Monday, September 1, 2014

The Art of Listening

Have you ever had that dream.  You know the one.  It's the first day of school.... AND you're late.... AND there's a test... AND you're not prepared.... AND you (or everyone else) seems to be in their skivvies?

My first day of school was sort of like that. Minus the (partial) nudity.

I didn't arrive late, (which will shock those who know me personally), but there was a test (of sorts). And I wasn't prepared.

Like a lot of y'all, my first official day back to school, a teacher work day, was punctuated by the year's first faculty meeting. Because I'm new to the school and don't know anyone, I wanted to make a good impression, so I got there on time (or early in Jennifer time) and was greeted immediately by my principal who welcomed me to the school and said he was excited to have the staff "visit my station" today.

Ruh roh.

As it turns out, instead of a typical faculty meeting, where 130+ staff members sit and listen to updates from various departments, my principal had something else in mind. Instead, he'd designated stations throughout the school which all staff members, in small groups, would gather to hear said updates and talk about how the folks at each station were prepared to work with them to make this a great year for our students and each other.   The idea was that after all the rotations, every staff member would have visited all the stations and still had a couple of hours at the end of the day to work in their classrooms.

Now... I want to go on record as saying that I love this idea! However, because I'd yet to be put into the school's email group, I was unaware that I was on the list of stations that each and every staff member would visit.  Which meant I had nothing prepared.  So much for making a good impression. :)

Luckily, however, I'd recently read this post by my friend David Grossman, a former (and future!) school librarian turned science teacher in Kentucky.  I love, love LOVE this post which recounts David's first days with students and how the decision to listen to his kids, rather than just talk at them, had sparked something magical in the relationship that was being formed between them during the first few days of school. I'll say it again. I love this post so, so much. And I knew the moment I read it that it would influence my decision making as I began my 18th school year as a teacher. What I did not realize, however, is that it would save the day the moment I got there!

So... here's what I did.

Since I only had about 20 minutes with each group, I started by telling them a little bit about myself and also about the grants I'd spent the last few weeks working on, in the hopes that they'd be able to infer a little bit about my vision through these plans. Then I followed the example David had set and passed out post it notes, asking each staff member I saw that day to answer one question:

What would it take to make you see bringing students to the library as a good use of your instructional time?

I tried not to influence their responses, but I did tell them that, as a former classroom teacher myself, I knew instructional time is sacred and that I hoped they would "dream big."

Immediately, I was impressed by how thoughtfully each teacher (and other staff members) answered the question. They took their time. They thought about their responses. Many of them used multiple post-it notes to share their thoughts. Soon I had a whole table full of dreams - wishes for our library from folks who have been using it for far longer than I have. I could hardly wait for the day to end so I could dive into all of the data!

Naturally, (I am a librarian after all), I began by sorting the post it notes into piles based on the general focus of each wish for the library. In the end, I settled on five categories: 1) Mission: suggestions focusing on the purpose of the library and/or how the librarian supports the work of classroom teachers and impacts student learning.  2) Atmosphere: suggestions related to making students and staff feel welcomed and important in the library. 3) Collections: suggestions related to materials, technology and other resources. 4) Physical space: suggestions related to design, layout, furniture, etc. 5) Other: suggestions that didn't fit into any other category!

I'm still working through the specifics of the suggestions, making lists and looking for resources to help make those dreams come true, but I've already learned a couple of important lessons from this exercise.

First, it's clear from what was written on each small square of paper that the folks at my school view the mission of the library and the way students/staff feel in the space as far more important than the collection itself.  And I gotta tell you... this is so empowering! For those of us with physical resources that are older than we are, it can be easy to feel deflated by insurmountably dated collection statistics and tempting to focus on everything we don't have. rather than on all that we do! This data reminds me that the relationships I build with students and staff through what I do each day and how being in the library makes them feel, are far more important than the materials I manage. 

Don't get me wrong, patrons of my library DESERVE recent and relevant resources.  And I will work to strengthen the collection of materials housed in the library.  But armed with this data, I feel better about tackling this one day at a time, in accordance with the funding I have and can earn throughout the year, while focusing on my work as the primary linchpin for change in the space.

The second thing that stands out from this exercise is how delighted and genuinely surprised the teachers at my school were by having simply been asked their opinion. So many of the post-it wish lists began with lines like "OMG! Thank you for asking us!" Or "Thank you for caring what we think!"  One even said, "I have no idea, but I'm so excited you asked me! PLEASE LET ME KNOW HOW I CAN HELP YOU!"  Their responses were sincerely joyful.  And while many of the "dreams" they listed were, to be frank, not nearly as big as I'd been hoping for, I learned as much from the scope of their desires as from the suggestions themselves. But most importantly, perhaps, what I learned is that these people are on my side.  They might not know exactly how to make it happen, but like me, they want a library where students and staff feel welcome and that they can rely on as an important instructional resource and a place of learning that they can be proud of.

In the end, I'm so glad that I wasn't prepared for the first day of school!  Who knows, perhaps if I *had* gotten the emails stating that I'd be part of the program on day one, I'd still have decided to spend a good chunk of the time I had listening instead of talking, but I have a feeling my first day presentation would have gone in another direction.   

In his post on listening, David Grossman lists some of the responses he got from students when he asked them what kinds of things made them feel respected, followed by this reflection:

"Isn’t this what we want as adults as well? We want people to show us that we matter by looking at us and really seeing us. We want to live free from the fear of being singled out, embarrassed, or belittled. And we want people to listen to our opinions, taking them into consideration whenever appropriate."

This year, I hope to use my ears as much as, if not more than, my mouth.  And I hope I remember that building relationships is the key to everything else.   Like many of you, I have a big and important job ahead of me this year.  One that has already left me feeling overwhelmed and defeated more than once.  The one thing I know for sure is that I can't do it alone.  I will need the people behind  all those post it notes that are still sitting, sorted into neat piles on my dining room table.  Thanks to having to think fast on my feet on day one, I've already taken the first step towards building a meaningful relationship with them.  And as day one turns into day ten and so on and so forth, I'm looking forward to what comes next. 

Saturday, August 23, 2014

27 Ways To Make This the Best Year Ever!

So, here's what happened... 

A few weeks ago my friend +Steven Anderson  (you may know him as web20classroom on Twitter) asked me if I'd be willing to do a back to school webinar for teachers on (wait for it) ANYTHING I WANTED TO!  Now, I don't know about you, but this is the kind of invitation I like, so of course I said yes.


I ran across this video which, to be blunt, rocked my world! I was SO VERY inspired by Tim Harris and the joy he felt just getting up and going to work every day.  But I have to admit, the video also left me with some questions. Specifically:
  • What would it take to get teachers this excited about going to work each day? 
  • How can we, as teachers, harness and hold onto the joy so often associated with the first days of school and make it last all year long? 
  • In short... what would it take to make teachers want to do a DANCE OFF OF MAGIC in their school parking lots each and ever day?  
A tall order, I know.  But I decided to try.  The one thing I knew for sure was that I could not do it alone.

Drawing inspiration from Mia MacMeekin's series of "27 Ways To... " infographics and decided to make my own, using Comic Life.   Then, knowing there was no way I could come up with 27 totally unique and amazing ways to make this the best year ever on my own, I started asking members of my PLN for tips and advice to help teachers a) remember why they became teachers to begin with and b) hang onto that inspiration all year long so that day 121 felt as awesome as day one.   AND OH MY STARS! The advice people shared was AMAZING! I was blown away.   And it wasn't long before my infographic was finished! 

Click here for Hi-Res Download! 

I soon realized, however, that their stories and advice were so inspirational, I knew I had to share more than what I could include in the infographic, so once it was finished, I uploaded the finished product to Thinglink and then tagged each "tip" with photos, videos and other resources so that everyone accessing the infographic could benefit from the wisdom and generosity of those who were willing to share. 

I love the finished product so, so much.  But I love the process that went into creating it even more.   What's more, little did I know that I would need this process, at this very moment, more than I could have imagined. 

This is the 18th time that I have gone back to school, in some form or fashion, and in many ways it's also been the toughest.  Perhaps I am just getting old, but I've had to really dig deep during these first few days of school to remain hopeful and confident that I am up to the challenges the lie ahead. (And there are a lot of them).  

What I know for sure, though, is that I am lucky.  My life has and will continue to be changed by the army of brilliant teachers that I am connected with each day via Twitter and now, increasingly more, on Voxer (Group Tedifer, you know who you are!) an app which allows me to trade voice messages with some of my favorite people in the whole wide world as I travel to and from work every day.   I could not have completed this project with you... but, more importantly, I wouldn't have made it through the last few weeks without you.  *mwah!*

So.... if you missed the webinar, here's the link to the archive.  Thanks to all that attended.  It was good, good fun.

And to everyone out there reading this, I really do hope this is the best year ever.  And on those days when you DON'T feel like doing a dance off of magic in the parking lot, I hope you'll reach out to those people in your life who support and inspire you.  I'm living proof that they do make things better.  

As Tim Harris would say... "oh yeah!" 

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A New Adventure Begins | Some Lessons From The Road

Two years ago, I was given an amazing opportunity.

After only five years as a teacher librarian, I was asked to serve as a teacher (librarian) on loan with the state of NC.  As I often share during professional development, this position has taken me all over the state (and back again).  In the last 2 years, I've visited over 80 of NC's 118 school districts. I've put over 70,000 miles on my car.  I've lost six dongles.  I've visited countless libraries.  And I've worked with scores and scores of teachers, principals and, yes, school librarians - all of whom shared a desire to move their library programs forward for the benefit of students.  What an honor it has been to be a part of that process.

I'm so proud of the work I've done over the last two years.  But more than that, I'm so, so grateful for it.  As much as I've been able to share at each stop along the highway, I know I've learned so much more. All of life's journeys are like that.  Just as we leave a little bit of ourselves on every path we trod, so too do we take some of the path with us when we leave.  We change the path. And it changes us.   Which is part of the reason why I'm so elated that this wonderful chapter of my career is coming to an end.  Although I've loved the work of bringing new ideas to NCs teacher librarians, so often, I'd leave a district longing for the opportunity to implement some new idea in my own library, with my own students.

Now I have that opportunity.

My new home: NHHS 
In two weeks, I'll be returning to the school library.  This time as the librarian at New Hanover High School in Wilmington, NC.  And I could not be more excited about it.  In many, many ways this is a fulfillment of a dream for me.  Although I've spent the entirety of my teaching career in middle school, when I was as undergraduate (and even before that) I dreamt of being a high school teacher.  Incredibly, the very school where I'll be teaching this year, represented my "dream placement" as I finished up my student teaching. (But there were literally no openings for English teachers at that school at that time). And that same school is now in a period of great transition.  The library is in need of a massive transformation.  And the new principal there not only shares my vision for what that could/should look like, but, more importantly, he also plans to support that vision in a number of exciting ways.

But more on that later.

In the meantime, I feel like I'm still working through all of the things I've learned during my time as North Carolina's traveling librarian.  Indeed, it may take years before I truly realize the impact this period has had on my thinking, my practice and on me personally.  For now, though, here are a few of my big takeaways:

  1. The single greatest factor (negatively) impacting school libraries is low expectations. We can talk about fixed schedules, personnel cuts and disappearing budgets, but to me all those rivers (and countless others) flow from this one point.  In places where library programs are not up to snuff, the people who are served by those libraries have come to expect very, very little from their librarians and, in a lot of cases, those librarians are delivering just that: very little.  And, perhaps there is a conversation to be had about whether or not the librarians are reacting to the expectations or the expectations are a reaction to the librarian, but to me that's a chicken vs. egg wormhole that's better left ignored. Bottom line: teachers, principals and parents need to have higher expectations of the librarians. And I want to be clear, I don't mean folks need to expect their librarians do MORE work, but rather we need to be expected to do MORE IMPORTANT work. I believe, in most cases, we'll rise to occasion.  And if we don't, we need to go.
  2. Where libraries thrive, students thrive. I've seen this over and over again.  Rural, urban, rich, poor, big, small... it doesn't matter the school or the system. In places where libraries are thriving, active places where kids do more creating than consuming, those students do better. Period.  
  3. 1:1/BYOD programs are game changers for libraries. In schools where every students has access to a network device all of the time, libraries are either changing drastically or rapidly dying.  There is no in between.  Rightfully so, students, teachers and administrators are all asking the question: why do I need to go the library when I have access to all the information I could possibly need in my pocket or backpack?  Libraries that are continuing to thrive in these environments are those that are evolving from places where people go to get information and into places where the focus is on using that information to create new knowledge.  Libraries that are not making this shift are becoming obsolete and are going extinct.
  4. First impressions count. Over and over and over again, when I walked through libraries where either the principal or the librarian (or both!) are concerned about the state of things, their first comments were about how old, outdated and irrelevant that space felt.  What's more, those comments often had little/nothing to do with the age of the building, the furnishing or the chipping paint.  In the end, things like how the furniture was arranged (for collaborative work vs. individual, quiet reflection), the amount of student work displayed, the tone set by posted rules/regulations, the amount of noise students were allowed to make (more noise implies more life) and a clear connection between the work of the library and school-wide goals meant much, much more than the room's physical appearance.  Every person who walks through the door is a potential library supporter.  We cannot afford for our spaces to make bad first impressions.
  5. Principals are the key. To everything.  If nothing else, the last two years have instilled in me a new found love and respect for building level administrators. Their plates are so full, the very metaphor of the full plate is grossly inadequate. And, although I didn't agree with every principal I met, in almost every instance, their decisions were rooted in a sincere desire to do what's best for students. And in a state like NC, where principals are truly the kings and queens of their castles, where they have a great deal of autonomy when it comes to budget and staffing decisions, principals have the potential to be our greatest and most impactful allies.  It's not just unfortunate that so many librarians feel that their principals "don't understand their work," it's dangerous.  Because, in the end, while many of the principals I met didn't know exactly what they wanted out of a library program, they knew what they didn't want.  And they did not hesitate when it came to making changes.  As librarians, I am utterly convinced that we must, must, must do more to build bridges between ourselves and not just our principals, but with administrators in general.  We need to submit articles for publications in journals read by principals.  We need to participate in Twitter chats aimed at principals (thank you for this idea, Nikki D Robertson).  We need to conduct district level PD for our home grown admins.  And we need to apply to present at principal focused conferences.  Trust me, it's a very short journey between one principal stating that libraries are outdate instructional dinosaurs and that he/she was able to use those funds to greater effect in another area of the school, to an entire district, region or state without libraries/librarians. Principals are the key.  To everything. 
  6. And finally, this last take away is about me personally.  I'm not suited to life on the road.  Don't get me wrong, I love traveling.  I love going to state conferences or consulting with districts from around the country or indeed the world, but leaving on Sunday night and not returning home again until Friday night is a younger librarian's game.  Plus,  I miss working with kids. Working with adults is so satisfying.  And I will continue to do that in lots of different ways.  But working with students is my first love.  And, I'll be honest, I miss it. 

So... in the days to come I'm sure I'll be sharing the missteps and (hopefully more!) successes of the next chapter in my journey.   As I said, our library is ready for a transformation.  Luckily, I'm ready to do some transforming! In the meantime, though, I want to finally, and publicly, say thank you to Neill Kimrey who called me up one day and offered me a job.  To my dear friend and daily inspiration Jennifer Northrup whose life is about to grow immeasurably simpler now that she'll no longer be responsible for making sure my head is screwed on straight, to all the other members of the NCDPI/DTL team who helped me learn and grow over the last two years and to the many, many, MANY educators in NC who invited me to be a part of moving their districts and schools forward. It has been an honor and a privilege.  Thank you. 

Onward and upward! 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

PLN Starter Kit Update | Summer Learning Challenge

Two years ago, I asked y'all to help me create a crowd-sourced tool to help other educators start building a PLN.  This request grew out of conversations I'd had at the time (and continue to have) with teacher-librarians, classroom teachers, administrators, etc., who know they *should* be participating in the global conversation about what it takes to prepare today's learners for the world of tomorrow.

And boy did you come through.

Click me! Click me! Click me! 

Together, we created a livebinder full of links to blogs/twitter handles of educators whose work NEEDED to be shared.  This wasn't a "Top 10/50/100 list" created by a reporter or editorial board, it was a lovingly curated gift chock-full-o PLN goodness and brimming with YOUR go to resources.  Since then, this resource has been pointed to and shared over and over again by many of you as you work to help your colleagues grow their personal learning and I could not be happier with how it continues to grow.

That said, while people still contribute to it from time to time AND occasionally someone will send me a note to correct something, I think it's time to give the PLN Starter kit a purposeful update.  Technically, it may be a little late to be doing spring cleaning, but I think it's time we clean up the stuff that is longer active and add some new names to our crowdsourced whose who of educational awesomeness.

One person I will definitely be adding to the list is my friend, and brand new principal, Todd Nesloney.  In fact, if I'm honest, it's Todd's work that got me thinking that it was time to update the Starter Kit.  This summer, Todd is challenging all of the teachers at his school to be "professional learners" by taking part in a Summer Learning Series.  Each week he'll issue a challenge to his teachers that will, ultimately, extend their learning and help evolve their practice.  I love, love, LOVE this idea! We often talk about students and the "summer slide" but if such a phenomenon is real, then it stands to reason that teachers experience it too. And yes, it is important to take time to rest, relax and rejuvenate during the summer break, it's also a time for to reflect and reboot. I just love that Todd is taking his role as the instructional leader at his school seriously and starting off by challenging and then HELPING his teachers make this summer one in which they grow and evolve, so that when the new school rolls around in just a few short weeks, they'll not feel rested, but they'll also feel better prepared to make some instructional magic with their students. What's more, Todd is opening up his Summer Learning Shallenge to ANYONE who wants to participate. Simply fill out the google form on his blog and you're in.

Easy peasy.

Click here, yo! 
Speaking of google forms, now's the time for you to tell me who you'd like to see added to our crowdsourced PLN mega pick! Like I said last time, there are no rules for how to do this, but I recommend not thinking about it too long. Go with your gut. And then, if your gut tells you to recommend others, go back and fill out the form again. Fill it out as many times as you like. I just ask one thing: once you've filled it out, share it.

Blog about it.
Tweet about it.
Talk about it over a cup of coffee.
Make some nice graffiti art (just don't get caught and be sure to send me a photo!)

But let's spread the word and help all those newbies out there begin the journey of learning that has helped us grow so much as teachers and learners.

Ok. Ready???