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Stepping Up Our Game: School Libraries and Self Assessment

Sometimes I wonder why I still subscribe to so many professional journals. It's not that the quality of these publications has diminished so much, it's just that the time I have to actually read them has!  Every month, a pile of new professional reading lands in my mailbox and every month I add it to the stack from the month before.  And yet, I can't bring myself to cancel these subscriptions.  When that elusive free time does present itself, I still love thumbing through the glossy pages, adorning each issue with a rainbow of sticky notes, while lovingly annotating the margins of particularly meaningful articles with scrawled notes and reminders.  Perhaps I am showing my age with this confession.  [old curmudgeon voice] Indeed, I can't wait to hear future generations of school librarians wax nostalgic when remembering how quaint it was to highlight text on the first generation iPad. [/old curmudgeon voice]  *sigh*

But I digress.

My faith in these subscriptions, however, was renewed a week or so ago during the 16 hours (but that's a whole other story) I spent trying to get home from ALA Midwinter.  I'm not a good traveler.  Don't get me wrong, I love visiting new places, I just hate the travel from point A to point B.  I discovered recently, however, that long flights (and even longer layovers) are the perfect time to catch up on the pile of professional reading I was complaining about just a paragraph ago.  So now, whenever I go on a trip, I grab a pile of neglected professional publications to dive into somewhere between taxi and touchdown.  It's the proverbial win-win.

Anyway, it was during this recent trip that I finally explored the December issue of School Library Monthly where I ran across an article on the school librarian's role in closing the achievement gap for African American males.  For me, this was an incredibly powerful read, not only because it highlights the fundamental truth that school librarians MUST care about the same things that all other teachers care about, but it also provides a model that can be used by teacher librarians to support the literacy needs of the African American males they serve.  What's more the same model can also be used as a self-assessment tool by teacher librarians who already understand and view their programs as essential components in the school's efforts to serve these students.

Note:  I REALLY wish I could find a copy of the entire article online.  However the model, outlined by Sandra Hughes-Hassell and Casey H.Rawson is composed of three successive levels, or approaches, of school librarian involvement: the Additive, Transformative, and Social Action Approaches.  I like these levels because they provide me with a clear benchmark with which to compare my own efforts.

Let's be honest, this is the level where most libraries start and stop what are likely good faith efforts to support programs targeting struggling learners.  We create displays during ___________ (Black History, Autism Awareness, Etc) Month and make sure that all of our reading lists contain some high interest/low reading level texts.  But then we stop.  This doesn't make us bad people.  But it does make our work less impactful than it could/should be.

Again, let me be frank.  Prior to reading this article, I felt pretty good about my program and its role in impacting the learning of my school's most at risk populations.  However, now I'm pretty sure this is where my  efforts land.  I definitely involve students in the selection process and create opportunities for discussion that go beyond the stand alone displays, but I can't boast much more than that.  Again, that doesn't make me a bad person.  What it makes me is eager to step up my game!

Now at this point, I've got to confess two things:  first, I don't know many libraries that are at this level and second, I strongly believe that the true value of this model is that it can be applied to student populations other than that of African American males.

One of the things I find myself saying over and over again is that in order to BE viewed as indispensable members of our learning communities, we must find ways to be the answer to the problems that keep our principals, fellow teachers and (hopefully) ourselves up at night.  (I stole this line from Deb Logan, by the way).   It may be that your school's focus is on closing the achievement gap for African American males - but it may also be that the students who need the most focused attention this year are English Language Learners or those with IEPs.  No matter what group of kids needs us the most this year, we must find and (if necessary) create ways to assess our efforts and THEN be reflective enough in our practice to act on those results.   Too often, we wait until the end of the year to place our work under the microscope - and then it's too late.

For most of us, January marks the half way point of this academic year - a time for buckling down and (re)resolving to actually do many of the things we promised ourselves (and our kids) back in August.  But I think it's also the perfect time to scrutinize the work we've done so far.  Instead of waiting for the annual report, (which will be here before we know it), I challenge you to a) consider which group of students at your school is in the most need of what you and your library can provide and then b) find or create a way to assess your efforts to be the difference for those very kids.  I know... I know... it can be a hard pill to swallow, but ultimately this process is incredibly empowering.   Whether it's this model or something else you've either run across or created, holding our programs up to the mirror of scrutiny may not leave us thrilled with what we see, but it will strengthen the impact we have on kids - which is, after all, what it's all about.


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