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.

Parent Volunteers: They are your extra arms.

handsCommon fact: Parental involvement in schools is directly correlated to a school’s success. Most educators reading this statement are nodding in agreement. My library operation is centered on parent volunteers. I do not have a library assistant—neither full nor part time. In my over 16-year career, this is the first school I have worked in that does not have additional library staffing. Without these volunteers, my day-to-day operations suffer.

I lean HEAVILY on my volunteers. They check in and shelve nearly all the library books. They copy catalog and clean up records. They repair books, apply stickers, and pull books for displays. (And there is always at least one volunteer who loves to shelf read. That volunteer is always a hero!)

My volunteers work in the library because they wish to help out the school. They are rarely thanked or shown appropriate appreciation. Most days, they arrive, work an hour or 5, and leave without even a word spoken between us. Some days, when I am teaching in classrooms or otherwise out of the library, without seeing my return shelves empty, books on tops of shelves face front, and/or the parent signature in my library sign-in sheet, I would not even know anyone has been there. My parents are that good! They are library volunteer ninjas!*

But it has not always been so throughout my career. I started my career young and with a library assistant. I did not know nor had a mentor teach me how to reach out to parent volunteers. After a few years in the classroom, I began to understand a parent’s role INSIDE the school. But when I went back in the library, I was at a school with complicated parental politics. I wanted volunteers but did not want to embroil myself in battles that were not mine to fight. So I mistakenly and feebly reached out to a few parents who could not spend time in the library. So I thought that was how it would always be.

Then I went to Taylor Elementary were the expectation from parents was they were involved within the school building. I had no choice. It was imperative that I learned to accept their presence and how to harness parental volunteer power. Luckily, I had an awesome library assistant who had been in that library for over 20 years. She showed me the ropes. She taught me.

I quickly understood that parents can do the tasks that I love doing: shelving, cataloging, book repair. It was hard for me to give that up. But by doing so, I found more time to create better book displays and bulletin boards. Tapping into the power of creative parents for bulletin boards freed me up to focus on more library programming.

Suddenly, I had time to focus on collection development. I have a reputation as a “ruthless weeder.” I took Taylor’s library collection from 21,000 books with an average collection age of +20 years to a stable 15,000 books and average collection age of +9 years. Circulation improved drastically!

Parent volunteers see what happens in the library while they are there. They see the circulation. They see which books are well loved. They understand the librarian’s actions.   They become an advocate for more funding to improve the library collection or get another author to visit. I believe this advocacy is the greatest asset of parent volunteers. They become a much greater megaphone than I could be. But they also champion me to speak up when necessary.

As stated, I do not currently have a library assistant. Naturally, I gain strength through collaboration and conversation. Last year, as I learned the new school, new students, and worked on opening the library, I did not actively seek out parent volunteers. I suffered. The library program suffered. Circulation suffered. I needed adult conversation within the library. I needed help.

This year is completely different! I have a dedicated crew of awesome parent volunteers. I started a program having a parent to help with check out (and another adult body in the library) during open check out each morning. I have my superstar shelvers, cataloging extraordinaires, shelf reading phenoms, and otherwise awesome parent volunteers!   Because of their support, their dedication, their thankless help, I am focusing on programming and circulation.

Little by little, the library is becoming what I want it to be—what it should be. It’s all because of parent volunteers. They are my arms doing heavy lifting.

*Total aside: Stat! Someone make a logo, bumper sticker, t-shirt with that moniker. My parent volunteers deserve it.

Adoption Matters

Today is like every other day. But yet, it is also completely different. I woke up this morning hearing the loud, pattering feet of my son coming to say “good morning Dada!” This is his go-to wake up call every morning. It was the usual back and forth conversation. Me questioning: “How did you sleep?” “ What did you dream?” “Have you gone to the bathroom, yet?” Him responding in half-sleep speak: “Good.” “You and daddy sleeping.” “No”.

Then his prodding off to the bathroom after which begins his questions for me and my half-sleep answers. “What’s for breakfast?” “What day is today?” “Is it a school day?” These typical banters have started my days for the past 22 months. But over the past nearly two years, times have changed. The days have gone from me picking him up from the crib to his toddler bed to now his “big boy” twin-sized bed—basketball themed, of course.

As I said, today was the same as yesterday and the day before yesterday and the day before that. However, today is also so vastly different. Yesterday morning, the daily wake-up conversations were between my foster son and me. Today, they were with my adoptive son and me. You see, yesterday was adoption day!

Things are so different yet even more the same as they were before the judge’s gavel clanged. The judge’s order, the birth certificate, the legal acknowledgement all have great meaning and great heft. The daily decisions parents make for their children are now our decisions to freely make. Foster parents do not so easily accomplish things other parents take for granted. Doctor visits, patching up cuts and scrapes, school choices are natural parental obligations. But foster parents either need permission from or alert their fostering social workers for these things. Greater decisions such as Baptism, surgeries, and college choice are not given to foster parents at all. But now, they are our decisions to make.

That paper makes a difference.

Foster parents work hard to take care of other people’s children. They open their homes to children in need. They spend money on children who are not theirs. If I were to total what we have spent thus far on our son, it would be in the 6 digits. But money doesn’t matter. From the minute he arrived in our home, our son was just that: our son. When we were not sure if he would be placed with us permanently or ever placed back with his birth mother, it did not matter. What we had, what we have, was and is his.

As it became clearer he would eventually be our adoptive son, the days grew long in anticipation. Our anxiety grew in waiting. Our stress grew as we unraveled red tape after red tape.   We were nervous. We were cautious. We were constantly wondering when everything would clear and the adoption set.

However, no hoop or court date or delay ever changed us. We were always a family. We were a family before he arrived in our house. Our visits with him as he transitioned from his first foster family to ours showcased our love for one another. We were family before our visits. He is my husband’s cousin. We knew him. We loved him. We wanted him always to be with his relatives.

When we were told to take foster parenting classes, we signed up and attended. When we went to get background checks, fingerprints, documents notarized or any other paperwork complete, we met the deadline with days to spare. Rarely were we told to do something that did not start the minute the phone call ended or email logged off.

It took a long time and it was needed. Red tape is not always bad. It is there to slow down the process ensuring best interests of children are met. Foster children have already been through the worst our society can put out for kids. They have witnessed or experienced abuses no rational adult should even contemplate. They deserve to be wrapped in red tape, bubble wrap, packing peanuts, protective cloths, and more! Our son deserved the time, contemplation, and consideration it took before he was placed with us. His previous foster family who loved him as much as us, had opened their home, fed, clothed, educated, and spent their hard-earned money taking care of him, deserved the time and consideration it took to move him from their home to ours. We are forever indebted to this family and love them. They will always be part of our family. We are fortunate they vacation with us, visit with us, and pray for and with us. And now, more children are blessed placed in their home and on their way to adoption day as well!

Adoption matters. My son has been saying that adoption “means being a family forever and ever.” That’s what we are now…a forever family. We are no more a family than we were 24 hours ago. The love is no greater today than before. But what we are now is a family forever.

The gavel clanged!