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Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘School Library Programs Should Be the Heart of School’

By Larry Ferlazzo — August 12, 2019 12 min read
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(This is the final post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are some “best practices” for school librarians and/or for how teachers work with school librarians?

In Part One, Teresa Diaz, Bud Hunt, Marci K. Harvey, Jennifer Orr, and Jen Schwanke offered their suggestions.

Today, Rita Platt, Penny Sweeney, and Ann Neary provide their responses.

Response From Rita Platt

Rita Platt (@ritaplatt) is a national-board-certified teacher and a proud #EduDork! Her experience includes teaching learners of all levels from kindergarten to graduate student. She is currently the principal of St. Croix Falls and Dresser Elementary Schools in Wisconsin, teaches graduate courses for the Professional Development Institute, and writes for MiddleWeb:

The research is in. Full-time school librarians have a positive impact on student achievement. In fact, according to the Phi Delta Kappan summary of the research, “impact studies suggest test scores tend to be higher where administrators, teachers, and librarians themselves think of the school librarian as a school leader; as a teacher, co-teacher, and in-service professional development provider; as a curriculum designer, instructional resources manager, and reading motivator; and as a technology teacher, troubleshooter, and source of instructional support.”

For the last eight years, I was the teacher-librarian at a wonderful elementary school. I will never forget what my principal, Mr. Benoy, told me when I interviewed for the job: “I am not looking for someone to simply check out books. I am looking for a strong teacher and school leader.” I was thrilled! The collaborative work I did with Mr. Benoy and teachers helped lead our Title I school to consistently be ranked as “exceeding expectations” on the Wisconsin State Report Card.

I am now the principal of my school and had to hire a librarian to replace me. Like Mr. Benoy, I was not looking for someone to run the checkout, reshelve books, and do inventory, I wanted a leader. Below are the top five skills I believe a “leader-librarian” needs to impact achievement.

  1. A heart of service. Leader-librarians need teachers and students to trust them. Trust is built when librarians work for and with all stakeholders, rolling up their sleeves and pitching in wherever and however needed.

  2. Strong knowledge of best practices in literacy teaching, a firm commitment to support the school’s philosophy, and a passionate desire to connect students, teachers, and families to literacy learning and love.

  3. A desire to co-teach reading and writing with classroom teachers and the skills and knowledge to do so. Today’s school librarian must be ready to support teachers as they work with students on writing projects, lead response to intervention (RTI) groups, whole-class, or small group reading skills and strategies, and help students conduct research.

  4. A sense of fun! Challenges, parties, incentives, and a culture of joy are critical components to successful schools. The library can and should be the heart of a school, and as such, it must pump enthusiasm in and out of its doors daily. A strong leader-librarian acts as a literacy ambassador, helping students, teachers, and the wider community learn to and love to engage in learning.

  5. Technology know-how. It’s been a long time since a school library was called a “library.” It’s now a “media center.” That means that leader-librarians are responsible for a variety of technologies and must act as tech-leaders, coaches, and advocates. Knowing how to use Chromebooks, iPads, apps, and the best websites is a must.

In 2017, I was one of 10 recipients of the American Librarian Association I Love My Librarian Award. My remarks are below, which nicely sum up what today’s leader-librarian can be.

“My sincere hope is that this award will shine a light on why school libraries are important, offer encouragement to fellow library media specialists, and allow me a platform to share best-practices in elementary school librarianship. Our work is to help students learn to and love to read, to offer them windows to the wider world and mirrors to hold to themselves, and to provide safe, supportive, spaces that nurture curiosity and passion. School library programs can and should be the heart of school.”

Librarians, if we want to save our jobs in schools (and we should! Just look at the research!), then we have to make ourselves indispensable. Be a leader-librarian.

Response From Penny Sweeney

Penny Sweeney is currently a K-6 school librarian in the Liverpool Central school district in upstate New York. She is the current president of the New York Library Association-Section of School Librarians (NYLA-SSL). Penny is an ASCD Emerging Leader of 2018:

(These best practices are curated from the AASL National School Library Standards for Learners, School Librarians, and School Libraries. National School Library Standards for Learners, School Librarians, and School Libraries. ALA Editions, an imprint of the American Library Association, 2018.)

Within the new American Association of School Librarian standards, there is a breakdown of six shared foundations—inquire, include, collaborate, curate, explore, and engage. When exploring the idea of best practices for librarians collaborating with classroom teachers, it is important to focus through the lens of these newly adopted standards.

* Inquire - Build new knowledge by inquiring, thinking critically, identifying problems, and developing strategies for solving problems. This foundation focuses on the inquiry process and creating a schoolwide culture of growth mindset for teachers and students. Best practices include:

1. Research and gain professional development on ideal inquiry processes through conferences, webinars, journals, social media, and books. The inquiry model chosen will be a true research process that includes student-driven questions, is research-based, and includes student self-reflection to promote continued learning. The model should also ensure that students across grade levels are getting age-appropriate opportunities to question, explore, share, and reflect on both academic and personally interesting topics.

2. Offer professional development to teachers on the ideal inquiry process and encourage
staff and administrators to share the successes.

3. Collaboratively teach across curriculums, using the inquiry model determined to be the best for that learning community.

* Include - Demonstrate an understanding of and commitment to inclusiveness and respect for diversity in the learning community. Librarians must be sure that they are creating an environment of acceptance and trust in diverse opinions. Best practices include:

1. Encourage diverse perspectives to be shared and received, in conversation, in student learning, in the physical design of the library, in displays, and in the print and digital
collection available to all students and staff members.

2. Encourage diverse perspectives through global connections that make the learning environment larger than the school walls.

* Collaborate - Work effectively with others to broaden perspectives and work toward common goals. Best practices include:

1. Develop a scaffolded approach to student-to-student collaboration, with opportunities for students to safely explore various roles within a successful collaborative group.

2. Instruct alongside teachers in such a way that students can see a true model of successful collaboration.

3. Share the collaborative process with other teachers, administrators, and educators through newsletters, social media, articles, or presentations.

* Curate - Make meaning for oneself and others by collecting, organizing, and sharing resources of personal relevance. Best practices include:

1. Ensure that teacher and student needs are being met through a 24-7 digital and print collection. Librarians, teachers, and students should have an open dialogue that enhances collection development of print and digital resources.

2. Offer professional development needed for teachers and students to be able to access the resources, as well as update stakeholders on newest additions, including citation tools.

* Explore - Discover and innovate in a growth mindset developed through experience and reflection. Best practices include:

1. Maintain a collection that is diverse, age-appropriate, and easily accessible.

2. Create a physical and online space that encourages discovery and sharing of ideas.

* Engage - Demonstrate safe, legal, and ethical sharing of knowledge products independently while engaging in a community of practice and in an interconnected world. Best practices include:

1. Know (through surveying students and staff members) and address the ethical use of information, to include age-appropriate citations and plagiarism. Collaborative instruction with teachers should be used to address this with students.

2. Ensure that stakeholders are a part of policy creation and updating of (de)selection of library resources (to include a challenge policy), privacy of library-user information, and ethical use of information.

3. Provide training and availability of a variety of technology tools to allow learners to personalize the expression of their learning.

Response From Ann Neary

Ann Neary, MATL Mount Holyoke College ‘18, teaches AP Literature, Caribbean Literature, Contemporary Literature, and Introduction to Journalism at Staples High School in Westport, Conn. She collaborates regularly with her librarians, Tamara Weinberg and Colin Neenan, to enhance student learning:

Teachers: Rethink your library

If you think of your school library as a piazza, a central location or square in a village where multiple activities take place, you will undoubtedly make better use of the space and the librarians. At the Staples High School Library Piazza, there are bean bag chairs, diner booths for hanging out, couches for reading, a quiet section, and many tables for the “study zone.” The peripheral rooms off the piazza are designated for maker-space activities, green-screen video production, and a double classroom swing space for single class events or larger buildingwide discussions.

I have used all of this space to enhance learning opportunities for my students. In the maker space, Introduction to Journalism students learned the power of live interviews, splicing, and editing techniques to tell a story, thus becoming savvy, critical thinkers when they watch the news. Contemporary Literature students created videos in the Green Room expressing knowledge of their teachers love of teaching during #LoveTeaching week. Caribbean Literature students live-streamed with a Cuban native to “see” and hear the sights and sounds of Havana, in the small learning center.

All of these activities were facilitated in collaboration with my school librarians. They are my go-to resource because their finger is on the pulse of the entire piazza. Everyone moves through that space.

Productive collaboration between teachers and librarians begins with an appreciation of the different skill sets each possess and a faith in the cliché that two (or three) heads are better than one. Teachers are experts in content and their students’ abilities; librarians are experts in locating resources and producing multimedia.

True collaboration involves sitting down and finding consensus regarding the best approach to content delivery, student assignments, and formative assessments. What is the essential content? What will inspire students to engage? What products will students be proud to share? While students (and teachers) understand there is a “writing process” that involves a recursive process of drafting papers, they are less familiar with drafting other products such as videos or slideshows. Librarians are well positioned to work with groups of students to improve their multimedia projects.

Since librarians are not scheduled to teach four or five classes a day, they have greater flexibility to explore making a big idea a reality. Working with teachers in all subject areas also enables librarians to bring new ideas that cross over departmental barriers. Whereas I, as an English teacher, may have no idea what learning activities are taking place in a science classroom, the librarians do know. And they share.The benefit for students comes from the enhanced seamlessness of the learning.

Rethink your library and the resources your librarians provide. The library is not a dusty space filled with untouched textbooks. It is a vibrant piazza, buzzing with activity.

Thanks to Rita, Penny, and Ann for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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