

M: In your current role as Research Analyst, you work with statistics a lot.

K: [laughs] Part of my background definitely informs the way I think about research now. When I talk to K-12 educators and explain that I do evaluation and assessment in libraries, they assume that I am doing something very different from what I’m doing, because they have the experience of public school assessment, feeling that data should be the be-all and end-all, and that test data for example shows whether you’re a good school or not. I always see it as more complicated than that. It helps that I taught at a really, wonderfully weird school after AmeriCorps, and saw alternative educational philosophies in action and working really well.

M: Tell me about that school.

K: After Americorps, I moved back to Colorado and got this job at this weird/alternative school, largely because I had worked in this restrictive reading system that was so prescribed and wanted the opposite of that. And I literally saw an ad in the paper, which makes me feel old now, that said “A school for creative learning” – and I was like, creativity – that’s what was missing. I did an initial phone interview, and I tried to call the Head of School mister, and he was like, oh no, we’re on a first name basis between staff and with students. I thought, these people are radical. [Laughs]

M: How long did you work there for?

K: Five years. I loved that model. I was an assistant teacher and was paired with someone who was a licensed and experienced teacher. It’s like an elementary school model in that you have your kids the majority of the time. Maybe a couple hours every day or every other day they will go to an elective or for math, but the rest of the time they’re with you, and you’re also with the other teacher, so you have to get along pretty well. The teacher I worked with is a fantastic human and was a fantastic mentor because he really got it that I didn’t need to be the same as him to be good at teaching. He said, you’re not going to do it the same as me because we have different personalities, you have to figure out who you are as a teacher, and I can give you feedback on what’s working and what I’m seeing, but don’t just try to copy me, because that won’t work. You have to be yourself, especially with middle schoolers, because they smell inauthenticity.

M: What was the curriculum like? It sounds from what you’ve said before that it was very free.

K: Well, you need some structure, because too much freedom means nobody learns. You need discipline, routine, and accountability. One of the things they did at that school that I really liked was students picked their own focus topic for the year, much like in my poetry intensive. Part of the reason you have two teachers in a classroom is you write individual curriculums for specific students. Sometimes that curriculum has been written before, because it turns out that some topics are perennially popular among kiddos. But some of them are totally new. One of my favorite ones – because I’m a nerd – a kid was studying Star Wars. They could pick anything as long as we could build a curriculum around it and we thought it was age appropriate. There were just a couple instances that a kiddo wanted to study something that we thought was going to be emotionally traumatic.

M: Like what?

K: We had a kiddo who wanted to study medieval torture.

M: That’s very specific.

K: I was researching, planning the curriculum, and I was like, this is really upsetting. I feel like I relate to getting interested about something like that when I go down these research holes, especially if it’s scary. Like I was reading about raw milk the other day, and how people sometimes die from drinking raw milk, which has to do with e-coli and kidney failure, so then I’m learning a lot about kidney failure. I can kind of see how you’re learning about the middle ages and you go to a museum and they allude to torture, and a part of your brain is like, this is a scary thing makes you want to learn more about it to control it or prepare for it.

M: Well, people are fascinated by the morbid. It’s understandable, but a bit shocking that a child would be that interested in that subject.

K: To some extent it’s great that they are curious and feel open enough to tell us about that curiosity, but a middle schooler is 12 or 14 years old and an emotionally developing human still. They might not have all the coping skills we would want them to have to do that kind of research and not have it impact them negatively. And that’s why we said no to that topic–in that situation, we felt like we couldn’t provide enough emotional safety for it to be a positive learning experience. Working with the student, we decided to broaden their topic to the Medieval time period in general which provided a lot more context.

[Katie has some tips on taking care of yourself while doing research, which you can read more about here.]

M: I can sort of see how Star Wars would offer a lot of educational avenues.

K: Yes, that was super fun. We talked a lot about rebels, and I had the student do a comparison of the American Revolution. The best navy in the world and these scrappy rebels – it doesn’t seem like it should have worked, really. I also had someone study American history through art and literature, which was right up my alley. I also taught art there too, so I could ask them to try and do a painting, say, in the style of Winslow Homer.

M: No mean feat!

K: Totally. We had some very talented students. Creative.

M: That seems to be the word of the day. What does that word – creative – mean for you?

K: I think being open minded about things and exploratory, willing to discover something new and think about something differently. To see where it leads you and push the boundaries of how you’ve been thinking or how everyone else has been thinking. It’s funny that in teaching they say you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Somebody already wrote an assignment on that, you should reference it. And I love reinventing the wheel. I don’t want to borrow it, I want to make it myself, anew. Because if I’m borrowing it, I’m following someone else’s rules, but if I’m starting over, then maybe I’ll come up with something novel. Maybe I won’t, but at least I will have thought about it for myself. Teaching middle schoolers in a small school is one of the most rewarding things I’ve done because you see your impact. I run into students occasionally. Like my Star Wars kiddo, I saw him at a concert, and he told me he is still working on drawing because I really encouraged him to draw. And I was like, what?! That feels amazing.

M: So, tell me, what do you do at the State Library?

[Both laugh]

K: I support libraries and library staff to do research and evaluations largely on their programs. On a day-to-day basis, sometimes I have data from a project that we’ve already collected, and I’m analysing that data, which really is just looking for patterns. So, with numbers data I run statistical analysis. Right now I have a lot of not-numbers data, and we have to code that data so we can look at them as a whole. Then we have other projects where we’re still in the planning stages of: what is it we want to know, and what data do we need to collect to be able to answer that question?

M: Does that leave room to be creative?

K: Oh yeah. I enjoy the creativity of designing the study. That’s the reinventing the wheel part, looking at what’s been done before. I just finished the last part of this project that has been going almost from when I first started working here, which is that we observed children during library programming for their social and emotional skills. And that gets very creative, because you have to ask, what are social and emotional skills? We developed a rubric on that, where we needed to be curious and had to adapt. It’s almost always messy and never goes like I planned, and some part of the evaluation design that I thought was going to be great just flops. So you have to think on your feet. You have to be open. Sometimes you fail. I’ve learned things, like smiley face surveys for kids don’t work. And I feel like I could have realized that before I used them, I could have found that in the literature, but I didn’t. That’s part of it, accepting some of those failures along the way and learning from them.

[If you’d like to know more about social and emotional learning in libraries, an article about this project was recently published here.]

M: Do you still write poetry?

K: Sometimes, when I have a very strong feeling. Poetry is my best coping tool. I write poetry on everything.

M: What is poetic about your LRS work?

K: I recently had a meeting with a library team I’m working with, and the team was talking so passionately about the important issues that their library is facing and that they wanted to make better that I started to tear up. That passion and commitment and love of their communities certainly has a poetry to it. And, this is going to sound so dorky, but to me research has a sort of poetry to it. When you start writing a poem, you think it’s going to be about one thing. And then you get to the end of the poem and it turned out to be about something else. It takes you in its own direction. You have to be open to it.

Michael Peever