Positivity and Patience

A self-described Pollyanna relies upon a talented staff and engaged community
Atlanta, TX
Jackie Icenhower

In this case study, we're discussing Edge Benchmark #1: Libraries provide assistance and training with the goal of increasing the level of digital literacy in the community.

Jackie Icenhower is the Library Director at Atlanta Public Library (APL) in Atlanta, TX,  a small, suburban library. Her primary responsibilities are managing personnel and budget, but because the site offers cross-training, she is capable of fulfilling any job responsibilities at the facility, should the need arise.

According to Jackie, APL achieves many of the indicators under Benchmark 1. Staff conduct training on basic computer skills, Office productivity software, Internet searching, privacy and security, and social media. The do not currently teach classes on library resources or on multi-media (e.g. photo, video, and audio) because, as Jackie explains, "we have the curriculum, we’re waiting for people to sign up for a class. We have 4 or 5 [signed up] and we’d like more than that."

The library provides individual assistance for digital literacy at all outlets in one-on-one sessions, satisfying all of the indicators listed except they hold all of their classes in English.

What made your library successful?

In terms of meeting all of the indicators under Indicator 1, Jackie noted that she "was really surprised that we offered as many as we do." She attributes part of that success to a BTOP (Broadband Technologies Opportunities Program) grant, which funded a laptop lab that enabled the library to provide computer classes on a larger scale. Prior to the grant, APL had offered computer classes, as needed, on a one-on-one basis. The session topics were determined by the patrons. But since the introduction of the laptop lab, Jackie noted, they have "really opened up and the community response has been ‘ridiculous.'"

For the first class, they planned to use 18 of the 20 laptops to cover the basics, such as e-mail and Internet, followed by a class on Microsoft Word. But the response was greater than expected. As Jackie explained,

We filled up that class. And we thought well, we have so many waiting, that we opened up another section. We filled that up, and still had a waiting list for the next round of classes.”

She attributes APL’s success to the staff’s willingness to take risks. In the absence of an IT person, she says that she often has to “learn as she goes” but isn’t afraid to try new things.

Finally, APL has a "good, but small equipment budget" that helps purchase some new computers with current software. Staff rely on TechSoup for much of its software upgrades.

What did you learn during this process?

Jackie "never dreamed" that patrons and the community at large would respond so enthusiastically to APL’s classes. For example, when staff took a brief hiatus from offering classes in the summer of 2012, the library still received regular phone calls from patrons, asking about schedules. During this hiatus, a volunteer with a sincere love of teaching came forward and offered to teach a computer course. This event taught Jackie that "the community is just there. And so many times you don't realize it, you don't know until something like this happens. The need presents itself. The volunteers present themselves. They kind of restore one’s faith in humanity."

She also learned to take advantage of several resources to help develop course curricula. For example, as a former teacher, Jackie had relied, in part, on textbooks. But in the absence of textbooks, she found that the GFC LearnFree website (http://www.gcflearnfree.org/) was extremely helpful, because it provided a curriculum and structure. She added, "You push play and it even has the exercises. It is perfect for what I was doing." She continued,

I love it because it has videos. It has enough to start discussions. I tend to teach more through discussion and question and answer. It introduces enough information to get the students interested and asking questions so that usually we can take one of their videos and follow through with the slides and that reinforces what they saw in the video and it also gives them an opportunity to ask questions."

To inform a class on job skills and resumes, they subscribed to Resume Maker, which offers videos, a step-by-step tutorial on building resumes, and offers information on the interview process.

Where did you run into trouble?

APL ran into some roadblocks before they were able to roll out the training. For example, prior to the BTOP grant that funded the laptops, staff had applied for another BTOP grant that would have financed a faster Internet connection; however, the library didn’t qualify because its Internet speed was just above the threshold.

Shortly after APL was disqualified for the grant, the site’s Internet speed slowed down considerably. The library was built back in 1929 and refurbished back in 1986 and its infrastructure is quite outdated. Jackie contacted the Internet provider to let them know what was happening and explain that the slow connection was unacceptable, given the demands of a library. She told the Internet provider, "If I have to lay fiber and put it in myself, whatever it takes, I've got to have connectivity." But over a year passed with no results, and that provider was – and still is – their only option. Staff ended up not being able to use the computer lab to offer classes until March 2012.

When they did begin teaching classes, Jackie explained that it could be tricky for some staff to learn how to teach other adults who may only have had experience teaching children and teens. For example, she explained that classroom management can be challenging when an adult isn’t paying attention. "As long as they don’t cause a disruption, class can proceed as scheduled. You have to accept that these are adults and it is their choice to take advantage of a learning opportunity."  However, when other students’ choices are limited by one student’s behavior, that unacceptable behavior must be addressed.  Jackie shared, "a quiet chat in the hall or an invitation to go somewhere other than the classroom is in order."

Another challenge Jackie shared was making sure the right folks with the appropriate skill level are signed up for the right class. "One problem we discovered is you can’t tell adults very easily ‘you don’t need to sign up for this Microsoft Word class when you’re having troubles with the mouse.’ That has been a real challenge for us. You don’t want to leave feeling discouraged." Another issue is some folks show up to class just to be social, not to necessarily to learn a new skill.

How did you overcome those challenges?

Jackie’s approach to helping her staff teach patrons of all ages was to model patience and positivity. "If you’ve ever taught a class to adults, you know that positivity and patience are just basic needs. There’s going to be one in every single class who doesn’t pay attention and asks questions later."

Jackie has learned that playing games or practicing during class are good methods to capture the attention of those students who are straying from the topic at hand. She added that during a game a trainer can also offer some individual help to students.

While they don't feel like they've solved the issue of getting the right people into the right class, Jackie shared that they've tried encouraging students to take a more basic class to help them "review" their skills. Sometimes using a gentler approach so students don't feel like they're behind can ease them into the right class. She admits it's still a challenge for APL. As for those students who see class time as social time, Jackie offers a generous and smart solution:

Realize who is there simply to have some place to go and be with people. They don't care if they're taking computer classes or not; they are there just to socialize." Jackie suggests "teach her something while she's there. Give her as many opportunities to socialize as possible. Because there are times in class where we need to take a break, where we need to get together and help one another do something. Try to meet her needs as much as possible and meet my needs too, because I want her to learn something."

Internet speed and connectivity was another challenge; at the time of the interview, Jackie had heard the library wouldn’t be getting cable Internet until February of 2013. But her positivity and patience also helped tackle this challenge. As she explained, "You are going to have problems. [You need to] go with the flow."

What was the key to your success?

One key to APL’s success has been the city’s support. "In my prior life as an educator," Jackie shared, "I knew what it was like to work with no support from your superiors.  When I interviewed for this job, I was determined  to find out just what kind of manager I was interviewing."  She never wanted to be in a situation again with management who would "throw her under the bus."  She explained, "When I was hired on, my city manager told me my job is to hire people that can do the job, and then to step back and let them do their job." This was good advice, a tip Jackie heeded. She carefully vetted and hired colleagues who constitute what she deemed "the perfect staff" – and then let them do their job. Trust is key to set up her staff to thrive. She noted that staff "have kicked in and covered for her" when she’s busy, provided opinions, and served as "a kind of reality check." She added, "they are right there behind me, with me, beside me."

What advice would you give to a colleague?

Jackie suggests that librarians take advantage of resources like TechSoup. She added, "take advantage of everything they offer, because that is where we get so much of our software. Our patrons come in and they have the latest Windows Edition. They have the latest Microsoft Office suite. They have the stuff available to them that any large library anywhere would have, and that's all because of TechSoup."

In terms of classes, she recommended that librarians don't reinvent the wheel. For example, she explained that she spent a great deal of time trying to develop her own curriculum before she discovered comprehensive, pre-packaged curriculum online that both suited her needs and saved her an inordinate amount of time.

What 3 steps would you tell a colleague to start doing now?

  1. Just start. "We kept talking about the need for larger-scale classes but just couldn’t make ourselves take the first step.  Even if the first classes are not perfect, they are better than what you have right now."
  2. Dream big. "When we first decided what to request with the BTOP grant, we were a bit dazzled with what big plans we had. I now know so much more that we should have thought to include. If you are unsure, ask someone who has already done it.  State library staff and other librarians around the state are eager to share information."
  3. Keep at it. Jackie advises colleagues who are either just getting started or are losing steam to take risks and not get discouraged. She shared, "It’s so easy [to get discouraged]. Many times we’ve said, 'I wonder if we could just give all this back and not play? I don’t want to play anymore. I want to take my dolls and go home.'" But when staff receive an enthusiastic response, such as the patrons’ reaction to APL’s first couple of classes they offered, or when pre- and post-tests demonstrate students are improving, then, according to Jackie, "it is so worth it."

Jackie is determined to meet all the indicators under Benchmark One.

As a self-described Pollyanna who is actively positive and enthusiastic, Jackie Icenhower has either found a means for APL to achieve each of the indicators under Benchmark 1 or is determined to find a way to do it. She relies upon a can-do attitude, but also support from a staff that she describes as "wonderful" and a community that is often eager to pitch in.

by Jennifer Anthony