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!

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!

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.

Rosie Revere, Engineer…It’s a Boy Book Too!

Books should not be labeled.   This is not about categorizing for easy access; it is about defining books by who should read them. Teachers, parents, librarians, booksellers, and publishers are all at fault. I am guilty too. I have labeled a book a “boy book” or a “book perfect for girls.” I have said that is a “older book” or “book just for Kindergarteners”.

Each label assigned to a book limits the audience.   This limits a connection between the book and a potential reader who does not fit the assigned label. Rosie Revere, Engineer written by Andrea Beaty and illustrated by David Roberts is a perfect example. The main character, Rosie, is a young girl. She is a dreamer, innovator, and engineer. Because a family member laughed at one of her inventions, she builds in secret hiding her talent. Through the love, guidance, and even laughter from another family member, she learns that failure is good because it leads to success. She comes out of hiding as an engineer and creates openly once again.

Tonight, my preschool aged son asked to read this book at bedtime. He clapped and giggled at each invention. When Rosie began to build in secret he was upset. As she built her cheese-helicopter (Really, you need to read this book. It has a cheese-helicopter!), he smiled in anticipation.   It flew, then wobbled, and then fell to the ground.  My son cheered!  He screamed, “It flew!” After Rosie learned it was ok to fail but keep going, my son yelled, “She’s awesome!”

we_can_do_it_3678696585If I prescribed to labels, this would be a “girl book.” With a main character paying homage to the iconic character Rosie the Riveter, this book is not a natural pick up for boys. With its rhyming cadence and relatively large font, most upper elementary students would not read this book. But this book is for everyone! The story is about failing forward. It’s about preserving even when you are down on yourself or when others mock you.   It’s about seeing everyday objects for unintended purposes.

In light of political movements gaining much needed attention, we need to be careful when labeling books. Books are for everyone. Rosie’s story is applicable to us all. So are the many other books on shelves to which we try to attach unnecessary labels. Recently, I have been trying to begin my book talks by identifying a character’s trait rather than the character’s gender or age. I believe students are more inclined to try a book about someone who does not look like them when they can identify with the trait first.

After all, Rosie Revere, Engineer is a “boy book” too!

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…