Wednesday, November 25, 2015

I Get By With A Little Help From My Friends

It's the day before Thanksgiving here in the US and it seems like an appropriate moment for me to show a little gratitude to my ever amazing PLN.  

In January of this year, I joined the proverbial "dark side" and became Lead School Library Media Coordinator/Digital Teaching and Learning Specialist in my district.  Basically that big long title means that I now support all of the school librarians in my district. And a big part of that role is professional development. 

Now... here's where I'm going to get geeky, but I love PD.  And when I say I LOVE PD, I mean I loooooooove PD. Seriously.  I get totally geeked out over the chance to learn something new and become better at my job.  The only thing better is helping others do the same thing. And I say this as someone who has sat through some pretty bad PD! But those less than stellar experiences have only made me more determined to make sure each and every professional development opportunity that I'm involved with provides the folks attending with:

  1. a voice in the direction and expected outcomes.
  2. practical resources they can implement right away. 
  3. a legitimate answer to the question "why are we doing this?"

Still, even though I do my best to knock it out of the park whenever I step in front of a group of librarians, classroom teachers or principals, I also know that people in my district get tired of hearing from me. 

This is where my PLN comes in. 

This year instead of leading all of the PD I offer in my district myself, I decided to ask members of my PLN to help me. Honestly, I thought for sure I'd get some polite "thank you for asking me, but...." responses. However, everyone I have asked so far has said yes AND they've delivered some of the best sessions we've ever had. Here are some examples:

Example 1:
Once per month, I offer an hour long PD opportunity for the librarians in my district.  These monthly workshops are called Labs with Librarians.  They are held after school and are entirely optional.  Starting last school year, I began inviting members of my PLN to join/lead these monthly conversations. And because we use Google Hangouts on Air to conduct the sessions, they are all archived so those who cannot attend can watch later and those who did attend, can review the session later (which many, many of the librarians I work with have told me they do). Everyone from Joyce Valenza to Jennifer Northrup and Sarah Justice to Nikki Robertson to Elissa Malespina (plus MANY OTHERS) have led sessions for us! Thank you all so, so much! The experience has been incredible, and I am so very grateful to everyone who has shared their time and knowledge with us. 

Labs with Librarians

Example 2:
Over the summer, many of the librarians in my district took part in a bookclub study of Doug Johnson's The Indispensable Librarian. Their conversations were rich and resulted in real outcomes for their practice.  However, the experience was made all the more powerful by the fact that Doug agreed to meet with the group for an hour long Q/A once they finished the book.  Again, we archived the whole thing via Google Hangouts on Air. Doug made an already wonderful learning experience that much more meaningful by being incredibly generous with his time and I continue to be grateful. Thank you, Doug! You're the best! 

Example 3:
Recently, I was tasked with creating a session on using Twitter to build a PLN for my district's principals. I personally believe that while Twitter can be an effective communication tool, its real value is as a collaboration and story telling tool.  And whenever I talk about Twitter, I try to focus on my own stories and how using Twitter resulted in real outcomes for my students.  However, for this session, I wanted to be able to share more than my story, so I turned to... Twitter!  There I asked members of my PLN if they'd be willing to record a brief (30 - 60 second) video in which they share how being a connected educator and using Twitter resulted in real outcomes for students.  And boy did they deliver! Many, many people contributed (and there's more to come!) videos including rock stars like Brad Gustafson, Todd Nesloney, Steven Weber, Greg Garner, Gwyneth Jones and so many more! These "other stories" (as they are called on the webpage) tell a powerful story of how being a connected educator is important because, ultimately, students benefit from the learning we do with our colleagues from around the world.  And at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I am so, so grateful. 

Twitter: A 140 Character Love Story

In the end, I know this much is true: I couldn't do my job without the support of many, many people.  This post is, at least in part, a big sloppy thank you to everyone who helped me as part of the three examples I shared here and countless others. YOU ALL ARE AMAZEBALLS and I am so lucky our paths have crossed. THANK YOU for helping me accomplish whatever crazy idea I came to you with and for ultimately helping to create even better learning experiences for students in my districts.  *mwah!*

And to those of you who are reading this post but have yet to become a connected educator, I have just one question: What are you waiting for? If nothing else, your students need to understand how to leverage tools like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Periscope, Vine and WhateverComesNext to connect with experts, grow their own networks, contribute to conversations in meaningful ways and even engage with elected officials and participate in their government. YOU need to know how to do those things too if you're going to help them. Clearly, Twitter is a tool of choice for me, but the tool isn't nearly as important as the act of connecting itself.  If you're still on the fence, now is the time to jump off and get started.  

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Six Tips for Building Book Displays That Matter

If I've worked with your school district or spoken at your state's conference or you happened to run into me at your neighborhood Starbucks, then you've probably heard me rant about school library book displays.  I'm afraid they are something of a pet peeve of mine.

Back in the day, I loved building book displays.  AND I was pretty good at it, (if I don't say so myself).  My displays were often works of art. Checkout this beauty from back when I was a middle school librarian. I, along with a very dedicated and crafty parent volunteer, spent days making this happen.  And when it was finished, I was so proud.

The Theme: Hidden Library Treasure: Books That Aren't Famous, But Should Be! 

The Goal: Expose students to titles they might not otherwise know about.

And that's pretty much where my work ended.  And, maybe I was just a bad librarian, but I'm pretty sure that's where most of us stop when it comes to book displays.  We may point kids towards them or talk up the titles, but for the most part we adopt an "if we build it, they will come" philosophy. If the books get checked out we call it a win and if our masterpieces find a home on Pinterest, all the better.

That said, if I had it to do all over again, I might still build this display, but I'd do it differently.

I've written before about how Dr. Sandra Hughes-Hassell's work on library displays altered my thinking when it came to building book displays, but it's worth mentioning again.  She advocates for using book displays as an opportunity to affect social justice.  This is a powerful and important message. AND it elevates our practice by, literally, putting our work (in addressing the literacy needs of our most vulnerable students) on display for the whole world to see. Dr. Hughes-Hassell focuses her work, in this area, on affecting literacy rates among African American students, but I believe her advice can be applied more broadly.

Sure... book displays wrapped in caution tape during Banned Books Week are good fun and raise awareness of an important topic, but I just don't think that's good enough.  Too often we view our displays as a way to communicate an idea, when really we should think of them as a chance to connect with kids.  Every display presents us with an opportunity to tackle big things: to address individual student needs, to awaken dormant readers, and to engage all kids in meaningful conversations about books, reading and their lives as learners.  What's more, it is my strong belief that every display we build sends a message (not just to our students, but to everyone who walks through the door) about what we value and the purpose of our work with students.  Why would we waste that valuable real estate on displays that don't tell the real story of how librarians make a difference for kids?

In short, if I could go back in time and rebuild my former book displays,  I'd give students a voice in building them and I'd make sure I collect some data on their impact.  And most of all, I'd make them less about books and more about readers.

This may seem like a tall order, but here are some tips for getting it done.  In the end, I realize that not every book display is going to change the world....but, really, shouldn't that be our goal?

Download Hi-Res version here.
PS: Big thanks to my friend Jennifer Northrup for giving this infographic the once over before I hit publish. You're the best!

In response to a conversation on Twitter w/my pal Walter Carmichael I've added a few resources for further reading.  As I've mentioned here (and on Twitter) these resources altered my thinking and changed the way I did business in my own library.  If I ever get to meet Sandra Hughes-Hassell I will give her a great, big, grateful hug.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Your Students Need A Reading Champion | Giving Yourself Permission To Read

I've been thinking a lot lately about my own life as a reader.  We didn't have a lot of books in my home growing up and those we did have were lost in a fire when I was pretty young.  My mother, a single parent, worked all of the time. And I imagine making sure we had food to eat was often a greater priority than making sure we had access to regular reading material.  Still, for reasons I've already recounted in this space, I managed to become a reader.  A reader who has devoted her life to creating other readers.

Which is why I'm more than a little haunted by the years I spent as a classroom teacher. Years that I've openly referred to as my "lost years" as a reader, because apart from the novels, short stories, poems etc., that I assigned my students during that time (and the mountain of papers they wrote in response), I rarely, if ever, read anything else.  While I cherish that time in my life, and am so grateful for the privilege of working with some of the most amazing young people I could imagine, if I could go back and do it all over again, I'd change some stuff. LOTS of stuff.  But most importantly, I'd read more.


  • Because I'd have been better at connecting my students with the right book at the right time.
  • Because I'd have been better at understanding their journeys. 
  • Because I'd have had more and better conversation starters.
  • Because I'd have been that much smarter and, probably, a little happier.
  • Because students need reading role models.
  • Because stories connect us.

The list goes on and on.

These days, when I feel compelled to prioritize "real work" over reading, I create reasons to read. I give myself permission to read for pleasure, because doing so is also reading for purpose. That's one of the reasons I created #2jennsbookclub with my friend Jennifer Northrup... and it's also part of why I've been heartened to see so many classroom teachers (in addition to school librarians) take part.

So... if you're waiting for someone to give you permission to read (or just read more) for pleasure. Here it is:  The top 5 reasons (in no particular order) why you should stop what you're doing and join #2jennsbookclub.

  1. Your coolness factor will go way up. Yeah. I said it.  There's never been a time when being a nerd has been cooler. And there's no cooler nerd than a book nerd.  
  2. You'll be better at your job.   CS Lewis famously said that we read to know that we are not alone. Adolescence can be a time of trauma and isolation, as a reader, you'll know just the right books to help your students know that they are not alone.
  3. Free books! At the end of each of our twitter chats, I give away copies of the books we're reading!  
  4. You'll gain (or add to) your very own "reading posse." The people who participate in #2jennsbookclub are smart, thoughtful, and generous.  During the course of our conversations they share teaching strategies, ideas for connecting kids with books and their passion for growing readers.  They are truly the best part of our virtual bookclub experience.
  5. Reading is awesome. Enough said. 
Join us! OR join my friend Tavia Clark's #yearofya bookclub OR the incredibly awesome #sharpschu bookclub (started by John Schumacher and Colby Sharp) OR the ever popular #nerdybookclub (started and maintained by, among others, Donalyn Miller and Colby Sharp)! Whatever you do, don't let being a grown up keep you from reading.  Because reading is the real work of all learners.  Because reading is not something extra. It's something essential. And because your students need you to. 

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Learning To Read Alone Is Not Enough. Your Students Need A Reading Champion.

I don't know about you, but... 
  • I did not become a reader because someone held me accountable for reading. 
  • I did not become a reader because someone offered me "points" or other incentives for the quantity of books or pages I read. 
  • I did not become a reader because someone limited my reading selections to only to those titles on a certain reading level or within a specific lexile band. 
  • And I did not become a reader because someone forced me to complete reading logs, write book reports or create (and then reuse) the occasional diorama. 

cc img src:
I became a reader because a kind librarian, whose name I do not remember, at McDermoth Elementary School, (in Aberdeen, Washington), found me hiding under a table in the library on my first day at that school. But instead of forcing me to go out to recess, where the traditional "new kid" bullying, (that I was all too familiar with), awaited, she chose to pass me a book under the table:  Judy Blume's Blubber. And then she let me sit there until I was finished reading it. (An act that I would attempt to repeat, often successfully, at many, many other new schools to follow).

I became a reader because one of my 4th grade teachers, Miss Lynch at Madison Elementary School, (in Olympia, Washington),  read Wilson Rawls' Where The Red Fern Grows aloud to our class.  And I was so taken by its magic, I begged my mother to take me to the public library in order to get my very first library card - which I then used to check out a dusty copy of the book, so that I could read along, reread and, yes, read ahead.  As it turns out, this would also prove to be my first (but not last!) overdue library book and my first (but not last!) library fine.  But I digress.

I became a reader because my 10th grade English teacher, Sharron Coontz, at Olympia High School (in Olympia, Washington), tossed out the idea of the "whole class novel" (one of many instructional strategies that I have since come to realize put Ms. Coontz WAY before her time) and instead let me choose every book I read for her class. I'd never had this freedom before, and it lead me to discover works by Upton Sinclair, Arthur Miller, John Steinbeck and VC Andrews (lest you think me a literary snob), all of which would change my life in varying ways and help me see reading as a necessary part of living. 

Call me Captain Obvious, but I feel the need to point something out: none of the instances that I can identify as having made a difference in my life as a reader involve reading instruction. I can't point to the teacher who helped me master consonant blends. I have no idea who taught me to recognize (or indeed spell) onomatopoeia.  I'm not sure in what grade I finally figured out how to identify the main idea of a reading selection. And I have no idea when I discovered the glory of non-fiction text features. Clearly. I did learn those things. But I've also learned this:

Learning to read alone is not enough.

Reading instruction and developing the habit of reading are two very different, but equally important instructional goals. However, in recent years, a greater emphasis has been placed on the former, relegating "the love of reading" to fluff status: something that is nice but not necessary.  And, in my estimation, we've paid a heavy price for it.  For all our emphasis on reading interventions and "research based programs" that are "guaranteed to improve test scores," those pesky test scores don't seem to have gotten the memo.  Further, students who have endured this particular swing of the pedagogical pendulum are, and at alarming rates, leaving school as nonreaders. Even those who can read, simply choose not to once they leave school.

That said, I wrote this post, in part, to thank those people who, by chance or by choice, helped me develop a love of reading. I will be forever grateful and shudder to think what my life might have looked like otherwise. However, this post is also for all those classroom teachers and school librarians (along with the people who support and evaluate them) who are (like it or not) getting ready to head back to school for another year.  To them I say this:

I hope you'll consider the following fundamental truths as you plan lessons and activities for the young (potential) readers you serve:
  1. Our most successful students tend to have one thing in common: they are readers. And by successful I don't just mean that they perform well on standardized tests (although they do) I also mean that they are better at doing other things that actually matter. Time and time again, studies have shown that students who are readers out perform their non-reading counterparts in multiple subject areas. But recent studies also suggest that students who read for pleasure also develop stronger senses of empathy and personal wellbeing.  In short, readers win at school and they also win at life.  That said... 
  2. Our students are most likely to become readers when: 
    • they are given choice in what they read,
    • they have teachers who also read for pleasure,
    • they see reading as an essential part of  their lives and not just something they have to do for school, and...
    • they develop a habit of reading grown out of having made authentic and meaningful connections with books. 
Then, think about your own life as a reader. Can you, as I have above, identify one or two pivot points in your development as a reader? That is to say, can you locate some crucial moments that helped transform you from a non-reader to a reader?  If you can, I'm absolutely convinced that they will look a lot like mine, insomuch as they'll have nothing to do with incentives or accountability, but will instead have everything to do with one (or more) exceptional teacher, librarian or some other adult and one (or more) exceptional book.  If you are really lucky, and are still in contact with that person, take a moment to thank them.  But even if you're not, hold onto those memories and make this the year that you become (or continue to be) that person for someone else.  Your students need a reading champion now, more than ever.  Let that person be you.