Creating A “Reading ” Ripple Effect…

Last year during COVID, the library was closed and I brought the books to the classrooms. Students could request books online and they were delivered. The book talks and trailers for the Sunshine State Young Reader’s Award was all done on Zoom and very impersonal. But despite all this, 35 students in grades 3 & 4 participated in the voting at the end of the year. Our classes could not mix with each other, so when it was time for me to recognize all the participants in this state contest, I had the ceremony outside and the 3rd and 4th grade classes sat together while keeping far apart from each other.

Then we fast forward to this year….I was so excited that the library was finally open and students were face to face, even though we were all wearing a mask. I actually went into their classrooms with the books and did my book talks, showed the book trailers and handed out the lists of books they could read, if they wanted to participate. This month, we voted and I was so proud and excited that there were 56 students who chose to participate! That is the most third and fourth graders I ever had that voted!
We planned to hold the award ceremony outside again, but this time we invited all the second grade classes to attend. I felt it would be great for them to see what lies ahead for them in third grade. I also invited the MD/UD media specialist, since the fourth graders would be working with her next year, to help hand out the awards All students were given “gold reader” medals and certificates with their name and the seal of the school. Additional awards were given to students who read more than 6 books. Those prizes included “brag tag” necklaces with all 15 books, little stuffed animal book marks, new paperback books, and special reading tee shirts. This year I had two students who read all 15 books and one of them actually read all 30 books from both lists. (3-5 and 6-8)
Some parents showed up to see their student get recognized and it was a very proud moment for all. Group photos were taken and shared on social networking.

This week I had my regular classes and when one of the second grades came in, they immediately wanted to know what program in third grade would get them a gold medal? I was so impressed that they remembered and were already interested. This made me think of the “ripple effect” starting with the earlier grade instead of only focusing on the battle of the books which is done with the older students.

We had our battle with a fifth grade team this year and I also attended. I was so proud of our team and I am sure there will be continued interest with the present fourth graders. Some of them have already asked for the new list of books and one student has purchased some of the titlles on Amazon already. Isn’t this a great way to start off the summer reading incentives?

Here are all the voters for this year’s Sunshine State Young Reader’s Award. “56” is an outstanding number!
Mrs. Flecher, (on the left), the MD/UD media specialist helped me hand out the awards. She is also the coach for the Battle of the Books.
(Me without the mask.) Our team consisted of students in grades 5-7!

The “Battle of the Books” fifth grade team with both of us.

Stay where you are. I’ll meet you there.

When I was a young girl, my mother used to warn me that, if we ever got separated and I became lost in a crowded place, I should stay where I am and that she would find me. That is all well and good as advice from a fretful mother to her obedient daughter, but what happens if no one is looking for you? What happens if you’re just standing there forever? What happens if no one cares about the lost child?

That kind of nightmare-inducing thought dawned on me during my first year as a school library tech. I considered the students whose needs to which I aim to serve; these students are my library users, but how much do I really know about what they want? Sure, I have a curriculum document that I can use to discern what they need academically. I have lists of required reading material that students are going to struggle through (or find effective ColesNotes versions and pretend to have read). But what about reading for pleasure? 

If you think you’ve got it all pinned down, you’re probably the person who is wildly offbase but enjoying the comfort of a false sense of security. You must sleep so well; I’m jealous. For the rest of us, please leave all of your hubris at the door. 

I run two reading clubs – one for our middle school (grades 7-8) and the other for our lower school (grades 3-6) – and participate in the upper school reading club (grades 9-12), and I have learned I know absolutely nothing. Nada. Zilch. How do I know that? Because these students have told me (usually phrased nicely, but I’m ready for the humdinger).

Students are fickle. Let me rephrase – human beings, in general, are fickle. Timmy and Tommy might both love sci-fi, but Timmy loves Vonnegut and Tommy absolutely hates him. And maybe Tommy loved Dune first semester, but now he thinks it’s so overrated. (Good grief, Tommy. You make life so hard.) On a  larger scale, that means that what you thought worked great for any given class isn’t guaranteed to work next year, next month, next week. You cannot say with certainty that everyone that likes this book is going to like that one. 

Except Harry Potter. (You go, J.K. Rowling. Whatever magic you tapped into is still working its charms on pretty much every student I encounter.)

But I digress. I like to think I offer a decent reader’s advisory, but you have to start where your student (or faculty member) already is. 

Look, I get it – it’s May and the end of the year means we are running on the very last bit of the battery before we recharge over the summer. Let’s pick out the summer read already and send the young ‘uns off into July and August. Still, Arianna Huffington very delicately addressed how fed up we all are just dealing with an endless parade of surface notions and how that impacts reading in an Instagram post in late March 2022

“Finding the focus to read books has never been harder. Our always-on culture keeps us living in the shallows. Books are the antidote – allowing us to go deeper, nurture our empathy, broaden our perspective and connect with ourselves.” 

Books are supposed to make you empathic. Still, don’t begin to pretend that a library user’s dismissive scoff at your favourite book doesn’t rub you the wrong way. You loved Wind in the Willows. If this Ashton kid could only see it your way, he’d understand. So, we forget about Ashton; he’s a lost cause. But why? Because it feels like a slight against your own taste or judgment. 

Leave the ego at the door!

Ashton wasn’t being cruel. In fact, Ashton did a brave thing; he told you the truth and let you into who he is. That book just wasn’t for him. That book didn’t tap into his life experience. But I am sure if you listened to what Ashton had to say, you can find the antidote – that is, if you’re willing to give it another go. 

“But they’re both about Mars!”

Reader’s advisory (RA) is a job duty with entirely no structure. You practice it randomly at any opportunity that springs up, but there is no class or lecture or certificate course that is going to teach you the secrets of RA. You build relationships, no matter how brief, with the person you’re advising and foster understanding of what this person likes. There may be so much nitty-gritty behind your recommendation that you cannot exactly put into words why you know this book is going to be a hit, but you do know that this specific student is going to love it. There’s a tiny pinch of intuition that goes along with RA, an exercise in thin-slicing if I ever saw one. 

But you also have to admit that you don’t know diddly squat. This avenue is the one I decided to take a stroll down when I noticed that, even during the pandemic, our digital library was not being used. I searched through title after title and couldn’t see anything wrong. Sure, we couldn’t afford to have everything (who can?), but we had so many interesting titles that were getting no love. 

So, I decided to meet them where they were. I went classroom to classroom in the lower school and asked what a good time would be for a demonstration. Teachers gave me a time and I showed up where they were. I emailed the students their user ID information and we all logged on together while I spent fifteen minutes explaining what the digital library was. With the exception of a few hands that nervously popped up, almost no one knew we had a digital library. I explained how the acquisitions process works (a little differently depending on the age and stage of each student) and how ebooks are something we can get faster than print books, while also explaining the distinctive traits of a print vs. e-book (or audiobook). In one of my reading clubs, I tied in the idea of environmental factors when using e-books, which we were able to elaborate on during Earth Day. I also concluded every demonstration by asking the students to make recommendations, as many as they wanted, as often as they thought of them. 

These classrooms were silent. There’s not much that holds the utmost attention of boys and I didn’t expect e-books to be the clincher, but, again, check your arrogance at the door – every day, I learn how I know nothing. 

So, mystery solved… or so I thought. Over the next few days, I monitored the use. It was kind of lacklustre considering the amount of gobsmacked joy I had seen in their faces. 

I went through my email and noticed a sprinkling of messages:

“Um, Mrs. Davidson, could you maybe get some manga?” 

“Hi, sorry to bother you, but I don’t see any of the Press Start series.” 

“I liked the first Minecraft audiobook, but there isn’t anymore.”

I could hear the trepidation in their typed words. Yes, we could afford more manga. I’m glad you enjoyed the first Minecraft audiobook; let me see what I can do. I’d never even heard of the Press Start series. So, I decided that, by that afternoon, I would respond to all of these emails with an unequivocal “yes.” It was in our budget and, honestly, they were asking so little. They just wanted something they found interesting to read. 

And then the emails poured in. 

“Oh, I absolutely love this series. I am dying to read #11. Could we get this one?” 

“Could we have more non-fiction audiobooks?” 

“What should I read if I really like books written by so-and-so? I heard Whats-his-name writes similar books. Do we have any of those?”

Sure, you cannot buy everything, but if you can see that 18 students are begging for a book, maybe that’s not pennies squandered. Now, I can at least say I know a little bit. Still not a lot, but getting there. 

I watched unused ebook licences lapse. These books had sat there for multiple years – no checkouts. And I am sure that the people before me thought they were a great idea. Heck, if I had been a student during the era of e-books, I would have read my way through all of them – or at least tried to do so. 

But check that ego at the door. What seems like the right idea is not always going to be the right idea. For all the students who love Jason Reynolds and his books, I would have to bribe them with some serious coin to read Elizabeth Acevedo or Kwame Alexander. Why? A million different reasons. And that is the point. We are all products of our place, our time, our families, our friends, our hobbies… what resonates with one is never going to resonate with everyone.   

As we enter into that summer reading phase, it is important to remember that your awesome read for the entire school division may not fly. That’s okay – I’ve hoped we’ve all learned that we all know nothing – but it does not mean stop trying. Search into why it wasn’t the right one. It may be something as silly as an unlikable font. (You think that hasn’t happened to me? Oh, boy.) So, try again with a book that sounds more like what they would or have read. Don’t ask them to come to you. Tell them to stay where they are and find them. 

Oh, yeah, thanks, Mum, for the advice.

Okay, but what is an encyclopedia anyway?

Whenever I talk to a class about understanding source types, I like to ask how many of them have ever used a print encyclopedia for research. Or even seen one. There’s usually one student in every class who will hesitantly put their hand up, and then look around as they realize they’re the only one with their hands up. 

Which I think is probably part of the reason why so many students have a hard time understanding what a reference source is or when and why to use one. Same goes for magazines, newspapers, journals, etc. – if all of these source are open in a tab, how do you figure out what it is and where it fits in the information timeline.

Many of us learned what these kinds of sources are by actually getting our hands on them, and so as I was talking with teachers about improving our students’ understanding of how different types of sources work, we thought “why not have students get their hands on some sources?” Newspapers, magazines, and books were easy to get. I get the ALAN Review and (in that way that random mail often ends up on the librarian’s desk) I lucked into a copy of Journal of Microscopy, so I was all set with academic journals. While there are no encyclopedias in my current library, I knew my old library had an old set of encyclopedias and the librarian there was kind enough to loan me a few volumes (thanks Amy Perry!).

Our first activity was intended as a warm-up but ended up taking about 20-25 minutes with each class. We gave each table of students one type of source and some big paper and asked them to try to answer the following questions:

  • What are the defining characteristics of this type of source?
  • Who do you think is the audience for this source?
  • Why/when would someone use this source?
  • Who is responsible for the information in this source?

I was so impressed by what students were able to observe as they looked at these different kinds of sources. While there were some tongue-in-cheek answers (“why would someone use this?” Because their wifi isn’t working), students were also able to discern the differences between each kind of source and identify who the creators and potential audiences were for each source type.

From there, we moved into an activity I’ve done before – the source type card sort. I updated it using some of the language from this awesome information literacy module from NoodleTools. It may be coincidence (or confirmation bias), but it seemed like students had a much easier time matching descriptors to source types than they had when I tried this activity before. I think having some time to generate their own understandings of these kinds of sources really helped in building a mental model of each source type. 

Many students seemed to really enjoy reading the newspaper and the magazines. And doing every crossword they could find.

The teachers I was working with really wanted students to dig into understanding sources, so next we tried to apply what we’d discussed so far by doing a source deck activity. I’d built my deck around labor movements through history, and we asked students to use the source type categories from NoodleTools to identify what kind of source they were looking at. We had a lot more ideas for what to do with the source deck, but ran out of time because our opening activity took longer than expected – but I’m glad to have the deck (and ideas!) for another class.  

One of the things we hadn’t been planning to talk about, but emerged in our discussions, was the distinction between “database source” and “source found in a database.” I talk to a lot of students who seem to think that “database” is a type of source – and the way teachers require “database sources” doesn’t help this misunderstanding. I’ve long struggled to find a good way to explain to students what, exactly, a database is, but I think I’ve found an analogy that works: a charcuterie board. I ended up pulling this slide together in the middle of class and introducing it in the last two minutes, but I definitely saw some lightbulbs go off as I explained it. 

Container =/= content

I feel very lucky that I got this much time to talk with students about source types, and while I don’t know if I’ll always have this much time I can definitely use some of these activities in other classes.

How about you? What has helped your students understand different kinds of sources? 

Thinking Outside the Building

I have been a school librarian for three years, which of course means pandemic-induced library contortions are my normal. That said, there is at least one idea that came out of the constraints of pandemic protocols that I’m happy to continue for years to come. I call it my lawn library.

Last year, like so many, we started the school year fully in distance learning. By January we started experimenting with a hybrid schedule, and in late March most of our school was back full time. Our ability to circulate books varied, and we met student needs as nimbly as possible during distance and hybrid learning. While students were all back on campus every day by March, we were still hamstrung in the library–our health protocols prohibited browsing and book displays.

In practice, these restrictions meant that students could search the catalog and make requests through a Google form, then I pulled the books and delivered them to students. We had a quarantine period set up for returns so areas of one floor of the library were covered in books waiting out their decontamination period. It worked fairly well for our students doing research where I provided instruction in class and other supports. But, without physical displays and browsing, our fiction was languishing.

Taking it–Thanksgiving dinner, family gatherings, restaurant dining, etc.–outdoors was the answer to so many challenges during the pandemic, and so it was for our library. I took our largest and shiniest book cart, added some signs, sent some email blasts and Canvas announcements, and (with the blessing of our Health Services folks and a few bottles of sanitizer) loaded it with the newest additions to the collection and most enticing fiction and headed outside. Each day the rain wasn’t falling, I brought our lawn library outside during break and lunch so students could finally get their eyes on some books just for pleasure.

My view from the cart. Students were just starting to trickle out from picking up their lunches, and our talented jazz students were jamming on the piano.

And folks, it worked! Tentatively at first, but then in groups, students came. They browsed the cart and checked things out. Faculty started stopping by regularly, delighted that we had the titles right there that they were on long wait lists for at their public libraries. Middle school students ran to me and squealed in delight that they could check books out (our middle school library was sadly not able to circulate books at all last year, and the kids were missing it dearly). I swapped the books out regularly, and adjusted based on what students asked for (all the fantasy, folks).

The Lawn Library cart, loaded and ready to roll.

I admit that I probably wouldn’t have thought of such a simple way to get books in front of and in the hands of more students had it not been for the pandemic. Being forced to think outside the box–and outside the building–brought me to a solution, the usefulness of which will long outlast the health protocols that brought it about. Our library gets lots of student traffic, we are a busy place, but being outside we got in front of new students. And, we got on their radar when they were in a different mindset than when they came into the physical library. This year, I’ve suped up my lawn library cart with an elastic cord to keep the books in place as I rattle down the stone ramp to the courtyard where students still eat outdoor lunches. I imagine there will be more improvements as we continue.

How can we get outside our library boxes to surprise and delight our communities and ourselves?

I share my story, because I want to hear yours. What feats of ingenuity did you develop under duress the past two years that are worth sustaining? How can we continue to support the creative ventures that we all launched since 2020, even as the pressures and constraints that fueled them ebb? How can we get outside our library boxes to surprise and delight our communities and ourselves?

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.

Centering

Consider the multitude of ways that you work to center students everyday.

Collection development: Adding materials to the collection that provide windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors for students to see themselves and learn about the lives of others.

Displays: Prompting students to be active participants in their own discovery process.

Book clubs: Building a collaborative, supportive culture in which to generate ideas and share reflections.

A welcoming environment that fosters belonging: Allowing students to choose when and where to spend unstructured time, thereby encouraging an understanding of their own learning styles and exercising more control over how they utilize time.

Not to mention the media literacy lessons you build that empower students to think critically, those moments spent putting aside the tasks of the day to have important conversations with students, and the reorganization and reprioritization that happens in order to make space for student art and other creations which spark conversation about vision and imagination.

It’s all amazing. YOU are amazing. And as a profession, WE are amazing.

One of the means by which I am able to center students is through participation in my school’s Resources Team which includes the Educational Resource Center, Library Learning Commons, Quant Center, Technology Department, and Writing Center. Twice a month, we meet with the goal of putting students at the center. We keep statistics individually in order to come together collectively, not to compare data but rather to ask questions. Which individual students are we seeing often? Who is not visiting us, and why? Are there grade levels that do not visit as often, and what can we do to let students know that we are here to support and help? What types of projects are we collaborating on with faculty, and what do these projects tell us about our students and their interests, successes, and gaps? What programs, services, and resources might we provide to extend the curriculum and meet the information needs of our students? I value our Resources Team as a holistic approach to student-centered learning, and it is these conversations that allow me to pull back here, push a little forward there, and ultimately work in tandem with colleagues toward ensuring that students are engaging actively with their own education and with our community.

What are some ways that you intentionally center students, and how does this inform your planning and decision-making?

What Now, What Next?

When you finish a research project, what’s your next step? Anyone share mine?

Hi PW, So glad to see your students at the printer this morning with their final drafts in hand! Let me know when you have a few minutes in the next day or so to debrief about this year’s project and how we might improve it next year. Thanks, Christina

To complement my digital files online, I also keep a folder per class with research projects. At the top of each assignment, I put the year, what I did, how it was received, and a note with titles of any files linked to the assignment. After meeting with the teacher, I add a Post It with notes about how to make it better next year. These add up over time for a neat evolution of research and also work as a reference for new teachers looking for examples of the variety of ways the library can collaborate with classes.

In this, however, and in much of my life, there’s an unintended side effect. I don’t let things go. It’s never enough. Did I make enough brownies for the potluck? Is the recipe unique? Should I bring brownies to the teacher on lunch duty who can’t attend? Or offer to cover her lunch duty?  I remember my college used to host free movie previews, and I’d go with my roommates and sit next to them to movies none of us had heard of. And I’d think, “What if they think this is a waste of time?” Note that I didn’t need to suggest the movie to feel a sense of responsibility for their reactions. (So if you are reading this thinking, why am I not more thorough, know that thoroughness is not a recipe for contentment. When asked to set an intention at the beginning of a yoga class, I default to “Be here now.” And yet…)

Two years ago, when there was a lot more time for long hikes, I learned that memorizing poems during long hikes does bring me quite a bit of contentment. And roots me in the moment at hand. One such poem was Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter.”

And when I get overwhelmed, these are the lines that echo through my head:

And thick and fast
They came at last
And more and more and more

While technically about the naïve and hapless oysters hurrying to their own feast, to me the lines represent my thoughts, my goals, my expectations for myself.

As many of you know, I also coordinate the school’s Capstone program. It’s not the AP program but an advanced independent interdisciplinary research program intended for a few students each year. Two of their seven periods are devoted to their Capstone. The application process is purposefully cumbersome, weeding out students who might not have the background or the drive to motivate themselves over an entire school year. And during the application interview, students – who can speak knowledgeably about their annotated bibliographies and research goals – get stumped by some variant of this question.

“What will make you feel like you have met your goals on this project?”

Because it’s not the easy answers: “learning about this topic I love,” “when it’s finished after RISE,” or “publishing.”

In the fall, I have the students write or video weekly reflections about what they’ve done, short-term goals, coping with setbacks, and similar topics. They are much harder on themselves than their professional mentors. But, they also don’t have a lot of experience creating their own goals, meeting them, not meeting them and thus refining those expectations, and learning from all of the above. Throughout their lives, they’ve looked towards parents, teachers, and coaches for tasks and for validation that these tasks were completed successfully. And while my students seem to have a simplified view that “life skills” are changing tires, doing taxes, and sewing buttons, I’d say that making progress on your goals — and either being satisfied with their progress or creating more realistic goals — is something I encounter much more frequently as an adult.

Just as with many others’ more contemplative recent posts, I’m still figuring it out. Learning doesn’t stop at the classroom doors, and my students, especially the top students, need to learn to be kind to themselves when their plans don’t match their reality. Rather than tell them how to do this, can I sit with them and their thoughts as we all figure out our paths?

Because I had up to this point drafted far ahead of time, during a crunch period last week, I sat with one and shared what I had written up to this paragraph. To which she responded by saying that she had assumed her stress was about this project, not something she would carry as part of her into whatever projects she has in college and beyond. We bring ourselves and our energies wherever we go; and we need to remember there are times to push forward and times to pull back. Or paraphrasing the offbeat yet wise poetry of Shel Silverstein, remember Melinda Mae and the whale.

Earth Day and Art Advocacy

“If you pitch your rubbish into a rosebush,

the roses will notice it.”                

(Naomi Shihab Nye, Cast Away: Poems for Our Times)

Earth Day was first established in 1970 as a way to develop awareness and promote action to protect our environment. This Earth Day, April 22, enhance student investigations into environmental issues by combining poetry and art. The following resources, though not a comprehensive list, may inspire ideas to develop with your students.

Poetry
Cast Away: Poems for Our Times by Naomi Shihab Nye
These poems can spark interesting class discussions about things (and people) that we thoughtlessly cast away. 
Suggestion: In these poetic musings on discarded trash, how does trash suggest something about the person who threw it away? How do these poems suggest ways to change attitudes about what we cast away? Challenge students to collect several items of trash in a neighborhood walk and use these discarded items to create their own trash poems.

Call Us What We Carry by Amanda Gorman
Amanda Gorman uses a variety of poetic forms in this evocative collection of poems. Several of the poems are inspired by a scrap collection of news articles, diaries, and letters; she transforms these texts into found poetry.
Suggestion: Challenge students to use a scrap of written text from a newspaper article, diary, or letter to create their own black-out poem.

Poetry.org has assembled a list of Earth Day Poems.
Suggestion: In the poem by Gary Soto, “Earth Day on the Bay,” how does Soto use descriptive details to suggest the history of the shoe found on the beach? How does Soto suggest a more serious reflection on the cyclical nature of this problem of litter?

Fiction
The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall
When a thoughtless act by a troubled 13-year-old boy earns him community service time with a “junk man,” the boy learns a valuable lesson that helps him to deal with the death of his father.  Just like art that is made from discarded objects, the old junk collector shows the young boy that anything can be redeemed and made to shine. 
Suggestion: The folk artist James Hampton is featured in this book. View a Smithsonian video about James Hampton and his art assemblage, “The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly.” Encourage students to create their own art piece from reclaimed materials and foil. 

Nonfiction
Washed Ashore: Making Art from Ocean Plastic by Kelly Crull
Artist Angela Haseltine Pozzi creates sculptures from plastic refuse found on beaches. Her marine sea creature sculptures highlighted in this book are a stunning wake-up call about the environmental problem for our oceans and marine life.
Suggestion: Challenge students to a scavenger hunt as they look closely at the marine sculptures to identify the reclaimed plastic items.

Rock by Rock: The Fantastical Garden of Nek Chand by Jennifer Bradbury
Folk artist Nek Chand used discarded glass, broken plates, and rocks to create a secret rock garden in a forest in India to ease his loss of homeland during the Partition of India into the Dominions of India and Pakistan. 
Suggestion: Discuss with students how creating art can transform suffering (like displacement from your home) into an experience of beauty that can bring comfort to other people who view the artwork.

One Plastic Bag by Miranda Paul
This inspirational picture book describes the efforts of Isatou Ceesay to create something beautiful and useful from the discarded plastic bags in her village in Gambia. Isatou Ceesay and a group of women began a business by crocheting beautiful bags from the discarded plastic. 
Suggestion: Challenge students to use a plastic bottle and transform it into a new object that could be useful.

Smithsonian Learning Lab
Aleah Myer’s Smithsonian Learning Lab Module, Environmental Advocacy through Art, curates environmental artwork and pairs it with Visible Thinking routines to examine the artwork. Also featured are several videos of art commentaries by museum curators. The following art curator discussions may be of particular interest:

Erosion 
In this Smithsonian video, Deborah Stokes, Curator of Education at the National Museum of African Art, discusses this environmental sculpture by artist El Anatsui.

Port Henry Iron Mine
Curator Eleanor Jones Harvey discusses artist Homer Dodge Martin’s landscape painting, Port Henry Iron Mine, an iron mine used during the Civil War. The curator interprets the artist’s intention to illustrate how the earth was “scarred” by the war and to create an emotionally-charged metaphor for how lives were impacted by the Civil War.

Videos 
Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea

Pass it On: Turning Scraps into Soccer Balls for Village Children

Documentaries
Landfill Harmonic: A Symphony of the Human Spirit
This documentary highlights the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura. These musicians make beautiful music from instruments constructed from discarded landfill refuse.

Waste Land
This documentary will appeal to high school students, though parts of the documentary could be shown to a middle school audience. Artist Vic Muniz returns to his Brazilian homeland to enlist the help of garbage pickers to create monumental art pieces that celebrate the lives of these individuals. The murals are assemblages from trash.

The faculty that reads together…

It feels like I have a million projects happening right now, a never-ending inbox, and that I’m always in the middle of a dozen conversations. There’s so much I want to do, but I know that if I don’t slow down I won’t be able to achieve one of my major goals for this year, which is to build relationships with my new colleagues.

I talk with my colleagues all the time about research and technology, but haven’t had as many opportunities to chat with folks about things other than school. So when one of our English teachers (also new this year) approached me about starting a faculty book club I was thrilled! 

We quickly rejected the possibility of discussing books about pedagogy – we wanted to focus on reading for pleasure and coming together to discuss good storytelling. 

The first meeting included faculty from both middle and upper school divisions, as well as several staff members. There were lots of folks there who don’t interact with each other as part of their regular workdays. On a whim, a teacher suggested we go around and share a favorite reading memory, which ended up being a perfect way to do introductions. People have such powerful memories of reading and books and it was a lovely bonding moment for the group. 

Our first book was Crying in H Mart, which seemed to be on everyone’s “I’ve been meaning to read that” list. Starting with a memoir made it easier for people to join the conversation even if they hadn’t read the whole book; nobody felt like the ending would be “spoiled” and everyone still had a perspective to add. It also made the choice of snacks really obvious. One of my colleagues happens to live near an H Mart and brought in a selection of goodies for us to enjoy as we discussed the book. It’s such a simple thing, but it had also been a very long time since folks had been able to gather in person to eat and talk and having that communal experience was just what many of us needed.

What’s been even better is having conversations with colleagues about the book as we’re reading it. It’s given us something to talk about with each other besides work, which I think we all need. And I’ve been lucky in that the group has been very easy to organize – I think in part because people are grateful that someone else is taking care of logistics. I’m also getting to read some books I might not otherwise make the time to read. It’s a great motivator for diversifying my reading choices. 

How about you all? Do you have a faculty book club? Other ways you connect with the adults in your school community?

OK, we stopped Follett — Any righteous anger left for the bad actors forcing bad choices?

What do California, Hawaii, Minnesota, Indiana, Nebraska, Idaho, Utah, Oklahoma, and Tennessee have in common? Each state’s legislature has considered and/or passed laws criminalizing databases, building a narrative of fighting against content that is “harmful to minors” (and other terms I’m skipping because they may trigger sensitive Internet filters). 

This post will cover:

What is this legislation?

This particular movement has been underway since a Colorado couple filed a lawsuit against EBSCO and the Colorado Library Consortium in 2018, alleging that databases “knowingly [provide] sexually explicit and obscene materials to school children” and that the Consortium “purchases from EBSCO and knowingly brokers sexually explicit, obscene, and harmful materials to Colorado school children.” According to James LaRue, the former director of ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, it was the first known challenge to a library database. The lawsuit was dismissed, but in its wake a connected individual in Utah filed a complaint that led to the state turning off all access to EBSCO’s K-12 databases while it was investigated. Although specious, the state of Utah has since maintained over 1500 blocked terms in their state consortium-purchased K-12 databases and has now passed anti-database legislation (and demonstrated consistently via usage reports that students are not searching for inappropriate content). The pandemic has since helped popularize the narrative perpetrated by that lawsuit. Various political groups fed parents’ worries that children isolated at home during online school were using databases that – they led parents to believe – were giving students the capacity to access materials that were harmful to minors. 

“Harmful to minors” and the related designations are used in COPA and CIPA, though you may most clearly recall having seen them applied more recently to a wide range of books being pulled from library shelves around the country. This movement is occurring in states that span the political spectrum.

Legislators in many states have introduced bills designed to shut down statewide database access unless massive filtering takes place.

So far, I have seen three general flavors of legislation:

  1. Requires all databases purchased for use by K-12 students (generally at the state and/or school district level, sometimes including other entities such as public or university libraries) to have “safety policies and technological protection measures” that filter and prohibit sharing of materials that are harmful to minors, etc. 
    1. Penalty for noncompliance is termination of contract and withholding payment;
    2. Very common version of legislation;
    3. Appears across states to come primarily from a template; 
    4. Examples include Idaho (enacted), Utah (signed by governor 3/21), Oklahoma (in committee) and many more (many voted down or languishing in committee).
  2. Requires schools to provide convenient methods for parents or guardians to track, monitor, or view curricular and supplemental learning materials.
    1. Often part of a so-called “Parents’ Rights” bill
    2. For example, in California.
  3. Nebraska’s bill, currently undergoing amendments from the Judiciary Committee, is particularly pernicious and is intended as a model for other states. In addition to the requirements above, the Nebraska bill requires that schools:
    1. Assign each K-12 student an individual logins for any state-contracted databases, outlawing group accounts; and
    2. “Provide the account credential of each student in kindergarten through grade twelve to such student’s parent or guardian and allow the parent or guardian access to all materials accessible to the student.”

The bill also outlines situations in which individuals can sue database vendors and and claim damages.

History suggests that we will see continued attempts at legislation on this topic across the nation; the inciting rhetoric suggests that the library vendors’ products themselves are not the actual target. Rather, the legislation seems to be aimed at libraries and the schools they serve. All of which leaves students caught in the crossfire, impacting their access to information as well as their privacy.

Why support vendors?

Last week, a nationful of librarians raised voices in protest when Follett reached out to say they were considering complying with so-called “Parents’ Rights” legislation being promulgated in a number of states. Many librarians responded viscerally–not only due to our belief in intellectual freedom, but also in the knowledge that many administrators might see that optional “fix” as an easy answer if Follett made it available. Furthermore, we worry about whether technological changes demanded in one place might come to impact our students’ access to information in another place. So we fought back against Follett and now feel empowered and righteous in our victory.

Meanwhile, the laws and bills that forced Follett to consider adding optional modules remain in place. Of course vendors with business models requiring money from libraries need to act in accordance with the ethics of librarianship. That said, I could not help spending last week wishing to see the energy that went into anti-Follett advocacy aimed instead at our state legislatures and the encoding of censorship into law. 

If we want our students to continue to have intellectual freedoms, it is critical that we focus our efforts on ensuring that our vendors will maintain the legal rights to provide all of us with the educational content they can provide.

What can I do?

So, if you have energy to give, how can you help? A group of librarians is working on a strategy now. We are happy to have more hands to make this work lighter. 

  1. Now: you can help identify if any legislation is passed or pending in your state that would impact database access. Whether in so-called “parental rights” bills, freestanding bills requiring enhanced filtering, or other mechanisms for parental reviews of “supplemental educational materials,” we are trying to get a sense of what attempts to block intellectual freedom through databases are out there. Please feel free to use this anonymous form to point us towards legislation impacting databases.
  2. Sign up here and we will reach out and find a volunteer task that works for you. Also, watch this space. We are constructing a crowdsourced monitoring tool so we can try to keep an eye on what is being blocked in different parts of the US. 

In gratitude: So many people have helped me understand what is happening here. Many of them cannot be named due to risk in their workplaces. However, the entire ad hoc working group for building realistic databases has worked together to reach this point. Some of our colleagues’ comments about unsearchable terms on my last blog post started a process. Several anonymous individuals helped me understand more about what was going on. EveryLibrary tracks legislation and has helped me better understand the movements underway. My family have been supportive as I have lost sleep, and … well, everyone I have encountered has had to listen to this tale as we followed its twists and turns. Thank you to each and every one of you. And, thank you to to village of librarians and Americans committed to intellectual freedom that it will require to move forward and safeguard our students’ right to learn.