Wednesday, August 8, 2018

A Back To School Challenge

Yesterday, I stopped at Starbucks on my way home and had a conversation with a barista named Ryan. I’ve replayed it about a hundred times since walking out of the coffee shop with my latte. I doubt I’ll ever forget it.
Ryan: “Those glasses are amazing. You look like, like…. a really cool librarian.” 
Me: “Well, I guess it’s a good thing that I’m actually a really cool librarian.” 
Ryan: “Really? My librarian hated me.” 
Me: “C’mon. I’m sure she didn’t hate you.” 
Ryan: “Maybe. I lost a copy of The Outsiders in 8th grade and when I got to high school, she said I couldn’t checkout or whatever until I returned it or paid for it. I told her we moved a buncha times and my mom didn’t have a job, and it might be at my dad’s house, but I wasn’t allowed to go there, but whatever, she wasn’t having it. I think a lot of kids lied about losing books, so she didn’t believe us, but I wasn’t lying."
Me. “I’m sorry. That’s messed up.” 
Ryan: “Nah. What was REALLY messed up is that whenever I came into the library, she would call me out and say stuff like ‘Hey, SE Hinton, where’s my book??’ Then one time, I said, ‘hey, you know SE Hinton was a girl, right?’ and then she wrote me up for detention for being disrespectful!” 
Me: (Shaking my head.) “Please tell me this story has a happy ending.” 
Ryan: “It was okay. I just had my friends check stuff out for me if I needed something for class.” 
Me: …. 
Ryan: “Anyway, I finally ended up paying for it, though, because she said I couldn’t walk at graduation if I didn’t. And you know, she wrote SE Hinton on the receipt!??! She didn’t even know my name. I had to ask her to give me another one. It was crazy.” 
Me: “On behalf all librarians, I apologize. That was wrong.” 
Ryan: “It’s okay. I don’t like to read anyway.”

I’ve written about library fines in this space, and others, numerous times. In fact, here’s a snippet of what I shared on the subject back in January of this year:
When I was a kid, books represented something precious and fragile. My family moved around a lot and when I was about seven years old, the few books I did own were used as kindling, and burned in our wood stove, because it was winter, we didn't have electricity and we were cold. But even when life was a bit more stable, it was difficult to keep track of things like library books. I constantly owed money to the public library and despite the fact that I treasured the books handed to me by a teacher or school librarian, they inevitably got lost or, at best, were returned late or damaged. Over the years, there were plenty of librarians who turned me away when I tried to add another book to the list of those I'd already checked out, but thankfully, there were some who didn't.

Years later, as a brand new librarian, I landed at a school where collecting fines and keeping kids from checking out books, if they owed money, was just part of what had always been done, and I eagerly played along. I worked hard, every year, to collect every last dime that was "owed" to the library, and in the process made a lot of kids feel like they weren't welcome or that they were somehow suspect. It took me several years to pluck up the courage to decide I needed a do-over and to reset my circulation policies, so that they were more closely aligned to my core mission of helping students develop rich and authentic reading lives.

And guess what? The number of books I lost as a result was minimal. I didn't end the year with empty shelves. Here's what happened instead: 
  • I developed relationships with kids whom I would never have gotten to know before, because their debt to the library stood in the way.
  • I changed the library from a place of punishment to one of possibility.
  • I was able to get books in the hands of kids who would have had no reading material otherwise.
  • My circulation statistics went WAY up.
  • I retired from the role of book police and was promoted to the job of reading champion.
  • I slept better at night.
And, ironically, I discovered that for kids who did lose materials, positive relationships are a far better motivator than the threat of not getting their diploma or not being admitted to a school dance. When kids love you and know that you love them, there's very little they won't do in order to not let you down. 
The bottom line is this, being good stewards of the monies we're allotted to build library collections is important. And I don't know anyone who thinks they are allotted nearly enough money, so I understand how devastating losing the one copy of a really popular book can be. AND I know that when one kid loses a book, that means countless others don't get to read it. I know all of those things. But I also know that we don't work for the IRS. We are not debt collectors. We are reading champions. And, for those kids, like me, who don't have books at home and whose home lives make keeping up with borrowed materials challenging, WE must not be the thing standing between that child and the book that forever changes them. We all went into this business, because we know the power of story. We cannot allow the fear of losing a book to be the thing that keeps us from putting it in the right child's hands.
Oddly, of all the things I post in this space, and on social media, the topic I receive the most pushback on is library fines. Whether it’s accusing me of being out of touch or snarkily suggesting that “it must be nice to only work in schools/districts with unlimited budgets for library materials” (spoiler alert: I imagine that would be nice, but I’ve never worked in a district with dedicated library budgets, so try again), I’m always surprised by how defensive, and downright nasty, some of the comments can be when I suggest that maybe, just maybe, withholding books from children contradicts our core mission as librarians.

That said, as much of the world gets ready to head back to school, and even for those who are in the midsts of an epic school year, I’d like to challenge you to do the following:

How many Ryans can we afford to chalk off in the name of “teaching responsibility?”

Only you can decide how to answer that question for yourself and for your students.

And, look, even if you don’t feel comfortable eliminating fines or your administration doesn’t want you to offer students who have lost one, two or even ten books, a fresh start by wiping their accounts clean, I encourage you to think about what you CAN do.
CAN you change your circulation rules to put a cap on fines so that students never owe more than $2.00? $5.00? Etc? 
CAN you change your circulation rules so that children who repeatedly lose books only take home one at a time until they’re able to develop some strategies for returning them? 
CAN you partner with your school’s guidance counselor to schedule regular conferences* with students who cannot checkout due to lost and late materials. *Conversations that focus on identifying and eliminating the barriers that keep the child from returning books.
CAN you stop publicly identifying kids who have missing/late materials? 
CAN you still allow children with late/lost books to checkout, but then work with the classroom teacher to keep some/all of the books in the classroom instead of sending all of them home? 
CAN you invite the parents of kids whose accounts are currently blocked by fines or lost books to come in for “lunch with the librarian” or “breakfast with a booknerd” or to serve as a volunteer, in order to build a positive relationship that might result in fewer lost materials? 
CAN you create opportunities for kids to “earn” a cleared account WITHOUT forcing poor kids into demeaning manual labor like cleaning shelves, etc.

CAN you think of other ways to build relationships with kids that make them WANT to return books on time and to locate those long missing ones because they love you and they know you love them? 
CAN you work with other librarians in your district, or PLN, to develop strategies that make NOT losing readers more important than not losing books?
Now… before you @ me with stories of how library fines are good for kids, I beg you… step away from the keyboard. INSTEAD of personal anecdotes, show me the research proving that library fines support the literacy needs of students, that they make children more responsible and that they don’t disproportionately affect poor kids.

In the meantime, here’s some resources related how libraries all over the world are doing away with library fines, or creating forgiveness programs, and the research that’s inspiring those movements.
Finally, to Ryan, I just want to say again that I’m sorry. I wasn’t your librarian, but I wish i had been. I would have known your name. I would have heard your story. I would have let you continue to checkout books. And I would have done everything in my power to help you become someone who loved to read.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Dear Fat Girl: A Love Letter (And Reading List)

This post has existed in my heart for a very long time. But several events over the last few weeks have pushed me to finally write it.

First, a week or so ago, lingerie blogger, (yes, that’s a thing!) Cora Harrington tweeted about the idea of “thin privilege” stating: "The ability to move through life without people insisting you need to be a smaller size...if you don’t have to think about that, it’s privilege.” The thread, which ultimately went viral, began with “Hey, you don’t have to “feel thin” to have thin privilege. Thinness isn’t a feeling. If other people perceive you as thin, you are thin. If you are able to walk into any clothing store and expect to see a wide range of options in your size, you are thin.” As someone who has been overweight my entire life, I recognized myself in many of the descriptions she used to illustrate how a person’s size affects the way they walk through the world. Unfortunately, reading the comments, I saw an all too familiar message; among the hundreds of people who found truth in Harrington’s words, were also many others who saw the thread as the perfect place to shame fat people for being lazy, lacking character and deserving of whatever hardship their size incurred.

Then, a few days later, I again saw myself in this article, featuring the story of a woman who, having been diagnosed with a very aggressive cancer, used her own obituary to call out the medical community for focusing solely on her weight as the cause of ongoing health concerns, ignoring other possible causes that may have led to finding her cancer earlier. The obituary reads, in part:
“A final message Ellen wanted to share was about the fat shaming she endured from the medical profession. Over the past few years of feeling unwell she sought out medical intervention and no one offered any support or suggestions beyond weight loss. Ellen's dying wish was that women of size make her death matter by advocating strongly for their health and not accepting that fat is the only relevant health issue.”
I’ve spoken to many fat women who, like me, dread going to the doctor for annual checkups or to address even a minor ailment, because they know that their weight will end up being the focus of the exam, consultation and treatment. That’s not to say obesity isn’t a serious health issue, of course it is. But when doctors decide, upon first glance, that what’s wrong with you is your weight, they often stop listening to whatever else you have to say about your body and how you're feeling.

And then, finally, last week I reread Renee Watson’s Piecing Me Together, a book that I have often wished existed when I was a teenager. Among the many scenes in Jade’s story that have buried their way into my heart, the one in which she is “rated” by a group of boys standing behind her while waiting for her food order at Dairy Queen stands out:
“One of them says, ‘I give her a five.’ 
The other: ‘A five? Man, she so big, she breaks the scale.’ 
Another voice, ‘Man, thick girls are fine. I don’t know what’s wrong with you.’”

When Jade’s food arrives and she tries to leave, one of the boys (wearing a green hat) calls after her:
“‘Hey, hold up. My boy wants to talk to you,’ Green Hat says. He follows me, yelling into the dark night.

I keep walking. Don’t look back. 
‘Aw, so it’s like that? Forget you then. Don’t nobody want your fat ass anyway. Don’t know why you up in a Dairy Queen. Need to be on a diet.’ He calls me every derogatory name a girl could ever be called. 
I keep walking. Don’t look back.”
Rereading that scene again this week, in concert with the other content about weight and body issues I’d collided with, had a profound effect on me. Not only did I see myself in Jade, the truth is, if I were to count all the times something similar to this has happened to me, I’d need a few more fingers and toes.

All of that said, although I haven’t always felt that way, over the years, I’ve grown to feel comfortable in my own skin. I like who I am. Most days, I like how I look. And, while it takes a daily practice, I don’t let my size prevent me from doing what I want. In short, I’m okay with being me. I can’t say that I’ll never try to lose weight again, but if I do, it won’t be because I need to do it in order to be happy or to feel good about myself. I’m already happy. I already feel good about myself. Those things are not dependent on my dress size.

And while I do see plenty of fat girls in literature for young people, most are either the chubby, but feisty, sidekick who “could be really cute, if...” or they are the main character, but they’re struggling with an eating disorder or their happiness or potential romantic relationships hinge on losing weight. What I don’t see that much of are fat girls who are NOT defined by their weight. Or who like themselves as they are. The examples of girls who are fat and still get the boy (or the girl or whomever), are few and far between. This is one of the MANY reasons why Julie Murphy’s Dumplin’ remains one of my favorite books of all time. Sure, the eponymous Dumplin’ has moments of insecurity, because all people do, but she refuses to let her weight be the thing that defines who she is:

“I've wasted a lot of time in my life. I've thought too much about what people will say or what they're gonna think. And sometimes it's over silly things like going to the grocery store or going to the post office. But there have been times when I really stopped myself from doing something special. All because I was scared someone might look at me and decide I wasn't good enough. But you don't have to bother with that nonsense. I wasted all that time so you don't have to.”

I want to see more characters like Dumplin’ in literature: not because it’s healthy to be overweight, or because being fat is something people should strive for, but because being happy, self assured and at peace with who you are is something we all deserve, regardless of our size. To that end, in thinking about this post, I wanted to create a reading list, filled with books, containing fat positive characters, that educators could recommend to readers of all sizes. Unfortunately, I’ve found the pickings to be, in a word, slim.

Additionally, the lower the age of the target audience, the fewer examples there seem to be of books featuring fat positive characters. In recent years there’s been a litany of beautiful and thoughtful picture books published that focus on kindness, inclusivity and the harm that comes from treating people who are different from us as “other.” These books matter and are important. Some of them are among my very favorite picture books. But where are the picture books featuring the stories of smiling, happy children who are treated kindly by other kids, even though they happen to also be fat? Where are the books that help kids understand that bullying an overweight child is just as hurtful and wrong as bullying those whose differences lie in their skin color, gender identity or learning differences? Where are the picture books that feature fat little girls whose weight doesn’t hold them back or prevent them from being loved? I can’t find them.

Of course, no matter how many books I read, there will ALWAYS be more that I haven’t, which means any list I compile alone is bound to be incomplete. So... I’m hoping you’ll help me add to this list. Perhaps, together, we can create a resource to help all teachers and librarians “fatten up” their collections. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist).

Although I may be comfortable with who I am and what I look like now, that wasn’t always the case. If books like Julie Murphy’s Dumplin’ or Renee Watson’s Piecing Me Together existed when I was a poor, chubby teenager who hated herself for it, I didn’t know about them. Of course, I can’t help but think about the effect reading books in which being fat, beautiful and confident were not mutually exclusive might have had on me, or even on those who thought my weight made it acceptable to torment me. I’d like to think that I could have stopped “wasting time” worrying about what other people thought, because a character like Dumplin’ had already done it for me. Either way, I’m grateful they exist now, as love letters to other fat girls who desperately need to be told that whatever their size, they deserve to be loved. Because they do. We all do.

Further reading:
From Book Riot: Fat Positive, Queer YA Books
From Huffpo: Where Are All The Fat Girls In Literature?
From Bustle: Dumplin’ and 6 Other Body Positive YA Novels
From Epic Reads: Love the Bod You’re In: 9 Body Positive Books Recommended by Julie Murphy

Postscript: I realize that body image is not an issue exclusive to girls/women. People of all genders/identities struggle with their weight and how it affects their self worth and/or how others treat them. By focusing on fat girls in this post, my intent is not to dismiss or diminish those experiences. However, I don’t feel qualified to speak for them either. I hope others who have been made to feel ashamed of their bodies, but who have come to realize that their self worth is linked to so much more than that, will share their stories, too.

And finally, thank you Donalyn and Travis for your feedback on this post. You make it and me better.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Learner Centered Digital Literacy

Each summer the South Dakota State Library holds a School Library "Bootcamp" for teacher librarians, and library paraprofessionals across the Mt. Rushmore State. (An aside, I have a strange fascination with state nicknames. I love to look them up ahead of any visit to a new state and as it turns out, SD has numerous state nicknames INCLUDING, I kid you not, "the swinged cat state." Mount Rushmore might get all the glory, but in my heart South Dakota will forever be the place described as being "slightly better than a swinged cat." How's that for some humility?)  Anyway, this THREE DAY professional learning opportunity revolves around a theme and represents a chance for South Dakota's library folk to gather for some focused, intensive training and inspiration before school starts. This year, I was asked to facilitate the learning for one of those days, with the requested topic being digital literacy.

I'll be honest, digital literacy wasn't a topic I was super excited about. In my experience, when schools talk about digital literacy, the conversation typically revolves around what kids shouldn't do online:
  • don't post stuff you wouldn't want your grandma (someone else you love and whose opinion matters to you) to see.
  • don't post personal information.
  • don't talk to strangers.
  • don't steal other people's stuff.
  • don't use the word "password" as your password.
  • don't.... etc. 
And, I get it. That stuff is important. Our students (and our teachers!) do need to understand that everything they post online is public, permanent and potent - no matter how private or personal they *think* it might be. AND, obviously, we want our kids to be safe and aware of behavior that puts them at greater risk for danger and, of course, stealing is wrong. 


Our digital lives, and those of our students, are about so much more than that. Back when I was a classroom teacher, the aspirational (and too often unrealistic) career choice of my students was that of professional athlete. These days, ask your kids what their dream job is and bunches of them will say YouTuber.  The fact is, our students have never known a world without selfies, Snapchat filters and hashtag activism. For the kids we teach, these tools are not new technology. Rather, they are:
As I headed to South Dakota, I wanted to talk about digital literacy as it relates to the whole learner. I wanted to focus as much (if not more!) time on resources for helping our kids harness the power of digital tools to achieve their goals, to solve real problems and to do actual good in the world, as we did on resources for keeping them safe.  So, as part of a (digital and physical) BreakoutEDU experience on digital literacy, I created this image:

Clicking on the image itself will take you to an interactive version where you can explore resources under each of the five "apps:" Each app leads to a google doc where I (along with some of my brilliant friends - thanks Jeannie and Tavia!) have been curating resources.  Some of the documents contain more content than others, but that's due entirely to the fact that resources were sparse in a few areas. I intend to continue to add to these documents as time goes on and more resources become available.  (That said, if you see any glaring omissions, please let me know and I'll add you as a contributor. After all, the more brains the merrier!)  
And, if you'd like to print a hi-res version of the image above, you can find it here.  

The entire BreakoutEDU part of our day was massive and contained many more resources and locks than could be explored during a traditional class period. However, we had lots of time AND one of my goals was also to expose the librarians I was working with to a variety of ways to build BreakoutEDU locks, so I went BIG. That said, you are welcome to use any/all of this, but unless you have 3 hours to devote to the game, I'd pick and choose specific parts instead of using it as is. Anyway, if you've ever been a part of my BreakoutEDU sessions at a conference or in your district, then I'm guessing you'll know where to find the hidden answer key for this breakout- which will also describe how to set up the physical components of the game along with all of the lock combinations. But here's a direct link for those who haven't had the pleasure of being duped by my trickery in person. 

I also want to point out this activity, which focused around the idea that comparing our personal/professional lives to the ones we see online is both unhealthy and unrealistic. I've written about what I call "pedagogical face tuning" before, and I feel strongly that this is an area of digital literacy that we don't talk enough about. That said, I need to send a big thank you to Joyce Valenza and Carolyn Foote, whose work you'll see linked to as essential resources. But mostly I want to thank the librarians of South Dakota who engaged in tough, vulnerable conversations as a part of this work. Your students are lucky to have you. 

Anyway, the entire day's schedule, including all of the activities and resources we explored can be found here.  I'm so honored to have been a part of learning that took place in "The Swinged Cat State" on that hot summer day in Pierre.  I don't pretend to know everything there is to know about digital literacy, but I do know that together we took some important steps towards expanding the way we talk with kids about what it means to spend much of your life online. Thank you again to the SD State Library for making this Pacific Northwest #librarianroadwarrior feel at home! I really am the luckiest librarian around. 

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Fact VS Fiction: Teaching Critical Thinking Skills in the Age of Fake News [Please take our survey]

Look at this, y'all! It's the cover of a top secret project I've been working on with my friend Darren Hudgins for the last year(ish!)

I'll go into the why and how of this project at some point in the future, but for right now, we really need your help. Part of what we're doing with this book is collecting data on how educators (of all stripes, not just school librarians, but certainly school librarians, too!) are teaching media literacy in the age of "Fake News." We're seeking to find out how/if schools are grappling with this problem, while also identifying what strategies are currently working in the field.

This is where you come in!

To help us, will you please take a few minutes to fill out this brief survey? It would mean the world to us!

We know that the 24 hour news cycle, the advent of citizen journalism, the appropriation of "fake news" as a term to disparage anything we don't agree with, and the normalization of passing false information off as fact, with little/no consequences has affected how educators teach their students to be effective information consumers (and creators!). AND we know that there's already great work being done out there to do just that. So... please take our survey and share it with everyone you know.

We'll be accepting responses for about a week.