Collaboration = Convergence of Ideas

I have written about Convergence before. It’s a 2-day professional development conference sponsored by my current school district, Wake County Public Schools (WCPSS). The name is not happenstance.

Dictionary.com defines the act of converging as meeting “in a point or line; inclin[ing] towards each other, as lines that are not parallel.”   WCPSS Convergence brings together library media and technology teachers across the vast school system to share with and learn from each other. It is clear Spring Convergence 2017 is focused on collaboration.

Almost every session I attended today used collaboration as its core whether the collaboration was virtual (Google Drive & Classroom) or the keynote address by Chris Barton and Don Tate about their collaborative efforts in creating the book Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions.

I, too, presented about collaboration with my “batty” partner-in-crime, Krista Brinchek. Krista and I collaborated on a unit with 4th and 5th graders. Students learned about bat conversation and white nose syndrome in Science specials class with Mrs. Brinchek. In library, students learned how to conduct research, determine important information, cite resources, and use Google Classroom while researching general information about bats and their habitats. Our unit hit the next level when Christy Bigelow, technology teacher, incorporated 3-D modeling having students create 3-D models of bats using geometric shapes.

Today’s presentation, titled “Does Collaboration Make You ‘Batty’?” was fun to create and present because my collaborative partners make it so. We allow each other to dream an idea then help one another bring the idea to fruition. Part of today’s session allowed attendees the opportunity to think about and note drivers and barriers to collaboration. It is clear collaboration can happen within any organization if adults allow it.   Teachers are not silos. They work best in groups holding each other accountable and pushing one another outside of comfortable spaces. The session ended with an opportunity for attendees to share their successful collaboration stories. This was my chance to learn from those to whom I had been presenting. I now have ideas to implement!

As the name implies, I believe Convergence is about building relationships, trusting others, and bending my instruction to others’ best practices and successes. My presentation is linked here for you to view. If you have any collaboration ideas, and especially if you have success stories to share or how you overcame barriers, please share in the comments below. I want to continue my learning.

Photo credit:  @stacydarwin

International Women’s Day–Ode to Sharon Creech (or why I love Walk Two Moons)

Today is International Women’s Day. Across the globe there were marches and demonstrations. Social Media profiles turned red. A recent trend I’ve seen emerge on Twitter has been libraries and book stores either removing from the shelves or turning around books with only male characters or by male authors to highlight the gender disparity in publishing. This trend coincides a recent School Library Journal article about librarian rock stars that happen to be male.

I am an elementary librarian. This is a female dominated profession. Yet, through my white male privilege, I see the need for more diversity in children’s literature. Diverse literature includes books written by authors and featuring main characters of many backgrounds and experiences.

So on this International Women’s Day, I want to write about one of my favorite authors and my absolute favorite book of all time. This author and my favorite book’s main character are both strong female role models. My students know my favorite book is Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech.

The Newbery Award winning book follows the journey of Sal as she retreads a trip taken by her mother. We learn in the course of the book that her mother, feeling trapped, needed to venture on her own and learn more about herself. Without giving away too much of the story*, the journey does not have the ending any character foresaw. But the journey mattered. Yet, what I note that matters most to Sal as the book progresses to its end is what Sal learns.

She learns:

  • who she is as a person, daughter, and friend
  • that she is loved but also she must love and forgive others
  • she is a strong, independently minded person

This book has many layers and pulling back one layer only uncovers a deeper mystery or message that characters and readers learn alike.   As a classroom teacher, I read this book aloud to my students at the beginning of the year. We used the title as a metaphor to learn more about each other and walk in their shoes. Throughout the reading of this book and through our class discussions, I learned which students expressed empathy and which would need to learn how to be more empathetic. This book always brought my students and I together as a community who would spend a year learning and growing together.

Sharon Creech is an amazing author. I have been lucky to read many of her books and hear her speak at the National Book Festival sponsored by the Library of Congress. The first time I heard her present at the Festival, she spoke to me. After a long day of presenting and signing autographs, I imagine that the last thing she wanted to do was speak to a fan boy. But there she was walking to her car while I was heading to the Metro. I saw her and introduced myself. She listened as I told her that I had the job as a school librarian in Arlington, Virginia in part to her. At the time, my personal email address was a derivative of her book title. The library supervisor noted my email and was certain I knew children’s literature. Telling Ms. Creech this story, she smiled and seemed genuinely pleased I had shared it with her.

During one of her presentations, she spoke about her publisher calling her particular writing style “Creechian”. This is true. All of her books speak to me in many ways. While Walk Two Moons holds my heart in a way I cannot quite express, I love, appreciate, and can relate to her other books and characters. The playwright Leo in Replay, Florida and Dallas (and more importantly, Tiller and Sairy) in Ruby Holler, Jack, Annie, Rosie, Bailey, Phoebe, Sal, the list goes on and on…While reading her books, these characters become friends and family to me. I cry when they cry. I hurt when they hurt. I laugh when they laugh. This is what I believe is the “Creechian” style. Ms. Creech’s realistic fiction novels invite me into their worlds not as an omniscient reader but as a living, breathing observer of the heartaches, belly laughs, life lessons, and celebrations in each book.

While many libraries have pulled books off the shelves to visually showcase the male dominated world of literature, I would struggle if ever asked to pull Sharon Creech’s books. It would be taking a familiar photo off a wall and putting it in a drawer. Luckily, Ms. Creech is a fierce, strong female writing books about fierce, strong characters. Luckily, my students and I get to enjoy all her work now and for years to come.

*Really, if you have not already read Walk Two Moons, I cannot help if spoilers come your way. More importantly, stop reading this blog post immediately and read the book!

Happy School = Successful School?

One of the key processes for our School Improvement Plan involves cultivating a more positive and welcoming school environment for all stakeholders (students, parents, staff, and community). I started contemplating that key process while sitting in our latest School Improvement Team (SIT) meeting reviewing our school data.

Last week, our school celebrated Read Across America with a weeklong Dr. Seuss spirit week. Each day had a different book and theme for spirit wear. The hallways were covered in handmade Seuss inspired decorations and student work. It was a week filled with laughter, reading, Seuss related silliness, and good times. Our school always seems like a happy place but last week, the happiness ratcheted up to an eleven!

While the SIT members talked numbers and data, I pondered if happy schools equate to successful schools.

The answer relies on one’s definition of success and how that success is measured.

Dictionary.com attributes success to attaining honors or achieving favorable accomplishments of goals. Given this definition than our school is successful in that key process based upon the events of last week. Our school was certainly inviting and welcoming. Community members served as mystery guest readers. Parents and family members attended the end of week Dr. Seuss Book Character Parade. Students and staff dressed in a variety of silly (and sometimes head shaking) wardrobe choices. It was hard to find a student, staff member, or visitor not smiling last week. Thus, our happy school equaled a successful school.

But is that enough? Have we created a truly sustaining welcoming, positive climate? I wanted to know more.   During my research I did not find any articles similar in scope to how I think our SIT interprets the key process of cultivating a more positive and welcoming environment. I think I found blog posts that could provide us a clear direction. However, I am not sure. We are still a new school that is crafting traditions. We enjoyed a honeymoon period last year and are settling into our routines and persona this year. Maybe our school is well beyond the articles I read. Or maybe we can glean some wisdom and apply their suggestions to our shared vision of what a positive school culture is at our school. I do not know. I enjoy learning from others. Some this advice comes from principals, some advice is not entirely earth shatteringly new, but I found these articles to be insightful and worthy of documenting for later use.

Focused on relationships, these 8 processes are based on the Boys Town educational model.

Edutopia (you know I am a big fan) gives us this article addressing the power of optimism and its effects on school climate and student success.

Connected Principals focuses this post on tips educational leaders can do to create a happy work climate for all staff.

Finally, Education World looks at what a school can do to create a “welcoming” environment from the moment one steps onto the school grounds.

Each of these articles looks at different aspects of culture. As I currently sit and reflect typing this post, I realize we are meeting our key process. But I also know we need to do more. Each of these posts, and for that matter, all we have done as a school so far has been directed to what happens at school and from those who come into our building. But a positive and welcoming school environment involves meeting families where they are. Many times that is in their neighborhoods, church and community centers, and other areas outside school grounds.

So I guess I am back to my original question. We are a happy school. Does that automatically mean we are successful one too?

The Librarian without a Voice 😷

Earlier this week, I succumbed to the “ick”. That is the technical term that I, without one day of medical training, have given the virus going around. The ick is not quite the flu virus but something different from a cold. For me, it felt between a head cold with cough and springtime allergies. I never felt sick or tired. I just would have coughing fits and a runny now. The worse symptom of all was a weak voice.

So there I was at school Thursday morning with a pocketful of Ricola cough drops. I thought I was doing well until I opened my mouth to welcome students entering the school.   The sound I emitted was not quite a squeak but certainly not a voice I’ve heard before. Throughout the morning I sounded as if I were once again experiencing the vocal change of my early teen years.

I learned a few things about my instruction on Thursday.

  1. Students want teachers to level with them and speak with them not to them.

I was honest about my voice and told my students that if I spoke quietly, all was good. I reminded them of the procedures and expectations then asked for their help. They all spoke quietly and regrouped immediately when asked.

  1. PBIS works!

For those who do not know, PBIS stands for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support. My school has taught and practiced the procedures and expectations. After winter break, we retaught and practiced again. I admit that I have spoken negatively about the focus on the extrinsic rewards earning PBIS tickets (ours are called Gator bites). But when it comes to being a community following expectations, PBIS works amazingly. My students knew when to raise their hands, how to move safely throughout the library, and most importantly, how to show respect for each other, themselves, and me.

  1. My lessons do not work well without me leading them.

This is a tough lesson to learn. I want students to be at the center of their instruction. That is the reason for instituting the 20Time project. Yet, this project is new to my students and me. This week, we were at the pivotal step of selecting projects and determining timelines and strategies. I tried to plan around my speaking by typing directions and guiding questions for students to discuss in groups. This worked well but I could tell my students kept waiting for me to lead the discussion. I have not instituted enough student led discussions for them to yet have ownership. I need to do so for their sake and mine. I resisted the urge to interrupt and take over the conversations. Instead, I put another Ricola in my mouth and pointed to the timer and guiding questions for discussions. After a few minutes of awkward conversations, little by little table groups began having true discussions.

The day wasn’t pretty and I certainly did not teach my best lessons. But I got through it. All teachers have experienced this day before. It’s what we do with the lessons learned that matters. I learned that while my voice is back, next week, I plan to point to the timer and guiding questions again as students start their work. I want to step back and give my students ownership of their projects. Although weakly voiced, I think the best thing I said on Thursday was this: “I can’t answer that question or give you advice. Students, what do you think? I’m afraid if I say anything it will be exactly what the project should be or what I think it should be. And that will be what he does. It’s his project. What ideas do you have for him? He needs to hear from you, not me.”

SeussicalACES

Abbotts Creek Elementary School (ACES) has gone full Seussical! The level of excitement among the teachers reminds me of when I was a kid the week leading up to Christmas. Every day, turning the Advent calendar date one day closer to December 25 I felt anticipation growing. I felt lighter and happier. I now have this same feeling leading up to our Dr. Seuss Spirit Week.

ACES is still new—just opening last school year. We are still creating traditions. Last year, prior to Read Across America coinciding with Dr. Seuss’ birthday, I asked for a committee to help plan a few events. My previous schools have had guest readers and a focus on reading books written by Seuss. My last school always had a Dr. Seuss character parade. So I was expecting something along those lines when the committee first met.

But they surprised me! They wanted more. It was a mesh of traditions and ideas from the various past schools for which we all worked. The day became a weeklong celebration of reading, fun, and silliness. It was a true spirit week dressing up each day. Classes created beautiful, amazing hallway displays of work relating to Dr. Seuss and his books.

This year, that tradition continues but it has grown. Teachers are competing for the best class displays. Each day, our spirit days pair with a Dr. Seuss book. Students will read an excerpt from each book during the school news. I am not sure how the parade can get “bigger and better” than last year’s but I feel like it just might. I overhear students and teachers whisper about their Dr. Seuss character. Facebook is full of staff tagging each other as they find Dr. Seuss themed items at stores. By the number of trips teachers are making, ACES may single-handedly help the nearest Michael’s and Party City make their rents this month.

The Dr. Seuss books are gone! And better than that is students coming to the library asking for some of the less famous Dr. Seuss books that we do not own. “Why don’t we?” is often the reply when I tell them we do not have the requested book.

Tomorrow morning, students and parents will arrive at ACESville. Each day, we will laugh, play, learn, and celebrate the silly. We will read. We will connect books and learning to our daily lives. We will celebrate the life’s work of a talented author/illustrator. We will have fun. This is how school should be. We are #SeussicalACES!

Thanking a Teacher

A recent Twitter trend is reaching out to a former teacher who made a positive impact on you and saying “Thank You”.   I often thank back to those who taught me and wonder how they influenced my journey becoming a teacher myself. Reflecting, I think about which teachers I would have enjoyed working with and which ones I would want my son to have a teacher if he could time travel to do so. I contemplate which ones I would want to avoid. Then the memories swirl and blur leaving me with less an impression on each teacher individually rather becoming focused on specific experiences, lessons, activities, and field trips.

While I can name almost all of my teachers and have great admiration for each of them, I am uniquely drawn to two for various yet eerily similar reasons. The impression of both teachers that has stuck with me over some 30+ years is focusing on each learner individually.

I will start with Mrs. King, my fourth grade teacher at Windsor Park Elementary. I cannot tell you how she looked, how old she probably was, or even much of the relationship we shared. I was a good student in her class earning all As and one solitary B (why did I get THAT ONE B to ruin a perfect run?). But I do remember she allowed us to work at our own pace.   Early finishers always had additional learning experiences in which to choose. And depending on the weather and I’m sure other factors, early finishers could play. Yes, we could actually play.   Most of the time, the play was outside because our classroom opened directly onto our school’s small wooden playground. Imagine the motivation to complete work quickly in order to earn extra recess time! But it wasn’t finishing the assignments quickly. I remember always taking my work to Mrs. King and talking with her about it as she looked over it. If the work was not completed correctly, I returned to my desk to figure out where I went wrong and how I should redo it.

Sure there was some competition in the class and as one of the students earning really high marks, I didn’t always have to watch my classmates go outside one by one. But I do remember when I did not complete an assignment correctly by myself the first try being encouraged by Mrs. King to work with others, compare answers, discuss, and try again. As I sit here, I realize we, the students, must have talked a lot in her class. We talked to her about our work. We talked to each other about our work. And as students came outside to play, we talked about how easy or how difficult the assignment was and which part we needed to do again to be able to get outside. So while my motivator was playing on the tire swing, I actually learned through collaboration and communication long before they were part of the 21st Century 4Cs!

Teacher Two, I will call Ms. Algebra. Ashamedly, I cannot remember her name at all. Part of me wants to call her Mrs. King but really what are the odds? Ms. Algebra taught my 10th grade Algebra II class at Garinger High School. It was somewhat a remedial Algebra II class because we did not have Trigonometry included. I was one of a handful 10th graders in the class. Mostly it was comprised of upperclassmen. Our classroom was too small for the number of students. Some students sat at the extra tables and at least one student sat at her desk. Ms. Algebra always stood at the overhead (do you remember that piece of historic technology?). What stands out in my mind about her is every Friday she wore the school’s sweatshirt. She always celebrated and encouraged school spirit. But more than her spirit, I remember a speech and subsequent change in her teaching style. The memory is vague on the specific assessment or assignments leading up to the speech.

Yet, I remember her sitting on a stool with the overhead turned off. She apologized. That is how she started her speech. She apologized to us. She said she had neglected to teach us correctly because we were not showing any understanding of algebra. She said something was wrong and together we would fix it. She told us that beginning that day, we were starting the school year over in her class. We were going back to the first lesson and get as far as we could by the end of the year. But math is foundational and we needed the foundation of algebra before continuing. She forced us to commit to her we would do our best.

Ms. Algebra assigned us seats and put us in heterogeneous groups. She would present part of the lesson or teach a mathematical skill/step. Then we had to teach each other. Those in the groups who were stronger with the skill retaught the group first. I was that person for my group. Then we listened as others in the group taught the skill. We clarified for each other misconceptions. I can only speak for me. The previous two school years I struggled through advanced math classes and felt very uncomfortable and unsure about math ability. Yet, in Ms. Algebra’s class, I found my voice. We did not finish the textbook that year. But I thoroughly understood what I had learned and it set me to have two remaining successful years of advanced math in 11th and 12th grades.

These two teachers forced their students to talk. Through communication, I became a better student. This challenges me now.   I do not believe in a quiet library and am often met with side eyes and uncertain glances from more traditional teachers and parents. But I am a talker and I want my students talking. But I realize I have been allowing talking for talking’s sake. Mrs. King and Ms. Algebra allowed talking for understanding’s sake. I need to remember and set my practice on these two teacher’s example. Maybe in 30+ years, one of my students will not remember my name but remember the communication I required in the library forcing deeper learning and understanding.

Library Assistants: Essential Personnel in ALL School Libraries

Every school must have a library assistant. Period. The End.

This blog post has been incredibly difficult to write. I have written and deleted a post-rant on the importance of these key personnel. But then when I write about my former and most recent library assistant, I do her a dishonor by including her in a rant. She deserves more accolades. She is a treasure to me. So I have written and deleted an ode singing her praises. But that does not get to the point of why we, as school librarians, rely so heavily upon our assistants.

So here I am. Struggling to write something of meaning that threads the needle between my love, admiration, and enteral gratitude for Jean and proving the point that library assistants are as essential to schools as custodians, cafeteria staff, and classroom teachers. Library assistants are not “nice-to-haves” if there is additional funding. They serve a key role within the library program and school-at-large.

First, meet Jean. She worked at Taylor for over 30 years: first, as a parent and parent volunteer; then as cafeteria monitor and crossing guard; finally dedicating over 20 years as library assistant. When I met Jean she had worked in the library for 10 years and knew it like the back of her hand.

It was a rocky start between the two of us. I started my tenure in Taylor’s library by redesigning the library space (including book shelves), program, and policies. The first day I met Jean I introduced myself and then showed her the thousands of books I had already weeded from the collection. I pointed to the empty bookshelves and told her we were moving them to rearrange the flow and layout. Our first day working together, we did more physical movement of the library and books than most librarians do over the course of their career. This is a lot to ask of a person making less than ½ my salary and who knew the school culture far better than me.

But over the first few weeks, month, and certainly that first year, I incorporated her in my vision. I listened to her and it became our vision: our vision to work together having our desks in the same space; our vision to make the library collection better reflect what our students wanted to read; our vision to make the library a lively, happy place open to all anytime of day.

Jean will tell you that I won her over when I threw out the card catalog and moved my desk to where it sat. Before me, the school kept copies of the all library records in the card catalog. No longer spending time typing the little cards and no longer needing the type writer to do it, she had time to help create displays and had more space on her desk for personal items reflecting her personality.

Jean became my knowledge bank when it came to school history and teacher personality. Her rapport with the staff served me well as I proved to be a change maker and tradition breaker. She advised me when to pull back or when to go full steam ahead.
Jean loved pulling books and setting up displays. Personally, I enjoyed that as well, but Jean really enjoyed it and was great at it. So that was all hers. I would decorate the display with student work or colorful signs. Her displays ranged from the typical holiday showcases to more obscure social awareness. During quieter times in the library when she was not shelf reading, shelving, cataloging, or repairing books, she was researching topics for her displays.

Jean ran circulation and library volunteers. I was teaching. When the library program switched from fixed scheduling to a wheel model, I was teaching all the time with no check out attached to lessons. All things circulation was Jean’s domain. She could get long overdue books back from students better than anyone I’ve ever seen. She knew what types of books each student liked reading and which ones their teachers wanted them reading instead. She helped them find both types. Parent volunteers checked in with her and she led them well.

Jean’s presence allowed me to focus on instruction, leadership, purchasing, and operations. Because of her, and for that matter any library assistant’s presence, I molded and oversaw the library. She did the tasks. Library assistants are workhorses. They put their heads down, ask for little, and work. Their work is imperative. If they cannot do this work, the librarian must do it. Circulation does not stop because there is no assistant. Books will always need shelving. Tasks always need completing.

The best example for why library assistants are so important comes from a WCPSS colleague of mine. Speaking with her principal about library staffing and operations she asked her principal what the principal wanted for the school: A librarian focused on checking in and out books or a librarian focused on instruction? The conservation is certainly more nuanced but the point is made. School librarians who serve as instructional leaders run a different library program than those who emulate public library programs. All libraries are important. But school libraries serve a different role for communities than public libraries. School leaders must decide what program best meets the instructional needs of their students and communities.

For the program I wish to operate, for the students I teach and have taught, for the teachers, staff, parents, and communities I have and do serve, I need a library assistant. To this day, I realize how much I took my assistants, and Jean in particular, for granted.

Library assistants make librarians better at their jobs. They are essential personnel.