An Open Letter to Mary Downing Hahn

Dear Ms. Hahn:

I recently read Took to my fourth and fifth grade classes.  They loved the book, as I suspected they would.  I told the children many times how you were my favorites children’s author and have been since I read Wait Till Helen Comes. They loved the chapters where Auntie was talking and shivered with every mention of Bloody Bones.  This book was just what I promised them it would be.

And a little more.  Little did I know that I would be using this book to teach about prejudice and stereotyping.  How disappointing that this wonderful story reinforces the negative stereotypes and bad jokes that we West Virginians have been battling for decades.  I am certain that your story will reinforce a negative image of my state in our youngest generation.  Shame on you!

There was a lot of accuracy in your depiction: the rundown town left nearly vacant as coal mining jobs have dwindled away.  The lack of jobs that forced the father to take a low-paying job at Home Depot.  The kind bus driver.  The neighbors who jumped in to help strangers.  The clothes the children wear to school, jeans and tee shirts, were accurate, although you described them as if this were derogatory, rather than a personal preference or perhaps a fact of the economy.  How dare you make light of those who have suffered hard times?

The most glaring indication of your lack of knowledge of West Virginia was your depiction of the schools, with the antiquated equipment, rigid teaching strategies, and no children’s work displayed.  How far this is from the reality of West Virginia schools!

Are you aware the West Virginia has led computer integration in schools since the early 1980s?  In 2003  West Virginia was one of only two states to receive an A in technology integration.  We take pride in the strides our state has made in our schools.

Our teachers take pride in providing a safe, nurturing atmosphere where all children and their work is celebrated.  Just as teachers do in other states, we work hard to provide the best differentiated strategies for all our students.

West Virginians and other southern Appalachian citizens seem to be the only people it is socially acceptable to stereotype.  We are accustomed to the ignorance portrayed in your book, such as the reference to people marrying their cousins.  We see it all this time in network television shows, sportscasts, and cinema.  We take umbrage at such references, but you have taken this to a new level:  you are perpetuating falsehoods among children.  Shame on you!









For the Last Time – I am NOT a Media Specialist!

I take umbrage at being called a media specialist.  This puzzles the person who is speaking, because I am sure she thinks she is complimenting me but not calling me a librarian.Here’s the thing:  I AM a librarian!

Those in my position have had numerous titles passed around as we try to define our selves in a profession that resists seeing us a modern, information-technology literate professionals.  Yet those defining us wouldn’t want to offend us by calling us old-fashioned librarians, as that word connotes wire-rimmed glasses, bunned hair, and a spinsterly demeanor.  But for me, the term “media specialist” connotes another negative image – a middle-aged woman in a jumper with sensible shoes pushing an AV cart or carefully mended a 16MM film.  That’s not me.  My library has not housed AV equipment for at least 10 years;  And I don’t own a jumper!

Our profession is caught in the conundrum of deciding on a name that actually defines us.  The term media specialist evolved in the 70s when district level materials centers closed and librarians assumed this responsibility.  Still, this is inadequate, and now often inaccurate, when describing our role.

Some prefer the term “teacher-librarian,” a title I have no problem with, since it does define my role in education.  I am a teacher first, then a librarian.  Others don’t like this term, I suspect, because it does not acknowledge our role in information literacy and technology integration.

Some prefer the term “school library media specialist.”  I don’t know why this term doesn’t bother me, but it doesn’t.  AASL has adopted the term “school librarian” as our formal title.

As for me, I have introduced myself as the “Goddess of All Information, Both Real and Imagined,” but generally speaking this moniker was ill-received.  I found that it encompassed all my responsibilities rather nicely.  But since folks don’t want to call me a goddess, I prefer that the call me something else that encompasses all of my responsibilities – a librarian.

I earned my MLIS when my kids were  little, balancing work, school and their dance classes.  I spent countless hours thinking and rethinking about teaching to achieve National Board certification. And I put in 320 clock hours to become a Technology Integration Specialist.  All this to become what I am very proud to be:

An ALA card-holding LIBRARIAN.





It is difficult to believe I have just completed my 20th year at Brookhaven Elementary and my 28th year as a school librarian.  (A total of 34 years as a library professional, for those keeping score.)  Obviously a lot has changed during that time in terms of technology and philosophies of service within our profession, but I think maybe the biggest changes have been within me.

When I began my library service, I didn’t truly understand the concept that school librarians are teachers first.  I saw my role as  a provider of resources.  It seemed logical to me that students should intuitively grasp the concepts of library arrangement — after all, I did.  I took a long time for me to reconcile myself with different learning styles.  Also, I have come to recognize with the vast array of materials available to my students, it is not necessary to teach how to use a specific tool, but it is extremely necessary to teach them a process for finding the information they need.

The advent of additional library technologies certainly has expanded the library’s collection and has caused me to rethink my position on collections of fiction and nonfiction alike.  What information is reliably found online?  What is provided by state or district databases?  What will my students most likely access online?  Again, my assumption ran smack dab into reality, as I realized that my students don’t readily gravitate to the digital format.  As teachers embrace these digital materials, more students adopt the digital as well.

My biggest transition by far has been from being a librarian who taught to being a teacher who has a wealth of information and resources at her fingertips – and who knows how to use them.  I have dug deeper into the aspects of pedagogy and curriculum, but I have backed these up with the commitment to public service that sprung from my library school background.  I don’t walk the line between these two worlds;  I have integrated librarianship into my teaching.

I am still committed to providing students with the best information and experiences I can possibly find.  Universal Design for Learning is not a difficult concept for one who wants to assess learning, as opposed to assessing the ability to do well on a textbook vendor-supplied test.  In 2016 we should not be beating students with the same stick.  It is a lot more work, but we must provide be prepared to provide on-demand content in all curriculum areas.

I will not be working in school libraries for another twenty years, and I cannot envision what changes might occur.  In roughly three years, I hope to transition into part-time public library work and full-time school library advocacy.  Perhaps I will work on my Ph.D., just to stay in touch.  There will still be school libraries 20 years from now.   The question is, who will run them and what will they be called?  It is up to all of us school librarians to make sure the transition to having a library run by the untrained not take place.

Lack of Library Training Programs a Problem

This past Thursday I went to a dinner in honor of two good friends who are retiring after many years of service to my school district. I will truly miss Jackie and Michele.  They brought a lot to our program, and I learned valuable lessons from both of them.  They were two I could always count on attending our unpaid professional development sessions and two who counsel I regularly sought.

Replacing these ladies are two wonderful women who will work hard to continue the programs they inherited.  I have worked with Meghan this year and found her a delightful, dedicated National Board Certified teacher who is devoted to her students’ learning.  It was my pleasure to serve as her mentor this year, as I served as Gina’s last year.  Today, I met Jackie’s replacement, Wendy.  She was my cashier at WalMart, and as we were chatting, I discovered she would be the “new Jackie.”  I liked this woman and her attitude immediately, and discovering I would be working with her was a true delight.

My county will be welcoming two additional, brand-spanking new library media specialists this year, and I look forward to meeting them as well.  But I have reservations.  All of the media specialists who have been hired by my county in the last three years have received their certification by means of passing the library media Praxis exam.  In other words, they have received certification without taking a single class.  The circumstances leading to this is that West Virginia has only one higher education institution that offers coursework in school library media.

While I have no doubt that these women are excellent teachers, as Meghan has exhibited by achieving National Board Certification, I am concerned about a lack of foundation in the library profession. I try upholding the documents of our profession  to the fullest extent possible.  I know the precepts of the profession, the Code of Ethics, the Right to Read, etc.  When I stray away from these documents, I have an awareness that causes the decision to be uneasy and not likely one to repeat without intense scrutiny.  I know when I have strayed from a standard, from the sisterhood, if you will.  Will others lacking these foundations be as unwilling to stray?  Will they know when they have strayed?

I am excited to work with these women and will help them all I can.  I will do my best to make sure they are aware of the professional documents and understand their responsibilities to uphold them to the fullest extent possible.

Other concerns I may have about cataloging and other matters are easily taught and learned.  Basically, everyone learns mostly on the job, anyway. It’s not the mechanics or teaching that worries me; what worries me is the potential fading of the soul of our profession.

Being A Change Agent

Are you a change agent? While every change need not be embraced with equal enthusiasm, participation in school change is critical for school library media specialists. As our roles continue to be marginalized, it is essential that we are actively involved in any school initiative – especially if change is eminent. We must assert our position as school leaders, the highest ranking of the five roles of the school library profession.

Hassell and Hughes, in School Reform and the School Library Media Specialist, write, “successful change requires every person working in a school to be committed to change and to strive for individual and collective improvement.” (3) It is not enough for the media specialist to be merely accepting of change, but as a change agent to be cognizant about the nature of change and the change process itself. A successful change agent helps “fill the gaps in expertise and to assist in charting and implementing courses of action.” The media specialist is the perfect person to provide individualized support to those who need help in adjusting to change initiatives, as she is accustomed to continually meeting the individualized needs of all of her clients. The authors further stress the importance of collaboration in the change process, noting that there is a natural ceiling effect to how much any individual can learn or accomplish on his own and noting that none in a school setting are more prepared to be collaborators than the school library media specialist. (4, 9).

If school library media specialists are hesitant to take up the yoke of change agentry, it might help to know that among all teachers this is not uncommon. The Concerns Based Adoption Model, which indicates that among any faculty of any given size, only eight percent can be viewed as an innovator. An unfortunate consequence is that those who are identified as being innovators do not tend to be viewed as the most trusted among the rest of the faculty. Knowing that one’s ideas and contributions to the given cause may dismissed might help the reluctant media specialist accept that this is a natural occurence in a change cycle; it’s not personal.

The next level of change participation according to the Adoption Model is that of the leader. These people are most likely to be trusted by their colleagues and comprise 17% of any faculty. Early majority adopters, 29% of the faculty, accept and assimilate change after it has been validated by the leaders. Another 29%, the late majority adopters, follow. Finally, it must be accepted and expected that 17% of any faculty, the resistors, will not adopt the change.

When I first read about these stages, I considered my own faculty.  I found it was easy to categorize my colleagues in these areas, but now I am not so sure my assumptions would be correct.  In a time when when teachers feel they have been faced with a continuous parade of changes, some that contradict last year’s edicts, some may feel resistant to any change, simply for the sake of some continuity.

No one member of any faculty will always be locked into a role identified by the Adoption Model; these roles are fluid, and one’s participation might depend on any variety of factors. Let’s face it: some ideas are unworkable, some ideas are ill-timed, and some ideas are just plain dumb. People may resist for a variety of personal as well as professional reasons.

It is helpful to reflect on your comfort level with change.  Intitially I felt I was comfortable with change, but I realize now that I am only comfortable with change I effect.  How do I make sure I am comfortable with change?  I try my best to have a seat at the table when change is proposed.

What should you do if you feel you cannot support a proposed change? First I suggest you carefully examine the reasons for your resistance. Perhaps your concern is borne of the uncertainty that comes with doing things differently. It may help to do some independent research to learn more about a program or process. Facebook groups and Twitter abound with helpful SLMS willing to share their views and experiences.

Is the proposed changed in opposition to an accepted best practice of school library media services? If so, you owe it to your colleagues, your students, your profession and to yourself to make your concerns known. Be prepared to offer scenarios that will achieve the desired goal and not compromise the itegrity of the library program. Offer evidence-based practice and published data to back your point of view. Don’t whine.

Hughes-Hassell, Sandra and Violet H. Harada.  “Change Agentry: An Essential Role for Library Media Specialists.”  School Reform and the School Library Media Specialist.  (Principles and Practice Series #3.) Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2007.


Making a Difference or Copping Out?

Ever since AASL’s Standards for the 21st Century Learner was released in 2007, I have been pondering the wisdom of asking for a fixed schedule.  I know – what I am saying is heresy to those who have fought so hard for and been denied the flexible schedule. To you I apologize but ask you to hear me out.  Even I can’t believe I am putting this in writing.

I have been in my elementary library job for 20 years.  At the beginning of the second year I asked my principal to consider flexible scheduling.  I wasn’t in the related arts rotation, so this was not an issue.  His concern was that teachers would feel I wasn’t doing anything if I didn’t have a fixed schedule.  I explained to him my concern that half the teachers forgot their scheduled library time, which was a waste of my time and a loss for their children.  With a flexible schedule, kids could come as many days a week as their teacher would let them.  As there was no set library time, all teachers had to do was call and see if there was a conflict before they brought their classes.  Teachers could schedule research or skill lessons as needed without worrying that it wasn’t their “time.”  My principal acquiesced, with the warning that he didn’t want to hear that I wasn’t occupying my time properly.  I assured him that if teachers embraced this schedule, I would be so busy I wouldn’t have a choice.

And so my library ran on a flexible schedule, with vary little variation, from 1997 to present. For the first 13 years or so, I was able to collaborate with teachers and work with the children on some very cool projects.

But then the noose that was NCLB and now Race to the Top began to tighten, leaving teachers no time for “frills” such as research.  Even the teachers that still did want to collaborate did not allow me the time to teach notetaking, paraphrasing and other valuable skills.  I could see that the kids really were not getting much from their projects, and I felt I was sending them on unprepared.

Around the same time we experienced an explosion in our digital collections.  Kids could have 24/7 access to many resources.  For me this meant that time spent on research would not necessarily take away from the reading program, if time was structured properly.  Students would be spending less time finding information and more time using it, as the information was readily available in most cases.   Locating obsolete information, my chief objection to “library skills” would be minimized.  Real world information literacy could take place.

And so I read Standards for the 21st Century Learner and all AASL’s accompanying literature.  I perused the Crosswalk to the Common Core.  And I made mock yearly outlines in the event I was called upon.

This summer, after one of my library programs, I was talking theory with my assistant principal.  The talk turned to digital citizenship and information literacy, and I said, “You know, sometimes I almost with information skills was part of the related arts rotation.”

The next day, it was a done deal, and this fall I will be teaching grades one through five on a daily basis, implementing what I have learned during these past few years of study.  Singlehandedly, I have turned my back on the flexible schedule so staunchly promoted by AASL and school librarians everywhere.  And I am okay with this, as I have come to realize, slowly and stubbornly, that my job has more in common with my teaching colleagues than those at the public library. Once I accepted that proposition, I realized I had a lot more to give.

My challenge over the next few weeks will be to recruit adequate volunteers to help keep the library running up to my expectations while I embrace teaching as a full-time, structured role.  I will have to be at my most organized to pull this off!

I will write more later about this shift in philosophy, and I won’t be afraid to tell you if I made a huge mistake.  It will be interesting.

A word of warning, though: It may be best not to talk theoretically with your assistant principal!

One Bad Apple Does Spoil the Whole Bunch

I had the opportunity to talk to a high school teacher yesterday at my state tech conference.  After sometime we reached the subject of school libraries and librarians.  She told me that her school librarian was “good, but didn’t really like kids.”  I told her that I thought those two ideas were incompatible.  What did she mean when she said that her librarian was good?

Well, of course, she meant good in a stereotypical sense.  Her librarian kept the library neat and organized. These are not bad qualities, I told her, but they are the least important aspect of our jobs.

I welcomed the opportunity to explain to her the five ranked roles of today’s library media specialist: leader, instructional partner, information specialist, teacher and program administrator.  I suggested that if she ever wanted to see a real high school library in action, she should arrange to visit a particular library in a neighboring county, and I briefly explained that librarian’s philosophy.  She was very impressed with what I had to say.

And that’s the problem.  Library media programs such as the exemplary one I described should be closer to the norm than the one in this teacher’s school. Unfortunately, teachers and administrators only expect what they have experienced.  If all they have experienced is the archivist school library prototype, they have no reason to demand more.

Yes, I just hung an unknown colleague out to dry.  And I am not the least bit sorry.This bad apple does endanger the rest of us. Her lack of initiative to provide high quality library services and her clientele’s lack of expectations makes us vulnerable to job cuts. This is unacceptable.

As a profession we need to demand more of each other.  Nurturing only works with those who wish to be nurtured.  When that fails, it is time to call out those who are bringing us down. Further, if we cannot convince the librarian to step up her game, we need to inform her colleagues as to what they should expect. Carl Harvey II, a former AASL president, developed a list of attributes that teachers should expect of their school library media specialist. This is available in the February 2005 edition of School Library Media Connection.  The publisher grants permission for copying and distributing the document in the school in which you work. Use this to let your teachers know how valuable you are and can be. Then share the link in your newsletters and with your school and district administrators.

Harvey has also written a similar list for principals, but probably the most accessible information for principals is written by Doug Johnson.  Johnson’s work includes a  13 Point Library Media Program Checklist for School Principals that is a bit dated but still useful. Share this with your principal. Share it with your district office folks.

As a profession we have an obligation to educate our principals, teachers and parents as to what our roles in our children’s education actually should be.  And we need to call out both the librarian who falls short and the administrators who allow that to happen.

Have Computers in Education Become Part of The Problem?

I had made up my mind that I was going to write today.  I had no idea what I was going to write about, until I happened upon a tweet/retweet from Doug Johnson and Donna Baumbach, two library influencers whom I deeply respect.  Their tweet led me to a post by Audrey Watters, who asks if it is time to give up on the idea of computers in the classroom.

Watters offers the premise that computers once were renegade, that they could democratize education.  Now, she argues, they are part of establishment, a means of control and surveillance.  They are part of an ever-growing industry that aims to make the white man big bucks.

I can hardly disagree.  Each year we sign a contract designed to protect us, our students and the school system from bad choices made in an Internet gone amok.  Our computers are locked down to the point that we cannot use the webcams for collaboration as our software may have intended.  We cannot use wikis and blogs without imperial oversight.  Everything teachers want to do that is creative must pass through administrative channels.  Our choices, then, are to risk asking permission and being refused, or to claim ignorance and ask forgiveness.  I choose plan B.

Our schools employ Technology Integration Specialists whose job is to help teachers find resources and employ them with their students.  Much of their time, however, is taken by “administrivia-” setting up grade books, maintaining web pages, attending meetings about the upcoming test, implementing the practice sessions for the upcoming tests, and of course, administering the tests.  They are not invited to grade level planning meetings where they could offer expertise to classroom teachers or even offer to help.

Don’t get me wrong:  I strongly believe in computers in the classrooms, and I support the Technology Integration Specialists initiatives as vital to today’s education.  But I do admire Watters for boldly stating how such an innocent initiative has become a tool of the corporate world and the education machine itself.

Certainly, computers in education (technology in education) is not the only part of education that has been commercialized to the point of insanity.  The whole standards-based testing movement has become a huge industry that benefits no one in education – not administrators, teachers or students. But someone is making big bucks, or these initiatives would have been discarded.

How do we get off this merry-go-round?  Certainly not by getting rid of computers in the classroom, but perhaps by adopting the renegade spirit that brought them to education in the first place.  Do what is right and engaging with the tech tools you have –and ask forgiveness.

Lessons from Smokey and the Bandit

Lessons from Smokey and the Bandit

I will be the first to admit that my taste in movies is of the fast food variety.
Smokey and the Bandit is one of my all-time favorites.  While it may not have won critical acclaim, I find  the wisdom in this film helpful in troubling times.  This is especially true in regard to our plight of disappearing school libraries.
Towards the end of the film, the Bandit tells Cledus, “l don’t like  this any more than you do, but we ain’t gonna make it, son. We’re gonna hang it up.”
Cledus is morally outraged.  “Negatory. Negatory.  We say we’re doing a job, we’re doing a job!”

There have been many times, especially in the last few school years, when many of us have felt like the Bandit.  We have done a remarkable job against incredible odds (without benefit of the black Trans Am), and we feel we just can’t do anymore to help our profession.    When someone like the Bandit says it’s time to hang it up, that no one knows we exist – or that our importance to the general education picture is ignored, how fortunate we are for the Cleduses of our profession who boldly proclaim that it’s time to “introduce ’em to the boy!”  With that, the Bandit and the Snowman made it to the Fairgrounds in time and saved their hides.

We need more Cleduses, and I am urging all school librarians or friends of school libraries to be one.  I realize that because of our isolation within our schools we are often too intimidated to draw attention to ourselves.  But when all we library media specialists band together and tell our collective stories, our value and prestige will be difficult to ignore.

Be a Cledus.  Here’s how:

  1. Never miss a chance to blow your own horn.  No one else will do it, because no one else has a clue what our jobs entail.  Talk information literacy standards and how you are helping your students be ethical and savvy users of information.
  2. Blog about your daily experiences.  And keep blogging.  Your blogs may be sporadic, but when you have something to say about a day in our profession, say it.  You may think no one cares: it could be that no one cares until you tell them what they need to care about. Blog.  And blog some more.
  3. Connect with other school librarians via Nings, Twitter, conferences and any other medium available.  Don’t stop connecting.  We all have different challenges, even within the same counties, even within the same states.  We need to know what is happening with each other, so that hopefully we can all devise meaningful ways to help.
  4. Never miss a chance to impress your supervisor and his supervisors.  I recently was troubleshooting a laptop/tv setup for an administrators’ meeting in the library.  Once I had everything connected, I said, “Oh, while you’re here, let me tell you about the ebook bundles the PreK-5 librarians selected to support the Common Core.”
  5. Be recognizable by your school community.  I have a library Facebook page.  I use it to post about curriculum, as well as to advertise upcoming events.
  6. Give back.  Seth Godin calls this generosity.  Doug Johnson calls it being indispensable   Whatever it is, give back to the community you serve in a professional capacity.  I have open library nights every Wednesday, where the parents are welcome to come in, read with their children and supervise their taking of Reading Counts quizzes.  Do I get paid for this?  Well, my parents generously support our two book fairs each year.  The least I can do is let them experience the library in action.  If I am ever involved in another staff cut situation, you can bet your last dollar I will have plenty of parents that come to my defense.
  7. Collaborate with teachers at least on a monthly basis.  Seek them out.  Go to them rather than expecting them to come to you.  Ask what you can do to help them meet their goals and standards.  Be willing to teach from their classrooms rather that relying on their classes to come to you.  Reach out!
  8. If you are faced with staff cuts, don’t stand in front of the Board and cite the research.  The only people who care about the research are those who have money to spend.  If a school board wants to cut your job, they don’t have that kind of money.  So, what should you do?  Tell them about how you use evidence-based practice in your school to contribute to student achievement.  Show them the data.  Get testimonials from parents. Show how your library actually saves the district money.  Stay positive and focused.
I challenge us all to be Cledus Snows.  Start by responding to this blog and contributing to (or challenging) the conversation.  There is no need to be shy.  We all have professional experiences to share.
(This post was originally published in Random Thoughts <;  I decided to repost it here in hopes of reaching a different audience.

The Learning Commons Mindset

In the tough times facing our profession, despite our huge potential to impact learning, it is nice to see a school district that is “getting it right.” Kudos to West Vancouver schools.

Students at West Bay Elementary School Students at West Bay Elementary School

I walk into almost all of our schools in West Vancouver and very often the first thing people want to show me or talk to me about is the changes happening around the library.  Or more specifically, schools are taking great pride in their learning commons spaces that are developing.  While the physical spaces are exciting, the changes to our mindsets are far more powerful.  We are not destined for new schools in West Vancouver anytime soon but the rethink of the library has been both a symbolic and concrete shift in how we think about space and how we think about learning.  The school library – a centre piece in schools – is now the modern hub for learning.

I like the library metaphor from Joan Frye Williams (shared in this blog from Joyce Valenza):

Our libraries should transition to places to do stuff, not simply…

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