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.

Relationships Matter Series

Relationships are key to functioning civilizations. Schools focus on PLCs and other teaming factors to help teachers grow and increase educational effectiveness. Throughout my career I have always built relationships with teaming partners, administrators, parents, and students. These relationships challenged me and made me a better educator. I want to take time to highlight some of my key relationships. Within this series I will not address student to teacher or teacher to administrator relationships. These topics are well covered within the educational world. They matter and have mattered to me. However, I want to focus on the relationship teams I have purposefully sought so I could be a better teacher.

These relationships came both naturally and were forced. I have always found the best relationships to teeter on the edge between comfort and chaos. In that small space is growth, learning, and excelling. Relationships take work to survive. Without these relationships, I would not be where I am in my career: physically and emotionally.

The relationships I will highlight have all come during my time as a librarian. My relationships as a classroom teacher were—and still are—important. I feel like they transcended into the relationships within this series.

I look forward to learning about others’ professional relationships. Leave a comment or find me online to drop a note.

A Look into My Library

“A picture is worth a 1,000 words” is an old idiom. For some people, it holds true. For others, it might not. Sharing pictures of my library, allows others to see what the space looks like and gives me a chance to reflect on what I see within the pictures.

img_0543At first glance, I notice how colorful the library is. The orange columns, yellow, green, and white walls, and the intricately student created butterflies cheerfully welcome visitors. In addition, the forward facing books, brightly colored furniture, and signage visually stimulate students. The library is beautiful.

But it should be. Only two years old, it represents a newer tradition in school library design. But trends change over time. Like all design trends, library spaces being built today have a more mix-use and multi-purposed furniture. A trend that I have seen in many journals is curved shelves that can be arranged and rearranged into different patterns and shelving structures.

Everything in my library is moveable—including the shelving. Everything in my library has been moved at least once!   I started the second year of the library with the third library arrangement. It now has the flow and feel that I prefer and makes for ease of student access, several instructional areas, and can easily moved to open floor space for large assemblies. I really like the design and circulation is higher than last year.

However, as awesome as the space is, the pictures do reflect something missing. Where
are the kids? Where are the parents? Where are the teachers? We have open check out all day long. Students may come and go throughout the day to circulate books. But the majority of check out is first thing in the morning. For the first 30 minutes of the school day, I typically average about 50 students looking for books. It is a fast paced and often noisy time but I love starting the day listening to students talk about books, runaround hoping to get a book from the “Popular Series” bimg_0537efore anyone else, or checking to see if their holds are ready. During this time, a few parents come in to speak about their child’s books or sign up on the school volunteer registry. Usually, there are 1 or 2 library parent volunteers helping out in the mornings. But I need to find ways to invite and better welcome parents throughout the day. As for teachers, I am missing the mark entirely. Other than getting books for reading groups, I rarely see teachers using the library collection or space. Somehow over the past year and a half, I must have created a sense of teachers not welcomes or needed in the library. Yet, I want and wish for teachers to come in, hang out, and use the library everyday. Now that independent student check out is higher, my focus next year should be on adults using the library space.

img_0539But no adequate reflection of my library is complete without mentioning what I see
missing everyday. The library does not have a library assistant. I am writing a series titled Relationships Matter for this blog. One of the posts will feature my former library assistant and why I believe assistants are vital to daily operations of all school library programs. So I will leave my thoughts on this subject for another day. However, I want to say here and now, (and again in a later post), I could not do what I do only a daily basis, circulate as well, instruct as effectively, or work as hard as a do without the help of my awesome library parent volunteers. Their relationship matters also. I lean on them immensely and plan to celebrate them in the upcoming series as well.

In the meantime, enjoy looking at my library. I always welcome others’ thoughts and opinions. Please reach out to me in the comment section below each post. Let me know what you think of my library space or what you hope to learn about in the Relationships Matter series.

Does My Library Program Model Global Literacy? (repost from 2016)

It is a snow day (or more specifically an ice day) for my district.  Which means, I am home, planning lessons, cleaning out email, learning from #ncsnowchat, and reflecting on my teaching.  I’m in the process of putting together a large research process unit and activity for 4th and 5th grade.  While I should spend my afternoon delving in the curriculum and ensuring standards are in the project, I am reflecting on my library program and it’s importance to the school.  In particular, I am thinking about a question posed by one of our district library coordinators.  Just as I sitting down to eat lunch, I looked at my phone.  There in my Twitter feed was this profound question:  How does your school library program model global literacy at your school?  So much for digestion and a quality nap I had planned.   Work on my unit has also ceased.  My mind is swirling with am I doing enough and have I designed my library program to model global literacy?

In order to quiet my mind, I need research.  Off to ALA’s (American Library globelightAssociation) website I go.  There I find two articles that have begun to frame this question for me:  The ParentAdvocate Toolkit and Who School Librarians Are and Learning4Life.  According to the former, school librarians empower students to become:

  • Critical thinkers
  • Enthusiastic readers
  • Skillful researchers
  • Ethical users of information

It is easy for me to check off each one saying of course I do that but do I really?  I need to further examine my instruction.  At staff meetings, teachers in my building are presenting how they infuse the 4Cs (Collaboration, Communication, Creativity, and Critical Thinking) into instruction.  When I look at my instruction, I easily can see how I’ve embedded the first 3 Cs.  But I need to better target critical thinking not just relying that it comes as a byproduct from higher order questioning or a particular research project.  The unit I am currently designing focuses on helping students to better evaluate research tools, hone research skills, determine appropriateness and application of information, and teaches ethical use.  Therefore it does hit on Critical Thinking.  But as I build the unit’s mini-lessons and formative assessments, I need to ensure I am targeting critical thinking.  My previous school had created definitions and posters for each of the 4Cs as applied to our school’s STEM focus.  Pointing to the posters helped me remind students and myself the importance of thinking critically.  While I cannot use those posters, I can create a visual to help me to teach the 4Cs—especially critical thinking—as I go through this research unit.

As already mentioned, this new unit hits squarely into cultivating skillful researchers and ethically using information.  I believe these are strengths within my typical instruction and can often be found infused within my lessons.

That leaves enthusiastic readers.  While I have not ventured to genre-fying the library and I am not sure if I agree with the process, I do have some special collections.  Certainly, Mr. Dewey would be unhappy with my library shelves and design.  The shelves are messy because I am a “close enough” shelver.  This means weather is in the “weather section” but believe when I tell you 551.5 and 551.6 are completely mixed and I am embarrassed to discuss the 560s.  But Dewey would not like my “popular series” or “graphic novels” sections.  I have pulled particular and more popular books for these sections.  Yes, I have heard they are “gateways” to more enriching literature but who is to say these books are not already enriching?  I want my students to have quick and easy access to books they want.  This is an on demand generation.  My library needs to help and it does.  But I know I need to help students find the other 80% of the collection more easily.  I need to create better signage and teach browsing.  But in the meantime, I know they are reading and using the library.

So I realize that I can technically check off each of the four areas but I know that I have more work in each area.  As a teacher-librarian, I know we never stop learning, growing, improving and I have much to learn, grow, and improve.  This is certainly true when I broaden the term “literacy” to go beyond books.  There are so many tools and resources online.  The amount is suffocating if I were to constantly jump from one to another to the next new thing.  But I know that I have developed patterns and habits.  Even with this unit I am currently creating.  As I build it and find resources to introduce to students, I need to remember to not rely on my “old standbys” but look for something that helps me grow and learn as well.  I need to think about what skills my students already have and what skills I want to cultivate.  So they will not receive paper for this unit.  All handouts will be Google Docs, their work will also be in Google Docs.  Students will use my website to find all web resources and library catalog.  And as I write this reflection, I realize I need to allow time for creative expression.  At the end of the unit, I want student groups to indicate which resource they found to be most useful and why it is to them.  I now envision students using an online tool to create a visual or presentation to share with the class and beyond.  While I am globally connected, I want to give my students the opportunity to be as well.  This unit might be the first step.OK, so I am inspired!  A spark is lit to ensure this unit hits the 4 areas ALA and incorporates communication literacy and visual literacy in a presentation.  I need to plan.

Please share any thoughts or ways in which your library is a model for global literacy at your school?

Image from wikimedia commons

Snow Day Questions…So Many Questions (repost from 2016)

pic0035I need to be upfront at the beginning of this post.  I do not have answers or solutions.  I have questions—and lots of them.  By the end of this reflection, I doubt I will have answered my questions.  Rather, I need your insights.  Please comment and email your perspectives and experiences.  My blog is about learning after all.

So what are my questions?  They are about the virtual learning on snow days.  In mid-January 2016, the eastern portion of the United States experienced a massive snowstorm that left many school systems closed for upwards of a week.  Luckily, we were on the southern end of the storm and were only out of school for two days.  However, those two days hit right during the middle of the year and only three weeks after returning from winter break.  Teachers know how crucial this time is.  Students are showing growth and many formative assessments indicate directions for the 2nd half of the school year.  But this is winter after all, and El Nino or not, winter storms cut into learning.

School districts across the United States are embracing technology and finding ways to lessen the impact of school closings.  Many districts have begun to institute snow-learning days at home through “virtual school days” and snow day packets.  My questions relate to using online resources to continue learning outside of school.

Is it beneficial?  Truthfully, I cannot believe I am asking this question.  Yes, it’s beneficial.  Further exploratory learning, allowing students to be masters of their learning in a virtual setting, flipping the classroom, and online classrooms are trends that I believe are not only improving education but also teaching lifelong skills of collaboration and critical thinking.  Students are learning about life in the “real world”.  After all, I continue my work on snow days by sitting at the kitchen counter planning lessons, creating book lists, and participating in Twitter chats to just name a few. (As an aside, I want to give a quick shout out to #ncsnowchat for awesome pop-up professional development on snow days.) But for students who are excited about their snow day, are we taking away the “joy” of snow days to put focus on nonstop schooling?  Is that a bad thing or another way we are improving as a society embracing curiosity, exploration, and home:school connected learning?

So, if we embrace snow day “e-learning”, how do we proceed?  Many districts have taken to Twitter as a means.  Within my previous district, Arlington Public Schools in Virginia, many librarians have effectively utilized Twitter to sponsor snow day Twitter chats, virtual librarian access, and encouraging reading from their e-book collections.  During this past snow storm, APS teachers participated in a #APSchats focused on how teachers have continued students’ virtual learning during their extended snow days. This is certainly one way to go.  But can this be measured and are students able to show progress when participation is voluntary?

What about the great economic divide?  Who does virtual learning positively impact and are students most in need of continued growth able to participate in virtual learning.  I’ve only begun a cursory search—this is a topic that could be and is well studied—but I found a 2013report showing that in 2011, roughly 70% of the U.S. homes have Internet access with the Asian and Non-Hispanic White households having the greatest Internet access.  Only 58.3 and 56.9 of Hispanic and Black households respectively have Internet access.  Simple Internet searches reflect positive aspects to household Internet access.  So if we are offering virtual school on snow days those benefiting are the ones who already have benefit from Internet access.  Are we furthering the space between the have and have-nots?

What if we provide the technology?  In North Carolina, Transylvania County School System has given all 6th-12th graders laptops.  Teachers have set up continuous work, even on snow days.  The thought is school is still “in session” although at home therefore no make up days needed.  Teachers hold online hours when they are available through email, phone, and other means to help students with their work.  This is amazing! Much like the online professional development teachers participate, students are learning from a truly blended environment.

Snow days are great even if I complain about not wanting snow or a day out of school.  Encouraging virtual education is one of my passions.  Then, why am I pondering this virtual snow day trend?  Shouldn’t I be showcasing its boldness and need?  Maybe I am doing just that.

What about you?  What are your thoughts and experiences?  What resources are available to support this trend?

Snowflake image created by:
Moulton, Jim. pic0035.jpg. February 1, 2009. Pics4Learning. 11 Jan 2017

Why I Did Away with the Circ Desk (repost from 2016)

Like all Smart Phone users, I have a camera at my disposal every minute of the day.  But unlike the selfie-consumed generation, I forget there is a camera in my pocket and rarely take pictures of what is important.  I miss out on commemorating sunsets, birds in flight, and more importantly where I spend my working hours.  My library is brand new and I only took a few photos at the beginning of the year.  When I decided to begin moving shelves and the circulation desk around, I forgot to take before and after pictures.  Alas, I am unable to show you how it all looked at the beginning and how it looks now.  Trust me, it was beautiful then and now.

So why did I get rid of the big, beautiful, and amazing honey-colored circulation desk?  It comes down to feel. How do I feel when observing my students check out?  How do I feel when moving around the library?  The answers to these questions are more nuanced than a few words can capture.  But I will do my best.

Opening up a new library has huge advantages! Everything is spotless.  Everything is brand new.  All the books are in order!  When I accepted the position, I was told not worry about anything because the district does the heavy lifting for opening libraries. Our district library supervisor is awesome!  He does his research, knows trends in librarianship and collection.  He purchased the opening day collection and oversaw library design and build.  On my first day of walking into my library, everything was set up!  Imagine it…walking into a library where all the books have been unboxed, shelved, and meticulously placed to bring students’ eyes and excitement to where they should be.  All, I had to do was inventory and manage circulation.

When I left my previous school district, they were in the process of opening its first brand new school in many, many years.  True to that district’s nature, everything was transparent.   So I knew how that school’s library (or learning commons, I think they called it?) had been designed:  lots of glass, rounded shelves, kiosks, modular and comfortable seating.    Doing my own reading about new library design and trends, I imagined how my new library would look.

Day one in my library, I was surprised to see a large circulation desk greeting me.  This impressive piece of furniture was full of storage, hid electrical cords, and had plenty of space to house two circulation stations, printers, and book return bin.  Truly it was a remarkable piece of furniture!  In my previous librarian life, I would have coveted that desk—designed as a perfect place to sit and oversee circulation.  However, there is no library assistant who mans the desk and I usually stand while checking email and planning lessons.  This piece of furniture was becoming a catchall rather than living to it’s fullest potential.  I felt uneasy about its presence from the onset.

Then I watched as students used the circulation desk.  When an entire class checked out at a time, students formed lines in front of each circulation computer blocking traffic flow into and out of the library doors.  If I was behind the circulation desk, it was hard for me to easily navigate and help students find books or assist students using the circulation computers.  If I was directly in front of the desk, I felt in my students’ way or boxed in by the classes as they used the circulation computers.  As impressive as this piece of furniture was, I felt it weighed upon the library in an intrusive manner.  However, it was brand new.  I was brand new.  How could I do anything about it?  I certainly did not complain about it because how can I complain about something so amazing in the best-designed library I have ever worked?  That would be rude.

But its fate was sealed when I attended a conference in November.  Our district hosts a library and technology conference for all media and technology teachers.  It’s a great opportunity to learn from and alongside each other.  As individuals in our buildings, we yearn for learning from likeminded peers.  This conference provides that opportunity.  At the conference, our district library supervisor presented about future trends.  He mentioned circulation desks going by the wayside for smaller circulation kiosks.  The next day, I walked into the library with hex screwdriver in hand and began taking apart the circulation desk.

What I have now is five new stations:  two circulation kiosks and three areas for library centers.  The pieces are throughout the library rather than at the entrance.   Students now check out more easily and freely.  No longer is there a long line blocking the entrance while a whole class is checking out.  Plus, I have place for the brand new globe I have ordered and a computer station for students to search CultureGrams and Google Maps.  I am happy.  The library feels more open and free.

 

But is it perfect?  No.  The book return bin no longer works.  Students are returning books to empty shelves right beside the entrance.  This is new to them and new to me; and I am not sure about it.  I promise to remember my phone has a camera and take pictures.  The return shelves need further thought and I need others’ perspectives.  Thus, this adventure continues…