Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Five Ways School Librarians Can Meet The Needs of Students in Poverty

This afternoon the librarians in my school district had the great privilege of (virtually) spending an hour with Donalyn Miller, talking about all the ways that we can be independent reading champions for our students. The conversation was rich and important and I am so grateful to her for sharing this time with us. 

That said, one of the (many) pieces of information Donalyn shared during our time together was the recent research suggesting that children raised in homes with (access to) more than 500 books (over the course of their lifetime) spend an average of three years longer in school than children whose homes contain little or no print material. In fact, this research goes onto to point out that growing up in a household with 500 or more books is “as great an advantage as having university-educated rather than unschooled parents, and twice the advantage of having a professional rather than an unskilled father.”

That’s kind of amazing. But it also got me thinking….

500 books. That’s huge. Even though we’re talking about children having access to that number of books over the course of their lifetime (and not all at once), for families living in poverty, that number may as well be a million.

I’ve written and spoken before about my own experiences growing up in poverty, but I don’t think I’ve ever shared this story: Like most kids, when I was little, I had a small collection of picture books. I don’t remember all of the titles, but some of my favorites included Curious George and those by Richard Scarry. When I was five, these books were lost to a fire - not a house fire, but rather, they were used as kindling during a particularly cold winter when my family didn’t have money for electricity or firewood. I remember the day we burned them: my whole family huddled around the wood stove and my mother saying we’d get new books when we had more money. But, of course, that time never came and I don’t remember owning another book of my own until I was in college. My entire life, I’ve been quietly envious of those people who still have treasured, dog eared copies of the books they had as children. To this day, there’s still a small, bookshaped hole in my heart that will never entirely be filled. And although I don’t pretend to speak for every family living in poverty, I can only say that in my experience, a lack of exposure to print material in my home wasn’t due to a lack of value placed on reading or learning. Rather, books were a luxury we simply couldn’t afford.

Of course, we know that poverty has lots of other (potentially) devastating effects on children. For instance, we know that students living in poverty are…

The list goes on and on. But did you also know that, over half of US public school children now live in poverty? Let me allow that to sink in for a moment. Seriously. Stop and think about this for a minute: In the richest country in the world, a majority of public school students now live in poverty. And while I could go off on a rant about how unbelievable, insane, criminal this is, I guess what I’m trying to say is that these are not “other teacher’s students.” Kids living in poverty are all of our kids. 

Now... I know what you’re thinking: Jennifer, this is the most
depressing post ever! And you might be right, except for one thing: we can fix this. No, really… we can. Here’s how:

As Nelson Mandella said, “... [poverty] is man made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.” I am living proof of this fact and the undeniable truth in his words gives me great hope. So, let’s talk about how school librarians can and should be part of this important work:
  1. Be A Champion of Choice: We all know that choice is a powerful motivator and yet far too often students have little choice when it comes to selecting their own reading material. For students who have yet to develop the habit of reading, this autonomy is especially critical. Here's how you can be their champion: 
    • Fight for your students’ right to select books for independent reading based on their passions, interests, questions or other authentic reasons for selecting a text. Be their voice when no one will listen to them. 
    • Talk to students about how YOU pick a book and model that process whenever possible. 
    • Relax your circulation limits to allow students the flexibility to “try on” different genres, authors or difficulty levels. 
  2. Be A Reading For Pleasure Evangelist: For too many of our students, reading is something they associate only with assessment. It’s time to change that. 
    • De-emphasize reading as a key to “school success.” Quit talking about how students are doomed to fail if they don’t learn how to read. Instead… 
    • Re-emphasize reading as a joyful, social activity. Let your reading geek flag fly! Let kids know when a book makes you "ugly cry" or tell them about the book that made you laugh until you nearly peed your pants. Passion is contagious, and they need to see yours. 
    • Validate and celebrate all types of reading. Stop telling kids that reading manga, skateboarding magazines, Captain Underpants, _______ is not a real, or a good enough, reading choice. Every time we tell students that their reading choices are not good enough, we send the message that they are not real readers. 
  3. Use Reading To Build/Strengthen Relationships With Kids: 
    • Use every book talk as the opportunity to connect with a kid. 
    • Allow books to open doors to important conversations. 
    • Build book displays that are about students instead of books and that specifically target your most vulnerable kids.
    • Be “that person” for kids who have no one else. 
    • Create reader advisory groups, made up of students, who help you pick books that will interest their classmates. And make sure kids from all backgrounds are represented. When students have stake or ownership in the library, the more likely they will be to use it. 
    • Stop charging overdue fines. Period. Or at least allow students to continue to checkout books even if they owe money. Make the library a space of possibility instead of punishment. 
  4. Harness The Power of Social Media To Cultivate Reading Communities: It’s been well documented that even though many of your poorest students don’t have access to the internet or a traditional computer at home, most do have access to a mobile phone. Instead of competing with student screen time, leverage it to get kids excited about reading: 
  5. Create Spaces And Collections That Inspire Hope: One of the more insidious, but under reported, effects of poverty on children is its ability to crush a child’s natural sense of hope. Children living in poverty are less likely to report that they feel hopeful about the future. It’s imperative that we create collections and spaces that provide students with windows into a more hopeful world. 
    • Make sure students see themselves and their stories reflected in both your space and your collection. 
    • Make sure students see you and your space as a “safe place” where everyone is welcomed and respected. 
    • Connect kids with books and authors that offer a glimpse into a world other than the only one they’ve ever known. 
    • Share your own stories of personal struggle or of how reading changed your life. Especially, if like me, you’ve also experienced poverty. Kids need to see that things get better. 
I’ve written and spoken before about the role libraries played in saving my life. And about how literacy turned out to be the engine that would propel me out of poverty. I know, first hand, the power of your work. What’s more, I know that for many of your students, you are their last hope. And I also know that while the problem of childhood poverty is huge and can feel overwhelming, you can make a difference and change outcomes for students. You just have to choose to.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Let's Share Book Displays That Matter!

I've written before about how I believe library spaces and displays represent AWEsome opportunities for us to share the story of our work and how we transform teaching and learning for kids.  Everyone who walks into the library is a potential library supporter. If we're not there to tell them what happens in our spaces, can they tell by looking around?  Does your space reflect what you value and how you make a difference?  I sure hope so.

I've been sharing this message and asking these questions for a long, long time.  And now (and just in time for school library month) I'm looking to curate examples!

  • Are you creating book displays that matter? 
  • Are you using this valuable real estate in your library to make a difference for specific groups of students? 
  • Are you giving those students a voice in selecting the titles, authors and themes of those displays? 
  • Are you you seeking feedback from students and other stakeholders about the success of your book displays?  
  • Do the displays you build tell the story of your work and how it results in outcomes for your learners? 

If so, let's share the love and a grow a resource of library displays that make your favorite Pinterest boards look puny!! No idea is too small. Upload photos, videos and don't forget to include your name and Twitter handle so we can grow our PLN!

Add your examples to this Padlet wall and share this link w/your networks!  I can't wait to see what you share!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Finding The "Bigger Vision" In Your Work

The other day my district's Assistant Superintendent of Instruction and Student Accountability asked a group of us in a meeting to read and reflect upon this post by George Couros. Actually, to be more accurate, she read the first part, containing the fable about the stonecutters, aloud to us:
"One day a traveler, walking along a lane, came across 3 stonecutters working in a quarry. Each was busy cutting a block of stone. Interested to find out what they were working on, he asked the first stonecutter what he was doing. “I am cutting a stone!” Still no wiser the traveler turned to the second stonecutter and asked him what he was doing. “I am cutting this block of stone to make sure that it’s square, and its dimensions are uniform, so that it will fit exactly in its place in a wall.” A bit closer to finding out what the stonecutters were working on but still unclear, the traveler turned to the third stonecutter. He seemed to be the happiest of the three and when asked what he was doing replied: “I am building a cathedral.”'
Then she asked us to write our own version of the story as it relates to our work. This is what I wrote:
"One day a busy principal walked into a school library, spotting three librarians working side by side. (Yes, I realize this is already a fantasy, as most schools - regardless of their size - no longer have multiple librarians at the helm, but I digress). Interested to find out what they were working on, he asked the first school librarian what she was doing, to which she replied "I'm checking out books." Still without a clear picture of what the librarians work was all about, the principal approached the second librarian with the same question. The second librarian looked up from his work and said, "I'm helping these students find books, collaborating with this classroom teacher AND coaching our students through this activity in our maker space." A bit closer to understanding the work of the school librarian, the principal turned to the last librarian, who seemed the most satisfied and focused on her work. When he asked this librarian what she was doing she replied simply, 'I'm changing the world."'
As I've continued to think about this activity and the original post further, I keep coming back to the same question: How can we make our work look more like third answer (no matter what we're doing) so that anyone who walks into the library can see, without even having to ask, that we're changing the world?

Obviously, this isn't a question I can answer in one blog post, but I do have a few thoughts about how to get started.
  1. Put kids first. And everything else second: I've said this so many times, I should probably just have it tattooed somewhere on my person! But it bears repeating: If we begin every decision by asking ourselves "is this best for our students?" we're more likely to keep our work focused on what really matters, (instead of getting derailed by the minutia which can sometimes be overwhelming.) Sometimes decisions are made for us, but when the choice is yours, put kids first. Period. 
  2. Prepare students for their world. Not yours: If you've got access to technology, use it to engage students in activities that simply wouldn't be possible without it. Otherwise you're missing the boat. Last week I had the opportunity to visit a library in which students were using iPads to write block code as part of their lesson. Then they used FlipGrid to record their reflections on coding as a skill they would need in the future - the resulting collaborative video project will eventually be shared with the world via the library's twitter account and the school's hashtag. This was part of a bigger lesson that involved traditional library tools and resources, but this librarian (in partnership with her school's technology assistant) harnessed the power of digital tools to engage students in the kind of learning they simply could not do without the technology AND created a space in which the learners of today are CLEARLY being prepared for the world of tomorrow. 
  3. Make teaching kids HOW TO LEARN your core curriculum: Like the old saying goes... limit student searches to pre-selected databases (and other teacher/librarian chosen resources) and they'll learn to research for a day, but teach them how to evaluate information regardless of its source, and they'll be critical thinkers for life. Or something like that. 
  4. Be your students' champion: Whether you're advocating for time for them to read independently, without prescribed guided reading activities along side, OR you're dispelling the myth that reading incentive programs help to grow life long readers, OR you're making room on your shelves for and pointing learners to developmentally appropriate titles that represent ALL of your students (regardless of their race, religion, social-economic status, sexual orientation or gender identity), OR you're proving through your practice that a single space can be both a library AND a makerspace, YOU need to be your students' champion. You need to be their voice in situations when theirs cannot be heard. 

Everyone who walks into the library (be they a teacher, your principal, a parent, a school board member, your superintendent, a county commissioner AND every one of your students) is a potential library supporter. Your work has the potential to either change or confirm what they already (think they) know about libraries and the role you play in the lives of students. When they walk through the doors of your space, what do they see? When your principal asks you about your work, is your answer about the details or the bigger view? Would the people around you say that your work is about changing the world?

And if not, what are you going to do about it?

Friday, March 4, 2016

And the #30secondbooktalk Challenge Winner Is....

The votes are in! (All 3,000+ of them!!!) And the WORLD BOOK TALK CHAMPION, winner of the Vince LomBOOKi prize, as chosen by YOU is....


  • Everyone who participated in this EPIC project! Every single book talk was amazing and I am so inspired by your willingness to share your love of reading with young people around the world. 
  • Every teacher, librarian, principal and (especially!) student who voted! Over 3,000 of you cast a ballot on the final four book talks alone and it's your participation that made this competition awesome! 
  • My partner in crime, Brad Gustafson, who invited me to be a part of his #30secondbooktalk idea! This has been so much fun and such a positive force for reading in the lives of so many young people! I'm honored to to have been a part of it!  Kudos to you, my friend!
  • ALL of the #literacylegends (Mollee & Tavia, John Schu, Donalyn Miller, Pernille Ripp, Nikki Robertson, Tiffany Whitehead, Cathy Potter). You guys are AMAZEballs! But most especially my big sloppy thanks go to... 
  • The #BroBrarians Stuart and John who ROCKED THIS OUT! I hope you all blast We Are The Champions throughout the library today! I <3 you all so, so much! Thank you! 

Finally, as we've said throughout this project, the #30secondbooktalk challenge is all about providing a platform for more adults to share the books they love with the young people in their lives. So, if you'd like to replicate the #30secondbooktalk challenge with your students, all the materials you need to get started are here. The only thing we ask is that you share your efforts with us. We would <3 to see the epic #30seconbooktalks that you and your kids create! Have fun! Keep bringing the AWEsome! And HAPPY READING!