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The Road to the Library Has Been Full of Thorns and Potholes (and it’s not over, yet)    

 

It’s been a hard-fought journey, folks. Initially, all I wanted to be was an English teacher. I had some amazing English teachers in my high school career who let me explore literature and make up my own mind about what I read and how I “analyzed” it. I became an English major because I loved to read and nothing excited me more than a good book.

After my kids were all in school, I decided to go back to school to earn my MEd. In Secondary Education, English. It was long and expensive journey, and student teaching was a truly horrible experience, but I made it.

Then I found it very difficult to get a job as an English teacher. My first gig was teaching one 7th grade remedial reading class, one 8th grade remedial reading class, one Peer Mediation class (for which I had no interest or background), one 7th grade remedial MATH class, and one 8th grade remedial MATH class. I was hired two weeks before school started and I was given no classroom. It was completely crazy. I hadn’t taken a math class since 1988 when I dropped trigonometry to take painting the next semester with Coach Mann. I was the only option for them and they were the only option for me, so I took it on.

I don’t know if I did a very good job, but I jumped at it and I really enjoyed the kids. I even enjoyed the ones who drove me nuts. The rest of the staff at the school were fantastic, and I made some great friends. It was a fun and challenging year. Each class I taught was only a semester long, so I didn’t get to know the kids as well as I would have liked, but it was great. The next year, I taught the remediation reading classes and three sections of a remediation writing class. It was great. I taught remediation reading full time for the next two years. Then, I decided that I wanted a change.

What nobody told me about teaching is how bizarrely lonely it actually is. Because I was a remediation teacher of electives, I was not able to attend any department meetings where I would have been able to talk to adults and compare notes on what was working or not working and how to do my job better. I didn’t have any opportunity to collaborate with anyone. I cycled between time with 15 frustrated, energetic, and entertaining teenagers to time in my classroom completely alone. Everyone in the building was so busy with their own classes and planning that I ended up alone, unless… I ventured into the library. Ms. McKnight was often there and not too busy to talk books, gossip, or just listen. She seemed to know what was going on in the building, she always had ideas for teaching, and she got to spend her days surrounded by all those books!

I left public school and spent a year working in a private school that I thought would be revolutionary and different. It was one of the hardest nine months of my life. The school had only sixteen students and touted “individualized” education. Our Head of School was dramatically and for fabricated reasons fired during the second week of school. The whole school year was an exercise in working for under horrible, terrifying, and destructive circumstances while trying to work with students and parents. By May of last year, we were told that the school was bankrupt and couldn’t pay us our last 3 months of salary. The parents all gave more money than was reasonable and paid us directly, and the School for Tomorrow collapsed.

I started taking courses for my Library Media Specialist endorsement last January through UVA Wise online. I took two classes in the Spring and had three courses left for the fall. I spent August through December of 2016 taking three courses, through three Universities using three different course platforms – Moodle, Blackboard, and Collab – as well as completing a semester long practicum.  So, I had to take and pay for fifteen credit hours on my own dime.

It was so much work.

I also managed to get hired at an Elementary School as their librarian. There is a shortage of qualified librarians in Fairfax County Public Schools. I was the school’s only option, basically and they mine. I began work and training as a new librarian, but soon there were complications.

Because the school is a Title 1 school, I had to be hired as a substitute because I didn’t have my endorsement finished, I am not “highly qualified” despite my MEd. In Secondary Education – English. I was hired as a long term sub, but soon figured out that I was being paid as a short term sub – $14.63/hour. That’s a pay cut of enormous proportions, and I still had to pay for my courses.

The fight began to get me paid as long term sub at $20.14/hour. It was confusing and long, but I am now paid at that rate, but of course only for the days we have school and for some reason I only get paid for 7 hours/day. My last paycheck was $495 because – Winter Break.

Anyway, so all of my paperwork for my endorsement (the additional license I need to be a librarian) has been sent to the Virginia Department of Education.  It’s been there for two weeks and it hasn’t been processed. I keep checking the website to search and see if they’ve added the endorsement to my license, but so far – nothing.

To say that I am frustrated would be a gross understatement. I want to be a librarian. I just want to work and be paid as a professional. I haven’t been able to do that for eight months now and I don’t know when I will be able to again.

It’s making me a little crazy.

Stay tuned.

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Personal Achievements!

Work as an Elementary school librarian is never dull and is often hilarious.

One of the most “exciting” kindergarten classes came to the library today. It took me a while to get them to calm down and then I started reading a book to them. When I finished, I told them, “Wow, guys you did a great job. You really behaved well and you were quiet.”

One of the kids looked at me in shock and pointed his thumb at his chest and asked, “Me?”

I answered, “Yes, you too.”

He looked at his classmates ecstatically and said, “Guys! I was quiet!”

 

The lesson, take your achievements where you can, folks.

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An idea so crazy it might work?

Well dear readers, it’s been a while. I’ve been working myself silly with starting a new job as an Elementary School librarian while at the same time, I’ve been taking three college courses from three universities which each use their own student work platform and I completed a 6 credit practicum/internship as a librarian. Suffice it to say, it was a stressful and a ton of work, but I have finished the courses and the endorsement paperwork is at the university and will hopefully be making its way through the Virginia Department of Education. Then, I will be a fully certified school librarian! Yippee!

Now that I have been working in an elementary school for many months again, I’ve started to think about preteens and kids who all become teens. In the past five years, I have been fully focused on teens as a unique age group with their own challenges and strengths.

The school where I work is a Title 1 school.  For our school, that means that 72% of our students receive free or reduced lunch and 54% are English language learners. It’s a diverse group of students in a diverse community. We have great programs that aim to help parents learn English, provide financial and counseling assistance to families, and soon we’ll have an after school program to offer enrichment to some of our students.

The library is right next to our Parent Liason’s office. She works hard every day to connect parents and students to community resources and coordinates a weekend food program for families to help them get the food they need over weekends and breaks when kids don’t receive free breakfast and lunch.

At the same time, I see parents who need more. Kids who need more support and more connection. Many of the staff at our school would like to do more to have students ready to read with a stable place to live, secure food sources, and parents who are financially secure.

What’s missing in much of this, I think is an intentional community resource. The Elementary school is where so many families who are new to this country learn customs and exchange customs with classmates and other families. It’s where some parents find help and others march on seemingly alone.

Why couldn’t our schools become centers for community resources? So many parents have to come to school to get help, ask questions, meet teachers, and other parents and even use our school based child care, wouldn’t it make sense to have a formal community center located in the school? I know that there are many resources throughout the community, but transportation to many places is so time consuming and difficult wouldn’t it make more sense to have one place that is at least a starting point to find resources? Wouldn’t that reach more families directly? It would build trust within the community and within the school community. I don’t for a second think I am the only one or the first one to think of this, but it did occur to me independently and now I can’t get it out of my head.

If we did this, we could then have similar services in middle and high schools. Resources to help families in financial need, but also to help with counseling, finding activities and mentors, and whatever else makes sense for the community where the school is located.

For one thing, many of these services already exist. One of the biggest obstacles is tracking down the information and then the people who can help.

Schools seem like exactly the right places to center family health and well-being resources. If it was the norm to go to a school to find the right help, stigmas might be erased and school staff and parents might see each other in a less adversarial way.

The more I think about this, the more strongly I feel.

We all need help. We can all offer help.

Sometimes finding each other is the hardest part.

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Starting the School Year – As a Lively Librarian…

To quote a television show theme “It’s a Different World than where you come from.”

I have taught at three different schools in the last five years, so starting at a new school isn’t a foreign experience for me. I told my husband that I was working hard at making the adjustment and he just looked at me and said, “You should be used to it at this point.”

It’s not just the school that’s different. I’ve changed from Middle to Elementary school and from a classroom teacher to a teacher librarian.

The biggest adjustment is the schedule. Not even the schedule itself, but the fact that the schedule is very much a living and changing thing. I have realized that my best strategy is to slow down and make transitions mindfully rather than quickly. That helps enormously.

Another huge help is having a library assistant who has been in the school for years and is generous in her patience and in information.

I’ll admit that I didn’t feel so very lively when I headed home each evening this week. I was in bed by 9:30 each night!

There are some terrific highlights to share. The week was exhausting, but exciting.

  • The kids are so darned cute! Seriously, the kindergartners are still so little and have great enthusiasm and express all of their thoughts, which is hilarious at times.
  • The monarch butterfly caterpillars I took to the library are a HUGE hit. The kids find them fascinating. They could look at them all day. I can convince most kids to sit still while I read to them if I promise them time at the end to watch the caterpillars.
  • The students and the teachers view the library as a great asset and help to their learning. It’s so great to be a “destination teacher” in the school building.

Those are just a few highlights. The kids want books. They want to read. They love being there. Everything else will work out with some work and relationship building.

One book related highlight: During a Kindergarten lesson, I learned that one of the students in the class is named Kwame and is from Ghana.  I was able to tell him that one of my favorite authors is named Kwame – Kwame Alexander.  His face lit up and he was thrilled to know that someone with the same name as him has written books.

Here’s a slide show of some great moments from the week!

There are photos from our Back to School Night and a photo of the beautiful flower arrangement that my in-laws sent to celebrate my start as a Lively Librarian.

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Hippodilly Librarian

I have been taking courses to acquire an add on endorsement to become a school librarian since January. It’s been a rough and tumble process, but I have finally landed in a great spot as the librarian at Groveton Elementary School in Alexandria, Virginia. The library space is beautiful and it’s full of books, computers, and shelves and starting on Tuesday, it will be full of KIDS!

One of the courses I am taking this semester is on technology and will be forcing me to stretch my technical skills. I will be using this class as an opportunity to develop and add to my WordPress skill set, which is extremely limited right now. You should start seeing some more interesting and dynamic posts soon and more information about the library and life as the weeks go by.

To the stacks!

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A Letter to Teachers:  Stop pretending that compliance is the same as learning

I apologize for taking a break from writing here for quite a while. Let’s just say it’s been quite a school year for me and mine. Maybe sometime I’ll write a post that summarizes what’s been happening, but not today. I have to get something off my chest.

Anyone who has survived high school knows the signs. Your questions go unanswered. Rules in the classroom are absolute, rigid and “because I say so.” The mere crossing of the threshold of the classroom brings on emotional and physical dread as you realize that you’ll no doubt do something considered “out of line” and even if you do manage to do things the way the teacher wants, you’ll still feel inadequate and not understand why you have to do any of it. Authoritarian teachers who equate submissive, unquestioning, following of rules and unquestioning compliance with being a “good” student are enough to kill anyone’s learning. We’ve all seen it and we’ve likely experienced it.

At Back to School Night, I usually have the read on my kids’ teachers within the first 2 minutes of their presentations. Teachers who present the “I’ve been doing this forever and I have everything under control” attitude are terrifying to me. They present their slideshow with the grade percentages and explain that as long as the students turn in all their work on time every time, they’ll be fine. I usually am squirming and texting my child, “Beware Mr/Ms. X they are controlling.” My impressions are typically borne out over the course of the year.

What do teenagers learn from this kind of teacher? Well, let me tell you what my older son has learned this year. He suffered a concussion on Mother’s Day that was really serious and the symptoms of his injury were long lasting (My husband closed the back door of our Highlander just as Carl was standing up to bring in some groceries, and his head and the door met in the middle.)

It became immediately obvious which teachers cared about him and which teachers cared about him checking off every boxes. He learned the controlling teachers cared only about pretending that “holding the line” made them good teachers. He learned that those who cared about him healing and taking his time healing actually cared not only about his learning, but more importantly about him – 15 year old student who had suffered an injury.

In the end, he had to take 3 state tests after missing a month of school and having a concussion. Guess what? The two tests he passed – were in the subjects taught by the compassionate teachers. The one he failed – was in the subject taught by his most controlling teacher.

The only thing you learn from a rigid and controlling teacher is this: You learn that you do not like the rigid and controlling teacher and that they do not like you. The teachers who respect and like their students are the ones from whom you learn the most.

I had a great science teacher in Middle School who terrified me, but not because she was controlling. She was strict. She never let me get away with doing work that was sub-par for me. She had very high expectations. She was also older than dirt and had a shriveled lower left leg from polio and walked with a cane and used a six inch high riser in her shoe. She was a frightening and imposing woman who demanded my best work. I never learned so much. She was able to communicate to me that she made those demands because she cared about me and didn’t want me to sell myself short, not because “she said so.” There’s a world of difference.

As for me, I helped my son as best I could – advocating for him and trying to help him keep track of assignments and such. I also talked him through the fact that sometimes you have to deal with unreasonable jerk-wads and surviving them is often the best you can hope for, sadly. Tomorrow is his last day of school for this year. It’s been frustrating, painful, and confusing because of the concussion and because of the teachers who have valued his compliance above his well-being and learning. Those teachers who have cared about him and have been reasonable and understanding are those from whom he’s learned the most. The others will be stories he’ll tell later in life about nightmare teachers who made him hate school and/or their subjects.

Compliance is not the same as learning. However, in all too many cases, it is the difference between an A in a class and a C. I hope that teens stay rebellious and questioning and learn that the people with a little authority who want to control their behavior and thinking are the most dangerous and untrustworthy.

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I don’t usually do book reviews…

I don’t really do book reviews. I love reading enormously and I am passionate about the books that I love and about the books that I don’t love. There are many great writers who craft brilliant analytical and thoughtful book reviews, so my voice isn’t really needed in that realm. I’ve always found recommending books a sticky proposition, too. I’ve received enough honest,”This book is amazing!” reviews of books that I ended up not enjoying or that I never finished to know that books are intensely personal. For example, I’m the only person on Earth who really didn’t like All the Light We Cannot See. I appreciated it, but I just didn’t enjoy it.

Having said all that, there are books that just take my breath away. They may not be for everyone, but I would feel remiss if I didn’t shout their virtues from the rooftops.

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing – Traitor to the Nation by M.T. Anderson is one of those books.

I can’t even remember what drew me to read it in the first place. I checked it out of the library at Lake Braddock Secondary School where I worked and it transported and changed me.

Here’s the summary from the book jacket:

“Raised by a mysterious group of rational philosophers, young Octavian is dressed in silks and given the finest of classical educations. His regal mother entertains the scholars with her beauty and wit, but Octavian questions the purpose behind his guardians’ fanatical studies. As the disquiet of Revolutionary Boston grows around him, Octavian dares to open a forbidden door, only to discover the hideous nature of the experiments – and his own chilling role in them.”

It’s an incredible book. You really should read it. It should be required reading for all high school students. I don’t usually say these kinds of things, but really Octavian is that important to me.

The reason that I am thinking about it again is that I am going to cover a high school class for a friend where I will get to lead a discussion about Octavian. To prepare, I have been rereading the section that we’ll be discussing. Just reading the 50-ish pages has me transported again. I can’t wait to hear what the high schoolers think. The story has so much to say of rebellion, obedience, the power and danger of learning and the importance of the arts. The history it contains and the myriad ways that Africans were manipulated and physically and emotionally abused is so vibrantly rendered as to wake up any modern reader to the vast and limitless evil of slavery. Octavian is an African in Revolutionary America who is given the finest classical education in the arts, languages and sciences. His place in the world is so confusing and so rapidly altered that he must simply work to decipher how he must behave to avoid brutality.

Here’s one of my favorite passages.

“I missed my studies with Dr. Trefusis inveterately, for reading, once begun, quickly becomes home and circle and court and family, and indeed, without narrative, I felt exiled from my own country. By the transport of books, that which is most foreign becomes one’s familiar walks and avenues, while that which is most familiar is removed to delightful strangeness, and unmoving, one travels infinite causeways, immobile and thus unfettered.”

The whole book is that beautiful and powerful.

Go read it.

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