Picture from "The Library Dragon" by Carmen Agra Deedy, illustrations by Michael P. White

"Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist.
Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed."
- G. K. Chesterton

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Why School Librarians Matter - My Story

I was an Indiana high school librarian for twenty-three years. I always knew I’d never get rich as an educator, but I loved my job and felt I was making a positive contribution to the world. I’d finally reached that point on the salary scale where I was no longer living paycheck to paycheck. Then in April 2010, what I later came to consider the “Perfect Storm” hit. I was part of a Reduction In Force (RIF) and was told my contract would not be renewed.

Indiana only requires one licensed librarian per school district and we had three. Our contract required that the librarian with the most seniority would be retained. She was just two years away from retirement and since I had the next highest years of experience, I should have been called back when she left. Unfortunately, the Indiana legislature passed a series of bills attacking public educators and our unions. Indiana teacher unions now can only bargain for salaries and benefits. Any language regarding RIFs was removed. I would NOT be called back.

After two years of unemployment, I finally found a position as a middle school library media specialist. I considered myself lucky despite the fact that my new school district did not have to pay me for my years of experience (I was now making fifteen thousand dollars LESS than I had in 2010). I thought I was finally going to be able to use my library training and expertise again.

I was wrong.

Many Indiana school corporations who had been forced to RIF educators were making “creative staffing” choices that were NOT in our students best interests. At my new school I was assigned to teach a nine-week Keyboarding/Research class that all fifth and sixth-grade students had to take. My teaching duties kept me out of the media center the majority of the day, yet I was still responsible for its operations. Fortunately I had a great assistant that ran the library in my absence…when she wasn’t being pulled to sub, that is.

This kind of “creative staffing” continues to happen not only in Indiana but many other states as well. School librarians are being especially hard hit because let’s face it, administrators don’t consider us crucial in raising test scores or improving academic achievement. This despite the over sixty studies showing that school libraries staffed by qualified school librarians have a positive impact on student achievement. (http://www.ilovelibraries.org/school-libraries/school-libraries-and-student-success)

Additionally, administrators (and even many teachers) really have no idea what librarians actually do. Yes, we check books in and out—a job that anyone can be trained to do—but our Masters in Library Science courses teach us how to do so much more. My library science coursework served me well twenty years ago when I inherited a musty old book collection that desperately needed outdated titles removed while preserving lesser-known classics like Indiana’s own The Magnificent Ambersons (Booth Tarkington). Using numerous selection tools I then updated that collection with fresh new titles that got my students excited about reading again and ultimately tripled our circulation.

Still, the best school libraries are also centers for the newest information technologies. I’m continually learning how to use the latest technology and sharing that knowledge with teachers and students alike. I’ve taught my students how to evaluate online sources so they can weed out fake or biased information. I’ve collaborated with teachers to teach students Standards for the 21st Century Learner information literacy skills. I model lifelong learning by continuing to learn about and apply innovative educational practices. For example, last year I applied for and received a grant to create a makerspace in an unused classroom off of my library.  

Most importantly though, I’ve connected with children and made a difference in their lives. I still remember the first high school student to hug me. She got an A on her term paper and said she never could have done it without my help. Then there’s Joseph, a student with Asperger’s, who initially drove me crazy by constantly asking “Do you have any books on magic, coins, swords…” until I finally taught him how to use the online card catalog effectively. Also Jeff, the computer geek who initially came to the media center to play on the computers and ended up fixing them. He now owns his own computer repair shop. And there was Sara, who admitted to me years later that she came to the library because it was her safe spot, a place to hide from the mean girls. Then I shared some good books with her and she became a lifelong reader.

For many young people, their first and often only exposure to libraries is at school. It’s a safe space where they can go to learn all kinds of things--not just the stuff the teacher expects them to know for the tests—and they become better people for it. Certified school librarians don’t just circulate materials and teach library skills, they help to create lifelong learners. We need to reverse the effects of “creative staffing” and find the funds to make sure that every student has access to a quality school library run by a highly effective certified school librarian every period of the day, every day of the week. 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Dear Senator Kenley (Continued)

Recently I sent an email to my state senator and he actually responded back. He stated that he was sorry for my misfortunes but that he had always been a strong suporter of public education and the situation with urban schools was so bad something had to be done (see previous post.)   I pondered his response for a couple weeks and came up with a pretty decent come back so I thought I'd share (Sundays seem to be my day for political activism!)

Dear Senator Kenley,
I appreciate the fact that you took the time to respond to my email. I've thought about your response and I wanted to point out that I didn't share my personal circumstances with you merely for your sympathy but because they so perfectly illustrate how the decisions made by our legislature over the past few years are impacting dedicated educators such as I. I do understand that there are serious problems in urban areas but I don't see how any of the steps the legislature have taken will change those problems. Unless we address the poverty in these areas, we can not hope to improve the schools. In the meantime, you have "thrown the baby out with the bath water" - the baby in this case being the many quality educators we had in the many school districts that weren't failing. I don't need to check with my union officials to know that you have not been a strong enough supporter of public education for quite a while now. I'm sorry about that because, living in Noblesville, I have always had a great deal of respect for the Kenleys. Please start doing the right thing and REALLY support education.

Next up: Kathy Kreag Richardson

Saturday, January 25, 2014

It's Always Darkest Before the SUNRISE

Switching careers midlife has been pretty stressful but I have also had some awesome new experiences that I wouldn’t have had if I’d stayed at my high school media center.  One of these was organizing an author visit.  My middle school students, overall, seem to be more excited about books and visiting the library than my former high school students.  They definitely check out a lot more books.  I had always wanted to have an author visit at the high school but never felt there’d be sufficient interest.  So when I discovered there was an Indianapolis author on the cusp of hitting it big willing to come spend a day at my school, I jumped on the opportunity.

Mike Mullins is the author of the Ashfall Trilogy (Ashfall, Ashen Winter, and Sunrise) a fictional series about what might happen after the eruption of the Yellowstone super volcano.  The series focuses on a young teen’s experiences during and after this catastrophic event.  With his home destroyed and his town terrifyingly unrecognizable, Alex sets off to find his family who had been visiting out of state relatives when the eruption occurred.  Along the way he discovers he must rely on survival skills he never even knew he possessed.  He also finds first love with Darla, his traveling companion and frequent rescuer.  In today’s glut of dystopian YA novels, Ashfall stands out because it’s set in our world and our time and it could actually happen to US.

One of the great things about Mike’s visit was hearing him describe just how such an event could happen. Many author visits tend to excite primarily the language arts teachers and students who love to read and write already.  Mike is unique in that he can discuss with some authority the science behind his books.  This fact enabled me to get my science teachers on board so that Mike ended up giving his presentation on "The Geology of Ashfall” to all the seventh grade science classes.  We also offered a “Lunch with the Author” for sixth & eighth grade students.   Overall, Mike talked to close to 250 students that day yet his energy never faltered. The enthusiasm Mike brings to his presentations, as well as his ability to explain difficult scientific concepts in understandable terms, kept the students excited and engaged. 

Mike also demonstrated the importance of preparation and research by sharing his own experiences during the writing of this series.  He talked about the mountains of science books he had to read to make sure his facts were correct. Since he wanted to give Alex self-defense skills while still keeping him an average kid, Mike actually joined a dojo and learned Taekwondo himself.  Not only did this give him insight into his character, but it made for an exciting conclusion to his presentation.  The students crowded around, even stood on chairs, to see Mike break a concrete block in half. He autographed books for students and staff and provided my Media Center with an autographed book and several signed concrete blocks he had broken during his taekwondo demonstrations.

My first author visit was a rousing success.  For those old enough to remember the Mary Tyler Moore show, I felt like Mary when she spun around and threw her hat into the air as the opening song says “you might just make it after all!”  It was the first real bright spot in an otherwise overwhelmingly bleak year.  So it’s no wonder that I gave Mike a big hug at the end of the day and have been a bit obsessed with him and his books ever since.  It doesn’t hurt that he’s a genuinely nice, down to earth guy either.  Would I recommend booking him for your next author visit?  Most definitely, but do it soon - it’s only a matter of time before he and his books explode (like a super volcano) into the next big thing.

Friday, January 24, 2014

A Letter to Senator Kenley

I sent this about a week ago:

Dear Senator Kenley,

As a constituent and educator I am writing to you to ask you to support SB 144 and to rethink the recent education legislation passed that is hurting our students and public schools. I have been in education for 25 years and I have never seen such upheaval as in the past few years. For some reason the Indiana legislature decided it was their job to "fix" education. Laws were passed that had an extremely negative impact not only on teachers and students but me personally. Following the property tax cap, schools were left with little to no state funding. At that time I was a high school media specialist for Southern Hancock Schools. First my assistant was cut. Then I lost half my budget (which was pretty small to begin with) and finally, in the Spring of 2010 I was laid off. I had worked for the school system for twenty-three years but because there Indiana requires only one licensed media specialist per school district and my district had one who had more seniority, I was RIFFED. The media specialist who took my job was due to retire in two years so it was my hope that at that point I'd be called back. But no, the legislature butted in again saying that teacher unions could only bargain for wages and benefits, thus the former system of calling back RIFFED employees was now void.
After two years of searching, I finally found a new position at Zionsville Schools but I had to basically start over at a beginning teacher salary. Consequently, I'm now making over $10,000 a year less than I was previously. Oh, and I forgot to mention that while I was unemployed and looking for work, I went back to school to get a Masters in Library Science to better myself and my chances at finding a better paying position. Unfortunately, a Masters degree means little to nothing in education in Indiana anymore. In my new position as a middle school media specialist, I actually get to spend very little time running the school media center because I'm expected to teach research/keyboarding classes to fifth and sixth graders. This year I also had to teach a seventh grade computer skills class. While I have a great deal of experience collaborating with classroom teachers to teach research skills, this is the first time I have ever had to teach on my own. Studies indicate that it is best to teach research skills by integrating them into subject area but since I am not part of the fifth and 6th grade teams this is difficult for me to do. In the past this class was taught by the fifth & sixth grade teachers but guess what - budgetary restrictions have changed all that. As enrollment increased, so did class sizes. There wasn't enough money to add new teachers. It was decided that the only way the middle schools could afford to keep their media specialist was to use them to teach these classes. Am I qualified to teach keyboarding and computer skills? Not really. Have I had training on teaching methods for middle school? No. I do the best I can but still I can't help but feel my students are being short changed because of a chain of events that began in the Indiana legislature.

Every day new laws are being passed in Indiana that continue to threaten public education in general and my job specifically. The 2012 law dealing with Protected Taxes for Schools contains undue restrictions which minimizes the amount of money flowing into the different school fund accounts. Many school districts may need to use dollars from their general fund to pay for transporting students to school. This means less money to pay for teachers. Once again I face the very real possibility that I may lose my job - not because of any thing I have done wrong but because of the legislature's failed attempts to "fix" education. I write to you to beg you to please stop! Leave the education of our youth to the experts - teachers, principals, superintendents, and our State Superintendent, Glenda Ritz. Yes, there are school systems in poverty stricken parts of Indiana that need work but there are a lot more that were doing wonderfully before the Indiana legislature stepped in. I worked at two and sent my children to one (Noblesville). If the legislature wants to "fix" those schools that are under preforming then focus on the real reason these students aren't learning - poverty. Please start supporting PUBLIC education in Indiana.

Now here's his response:
Thank you for your extensive email. I am sorry about your personal circumstances. I think if you check with union officials that I am a strong supporter of public education.

I do believe that we have had some serious problems in public education. Performances in our urban areas like Indianapolis have been unacceptable for 30 years and getting worse. It would be criminal for us not to try and improve those situations.

It is a complex problem- as I said, I strongly support the public schools, but leaving it to the "education experts" is what we did, and there have been extreme problems.

Sent from my iPad
On one hand, I was impressed that it appeared he actually answered my letter himself.  On the other hand I did not find his response very encouraging.  Nothing at all regarding the effect of poverty on the performances in our urban schools or why fixing urban school requires the complete overhaul of a system that worked fine for the majority of our school districts for so many years.  Overall, I am not reassured.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Continuing Journey of the unRIFFED Librarian

I've been at my new job as a middle school media specialist for a year and a half now and I'm just now coming up for air.  Yes, I was unRIFFED and I can tell you now it was almost as bad as my original RIF!  If you read my updated profile you will see I am now teaching Research/Keyboarding classes on a regular basis plus running the media center.  Just switching from a high school media center to a middle school would have been challenge enough, but throwing in the teaching part has been completely overwhelming. 

I have taught research/library skills to many high school students but always in collaboration with classroom teachers.  I never had to teach the entire research process such as selecting and narrowing a topic, making note cards and creating a work cited.  The English teachers taught that and I taught students how to use the library - the catalog, best reference & nonfiction sources, online databases and web sites. 

Now I was expected to teach a nine week course on all aspects of research and worst of all there was no established curriculum for me to follow.  Additionally, having never worked with middle school students before I really didn't know how to relate to them.  My classroom management skills were abysmal.  I lost my temper way too much and quickly learned that you never scream "Shut up!" to today's students.  You may as well say the F-word - the repercussions are that bad. I had several very uncomfortable conversations with my principal last year as a result.  The funny thing is, if you yell "quiet!" or, as I've learned to do this year, "class!" in exactly the same tone no one gets upset. 

One comment my principal made to me last year has stuck with me and helped guide me out of the abyss - "It's just middle school."  I was taking everything too seriously last year so this year I'm trying to relax and have more fun.  Truth be told, no one really cares what I do in this class.  It's considered a "Special" course for students rotate through along with Art, PE, and Health.  There is no high stakes, mandatory ISTEP-like test students have to pass on the information I cover.  Consequently, whether students learn or not does not have a big impact on my final evaluation.  Despite the fact that I felt like I did a terrible job last year, I was still rated as "Effective" on the RISE rating scale. I still received my "bonus" this year.

On the other hand, since this course isn't crucial and, as I've already seen, having a full time licenced media specialist isn't considered necessary either, should there be cuts, I'll be one of the first to go.  I have learned there is no job security in education these days and I am prepared for what ever may come, even if I am RIFFED again (and that is a very real possibility these days.) Thus I'll continue to share my journey in this blog for anyone who cares about education, school media centers and school media specialists.

Friday, April 6, 2012

YOUNG ADULT - The Red Pyramid

Working in a high school I missed the boat on Riordan’s previous best selling series “Percy Jackson and the Olympians.” When I heard they were making a movie based on that series, I purchased a set for my media center and was amazed at how the books flew off the shelf. In fact, because they were never on the shelf, I never got to read them! So I decided early on that I wanted to read The Red Pyramid. Fortunately for me, my local library only had it in the audio version. If I had found the hardback version, all 528 pages of it, I might have chickened out. Also, the audio version was performed by two delightful vocal actors, Kevin R. Free and Katherine Kellgren, who really brought the story to life. I would highly recommend this version for those of you with tweens and above planning road trips this summer.

The story is told alternately by Carter and Sadie Cane, the children of a famous Egyptologist, Julius Cane. Sadie has been living with her mother’s parents in England since her mother’s death 6 years ago, while Carter has been traveling the world with his father. They all reunite at the British Museum on Christmas Eve where Julius, in an attempt to “make thing right” casts a spell that results in his entombment and the release of 5 Egyptian gods. Uncle Amos rescues the children and takes them to the family mansion in New York where he reveals that they come from a long line of magicians. Carter and Sadie must face many trials as they journey to the Red Pyramid save their father and the world. Along the way they are helped by one mentor in particular, Sadie’s cat who is in actuality the Egyptian goddess, Bast. Both children mature and discover important lessons about themselves on their journey until ultimately, they return to New York, at the end of one quest but ready to begin another.

Riordan obviously did a great deal of research about the Egyptian gods and goddesses as well as ancient life in the time of the Pharaohs. I admit there was a time or two when I was rather overwhelmed with all the different Egyptian names and myths but the author repeats those most important to the story enough times that ultimately I was able to sort everyone out. Riordan infuses his main characters with a remarkable sense of humor that often shows itself at particularly unexpected moments, possibly defusing what otherwise might be too scary for younger children. At any event, I found myself laughing out loud frequently. I also shed a tear or two over the losses the Sadie and Carter must endure. I have to say, I haven’t been this touched by a “children’s book” since Harry Potter. Fortunately, this is only book one of the Cane Chronicles. I’m already looking forward to listening to the next two books in the series, The Throne of Fire and The Serpents Shadow (to be released May 1, 2012.)

Riordan, Rick. The Red Pyramid [sound recording] Grand Haven, Mich. : Brilliance
Audio, 2010

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

WESTERN -- The Rattlesnake Season by Larry D. Sweazy

(Book # 1 of the Josiah Wolfe, Texas Ranger series.)

I first heard about Larry Sweazy and his Texas Ranger series on a local NPR broadcast. He was being interviewed regarding the second book in the series The Scorpion Trail which had just won the 2011 Will Rogers Medallion Award for Western Fiction and the 2011 Best Books of Indiana literary competition in the fiction category. While I have never considered myself a big fan of Westerns, I was intrigued by the fact that Sweazy currently resides in my home town of Noblesville. Consequently, when I decided I wanted to read and review a Western, Sweazy was my first choice. While The Scorpion Trail was the more critically acclaimed of his novels, I knew I’d have to start at the beginning with The Rattlesnake Season since I can’t stand starting in the middle of any series.

The Rattlesnake Season serves as an introduction to the character of Josiah Wolfe. Wolfe is haunted by memories of the violence he participated in during the Civil War. He has also suffered the traumatic loss of his daughters, from influenza, followed swiftly by his wife, in childbirth. With a young son to support, he accepts an offer from his former commander, Captain Hiram Fikes, to rejoin the Texas Rangers. His first duty is to assist Fikes in transporting a former colleague, Charlie Langdon, to trial. When Langdon escapes and Fikes is killed, Wolfe ends up escorting the Captain’s body home and in the process meets Fikes’ daughter, wife, and favorite prostitute, Fat Sally (who he names his horse after.) He also discovers just how far Langdon will go for revenge.

It took me a while to warm up to Wolfe who, in typical Western fashion is both a loner and ultimately a hero. Sweazy takes time in developing this character so that by then end of the book I felt a genuine connection with him. Most of the major characters are well rounded and believable although I Fat Sally was a bit of a stretch. This beautiful Mexican woman, supposedly Captain Fikes’ favorite prostitute, serves Wolfe a fantastic meal and then beds him (for free!) because she’s grateful for his service to her favorite customer, Fikes? I don’t think so! Still, I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Sally or the captain’s daughter, who is definitely set up to appear in future books. While there was a bit too much detail for my taste, Sweazy’s lyrical descriptions add to the strong sense of place – Texas in the 1870s – and the overall mood of the story. While there is definitely violence, it is not extremely graphic. The same can be said of the one sex scene. In fact, the book could almost be classified as a “Gentle Read” and it contains much less profanity than I image I would have heard in the true old West.

All in all, found the book to be an easy and ultimately enjoyable read and I actually think I’ll continue on with the series when I have time. Now that I have a connection with the character of Wolfe and some background on his life and the people in it, I’m actually rather looking forward to reading the award winning second book even though I’m not usually a fan of Westerns.

Additional titles include :