I Believe Every Child Can Become a Super Reader

Pam Allyn and Ernest Morrell are the co-authors Every Child a Super Reader, a new book from Scholastic that empowers educators, giving them the tools to transform instruction and help students become “Super Readers.” The book is scheduled for release in December, and is available for pre-order online.

In advance of the book’s release, Pam and Ernest have corresponded about their hopes and desires for the book. Their exchange will be published on edu@scholastic over the next several weeks.

Dear Ernest,

You and I have had a long friendship and have shared a passion around advocating for children as learners. Our new book is a momentous time in our lives to share the conversations we’ve had and the work we’ve done, both separately and together, that advance the concept of a child-centered, literature-centered, reading-centered life. I am very excited to be writing to you right now, sharing some thoughts and ideas with the wish that 2016 will become the Year of the Super Reader.

When we first started talking about LitWorld, the organization of which I am the founder, and you a critical leader as a board member, we were talking about children whose stories had been all but forgotten, children whose access to books feels like a dream and where the promise to go to college or even high school feels distant. We see literacy as a powerful equity issue.

In writing our book, I believe we recognize that the hunger in children to feel more of a connection to their own voices and voices is not limited to children living in poverty, but to children living across the socio-economic spectrum. For us, this book, Every Child a Super Reader, is not only for children on the margins, though we raise our strongest voices for them, but for all children, living everywhere.

The poet Robert Penn Warren (the first and only writer to win a Pulitizer Prize for poetry and fiction, by the way!) once wrote in a poem: “Tell me a story of deep delight.” I think children are searching for the opportunity to tell and to hear and to read stories of deep delight. They come to school ready to experience that deep delight. And then, there are the challenges of school and schooling in this era, the confusions and the complications. I think we are sometimes confused as a society about what the purpose and meaning of education should be now and our children sense that confusion. 

We have become perhaps distracted by the “Googling” of information, by the idea that technology will solve all, by the literal waterfall of facts that rains down upon us each and every day, as if all this could or should supplant the role of teaching and learning in classrooms. Yet, teaching and learning is deeply human and I do believe it is irreplaceable and that literature facilitates the humanity of our work too. What do you think about that, Ernest? For in my view, the relationship between teacher, student and text is predicated upon delight. That relationship is a transaction, where the child is at the center, the text is at the center, and the teacher is the coach, the champion, the mediator. I believe this teaching role as mentor and guide is at once classic and also the most modern it has ever been. It is relevant and powerful. But we have to practice at it, every day. Our book focuses on tapping the strengths already within each child, what they come to us with. This makes our complex role easier.

I hope our book will inspire a discussion around the power of contagious engagement for every child and the role we teachers and parents play in fostering this for all our children, through our mentorship and all the ways we facilitate the delight around reading, writing and storytelling in our students. That kind of engagement helps children curate their own reading lives, with their own choices and their own voices, with their own stories and their own knowledge. Outside of school, we are always curating information, sifting, mulling, discarding, choosing. We constantly ask questions and seek answers. I want schools now to become a laboratory for how children learn to be most empowered by their literacy to be able to do all these things, with us and without us. Their own wonderings become delightful because they have the power to find and curate their results.

I want our book to inspire the creation of literacy communities of “deep delight,” where reading books of choice and texts that invite discussion can build a momentum in every child to be a choice maker, an innovator, a leader, and a member of civic society. Where the child who feels strong enough can break through the hard reading challenges, dig deep into knowledge and discover she has ideas that can change the world.

What are your hopes for our book?

With all my affection,


It's a Fact: School Libraries Work

Anyone who has spent time with me or follows me on social media knows I care deeply about creating positive library experiences for children and teachers.

With the release of the 2016 edition of School Libraries Work!, I feel more motivated than ever to stand on mountaintops and shout about WHY school libraries are important and matter. School Libraries Work! will empower educators, administrators, policymakers and parents by arming them with powerful research, recommendations and support for school library programs.

To accomplish this, Scholastic compiled national- and state-level findings from more than 30 separate research studies demonstrating the integral role school libraries play in teaching and supporting student learning while confirming that when school librarian staffing is reduced, achievement in English Language Arts (ELA) suffers. Throughout all of the studies included in the report, one thing is abundantly clear: Librarians and libraries play a crucial role in schools. Across the country, the data is proof that a credentialed school librarian, collaboration and co-teaching, access to technology and large collection size all elevate student learning.

To download the full School Libraries Work! report, visit: http://www.scholastic.com/SLW2016.

Here are highlights from the report:

  1. When school librarian staffing is reduced, achievement in ELA suffers. A School Library Journal analysis found states that gained school librarian positions between 2005 and 2009 experienced larger increases and no decreases in National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) reading scores for 4th grade, while states that lost school librarians experienced smaller increases or decreases in reading scores.
  2. Librarians play an integral role in teaching and supporting 21st-century skills. A South Carolina study commissioned by the South Carolina Association of School Librarians revealed that students were more likely to show strengths and less likely to show weaknesses on writing standards if their school libraries were staffed with a full-time librarian plus a full or part-time assistant.
  3. Support of school librarians and libraries from school and district leaders is key. In fact, recent research has shown a strong relationship between test scores and the degree to which the principal values and supports the library media program. A research paper from Marietta, GA, details short and long term recommendations for school leaders to support and enhance student learning through high-quality library programs and certified staff.

The Implicit Benefits of Explicit Reading Instruction

“But what does an inference look like?”  This question, posed by a fifth grade student struggling to get a grip on making inferences represents the confusion many students experience with that strategy. An effective way to support all learners as they work to understand and apply a reading strategy is for you, the teacher, to show them what the process of understanding and applying the strategy looks like. You can easily do that by reading aloud a passage from an anchor text, thinking aloud, and making your process visible as you infer and identify unstated meanings in texts.  

Teach Reading With an Anchor Text

An anchor text is short and usually complements the genre and theme of whatever unit of study you’re carrying out. If your students are reading biographies, for example, then the anchor text could be a picture book biography such as Wilma Unlimited by Kathleen Krull or an excerpt from a chapter book such as The Notorious Benedict Arnold by Steve Sheinkin. You can evaluate the length of an anchor text by deciding whether you can complete the modeling in about 10 class periods by reading aloud each day, two to three paragraphs. The strategies you model should first and foremost give students the thinking tools they need to read well and perhaps help them meet state and Common Core State Standards. Think aloud and show students how to:

  • use context clues to figure out the meaning of unfamiliar words.
  • build prior knowledge by previewing a text before reading.
  • apply reading strategies such as making inferences, finding themes, and determining important ideas.
  • link figurative language, literary elements, and informational text structures to a theme or big idea in a text.
  • discuss the genre characteristics of the anchor text.
  • foster collaborative discussions of the anchor text.
  • answer text-dependent questions.
  • use close reading to solve reading challenges.

The strategies that you model with an anchor text should be the same strategies that students practice applying to books at their instructional reading level. Anchor text lessons can offer students multiple opportunities to build and/or enlarge their mental models of how specific strategies work, so they can use those strategies on their own to become better readers.

Anchor Text Lesson on Figurative Language

The purpose of this lesson for middle school students, which is based on the Emily Dickinson poem below, is to help students understand and identify an extended metaphor and then show how the metaphor enhances a theme in the text.

She sweeps with many-colored brooms,

And leaves the shreds behind;

Oh, housewife in the evening west,

Come back, and dust the pond!


You dropped a purple ravelling in,

You dropped an amber thread;

And now you’ve littered all the East

With duds of emerald!


And still she plies her spotted brooms,

And still the aprons fly,

Till brooms fade softly into stars—

And then I come away.

1) Make sure students understand that an extended metaphor is a comparison between two unlike things that’s woven through several sentences, paragraphs or, as in this case, most of a poem.

2) Read aloud the poem twice. Before the second reading, ask students to listen for the extended metaphor.

3) Think aloud and explain the metaphor. Here’s what I say:

Dickinson compares sunset to a housewife and includes housewife imagery in each stanza. In the first stanza, words like sweep, housewife, and dust conjure pictures of a woman cleaning. However, instead of cleaning house, she’s cleaning away daylight and preparing for sunset.

4) Invite students to turn and talk and identify housewife imagery in the second and third stanzas. Here’s what students say:

Second stanza: ravelling, littered

Third stanza: brooms, aprons

5) Next, pose a question that can help students connect the extended metaphor to the poem’s theme: Why does Dickinson compare sunset to a housewife?

6) Ask students to turn and talk to explore that question. Here’s what two students said when I carried out this lesson recently in an eighth-grade classroom:

  • A housewife never finishes her work—like with nature always having to do sunset and sunrise.
  • My mom’s got routines—like she does stuff around the house on different days. That’s like sunrise and sunset ‘cause different things happen.

7) Wrap up the lesson by celebrating students thinking and recapping what     you’ve taught them about extended metaphor.

Suggestions for Using an Anchor Text to Teach Reading

The more you plan and practice anchor text lessons the easier delivering them becomes. You might consider practicing with colleagues to boost your comfort level. Then, plunge into offering your students explicit anchor text lessons using the guidelines that follow.

Process Guidelines for 10 to 15 Minute Anchor Text Lessons

Model a strategy that students are learning in guided reading. When you align your whole-class teaching with what students are learning in small groups, they stand a better chance of understanding and internalizing the strategy.

  1. Tell the students the strategy you’ll be modeling for them.
  2. Explain the strategy, how it helps readers, and how readers apply it.
  3. Read a short passage from the text and model by thinking aloud, how you apply the strategy.
  4. Involve the students. Have them turn and talk to apply the strategy to a different passage from the text. When they’ve finished, ask volunteers to share their thinking.
  5. Wrap up the lesson by retelling students what you and they did. Repeat the strategy’s name and how to apply it.

Present the interactive anchor text reading lesson using different parts of the same text four to five times a week.  Start by carrying out the lesson with the whole class and repeat it as necessary in small groups of students who require more time to absorb it. Short, focused, interactive anchor text lessons can show your students what terrific readers do as they unpack a text’s meaning.

Learn more about anchor text lessons by exploring Laura Robb’s book, Unlocking Complex Texts.

How is Elementary and Middle School Math Instruction Changing?

This summer, I was participating in a webinar about using area models for division. A fellow participant asked, “If students know the algorithm but not the model, how do we motivate them to care about the model?” The answer was a “eureka” moment for me: We have to change the definition of success in mathematics.

Some students (and adults!) are used to thinking that getting the right answer is all you need to do to succeed in math. We need to emphasize that it’s equally important to explain your thinking. Students can do this by drawing a model or a picture.

I think about this all time while I’m editing DynaMath—Scholastic’s classroom resource connecting literacy with real-world math for grades 3 through 5. We create the problem sets and lesson plans with these specific objectives in mind.

For example, in a lesson plan about ordering decimals, we’ll introduce the strategy of ordering decimals on a number line. Then we’ll close the lesson by showing students how to order decimals by lining them up according to place value. Finally, we’ll ask students to compare each method and explain which they prefer.

Learn teaching tips from real educators and math editors at Scholastic

With states adopting new, higher standards, kids are being taught math in new ways. But communicating these changes to parents and others, and keeping students engaged can be a daunting challenge.

Which is why I’m teaming up with Karina Hamalainen, editor of MATH (our classroom math magazine for grades 6 through 9) and Olga Tsoupros, a talented New York City teacher and Scholastic adviser, to host a free webinar on November 10 from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. EST.

We’ll share how math in elementary and middle school can be both rigorous and fun using real-world connections. RSVP to the webinar.

We’ll discuss:

  • An overview of how math teaching and learning has evolved in the Common Core era.
  • Ways to use novel, real-world examples to motivate your students so they will want to persevere through difficult concepts.
  • Tips to expand learning in the classroom and let our real-world math do the cross-genre work for you.

Districts Addressing Attendance Issues by Integrating Learning Supports

I read with interest a recent New York Times article by Rikha Sharma Rani entitled “Stopping Absenteeism at the Age of 5.” In it she highlighted the remarkable work of the Consolidated School District of New Britain to address the issue student attendance – and in the cited case, kindergarten attendance in the district. Hats off to the forward thinking district, school, and community partners for addressing the barrier in a proactive, early intervention manner.

Absenteeism is often addressed in a deficit manner; once a student has missed 5-7+ days, letters are sent, truancy officers are called in, and the wheels of compliance are rolling. As New Britain recognized, this “barrier to learning” has to be addressed in a more systemic manner and with a clear, consistent plan of early intervention using data to track and address the NEXT group of students who will end up on the truancy list. Moreover, this plan must include engaging parents as soon as their children enter school doors – to be our partners in providing our children every opportunity to succeed. There is no more basic opportunity than attending school every day.

As a former teacher, counselor, principal, and assistant superintendent, I have witnessed first-hand the impact of absenteeism on student learning. More times than I wish to recall, I have witnessed teachers stressed over re-teaching students who are chronically absent and students stressed (who often act out, or are inhibited) because they fall behind their classmates upon return to school. And often students become even more disengaged since because they cannot keep up with classmates.  It’s a vicious cycle that all too often leads to referrals for special services and identification for an issue that – at its core – was attendance.

But all is not lost!  There are many examples of school leaders who have taken the issue of absenteeism to a systemic level and have implemented approaches that focus on earlier identification of a group of students who have similar issues (such as attendance) and this issue is brought to the school improvement leadership team as part of continuous improvement efforts. Instead of the “crisis clinic” mode (where we address the issue after the fact), an integrated approach that is both proactive and sustainable should become standard operating practice.

There are districts across the country where this “Integrated Learning Supports” framework is used, uniting instruction, learning supports and management of schools into one leadership team.  These teams – both district and school level – address data driven issues such as attendance and discipline as a barrier to learning. One district doing this work well is Sumter, SC.

In an unprecedented effort, the Alabama State Department of Education has adopted the Learning Supports framework as a statewide initiative. Data has shown phenomenal improvement in districts and schools where the framework is used to address issues such as attendance. In the first year of implementation working in ten districts and 78 schools, the average savings in days of absences was 25 percent fewer days lost. The initiative is now in year three with 50 districts implementing the framework.

To learn more about the Integrated Learning Supports Framework, based on the research of Howard Adelman and Linda Taylor from UCLA's School Mental Health Project and its National Center for Mental Health in Schools, check out Rebuilding for Learning, published by Scholastic.

Turning Everyday Moments into Powerful Literacy Lessons

I see reading lessons everywhere I look: at the grocery store, driving around town, hiking a coastal trail, waiting for the bus, and of course, on a cozy couch.

Taking advantage of these everyday-reading opportunities, teachers and parents can find engaging teachable moments that foster language-rich environments and help children become more confident, avid and independent readers. Wrapping fun word activities into the daily routine, carving out time for shared reading, and understanding how social and emotional development impacts reading, teachers and parents can help foster a love of reading, even for a student who isn’t self-motivated to read for pleasure.

Your 2-year-old doesn’t jump on your lap because of the book. She’s jumping on your lap to be close to you and she knows you’re going to give her your attention and time. You’re not going to go do the dishes and you’re not going to go on the computer. Over time, she associates that wonderful feeling of being with you with this tool called reading.

In my latest book, Book Smart: How to Develop and Support Successful, Motivated Readers (Oxford University Press 2014), which I co-wrote with Jamie Zibulsky, we focus on the early years as critical for building reading and language acquisition that leads to long-term reading success.

There are powerful things that teachers and parents can do. The idea is that when you’re always bathing your students with language, always asking questions, always sharing information, then those are the children who have the high linguistic background. It’s that background, along with vocabulary acquisition, comprehension and general knowledge that sets them up for success in upper grades where critical thinking and reasoning skills become more important.

I encourage teachers and parents, even those with older students, to read aloud to and with children – every day. Parents and even teachers look at me quizzically, ”you’re telling me to read to my junior high school student?“ Yes!

Everybody needs to be read to two years ahead of their grade level because it is such a potent way to expose students to rare and unique words, phrases, and concepts that will then be familiar to them and in their oral lexicon. So when a reader comes upon that text on their own without any scaffolding or support, it won’t be a nonsense word or completely novel idea or term.

And there is a common struggle with older children who know how to read but choose not to read for pleasure. Yet there are numerous ways to engage students that are not always implemented – finding books that speak to their interests, playing an audio book to build language and background knowledge while the child is drawing, baking, or building with Legos is highly effective.

Whichever activities teachers and parents choose, do them early and often. It will pay dividends later on in the upper grades when the language requirements for reading and writing explode.

I call it the sleeper effect. In the early grades, the text tends to be simpler. The words and the length of sentences are smaller. But around third grade, the text quickly becomes more sophisticated. Multisyllabic words are the norm along with dependent clauses and coordinating conjunctions such as and, but, nor, and however. At an early age, it’s ”Once upon a time …“ At 4th grade it’s ”This proposition is…”

Therefore, the more language the 4th or 8th grader has built up that is automatized in their mind, then the easier it is when they come across it in the text. And all the language work you did through reading aloud to your students and encouraging them to read independently over the years really pays off.

To learn more from Prof. Anne E. Cunningham, sign up for a free webinar brought to you by Scholastic and ASCD and hosted by literacy expert Donalyn Miller. In this webinar, Cunningham will share the rationale for and the cognitive consequences of fostering rich language experiences and reading everyday with and to students.

School Librarians Open a World of Possible for Students

Sally Smollar of Plumosa School of the Arts, Delray Beach, FL was named a School Library Journal School Librarian of the Year Award finalist in August 2015. Be sure to also read the recent post by School Librarian of the Year finalist Lakisha Brinson.

One day when my son was in the third grade at my elementary school, he came into my library and made a casual remark: "Mom, you are the luckiest person in the whole school."

"Hmmm, why is that?” I asked.

"Because you are the only one who gets to know all of the kids. The other teachers just see their class for a year and then they move on."

Out of the mouths of babes!

It is true that we get to watch little five-year-olds grow into pre-teens, almost before our eyes. Then in a whirlwind of year-end activities, the summer vacation begins and we never see most of them again. We are in a unique setting unlike any other adult in their lives. At home there are chores and homework and busy schedules. In the classroom there is the ever-expanding demands from curriculum, assessments and overloaded teachers. But in the library the students see someone in front of them who has the time to learn about what interests them, and is willing to lead their exploration through the seemingly endless treasure trove of information and imagination that lies between those stacks. 

Often, we encounter a student who makes a first-time connection to reading under our guidance, which leaves us with a glowing feeling of satisfaction. But we often touch their lives way beyond elementary school, sometimes in ways we are not aware of. 

One such student was Jessica, a third grader who in 2001 took a family trip to “ground zero,” to view the devastation following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Upon returning to school, Jessica’s mother Susan asked me to help her daughter create a video documentary of the World Trade Center memorial site. She said that Jessica’s idol was Katie Couric, and she wanted to grow up to be a news anchor. I didn’t think that third graders even knew journalists by name! We spent many afternoons perfecting the project using iMovie on an Apple iMac computer that I purchased for our in-house TV studio. Jessica was well-prepared with photos, video footage of herself with commentary, and a suggestion for the background audio. She even re-recorded a voice-over when the original had too much background noise. It was an amazing project!

I recently ran into Jessica’s mom Susan for the first time in almost 14 years. I asked how her daughter was doing, and she told me that she was working behind the scenes for ABC News in New York City. I said, “That is fantastic! I am so happy that she achieved her dream job.” Susan replied, “It is because of you!”

Another student that comes to mind is Addie, who spent almost all of her free time in my library. I loved to recommend my favorite books, and we eventually agreed on our favorite book of all time, The One and Only Ivan. One day I asked her if she had any plans for spring break and she said that her mom was going to take her on a road trip to Zoo Atlanta to see Ivan, the gorilla from the book. I had to hold back tears when I broke the news that Ivan had passed away three years prior.  

One of my favorite days each school year falls around Halloween, when we combine dress-up day with career day. Students come dressed as “what they want to be when they grow up.”  I absolutely love watching them parade off of the bus in the morning, their little faces beaming with the pride of their career choices—chefs wearing white hats, police officers, doctors wearing stethoscopes, lawyers in suits with briefcases, etc. A third grade girl named Olivia passed me by with a cute sweater-dress but had no distinguishable accessories. I said, “What are you dressed as?” She turned around and lifted up her reading glasses, which were draped around her neck with the exact same green beaded chain as mine, and said, “I’m going to be YOU!”

Once again, I was reminded of the power of connecting people to stories, information, and opportunities, and the idea that you don’t always know which connections will be the most enduring. Every time the library door opens, school librarians have a unique opportunity to touch the life of a student and make a positive impact.

A Story of a Boy and a Book

This post first appeared on the Scholastic Book Fairs Reader Leader blog.

He came to me with anger seeping out of every pore, a cloud of dismay surrounding him. Looking at us with eyes that told the world that he was not afraid, that he knew that we could not make him do whatever it was we intended to ask. That he would fight us with every cell in his body just to stay in control. Yet, for all of his anger, for all of his glances directed my way, he wasn’t one of mine. I didn’t have the pleasure of teaching him. He was in a separate English class, trying to be taught all of those things he had missed because of his anger and outbursts.

He wasn’t afraid of me, nor very angry. I posed no threat since I was not one of the ones asking him to please do, please sit, please stop. So every day I greeted him, smiled when our paths crossed, and told him that all of those books I had in my classroom could be his if only he wanted to read one. That even if he wasn’t mine, those books were still meant for him. Every day, he smiled and went on his way, seeing little need for any of the books I might have to share. As the weeks passed, he grew. He pushed his boundaries as children can do so well, always inching along that very fine line of control and struggle. I watched from afar; after all, he was not mine, so all I could do was smile and nod and remind him of the books that awaited.

One day, he didn’t just smile, but instead asked in all earnestness, “When can I be your student? When can I come to your class?" It wasn’t because he didn’t like the class he was in, or the teacher who taught him, but the books were calling, as they often do to so many kids that feel lost. I smiled and shrugged, repeated that the books were there for him whether he was mine or not. For weeks this played out until one day, he entered our classroom and I held my breath; after all, now he was mine, now I was one of the ones that would ask him to stop, to sit, to do. And I was scared of what would happen.

He sat quietly that first day in class. Bent his head and wrote ever so slowly, picking out his words with care, wanting so much to fit in and not just be known as that kid with anger issues. As the other students cleared out, he lifted his head, looked at the clock and asked, “Is it now? Can I pick my book now?” And he walked to the shelf of the book he had eyed and grabbed it, holding on to it as if I would ask him to put it down. “What do I do now?” he asked. “You read it,” I said, “And then you bring it back.” “That’s it?” “That’s it.”

So he left that morning, clutching Amulet: Book 1 to his chest as if it were a safety blanket. And I figured that the minute he left our classroom, that book would be forgotten; his day would develop, and soon our conversation would be a distant memory as his ingrained behaviors clouded his judgment once again. So I wasn’t surprised when at lunch he walked up to me and handed me back the book. “Did you not like it?” I asked, already running a possibility of other titles in my head that I could offer him. “I am done,” he said. “Done? But I thought you were so excited to read it?” I asked, my voice laced with confusion. “I did...I loved it...Can I have the next one please? I promise to bring it back.” He had read it already. He had fallen in love with a book. He was ready for the next one. For one moment in that day, he was just a kid who loved a book, just a kid like all the other kids, asking for the next book in a series that had spoken to him. So we walked into our classroom, found the next book and he left, clutching it to his chest once more, ready to wrestle anyone who would try to take it away.

We fall in love with books when they speak to us. When within their pages, we find a piece of ourselves we didn’t know we were missing. We clutch these books to our chests long after we have stopped reading them as a way to shield us from a world that we sometimes do not understand. Books become absorbed into our identity and allow us to risk, to love, to care about something even when we feel the most vulnerable. Even when we feel the world is not for us, we can find safety within the pages of a book. That is why my classroom is filled with books--so that every child has a chance to find a piece of armor, so that every child has a chance to find a vessel that will hold his dreams and protect them when they need to be.  My students may not understand each other’s pasts, each other’s behaviors, but they understand books, and so when a child falls in love with a book and it becomes part of him, it builds a bridge for others to understand that child better. For others to be let in.

Books provide us with the magic that we dream of as teachers. Books, whether fiction or non, chapter or picture, give us the building blocks that we need to connect with our hardest students. To connect with those that we sometimes feel at a loss to reach.  That boy didn’t stop being angry. He didn’t stop feeling that the world was out to get him, but he did start believing that somewhere in the world was a place for him to fit in. That he too could be a reader, that he too could belong. That his anger would not be the only thing that defined him, even when it spoke the loudest. That boy knew he had a home with us whenever he needed it. He still does, even though he is no longer around. My door is always open, the books always calling out for anyone who needs to belong, if even for a moment. I will never forget that boy and his book.

Embracing Change: Creating a Need-Based School Library is Not One-Size-Fits-All

Lakisha Brinson of Amqui Elementary School in Nashville, TN was named a School Library Journal School Librarian of the Year Award finalist in August 2015. Stay tuned for blog posts from School Librarian of the Year finalist Sally Smollar and finalist Kristina Holzweiss!

“Just when I think I have learned the way to live, life changes.”—Hugh Prathe

I echo this sentiment as I enter my sixth year as a teacher-librarian. At the beginning of the year I am confronted with the realization that changes have to be made. Change is often associated with apprehension, which is often followed by dread. I wish that I could say that I haven’t experienced these emotions as I’ve moved from school to school, but I have. Yet these emotions are quickly replaced by excitement, anticipation, and exhilaration. It is in these very moments that I remember that my students, teachers, and school community are depending on me to create a learning hub that inspires, and motivates our students to become readers and users of information.  Seems daunting, I know! Read on to learn more about my journey implementing three different approaches within three different schools throughout my career as a teacher-librarian.

Approach One: Leading from Within

My first years as a librarian were spent in a school where I had already spent four years as a classroom teacher. Though my ability to teach and plan lessons granted me credibility among the staff, it also resulted in blurred lines at first. 

Because I had worked with and formed relationships with select teachers throughout the years, I found it easy to collaborate, and I often invited them in for special activities. I prided myself on the number of collaborative lessons I initiated. Then it happened: my administration pulled me aside and said, “You have to realize that you have moved into a leadership position, and your vision has to shift to include what is best for all students.” I was being told in no uncertain terms that there were over 500 students in my building and I was only meeting the needs of 60–80 of them. Ouch! Can you say wake-up call? From that moment on, I made the decision to become more inclusive. I accomplished this by:

  • attending meetings and offering my services to all team members
  • providing weekly newsletters with resources for upcoming events/holidays
  • going into the classroom to teach a lesson


This transformation took the rest of the year and continued well into the next. However, by the end of my third year, I had worked with each class at least two times during the year.  Let’s face it, being told that you are not meeting the needs of your school makes you take a real hard look at yourself. I learned that leadership requires change, and change requires a look within, no matter how difficult. 

Approach Two: Trainings, Teachings, and Teaming

After my first three years as a librarian, I wandered back into the world of teaching. Fast-forward three years, and I returned to the library.  At this time, our library program was under new leadership and an incredible shift was taking place: Libraries were moving from operational to student-centered. This shift required us as teacher-librarians to be knowledgeable about district initiatives, standards, and teaching practices. Though this was a much-needed change, it was still change. What worked three years prior would no longer meet the needs of my users. So what happened? You guessed it! I adapted.

Remember when I said I had returned to teaching? Well, during that season I also worked as a STEM Instructional Designer at an elementary school. This role provided me with intensive training on inquiry-based learning strategies along with Project Based Learning best practices. Upon reflection, I noticed that the teachers at this school were overloaded by the need to understand and implement one of our district’s mandates: project based learning. Project based learning (PBL) is a hands on approach to teaching and learning that facilitates student learning through engagement in a real world problem. I felt like Charlie in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, and this was my golden ticket.

I used this opportunity to build relationships with the teachers and gain their trust, which led to a new experience: On our back-to-school retreat, I led a training that introduced teachers to PBL to ignite their interest and to show that it was manageable. A couple of months later, I proposed to the administration that we complete our first school-wide PBL. During an afterschool professional development session, each grade level team created a skeletal unit using the theme People, Places, and Products, which addressed social studies standards. The next week, the Instructional Coaches and I went to team meetings and walked through a PBL protocol with each team. The following week, the PBL unit was implemented. On the post-evaluation, teachers said that it was the most engaged they had seen students in a while, and that they had succeeded in learning the concept. The students’ excitement and knowledge was the fuel I needed. Following that experience, I was often asked to review and help plan PBL units. From this experience I learned that I need to become what my students and teachers need, and this may differ from school to school.

Approach Three: Back to the Basics

As I write this, I am finishing my first two months at a new elementary library. This school is the most diverse school I have ever worked in, with over 600 students, a fairly high EL population, and no library clerk. This provides the biggest opportunity for me to embrace change and create a student-centered space. With 28 classroom teachers and no assistant, I had to think fast when I arrived. My first goal here was to create a functional library program. I asked the teachers for the first 40 days of the year to allow me to shift, refine, and re-do current practices to create a space that would work for our school. The first three weeks were devoted to library procedures such as order in the library, how to check-in books, and selecting a “read and relax” spot after checkout. The following two weeks were devoted to choosing the right books and check-out procedures.

Let me stop right here and say that this has been a work-in-progress, and we have not perfected it yet. But it has brought about a welcome change that has been noted by both teachers and students. Another goal of mine was to create an inviting atmosphere for both students and teachers. So, I asked teachers for their opinions. Teachers were very vocal about the fact that they just wanted access, so this quickly became my priority. I implemented open check-out times, and I am now allowing anyone with a library card to check-out any time of day (by far the biggest change I have made). I have relinquished control over being the keeper-of-books; I shifted responsibility to the students. I trust that students who come in while I am teaching will be able to check in and out without assistance. Most importantly, I trust that this change is cultivating a student-centered environment where the students feel empowered. Though we have not fully arrived, I stand in awe of all that has been accomplished. I am excited for more change to come in upcoming months, remembering that librarianship is not one-size-fits-all.

Change requires reflection, and though it might be complex, it also requires courage. I ask that you join me as we each take a look at our schools and their needs. Then make a conscious decision to change what needs to be changed.


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