I'm going to let teachers in on a little secret. One of your best allies in top-notch instruction is your school librarian.
However, it always amazes me how many teachers fail to think of the librarian as a teaching partner. Sure, at the elementary level, visits to the library are often automatically scheduled. Kids trot in to hear stories and to check out books. Some librarians also teach research skills. Going to the library is fun.
But by the middle school, interest in the library often seems to wane, both on the part of students and teachers — that is unless someone has assigned a research paper. Kids who love books will usually find the library, but by now those students who don't love books never make their way into the library unless forced, or if they need to use a computer to print something. At the high school, and perhaps even somewhat at the collegiate level, library underutilization is common. In fact, there's this idea that, as ebooks take hold and consume more market share, brick and mortar libraries will be going the way of Borders bookstores. Google hasn't helped either. Who needs to check out a book when there's a website?
Worse, as school districts tighten their belts, smaller districts with fewer students or poorer districts with less money will often cut the library budget and even the library hours. I've been in districts where multiple schools share one librarian, which means that a school has a librarian on campus maybe once a week.
Librarians are aware of the uphill battle they face in a modern age of electronic media and they've embraced the challenge. This is why they've become your secret weapon.
First, it's important to realize that librarians are not obsolete in anyway whatsoever. Usually voracious readers, librarians are often a student's or a teacher's best resource in getting book recommendations. Librarians don't get to spend money willy nilly, meaning that they truly work to select the best resources, whether they be print or digital. Librarians are usually gurus at making budget dollars stretch.
Second, before you assign the next project, go collaborate with a librarian. School librarians were often teachers themselves at one point. They understand what goes on in classrooms. Thus they can assist teachers in assessing the feasibility of an idea and they can help in assessing how long the project or assignment will take. They can help you set goals and design the learning to be contemporary and relevant. They can offer suggestions as to what resources to require students to use. Early collaboration also allows for a teacher to write concrete and thorough directions for the task the students are to complete.
Even at a collegiate level this preplanning is a good teaching strategy. Many times I had projects that the professor assigned that could have used some tweaking. At the high school level and below, preplanning is essential. The librarians where I teach are both national board certified. There is no way I will ever say I know more than a librarian about the library materials and how to use them — I'm not that foolish. It's amazing how even at my local library when I can't find something it takes the librarian only two seconds to nab it. Same at my school.
I consider my school librarian a team teacher. Often we will design projects together where she focuses on the research portion and the MLA formatting and I focus on the synthesizing of the research and the student writing. We will often score the projects together, allowing for double the feedback for the students. In our partnership, we each play to our strengths, and we work together to support the students throughout the learning process.
Collaboration is important and benefits both the students and me. I will be honest; I am not the queen of the databases like my librarian. She knows how to work them and how to search them. For some projects we require the students use one book, one database and one website source. I also have the librarian teach website evaluations, or as the kids call it, why you can't just use Wikipedia for everything.
Just keep in mind that, when planning, you should try to give the librarian more than 24 hours notice. I often work with my librarians a few months in advance.
Like you, librarians want to assist students. They want to help, whether it is something as simple as finding a book or assisting in deep research. Their goal is to promote reading and the love of learning. A bonus in all our collaborative efforts is that we promote the relevancy of the library. Like my librarian told me, there will always be people who can't afford their own books, book readers or computers. For those who can, librarians are still there to offer personal assistance. So work with your librarian. Our goals are the same: to create lifelong learners and readers.
P.S.: Recently I attended an event at my local library, which as part of its speaker series for young readers invited Margaret Peterson Haddix. My younger daughter, the reluctant reader, was the one wanting to go. The room was packed and the young kids in the audience treated her like a rock star. She was gracious enough to sign every book. Libraries remain relevant so use your librarian shamelessly. They want to help.