Wednesday, October 12, 2016

State of the Library #TLchat

As someone with nearly three months of experience as a junior high librarian, I felt as though it was time for me to share my vast knowledge and wisdom in this new role. :) In all honesty and seriousness, I am still figuring it all out but wanted to reflect on my first few months and some things that I believe to be true as a bit of a State of the Library as I see it right now. Hopefully, I will look back on this in the spring and have evolved and changed to something even better.

I have tackled my new role with a few core beliefs in mind and have taken action steps to support these ideas and make them a reality.

It’s our library, not my library
First, one of the most important things I wanted to tackle in this new role was to bring back the notion that the library is the place kids and teachers want to be and take ownership of. In order to make this happen, I have taken a few small steps that have shown positive impacts thus far and I hope to continue to develop. One action I have taken is bringing in student art and work to the library to showcase and share. This has created some ownership in the space as well as a great platform to share great student learning. I have started playing music in the library while kids are working or reading and even have kids requesting music now. Kids are in the library during their study halls, lunch periods (with food!) and even spill out during class time. No kid or teacher is turned away and it is not unusual to see three or four classes fighting for space within the library. Personally, I love seeing kids in one area looking for books, another set of students working in groups and a team of teachers collaborating all at the same time and in the same space. My goal is for the library to the heart of learning in the school and I feel as though we are on the right track.

No more shushing
I have gotten rid of many of the traditional rules of a library. Learning is often loud and messy, and our library reflects that. Kids are talking, arguing, debating, discussing and engaging in collaborative learning throughout the library at all times of the day. The library was open the first day of school and will be through the final day. Even on days when I am out in a meeting, the library stays open and the learning continues. In addition, we allow food and drinks for kids who choose to come into the library to have a working lunch. We have also removed all restrictions on when kids can be in the library before and after school and are truly open whenever a kid needs us or the space.

Reading is cool
As most teachers do, I have professional goals that I have to set each year. This year one of my goals is to increase overall reading motivation and excitement for literacy in the building. I want to make reading cool again. A few small things I have done is create a request line for kids to share with me what they are reading to be used for purchasing books for the library. Rather than arbitrarily grabbing books off the shelf in the bookstore, I am tailoring the collection to what kids are reading and requesting. I am also dropping into classrooms daily just to talk about books I am reading and get them fired up about it. This is not just happening in English courses but also History and Science classes where I am working to get kids interested in literature tied to course work with high levels of interest. I am not a believer in incentive programs or sticker charts to get kids fired up about reading but am taking the approach of showing them that I am a reader and love it and try to share it with them as often as humanly possible. I am also utilizing our video production lab to create book talks with myself, students and other teachers to show off great books. Not only does it serve the purpose of sharing great reads but also for students to see their classmates and teachers sharing their love of reading.

Being a squirrel is cool
One of my coworkers has been calling me a squirrel lately. She calls me this because she claims I am easily distracted and often have 100 things going on at once. I will be in the middle of processing new materials and then a kid will come in and want to do a project in the video lab. As I finish that a teacher will come in and want some tech help in their room and on the way I will be stopped by a kid wanting a book recommendation. Boredom is not in my work vocabulary and I feel as though my lifelong struggles with ADD are finally paying off as my mind is in a constant state of flow and rapid activity. While this may seem to have little to do with the library, it actually does. I have been able to help more teachers and teach more students in my new role than I ever did as a classroom teacher. As a “squirrel”, I am able to jump around and be a part of so many projects and great work on a daily basis.

Space matters
A big change I have made in our library this year is the physical space or at least as much as I have physically been able to. For starters, I have isolated a reading lounge in a separate room of our library so kids have a quiet space to read or study. This also serves the purpose of having a large portion of general space which can be “loud” and buzzing with activity. I have also reorganized sections of our books in an effort to increase efficiency of students finding books they want. This is an ongoing process as my team is looking into organizing our collection like a book store around genres in an effort to further assist students in finding what they want/need. We have also moved furniture to increase ease of movement for students while in the library or passing through. I really wish I would have taken some before and after folks but try to imagine that it looks cool. :)

The impact these small changes have had on our library has already been evidenced to me. Numerous parents at conferences last week shared with me how their child is talking about the library and how much they enjoy being in that space for the first time since elementary school. Teachers are constantly reaching out and holding their classes in the library or seeking out ways to engage with learning in the space. They are seeing me and the library itself as a resource to help them achieve their teaching and learning goals. However, the best feedback has been from the students themselves. When an 8th grader who has hated reading and never wanted to be in the library, comes up and thanks me for helping them see that reading was cool and the library is “sick”, I chalk that up to a win.

I am only a few months in and my journey is just beginning but I finally feel like I am settling in and can really push the envelope. I look forward to continuing to evolve and grow in a way that serves the community of learners in our school.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Unexamined Life #edchat

Socrates has been credited with uttering the phrase, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” This is an expression I have discussed many times with my good friend and fellow educator Chad Miller. In our many conversations we come back to the understanding that in life, reflection is crucial to growth and evolution of one’s being. As the new school year is fully upon us, with me in a new role, I think it has a lot of implications in my personal and professional life.

I see many people who do not examine anything in their life. That is not a criticism as much as it is an observation. One could argue in order to examine your own life one needs to be reflective. Reflection can take many forms but one is that of a critical eye. One must be willing to consume information and reflect on its contents and not lose sight of the bias, intent, source, and reliability. For example, I recently engaged with a family member on a well-known social media site. I should know better but sometimes there is nothing on TV and you feel like engaging in a heated discussion online. :) This individual was sharing content that was clearly biased and pushing an extreme political agenda that was completely false and inaccurate. While I am not going to engage in the politics of the content, the conversation was what mattered. I questioned the individual and engaged in a conversation about the source, intent, and validity of the content being shared. Admittedly, this individual eventually relented and claimed they just shared what they saw on their feed and assumed it to be true. Socrates would be rolling in his grave.

To connect this notion to the work we do in schools, I wonder how many of our educational lives are examined. I don’t mean examined by an administrator as we all know those are often more about completing documents than they are about teaching competence or true reflection. The truly examined life is one in constant reflection and struggling to find the path to improvement and self-evolution. I have always believed that if a teacher doesn’t see the need for growth in themselves, they are already a lost cause. Everyone has a space for growth and for the sake of their students, they need to improve. Everything we do in school should be examined, from the policies we enforce and the lessons we teach to the spaces we create and the people we hire.

Educators of high-quality are very reflective and teach the examined life. They are never content and always looking for ways to improve what they do and how they do it. Stagnation is the death of an examined life. Even more so, these teachers are the ones that instill this belief in their students. A reflective outlook on life is critical and maybe more so now than ever. We live in an age of information overload and content fire-hosing us all the time. It is imperative we are critical consumers and examine, reflect and analyze everything we come across. If we don't, we fall into the trap of believing everything we see and everything we hear and assume it is the truth. Worse is by not living the examined life we will fail to evolve which inherently perpetuates the status quo and antiquated thinking that prohibits growth and self-improvement. It is in this way that stereotypes are reinforced, that belief systems continue in antiquated fashions, and people never evolve or change.

Live and teach the examined life as that is our only hope of growth and evolving past the culture of ignorance, stagnation, and mediocrity which we can so often find ourselves in.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Rose by Any Other Name

This month I officially started the next step in my teaching career. I have taken the position of Library Resource Center Director in the junior high which I have taught in for the past 13 years. Now some people might wonder, “What is a Library Resource Center Director and what do they do?” Basically, I am the school librarian. It really is as simple as that.

For some reason, schools are constantly changing the titles of individuals and programs. In some cases, I think it's to break away from old mentalities or ways of doing things. My own district is looking to rebrand the library space and create what will eventually be known as Learning Commons. I will then be known as the Learning Commons Director or some other variation. Apparently, schools don’t want librarians anymore. Or at least they no longer want a school librarian that sits at their desk and barks at kids about overdue library books or tells them to take their food and drink elsewhere. I am all about changing the role of the school librarian and creating a position that is more relevant to today’s schools and more specifically tailored to today’s student needs.

The problem I am seeing with this trend of new titles and positions is that it distracts from the work being done. What I mean by this is I think about William Shakespeare and the phrase “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. No matter what you call a position or a title or a program, it all comes down to the work being done. I fear far too many people are obsessing over what we title things and not enough time focusing on what we're doing. We see principals being called “lead learners” and yet doing the same thing principals have always done. Yet we all feel better with these new titles and shiny hashtags.

Rather than worry about what we call people or what their titles are maybe we should focus on the work being done. For me, I am a librarian. My job is to provide services and resources for students and teachers in numerous capacities. A librarian does check out books. They also manage resources that are increasing in amount and digital capacity. In addition, they teach classes and co-teach with other teachers. They provide professional development on literacy, science, math, technology or any other area in which there is a need. If you are lucky like me, you also manage a video production lab and eventually a robotics center.

My goal, among many other this year, is to not be defined by the title I am given but rather the work that I do. Many people have asked me if I went into this new position to get out of the classroom. They wonder if I'm trying to avoid the myriad of initiatives and new programs and expectations that are being piled on classroom teachers. Some think I'm just tired of working with kids and therefore I can go and hide in the library at my desk. None of these are true. I expect to be working with more kids, more regularly and on a deeper level than I ever have before. I also know that I will be providing more support and resources for staff than I ever could before as a classroom teacher. If this first month on the job is any indication, I am in for a long and busy year working with kids and teachers.

Yes, I realize there are stigma and stereotypes that I will need to overcome. My goal is to not do that with a new title or by trying to tell people what I'm going to do but rather just do it and let them see it in action.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Too Much Differentiation

Differentiation is nothing new but certainly a topic of discussion in many school faculty, department and PLC meetings. Teachers are constantly being asked to differentiate everything in their classrooms. This ranges from lessons and activities to furniture and assessments. The goal of differentiation is to create a more personalized learning experience for each child and create optimal opportunities for rich learning experiences. On the surface this sounds like a great idea and naturally would be in the best interest of all kids. But is it really?

As a classroom teacher you will have anywhere from 20 to 35 individual students in your classroom. They will range spectrums of cognitive ability, maturity, academic skills, hygienic awareness and many other personal characteristics. Naturally, this makes the task of attempting to differentiate for them all quite daunting. In doing so, or at least doing it poorly, I worry we may be watering down the learning for all students.

Have we gotten to a point where we want things so differentiated that in turn the quality of the learning is diminished? Teachers are spending hours trying to create a variety of learning activities but is the end result better learning? Far too often differentiation is done in a manner to help those students who struggle in our classrooms. As a result, the higher performing students are far too often left unchallenged and quickly become bored. I don’t blame teachers for this because in our test obsessed school culture the focus is almost exclusively on bringing the “bottom up”. On top of that, if we are being honest, there are more resources and support to help that population of students than there is to enrich those on the other end of the spectrum.

Another concern with differentiation is the manner in which our classrooms are set up. Class lists are generated based on a “born on date” that ignore the nuance and complexities of child development. As a result, our classrooms have such a range that it is impossible for one teacher to achieve a truly differentiated learning experience. There is just not enough teacher to go around. I recognize teachers have little to no control over this system, but it is a reality we must recognize.

My final concern looks at how much and what we differentiate. Teachers have become very good at providing choice, autonomy and modifying work so that all learners can access content. However, at times I wonder if in doing this we take away student’s opportunity to struggle and build skills such as resilience and perseverance. While I don’t want kids to struggle to the point of frustration, we need to make sure the end goal of differentiation is not to make learning easy for kids and provide every kid with the “easy A”. I myself have been guilty of stepping in too early when a kid struggles and not let them work through things like I know I should.

There are certainly solutions out there to these and many of the other concerns with differentiation. First, some will suggest we need to create more homogeneous classrooms which will make the spectrum more narrow and therefore easier to differentiate. I would caution against this as nearly all research indicates the positive learning and social benefits of heterogenous classrooms rich with diversity. For me, the solution is, as it often is to problems in schools, we need more teachers. Give every classroom teacher more sets of hands to help differentiate and support kids. Bring in parents and community volunteers to do reading groups or projects with kids. Hire more teaching assistants and co-teachers to maximize the abilities of the classroom teacher to support all learners.

Differentiation can be a game changer for kids and can provide authentic and personalized learning experiences for kids. However, if it is not supported or seen as only a way to bring the “bottom up”, it will fail and likely cause damage to the learning environment for all students.

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Next Step

For the past 13 years I’ve taught junior high students English and History. As I walked out of the school building this week after the final day of school something was different. In the fall, I will not be returning to the classroom where I have spent countless hours trying to motivate students to learn and grow as people. Instead, I will be taking over as our school’s Learning Commons Director. Yes, I will be the school librarian. Please, insert cardigan sweater and reading glasses chain jokes now. :) As news of this broke with my students and community I was met with a variety of reactions.

“Did you get demoted?” a friend who is not a teacher asked me.

“Why would you do that? You are too good of a teacher to be a librarian.” a student shared with me.

“So, you want to sit down all day, read books and yell at kids for talking in the library?” mentioned a colleague.

These reactions and responses caused me to have mixed emotions. On one level I have a sense of guilt about leaving the classroom. I know I shouldn't, but in some way I do. Parents of my current students have reached out expressing a let down because their younger children will not have me as a teacher. Many of my current students were in shock and couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to be a teacher anymore. I tried to explain to them I will still be a teacher but with a much bigger classroom. But as 12 year olds, they didn’t quite get it. So I know I shouldn’t feel the guilt, but it is there.

On another level these reactions show me I have some work to do to change perceptions. Whether it's with my colleagues, my friends, or students, I want to change how they view the library space and what happens there. I am guilty of this perception issue as well when I was telling people about my new role. I was trying to come up with other names or terms for what I was going to be doing. I told people I was going to be a director of the learning services in my school. I told some people I was going to be a technology integrator and media specialist. I made up lots of different terms and definitions about the job that I was going to be doing. I think the reason I did that is because the term “librarian” traditionally has a stigma attached to it that I don't want. I am not going to be the old man in the library barking at kids about overdue books and spending my days at my desk making sure everyone's quiet.

Yes, I'm going to be the school librarian next year but my role will be so much more than the keeper of books and collector of fines. My district is rebranding and shifting the role of the library and creating what will be called Learning Commons. This is an intentional shift in the how these spaces will look and operate across the district. In my new role I will be the director of this space and everything that happens within it. I will be planning and leading professional development for staff. I will be teaching students and providing learning opportunities ranging from class projects and research to breakout EDUs and a makerspace. I will also be redesigning the space to encourage and promote learning beyond the traditional mindset into a more innovative and flexible learning environment. Yes, I will also be checking out books. :) These new learning commons will be the hub of activity and learning in our buildings and I am looking forward to being at the center of it all.