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?

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.

Find Your Tribe: They are your wind, energy, and dreams.

 

Dreamers, realists, doers, thinkers…people are grouped into categories. These labels have a ring of truth but most often one person is a mixture of all types. In Launch Cycle by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani, the first chapters outline the types of teachers within a school building. The premise is it takes all types to create a well-rounded instructional program and enact systematic educational change.

Much like the various types, my small “tribe” at Taylor had a mixture. While all groups and my relationships to each group mattered, it was the small tribe that gave me wings. The music and art teachers comprised this tribe. Much like when the architect, engineer, and artist collaborate, the three of us dreamed, designed, and built.

The relationship mattered because we found common allies who were not afraid to challenge the status quo of education. We saw a greater vision and understood for it to become reality, large and small changes were needed. The tribe began with art and music collaborating. I was already a friend with them so they would run ideas by me for my input.   When I saw how I could support their dreams, I jumped aboard their ship.

Some of the plans only impacted our individual programs. More often than not, the dreams were wide scale. Something seemingly insignificant as tweaking the master schedule for the next school year has huge rippling effects throughout the building. It touches core principles and beliefs of teachers. To change the master schedule required important, tactful steps.

School dreams only become reality with administrator support. Our tribe never dreamed anything without plotting out the entire approach and presenting information including all possible pros and cons, along with human impacts, to our principal. In many ways, he was our tribal leader. Our sage was the ITRT. Their wise council moved our vision to either become reality or go back for rethinking. Our tribe never accepted “no”. We tolerated and understood “not right now”.

A functional tribe understands its impact. Our tribe was a force. Much like a hurricane, our force grew when we were fueled by one another. The more we allowed each other space to dream, the greater our dreams became. The bigger our dreams, the larger instructional impact we would have.

Our tribe identified and understood unproductive dreams and instructional changes. Those ideas never were spoken to our principal. Sometimes, they were addressed with our ITRT to see if there were tweaks to make the dreams plausible. Because we tolerated each ideas, we happily agreed with one of our tribe members who pumped the breaks.

This relationship made us all better instructors. As a dreamer, I am always imagining what can happen in the future and constantly looking for improvements. I become bored when work is the same day after day, year after year. This tribe ensured it never was boring.

The Dynamic Duo: Librarians and Instructional Technology Facilitators

School librarians and Instructional Technology Resource Teacher (ITRT) are islands within their school buildings. Most schools have 1 of each. The librarians and ITFs in these buildings are the lucky to have a counterpart. Some schools only have 1 person to do both jobs! How lonely this must be. The luckiest of all, are schools that have larger teams with more than one librarian and/or ITF.

My Batman to Robin was Ena Wood, former ITRT in Arlington Public Schools (APS). We were truly the “Dynamic Duo.” Ena’s supportive shoulder, guiding thoughts, and listening ears served to be invaluable to my career. Actually, Ena had a large impact in me teaching at Taylor Elementary School in APS. She knew of me through common connections. When an opportunity arrived for me to transfer, she encouraged me to apply. When I was hired, she served as my unofficial mentor. This mentorship grew into a true symbiotic relationship that helped one another grow personally and professionally.

The key to this relationship is that we understand what it is like to be a “silo” or “island” in our school. Her focus was professional development and increasing the effective use of instructional technology while mine was similar in terms of information literacy. We saw the connectedness of our programs. As the school population grew and classroom/office space shrunk, we contemplated moving Ena’s office into the library.

She subbed for me teaching library skills when I was absent. I served as her back up for technology support. We met at least weekly but rarely in a formal capacity. We made sure to eat lunch together no less than once a month. Our friendly informal rapport allowed for greater free flowing ideas. During these “chats” we planned professional development, lessons, and the vision information and technology literacy’s impact to our school.

But just as importantly, we helped one another personally. We shared our personal lives with each other. Serving as counselors and confidants, we ensured appropriate work-home life balance. Having someone at work to share and celebrate home life helped me focus at work and focus on home when each needed it most.

Our Dynamic Duo collaborated to present at ISTE and VAASL (then VEMA). We helped create and implement many APS I-Safe initiatives. But our impact at Taylor was vast. Together, we shaped the school’s technology and library programming. We served on our school’s leadership teams, helped design the school wide instructional focus, and challenged and supported all teachers and students.

We challenged one another as well. When one of us noticed a sign of boredom or static growth in the other, we talked about it. I encouraged her to take leadership roles in the district and state. She encouraged me to get my administration degree. We wrote letters of reference for one another as we pursued other career opportunities or were nominated for awards. This relationship matters to me. Librarians and ITRTs who do not have this same type of relationship, please do yourself a favor and start talking. Start collaborating. Start building trust. Your relationship (or lack there of) matters to each other and to your school community.

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.

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