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My Year With Evergreen Public Schools + Using Thumbprint Biographies to Revisit Your Why

I’ve long said that I am the luckiest librarian around, and you should be aware, this post will do nothing to disprove that claim. Last summer, I was given the opportunity to spend a year working with the Teacher Librarians and Technology TOSAs (Teachers On Special Assignment) of Evergreen Public Schools in Vancouver, Washington. This residency consisted of spending (just about) one week per month in Vancouver where I got to hang out with the TLs, TOSAs and their students at each school. And then, I prepared and facilitated professional development for the TLs and TOSAs to take place on one of those days, during each of my weekly visits. . Now that the first year of this residency is over (I’m returning for year two in the fall. Yay!), I’ve been thinking a lot about the work I’ve seen, and been a part of, in this mid-sized school district located just across the bridge from Portland, OR. And here are some of my biggest takeaways:

  • When educators harness the power of their own passions to tackle the expectations of their schools and districts, not only is the work easier and more fun, but that passion often fuels them to achieve more than they ever thought possible. Whether that passion is Star Wars (which middle school TL, Paul Warner, incorporated to just about everything, but most notably his epic sci-fi READcon event where kids, parents and community members gathered to celebrate reading, robotics, comics and everything powered by The Force!) or Pickle Ball (a sport middle school TL, Michelle Arnott, coached in weekly, after school and weekend tournaments, using all the entry fees to fund the most epic and instructionally rich makerspace I've ever seen!) week after week, I saw EPS educators flexing that muscle to make the heavy lifting of their work so much easier. Plus, passion is contagious, y'all. Even if your thing is not their thing, students and teachers will be inspired when you let your geek flag fly. 

  • The primary goal of any district technology dept should be to remove barriers for teachers. I’ve worked in places where the response to teacher complaints/concerns about technology (think: “my kids can’t login” or “if I give students devices, they’ll be off task!”) were met with irritation and even hostility - which resulted in an adversarial and unhealthy relationship between the technology dept and the teachers on the front lines. Conversely, when teachers in Vancouver expressed concern about how difficult it was for younger students to login to their device, instead of faulting teachers for not taking the time to teach kids how to do it, the tech dept developed an innovative solution involving the student ID cards made available by school picture companies and QR codes. Whether the tech department thought the concern was legitimate or not, they knew that if they removed the obstacle, the more opportunities there would be for students to use technology in meaningful ways. Plus, when teachers feel heard, the more likely they will be to take chances on new technology or be patient when roll-outs don’t go exactly as planned. 

  • The root word of personalized (as in personalized learning) is PERSON - not technology! At some point, I will write at length about the “library endorsement’ program created by EPS elementary TL Kevin Suenkel, but for now, let me just say it’s all about harnessing what students are interested in to create unique learning opportunities that allow them to demonstrate their learning in completely individual ways. Earning some of the endorsements requires students to use technology, while others are completely analog. But wherever the technology is utilized, it’s because it makes the learning BETTER. The most important part of this truly personalized learning experience is the learner! The technology is only a tool to help the learner achieve something special. 

  • A fixed schedule does not have to mean a fixed mindset. The elementary TLs in EPS, like most of their colleagues around the country, work in a fixed schedule, seeing back to back, 30 minute, classes on most days. That 30 minutes has to include time for both instruction and book checkout. Obviously, this schedule presents challenges, but everywhere I went, I saw librarians using every single second they had with kids to create meaningful learning opportunities that involved making, building, creating, coding, researching, problem solving and, above all, developing rich reading lives. I had plenty of conversations where these librarians said things like, “can you help me figure out how to do ______ on a fixed schedule?” But I NEVER heard one of them say “I can’t do that on a fixed schedule.” Ever. 

  • When you lose your way, revisit your why. No school or district is without challenges or areas for growth and EPS is no exception. But by constantly circling back to WHY they chose to be an educators in the first place, these professionals always seem to find the opportunity hidden within every obstacle. 

All of that said, one of my own personal goals related to this residency was to actively and intentionally reflect on my work there. To that end, and taking inspiration from Colby Sharp, I created #BestPartofMyDay videos, capturing the things I saw each day that inspired me. I started this process at the beginning of my time with EPS and continued to do so every week I was there. I’ve written before about how powerful this process was for me, so I’ll simply say here that as someone who hates to have her photo taken and who struggles to see herself on screen, making these videos was personally challenging, but oh so worth it. Not only did it force to me to take stock of my day and consider which part landed at the top of the awesome pile, but as a result, I learned something important about expectations: when you go into each day looking for great things, you tend to find them. Speaking of great things… I've been wanting to write about the last professional development day I got to spend with the TLs of Evergreen Public Schools, and now seems like a good time. I had several goals for the session, which were:

  1. To create a stress relieving learning opportunity (the end of the year is fraught with more than enough stress creating opportunities - end of year testing, inventory, etc).

  2. To create a session that included at least one strategy they could take back and use immediately. 

  3. To use a picture book to spark meaningful conversation. 

  4. To share the concept of a library "vision board."

  5. To create an opportunity for revisiting the WHY of our work. And... 

  6. To have fun.

So here’s what we did….

Step 1: In small groups, the TLs read Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal. Then, together, they discussed what Alma learned about herself by thinking about her name, the people who share (at least part of) her name, and what those namesakes contributed to the world. Step 2: Then, I asked them to individually reflect on the title of “teacher librarian” and what that name meant to them. I asked them to think about the teacher librarians who came before them and what they've contributed to their schools, districts and the world. And I asked them to reflect on why they decided they wanted Teacher Librarian to appear on their own name badge and how THEIR contributions will be different from previous TLs. Step 3: Next, I gave them a few minutes to individually explore the resources curated on this “TL Vision Board” Padlet - where I’ve curated articles/posts about why the work of the teacher librarian is so important. While they explored, I encouraged them to jot down some quotes, ideas or take-aways that stood out to them or related to their core beliefs as a teacher librarian.

Step 4: After that, using the conversations they'd had with their group about Alma, their own reflections about what it means to be a TL and their notes from exploring the TL Vision Board Padlet, we then created Thumbprint Biographies/Poems that captured who they are as Librarians. If you’re not familiar with these, checkout this awesome post from teacher Julie Ballew. Now, I'll admit, this process got a little messy. And some folks were a little uncomfortable. But, we plowed forward, breaking out the stamp pads and markers as well as more paper when a few of us needed a "do over."   Step 5: I then had the TLs share their masterpieces using a shared google slide deck, which I then downloaded as a PDF and then uploaded to the online tool AnyFlip to create this flipping book anthology of their work. (You can checkout their final products by clicking the image below).

To say that I was thrilled with the results would be an understatement. As always, these educators blew me away with their thoughtful and inspiring work! Just like real thumbprints, each biography/poem is unique and I’m in love with some of the different ways they each chose to express their passion for our work. But also, at this time of year, especially, my heart swelled to hear their laughter and camaraderie. All points in the school year have their challenges, but the end of the year... y'all. It's tough. When you've got an opportunity to let me people laugh and make stuff, take it. 

That said, if you’re interested in recreating this professional development with your learners (of any age), here’s a link to the site I used with EPS on that day. Have fun! Finally, I'd probably be remiss if I didn't share my own messy and imperfect  thumbprint biography as a part of this post. I created a sample version as part of the PD and found the process fun and meaningful, in large part because it required me to really think about what I believe as a librarian - something I think about a lot, actually.  In fact, not that long ago, I had a conversation with a TL from another district who told me she felt that elementary and secondary libraries had very different missions. I can't remember how I responded at the time, but I've been thinking about her assertion ever since. And the more I think about it, the more I respectfully disagree. At their heart, I think all libraries share the same mission: to change the world by 1) being democratizing forces in their schools/communities - places where anyone, regardless of their race, religion, income, gender/identity, sexual orientation, ability, etc., can access the same information. And by 2) connecting people to lives that are informed and inspired by story. While I do think the WAYS in which elementary and secondary librarians go about achieving those goals vary greatly, the mission remains the same. And when you spend a little time immersed in that mission and in what it means to do this kind of work, particularly at this point in history, the weight of it lingers. This work. It matters, y'all.  So, keep on. Won't you?

1 Comment

Lula Strong
Lula Strong
Mar 07, 2023

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