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

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.