Thursday, April 17, 2014

Awards Are Nice But It's The Work That Matters

Over the last decade, school libraries have been disproportionately hit by the funding crisis in education with cuts to programs and personnel far exceeding most other members of the instructional team. And these cuts continue. Across the country, more and more students have lost, and continue to lose, access to staffed (and stocked) school libraries. I'm of the belief that there's no elevator speech or strongly worded letter to legislators that will stem this bleeding. 

The only thing that will save school libraries is exceptional work on behalf of children. 

The more school librarians who establish themselves as indispensable members of the learning community, the greater the chance that the perception (and in some cases, the reality) of school libraries as being nice, but not necessary, will change. 

Awards like the two new honors sponsored by School Library Journal: School Librarian of the Year and Build Something Big, (a school library design award), along with the inclusion (starting last year) of school librarians as a category for recognition at the Bammy Awards provide an opportunity for us to shine a light on innovative practitioners who represent the real and significant role that school librarians play in student learning. But more than that, they represent an important opportunity for us to raise awareness of the work of school librarians - but only if we take the time to a) nominate ourselves or our peers b) participate in the process by voting (when applicable) and c) share our own nominations with the people without whom our work would be meaningless:  our communities. 

As someone whose received a few honors over the years, I won't lie, winning is AWESOME.  (And I'm honored to have been selected by the Bammy Committee this year as an "official nominee.") But winning is kind of the least important part of the process. While it's cliche to say "Oh... I'm just happy being nominated," every nomination and vote can be leveraged as a conversation starter, as evidence of your impact and as a point of advocacy for us all.  By casting your vote or nominating someone whose work matters, you're not just patting that person on the back, you're casting a vote for school libraries and, as such, for children.  

Please take the time to make your voice heard today.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

#WhyLib | My Journey to Librarianship

In honor of School Library Month, lots of folks are telling the story of why they became a school librarian.  Here's mine:

In short, I became a school librarian because libraries saved me.  Twice.

I stole this image from Andy Plemmons!
When I speak to groups I often recount my experiences as a kid who moved around a lot.  My brother and I counted it up once when we were kids, and by the time I'd reached 7th grade, I'd been to 26 (give or take a few) different schools.  You wouldn't know it now, but I was (and still am to a large degree) terribly shy, so starting at a new school was always incredibly traumatic for me.  And often, I found solace in the library.   I know it was CS Lewis who said that "we read to know that we are not alone," but I feel as though I've lived this.  Once at a new school, I'd find the library, locate the Judy Blume books and find myself in one of the few safe places I knew.

Later, my life was transformed forever by a classroom teacher who took an interest in me and helped me believe, for the first time, that I could do things like graduate from high school and even go to college.  I became an English teacher because of her.  And loved every moment that I spent working with children hoping beyond hope to make the kind of difference for one of them that she'd made for me.

Ten years later, I still loved teaching, but I'd found myself at odds with a system in which all teaching and learning was becoming standardized.  I felt like I was no long teaching children, or even content, but was rather being forced to teach The Test.  Everything was about The Test and that simply wasn't what I'd signed up for.  I felt lost and alone - as though the profession I loved had abandoned me.

Then, on a particularly stressful day, I saw a flyer for the Masters of Library Science program at Appalachian State posted above the copier in the teacher's lounge at school.  I swear, it was like a moment out of a Hollywood film. I felt the heavens part, the dramatic music queue up and one thought beating through my brain in time with the sound of my own heart beat, "of course."  I literally ripped the flyer from the wall, walked into my principal's office (who was somewhere else on campus) and used his phone to make the call.  As fate would have it the, then, director of the program (Dr. Rob Sanders, who would become a trusted friend and mentor) answered the phone and, within a few minutes, I knew what was next: I would be a school librarian.

After that, things moved fast.  REALLY fast.  Literally, one month after being accepted to library school my husband was offered a job almost 300 miles away, so we put our house up for sale and he moved away.  In the year that followed I lived in a hotel, worked as a full time teacher AND took classes all over the state of NC (and only 2 virtually, as this was before the days of entirely online degree programs) so that I could finish the degree in 1 year.  (Little did I know how much that year would prepare me for the work I do now!)  Before I knew it, I was in my own library, with absolutely no clue what I was supposed to do. Luckily, I had lots of good friends to help me figure out.

So... #whylib?  Because I have a debt to pay.  It's no exaggeration to say that libraries, reading and one rock star teacher saved me.  I'm here because of them.  I shudder to think what the alternative might be.  What's more, I feel the weight of that debt in everything I do.  I know that I owe to them to be the best I can be... but, frankly, that I debt I'm eager and happy to repay.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

#TXLA14 | Reflections from San Antonio

Last week I had the privilege of traveling to San Antonio to learn and share with nearly 8,000 Texas librarians at the Texas Library Association Annual Conference.  They say everything is bigger in Texas and TXLA was no exception:  the enthusiasm and energy of every single librarian I met was positively GINORMOUS!  I left each day feeling both exhausted and inspired.  And that, my friends, is a good, good feeling.

Note:  I didn't notice that this frame, (from the app InstaCollage) read "Happy Holidays" until after the fact.
I could have gone back and changed it but decided I liked the sentiment. After all TXLA felt a lot like Christmas! 
Both the keynote I gave at the Tech Camp kickoff, on Leading From The Library, and the sessions I led on Using Video Games to Ramp Up Instruction and Redefining School Libraries were so much fun thanks to the rooms full of eager librarians who gratefully shared their energy, support and wisdom with me.  I'm so grateful to everyone who attended my sessions and for those who either waited to chat with me afterwards or who stopped me in the hall or on the streets or, yes, even at the Alamo, to share their stories.  I feel like I live a charmed life and the Texas sized love I felt at TXLA is certainly a shining example of how fortunate I am.  If you're from Texas (or even if you're not, but you were there!) and you are reading this:  Thank You!

A quick aside (and some links), I've been unhappy with how my archive of current and past presentations looks for awhile now, (and in my book, style as just as important as substance), so I used TXLA as an opportunity to create a new home for this work.  Currently, only my presentations from TXLA are housed here, but over time I'll move them all over until this becomes a full fledged Professional  Development Toolkit.  Until then, I'll keep the "My Presentations" page above live, but I look forward to transforming the new page into something that is a little more user friendly.  Stay tuned.

As is always the case, however, my favorite moment from TXLA had nothing to do with me or my sessions.  And let me just say, every session I attended was AMAZING.  I learned so much from every presenter - I thought my brain would explode!  And yet, even among some very stiff competition, the #nerdybookclub session led by an all star panel (John Schumacher, Tom Angleberger, Colby Sharp, Jenni Holm, Kirby Larson, Cynthia Alaniz and Linda Urban) was not only the standout of the Texas conference, but it was also, without question, the most joyous and affirming conference session I have ever attended.

Since that session, I've been trying to figure out a way to describe it.  A way to share what I learned or a strategy for summarizing the session itself.  But it's impossible. Because the session wasn't about information.  There wasn't a list of facts, slides full of bullet points or a brochure full of strategies to be imparted.  Rather, this session was about the importance of story and, as such, was a story itself.  As each panel member got up to share, a story was woven.  A story about how the love of reading connects, inspires and in so many cases saves people.  The session was in equal measure, funny, ruckus, joyous, gentle, sweet and solemn... and from the story told through all its faces, I took away the following truths:

  • Loving to read is legitimate. It's not something extra or nice, but not necessary.  It's crucial and the work we do to help kids unlock that love is essential.
  • Reading helps us feel less alone AND helps us recognize loneliness in others.    
  • Curricula, politics and the crisis of the day will come and go, but stories endure.
  • The only thing more powerful than darkness is light.  We have an obligation to share the light inside us.  Stories help us do that.
  • Every last one of us can change the world.
I'm the kind of person who needs my work to matter.  Like everyone else, I get caught up in the minutia of schedules and deadlines, of checkboxes and (all too often) flaming hoops.  But in the end, I need to feel the weight of my purpose.  I need to know that I'm fighting for something bigger than me.  This session helped remind me of that.  As John Schu said (during his part of the presentation) it "shredded my heart" and in the most beautiful way possible.  I'm so grateful these people exist in the world and choose to give their lives to children.

If you're interested in knowing more about Nerdy Book Club and how you can be part of this rag tag group of dreamers whose sole mission is to spread their love of books, click here.  And then be brave and share some of your love too.    

Thank you again, Texas! Until we meet again...

Thursday, April 10, 2014

4 OTHER Ways To Keep Kids From Giving Up

Awhile back, I heard my friend and NC poet, Allan Wolf, compare a nagging bit of information, buried (sometimes quietly, but never silently) in the back of your mind, to the pea of The Princess and the Pea fame. Both tiny and seemingly benign. And both, in their own way, incapable of being ignored. I love this analogy. I love the idea that some things, no matter how many cognitive mattresses you pile on top of them, just won't be silenced.

This article, on strategies to keep kids from giving up, has become a cognitive "pea" for me. No matter how much I try, I can't get it out of my mind.

Now... before I go any further, I should say that I like the Teach Thought blog. I read it regularly and have gratefully shared good stuff from them both before and after seeing this piece. Further, I don't know the author of this article, but I'm 100% convinced that they are devoted to making a difference for kids.

It's just, as I read this article (and reread it again just now) I couldn't help but think of other strategies, (strategies that are more closely linked to instruction than to classroom management), for making it easier for kids to stick with something, especially when that something is hard.

So... while I have no problem with the suggestions listed in the original piece, I'd humbly offer the following additions/alternatives to the list:
  1. Create assignments that are worthy of your students' time: Despite what they might say, kids are not motivated by easy work. They want and deserve opportunities to do something epic. What's more, they know the difference between quantity and quality. More work is not the same as challenging work. If you want kids to persevere and not give up, be respectful of their time and involve them in work that means something. After all, Jack Andraka was not inspired to do something amazing by a worksheet or a trifold board. 
  2. Create assignments that focus on what kids accomplish, rather than just on what they produce: Kids need to be rewarded for taking risks, for trying something new, for dusting themselves off when they stumble and for accomplishing stuff that the original rubric couldn't have imagined. Rather than focusing so much on what the final product looks like, we need to give credit for the journey. Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating that we give everyone an "A for Effort" but what I am saying is that if a kid feels like they'll only get credit for climbing Everest if their flag makes it to the top, they've got little incentive to shoot for the next base-camp when things get tough. 
  3. Create assignments that privilege student voice, student questions and student interests: In Creating Minds, Howard Gardner posits that one of the traits frequently exhibited by geniuses is the childlike ability to wonder. Kids wonder stuff. They ask why. They imagine. They dream. And they think about ways to create the stuff their magical little brains cook up. UNTIL they get to school and we teach them that the only thing that matters is the right answer. If we want kids to stick with challenging work, we need to let them have a voice in how that work is crafted.  We need to allow them to find the answers to THEIR questions, solve the problems that THEY care about and pursue things THEY are interested in. 
  4. Create assignments that matter in the real world: "Why are we doing this?" is a legitimate question. It's not disrespectful or cheeky. AND it deserves an answer other than "because it is on the test" or "because I said so." Kids need to know (which is different from being told) that the tasks they're being given relate to life outside of the classroom. One of my eduheroes, Kevin Honeycutt, created a classroom environment in which students tackled the art curriculum as entrepreneurs: picking CEOs who then hired employees, who then had to accomplish certain tasks or risk being fired. They managed budgets, created marketing campaigns, learned how to interview for jobs and developed countless other workplace skills all while covering the entirety of the art curriculum. The work was hard but Kevin's students, many of whom were tough customers, stuck it out because they knew it was real. 
Here's the thing: kids don't (naturally) give up. If you've ever seen a kid involved in a task they find motivating (whether it's building the world's largest Lego creation, beating the *next* level of their favorite game, practicing for a gymnastics/soccer/basketball/chess competition or writing a piece of fan fiction) they are tenacious. They become devoted to it and NOTHING can stop them. Not giving up is just what kids do... until they get to school. Call me crazy, but I think this, as often as not, has as much to do with the quality of the assignment as it does with its difficulty. 

#brobrarians John & Stuart Making Mischief & Magic
All of that said, I think librarians have an obligation and opportunity to provide instructional environments that engage students in the kinds of meaningful work that classroom teachers so often feel they can't tackle because of the ever looming test. Rock star librarians like John Draughon and Stuart Annand (from Asheville, NC), encourage students to pursue their interest in photography by helping them take and develop old school film photographs in a the makeshift library darkroom, all while collaborating with chemistry teachers to shine a light on the chemical reactions taking place during the process. Similarly, library leaders Shannon Miller and Andy Plemmons (in Iowa and Georgia, respectively), harness their students' love of rainbow loom bracelets to create a service project that connects those very kids to thousands of others from around the world in an effort to help other kids in a particularly impoverished area of India. And my new BFF Todd Nesloney (a math teacher/future principal in Houston Texas), reserves a certain percentage of his instructional day to provide his students with experiences he knows they would otherwise never have: like transforming his classroom into a operating room, coming to class dressed in character or having weekly mystery skypes with kids from around the world. It CAN be done. And as librarians, we have the space and the resources.

All we need is the will.