ON LIBRARIES: Teaching Social Justice in the Library

social justiceHow far should we go in teaching values?  Years ago, there was a strong belief that character development was the parents’ place.  Today a high preponderance of schools include it in their curriculum.

Current events have raised the question of whether we need to teach social justice, but in the context of a contentious presidential campaign it seems too political to touch. In some areas it could undoubtedly unleash a torrent of publicity that would negatively impact the librarian.  The easiest decision is to ignore it and claim it is outside our responsibility.

Two thoughts to consider.  First, we teach students how to think, not what to think. If the learning opportunity is properly developed, it shouldn’t bring with it any personal bias.  Secondly, social justice is a very large topic and encompasses areas far beyond current headlines.how to think

I searched to find a good definition of social justice.  Appalachian State University’s Department of Government and Social Justice has an article on What is Social Justice? In it the author defines it by citing others including “… promoting a just society by challenging injustice and valuing diversity. It exists when “all people share a common humanity and therefore have a right to equitable treatment, support for their human rights, and a fair allocation of community resources.’ In conditions of social justice, people are ‘not be discriminated against, nor their welfare and well-being constrained or prejudiced on the basis of gender, sexuality, religion, political affiliations, age, race, belief, disability, location, social class, socioeconomic circumstances, or other characteristic of background or group membership.” (Toowoomba Catholic Education, 2006).”

Miss HoneyBut the one I think is best suited to schools comes from the description of AASL’s Roald Dahl Miss Honey Social Justice Award, which has been awarded for the last three years.   In the criteria it states:

  • The librarian has made a significant effort to teach the concept of social justice in creative, inspiring ways. This might include, but not be limited to, teaching about civil liberties, human rights, international justice, genocide studies, and local issues of justice. For example, applicants may design a special lesson, course of study, create a school or district project, or lead their students in some way to address social justice.
  • Close attention will be focused on applicants who follow the “spirit” of social justice in their classroom; namely, those who possess the ability to expose injustice while at the same time inspiring their students to repair the world through justice, service, or advocacy.

You can easily focus on international issues of social justice in designing a unit with a classroom teacher. If some students see connections to what is happening in the U.S. that would be their personal “take-away.” As part of the unit, students can create a project that would “repair the world through justice, service, or advocacy.”

Ann Yawornitsky, Jennifer Sarnes, ad Melissa Zawaski of the Wilson Southern Middle School, Sinking Spring, PA. were the 2016 winners of the award.  According to the description of the project on the AASL press release, “school librarian Yawornitsky and 6th grade reading teachers Sarnes and Zawaski collaborated to create the project “Children of the Holocaust/Holocaust Hall of Memories.” After completing preliminary research, each student was given an identity card with the photo and name of a child who suffered in the Holocaust. Using multiple resources, students researched the fate of their child and created poems, journals or multimedia presentations to share their child’s life and experiences. To conclude, students host a Holocaust Hall of Memories open to the entire community. Students assume the identity of their child, saying “My name is…” and give a short account of his or her Holocaust experience.

If you don’t want to focus on international issues, you can still find relevant topics. For example, the class can research the cause and effect of hunger, identifying how much hunger exists in their community and then organize a food drive to support local food banks. There are many local issues that can be explored without raising people’s ire.

Projects like these take students beyond textbooks and help them develop the empathy to feel for others whose lives are very different than their own. In the process they need to think critically, work collaborative, and learn to problem solve. And they may discover that one person does have the ability to “repair the world.”teaching tolerance

If you haven’t done so as yet, check out Teaching Tolerance’s website and sign up for their free classroom units and magazine subscription which are free to school librarians and teachers. You might get some ideas from it for a project – and then apply for the Roald Dahl Miss Honey Social Justice Award.



ON LIBRARIES: Safety – In the Library and Leadership


Safe place2In your philosophy and in your vision or mission statement you undoubtedly have a phrase about the library being a safe, welcoming environment.  It’s intrinsic to how we view our role and relationship to students and teachers.  The words are important so we let others know we value that atmosphere, but what do we do to create it?

Safety is also a factor in strong leadership.  It’s one that few think of and yet has particular importance.  By becoming aware of both of these aspects of safety, you will be able to integrate them into how you work with others.

Safety in the Library

Certainly, many of you have worked hard to change the look of your facility.  High school libraries in many locations have banquettes or high tops to convey the message that the library is not just for school assignments.  The ability to move chairs and tables easily allows students to work comfortably in groups of various sizes.

The move to a Learning Commons is a further extension of the concept.  Increasingly libraries have changed to meet the new ways students –and teachers—discover, work, create, and share knowledge.  Today’s school library is a far cry from the heavy furniture and range of bookshelves that defined them almost to the end of the last century.resources2

But what about safety?  Historically, we know that kids who are bullied or feel friendless seek out the haven of the library.  They come during lunch periods and find a corner where no one is likely to spot them.  Even when they are with a class, they seem to be somewhat separate from their peers.

It may not be as obvious in the elementary grades, but you can spot them there as well.  In story time they sit at the end of a back row, feeling more secure by having minimal physical connection with the other students. They may not answer many questions directed to the group. During a research project they prefer to work alone if it’s possible.

With all that you do, it’s not always easy to be alert to these non-verbal signals, but these students need you.  It’s what you mean when you say you want to create a safe environment. At the elementary level be attuned to how their classmates react to them when they do answer a question. Look for body language as well as how they behave and interact with others to identify these students.

Learn their names. Quietly speak with them. Find out their interests and then look for books and other resources to meet them.  Follow up by discussing what they read or chose to do with those resources.  Sometimes these kids are homeless, are a minority that a significant percentage of the student body neglects, have a parent away in the military or in prison, or are dealing with traumatic home situations.  Yes, this is the job of the guidance counselors, but they, too, are overworked and don’t get to see these students in the context of their school day. You can connect with the guidance counselors to get advice and to work with them to help these kids.

lgbtAs you are aware, many of these students are LGBT.  Especially at the high school levels, does your collection have fiction and nonfiction books to help them realize they are not alone? That others have gone through what they are dealing with?  Are you aware of online resources that can help?   NOTE: In some communities it is a challenge for you to acquire books on the topic. While I strongly believe it is the role of librarians to have materials to meet the needs of all their population and am a strong supporter of intellectual freedom, I recognize the fear you might have about losing your job.

If your resources are limited, consider connecting with the public library and seeing if you can borrow materials from their collection.  Depending on your situation, you can have the student take the books home or read them in the library, returning them to you when they leave.  You may save a life.

By showing everyone your Mission and/or Vision is not just words you put up on the wall, but are core to the library program, you demonstrate your integrity as a leader.

Librarians need to do whatever it takes to make the library a safe, welcoming environment for all.

Safety in Leadership

Until very recently I had never recognized the role safety plays in leadership.  I now believe it is one we need to integrate into our relationship-building and observe how it plays out with other leaders in education, business, and the world at large.  It began with a YouTube video of a TED Talk.simon sinek

Simon Sinek gave a TED Talk entitled Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe directed primarily to business people.  He spoke about a Congressional Medal of Honor winner who was asked why he risked his life to save others.  Like many in the military he responded that they would do the same for him.

Sinek sees this as originating in cave days when our world held dangers from predatory animals and assorted other sources.  In essence we drew a circle of safety around those who lived with us and the multiple threats to our existence lay outside this circle.  Within this circle were people we could trust to have our backs and we would have theirs.

Advance forward to modern days.  While corporate America had many negatives from the beginning, at one time people felt secure that by working for a large company that they would have a job for life.  That has changed, accelerating when the economy hit a tailspin in 2008.  Layoffs abounded.  It became a dog-eat-dog world and you couldn’t trust your co-worker not to stab you in the back to protect his/her job at the cost of yours.

Sadly, education as a field has taken on some of these characteristics. Faculty feel threatened from outside and from within the education environment. Morale has suffered tremendously.

Show a new aspect of leadership by making your library a safe haven for your fellow teachers.  Do what you can to have their backs. Keep what they say confidential.  Be ready to provide resources that might help them in difficult situations.

I urge you to watch the full TED Talk and give some thought to the implications it has for your own leadership.  What will you do differently?  What new perspectives has it given you?



ON LIBRARIES: Embracing Standards

Standards have several definitions among them, according to Merriam Webster, are “ideas about morally standardscorrect and acceptable behavior,” “something that is very good and that is used to make judgments about the quality of other things,” and “a level of quality, achievement, etc., that is considered acceptable or desirable.” The first definition is a personal one that guides our actions and choices in life.  We deal with the next two in our professional lives.

We have always had curricular standards, but Common Core pushed that into high gear.  It became tied to high stake tests, which in many places were use in the evaluations of teachers and librarians, affecting their future.  While this has been moderated somewhat, the underlying truth is that none of us can ignore national and state standards.

Common Core is in the process of disappearing as ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) takes its place.  We are still learning how it will be applied and how it will impact school library programs. While the Act includes libraries in funding, obtaining it is not automatic.  Librarians on the national, state, and local level need to be prepared in order to participate in the funding.essa

AASL has a “landing site” for information about ESSA.  It include a PDF from ALA’s Washington Office on Opportunities for School Librarians which is a good place to start. There is also a link to District Dispatch’s ESSA Updates and to Updates on Knowledge Quest. (Dorcas Hand’s posts from what the Texas Library Association is doing are particularly helpful.) Be sure to check both of these links regularly. Your own state library association is probably gathering information for you as well, and will undoubtedly be putting on programs at their annual conferences. You need to be aware of what they have on their website and to make attending the conference a priority.

In addition to these national standards, our teaching needs to be aligned with our own library standards. ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) has just updated its Standards for Students, replacing the 2007 ones. Standards for Teachers and another for Administrators will follow, along with standards for computer science educators and coaches. Based on the past, these will reflect the Standards for Students.

The changes between the old and the new are highly significant and highlight what has happened in the intervening nine years. The areas covered in the 2007 standards are:

  • Creativity and Innovation
  • Communication and Collaboration
  • Research and Information Fluency
  • Critical Thinking, Problem Solving, and Decision Making
  • Digital Citizenship
  • Technology Operations and Concepts

At first glance they seem quite appropriate for today’s students—until you see the new areas which are:

  • Empowered Learner
  • Digital Citizen
  • Knowledge Constructor
  • Innovative Designer
  • Computational Thinker
  • Creative Communicator
  • Global Collaborator

A short paragraph explains the meaning and context of these areas and then gives four indicators for each.  We are putting much more demands on students being able to produce and contribute in new ways in order to succeed in the global society.

measuringThe ISTE Standards are available as a free download and you should start integrating them into your teaching.  Share them with your teachers and administrators.  Possibly because ISTE throws a wider net than just school librarians, administrators are often more interested in them.

The AASL Standards for the 21st-Century Learner were also published in 2007, and like the ISTE ones need to be updated.  The process began in March 2015 and the new standards will be released in the fall of 2017 along with implementation tools to help you incorporate them into your teaching.  The roll-out will coincide with AASL’s 18th National Conference and Exhibition to be held from November 9 to 12 in Phoenix, Arizona.  Start planning now to attend.

The links and list of standards seems overwhelming, but when you look more closely, you can see how many are the same just stated differently and/or from a slightly different perspective.  Work on including as many as you can into your teaching to demonstrate how you transform student learning and help them achieve on high stakes tests –and life.

Which standards are you now using?  Which challenge you? Which do you want to add?


ON LIBRARIES: Leadership – There Is No Other Option

On Saturday, June 25, I was honored at the AASL Awards Program to receive the 2016 aaslDistinguished Service Award.  As part of the presentation, I had the opportunity to speak and I addressed a topic I have been writing about for years. This is something you know I am passionate about, so I am sharing that brief speech as my blog for the week.


IMG_3562My deepest thanks to AASL, Baker & Taylor, and to everyone who had a part in nominating me for this incredible honor. To say I was absolutely dumbfounded when I got the news is a giant understatement of how I felt. I have long admired so many of the past winners whom I know personally, and can think of so many others who deserve this award as much as I do.  A good number of them are in the room right now.

Although it is called the “Distinguished Service Award,” it is truly one that recognizes leadership in the profession and leadership has been a soap box I have been on for decades. Most of you here right now are leaders.  Some farther along than others, but all of you have begun that journey.Leadership wordle

Unfortunately there are too many librarians who have yet to step out of the comfort zone of their libraries and accept the fact that leadership is no longer an option.  It is a job requirement. Our students and teachers need us to be leaders.  And our profession needs librarians who know how to make their presence known and their program be viewed as vital and indispensable.

AASL can provide resources.  All of you can be mentors.  But we must recognize that it is not enough for us to lead and be successful. If we all aren’t successful, too many people will not realize the unique roles we play and how these affect our students, teachers, and often the administration as well.

I honestly think we have turned a corner on the depletion of librarians and libraries, but it will be a slow climb back and the direction will not always go forward.  We must be there to support our colleagues who find leadership a scary thought and have told themselves many stories as to why they can’t be leaders.

I will address only one here, but I have heard it often. “Leaders are born, and I wasn’t born a leader.”  Guess what?  Neither was I.  If you met me in high school and college you would know I was not and would never be a leader.  If you saw me on my first two jobs, you would be convinced I had no idea how to lead.

IMG_3565I don’t think anyone would say that of me today.  What happened?  I joined my state association and was on a committee.  (Note, I didn’t chair it.) I joined ALA/AASL and went to conferences and programs.  There I learned the “language” of our profession, meaning I could speak with authority and conviction about topics relating to school libraries and education.

I moved out of my comfort zone.  I started saying “yes” when my brain was screaming, “are you crazy?  You can’t do that.”  But I was smart.  I got help.  I didn’t do it alone.  We think we are alone because we usually are the only librarian in our building.  But we belong to the most generously supportive profession in the world.

When I had a question, I could get an answer from around my state – and then the country.  And at first I needed a telephone for that. Fortunately, we now have many more ways to connect.

So please, be the help that your librarian colleagues need.  Make it known you are there for advice and help.  We belong to a very old profession that has been important to the progress of civilization for thousands of years.  We can all take it to the next level and insure that we continue to make our invaluable contributions, for we truly transform our communities and our society.


challenge acceptedFINAL NOTE: The challenge remains.  We  need to commit ourselves to ensuring all our librarians are leaders. What are you doing personally to become a leader or to expand your leadership?  How are you helping the librarians in your state and your district to become leaders?