It’s all about the books—or is it?

April Wathen of George W. Carver Elementary School in Lexington Park, MD was named Hero of Equitable Access by School Library Journal and Scholastic in the 2017 School Librarian of the Year Awards. Below, she shares five things you might not know about librarians today.

Not too long ago, I was out to dinner, celebrating a friend’s birthday. When someone asked me what I do for a living, I proudly shared, “I am a teacher librarian!”

The response was, “Oh! So that’s a fancy term for librarian, and you check out books to kids. Got it.”

On the flip side, in a recent conversation with author Liz Garton Scanlon, when she learned I am a Pre-K—5th grade teacher librarian at a Title I school, she said, “Oh, you get all the grades!! Lucky you—and, also, amazing you.” 

When is the last time you thought about the duties of a 21st-century librarian?

Gone are those days of simply curating and circulating books and sharing stories with children. Now, we get to do so much more.

Below are five things you might not know about librarians today:

  1. We are customer service. We have the power to positively affect many lives through our work. We pair closely with our administration, teachers, students and parents on a daily basis. We have the ability to create lifelong readers and a population who is digitally literate. We learn our customer’s needs and desires and allow them to see mirrors and windows through books. It is powerful work.

  2. We get to teach any topic, anytime. Think, just for a second, we can incorporate our American Association of School Librarian (AASL) standards into just about any topic. Feeling more New Generation Science this quarter? Go for it! Feeling more math-centered for the quarter? Do it! Our standards fit any topic. There is no limit to the topics we can use for design, inquiry and personalized learning. We meet students where they are so that they can succeed!

  3. We get to see the same group of students grow over the years. I cannot think of a more rewarding position to be in than to watch babies cross our threshold as they join us their first years in elementary school, that timid year as a 6th or 7th grader, or high school freshman, only to see them blossom as learners, to allow them to believe in themselves and see the power of their voices. I hope this makes your heart soar as it does mine.

  4. We get to see the connection sparks fly! How often is it that a position permits a person to encourage students to “hang out” with top professionals nationwide? We are lucky to be able to connect students with local businesses to enrich the lives of students. We have the privilege of breaking down so many walls and barriers for our students, and we get to see the sparks fly when connections are made.

  5. We get to play all day! Just about the books? I don’t think so! Who would have thought, ten years ago, that the library would be called a Learning Commons? Now we have the joy of introducing students to robots, circuits, sewing, weaving, knitting, engineering, identifying problems and creating solutions, making with hundreds of students across the state in a statewide maker day.

Of course, school libraries cannot meet their maximum potential without true collaboration of classroom teachers! They are an important part of this puzzle. Teachers: we have so many skills and ideas we are itching to share. When you are stumped with that lesson, looking for a trusty sidekick, or simply looking for a resource to add a little burst of excitement to your lesson, reach out! We are here to assist you in any way you need. Remember, teamwork makes the dream work. We are in the business of making student dreams come true!


Equity through comprehensive literacy

The critical need to strategically address inequity in education increases as the diversity of learners—who have varied academic and social needs—in our schools grows.

Of course, we know that equity does not mean that we provide the same resources to every student—it means that every student gets what he or she needs to be successful. A key component of these efforts is literacy. When students are able to read, then—and only then—do they embark upon the path to becoming ready for career, college, and life.

In 2003, Bill Daggett found that the texts that most adults need to be able to read and understand (such as loan applications, newspapers and tax documents) require the ability to read and comprehend text at a relatively high Lexile level. Coupled with the strong correlation between illiteracy and drop-out rates, the findings confirmed that students’ ability to read is absolutely critical to success in life.

How can this knowledge serve as a guidepost for school leaders’ work? What are evidence-based practices that work for students? How do we ensure that all students are readers? The comprehensive literacy framework provides educators with the resources and professional development needed to support the literacy of our diverse learners.

What is comprehensive literacy?

Comprehensive Literacy is a framework that includes all the components that students need to become readers, writers, communicators, and active listeners. It normally includes:

  • Read Aloud

  • Shared Reading

  • Guided Reading

  • Independent Reading

  • Shared Writing

  • Independent Writing

Comprehensive literacy is year-round, it engages families and communities, and incorporates learning supports. The comprehensive literacy framework also works with any national or state standards. Therefore, districts with strong comprehensive frameworks will be successful even as standards change, because the framework is balanced for students.

As with any successful implementation, bringing comprehensive literacy to your school or district must be supported with clear definitions, actions, and resources. Below are strategic steps my school took to ensure my students were able to learn and thrive with a comprehensive literacy framework.

Outline Available Resources

There are resources necessary to the implementation of each component of comprehensive literacy.

For example, students must have books to read for independent reading. Therefore, teachers need a diverse classroom library to support independent reading. Classroom libraries should have a minimum of 750 books in good condition (or about 30 books per student). But beyond sheer quantity, it is critical to have a wide variety books for diverse readers with varied (and changing) interests.

After we made sure we had enough good books for our students to read, we needed to evaluate whether our classrooms were set up for independent reading. Was there ample space? Were there dividers for students who need more privacy? Were there carpets and comfy places to read? This is an in-depth look, but it is important.

Teachers and students need particular tools to become readers and writers. Our team had to complete an evaluation process for each element of comprehensive literacy. As a team, we looked at what we had and what we would need. For example, for read-aloud, we knew that teachers had access to quality trade books in our book room. Do you know what resources are in your district and school to support comprehensive literacy? Have you outlined these with your staff?

Filling the Gaps

Our school had to find a way to fill the gaps we discovered during our analysis of resources. We set priorities by determining what would help our kids read on grade level as soon as possible. We decided we needed to focus on building our classroom libraries and our leveled reading book room. Each grade level filled out a grant to get books, and we partnered with companies to get the best prices. Our leveled book room was more expensive, so we used Title I funding along with a bank donation to purchase the books.

It is important to note that our book purchases were strategic. Our literacy team pulled all of the books from the book room and found where we had gaps in levels and in genres. We looked at the diversity and relevance of the books in our book room. This allowed us to get more bang for our buck, which we all know we need to do with our funding.

Creating a Checklist

Our team created a checklist from different resources such as Ohio State University’s Literacy Collaborative Framework and the Children’s Literacy Initiative to define what makes a literacy-rich environment and to support teachers’ success. Below is an example of my school’s beliefs. Our staff used the Ohio State Framework, the Children’s Literacy Initiative Framework and our backgrounds and knowledge to create these beliefs.

A literacy-rich environment is one where:

  • Students learn by reading and exploring an abundance of text and build the love for reading

  • Students learn by listening, talking and writing about text

  • Students have access to many texts and materials including level, genre, content that encourage language and literacy development

  • Students get time to think within, beyond and about the text

  • Students are in a classroom that has the resources and structure to support daily reading, writing, speaking, and listening

To ensure comprehensive literacy comes to life for all children, we have to be strategic; it does not just happen. Districts and schools must put steps in place to support all students as they learn how to read. If students are to be career-, college- and life-ready, they must be able to read, write, speak, and listen confidently at high school levels and beyond.

Educators can mitigate the equity and achievement gap by focusing on comprehensive literacy. If your school or district plans to implement a comprehensive literacy framework, remember that you (and ultimately, your students) will be successful if you have a strategy that helps you assess what you have and what you need, and a process for putting it all in place.


School librarians support teaching and learning

Jan Wilson of Brookwood High School in Snellville, GA was named Hero of Collaboration by School Library Journal and Scholastic in the 2017 School Librarian of the Year Awards. Below, she shares her thoughts on redefining the role of school librarians.

If the teachers and administrators at your school were asked to list your professional responsibilities and daily tasks, how would they respond?

How would your students describe what’s happening in your space? Would they say that you check out books? Laminate? Straighten the shelves? Store equipment? If you and your school library are viewed in a limited role, there’s only one person who can change that—you!  

When I interviewed at Brookwood High School in Snellville, GA in 2010, the principal described what she expected of a media specialist and media program: to support teaching and learning. I’ll never forget her five-word reply.

I feel passionate about this mission, because there are countless ways we can fulfill this expectation: we design lessons, teach classes, provide staff development, promote reading, and build a relevant collection. Our school libraries must provide a variety of spaces, furniture, equipment and staff to support the needs of our students so they can explore, evaluate, share and create. 

Several years ago, my district media director expressed the importance of not getting caught behind the circulation desk or shelving books. Without a clerk at my school, this does happen occasionally, but it’s not the image we should consistently project to our patrons and stakeholders.

With our areas of expertise, school librarians need to be circulating the floor—not circulating books—to assist students and teachers. In the past few years, it has become more important than ever to positively market our roles and school media programs. There are many people, inside and outside the field of education, who do not understand what we do. When thinking about our profession, they visit a past memory of their time in a school library...usually decades ago! Our profession seems to be caught in a time warp, focused on the idea that we are merely managers of materials. But we can work to change that perception! 

Collaboration has allowed me to change the way that I am viewed by both my teaching staff and my students. Every year, my co-media specialist and I meet with new teachers during pre-planning, and again during the first month of school. We meet with brand-new teachers and with veteran teachers who are new to Brookwood High School. During this meeting, we explain what to expect from our program and emphasize that we are here to support and supplement their instruction.

Remember, collaboration doesn’t have to be formal. I sit with teachers at lunch, school functions, sporting events and fine arts performances. I want my teachers to know that I am their instructional partner and a resource for their curriculum. Sitting with them at a basketball game can lead to conversations about what’s going on in the classroom. I strongly believe that connecting with staff outside of the school day leads to increased interaction during the school day.  

As you reflect on your professional role, I urge you to make changes if you are stuck in a traditional role. Having a high level of collaboration among all stakeholders creates a culture of success. Your school library should provide opportunities for the diversity of all students. You can do this!

If I could do my family engagement all over again...

I've been out of the classroom for many years. But I think often about returning for an opportunity to do things differently. I would especially like a "do-over" on building relationships with families. What I knew then about strategies to effectively partner with families to support learning was minimal compared to what I know now. And I also know a lot more about how strongly research supports the positive impact of effective family engagement practices on student learning.

The research on family engagement is unequivocal. Building strong, positive, trusting relationships with families is essential to developing a productive home-school partnership.

The impact on families is significant when we take the time to nurture these relationships:

  • Families gain a clear understanding of their role

  • Families are empowered and gain confidence to support their child's learning

Their voice is significant. Families feel comfortable sharing their feedback and opinions and advocating on behalf of their child, school, and community.

The impact on students is equally resonant. When schools engage families well, students:

  • exhibit faster rates of literacy acquisition

  • earn higher grades and test scores

  • record higher attendance and lower behavioral discipline rates

  • graduate and go on higher education

Without any formal training on family engagement, my level of commitment to families consisted of the usual suspects: meet the teacher, open house, and parent-teacher conferences. And let's not forget about the phone calls or meetings scheduled to discuss behavioral issues and academic concerns. These strategies are important, but lack deeper-level connections (and calling home only with "bad" news will not enhance relationships with families). 

If I had the opportunity for a family engagement "do-over," here's what I would do differently:

  1. Engage in partnership strategies early. Waiting to connect with families until parent-teacher conferences is too late. Engaging with families before school starts or early in the year lets families know how important their partnership is to their child's learning. When there is a concern or issue that needs to be addressed, families are more open to discussing the issue when relational trust has been established.

  2. Be more proactive than reactive. Don't wait for an issue or event to engage with families. A positive phone call early in the year, welcome postcard or a relationship-building home visit demonstrates to families know that we value them, care about their family and their child and welcome their partnership.

  3. Focus on positive home-school communication. All families deserve positive outreach. While it may seem daunting to call all families or send all families a positive note, the impact of just one call or positive postcard speaks volumes and has a ripple effect that lasts throughout the year. The communication doesn't need to be elaborate, a simple text, picture or video shared with the family of the student engaging in learning sends a powerful message.

  4. Engage with families outside of school. Whether it is in the home, in the park, or local laundromat, engaging with families on their "turf," indicates that we care about, and value and respect them as equal partners.

Remember, family engagement is about relationships. They need to be built, nurtured and adapted, just like any relationships we have with colleagues, friends, and family.



Start with the why & inviting uncertainty

Last week, Nicole Bosworth, Director of Literacy at Scholastic Education, wrote about asking "why" questions to get kids thinking deeply about what they read. She wrote: 

Teachers have been using literature to convey moral anecdotes to students since the inception of schooling. However, research has shown that early learners often focus more on the details rather than the overarching theme, and miss the story’s moral. In a recent study, "Explaining the Moral of the Story," published in the Journal of Cognition (Walker, 2017), researchers found that by simply asking students why questions, teachers can help learners tease out broader meaning from a story, such as the moral.

Asking why questions allows students to move away from reading questions in which they are asked only to repeat back facts from the text. Why questions can yield creative and dyanamic thinking, and robust discussion. It supports comprehension. (Such an approach is, of course, at the heart of Disrupting Thinking by Kylene Beers and Bob Probst, as Bosworth notes.)

In the October issue of ASCD's Educational Leadership, Ronald Beghetto writes about the benefits of "inviting uncertainty into the classroom." 

He writes:

Put simply, uncertainty is what makes a problem a problem. If you already know how to move from A to Z, then you don't have a problem—yet our students will face problems in life. If we want to unleash student problem solving, we need to give them chances to respond well to uncertainty in the context of a supportive environment.

As Bosworth's why questions encourage students to engage in deeper, abstract thinking, Beghetto's uncertainty allows students to explore, experiment and problem-solve in a supportive environment. 



Start with the Why

In 2009, Simon Sinek made the bold assertion that everyone has a why, and great leaders know why they do what they do, not just how they do it. Sinek claims that knowing our why allows us to make choices that lead us to greater fulfillment in all that we do.

Interestingly, it turns out that the why is just as important in teaching and learning—specifically, helping students get more out of the stories they read.

Teachers have been using literature to convey moral anecdotes to students since the inception of schooling. However, research has shown that early learners often focus more on the details rather than the overarching theme, and miss the story’s moral. In a recent study, "Explaining the Moral of the Story," published in the Journal of Cognition (Walker, 2017), researchers found that by simply asking students why questions, teachers can help learners tease out broader meaning from a story, such as the moral.

Using two different experiments, the study’s findings demonstrated that prompts to explain aspects of a story enable children’s ability to move beyond surface features, and conceptualize the underlying moral. These findings can have a wide-ranging impact on comprehension and abstract reasoning in early childhood.

Caren Walker (the study’s author) notes that what we have learned and observed from developmental psychology over the years is that what children fail to do is not a failure of competence, but rather, a difference in where their attention is directed. In other words, when we redirect their attention to different types of information, children can do a surprising amount of things we didn’t think they could.

The idea of redirecting to different types of information with the ultimate goal of reading reminds me of Kylene Beers and Robert Probst’s innovative work in Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters (2017). Through their Book, Head, Heart (BHH) Framework, Beers and Probst advocate for helping students understand the potential power of a text in their own lives—the power of connection. If we help students understand the why of a story, in turn, they are able to make connections to their own lives, and other stories, ultimately achieving the highest level of comprehension.

Walker found that children who had been prompted to explain a story performed significantly better on reading tasks than the group who had just been asked to report on events that happened. Explaining a story facilitates abstraction and generalization of moral lessons, while reporting concentrates attention to facts and details that might not support comprehension and understanding.

For so long, we have focused our teaching efforts on fluency, decoding, and extracting data like names, dates, and other key character details, that students have missed the opportunity to understand why the author told the story, and its relevance to their own lives and community.

If educators actively engage students in the process of reading by asking why questions to support connections beyond the text, students’ comprehension will be broader and deeper.

Many students enter school with the longing and passion to read, a passion which can dissipate as years go on. As Beers and Probst note in Disrupting Thinking, “too many students still seem to think of books as burdens placed upon them, rather than invitations to experience new thoughts." (p. 56) When we move beyond the surface details of a text, we can start to understand the why behind actions of the heroes and heroines of the stories we love, and wonder how reading will change us.

Isn’t that what the joy and power of reading is all about?


The impact of hunger on achievement, & addressing lunch-shaming

Below are a few education stories I've bookmarked recently.

Last week we published "When Hunger Is an Equity Issue," from Andy Kubas, Executive Director of Learning Supports in Bloomington, MN. As an elementary school principal some years earlier, Andy had discovered through talking with a student, that the student's behavioral problems were largely connected to hunger. He then created a food pantry in his school, working with families and community partners to address this major barrier to learning.

Related: NPR took a look at new research on the possible connection between food stamp administration schedule and academic performance. In short, researchers "find that children who come from families that are several weeks removed from receiving their food-stamp benefits perform worse on an important math exam."

New York City announced at the beginning of the school year that all NYC schoolchildren now have access to free lunch. This move was in response to the increased attention that the practice of "lunch shaming" is receiving nationwide. Kei-Sygh Thomas at The 74 looks at New York City and other states' responses.

A different approach: District Administration shared a local news story about a Columbia, MO school district that plans to "go after" parents who don't pay for their children's school lunch. (Possible solutions include small claims court.) The school board president: "When it first caught our attention, we started to think about ways to maybe punish the kids if you would, to try to get them to start paying or parents to start paying, and then some community members spoke up and said, 'We shouldn't be punishing the kids, you should be punishing the parents that are not paying.'"




Resources for talking to students about tragedy

With the Las Vegas tragedy on our minds, we know that there may be impossible conversations happening in classrooms nationwide in days and weeks to come.

No matter where you reside, it's likely that students will see the news headlines on television and online. For age-appropriate news articles about the event, there's Junior Scholastic (for middle schoolers) and the New York Times Upfront (for high schoolers). also has Resources for Responding to Tragedy and Violence, for educators in grades preK-12

You may also want to support the families in your school community as they have similar difficult conversations at home. We suggest Three Tips for Talking to Your Kids About Scary News

Our hearts go out to the victims of this terrible tragedy.

When Hunger Is an Equity Issue

"I'm Hungry"

I first made the connection between hunger and academic achievement when I was principal at Valley View Elementary School in Bloomington, MN. I got a call from one of my third-grade teachers about a student who was acting up and disrupting class. The boy sat in my office, and I asked him what was going on. After some time, he said, “I’m hungry. All we had was bread this morning, and my mom saves the ends for my baby sister.” I realized that what I was dealing with was not a discipline issue, but an equity issue

This was not my first experience with hunger. I myself had grown up in an unsettled home where access to food was often an issue. I moved a lot, and went to many different schools as a child. Ultimately, I became a teacher, and later principal, in high-poverty schools because those were the communities I felt I needed to serve. That Monday morning conversation was a pivotal moment for me: I realized not only that there was a direct connection between hunger and a child’s ability to be present and ready to learn, but that I was in a position to provide resources to help.

Barriers to learning

Eighty-eight percent of the student population at Valley View was eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, so I knew that while I had one child sitting in front of me who was experiencing significant barriers to learning, I also had a school full of children who were possibly struggling with similar issues. This particular third-grade boy was sent to me by his teacher, but I knew that for the larger community, I had to be proactive about addressing these barriers, not wait for signs of disengagement.

Obviously, as educators, it is not our job to solve world hunger, but when it comes to a barrier to learning, it is our job to help students arrive in school each day ready to learn. And this is a nationwide issue: research has shown that 85% of principals have students who are coming to school hungry; this percentage becomes 90% in high-poverty schools.

Meeting the need

At Valley View, we formed a partnership with a local church that ran a food shelf. The church had relationships with suppliers, and agreed to send a portion of their food to Valley View. We knew it was important to try to provide food that was appropriate for our school population, so we made sure we had the hominy, corn and beans that our students would eat. We asked our Muslim and Hispanic families what they want. After doing our due diligence, we worked with the church to come up with meals that a kid could put together without much prep or cooking.

Next, we set up a repository by the school kitchen, where kids could go and pick up food that was packed in backpacks, ready to go. We had the Bloomington health department inspect the pantry so that we knew this service was up to code and approved at every level.

We shared this with the school community by talking to families at our Family Academy. It was important to us to make sure that making the choice to use the food closet was one that a family would make among themselves. As a school, we provided the opportunity, but also wanted to be discreet and respectful of our families’ needs.

In terms of assessing the success of the program, our best method was to take inventory of how much food was going out each week. There were times when it was gangbusters, and times when it was slow. We analyzed patterns to identify peak times, and found that the need was greatest on Fridays and just before holidays, when kids would be out of school for extended periods of time.

A scalable model

After Valley View’s program had been in place for some time, other schools that were experiencing similar issues set up their own programs. We saw that hunger was an issue across Bloomington, regardless of neighborhood. At that point I had just begun to move to the district office for Bloomington Public Schools, and we knew we needed to make sure that all sites were following the appropriate steps to follow insurance and health code approvals. 

So we brought all ten of our elementary schools together in order to ensure each site was adhering to the same parameters, and that everyone was protected. We also wanted to streamline procedures, and centralize our relationships with community partners we were working with. As a group, we brought in faith-based organizations that were able to supply food and backpacks, and help with menus. We’ve worked closely with The Sheridan Story and Volunteers Enlisted to Help People (VEAP) to accomplish our goals.

What’s next

We are working within the state’s new wellness policy. We have refined our beliefs and improved our health practices in Bloomington schools. The scope of the policy extends beyond the food closet to impact our practices on many different levels—for example, we’re considering alternatives to the practice of bringing in cupcakes to celebrate birthdays. In this coming year, we will implement our new thinking, which will have an impact on how we deliver food in the upcoming school year.

If you’re wondering about the third grader I mentioned earlier, it is a hard truth of this work that we don’t always have a neat ending to every story. That particular student moved out of our district—a migratory existence is the reality for much of our student population. As an educator, my mission is to look within my school community and identify the barriers to learning that are particular to the students I serve. Then I can work with community partners to address their needs. As I said before, I can’t solve world hunger, but I can help our students arrive each day, ready to learn.

How We Train, Retain and Set Expectations for Teachers

Below are a few education stories I've bookmarked recently.

“It’s very difficult to change student learning if we are not changing adult learning,” says Paul Fleming, of the Tennessee education department, in a recent article in District Administration about new approaches to teachers' professional learning.

Tennessee and other states are using a personalized approach to PD that is collaborative, and measures success based on the acquisition of new skills and ways of thinking rather than hours spent in lectures.

Districts nationwide continue to grapple with not only how to prepare teachers and provide effective professional development, but also how to measure success, and to do so in a way that is equitable for both students and teachers.

In Chalkbeat, Matt Barnum explores the case of one teacher in Baltimore who earned the highest-possible rating on her evaluation, but stands to lose her certification due to low scores on the math portion of her certification. The article calls into question the current certification process and its impact on recruiting and retaining oustanding teachers. Especially in underserved communities.

Finally, the video below (from Vox in 2014) turned up in my Facebook newsfeed earlier this week, and it's certainly a conversation starter. Dana Goldstein (The Teacher Wars) says, "We need to address making the job an attractive job more than we need to focus on things like telling teachers they can trump poverty."

In a world where teachers are often asked to be all things to all people (and, given the above Chalkbeat reporting, are themselves often part of questions around inequity), what do you think of Goldstein's argument?




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