Alabama's Big Growth

This article originally appeared in Administr@tor magazine. 

In 2012, our new state superintendent, Dr. Tommy Bice, and our state board of education stood at a crossroads. Our graduation rate for 2011 was 72 percent, and our 740,000-plus students had had more than 1,900,000 unexcused absences in 2011–12. Dr. Bice knew, as did district and local school personnel, that teachers alone could not be responsible for improving these numbers and building momentum in Alabama. But how should we move forward?

In 2012, Dr. Bice asked me to join his team at the Alabama State Department of Education as the director of the Office of Learning Support—a new office created to concentrate on the elimination of barriers to teaching and learning. Dr. Bice (who just announced his retirement) had a vision for leading the state education system through major transformations that included an equal and strategic focus on student support systems to ensure that barriers would be addressed in a comprehensive, sustainable manner.   

I was fortunate to have served as a teacher, principal, and superintendent in Alabama for more than 29 years, and I and my colleagues recognize not just the crucial need to focus on instruction but also the importance of developing better ways for schools, families, and communities to support student success by addressing barriers. To that end, this goal requires that everyone works collaboratively to provide safe and supportive environments in which children can live, learn, work, and play. Improved instruction alone cannot address the wide range of barriers that interfere with schools reaching their goals.

Dr. Bice was interested in replicating and bringing to scale a model that was already working in a handful of locations in Alabama through a partnership between Scholastic and the state DOE. Between 2011 and 2015, Montevallo High School in Shelby County improved graduation rates from 68 percent to 92 percent. Since working with Scholastic to implement what’s called an integrated learning supports (ILS) framework, Montevallo High School recorded the following:

  • 42 percent fewer out-of-school suspensions
  • 55 percent fewer in-school suspensions
  • 20 percent reduction in absences (recorded in 2013)

Under the leadership of Superintendent Randy Fuller and Shelby County learning supports leader Melissa Youngblood, Montevallo has worked with Scholastic coach Rhonda Neal-Waltman to develop a systematic approach that aligns instruction, learning supports, and leadership decisions. The continued impact emphasizes the critical need for schools to have a unified and comprehensive system of supports in place to address the barriers to learning and teaching that districts are facing.

So, what are learning supports, and why will focusing on them move the needle? The most common approaches to school improvement focus on either instruction or management and governance. What’s often missing is a plan for addressing barriers to learning and creating a system of learning supports.

The integrated learning supports system that we adopted is a process by which schools, families, and communities facilitate learning by working together to alleviate barriers, both external and internal. ILS doesn’t just focus on an individual student’s challenges but on a school-based learning supports leadership team that works on the mechanisms needed for overall cohesion and ongoing development of programs and systems. It puts the responsibility on all staff to ensure that teaching and learning are successful.

It is about putting a system in place to catch students before they fail, before they drop out, before they fall through the cracks. Rather than just address the problems “kid-by-kid,” the ILS system looks at trend data and creates a systems solution. This process includes identifying the fragmentation that exists within services and increasing the effectiveness and efficiency by which the services operate. ILS guides school improvement through a framework to address the specific student, school, and district needs. If we keep encountering the same challenges in our schools, why are we approaching them each year as if it were the first time? If we already know what barriers we are going to hit, then we should have systemic procedures in place to address them head on.

In June 2013, 10 districts volunteered to be part of the pioneering group to lead the learning supports work in Alabama. Dr. Bice mandated that every district in the state be trained on the ILS system by 2018. Currently, we are partnering with Scholastic to work with 51 districts across the state, and we will continue to build statewide capacity through webinars; district, regional, and state training sessions; and on-site coaching.

In the fall of 2015, the Alabama DOE received a grant funded by American Express, in partnership with the National Association of Secondary Principals, to support the work of school leaders. The grant was awarded to the DOE’s Office of Learning Support, which created Alabama Strong, a three-year, job-embedded project that offers customized services to 73 principals and aspiring principals in Alabama. This work will continue to build the capacity of school leaders by leveraging a three--component ILS system to address the barriers to learning identified by data and student needs.

Districts across the state using integrated learning supports have already seen a rise in student achievement and have been removed from Alabama’s failing schools list. Impact indicators can be identified by our state’s cohort graduation rate increase to 89 percent for 2015 and our truancy rate decrease to 117,175 for 2014–15.

This is just the beginning of what can happen when implementing a system for learning supports. Dr. Bice reminds us that it’s about the children sitting at those desks. If we always focus on what’s best for the child sitting in the chair, how can we make the wrong decisions? We’re here to serve students. 



What Happened at #EWA16? Some Twitter Highlights

Earlier this week, the Education Writers Association held its 69th annual national seminar in Boston, MA, inviting the nation's education reporters to open a dialogue about "The Quest for Quality and Equity" in education.

#EWA16 is a great place to catch up on conference highlights, including important conversations around ESSA, the achievement gap, diversity and school integration, award-winning education stories, and the state of education reporting. Below are a few highlights from the conversations that happened online: 

Hearing Trauma’s Voice: A Conversation With Lesley Koplow (Part 2)

Lesley Koplow is the Director of the Center for Emotionally Responsive Practice (ERP) at Bank Street College of Education in New York City. I recently spoke with her about efforts to help children who are living with the effects of trauma and toxic stress. Here are excerpts from our conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.      

What kinds of stories are helpful for children who have suffered from trauma?   

There’s a workshop around emotionally responsive literacy, where we have teachers use books that reflect their students. It can’t be a “happy only” classroom with stories showing “happy only” children, because children have a range of emotions. You’ve got to value all affects equally and read stories that resonate with children’s experiences, so that they’re not alone with their difficult feelings.      

Children learn that literacy is a voice. When they hear a story about something that resonates with their own feelings, they can dictate, write, draw, or play about it, fostering authentic communication. That way, school isn’t distracting them from their experiences. Learning becomes a vehicle for self-expression. It helps children makes sense of what they have been through, and it helps them connect with others around their experiences.

How do transitional objects like teddy bears play into that?

We’ve done a lot of work with teddy bears from the toddler stage through fifth grade. It’s proven to be a powerful technique that enhances the teacher-child attachment and children’s ability to be empathic to themselves and others.

When I was the director of the Karen Horney Therapeutic Nursery, we worked with children who had traumatic histories. Some kids would bring in their teddy bears, and we saw how powerful it was for them. We decided that we were going to get teddy bears for everyone and work with them on all levels.

At the time that I came to Bank Street, we were doing a project in the Newark Public Schools. There were several abused, traumatized children in one classroom with a brand-new teacher—and it was disastrous. I thought, “Let me get them teddy bears. I think it will help.”

The teacher thought I was nuts, but things got so out of control that eventually she let me do it. We put the teddy bears up high on the shelf, and then during morning meeting, we said, ‘What do you notice about our classroom?’

The kids said, ‘There’s bears!’

‘What do you notice about the bears?’ we asked. (The bears were identical, and we thought the children would say, ‘They all look the same.’)

A kid raised his hand and said, ‘They’re not pushing each other off the shelf.’

We said, ‘You’re right. They’re not pushing each other off the shelf. But in this class, children push each other all the time, and we have to keep the teddy bears safe. They’re going to be with us all year. We have to figure out: How do you make a safe home for the teddy bear?’

The anxiety and aggression in that classroom went down substantially. Since then, we’ve done the same work in hundreds of classrooms.

That strikes me as somewhat different from playing with dolls.

It’s particularly powerful for boys, who have less invitation to play that way. Having teddy bears in the classroom makes it all right to need affection and nurturing.

A doctor in Israel who worked with war-affected children found that kids who had transitional objects had less post-traumatic stress than those who didn’t. When we’re using teddy bears at bad times, as we did after the hurricane, we do a two-pronged approach. We say, “That was hard, and everyone was scared. Now we have these teddy bears to help us feel safer.” But we also say, “The teddy bears might remember the storm, and they might need you to help them feel safer.”

That was part of the Israeli study. Giving kids an invitation to be the caregiver empowered them in the face of feeling so helpless.

With the doll, you’re caring for something, whereas with the teddy bear, you might identify more with it as you, as a mirror.

Yes, and both things happen.

I can see how this would be helpful to teachers, too. 

It is. We do a parallel process where we give teddy bears to members of the staff before we have them participate with the kids. We say, “This is going to be yours forever. What is it like to have someone give you something?” People have all kinds of childhood associations with stuffed animals. They name the bear, and we ask, “What name did you choose, and where did you get the name?”

You learn all about the people in the room that way. It brings a sense of community.

What are some other ways to help children cope with trauma?

There are many approaches. Kids need to have someone with them to make sense of their experiences. There’s a technique called “News of the Day.” Little kids come into a classroom, and they want to share news. They dictate it to the teacher who writes it down. Then, in morning meeting, if the “author” wants her to, the teacher will read the news, and other kids can ask about it. One child will say, “Yesterday, I got a goldfish.” Another will say, “I saw someone shoot my uncle.”

There’s a huge range of what gets said. But the fact that there’s a technique to hold all kinds of feelings and experiences, and a place in school for those experiences to live, as well as a reliable routine that children can count on, results in less emotional isolation.

We also encourage teachers to put Interactive Feeling Charts in the classroom, with several positive and negative emotions pictured. Children put their names or symbols on those pictures if they want to say how they’re feeling. If this is done at the beginning of the school day, teachers can tune into where children see themselves. The routine can be preventive in allowing kids to connect around those feelings, then making sure that they’re not alone. During adverse moments in the classroom, children need to be comforted before they can self-comfort.

There are so many interventions that are not only best practices for early childhood development, but also serve as powerful preventive mental health measures. We put those two things together.

Read Part One of my interview here.                

Hearing Trauma's Voice: A Conversation with Lesley Koplow (Part 1)

Lesley Koplow is the Director of the Center for Emotionally Responsive Practice (ERP) at Bank Street College of Education in New York City. I recently spoke with her about efforts to help children who are living with the effects of trauma and toxic stress. Here are excerpts from our conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.    

How has Bank Street been working with local schools to help children living in high-risk environments?

After Hurricane Sandy devastated New York City in October 2012, we offered prevention and intervention services for hurricane-affected early childcare programs through a grant from the state. We worked in Far Rockaway, Lower Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and Coney Island. Several of the populations in areas with high poverty rates and few resources had preexisting trauma. We did in-class therapeutic groups and also offered support groups for teachers and parents, which enabled us to provide multiple levels of intervention.

How do you work with teachers whose students are living with trauma and toxic stress?

We start by giving a teddy bear to teachers who want to participate. We ask them to pretend that the teddy bear is a child in their classroom. The teacher then tells the story of that child. For example, “This is Miguel. When he came to school, he seemed OK. Here’s what I know about his experiences during the hurricane, and here’s what happened afterward.” Or, “I know from a parent-teacher conference that Miguel is in foster care. He was in four homes before the current one. He is withdrawn in the classroom.”

We have great compassion for the teachers of traumatized children, some of whom have been traumatized in their own lives. Teachers work very hard and are not always recognized or given support.

During our hurricane interventions, one teacher had a real struggle showing empathy for children in her class who were sad or angry. Our consultant stayed with her, lending an empathic ear over an 18-month period. A few months later, the teacher attended a conference here and chose a seminar on trauma. She talked about a little girl in her class who had been fine before the hurricane. The child was happy and played. After the hurricane, the girl had a sad face and no interest in her environment. The teacher said, “She regressed,” and began to get tearful.

Our work showed that if you are present for a long enough time, and you’re empathic not only to the experiences that the children have, but to the experiences that the adults have, you can help generate empathic care.

What advice do you have for teachers who work with children growing up in difficult circumstances? 

You have to learn how to hear trauma’s voice. Young children don’t necessarily present the way someone’s going to think that they will. You may have a “deer in headlights” image of a traumatized child. Sometimes, that’s what you see, and those children are easier to empathize with because they look hurt and lost. They look like they need an adult. However, other children cope by keeping a distance from the adult, by always moving so that they can’t be overwhelmed by traumatic memories. They can’t rest. They jump around. If they're not allowed to be active, they punch someone. Sometimes, they can't tolerate what it feels like to be them, and they give other people the negative feelings that they're trying to avoid.

It’s hard to be empathic to a child in that situation when you’ve got a whole bunch of kids, and you have to keep everyone safe, and you have to keep everyone engaged, and the co-teacher is out with the flu. It’s stressful, and one of the things we know about stress is that it is debilitating to both teachers and children. When children come into the classroom with high stress levels already, if they inherit a stressed environment in the classroom, they have no way of organizing or re-regulating their own physiology or relationships. When stress hormones remain high, kids’ reactivity is enhanced, and their ability to think deeply is diminished.

When kids have had lots of trauma and stress, you want the classroom to be low-stress and highly interactive, with lots of opportunity for children to play symbolically so that they don’t feel alone with their troubles. When children feel alone, bad things happen because they act as though they are alone.

A lot of what we teach has to do with helping grown-ups understand what they’re seeing. Kids bring their whole lives into the classroom, and teachers live with that. Sometimes, teachers don’t know the story, but they’re living with it. We encourage teachers to know what they can about what students’ lives outside of the classroom so that the kids aren’t alone with confusing and overwhelming experiences.

How many hours a day might a teacher be with a particular child in a preschool setting?

Children are often in a preschool setting 10 hours a day. That’s a long time. If you have an empathic partner 10 hours a day, that can’t change history, but it can change your future. If you have a partner who’s afraid of you and can’t hold you, and whose own trauma is unacknowledged, then there won’t be a good outcome.

Teachers are really important people. Besides the parent-child attachment, the teacher-child attachment is probably the second most powerful relationship for a child. Everyday relationships become part of who children are. Kids internalize the way that a teacher looks at them and feels about them. Children who have a history of trauma may blame themselves for the things that have happened. It's so important that teachers see these children in a positive light so that they can come to see themselves that way.

Read Part Two of my conversation with Lesley Koplow here.


Storyworks Jr.: a Brand-New Resource for Third Grade ELA Instruction

Third grade teachers have spoken, and Scholastic Classroom Magazines listened: Storyworks Jr.—a new magazine just for third graders—will be in classrooms this fall, in response to teachers nationwide who need help with third grade English language arts instruction. Building on the success of StoryworksStoryworks  Jr. will provide six annual issues of engaging content supported by robust teaching materials.

I spoke with Editorial Director Lauren Tarshis and Education Editor Rebecca Leon all about Storyworks Jr., and the prototype issue that is now in the hands of 3rd grade teachers nationwide.

Why Storyworks Jr.?

Storyworks Jr. developed in response to an enormous outcry from third grade teachers who were using Storyworks, but felt it was a little hard for third grade (and we agree; we’ve actually made Storyworks more robust over the years in response to changing standards). Starting a year ago, we visited many third grade teachers who are currently using Storyworks, to see where the difficulties were, and find out what we needed to do to make it appropriate and accessible for 3rd grade.

Obviously, the stories need to be just as engaging as Storyworks, but they need to be shorter, with an easier reading level. We even made the font size bigger. The magazine will progress through the school year, and will grow with students, so that later in the year the articles will be longer and more challenging. And for this age group, many of them have never encountered text like this—a six-page, nonfiction article—before, so we have to do a lot to help them through it.

Why is third grade so critical?

Third grade is a special and important year. For students, it’s the year of transition from learning to read to reading to learn; it’s the first year of high-stakes testing; and it’s the year that in 14 states kids are retained if they don’t pass the reading test. In fact, the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that 88% of students who failed to earn a high school diploma were struggling readers in third grade.

This is also a tough moment for teachers, so we want to not only give them an instructional tool, but also something that’s going to delight them and be fun to use. And today there is a call for knowledge-building content: content that is rich and builds knowledge in science and social studies, instead of simply being a vehicle for building reading skills. We want Storyworks Jr. to be a combination of foundational and comprehension skills. 

What have you been hearing from teachers about the Storyworks Jr. prototype?

The success of Storyworks is based on a trusted partnership with our teachers. And so we’re already thrilled to hear that the teachers aren’t saying, “the students learned,” they’re saying: “we learned.”

We began a year ago, and our plan was to almost crowd-source our 3rd grade Storyworks.  So we developed our prototype, and sent it to 85,000 teachers, as well as class sets to 115 teachers, including eight who are using it for a full grade level. We’re now on what we call our “feedback tour,” visiting 30-40 classrooms and talking to teachers about how it’s working for them. We have a high level of teacher engagement that we can access in real-time. Our message for teachers is: Help us create the perfect tool for you.

Also, what we learn for Storyworks Jr. will help infuse Storyworks and SCOPE with new ideas and energy. That’s what been most fun about it—we’ve learned a ton, and now we start every meeting with no assumptions; anything that we thought was set in stone for Storyworks isn't any longer. What’s cool about magazines is that we can start something brand new and operate in a nimble way. 

Tell me about the launch website.

We have a very joyful outreach to teachers. We created a special website for the launch, giving teachers the opportunity to look at the prototype issue online, (they also receive a hard copy), and to watch a video introducing the magazine. We have a very exciting new video read-aloud, where I read an article aloud with cut-aways to maps and other support materials. The video read-aloud is a showstopper! In a classroom this morning there was a demand for a performance encore because there was an outcry from students that they had to see it again. And what we’ve learned is that while I’m thinking of it as a tool for differentiation, but it can also work as the second read for a close read. It helps kids picture what they may have never experienced before. 


Go here to learn more about Storyworks Jr., and to read the prototype issue.

ESSA Explained: Our Take, and a Helpful Video

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was signed into law in December 2015, and will be fully implemented in schools in the 2017-2018 school year. We all know that ESSA is in, and NCLB is out, but where can we turn to really make sense of this legislation? A few days ago, Education Week put together this short video that breaks ESSA down in a manageable and practical Q&A form. (It's under 4 minutes long!)

This post on edupulse looks closely at a number of key evaluation and assessment factors that will be impacted by ESSA—from measuring high school achievement, to conducting teacher evaluations or thinking about low-performing schools.

Also, check out Four Things Educators Should Know About ESSAthis discussion of the legislation ("from a somewhat practical standpoint") from Scholastic's Director of Goverment Relations.

Have you found any helpful ESSA "explainers?" Let us know!

The 7 Habits of Highly Impactful Librarians

During my 15-year tenure at both Library Journal and School Library Journal, I had the good fortune to meet the most dynamic and successful librarians in every possible domain, ranging from academe to the corporate world, from municipal government to K–12. During this time, a compelling pattern came to me in sharp relief: All of the most creative and effective librarians that I had ever come across shared the same qualities. When I examined their respective “road maps” to success, they deployed all of the same core principles. 

The masterful use of these key principles yielded a singular and extraordinarily salient outcome: impact. These leaders produced demonstrable impact that they could clearly and compellingly articulate to decision-makers. 

In celebration of National Library Week (April 10–16), below is a round-up of these key principals—the “7 Habits of Highly Impactful Librarians”—with resources and recommendations for librarians to implement these habits themselves.

These seven habits represent effective and proven strategies that are rooted in research and evidence-based practice. They are designed to help librarians revise and improve how they impact learners, and they ensure that school libraries are woven into the instructional fabric of schools. 

Habit #1: Build strong and trusting relationships

Highly impactful librarians know that relationships are critical to secure buy-in from their school administrators. They understand what keeps district administrators up at night, learn the district’s specific strategic goals, and know how their work fits into those goals.

How you can do this:

  • Consistently present district administrators with the variety of ways you and your library can integrate college and career readiness skills, integrate information technology skills into curriculum, and plan and deliver PD, especially technology-based.
  • Collaborate in planning and developing curriculum and assessment

Habit #2: Speak the language of school leadership

Highly impactful librarians know that they must be great at clearly communicating their vision for the library in the context of the district’s learning objectives and strategic plan. District leaders need to understand how their goals for the library support the larger goals of the district.

How you can do this:

  • Know that the majority of school leadership administrators are focused on five key areas. These include: Equitable access for all students, creating a culture of reading, ensuring students are college and career ready, etc.
  • Be aware of what is happening at the district level and be actively involved in the formation and communication of the district’s strategic plan and mission. Try to regularly visit the school’s website, attend BOE meetings, or collaborate with principals on specific goals.

Habit #3: Be the gatekeeper and curator of all digital content

Highly impactful librarians know that they are distinctly qualified to evaluate, curate and distribute digital content that best supports instruction. They must remain at the nexus of digital content, programs and technology and use their media literacy skills to best determine what type of content is most appropriate for students and teachers.

How you can do this:

  • Compose, create and distribute high-quality digital content clusters called Text Sets.
  • Strengthen digital reading stamina by driving students to more Volume Reading versus only Close Reading in order to build knowledge via Text Sets.
  • Establish an awareness of and protocol for determining accuracy and validity of online content.

Habit #4: Be the champion and CEO of independent reading

Highly impactful librarians understand the power of choice in driving reading motivation and ultimately improvement and growth. Research shows that avid readers demonstrate both superior literacy development and wide-ranging knowledge across subjects (Allington, 2012; Hiebert & Reutzel, 2010; Sullivan & Brown, 2013).

How you can do this:

  • Establish a school- or district-wide plan to create and grow an “avid reading culture” in your district.
  • Launch a summer reading initiative that emphasizes choice as well as incentives to drive increased enthusiasm and excitement around reading.
  • Create literacy events that encourage family participation, reinforcing to parents the importance of reading and having books in the home. 

Habit #5: Adopt an evidence-based practice in everything you do

Highly impactful librarians know that data and analysis are indispensable tools that substantiate their work and help obtain buy-in from school- or district-level leadership. By implementing an evidence-based practice, they can evaluate and demonstrate student progress and make a case for allocating necessary funds and resources.

How you can do this:

  • Leverage prevailing research (such as School Libraries Work!) that correlates strong and effective school library programs to an improvement in reading scores among students.
  • Analyze your program and determine what it needs, as well as the desired objective.
  • Determine the evidence that will resonate with your desired audience, and connect to your objective.
  • Collect, analyze and synthesize data to act as evidence.
  • Package and deliver the data as the core of your message.

(Reference: Say It with Data: A Concise Guide to Making Your Case and Getting Results by Priscille Dando, ALA Editions 2014)

Habit #6: Be a teacher-librarian with a constructivist approach based on inquiry

Highly impactful librarians tie reading to research to strengthen achievement.Research is the search for answers, and this inquiry-based approach allows students to test and re-test their hypotheses. By infusing inquiry into daily practice and instruction, students can hone their ability to respond to questions with evidence.

How you can do this:

  • Model and teach good research skills, which support the inquiry process.
  • Use reading, read-alouds, and primary sources as a “springboard to research.”
  • Curiosity, wonder, questioning and the goal to “dig deeper” all play a vital role in fostering inquiry.

Habit #7: Be the orchestrator of your school or district’s makerspace initiative

Highly impactful librarians know that the growing trend of makerspaces perfectly blends a constructivist approach to inquiry with problem-based learning and literacy—all core competencies for the dynamic school librarian. Librarians have an unprecedented opportunity to tie together literacy, inquiry and STEM by housing their makerspaces in the school library. Data shows that makerspaces have a positive impact on student engagement through hands-on learning.

How you can do this:

  • Find a program from which you can glean ideas for your makerspace.
  • Check out The Disruption Department to learn more about how one district is evolving its makerspace initiative through the Design Thinking Process, which helps educators and students assess their “maker activity.” 

Are you a librarian? In the comments, share some of your best strategies for success!

Five Things I Learned from edu@scholastic Bloggers

At the end of this week, after almost three years of editing, writing and caring for this blog, I'll be handing the keys over to a new editor, Julia Graeper.

Julia will undoubtedly make this an even more robust source of information and inspiration for educators and education leaders. Still, it's humbling to look back through the archives and revisit the fascinating contributions from the educators, school administrators and researchers who write in this space.

Here are five things I learned from edu@scholastic bloggers that will stick with me.

1) Reading is not just about getting the words. Lois Bridges, a master of language and the science of literacy, taught me that reading is far more complicated and nuanced than simply adding up the sum of all the words in a sentence and computing a meaning.

Simply put: language is redundant. The information in every sentence is signaled in more ways than one. Indeed, language circles back on itself, creating cohesive chains of meaning that readers can follow across a text, picking up clues, not unlike Hansel and Gretel following breadcrumbs through the dark woods."

2) Language and play develop in tandem. Lesley Koplow of the Bank Street College of Education explained to our writer Suzanne McCabe how play is an essential part of learning for young children.

You can’t feed language without feeding play. That doesn’t work, especially when children are stressed by life experiences. They need play to integrate and make sense of their experiences the way adults do. Adults talk about a frightening event so that they can make sense of it. Kids need to play about what happened so that they can make sense of it."

3) Read alouds aren't just joyful - they're essential. Almost universally, students and teachers of young children love read alouds. Yes, these experiences build bonds and help children begin to find joy in books. But read alouds are also an essential part of learning to read, writes master teacher Maria Walther.

If we want children to integrate meaning and ideas across texts, they have to have experiences hearing a lot of texts. They need a rich textual lineage—a wealth of reading experiences from which to draw. We are setting ourselves up for failure if we put forth all these grand ideas of voluminous independent complex text reading, but then don’t offer students voluminous, joyful read aloud experiences each and every day.

4) Games can make us smarter. My interview with journalist and author Greg Toppo helped me understand how the game-playing experience is very often a powerful learning experience.

Like school, a good game is a designed experience that ideally takes the learner by the hand and guides him through each of the steps to learning the material. People like James Paul Gee and Kurt Squire would say that’s why games are so much fun – not because of the shooting and explosions, but because we naturally love to learn."

5) Professionals persevere despite bumps in the road. An inspiring post from Kristina Holzweiss, the 2015 School Library Journal School Librarian of the Year, reinforced this valuable lesson. Just seven years ago, her school position was cut to part time, leading to a low point in her life. Yet her dedication to her professional mission and desire to make a difference in children's lives pushed her on and helped her accomplish so much.

So, why am I telling you all this? Hopefully, you will be inspired to tell your story—how you make a difference in your students’ lives. Advocacy for your position as a certified school librarian takes place the second you put a book into a child’s hands, but it shouldn’t end there."

Here's to a long life of learning!

Inside the Minds of Top Teacher-Librarians

April is School Library Month and we are kicking it off with the 2016 School Library Journal School Librarian of the Year Award! This third-annual award honors K–12 library professionals for outstanding achievement and the exemplary use of 21st-century tools and services to engage children and teens toward fostering multiple literacies. 

Over the past two years, we have had the privilege of recognizing passionate, creative library leaders, including 2015 School Librarian of the Year Kristina Holzweiss of Bay Shore Middle School on Long Island, NY, and 2014 winner Michelle Colte of Hale Kula Elementary School in Wahiawa, HI. Whether they are making global connections through social media, elevating learning through play, creating a need-based school library, or implementing maker-spaces, these librarians push boundaries to elevate student learning and inspire their peers. 

In honor of School Library Month, we've put together a round-up of blog posts from some top teacher-librarians—School Librarian of the Year Award winners and finalists. (Be sure to click each author's name to follow on Twitter!) 

My Story: From a Job Cut to Becoming School Librarian of the Year
By Kristina Holzweiss 
Kristina Holzweiss began her education career as a 7th grade English teacher in her hometown. After a long journey, including a job-cut, Kristina eventually found her “happily ever after” as the Bay Shore Middle School librarian in Bay Shore, NY. In 2015, she was named School Librarian of the Year! Her goal: To inspire other librarians to tell their stories—how they make a difference in students’ lives.

School Librarians Open a World of Possible for Students
By Sally Smollar
2015 School Librarian of the Year Award finalist Sally Smollar of Plumosa School of the Arts in Delray Beach, FL explores the power of connecting people to stories, information and opportunities. School librarians have the opportunity to touch the lives of students and open a world of possible, even in the most unexpected ways.

Embracing Change: Creating a Need-Based School Library is Not One-Size-Fits-All
By Lakisha Brinson
Lakisha Brinson is currently a school librarian at Amqui Elementary School in Nashville, TN and was named a School Librarian of the Year Award finalist in 2015. She describes her journey implementing three different approaches to developing a learning hub within three different schools throughout her career as a teacher-librarian.

How I elevate learning through play
By Michelle Colte
2014 School Librarian of the Year Michelle Colte of Hale Kula Elementary School in Wahiawa, HI asks, “How can I, as an elementary school librarian, foster opportunities for playful discovery and exploration? How can I incorporate hands-on learning, driven by students’ own curiosity?” To answer this, she has adopted a new mindset and looked to museums and other libraries for inspiration.

School librarians helping to facilitate global connections
By Colleen Graves 
Twenty-first century librarians are tech savvy and dynamic—they can help teachers make global connections by connecting with authors, other classrooms and curricular experts or mentors. 2014 School Librarian of the Year Award Finalist Colleen Graves of Lamar Middle School in Flower Mound, TX discusses tips and tools for librarians expand their networks and transform learning.

One school librarian's goal for the year: Empower student voice
By Andy Plemmons
Andy Plemmons of David C. Barrow Elementary School in Athens, GA had one goal in mind when he was named School Librarian of the Year Award Finalist in 201: to empower student voice. Here he examines the powerful moments in the library that allow students to raise their voices in authentic ways and connect with global experiences.


Interested in submitting a nomination for the 2016 School Librarian of the Year Award? Visit the School Library Journal website here. (Nominations close May 20, 2016.)


Thank you to Brittany Sullivan for writing this post.

Summer Is Right Around the Corner. Is Your School Ready?

You’ve likely seen the research and read the reports about academic summer slide and how this contributes to the achievement gap. Coming from a principal who works in a Title I school, I’ll tell you this: It absolutely does. It also contributes to our country’s growing equity gap.

As the current principal of Forrest Elementary School in Hampton City Schools (VA), I knew I needed to look at what was happening with our students over the summer. In review of our end-of-year and beginning-of-year reading data, our students showed clear signs of reading backslide, from anywhere between 1 to 2 months based upon the DRA assessment. I knew I had to plan something to support our students this summer.

Where did I start?

I started with my data and shared it with the district leadership team. I did this to see if I could get a green light for even creating a proposal for their approval for summer 2016. I shared with leadership the research on summer backslide and I shared Forrest’s data so they could see this was a need for our community. When I got the green light I started to create a presentation to share with my leadership team. This led into all the other areas that you have to focus on to have a successful summer enrichment program.


With my leadership team we had to look at the data and come up with our rationale-our WHY. Why did Forrest ES need to provide programming during the summer and why did we need to provide students access to text over the summer. I had to ensure the staff understood and believed in the work that we needed to do. Programs are going to work best with what I refer to as the “coalition of the willing.” Those who understand the why, have the ability and the willingness to fully participate. I had to get the pulse on whether the staff would be willing to support this type of programming. So I brought the data to the leadership team, which includes the grade level chair from every grade, reading specialists, the math interventionist, the school counselor, and family engagement specialists. I knew I had the needed cross-section to get a good feel if this would work at Forrest for this summer.

Once I had the buy-in of the leadership team we had to think about the WHO. Would we focus on certain grade levels this summer? Would we focus on all grade levels? How many students should be included? How many students in each classroom? We decided because we already had a program for the rising first grade students that we would focus on rising 2nd-4th grade students. Rising kindergarteners and rising first graders were going to have opportunities over the summer to engage with their families around literacy using a different program – our Scholastic Literacy Events program. They were also receiving books through this program to ensure they have access to text over the summer. Knowing this allowed us to make the decision to focus on rising 2nd-4th grade students. This year, we will provide texts for 5th grade students to help curb summer backslide and those who qualify for the district’s summer school will attend summer school because it prepares them specifically for middle school. 

The WHERE might seem easy, but it’s not. Think about your school at the end of the year. The teachers’ complete close-out procedures. They box up everything, stack chairs and desks, cover all shelves and other materials, and shut down all technology. They have personal materials that they keep in their rooms. So, you have to really look and decide on the availability of classrooms early on in the process so that you’re not undoing work that teachers did straightening up their rooms. There are a lot of questions that might need to be answered related to location:

  • Are you keeping your library open? Are you keeping your computer room open?
  • Are you keeping your family engagement room open? 
  • What is going to be the access to space in your building while ensuring cleaning can be completed to start the school year?
  • Have you worked with the district custodial department to discuss this program and how it will impact cleaning of the building? 
  • Have you talked to food services if you are going to provide food for students? 
  • Have you discussed transportation with the transportation department? 

After deciding why, who and where, we had to think about the timeframe of the summer programming and access -- the WHEN. We had to decide when to start and end the program. For example, the staff said we need to stop the program at least two weeks prior to pre-service week for a few reasons. 1) The building needed to be cleaned and ready to go for the upcoming school year. 2) Teachers needed a break before coming back for the year and to prepare themselves for the school year. 3) Students needed time on their own to practice at home. So we decided to end three weeks prior to the pre-service week and provide fun reading and activities for the three weeks prior to school starting. They would have one week without specific resources. They will always have books to read or re-read.  They will have math games and resources they can replay.

Before we could fully lock in the WHEN, we also had to decided on the WHAT. What was the program going to feel like, sound like, look like? How was this program going to be different from tradition summer school? How were we going to frame this for students so they felt like they were chosen for something that was really awesome. Also, we knew we needed to work not just on the mind but also the heart. We needed to ensure the program includes academics as well as social and emotional intelligence. We wanted to focus on building strong character while having fun with reading and math.  The staff was great because they said we know all kids cannot come to the school and participate in the program, but can’t we provide books for all students to read over the summer? My answer was yes and there are models that have shown that providing access to text with ongoing contact via phone or mail will work for students.

We have found a program called LitCamp that can help us with the literacy and character part of the program. We have found a program called MathKidz that can help us with math. Both programs are designed around enrichment and fun. However, we still had to plan for the materials needed in the classroom and outside of the classroom in students’ homes. For example, for the literacy program to be effective, students needed to have access to a classroom reading library. Teachers need access to additional read alouds and the library. Teachers needed access to additional math manipulatives to ensure all students had the math games at home along with at school.

The team created a proposal to our district leadership. We created a PowerPoint that included the why, who, where, when, and what.  We created a budget sheet that included all costs including staffing, transportation, food, materials for at school, materials for at home, and enrichment activity costs.

We are going to measure the success of the program by utilizing our end-of-year data and comparing to our start-of-year data.  Every program that funding is spent on needs an accountability measure. This helps in guiding decisions for adjustments that need to be made to the program, continued budget, and support for expansion so all children can gain access.

Is this summer slide happening at your school? Is there a need in your community to provide this for your students?  Where might you start? If summer academic slide is present, it is contributing to both you academic achievement gap and your equity gap. How can you address this for your students?


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