Perspectives (or not as dusty as it seems)

Recently, I traveled by air on two occasions. These were just two of many previous flights where I sat by the window staring out at the landscape below and the skies above. For me, flying is relaxing. If the plane vibrations do not lull me to sleep, the majestic views captivate me.

The two trips differed in landscapes below. One flight flew over the deserts and mountain regions of the Arizona/California border. The other trip took me from my home island of Key West, over the Everglades, on to Florida’s gold coast. As one would expect, the former’s scenery showed vast dusty regions of hard earth. The vast, barren land stretched for hundreds of miles with little to no greenery. On a very rare occasion, a small lake appeared with a brief circle of green. The latter’s view afforded dark green and greenish-brown hues. Flying high above the ground, both views appeared as versions of the early Sim City planning grids.

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Stunned by the shear awe-inspiring beauty of the western desert landscape, I did not take a picture. Nor did I trust my picture taking ability to accurately capture what I was seeing. However, the latter trip over southern Florida, I was able to snap a few pictures. Take a look at the picture to the left and ponder what you see.

When I first looked out the window, my side eyed view and past experiences deduced IMG_2946 we were flying through and above clouds. However, looking straight down below the plane, I could see the flames burning through the grasses and shrubbery. These are pictures of a current wild fire. Had I taken these pictures from on the ground, the view would be much different.

During my trip to California, I took a Palm Springs Aerial Tramway ride up to Mt. San Jacinto State Park. At an elevation of over 8,500 feet, the temperatures dropped from the low 70s in Palm Springs to frigid 25 degrees. Atop the mountains were snowdrifts and lush green forests! 15 minutes before reaching the top of the tram ride, I stood in a dusty desert with miles of windmill farms and solar panels. Yet, at the top of the mountain, I could smell a forest.

From a distance, I saw and assumed the entire California desert to be dry and barren wondering what wildlife could actually survive. From the plane, I only saw dusty earth. However, close inspection walking amongst the desert showed me many forms of fauna. Plants pushed through cracked earth to find sun and moisture. The mountain was alive with wildlife sustained by the trapped clouds.

So what does this have to do with education? It’s about perspectives! Viewing a family’s circumstance from a distance, educators may form certain perspectives or attitudes. We rely on our experience to inform us how families value their child’s education.   But we often miss the forest fire through the clouds. We must see family engagement from all perspectives. The family that rarely, if at all, visits the school may have a deeper value of education knowing that education is essential to higher wages. The family that seems overly demanding and questioning may have experienced school differently and is trying to better understand. The 30,000 feet view is good for operational planning but may cloud (this post is full of puns!) one’s view.

Pardon me as I take a personal aside. This post is based on three recent experiences. I intend to write about two: family engagement planning & professional development and organizational planning from 30,000 feet. The third, and probably most influential to the plane analogy, is a blog posting from my college-aged cousin who is blogging about her journey into adulthood. As I sat on the plane waiting for taxiing and takeoff, I read one of her recent posts about her first flight ever. Kaitlyn, thank you for giving my post wings. Off we go into the wild blue yonder!

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Grants, Budgets, Numbers, Spreadsheets vs. Family Engagement

So I want to be less cryptic about my current position. As mentioned last week, I am the Family Engagement Coordinator. As such, I support schools’ efforts to engage families in meaningful, authentic learning experiences. Family engagement goes beyond inviting families to school for meals and student performances. While that certainly is one component of creating a welcoming environment, family engagement really focuses on “doing with” families—teaching families how to support and continue their child’s learning outside of the school building; sharing decision making with families about school direction; providing opportunities for families to interact with the school during the school day; the list goes on. As the coordinator, I help school staff further cultivate their current initiatives and offer suggestions for new opportunities. It taps into my drive to lead professional learning and communicating. I certainly love it!

 

Another facet of my job is managing a specific grant for after school programming. When I first started this job, I looked forward to the management side. However, I did not realize how much I WOULD LOVE IT! The fulfillment of writing, rewriting, number crunching, researching, analyzing, reviewing, editing, and so forth came quickly and naturally.   The joy of this work was unexpected but I welcomed it. I often compare it to a giant puzzle piecing together a dynamic portrait of a successful after school program. Currently, the grant is at midyear evaluation submitting data for program success and documentation of accurate accounting and spending. Oddly, this part is equally (if, I dare not say, actually more) exciting as the original writing and submission.

 

While my job has multiple parts beyond managing a grant and supporting engagement, it is these two parts that have truly captured me. Today, I cannot tell you which of the two I like best because I love it all. But if forced to choose just one today, I would say I am a fan of puzzles. But tomorrow, when hearing a family engagement success story, I’d say, ”I love my job!”

Many, many changes

A LOT has happened over the last year.  I celebrated my son’s adoption.  My school had an awesome Read Across America week.  But most importantly, my family moved.

I no longer live in North Carolina nor work for Wake County Public School System (WCPSS).  I truly enjoyed my brief stint in WCPSS because the school was, and remains to this day, phenomenal.  The students, families, and staff at Abbotts Creek Elementary School are top notch.  It’s a true family in every sense of the word.  I miss seeing the many smiling faces every day but I am where I need to be.

Focusing on family makes my job more profound.  I am now a Family Engagement Coordinator supporting family engagement initiatives within Title I schools.  Working at the school district offices is completely different.  The focus is student learning only from a different lens. This past week, I got to visit classrooms reading some of my favorite stories to elementary students.  The teacher in me was thrilled and I got way more energy from it than the students did from my few minutes reading to them.  However, I know my current mission.  I accept it.  I cherish it.  I know my previous positions, schools, and school systems have readied me for my current profession.  I hold onto and will continue to tell people “I am a teacher” because I am.

The old joke, “you can take the X out of Y but not the Y out of X” rings true.  You can take me out of the school but my vision is clear.  I work to support and ensure schools work towards their mission.  More to come, I promise.

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!

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.

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!

Power of Connectivity: Parenting and Teaching

Sometimes confluences of ideas converge. This happened to me today while I attended a parenting workshop. Marbles Kids Museum hosts parent workshops in addition to all of the kid innovative and creative play times. Today, I began a Triple P seminar. This 3 session series focuses on The Power of Positive Parenting.

The series teaches parents on child development and what to expect of children at age milestones. Centering on positive discipline techniques and raising independent and resilient children, The Power of Positive Parenting empowers parents with child-centered approaches fostering effective parent-child relationships.

While listening, I could not overlook each strategy’s connectedness to Responsive Classroom (RC) and Positive Behavioral Intervention & Supports (PBIS). I have taught in RC schools and currently teach at a school using PBIS. Each program has differences but they have some common core principles. Explicitly teaching children appropriate behavioral expectations, practicing the expectations, and then holding children accountable creates positive experiences and equips children for better understanding of societal, classroom, and/or home norms. Setting and sticking to routines ensures children know what happens next providing a sense of security and independence. When a child errs, talking calmly and rationally with her/him about the mistake, which rule was broken, and what she/he should do instead fosters a sense of accountability rooted in love, compassion, and forgiveness.

I look forward to learning more in the next two seminars. I imagine I will see more similarities to RC and PBIS.