Things students have said to / about me this summer…

Student: Why aren’t you a teacher? You should be a teacher!

Me: Well, lovely student, funny thing… I am a teacher.

Student: Why you doing this, then?

Me: Because I love this. Because this is as worthy as teaching. Because I think I can help people doing this. More than I helped them when teaching. Because I also still get to teach in this role. Because… Michael Gove.


Student: Jo, it’s June.

Me: Yup, I know. It’s come around quickly, hasn’t it?

Student: What? Yeah. No, I mean, you haven’t changed the Riddles of the Month. Where are this month’s riddles?!”

Turns out things you think aren’t gaining traction have actually taken root.


Student: Can we play [insert name of game] again?

Me: Sure. I’ve got 5 minutes.

Student: Can you let me win this time?

Me: Awwww. (Sympathetic noises). No. It’s not in my DNA.

Student: Right. We’re playing chess, then, because you don’t win that.”


Student: Is it safe to talk?

Me: (Concerned and receptive face and body language). Of course. Are you ok?

Student: Eh? Oh, yes. No, I meant have you seen episode [insert number relating to Game of Thrones season 8] yet? I need to talk about it; there’s so many things I need to get off my chest.


Student: (Walking into library) LA LA LA LA LA LA LA! (Jamming fingers into his ears) LA LA LA LA LA LA!

Me: (Yelling) What are you doing?

Student: I haven’t seen Endgame or Game of Thrones episode [insert number] yet so the library is dangerous. Don’t ruin them for me.

Me: I would never (absolute horror registered on my face and appropriately melodramatic hand gestures).

Student: No, I know you wouldn’t. It’s all the other [naughty word, rhymes with cluckers] I don’t trust. LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA!


Me: (Helping out a series of students with chargers, Sharpies, laptops, punched pockets – also called, slippery fish – books, stapler remover, scissors, glue, every ramification of paper and a drink…)

Student: Jo’s the plug (to the room, very loudly).

Me: Eh?

Really wasn’t sure what to make of it. Initially, my mind wandered to the cute Christmas advert by Sainsbury’s… Was I like the little plug-boy, bringing joy and light to all?

That thought didn’t last long. I was suspicious but I did not want to Google it at work in case it breached our appropriate use of IT policy and set off sirens, triggered flashy lights and angered the Computer Services team. So I waited until I got home.

Apparently, it means someone in the know who can connect you to what you need. I quite liked it – seems like a pretty accurate description of librarianship. That was until I checked further sources (I am a nearly-librarian, after all) which stated the plug hooks people up to drug dealers.

No. No. No. Dislike. I also didn’t enjoy that I’ve become that old, I had to verify colloquialisms.

Just a quickie

No – not that kind. No time for that. Get your mind out of the gutter.

This is a blog about not taking my own advice: prioritisation.

Mum messaged this week to ask how I am getting on. She knows well enough to check in but not expect much in return at this time of the year 😂 Thanks for your patience, Mum.

Usually, in the spring, I balance two jobs: teaching (past) / library assistant (present ) + working for an exam board. Actually, in the past, this has been multiple exam boards at the same time. I’m not allowed to say which one, which exam or what role I have. Top secret stuff. Suffice to say, it’s a very busy, high-stakes role with lots of travel and overnight visits. Those who know me well understand that I thrive under pressure and love challenge. My internal wiring is clearly weird but it might be a McKenna trait. We’re all a bit now-now-now. My spring is always hectic but I always get it done.

Anyway, last year, I decided to throw caution to the wind and tried balancing three things: library assistant + secret exam board role + my MA. At least the MA assignments were submitted pretty early and I was back to just two stressful and simultaneous activities. I managed it all in the McKenna manner.

This year? Well. Here’s something I said during one of the fantastic, monthly chats for new professionals, in the Twitterverse.

*Laugh hysterically and knowingly here* Obviously, this is a not-very-subtle example of foreshadowing so, as I’m sure you predicted, I did not heed my own counsel.

2019 spring = library assistant + new work Twitter account + secret exam role + straightforward MA module assignment + MA module that requires hundreds of separate tasks and a frightening level of introspection and self-reflection which I find uncomfortable + the small matter of my dissertation research involving 6 (wonderful) FE colleges + two conferences.*

So when Mum reached out across the universe to check I was still on the planet…

Will I get it all done? Not sure. I feel like I’m at that part in the movie when the soundtrack is super tense, getting louder and faster. There are a lot of drums. It’s underpinned by that opening wail from Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song. I wish I could fast forward through a jolly montage, set to Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5, featuring me working at superhuman speed, eating ice cream, in my PJs and donning a messy bun – popping out the other side brandishing my bound dissertation for submission.

Alas, this is pure fantasy; thus, I apologise in advance to my wife, nephew, Mum, family and friends for my absence / mood / stress / forgetfulness [please delete as appropriate].

* You’re probably wondering why I’m blogging about it all instead of just getting on with it. It’s cathartic to moan, alright?!

More than a display (part 2)

No big long introduction – see part 1 for my ideological rant.

Purpose: supporting student wellbeing

The #WhaamTheExams campaign is focused on supporting students through this stressful season. It has a weekly theme, delivering freebies and help for getting organised, revision methods, health, mindfulness and fun.

We’ve also placed herbs on each table from our wonderful horticulture team. They can be touched, smelt or even eaten. Each is purported to have different benefits such as relaxation, clarity, energy and calmness.

(Related to Ranganathan’s fifth law and the College’s mantra of students first.)

Purpose: promotion of reading

Each year, The Reading Agency promotes World Book Night in colleges, prisons, public libraries, hospitals, care homes, shelters… its core aim is to improve adult literacy. I like to view it as World Book Day for grown ups, usually minus the fancy dress.

This year, we ran a staff shelfie competition to demonstrate to the students that staff read and own books. We also had an origami station, making and decorating one-minute-bookmarks. Once the student had a bookmark, they were nudged to borrow a book so that they could use it.

In 2018, we encouraged the wider college community to donate good-quality, unwanted books and magazines. From these, we created a lucky dip. Any student could take and unwrap an item as long as they promised to either read it or find it a good home if it wasn’t their cup of tea. Over the week, we gifted over 70 items.

Reading Ahead is an annual reading challenge, also organised by The Reading Agency, to encourage patrons (in our case, students) to read 6 items: books, articles, poems, quick reads. To help break down barriers to reading, and in keeping with the campus’ ethos, we branded the challenge as #BooksAndBeasts. Students, staff and our online community were challenged to send us photos of their animals reading.

These were then turned into posters and put up everywhere on campus.

The physical display included some of these images, plus an array of animal-related reading material (quick reads, picture books, novels, magazines, visual books, reference books) and many, many toy animals.

Essentially, because it’s an annual campaign and some of our students are with us for 2 to 4 years, it’s important to adapt the marketing materials produced by The Reading Agency by adding our own, unique hook – otherwise, it can become too familiar and not enticing. It worked as we’ve had well over 70 participants.

(Ranganathan’s laws: all of them).

Purpose: connecting the library and its students to the real world

Many of our students have never met anyone who makes a living from or has a career in writing; I’m not sure they connect the book they’re holding or article they’re being told they have to read to an actual person. This may be particularly true for those students who are on the cycle of resitting GCSE English and have, therefore, fallen out of love with words.

We celebrated World Poetry Day back in March. Whilst most students grumble that they hate poetry, as a teacher, I know it has the power to unleash creativity and, when introduced in the right way, can be accessible for everyone. After all, it has no rules. We linked the national day of celebration to our existing stock and, in fact, boosted our slim poetry collection by donating some of our own books from home, including a heavily annotated copy of Sylvia Plath’s poems (in my brother’s hand and then mine for our respective A Levels in ’96 and ’99!); a copy of “Moon Whales” signed by Ted Hughes and Chris Riddell, which I won in ’95 as the result of a national poetry competition; and “Mostly Hating Tories” written by my wife’s friend, Janine Booth – an honest, sweary and political collection of poems.

The unusual location of the display, the use of black and the hanging sign meant it display stood out and received a lot of attention. I’d also labelled the books with faux warnings about their sensitive content… which of course meant students picked them up to read. * wink *

In addition , we ran a Blackout Poetry competition inspired by Matt, a Year 6 teacher on Twitter (@5GsPlz). More on how to write Blackout Poetry here. I warn you: it’s addictive. We worked hard with the GCSE English teachers to engage the resit students – in the end, they had multiple trips to the library during their lesson time. We also had entries from many other students, staff and visitors to the campus!

The climax of the whole poetry celebration was an event called “Poetry in the Library.” We sent bespoke invitation postcards to teaching staff and senior management to encourage them to visit. Simon Zec, a local poet, was with us all day. He performed poems, took questions about writing and his process and judged the 70 competition entries! He also wrote a poem dedicated to Brinsbury. It was brilliant to watch students’ body language transform from “do we have to be here?” to “actually, this guy is talking sense.” It was literally possible to track the engagement shift in each session from leaning away / to leaning in \ . Magic.

Over the coming month, we will also display the students’ Blackout Poems in the library, meaning each student will be given a public audience.

This display related to physical stock, a competition enabling students to be creative and play with language, connections across the college and the community and an event.

(Ranganathan’s laws: all of them but especially the third law as we helped the poetry books to find readers!).

More than a display (part 1)

We’ve spent a lot of time this year working on displays in the library. My brilliant boss and I both herald from careers in the classroom so we may have a different outlook on displays from others in the library profession? Or at the very least different experiences?

I would contentiously argue that a display is pointless: in itself it has no meaning. It is merely the hook or outside shell for what you’re really trying to achieve. Any display that is purely for display’s sake will fail (of course it will… because it won’t have an aim).

Ranganathan’s five laws of librarianship were written nearly a hundred years ago in 1931 but I feel they are still relevant today. I also believe the most effective displays are related to at least one of his laws. The brackets below show how his laws can be modernised.

1. Books (information / materials) are for use.

2. Every person their book (information / material).

3. Every book (Information / material) its reader.

4. Save the time of the reader.

5. A library is a growing organism.

The best way to prove show my point is with some examples.

Purpose: showcasing the stock

As part of our push to get more students reading for pleasure, behold… Bookflix. An idea pinched from the Twitterverse. We spent a long time accruing the right books: some purchased, some donated, some pulled from existing stock, some borrowed from our other campus. It was also important that we included a range of authors, content and genres: women, LGBT, BAME, drama, fantasy and so on. This theme has worked brilliantly as a book because students have been able to talk about and recommend the books based on their viewing experiences. We plan to use it on alternate years.

Anecdotally, this display has had more stock borrowed from it than any other stock-based display; hence this update which at least amused me. Since its creation, five or six books have been consistently on loan.

As part of our Christmas display, student and staff were encouraged to write to the library elves to recommend new books for us to source. This resulted in 20+ new items, each of which has paper sash to indicate who recommended it.

(Related to Ranganathan’s laws 1 – 3).

Purpose: stakeholder engagement

A member of staff said this would be a fun regular feature so we enacted his suggestion and visitors to the library or our Twitter feed have a go. We’ve also link it to English and Maths skills some months to support the GCSE team. A monthly turnover is achievable and it’s often a talking point when the new riddles go up.

(Linked to Ranganathan’s fifth law).

Purpose: managing social use of the space

Each of these displays is focused on giving our students something to do when they have down time: break, lunch, free periods, waiting for the bus. Lots of them play games or ask me to join in (I’m very competitive and offer no free passes!). Staff have also engaged with the games, using them as lesson warm-ups or as part of personal and social sessions. Lots of the materials have come from our personal collections because my boss and I both have lofts and cupboards full of junk useful items from our teaching days and the horror that was wet play.

Our Creation Station has proved that students are origami and Lego obsessed. We’ve often used the colouring in to help a student calm down or to distract them from issues. It’s also easy to make the Station reflect college or national events and holidays.

Essentially, these displays have really helped to forge healthy relationships between the library team and students but they’ve also been integral with behaviour management.

I also want to point out that only three people have beaten me at Boggle in the last year.

(Related to Ranganathan’s fifth law).

Purpose: supporting learning outcomes

Granted, this Maths and English display is not the prettiest but it is an example of how we support curriculum teams with student outcomes. It changes monthly to reflect the teaching content of GCSE English and Maths and advertises support and revision activities. We also display our revision stock and this is very specific: we choose guides that cover the monthly themes and also indicate which pages have relevant activities. I’ve recently learned that this process can be called surfacing – bringing some of the stock out of its normal place and putting it in the foreground.

(Related to Ranganathan’s fourth law).

This display was focussed on our Horticulture and Arboriculture students. The plant matter was from around campus and we coupled it with the plant and animal pamphlets specifically used for identification. Not only did it demonstrate the stock (Ranganathan’s first and third law), it also supported students with learning outcomes as this was the time of year their coursework entailed identification work.

(Ranganathan’s second and fourth laws).

Purpose: promoting services and guerrilla marketing!

There are many spaces around campus that attract students or offer them somewhere else to study; the HE room is one such space. I now visit regularly to tidy it up and display our services. The examples above include support leaflets for our digital content and what the library does over the exam season to help students.

During our Love Your Library campaign and Reading Ahead (national promotion of reading for pleasure), we delivered materials to many public areas: Costa, English classrooms, photocopier room, toilets and the post room. We also delivered paper flowers and signage to reception when the reception staff were at a meeting so that they returned to decorated desks. Slowly but surely, we’re trying to take over the campus. In a good way, not like a virus.

(Supports Ranganathan’s fifth law).

Purpose: engaging with our community.

A stunning display by my colleagues at the other campus. These books were made by students as part of their level 3 art and design course. The library then exhibited them and integrated some of our own stock. It was a brilliant way of supporting students and academic departments, at the same time as driving up footfall to the library because people came to see them.

(Ranganathan’s second, third and fifth laws).

Purpose: promotion of services

Rather than telling the staff and students all about what the library can do for them, we ran a month long campaign in February called Love Your Library. Staff and students were encouraged to participate in various ways, including by leaving us love notes! The whole library was saturated with homemade paper flowers and love hearts – it was a display that visitors couldn’t fail to notice.

(All of Ranganathan’s laws).

I’ll have some additional examples for part 2.

Strange stuff I’ve learned from students this spring

*** GRIM IMAGES at the bottom of the blog: you have been warned. ***

I fully appreciate that most of this won’t be strange or novel to many of you but here are a few of the things students have taught me over the last term.


A term to describe mammals in the horse family and this includes donkeys. Sounds like a Dr Who villain to me.


There are four types of injections: intravenous (into the vein), intramuscular (into the muscle), subcutaneous (into the tissue) and intradermal (into the skin, specifically the dermis).

Zoonotic parasites

Parasites that can transfer from animals to humans. They might act differently when living on or in their human host compared to their animal host. This makes me feel very itchy.

Scale rule

You can buy a ruler with scaled measurements already printed on it to help you with engineering, architectural drawings and landscape gardening.

Canine pulse checking

You take a dog’s pulse on the inside of its thigh – or as we call it in this household, its chicken-leg. For an explanation of where the chicken-leg nickname came from, please refer to my model, Maggie: she’s posing to show you what I mean… None of these shots are the aforementioned grim photos; you still have that joy to come.


A shrub is defined as having multiple stems and being under 6 metres in height but mostly a shrub is a shrub because it’s not a tree. But a shrub can also be a tree. This is about as clear as the rules for cricket.


I cannot believe this actually has a real life purpose beyond tricky GCSE maths questions. I helped students to use tan to calculate the gradient of run-offs for garden designs. That’s quite possibly the first time I’ve used it in twenty years.

Carburettor (or carburetor)

An engine gizmo but not used in modern cars because they were replaced with fuel injection systems. A carburettor mixes air with fuel – described to me as the French Shaker of a car engine. I did question the choice of metaphor given that drinking and driving is (rightly) a no-no. The response was that, just like a cocktail, the right mixing leads to magic.

Ruminant digestion

The ruminant digestive system appears in creatures such as cows and deer to help them consume plant matter. They have four, yes FOUR, stomach chambers to help break down their food. Please note, I have three: food stomach, cheese stomach and chocolate stomach.

Companion set

This is the proper name for those forged iron tools you use to poke and prod a fire. I like it because it sounds a little quaint.

And finally…

Caudal autotomy

Self amputation. No, really. Some creatures can shed or discard an appendage to evade a predator or due to injury.

I was shown the photos of Lexie, a student’s lizard, who had dropped her tail the night before due to a miscommunication with the family dog. Dropping the tail sounds swift and accidental – the process is neither. Lexie spent some time with the tip of her tail clamped in her jaw, tearing it away from the main bulk. After this tale (you may laugh, that was a pun) and the shock of these photos, I chose to skip my lunch. This function is simultaneously genius and gross.


Are you sure?

Brace yourself…

What research feels like…

I’m sure it doesn’t feel like this to everyone else but I’ve had three very similar situations recently and they’ve all felt the same.

Situation 1: building up to my MA dissertation proposal.
Situation 2: tentatively figuring out a PhD proposal, working alongside someone I admire (and who is so very, very clever).
Situation 3: being challenged to write my own assignment question for a topic about which I knew nothing less than nothing.

I’d probably say that these are unintentionally ranked in terms of my levels of confidence – and it surprises me that the PhD proposal felt a little less daunting than the assignment question!

As a passionate reader, English graduate and teacher of English, I frequently fall into figurative language to explain how I’m feeling, so bear with me. Also, I apologise in advance if you are a meteorologist and this analogy is flawed at best and laughably inaccurate at worst.

In each of these situations, the initial research experience felt as though I was staggering into a tornado, clutching a sparrow egg of an idea. Initially, I cradled the tiny egg, keen to keep it safe but its fragility wasn’t the only issue; I also had to travel unscathed through the swirling debris of distraction, other people’s ideas and literature. Eventually, after being turned around, pushed back and, once or twice, knocked down, I made it to the middle. The eye. Everything was still spinning and eddying around me but, at last, I could hear my own thoughts and catch my breath. Not only that, the egg was close to hatching.

Image result for in the eye of the storm

All was well.

Except for the fact, so close to the birth of the idea, I then had to exit the tornado, through the violent vortex again. The fear of losing the egg was more tangible and pressing on the second leg of the journey because it was closer to hatching. What if it struggled through the shell only for the hatchling to be crushed before it had gulped its first breath? Leaving the storm was harder than entering it because the twisting, churning mess was comprised of my own self-doubt and imposter-syndrome. If it all went wrong at this point, it would be at my own clumsy hand.

Along the way, I have developed some techniques to cope with the experience of journeying into the research storm, particularly with help from my personal tutor and some excellent mentors. I have no idea how to work on exiting the storm or the aspect that should be (theoretically, at least) within my control: me.

Blagging it or is that the point?

I work for a large college group. Each site is relatively specialised and the campus I’m on features a lot of land-based and industry courses. This makes it absolutely the best place to work; it’s such a beautiful setting.

Some days, when I amble across campus, I’ll see a horse or two, someone carrying a ferret, a tractor, students swinging from trees with chainsaws (it’s alright – it’s part of their arboriculture course), nursery school students in a neat walking crocodile as they collect pinecones and horticulture students building bug hotels. All this against a soundscape of clanging from the forge, revving from the garage and sawing in the carpentry workshop.

Naturally, this range of courses means we receive a myriad of information requests each day from students and staff, with needs spanning learning, research, professional development and teaching. We run courses on a very wide spectrum from level 1 BTECs to level 6 HNDs. My degree is in English and Theatre Studies and I spent the first 14 years of my working life teaching English. My area of expertise includes pathetic fallacy, spliced commas, anthropomorphism and the semantic field. I can spot synecdoche and allegory from ten paces. Do I know anything about swim bladder, the diagnostic processes for feline renal failure, bombproofing horses (nothing to do with body armour), destructive testing methods, animal welfare legislation, butt joints (raise a single eyebrow here), carburettors, upsetting metal (not making it cry) or ascertaining soil PHs? The answer was* an emphatic no.

What does a library professional do when met with a request for information so far out of your remit it may as well be in another planetary system? Well, in many ways, the answer is simple: you do your job.

In a number of library settings, it is not the library professional’s job to draw upon a specific knowledge area. This is the case in an FE setting such as my own. Our sister campus does have subject librarians because the site is bigger with more staff. Our campus is smaller, ergo with a smaller team. Initially, our role is to connect the user to the information they need. To do so, we activate our information literacy skills: questioning, scanning, summarising, finding, seeking, evaluating, analysing. Thereafter, our role is to help the user to develop the skills they need to connect themselves to the information they want. In short, to develop their information literacy skills. These skills allow you to find out what you know, what you don’t know, what you don’t know that you don’t know! It is a skill set that goes beyond any single subject.

I don’t think I’m blagging it when I help a student find out how to diagnose swim bladder before they find their fish floating upside down at the top of the tank. I think I’m doing my job and using information literacy skills to demonstrate that anyone can learn how to blag research anything.

*Now, I know a little but I am by no means an expert.