April is known for many things…touted as the cruelest month (oh how true this year!), National Poetry Month, and most importantly, the return of America’s pastime.
Outside of the library world, however, it is hardly known that April is also School Library Month. I’ve never made a big deal out of it in the past, as I intrinsically celebrate every month as school library month, but this year, inspired by the school librarian twittersphere to share how becoming a librarian changed my life, I offer this.
Libraries have always loomed large in my life. Memory fragments:
- A small-town library of my early childhood housed in a remodeled farmhouse
- The more imposing brick edifice where I spent my tween and teen years both as a patron and a page
- The city libraries of Hartford and Evanston where I worked/studied as a college student
- Years serving as both a friend and trustee of suburban libraries in New Hampshire and Massachusetts
Yes, libraries have been woven into the very fabric of my existence.
And yet, when it came time to declare a major in college, I was encouraged to choose economics by the esteemed chairman of the department.
And when job-hunting in the late 1970’s (when library jobs paid mere pittances, especially to those without a Master’s degree), I chose banking.
A banker I remained for over ten years, rising to the position of Assistant Vice President and Branch Manager. The transition from numbers gal to bibliogal took almost as long, but a much more circuitous route. For seven years, after the birth of my second child, I explored options–from stay-at-home Mom to home daycare provider to educational toy store clerk to playgroup manager.
And then a serendipitous glance at a job posting in the local paper led me to a part-time paraprofessional job at a nearby public library. I had come home. Within months I had enrolled in a masters program and one year later I was hired as a school librarian, in a job that I still hold today, sixteen years later.
So, how did becoming a librarian change my life? It gave me back my life. My true, authentic life.
The life of a little girl who would rather organize and arrange Barbie’s outfits and accessories than actually dress her in them.
The life of a teenager whose hangout was the library stacks and whose friends were the nerds back there with her.
The life of a young adult who sought out the nearest library before finding the nearest establishment serving adult beverages when moving to a new community.
The life of an adult who cares more about what others are reading than what cars they drive.
How did I become a librarian? I think I always was one. It just took forty-plus years before I could actually put it on my resume.
In one of my favorite movies of all time, Farmer Ray Kinsella hears a voice in his corn field, “If you build it, he will come.” Risking financial ruin he mows down his crop and builds a ballpark. Not only does the mythical “he” show up, but the people come too. As James Earl Jones (playing Terence Mann) intones, ” They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past.”
And so, too, every year, we build “it”. No, not a baseball park, but a giant fort, spread out over half my library, a topsy-turvy construction of old bedsheets, tablecloths, and fabric remnants. Held together with library tape (it’s quite strong!), clothespins and safety pins and piles of heavy books. (Thank goodness, I still have my World Book encyclopedias!) Supported by tables, chairs, dowels, bookshelves and a jumprope rack I borrow from our phys. ed. teacher each year. My fifth grade architects and engineers, in a whirlwind of activity, take the raw materials and concoct a Seussian edifice in less than a half hour. It’s sturdy enough to survive a week’s worth of class visits, 300 students strong.
This tent-fort is a gift to my students as the year winds to a close. It’s a reminder that summer looms ahead, ripe with opportunity to use their imaginations. During tent week, we don’t just occupy the space and read a story or two; we brainstorm possible uses for it. For some students it’s a castle, for others a spaceship, a few imagine the Titanic. Then again, maybe it is just a place to cozy up in and read, flashlight in hand. There will be no cries of “I’m bored” this summer from my students if I can help it.
“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” When T. S. Eliot wrote these words in 1934, he could hardly have imagined the information explosion of the 21st century.
We are awash in information. Data and facts are available at our fingertips; even at our voice command, if we are lucky enough to be on the leading edge of the technological curve. With this almost universal ease of access to information, our role as teachers and librarians is no longer the mere teaching of content. Instead, I believe our mission has shifted. Content knowledge is no longer enough. It must be complemented by wisdom.
Wisdom? In an elementary school? Isn’t wisdom the province of those of advancing years? Of crones and wise old men? Not necessarily. If wisdom is defined as insight or a deeper understanding, then wisdom can be developed and nurtured in our youngest students.
What does wisdom look like in elementary school? It is the ah-ha moment when a face lights up and a hand shoots up into the air. It is the text-to-self connection that cannot wait to be shared. It is the “I get it!” shouted out with glee. Wisdom is self-knowledge. Wisdom is empathy. Wisdom is becoming aware that one is a citizen of a global society.
I believe that this is our goal as educators of the 21st century—to go beyond the teaching of facts and figures, beyond to the world of asking questions, making connections and digging deeper. This, to me, is the wisdom of the young child—it’s noisy, unbridled and joyful. It is our future.
How can school librarians support the implementation of the Common Core State Standards? How should we view our role? How do we get started?
Rebecca Hill, in the April 2012 issue of School Library Journal offers solid advice—“It’s the perfect time to step up (our) involvement as text and inquiry specialists….if (we)are not already on a literacy or curriculum-mapping committee…it’s crucial to become a participant.” I am lucky in that I am participating in both, one at the district level and one newly formed committee at my school.
In the September 11, 2012 online issue of Education Week, Catherine Gewertz paints librarians as being “thrust…into (a) leadership role…help(ing) teachers acquire inquiry-based skills integral to standards.”
So let’s take the bull by the horns and get started!
With the new emphasis on informational texts, think of how our libraries can provide enriched resources to teachers looking to go beyond the textbook. Let’s look at our collections with a critical eye. Are they current? Are they of high quality? Do we offer a wide range of reading and comprehension levels? Are we looking at e-books and interactive books as well as other media to support this new shift?
As information literacy gurus, we can partner with teachers as they design lessons and units to teach research strategies. I am lucky to work in a building where collaboration runs rampant! Sometimes all it takes is a quick conversation in the faculty lunchroom and we are off and running. More often, it requires meeting during planning periods or before and after school. Whenever and whatever it takes, it is worth it.
Imagine the excitement of third graders as they design their own research questions, building on their interest in Native American cultures gained on a field trip to a nearby museum. This project meets the third grade writing standard-“Conduct short research projects that build knowledge about a topic.” The students brainstormed “thin” and “thick” questions and used their understanding of nonfiction conventions such as the table of contents, index, photographs, and captions to locate information.
Or, the fourth graders who discover the important contributions of the presidents they are researching for the Presidential Hall of Fame to be displayed on Election Day. Students used a variety of resources (both print and online) to determine the important role their president played in the history of our country.
Both of these projects were initiated by teachers but enhanced by what I could bring to the table—a knowledge of the resources and how best to use them.
So, what do we need to do to remain a part of this conversation?
- Learn the standards. No need to memorize, but get a sense of what they entail, how they progress from grade to grade, what is emphasized and what may no longer be as important.
- Talk to teachers. Yes, this is nothing new, but listen for opportunities to support the Common Core in the classroom.
- Design library lessons that support the Core. You are probably already doing this. A tweak here and there and you will find that you have been teaching to the Core all along.
- Become familiar and comfortable with any subscription databases or research sites you have available and then use them with students and demonstrate them for teachers. Online literacy is definitely a 21st century skill!
- Stay current in the literature. Read my blog. Read lots of blogs.
- And as always, drink plenty of water and get sufficient sleep (just wanted to see if you were still reading!)
What is your job title anyway?
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts calls me a Library Media Specialist and I have my educator’s license to prove it. But, I’ve never liked that designation and I use it infrequently. For one thing, I think it’s misleading.
I take issue with the connotation that “specialist” brings to mind, when in fact I see myself as a generalist. A “specialist” is a neurosurgeon. Focuses on one particular part of the anatomy. Doesn’t necessarily see the forest for the trees. Can be single-minded at times. A “generalist” is a General Practitioner who looks at the whole individual. Who knows the family by name. Who still makes house calls. That’s me. I make house calls!
Teacher-Librarian and Library Teacher, while accurate representations, are just plain awkward. I agree with the image they intend to project (I am a teacher, after all), but they just don’t roll off the tongue so easily.
I could be tongue-in-cheek and refer to myself as a resourceress. I wouldn’t be the first! That might be setting the bar a little too high however. I can usually grant the wishes of most of my students by finding just the right book, magazine or other resource but I haven’t quite mastered the casting of spells.
So, please, please, just call me the good ol’ fashioned term “librarian”. As long as you don’t call me old-fashioned! No buns, granny sweaters, half glasses or shushing fingers allowed in my library.
Stay tuned for my next post-“When?”
Why another blog about libraries when the blogosphere already boasts hundreds of them and great ones at that ? Is there really room for one more?
As a veteran blog reader, I am in awe of the quality of writing in this field.
Doug Johnson’s Blue Skunk blog (#12 on the list from the link above) is one of the best written and certainly the most amusing blogs about trends in educational technology I have ever read. How can you not love his tagline—“Leaving readers confused at a higher level since 2005”?
These writers have been blogging for years and certainly have CV’s longer and more impressive than mine. Who am I to join this community and why now?
Let’s be honest—many people blog to hear themselves talk. And yes, that is part of my motivation. There is a little bit of “selfish” in every blog.
But that alone wasn’t enough to get me to finally put pen to paper, or should I say fingers to keyboard. The impetus behind this blog was my desire to share the ever-increasingly important role of the school library (starting with my own library, of course, but sharing ideas from others as well) in the implementation of the Common Core , in the focus on turning out 21st century learners and in the education of the whole child.
The school library has become a Learning Commons. To quote Valerie Diggs, high school librarian at the Chelmsford High School in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, a Learning Commons “is more than ever a place where students and staff are the center of all happenings. Activities, learning experiences, literacies, teachable moments, information sources, and technology explorations occur every day, all day.” (Massachusetts School Library Forum Winter 2009).
This blog will be less of a review of the literature (although there will be some of that, as I do want to share some of the best that’s out there) and more of a personal reflection based on my 14 years as an elementary school librarian.
Finally, this is a library blog for non-librarians as well as librarians. We don’t need another blog just preaching to the choir. Oh, I will preach! And I will sing (off-key, no less)! But I hope the whole world (or at least my little corner of it) will begin to listen.