Monday, August 21, 2017

When Adults Don't Read, Kids Lose.

Note: This post was co-written with my friend Todd Nesloney, who is both the principal at Webb Elementary School in Navasota, TX and the coauthor of the book Kids Deserve It.  It was so much fun collaborating with Todd to transform what started as a conversation over Voxer about teachers who don't read, into this piece! Thank you for working with me on this, friend! I'd also be remiss if I didn't extend a nod to Donalyn Miller and John Schumacher, whose influence is clear throughout.

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Helping students create and grow authentic reading lives, is one of our most important jobs as educators. The research on this topic is very clear: Children between the ages of 10 and 16 who read for pleasure make more progress in vocabulary, spelling, and math than those who rarely read. (Sullivan & Brown, 2013) Further, we know that volume matters. Students need enormous quantities of successful reading to become independent, proficient readers. (Atwell, 2007; Worthy & Roser, 2010; Gallagher, 2009; Kittle, 2013; Miller, 2009; 2013) This is important. The recipe for growing readers really isn’t that complicated. First, give students access to many, many books. Then allow them to select the titles that interest them and with which they will experience great success. And then, let them read. Boom! As the old saying goes, this isn’t rocket science, y’all. And yet, in schools across America, students are being subjected to prescribed reading programs that we know don’t work. (Krashen 2003) These programs often require students to select books based on computer generated levels. Further, they reduce reading to a task that only matters if it’s accompanied by an assessment. What’s more, they allow teachers to assign texts to students without having a knowledge of children’s or young adult literature and, most crucially, without ever having a conversation about books and reading with their students. And while some innovative and brave school leaders are eradicating these programs from their schools (“Why We Are Moving on From AR” and “No AR? No Big Deal”) in favor of more authentic approaches, too many still cling to the familiarity of prescribed reading programs, which leaves us with one nagging question…. WHY?

Obviously, there are probably many answers to this question, but one possible reason may lie in the reality that far too many educators don’t have reading lives of their own. In short, it takes a reader to grow a reader. That said, we get it: educators are busy. But that’s no excuse. The reality is, we prioritize what we value. We all make time for the things we know are important. But here’s the thing, y’all: this is important.  It’s time for educators to make their own reading lives a priority so that they can, in turn, help students grow their own. Here are a few tips to help all educators unlock the reader inside them that’s just waiting to get out!

  • Increase your own access to books:
    • Visit your school library and become BFFs with the librarian. He or she will hook you up with the titles your students can’t get enough of.
    • Get a public library card!
    • Join a service like Owlcrate and just wait for new books to arrive at your doorstep!
    • Visit (or create!) a Little Free Library in your neighborhood!
  • Schedule time for reading:
    • When something is important to us, we put it on our calendars. Just as you block out time to go to the gym or to get a haircut, devote some time to reading. Just a few minutes a day is enough to get you on your way! It won’t be long before reading just becomes a regular and important part of your routine.
  • Harness the power of social media to create a reading community:
    • Join a traditional or virtual book club. Follow hashtags like #booksnaps, #2jennsbookclub #nerdybookclub #sparksinthedark #booklove #yearofYA or #bookaday for book inspiration and recommendations OR to share your own!
  • Forget your reading level:
    • Real readers do not select books on their “reading level.” When you go to the book store, there are no dots on the spine to let you know if the book is appropriate for you. Pick books based on what you love, or what you think your students would love. Let your interests be your guide and you won’t go wrong, but…
  • Move on from those books that you start reading but aren’t enjoying:
    • You’ll know when you’ve found a book that just isn’t for you. Give yourself permission to move onto the next one. There’s no shame in your game.
  • Always have a book with you:
    • If you always have a (physical, digital or audio) book with you, when some time presents itself, you’ll be ready!
  • Let your reading geek flag fly:
    • Passion is contagious! And while your students (or other colleagues) might not love all of the same books you do, they WILL love how passionate you are about them. What’s more, they’ll learn through your example that it’s okay to love something enough to completely geek out about it!
  • Talk about what you’re reading with others:
    • Reading is a social activity. While reading alone in a comfy chair may be really satisfying, the moment we happen upon a passage or character that moves us, makes us laugh/cry or challenges us in some way, our first instinct is to share it. So,  find some friends and get your chat on!
    • Create a Goodreads account.
    • Start (or join) a Voxer group to chat about what you’re reading!
  • Advertise the books you’re currently reading:
    • Put a sign on your classroom door.
    • Add a line to your email signature.
    • Wear a sticker on your shirt (Mr. Schu Style!).
    • Make the cover of your current read your cover image on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, etc.
  • Understand that listening to an audio book is also reading:
    • Listening to a book is not cheating. Plus, it helps you utilize all the time you spend in the car or on the treadmill.
    • Many public libraries have digital audiobooks available for checkout, or…
    • Skip that latte a couple of times a week and splurge on an audible account instead!
  • Ask others for advice on what books to read:
    • Find some people whose recommendations you trust and ask them what to read next.
    • Be that person for someone else.
  • Finally, remember that all of these tips are good for students too! A good rule of thumb is this: if you wouldn’t do it as a real reader, you shouldn’t ask your students to do it. OR if you must employ some scaffolding to help students develop the skills they need to grow authentic reading lives, remember, scaffolding is meant to come down.

The bottom line is this: your students need and deserve for you to be their independent reading champion.  Reading changes lives. Not only is reading the fundamental skill that underpins all learning, but it’s also a crucial component in the development in a curious mind, a gentle spirit and a loving and empathetic heart. And our world desperately needs more of those things. It only takes finding that one book to help a child understand, for the first time, that it’s okay to be who they are. Or conversely, that it’s also okay to be completely different.  Books open worlds of hope and possibility. When a child (or adult) is immersed in characters and stories, they are immersed in everything that makes up the vast human experience. And it is through that immersion that we become better at understanding both ourselves and others.

In her acceptance speech for the 2017 Newbery Award (for The Girl Who Drank The Moon), Kelly Barnhill famously said, “We need stories that are mirrors so that any kid can see herself clearly. We need stories that are bright lamps, shining hope and light in a troubled world. We need stories that are bridges and roads, connecting that which we know to that which we do not; stories that are safe harbors and welcoming sanctuaries; stories that are armor and shield, friend and companion; stories that free prisoners, heal the harmed, teach the ignorant, and feed our aching souls.” To that we would add that we also need teachers, whose lives are rich with stories, so that they might be the thing that connects children to that very singular and crucial light.

So… what are you waiting for? Get, reading!

Monday, June 12, 2017

Books For A Better World

On  11/10/2016,  Donalyn Miller posted the following on Facebook:







Since then, as promised, Donalyn has used Facebook as a platform to give away at least one book, that celebrates the diversity of our human family, each and every day. It's a remarkable pledge, both in its generosity and the sheer logistics of it. The idea of posting a drawing every day, selecting a winner every day AND mailing the right book to the right person every single day (all while traveling the world being The Book Whisperer) totally blows my mind. But as she has posted many times, it's a commitment she and her husband, Don, made together and it is as partners that they tackle it. Needless to say, I'm both in awe of and inspired by Donalyn.

Which is why, a little while later, I decided to do the same thing, but on a smaller scale. In the spirit of Donalyn's #bookaday give away, I started giving away a book every Monday. Like Donalyn, I use Facebook as the platform for these donations. And also, like Donalyn, I use the definition of diversity shared by We Need Diverse Books to select the titles I share through these giveaways.

That said, beyond striving to be just like Donalyn Miller when I grow up, my reasons for wanting to give away books that celebrate inclusivity and help readers understand experiences outside their own are deeply personal. Like a lot of you, I would imagine, I'm profoundly concerned about the devolution of public discourse in our world. I worry about our, often very public, rush to condemn and even threaten those who disagree with us. I am frightened by the effect of confirmation bias on our ability to evaluate information sources. And I'm made very weary by how often identity politics renders us incapable of even hearing out the other side. We are, as a species, growing more and more divided and at a time in our history when, arguably, we need each other more than ever. Finally, I'm deeply distressed by how all of this is reflected in the words and actions of our leaders. And I'll be honest, there are times when all of that makes me feel pretty helpless.

So... what's a librarian to do?

Of course, there's no one right answer to that question. In many ways, we have to keep doing what we've always done: provide safe spaces for every one, but especially our most marginalized and vulnerable, be defenders of truth, facts and freedom of speech, teach others how to evaluate sources for bias and relevance, and make sure everyone who walks through the door can see themselves, while also learning about others, through our spaces, collections and programming. For me, giving away these books is part of that work. Like, Donalyn, I'm hoping to harness the power of books to help foster empathy and, hopefully, build bridges of understanding between people. Yes, the world may appear to be getting darker and darker each day, but there's nothing to stop me from spreading light. So I choose hope over cynicism. I choose inclusivity over isolationism. I choose light over dark. I choose to shine.

To that end, I've also been working on a way to compile a list of all the books I'm giving away. But more than just a list, I wanted to create an interactive bibliography of sorts: a place where readers of all stripes could not only learn about books that reflect our diverse world, but also share what those books mean to them in the form of brief reviews. I'll update this space every week as I add a new book to the list of those I've given away...  but YOU (or your students) can add your reviews ANYTIME by a) going to one of the slides featuring a book you love and then b) clicking the link marked "Share your <3 for this book!" You can add as many reviews as you like, show other reviewers some love by clicking the heart next to their name or add comments.

How might you use this type of interactive bibliography with your students? First, note that you could make an interactive bibliography like this one for any subject, author or content you wish, as a way to both spread the word about great books in your library AND build a community of readers. Your students and teachers could EASILY be the reviewers to discuss the books you've culled together to share. Here are a few ideas for sharing them when you're ready:
  • Embed them in your library webpage or within your Destiny homepage.
  • Catalog them using a tool like Web2Marc so that they pop up within your LMS when students or teachers complete a search for whatever subject headings you put into the Marc record.
  • Share them in library news letters or PLC meetings.
  • Make them part of your students' independent reading program.
  • Etc, so on. 



And for those of you who are interested in making your own interactive bibliographies, here are the tools I used to do it:
  • Canva: I created the background image for each slide with Canva - which is a FREE tool that I love, love, love! 
  • Google Slides:  Google slides doesn't have to be used just for presentations! Simply publish your presentation to the web and it can be embedded on any webpage! Or download it as a PDF and then create a flipping book (like this one) using a tool like FlipsnackEDU.
  • Flipgrid: Now that Flipgrid offers free Flipgrid One accounts to educators, it's become my go tool for curating both educator and student voice. It's so easy and slick. I <3 the final products so much!
Finally, a word about the books I've selected. I've read all the books I've given away (so far!). 
and with the exception of two that were given to me as gifts from friends, with permission to give them away when I was finished reading them, I purchase them all myself and do not accept arcs from publishers in exchange for endorsing the book. Like Donalyn, I've chosen to make this commitment to both the authors and artists who work to create these books and to the children, teens and adults who will eventually read them, because the need to do so feels urgent to me. Still, I want to be clear: this post isn't about me encouraging others to give books away. This is about the importance of using the pillars of our work to create a more empathetic world. These give aways, thanks to Donalyn, are just one way that I feel empowered to spread light in an increasingly dark world. I DO, however, encourage you to find away that you can do the same and then, shine on!

Monday, May 22, 2017

It's Annual Report Season! Here Are Some Tips To Help You Effectively Tell Your Story.

At this time of year, many teacher librarians are working to compile an annual report: that is to say a 2-3 page summary of how their work made a difference for students and staff all year long.  As someone who has crafted more than one of these babies, I understand and appreciate the work that goes into the shiny final products. Further, I know that the most effective annual reports are not simply collections of data pulled together at the last minute. The most stunning and impressive examples are intentionally and methodically crafted all year long. In other words, if you're only just now thinking about doing an annual report, the bad news is that you're probably too late for this year. HOWEVER, the good news is, you're just in time to get a jump start on one for next year!

Why Do An Annual Report?
While I've never worked for a district or principal that required an annual report, I believe strongly in their value as a storytelling tool. After all, if we don't share how our work impacts students, who will? An annual report is one way for you to:
  1. grab the attention of your administrator
  2. share data that illustrates how your work makes a difference, and 
  3. send the message that you care as much about student outcomes and the impact of your work as classroom teachers do.
What Makes A Good Annual Report:
I've asked countless librarians this very question as part of a workshop I do regularly on connecting the dots between the library and student outcomes. Together we analyze about a bajillion (or thereabouts) school library annual reports. We talk about what types of data had to be collected in order to make even the weakest report possible.  I ask them to identify the most effective presentation tools. And I challenge them to discover the secret ingredient to creating the most amazing report ever. And I'll give you a hint: There is no single secret ingredient. There are, however a  few commonalities among the most effective reports. And these shared traits add up to some pretty sage advice.
  1. Identify a target audience. Ask yourself who needs to be moved by the story your report is going to tell and then curate, connect and create with those people in mind.  If your administrator is the person you need to impress with your annual report,  try to identify the problems that are keeping him/her up at night and  then make sure your report addresses them. If your principal is concerned about the drop out rate, strategically display your work to address that issue front/center in your report. While author visits are amazeballs, if your principal could care less about them, don't spend 5 pages on that (or any topic that's going to lose your audience). Time and time again the librarians I work with recognize that a good annual report is as much about the audience as it is about the person writing it.
  2. Remember that student data is the only data that matters.  If you're going to share circulation stats, you'd better connect them to student outcomes. If you're going to share data related to your collaboration efforts, be sure to draw a connection between that work and its impact on kids. If you're going to share your growth as a professional, you must include how the workshops you attended, the twitter chats you led or the professional development you conducted after school made a difference for the students and staff you serve.  We are in the student business. Everything we do must lead back to them or it simply doesn't matter. That said, let me be clear... test scores are not the only students data that matter. There are lots of ways for you to share how your work changes the lives of the young people you work with. The key is to make sure all the data you DO share circles back to the reason why you  come to work each day: kids. (See #4 below).
  3. Tell a story. Stories are primal. They connect us. They help us understand and feel connected to one another. No one was ever moved to tears by a pie chart. Don't waste the few minutes you have (because typically your readers will only spend a few minutes looking at your report) on boring old facts and figures. Harness them to capture your audience. Use the data you collect to tell the story of how the library changes student lives. 
  4. Diversify your data. Make sure you include all different types of data in your report. Numbers are important. And often, these are the data that your administrators will be most interested in. But your job isn't about numbers. It's about students. So be sure to include photos, videos (if you're doing a digital report) student narratives and other types of qualitative data to not simply balance out the quantitative stuff but to compliment and enhance it. 
  5. Start early.  Create a system for collecting data. Even if it's a just a folder on  your desktop or in your email inbox. Throughout the year, put stuff in the folder (emails from teachers, students or parents, examples of formative assessment data or student products from a collaborative unit, etc). You don't have to be super organized, just create a system that works for you and make sure that you're adding to your stack of artifacts all year long.  You'll likely have to do a little weeding at the end of the year, but that's a MUCH better problem than deciding in May that you'd like to do an annual report, only to realize that you don't have anything to put in it. 
  6. Less is more. The first school library annual report I ever read was by a librarian I admired greatly. It was over 20 pages and I hungrily devoured every single word.  But I knew there was no way my principal would spend the time it took to read through a 20+ page report about the library. So when I set out to create my first annual report, my goal was to do the same work in one page. I ended up settling for five pages that included lots of visuals. My principal responded to the format, asked me lots of questions about the information but said at the end, "if it had been one page longer, you'd have lost me." Chances are, whomever your target audience is, they are made up of busy people. Be respectful of their time.
  7. Do the work. I can't emphasize this enough. The true key to a great annual report is great work. Even the flashiest report, on the shiniest paper, with the most colorful graphics and slickest design won't be able to hide a library program that doesn't effectively serve kids.  Simply put, you need to be awesome. And then let your report act as a mirror reflecting that great work.
  8. And finally, learn from others.  Our profession is made up of so many super generous people who openly share their work with the world. Over the years, I've curated tons of examples of Annual reports that I will include at the bottom of this pot. Take the time to explore the annual reports of others and learn from their efforts.  Draw inspiration from your colleagues and then share your final product for others to be inspired be. (Which leads me to this post from Doug Johnson in which he shares some wisdom on how to get your annual report read.  In this work, as in just about everything else I do, Doug continues to be an inspiration). 
Obviously, creating an annual report is just one way to share the story of your work, Regardless of the format, what matters is that you are sharing it.  This is not about librarian job security (although it is about that a little bit). This is about preserving full staffed library programs for students who need them. While one may not seem to have much to do with the other, in my experience, people fight for what they value.  Unfortunately, by the time discussions start in a district about whether or not library positions are necessary, it's often too late to change sentiment and rally the troops in a way that holds back the pending cuts.  The time to start sharing the value of your work is BEFORE the question of whether or not libraries are meaningful, relevant and effective arise.

To that end, I do a lot of professional development for school districts on both school library advocacy and using data to tell the story of school library impact. As part of that work, I've curated many, many examples of school library annual reports.  All of these reports are so different, and yet the ones that resonate with people the most have one thing in common: they tell a story. Though grade levels and formats vary widely, those that people respond to over and over again connect with the audience. Whatever data you've collected to create your report, you have to make that data tell a story that connects with the people you need to move.

So... feel free to take a look at what I have put together over the years, but more importantly, please share yours! It's not about tooting your own horn, it's about helping others. Remember, you're small idea could make a BIG difference to someone else!



Monday, April 10, 2017

The Difference Between "I Can't" And "I Won't."

Like a lot of travelers, I found myself stranded in a place far away from home last week, due to weather delays that actually forced me to abandon air travel completely and drive home (to Wilmington, NC) from Rochester, NY.  The volatile weather that often accompanies spring in the southeastern part of the US, resulted in an ugly situation in Atlanta that left a lot of frequent fliers, like me, without wings for several days. It was nobody's fault, and everyone I spoke to with the airline (both on the ground and on the phone) was friendly, kind and apologetic. But one conversation that I had with a gate agent in Rochester continues to stick with me.

Let me set the scene: It's a Thursday afternoon in Rochester. My original flight had been scheduled to depart at 10:55am on Wednesday (nearly 30 hours earlier). By the time I approached the gate agent, I was ready to start thinking creatively about routes home, and asked if she could help me look at some non-traditional avenues back to NC. I said I was willing to fly further north or west and double back south if that meant I'd be home prior to the best direct option she was currently offering of Sunday afternoon.  However, when I asked her to help me explore the alternatives she said, "I'm sorry, I can't do that right now" pointing to the line of people behind me.  She was never rude and neither was I, but I pressed a little harder. This is the conversation that followed:

Me: "I get it. I've been standing in that line for awhile myself,  but can't you spend just a couple of minutes with me now, so you don't have to deal with me again later?"
Her (smiling sympathetically): "No. I'm sorry, I really can't."
Me (smiling sheepishly): "You mean you won't."
Her: "Pardon me?"
Me: "You totally can. You're just choosing not to right now."
Her (smiling less now):  "Yes. I guess you're right.

Now, even though I walked away not getting what I wanted, I need to go on record as saying this story has a happy ending. I got home safe and sound, the airline refunded me part of the money I spent on the ticket, no one had to drag me from my assigned seat, and it's all good. I'm not bashing anyone with this post, but this conversation keeps replaying in my head and, if I'm honest, in my heart too.

How often do we use the phrase "I can't" with students, or staff members, when what we really mean is, "I won't, because... " or "I'm choosing not to, because...?" To me, here are a few critical differences between those two statements:


Full disclosure here, I need work in this department too. I'm guilty of saying "I can't" too often myself, but as I reflect on my work and the role I play in the lives of educators and young people, I know I have to do better.  I'm reminded of a recent (but ongoing) conversation I've been having with my friend Todd Nesloney about educators and reading. Todd has been doing a lot more reading lately: for both personal and professional reasons. Todd admits that he's been guilty of saying "I can't read more often, because I just don't have time." Now he calls BS (baloney sandwich, y'all. Get your minds out of the gutter) on this statement, saying that he realizes he can make time for anything he prioritizes. The truth is, he was choosing not to read, because other things were a greater priority. Once he accepted the truth of that statement, examining it challenged, and ultimately caused, him to reprioritize.  When we hand the blame over to someone else by claiming our hands are tied by "I can't," we rob ourselves of that reflective process. And reflection is how we get better. 

Think about all the things we tell our students we can't do:

"I can't let you to turn in your homework late."
"I can't let you read a book that is not on your level."
"I can't let you to turn in a project that doesn't look like all the others (or isn't among the choices I gave you)."
"I can't let you read in school without some guided practice."
"I can't let you read outside of school without making you prove that you read."
"I can't let you keep that book beyond the due date."
"I can't let you checkout more than __ # of books."
"I can't let you checkout books when you owe money for late/lost materials."

I can't. 
I can't.
I can't.

If we change all of those statements so that they begin with I won't, it becomes much harder to just let them sit there without really considering the reasons behind them. And, frankly, those decisions, along with countless others, need closer consideration.  

All of that said, I know there are times when we really can't do things. There are indeed moments when the decision is truly "above our pay grade." But I believe those moments are less frequent than what our language would suggest.  What's more, our students and staffs deserve for us to be more reflective in our decision making. They deserve to understand why we've made a specific choice. And they deserve the opportunity to try to convince us that their solution is best, even if in the end, we choose something other than what they'd like. I'm going to try to do better in this area. Maybe you can will choose to as well.