Working Along the Edges

Alpha S. DeLap, St. Thomas School, Medina, WA (twitter: alphaselene)

Here at St. Thomas School (STS), where I have been a teacher-librarian for the past seven academic years, our Head of School, Dr. Kirk Wheeler, encourages us all to risk, explore, and challenge ourselves professionally. In 2016, he wrote, ”

“Whenever we are on the edge – the edge of our capabilities, the edge of our knowledge, the edge of our confidence – we are in a place of potential growth. However, that edge isn’t always an easy place to be. That is why we intentionally celebrate edgework and remain committed to maintaining a learning environment in which ALL members of the school feel secure in taking risks, asking questions, and exploring new alternatives.”

His encouragement of our own professional risk-taking has led me to serve on committees, publish articles, write reviews for national publications, present at conferences, and even to write for this AISL blog.

In addition to spreading my wings externally, I have also taken on curricular projects outside my initial comfort zone and immediate expertise: yearbook design and production and debate.  I agreed to teach these particular electives in 2016, we call them “Master Classes,” for our Seventh and Eighth Grade students and committed to teaching them as thoroughly and rigorously as possible. In addition to teaching these electives each year, I am now the Coach for the STS Middle School Debate team.

You might think, “I’m sure you did Debate in high school and college so it wasn’t too much of a stretch,” but actually I have never debated formally and my love of this particular academic realm is one that I conjured in its fuller form in last few years.

Yes, I took the LSAT after college, did well, and toyed with the idea of law school, but instead I worked in publishing for Macmillan and went on to pursue degrees in comparative literature and cultural studies.

It was when I taught an argumentation course at a community college in Northern Colorado that I began to fall in love with the actual structure and process of constructing different arguments, especially the mediatory type. Helping my college students map the proposition and the opposition and then integrate them was pure joy.

I retained a strong memory of this love of the mediatory argument throughout my second career shift into children’s librarianship. When my supervisor, STS Middle School Division Director, Alex Colledge, asked me whether or not I wanted to spearhead a new Debate strand at St. Thomas School, I jumped at the idea. I have found that whenever I feel a strong intellectual fluttering I do well to give in to it and see where it takes me.

I have taught two rounds of the master class and our nascent Debate Team came in fifth in the Pacific Northwest Middle School Debate League last Spring.

The second year of Debate season is upon us. Yesterday I held my first team practice after conducting a week-long Debate Team camp in mid-August. Debate is a natural landscape for librarians, it is a space that delights in a careful and thorough research process, a celebration of diverse perspectives, and a passionate consideration of the most pressing civic issues of the day.

If you interested in talking more about Middle School Debate, modified parliamentary argumentation or ways in which you are exploring your own professional edge, please email me or tweet me at: alphaselene.

Why I Became a Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert by Alpha S. DeLap

As school library jobs continue to evaporate, I consider myself extremely fortunate. Like most, if not all, of the readers of this post, I work for an independent school which has the funding and ongoing investment in my position, my programs, and my collections. I spend my time building new initiatives, maintaining important traditions, refining my teaching practices, and expanding my professional reach through collaboration and cross-disciplinary pedagogy. I am privileged to think broadly and deeply simultaneously without fear. However, there isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t ask myself,

“Am I living up to my professional potential? Am I taking advantage of all that I have been given, in terms of budget, administrative encouragement, and professional development?”

Last summer, one way I answered that question was to apply to become a Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert (“MIEE”). I wanted to continue to explore those ways in which software applications and hardware innovations would allow me to be a better teacher-librarian. If you know me, you know two things and technology: 1) I love to try new applications and computer tools and 2) I will never continue to use them if they aren’t in the best interest of the students and their learning goals. My application was successful and I was afforded a number of wonderful opportunities.

Over the year that I have been an MIEE, I have been able to use Microsoft technologies to extend the classroom using Skype in order to discuss primary and secondary resources with a food historian at the Smithsonian Museum of American History. I was able to create another channel for expression using FlipGrid– recording individual vlogs related to favorite books and authors to share with students in Scotland. I used Microsoft Teams to help my students and I communicate and manage project deadlines for a print newspaper as well as my school’s Debate team. Finally, I collaborated on layout and photographic design using OneNote for a yearbook elective.

My job as a teacher-librarian is to straddle the line between print and digital, between information and entertainment, in order to encourage engaged reading, innovative research, creative expression, intentional consumption, and critical thinking across a range of real and imagined spaces.

My participation in various MIEE forums, including in-person and online, have allowed me to explore new technologies while at the same underscoring the need for our expertise as librarians especially in the realm of digital curation. One of the applications that the MIEE world is most excited about is Wakelet, I describe it as if Pinterest and Vimeo had a child and its cousin is Scoop It. Trialing Wakelet made me realize that there is a great opportunity for teacher-librarians to take a lead role as information guides and research experts within MIEE conversations. I hope that many of you will read this post and put in an application, if not this year, then next. Our librarian voices are critical in the ongoing conversation related to educational technology integration and refinement and I want us all to participate in as many discussions as possible. I look forward to hearing from other MIEE independent school librarians and develop ways to collaborate in the future!

A Year of Silent Reading

As a young child I loved reading by myself. I didn’t talk to other people about the books I read– I just plowed through piles of books. In fact, I challenged myself to read the entire Children’s collection at the Jefferson Market Library, a branch of the New York Public Library System. I completed the challenge without telling anyone about it except my favorite Fifth Grade teacher, Mr. Smith. Mr. Smith loved books, stories, and language the way I did. He often opened his lessons each morning with poems by Langston Hughes and Phillis Wheatley, asking us to “sit quietly with their words.”

When I became a Children’s Librarian in 2012, I was enmeshed in a delightful in-person and online communities of readers which included but was not limited to: librarians, booksellers, humanities educators, authors, agents, and publishers. I was a voracious user of Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook primarily to share my love of reading and books, placing special emphasis on marginalized #ownvoices narratives for young readers.

Since I have a two-bus commute to my teaching position each day, there was ample time to post, re-post, and tweet. Through my engagement with the digital reading communities, I worked on refining and extending my school’s collection, developing new curricular and programming initiatives, and engaging with ideas and analyses that enriched me professionally and personally. I got off the bus each day inspired and ready to evangelize reading and books for everyone with whom I came into contact.

Jump cut to 2019 and I am an eager and grateful elected member of the John Newbery Book Award Committee. Books line every surface of my workspaces at home and at the school where I teach. I read in every spare moment between exercising, sleeping, teaching, and sharing meals with my family. There’s one problem, I am not allowed to talk about and/or post about any authors or books that could be considered for the award during 2019. Since the award is for readers ages 0 to 14– this includes picture books, elementary, middle grade, and young adult books.

During our initial Newbery committee meeting in January, members were told that we couldn’t appear to have any biases. When the lines of my browed furrowed, our Chair said gently, “Of course, if you can’t keep yourself from talking or posting, you don’t have to be on the committee.” And I nodded quickly and looked down deferentially. I said to myself, “Alpha, you can do this, you don’t have to share your reading practice on social media. You don’t have to share your reading practice with your fellow librarians or colleagues. You can be silent and just take notes–it’ll be okay.”

Now the reading by myself is hard, I want to shout the titles I love from the digital rooftops. I want other people to experience the joy of a new voice and a new story and I want to share in their experience as they share in mine. I am using Mr. Smith’s guidance as a mantra: “Just sit quietly with their words.” Mr. Smith, I am trying– I really am.

Dr. King’s Words On My Mind

As I sit down to refine a post which was written in honor of the life’s work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. my brain is burning with the image of Omaha elder’s Nathan Phillips’ face as he played his ceremonial drum while a group of primarily white teenagers mocked the sacred song he was singing to honor community members during the first annual Indigenous Peoples March. This event took place on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The teenagers were surrounded by adult chaperones who did nothing to stop the teenagers’ cultural violence. Phillips’ simultaneously peaceful and defiant weariness breaks my heart. I hope that as teacher-librarians we will take this occasion to open up a conversation in our school communities about the intersections of race and religion in American politics especially as it relates to both the work of the Indigenous Peoples Movement and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In addition to facilitating a school-wide discussion that includes staff and senior administrators, it is critical to initiate and/or continue an ongoing, intentional, and thorough analysis of our school library collections, programs, and services. One of best resources I know of with which to do this has been created and maintained by scholar Dr. Debbie Reese. Her website, American Indians in Children’s Literature, includes articles, presentations, and general guidance. Her July 2018 article for NCTE: Critical Indigenous Literacies gives an overview for the urgency of this type of work. Another recent article that is very useful is Sonja Cole’s Classroom Connections: Authentically Representing American Indians, published in Booklist (January 2019). Along with refining our collections, programs, and services, it is necessary to keep current and contribute to living conversations related to creating space for a wide range of experiences and voices. We can use the hashtags to search, follow, and participate in critical dialogues on Instagram, GoodReads, and Twitter: #NativeKidLit, #diversebooks, #diversekidlit, #ReadYourWorld, #WNDB, #kidlitwomen, and #ownvoices. Our active participation will allow us to make the collective connections and do the work that will prevent Saturday’s event from happening in the future. In Selma, Alabama, on March 8, 1965, Dr. King said, “A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice.” This moment on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial provides a chance for all of us to “stand up for what is right” and it is in our power as teacher-librarians to view it as an opportunity for difficult but necessary change.

Feeling Grateful

This is my first AISL blog post. I am excited to write for a new audience especially during a week (in the United States) predicated on gratitude and connection. This is my second career, I came to librarianship after a stint in academia as both a scholar and an administrator, and every day I am thankful for my new profession. I am not exaggerating. I love the opportunity and the privilege to excite students about reading and research. I love helping students to find new stories and information that open up spaces, emotional and intellectual, spaces in which they can experiment, imagine, and grow. I am grateful for all of the librarians, at conferences, on Twitter and Instagram, and in my regional circle, who teach me new ways to think about our profession and re-invigorate foundational practices such as storytelling, reader’s advisory, the reference interview and collection development. I am grateful for the generous spirit that runs through librarianship which I first encountered during my first American Library Association annual conference in New Orleans in 2011. In the past conferences were difficult experiences filled with endless moments of pretension, arrogance, and what seemed to border upon ridicule. From the moment I walked onto the ALA conference shuttle and was invited to sit down, I knew I was in a different kind of community. This was a community where people built each other up rather than cut each other down. This was a community where people were excited to share what they knew and learn from others. This was a community of hope, dialogue, and connection. In my second year of library school I interviewed for my first teacher-librarian job. Initially I thought of it as an informational conversation. After several weeks, multiple conversations, and an on-site visit, I received a job offer. I have worked at St. Thomas School in Medina, Washington for the past seven academic years. St. Thomas School is a place, like independent schools in general, that believes in the power of librarians and libraries to change the world. Working there has been one of the greatest gifts I have received in my adult life. Thanks to each of you for being devoted librarians, generous colleagues, and inspired citizens. It is a great privilege to work among you.