The Value of Connections, and 15 Minutes of Homecoming Fame

“Can we put a picture of you on our Homecoming t-shirt?”

This question was posed to me by Junior class leaders in the fall of 2018. Once I got past the initial “you have GOT to be kidding!”, we talked about their plan, which was incredibly silly but also a huge compliment – one of the most meaningful I’ve received during my career. At my school the Homecoming themes are determined by the Seniors, and the Juniors are always given something weird and difficult. In 2018 the Junior theme was “tertiary sources,” thus the visit to the library. We took a photo, they turned it into graphic art, and almost 90% of the students chose that as their favorite design.

So how does a school librarian get her picture on a shirt worn by 150 teenagers? It’s all about making connections.

When I started at my current school in 2004 I inherited a fairly uncomfortable relationship between the library staff and the students, with many challenges to adult authority and no shortage of irresponsible behavior. I spent years working to set a better tone and to gain the trust of the students, and over time our library has become a mostly happy and respectful place, where students want to hang out with each other, to share ideas and concerns with us, and to get some schoolwork done. Students now see us as partners in the educational process rather than behavioral adversaries. The library has become a place of fun and learning, where there is always time to discuss an upcoming research paper or the latest Colleen Hoover novel.  

What I have learned over the past 18 years is that the only way I can develop meaningful connections with students is to take the time to be where they are. Sitting at my desk with the door open I can think I look available but actually I look busy, and students are hesitant to interrupt, or apologize for “bothering” me. So I get up often, walk around the library, ask lots of questions: “What are you working on?” “What have you learned that you found surprising?”  And sometimes, “Wow that party sounds like so much more fun than your Ethnic Studies paper!” When a teacher brings a class to the library, I don’t leave after making a research presentation – I stay in the room, circulate to check in on each student individually, stop the class for a quick pointer when I hear the same question or problem from several students. Many students won’t ask a question in front of the class, but will ask for guidance when I sit at their table. When I walk past students in the Student Center I check in with them to see what they are working on (or to learn how to play the latest video game). But the thing students seem to appreciate the most is that I try to be available after school via email or text. Students often aren’t fully attentive in class, but questions arise when they do their homework in the evening. I tell them I’m only available until 10pm, and I warn them that sometimes I have a life and won’t be online, so don’t wait until the last minute to talk to me! Yes it intrudes on my personal time, but in fact there aren’t enough evening requests to feel demanding, and it offers students the support they need at the time they need it. What I enjoy about the evening interactions in particular (which now often happen on Zoom, thanks to what we learned during Covid) is that the conversations often turn into something more than just a research paper discussion, and I get to know my students better. Every one-on-one interaction informs my instruction, develops a personal connection, and makes me a more effective teacher.

None of this happened overnight. I arrived at my grades 6-12 school having spent eight years at an elementary school, where students were excited about “library day” and hugs were abundant. I was a bit intimidated by teens, didn’t know upper grade curriculum, and had a newly minted MLIS but little idea of how to put what I’d learned into practice. In my early years I was probably more authoritarian than was necessary, and I thought maintaining a “professional distance” from the students was the best approach. Gradually my students have taught me that if I want their respect and attention I need to show that I care about them as people, not only as students. I learned that silliness is the way into their hearts, and that by letting down the professional aura I can get to know them as the wonderful adults-in-training that they are while having a lot more fun on the job. And they in turn see me as someone they can comfortably come to for research assistance or for a conversation about a TV show they enjoy. Each librarian will have their own way of building those connections but whatever your personal style, the effort you put into making connections with your students will pay off in a better learning experience for everyone.

So, quite unexpectedly, positive relationships with students led to my picture being worn by the Junior class. I walked with them in the Homecoming parade, and when they did their class dance I danced with them (there is video proof, unfortunately). It was more embarrassing than I can describe, and it was one of the most fun things I’ve ever done. It was an unforgettable day!

An easy introduction to your library’s online resources

It’s still July, and way too early to be thinking about a new school year! But perhaps a lesson from our summer Kickstart program will be a useful first library research experience for your students.

Each summer my school holds a class for a few incoming freshmen who need some summer enrichment to prepare them for the rigors of the high school curriculum. The library typically has a minimal role in this program – we give students a tour, make sure everyone is enrolled in our patron database, and encourage students to check out whatever books they would like to read. Three years ago, the Kickstart history teacher (who is also the history department chair) decided it would be helpful for these students to have some basic research instruction as well, and she asked me if we could create a kind of glossary of our most accessible online databases. And thus the Database Notetaker was born.

We all know it – introducing students to a collection of online resources is boring. It’s also hard to give an overview covering a number of resources when the students don’t have any immediate application for that knowledge. We sold this idea to the students by describing it as a tool – something they would use right away for a quick project, and then would have as a reference all year long for future research projects. We spend a good deal of time during the school year teaching our freshmen how to organize their work by keeping assignments and readings in a binder, and this database tool was designed to live in front of their research projects where it could be consulted as needed. We told these Kickstart students that they would hear all of this information again with each research project but that they would have an easier time remembering because they had this reference page.

The actual lesson that year was pretty short, with a quick introduction to several primary and tertiary source databases, along with JSTOR for secondary sources. We explained the concept of primary, secondary and tertiary but not in depth – again the point of this lesson was to create the tool, not to conduct actual research. Students filled out the form by hand (more on that below), describing the database content in their own words plus indicating which types of sources could be found there. They turned in their completed form for the teacher to look over, then filed it in their history binder where it could be referred to during each research project.

When we began our first freshman Modern World History research project that fall we quickly realized that ALL students would benefit from using this reference page, so the same overview lesson was used (Kickstart students were advised to see if they could add any new information). Since that time a new version for sophomore US History students has been created, and several “unofficial” versions have popped up. A couple of those versions included databases we longer subscribe to, so I linked the current versions on our research databases page for everyone to use. This guide has developed into tool that is often referred to by faculty as we begin a research project, and I’ve enjoyed seeing teachers adapt it for their electives.

Regarding the “write it out by hand” concept: it’s a real challenge to balance the digital doc/sustainability issue with the perception that students retain information better if they write it out by hand or read a physical paper. I’m very committed to the idea of using less paper, but I’ve seen a decline in writing quality as we moved our docs online, and I’m not the only one at my school to comment on this. Of course as they say “correlation isn’t necessarily causation,” and there are studies on both sides of the paper vs digital reading comprehension issue, but for now we are sticking with our belief that having freshmen write out their notes on paper and file the page in a physical binder is the most effective approach. It’s also much easier to find when needed, as Google docs have a way of disappearing into a black hole of uncategorized documents.

I hope you are enjoying your last days/weeks of summer!

Reading through a fire hose

It’s 1:15 on a Thursday afternoon when I get the email message saying “your package has been delivered.” Curious, I click the link because I have no memory of ordering anything (no surprise there – I have ordered and then immediately forgotten about any number of items over the past two years). I see that the package is from Random House and now I wonder, with a mix of excitement and trepidation: how big is the box?

This year I am once again serving on a YALSA book selection committee. The first time – my first year on Best Fiction for Young Adults (BFYA)  – I was so excited that I didn’t give much thought to the work that lay ahead. I had applied many times without being selected and I didn’t look past the joy of that initial committee welcome letter. Each committee year after that I looked forward to the books and conversations but worried about the workload, as I knew how much time I would spend trying to read a book (or five) in a day, and how much physical space would be taken up by piles of books (the photo above shows my dining room table at one point). This year’s Alex Award committee assignment is particularly rewarding as I have finally gotten on the committee that I’ve applied to every year for fifteen years in a row, but I know the workload will again be demanding.

So why do I do this? And why do I think you should apply to participate on an awards committee of some type at least once in your career?

You’ll develop your reading and review skills

Our Morris Award announcement at the 2017 Youth Media Awards ceremony

Nothing in my earlier years as a librarian – or a reader –  prepared me for the reality of reading 386 books in a year, or being able to have informed conversations about the 99 titles that ended up on the 2014 BFYA list. During that year I developed my note-taking skills, learned to pay closer attention to character development and story arcs, and finally began paying proper attention to diversity in publishing and in the telling of stories. And I learned to read FAST! When you’re reading more titles than there are days in the year, an enjoyable book that takes multiple days to complete means some Saturdays spent in a chair getting through five books. But the reality is that there are plenty of books that fall in the “ok but not best” category that can be set aside after scanning the requisite first 50 pages. I was fortunate to have a committee chair who provided a template for keeping track of characters, storylines, age levels, and starred reviews which helped with the process of reading, remembering and discussing so many titles. I still use a similar template to track the books I read.

You’ll build professional connections

One of the lasting joys from my years on YALSA committees is the connections I’ve made with librarians from around the country. We bump into each other at conferences, stay connected via social media, celebrate each other’s life achievements years after our committee responsibilities ended. Committee members also meet authors and publishers! Being on an award committee means receiving many invitations to publisher parties and meet-the-author events. The Morris committee hosts a dinner with the finalists prior to the award announcement, so we all had the chance to talk with each author and receive a signed copy of their book.  Committee members develop a cadre of people to call on for professional guidance, plus there is the fun of having shared a memorable year that had a meaningful impact on teen reading.

You’ll receive so many free books!

The carpet of books in my den

Some committees lead to more book deliveries than others, but all of them come with many boxes of books, and they all need to go somewhere! In 2013 I didn’t have an office at school and we had no empty shelves, so I had about 850 advance copies (ARCs) and new publications tagged and organized on the floor of our den at home. A narrow path led to the couch so we could watch television but the room was largely unusable. After the school library was remodeled in 2017 I was able to store most of the committee books in my office. The good news is that all of those books are free additions to the library collection! I keep the books we can use and put everything else out for students to take. ARCs are recycled, and any unclaimed hardcover books are donated to the public library. Depending on the year and the committee this adds 100-200 books to our collection – truly a gift. The 2014 BFYA committee was where I first learned about NetGalley and Edelweiss – these are sites where librarians and reviewers can access pre-publication copies of books. Being a librarian increases one’s likelihood of being approved for advance titles; my title request has never been denied while serving on a book award committee.

You’ll help increase the visibility of the school library

It’s easy to think of ALA committees as belonging to the public library world. But often a school library is the only library a student has access to, which makes our voice as school librarians an important one! Independent schools often have less visibility and representation on awards committees than public schools and public libraries, and other committee members may have had little exposure to the needs and interests of an independent school, so by participating on a committee you are broadening the viewpoint of those other participants. Being on a state or national committee is also a good way to show the school administration that the library occupies an important place in the school and in the larger world. Several times I’ve heard an administrator say “this will increase the visibility of the school” when I tell them that I’m on an award committee. It might not be my first concern but I understand that thinking. And it is a small point of pride to see my school listed next to my name on a YALSA roster.

You’ll make a contribution to the profession

I have appreciated having the opportunity to do something that will last beyond the immediate school year. In schools our students stay for a few years and then move on, but on a book committee there is the opportunity to bring attention to an author that might otherwise not have been noticed, or to curate a recommended reading list of books that reflects a broad spectrum of experiences for readers to select from. Choices that are made by award committees influence libraries’ purchasing decisions, and indirectly, the publishing industry at large. And thanks to the permanence of internet documents, I can look back at the lists from previous committees, revisit the titles we chose and remember the fun we had spending hours at a time talking and arguing about books.

Hanging out with Jeff Zentner, winner of the 2017 Morris Award

There’s no doubt that being on a book list or award committee is a lot of work, and not everyone has the space in their lives to fit in yet another responsibility. But if you can’t participate now I encourage you to give it a try *sometime.* There are many options to choose from, from local area awards, to state award lists, to ALA committees across all age groups. To join the award committee fun, begin by doing some research about various awards, then contact a committee chair and ask about that committee’s work. When you’re ready, submit a volunteer form and cross your fingers. You’ll have the chance to encourage reading, you’ll make some new friends, and you might be lucky enough to meet the next popular YA author!

Committees I’ve participated on: 2011 Reader’s Choice, 2014 BFYA, 2017 Morris Award, 2019 BFYA, & 2023 Alex Award.

Signs of fun – and learning – in the library

We’ve started 2022 under the shadow of Omicron, which means we’re back to fewer students in the library, and classes aren’t coming in for instruction. Hopefully this will be a short-term situation, but in the meantime I’m curious to know what is going on in the classrooms, and want to celebrate ways that we can interact with students. Fortunately, teens are messy! They leave papers on tables and on the copier (where I can look at their research and citations), they neglect to wipe down the whiteboards before walking away, they make fun additions to our displays. I could think of each of these as one more mess to clean up (well, often that is EXACTLY what I think) but I try to focus on the positive and think of these as clues to what is happening in the classroom and opportunities to talk with students about their lives. So, for a lighthearted first-ever AISL blog post, here’s a photo tour of some library fun from the past few years that led to interesting conversations and fun interactions with students and with teachers.

This looks staged but it’s actually what I found on the table outside my office three weeks ago. I was delighted to see that a class is using lessons from the Newseum, and even more pleased to learn that this is from an AP US Government class. I’d had a conversation with that teacher in the fall and mentioned a SCOTUS lesson I’d done in US History a number of years ago. This Newseum project prompted a new conversation, which led to me showing her the SCOTUS lesson, which led to us revamping that 10-year-old lesson into a research and citation exercise that we taught just this week. This teacher was entertained to see that a paper that will be part of a homework check had been abandoned in the library…

We found this on a whiteboard in one of the small study rooms just after Thanksgiving 2021. I wondered if a science class was doing a holiday-meal-themed lesson? I sent the photo to the upper school just for fun, and learned that it was a well-formatted “visual/flow-chart version of the protocol for a lab we recently did in Biology, studying osmosis with potato cells.” We were simply wondering how many servings of mashed potatoes this made! But it gave me the opportunity to send an email to the faculty reminding them that we are still working (somewhat invisibly) in the library. It also prompted a history teacher to respond with a link to a lovely article about blackboards and math instruction

It’s hard to believe it’s been this long, but six years ago we were starting to plan for a library remodel. We solicited input from students and teachers in several different ways, including dry erase paper mounted to a wall. What made this fun is that students could interact with each other’s suggestions. Nap pods were way too expensive, but thanks to their suggestions we now have plenty of sofas and comfy chairs, and we encourage naps! This also helped make the argument for putting a variety of writing walls in the new library.

We love it when students interact with our displays because it means they are paying attention. (I asked a physics teacher to explain this. I still don’t understand it.)

A middle school lesson was left on the library classroom whiteboard. Upper school students were curious, so I showed them our print collection of Time and Life magazines from the 1930s – 1980s. These volumes are perfect for primary source research and for learning about representation in advertisements.

Remember print encyclopedias?! This is from several years ago when we still had these on the shelf. We believe in having fun in the library and our students agree. This went on for several weeks – there were many iterations.

Sometimes the whiteboard signs are helpful, like this one from a summer 2021 class. I only met with these students once and it was over Zoom, so this “class photo” found in the library classroom helped me remember their names when we went back to school in August.

Often their drawings make everyone smile.

Sometimes their work is super-intimidating.

The write-on wall is often a palimpsest of the day’s lessons.

We enjoy having a fun and interactive library – one that provides the tools that students need and a place to explore their creativity. Before the library was remodeled we had one whiteboard – it was in the library classroom and was usually behind a locked door. After remodeling we have one write-on-wall, white boards in each of the small study rooms, a two-sided whiteboard on wheels in the central seating area, and a wall covered with whiteboard paper that we use for fun interactive surveys (or remodeling suggestions). We welcome post-it notes with encouraging comments scattered around the shelves, and we dutifully pick up the stray papers and books at the end of the day, looking for clues as to what’s happening in our students’ lives.