Poem for a New Year

I would be quite shocked to learn that there are not many NPR listeners among the readers of this blog. The chances, I think, are good that you heard some of this piece on the radio earlier last week. A new school year begins. What are your goals for teachers and students? : NPR

Kwame Alexander, known to us for his brilliance as an author who writes for our students and their peers, suggests setting an intention or goal for the new school year in the form of a poem. Submissions will be edited into one crowdsourced poem, which I can’t wait to read. (The details can be found at the link above.) He offers as inspiration an excerpt of the Maya Angelou poem Woman Work. I loved the idea of applying this model to the work that is getting underway now – an invitation to shift perspective in a creative way. So, I’ve given it a stab. I didn’t officially submit it to the NPR callout, but here it is. 

Librarian Work

I’ve got reviews to read

The collection to weed

The audit to complete

The school bus to meet

Guides to create 

Information to curate

Blog posts to write

Censorship to fight

Teachers to support

Data to report

Access to provide

Research to guide

Lessons to learn

Trust to earn

Answers to know

Students to grow

I am going to try this with different groups of students in these first few days, maybe as a collaborative exercise as the final result of the NPR callout will be. So far I’ve had AP Lang students give it a try – thinking about either the school year as a whole or just the class, with some fascinating, funny, and moving results. 

What is in your poem this year? 

Students to Alumni

It’s late May, and that means that many of us have just watched a group of students become alumni in a matter of minutes. Whether they are heading from your school to middle school, upper school, college/university, or the rest of their lives, one second they’re your students and the next they are invited to call you by your first name. (Sniff – they grow up so fast.) When it comes to preparing them for the next stage as information finders, users, and creators, our job, for better or worse, is finished.

So I usually spend at least part of commencement exercises thinking, “Well shoot, do these kids know how to do research? Can they suss out misinformation? Do they know how to construct a non-ridiculous search query? Can they ask good questions? Are they going to provide proper citations in their first college research papers, or will they learn hard lessons? Will they ever use a library again? Will they read for pleasure? Did I do enough? HAVE I FAILED THEM???”

I am pretty sure the answer to the last one is no, at least I hope so. First of all, I happily recognize that I have colleagues who also value inquiry, reading, and approaching information with a discerning eye, and the development of our students’ information literacy doesn’t rest solely with me. I also have hope that the information literacy instruction they receive in college will ring a bell – (as in, “oh, right, that’s what Ms. Hammond was always going on about.”) I also know that many of them, but not all of them, will go into those first year library instructional sessions knowing exactly what they’re about to see. I wish I could be a fly on the wall.   

As we close out 2021-2022 and put our minds to next year, I remember that our job, for our young alumni, is actually not finished. We’ll get emails or calls from college asking for help, reassurance, and guidance. We’ll see them at Thanksgiving when they come back to a campus that feels so much smaller now, and they’ll tell us about how that first research paper went, or that they love their college library. They’ll post a video to YouTube that gets flagged for possible copyright infringement, and remember to consider Fair Use. They will push back when their social media connections do not check their sources before spreading outrageous information. They will take their kids to storytime. They’ll stand up for intellectual freedom. They will be fine and do good, and when they hear the phrase “school library”, perhaps they’ll associate it, even unconsciously, with support, belonging, and learning. 

Student-Led Book Discussions

I’ve tried something new this year, keeping things on the low-key side while trying to simultaneously expand student engagement and reading promotion. In the olden (pre-pandemic) days, our Upper School summer reading was based on a list of books suggested by students, the Summer Reading Leaders (SRLs). Upper School students would choose a book from this list and the SRLs would lead discussions during our orientation week at the start of the year. These discussion groups were either fantastic and highly engaging, or, equally as often I’m afraid, a painful slog for the SRL whose group members had not quite actually read the book. 

For the summer of 2020, full of uncertainty about the following school year as it was, I switched to a Reading Challenge, inspired by fellow AISL librarians. This was a Bingo-style game that included sixteen reading categories to choose from and recognition for achieving levels. One category was recommendations from the SRLs, whom I had already recruited before the year changed so drastically, and who had already suggested books for the 2020-21 summer reading discussions. It also included categories such as “free choice,” “reread a book you’ve already read,” and “book in a language other than English,” recognizing that my students were, at that point, staying put in locations all over the world and might need to keep their reading to what they could already access in their homes or wherever they were. This worked fine. Well, even! There was a lot of participation and engagement, especially from excited new students. However, my SRLs were a little neglected – I never quite got it together to figure out how they could still hold their book discussions, with some classmates in person, some online, and some in different time zones. I think that was a miss on my part.

Going into this year, I still had lots of students who wanted to be SRLs. A few approached me about it before I even put out a call, so I knew I had to do better by them this year and bring back the student-led book discussions. Instead of trying to squish a lot of attendance-required discussion sessions into the same day and subject the SRLs and non-readers alike to those potentially uncomfortable interactions, I worked with the students to schedule their book discussions throughout the school year. While their suggestions were still included as a category in the Reading Challenge that began over the summer, I met with each one to decide on a time of year and date that would work well for them. I published a schedule of these reading group meetings as soon as possible at the start of the year so that interested readers can plan by reading as many of the books as they care to in time for the discussions. The internally published schedule that I printed and posted around campus includes the SRLs’ names, so students see who their reading peers are and can support their friends. The version for Instagram (and this blog) does not include names but does include the dates and titles. 

This has been going swimmingly! Attendance so far has been relatively low, but engagement in discussion is high, as it’s not required and for the most part, only self-motivated readers are coming. As you can see, the book choices are varied, popular, and consequential. I’m proud of these students and how they’ve made an effort to build community around reading in our school. Other students have asked how they can lead book discussions, too. It’s been a small, easy change that fixed something that wasn’t working very well, and it’s made a difference in the enjoyment of the program for my students, and also for me!

I’ve started calling the Summer Reading Leaders “Student Reading Leaders”, mainly to keep the SRL abbreviation I use for my own organizing. It’s not very snappy, so I’m open to suggestions!

School Librarians in YA

One of my favorite things about finishing a new YA novel by a favorite or up-and-coming author is reading the acknowledgments. Truly! They always seem more interesting to me than in books for adult readers. I like reading which other authors they pal around with, who read first drafts, and get a sense of what they hope their readers find for themselves in the pages of the book. Often, my favorite part: something about all of us librarians out here, getting the authors’ books, and books in general, into the hands of students who need them. I love reading those words of appreciation and gratitude, and I am more than happy to oblige. I am so grateful to them for writing the stories that my students love.

This is why, when I am reading a YA novel and the main character, along with a friend or potential love interest, wanders into their school library, I brace myself. “Oh boy,” I think. “Here it comes.” The school librarian is so often, by my observation, portrayed as oblivious and bored at best, and a shushing, bitter crank at worst. Wouldn’t it be a lot easier for us to get more books in more readers’ hands if those readers didn’t expect us to act this way? I recently found an article by Peresie & Alexander (2005) which let me know that this observation wasn’t just mine; they pose the idea that these neutral-to-negative stereotypical portrayals are not just annoying to us librarians, but could actually be damaging recruitment to the profession. They make the point that if representation in fiction and other media continues to depict librarians mainly as middle-aged white women, it may be harder to increase diversity in the profession if few others can see themselves. This is surely concerning for the future, but in the immediate moment I worry that neutral-to-negative portrayals might influence whether a student seeks out our help with research, or sees the library as a safe space. They might influence whether classroom teachers think of us as collaborative partners and information experts. Taken to an extreme, they might be responsible for perpetuating misunderstandings of our roles in schools, leading to difficult, frustrating advocacy work or even library job cuts.

What gives? Maybe authors are, sadly, writing from their own experience or lack thereof when it comes to helpful, professional school librarians. Maybe the plot requires that characters sneak to a quiet corner of the school where no pesky adults are paying attention to what they’re doing. I am not interested in calling out specific books or authors for these portrayals. For the most part, I love their books, the bad librarian behavior is limited to a line or two of the story, and it’s not all about me, anyway. However, I guess I would ask authors to consider whether that negative portrayal of the school librarian is really necessary to the story, or is just a cheap shot at a group that is on their side. It’s easy to put a bespectacled shushing lady in the scene, but why is she there?

For a breath of fresh air, here are some YA novels published since Peresie & Alexander’s study wherein the school librarian, or sometimes a public librarian, is treated as a responsible, caring, and properly attentive adult who does their job well (though still sometimes stereotyped):

Call It What You Want by Brigid Kemmerer

The school librarian treats one of the main characters with kindness and understanding despite personal reasons not to, and gives him good books to read.

Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A. S. King

There isn’t really a librarian in the book, but librarians are mentioned as people who could and would provide reliable information about sexuality to a teen.

Americus by M.K. Reed

Librarian Charlotte helps the main character in his efforts to prevent the banning of his favorite book series.

Here Lies the Librarian by Richard Peck

Four young library students make a splash in a small midwestern town in 1914.

Booked by Kwame Alexander

The school librarian helps the main character love words and reading.

I am having a hard time coming up with many more! Any help?

Peresie, M., & Alexander, L. B. (2005, Fall). Librarian stereotypes in young adult literature. Young Adult Library Services, 4(1), 24-31. Academic Search Main Edition. Retrieved April 26, 2021, from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=asm&AN=18695646&site=ehost-live

Singing Along with YA Fiction

We know that reading fiction, for many, is a great way to reduce stress. What a gift when reading fiction can lead us to other great art that feeds our souls, holds up a mirror, or just helps us to rock out and let go for a few minutes! (Who doesn’t need a little of that these days?) I’m talking about music of course. In a post that I wrote a few years ago, I shared the pleasure I feel when a character in a book mentions a book that I also love. I still think it deepens a reader’s connection to a story or character and makes an interesting library display, but I think the same is true for music, maybe even more so. If you have ever read a character enjoying favorite or familiar music, doesn’t it put you a little bit more into their story, especially if that music happens to harken back to your teen years? What about an unfamiliar song mentioned in a novel you’re reading – have you ever looked it up to know what the characters are hearing? 

Matching books and playlists has become a thing. Having students create a playlist inspired by a book is a recent example of creative assessment implemented by teachers and librarians. Sometimes authors will publish playlists to accompany their work and I think it’s interesting to know what they were listening to for atmosphere or inspiration while writing, but that’s not what I mean. It was first displayed for me after reading Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, when I decided to create a playlist to match the mixtape that means so much to its recipient, Charlie. When I went online to do so, I discovered that another reader already had! Now I felt connected not only to Charlie and Stephen Chbosky, but to at least one other reader. When a character experiences music, I think it almost behooves the reader to give it a listen. It’s information that the author is giving us in developing a character and immersing the reader in their world. When I was reading Elizabeth Acevedo’s With the Fire on High, I started listening to Mercedes Sosa’s “Todo Cambia” on repeat.

My students, and probably yours too, always seem to have earbuds or headphones of one kind or another attached to their heads. Their music means a lot to them. It makes sense to me to let music draw them to stories that may mean something important to them as well.

Making reading a multimedia experience is easy thanks to streaming music sites. A soundtrack that puts us back into the world of a beloved book is a gift, and it can connect and reflect our humanity across artforms and works. Here are some playlists I’ve found or created on Spotify linked to young adult novels:

Let Me Hear a Rhyme by Tiffany D. Jackson (playlist by Tiffany Jackson)

“One Winter” Mixtape from The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky (playlist by Kyla Leong-Poi)

The Carnival at Bray by Jessie Ann Foley (playlist by me)

Who Put This Song On? By Morgan Parker (playlist by Morgan Parker)

On the Come Up by Angie Thomas (playlist by Spotify)

The Stars and the Blackness Between Them by Junauda Petrus (playlist by Junauda Petrus-Nasah)

Digital or sign-based book display idea: 

Have you found any others? 

Getting it Together

I admit I’ve struggled thinking about what to write for this, my April post. I am grateful to Shelagh and Reba for figuring it out ahead of me and articulating well what I maybe felt too vulnerable to say. I don’t really feel like a librarian much these days. What this experience has thrown into high relief for me as a worker and an educator is how much of our work in normal times is around the edges; the casual or serendipitous interactions with students that allow us to build relationships and serve them best, and which don’t require the extra thought or step of deliberately seeking out and clicking on a Zoom link. 

We make ourselves available with online office/library hours, we provide access to digital resources and tutorials for using them, and we reach out to teachers to provide research support. However, we’re not there to make light conversation with a student struggling with a printer, writing them a late pass because the infernal machine is jammed. We’re not there to see a student wandering the stacks and, after a few minutes of leaving them to their browsing, offering assistance and reminding them about the online catalog. Maybe we’re available just for a chat, but not at random times, and not without someone taking a step, showing that vulnerability, and logging in to see us.

So I have been trying to find ways to be in the places around the edges; being present in student-led online meetings and events, making announcements as often as possible, “liking” the Class of 2020 Instagram posts from the library account, sending emails promoting databases and ebooks. I’ve been grabbing at those chances to do the work of a librarian; holding reading celebrations, and answering the few reference question emails I receive from students while practically begging them to schedule a research meeting. With so much emphasis on digital resources, 24/7 access, the importance of the online library presence, etc., I never realized how hard it would be to be a librarian without a library. There’s more I could be doing, but I am also a member of the school-age-kids-at-home-while-I’m-trying-to-be-working chorus. Also, it will do no good to add to the information overload everyone is feeling. I don’t really want any more emails about distance learning resources, frankly, and I don’t think I’m alone.

While I am feeling a little at sea, I know some students are too, BUT, they are also still doing amazing things and engaging with the present moment in relevant, social justice-oriented ways. Last week, we saw a student-led presentation on COVID-19 and xenophobia, for example. Our GSA still celebrated the GLSEN Day of Silence and held a virtual dance party that was surprisingly fun. If they can get it together and carry on their personal missions, I can too! They act as an anchor for me, and I majorly owe it to them to do so in return.

I realize that at this moment it is a kind of privilege to be able to quietly ponder my professional identity from my dining room office, but I suppose there are bigger questions there, all tied up with our current state of general uncertainty. One thing I’ve been trying to do these last weeks is attend to the purchased and nearly forgotten unread books on my own home shelves. How excited was I, after reading Shelagh’s post last week, to find this in the bookcase? You’d better believe that it went to the top of the pile pretty quickly. Thank you!

Deselecting the Guilt (About Weeding)

When it comes to collection development, I love weeding almost as much as selecting new titles. Actually, I may enjoy it more. I love it so much that sometimes I feel guilty. Not because of the uncertainty that is sometimes involved, but because it is so much fun and so satisfying. I worry that my weeding endeavors are a form of librarian procrastivity. I feel like there must be something more important I should be doing at that moment for my students or program.

Depending on the day, well, there very well may be. However, weeding is really important and easy to ignore and put off. It also has an impact beyond collection management and making room for new materials. While the library is more than the collection, the collection is a visible, tangible, and obvious sign of the care we are showing to our school and students. It is probably the first thing people think of when they hear “library,” for better or for worse. Prospective families get glimpses of it on tours. Teachers see it when they bring their students for exploration or information gathering sessions. If we haven’t weeded, they notice – along with their student who’s interested in a topic for which all of our books are dusty, decades-old, and written exclusively from a white cisgender heterosexual male perspective. Not only is collection management in itself a key piece of our responsibility to our students and our schools, but it’s also an issue of advocacy, inclusivity, and ethics. We need to have what they need, but we also need to not have what they don’t need. Specifically, material that is outdated, incorrect, or potentially harmful and counterproductive to tending a library that is inclusive, anti-racist, and student-centered. We can collect all the new award winners and more, but those trolls in the stacks are still there if we don’t weed them out. I’m embarrassed when a student brings a book to the circulation desk that we shouldn’t have anymore, and I have to give them a disclaimer. What faith will they have in our library or future libraries if I wince at the age of their selection and don’t have something better to offer? 

So, I can’t feel guilty about my time spent weeding. The CREW Manual advises that it should be a continuous part of our work. After ten years at my school, I am starting to weed items that I purchased, which is sometimes a slightly bitter pill to swallow. But, like Marie Kondo, we have to thank these items for the purpose they served and say goodbye. We gain clean, tidy, appealing shelves, students who feel confident and comfortable with the books that were selected for them (not for their grandparents), and more space for what they need. I find it’s a great thing to do on Friday afternoon.

Thanksgiving Break #Readinggoals

Do you look forward to school breaks as a time to dig into your “to be read” list? You DO?!? So do I. I hope my students do too, and I approach pre-break readers advisory with the assumption that every student has been looking forward to getting cozy with some reading of their choice. This assumption, happily, proves to be correct a fair amount of the time. Throwing “you need a good book for the break!” into casual interactions with students more often than not is followed by “yeah, I guess I do” or similar. That kid is leaving the library with at least one book, and probably a double check that they have our digital collection app and know how to use it.

My intention two weeks ago was to host a splendid study break snack spread in the library to welcome students to browse at their leisure with fall vacation reading on the brain (an idea from our Assistant Librarian before a break last year). That will have to happen another time, as it went the way of other sort-of plans. However, I did start a new reading promotion idea that also ties to new student life programming. We’ll see how it goes!

I have offered a reading challenge to the students, to be completed, if they so choose, by mid-December. The product will be a short written review for the catalog or a brief book review video. The suggested challenges include:

Challenges met will earn points for the readers’ Purple & Gold Team – tying reading to school spirit! 

Some of My Own Thanksgiving Break #ReadingGoals:

Frankly in Love by David Yoon David Yoon made an appearance at a local independent bookstore and I was able to bring three enthusiastic boarding students along to meet him. I am partway into it now, and so far it deserves the hype.

The Wicked King by Holly Black I love Holly Black’s books, and for some reason have not picked this up yet. The sequel, The Queen of Nothing, has been released recently and I’d better catch up before my student faerie fans dish the spoilers!

AAAAH! Or, A(p)A A(nnot)A(ted) (Bibliograp)H(ies)!

I can remember, with some fondness in hindsight, the first and maybe only annotated bibliography I was assigned as a high school student. It was for Biology, and I was probably a senior because I am pretty sure that I drove myself to a semi-distant branch of the county public library system in order to access their periodical room. The topic was genetically modified tomatoes, as I recall. I spent a few hours there finding articles, taking notes, recording citations, maybe making some photocopies. This was a memorable experience because 1) I drove myself somewhere for scholarly purposes and felt awesome; 2) I figured out how to find and use periodicals in a library; 3) I never forgot what an annotated bibliography was and how it could be valuable in a research process. Writing those annotations made me take a deeper and more critical look at the sources I found and exercise some metacognition in the process.

Even though I had to drive to a public library (not even my local branch – and how did I even know where it was without GPS?), figure out where the back issues of these magazines were, spend hours combing through bound periodicals, find coins for photocopies, and create APA citations by hand, I think it was easier than the task before my Scientific Research and Design students. While they can, in theory, complete the entire assignment from their seat in the classroom or library, the sense of ease and convenience we are lulled into by online databases, Google Scholar, and citation managers has led to lessons in source evaluation that have to be reviewed many times in many ways. 

I know I am not the first among us to bring this up, not even on this blog, but it is a challenge for our students to understand what a journal is when every information source they gather is found the same way – through structuring a search query (with varying levels of expertise) either in a library database or an Internet search engine. I can tell them that they need to find scholarly, scientific articles, but when we’ve done such a good job teaching students to evaluate web-based sources using the CRAAP test or similar, there’s another leap from judging a source to be current, reliable, authoritative, and accurate to judging what qualifies as a scientific paper. Even checking the “peer-reviewed” box in the result limiters doesn’t always do the trick – we still see book reviews and news articles coming from academic journals. And how to distinguish an open access journal from a website, especially when that online open access journal isn’t really a periodical? I wish I had reread Dave Wee’s post including the  “super boring, boring, and easy”  source literacy exercise a few weeks ago instead of just now. 

Lesson for me: check the blog and the listserv archives before introducing a concept to students, even if I think I’ve got it covered. This assignment has been a good reminder for me that even though I think I am going slowly and taking time with each phase of the research process, there are some things on which I need to provide more direct instruction. For one, the annotation. 

I have worked with classes on annotated citations, but not always been the one to evaluate them. I’ve created embeddable slideshows for teachers and resource guides on the subject, all with great tutorials and tips from university libraries and writing centers. Nevertheless, while noticing that some students were having a hard time understanding that the annotation is not just a summary or rephrasing of an abstract, I heard this coming out of my mouth, and saw hands reaching for pens: 

Your APA annotation should tell your reader WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, WHY,  and HOW.

This was a shorthand way of getting at the elements of an analytical/critical annotation.

Who – how can you assess the authors’ authority and expertise? What are their credentials and affiliations?

What – what sort of investigation is reported on here? Is this a review of the literature? An article on original research? A meta-analysis? What are the authors’ conclusions?

When – is this work current? Does that matter? Has much research been done since publication?

Where – where was the article published and where did you find it?

Why – what is the purpose of the investigation (or, what is the authors’ research question)? Why is it useful to you?

How – what was the authors’ methodology? How does this work fit with the literature, and your own work?

This is, in my opinion, actually a little bit of a stretch, but the familiar “who, what, when, where, why, how” starters seemed to help some students to take a more evaluative and critical view of the sources that had made their way into those NoodleTools projects. 

Things to #Goals

This post is a response to the question Christina Karvounis posed earlier this month.

Pretty soon now the daily faculty meetings will wrap up, the students will return to campus, and our attention will turn to the few hundred teenage reasons we’re here. We will meet students and advisees for the first or thousandth time and coach them through articulating their goals for the year ahead, their information needs, and research questions. So, as Christina Karvounis shared in her recent post, it’s time for us to look ahead to the next several months and figure out where our priorities, mandates, and inspiration will take us. Like Christina wrote, there are some goals and priorities that stick with us from year to year, that, no matter how skilled, innovative, or collaborative we are, will never be an item we can check off. However, some of those things periodically circle forward in our minds and hearts. I think when some facet of this job attracts our particular focus, that’s the signal that the year will feel more energizing and productive if our goals are aligned in that direction. Not to say we abandon all else, but the ways we feel inspired may shift year to year and I think it’s worthwhile to honor these shifts. 

Ryder Carroll, in The Bullet Journal Method, advocates for conducting a Mental Inventory to de-clutter the brain and decide what is worth paying attention and energy to – to do so, the journaler writes down what they are currently working on, what they should be working on, and what they want to be working on. I think when we identify where the “should be’s” and “want to be’s” overlap or complement each other, there lie our goals! Here’s my current (school-related) mental inventory:

Working on

Blog post

Summer reading group meeting logistics

Answering emails

Scheduling meetings

Should be working on

Database renewals

Collection analysis

Exploring new database authentication methods

Planning research class

Ordering supplies

Digital badge platform for reading initiative

Curriculum review

Want to be working on

Planning classroom visits and book talks

Planning book clubs

Weeding

Reading about reading

Scheduling author visits

Planning activities for advisory

Redecorating Middle School library

Considering alternatives to Dewey

So this year, my heart and mind are drawn to student-centered reading promotion initiatives, revisiting library policies and procedures in order to have a collection that suits and supports the school community as it is now, and using new strategies to support students’ goal setting and reflection with wisdom and care. The other things are really important too, but my year and my service to our learners may be more effective if effort and time are concentrated in these areas, this year.