In writing an op-ed on the topic of the Invest in Education Act (Arizona ballot initiative Prop. 208) “Our Opportunity to Repair (Arizona) Public Education,” I wanted to be sure that I was accurately representing the work of Arizona school librarians during closures or hybrid teaching.
I connected with several Arizona school librarians and compared their testimonials to the Back-to-School Survey data collected by the American Association of School Librarians and to my conversation with North Carolina School Library Media Association (NCSLMA) Leadership Academy members.
I am proud to report that school librarians across the country have been and continue to be innovative leaders during remote and hybrid teaching and learning.
Last month, I had the opportunity to think and share with NCSLMA Leadership Academy members during an hour-long Zoom meeting. They had spent several months reading Maximizing School Librarian Leadership: Building Connections for Learning and Advocacy (ALA 2018).
Our September conversation focused on the challenges they have faced as librarians delivering library services outside the physical spaces of libraries. We framed our conversation with quotes from George Couros’s The Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead in a Culture of Creativity (2015).
These are some of my takeaways from our conversation organized around the quotes that guided our discussion.
Leadership: “Leaders, whatever their role, will more easily change if they allow others to see them taking risks, failing, recovering, and risking all over again” (Couros 2015, 59).
When we were classroom teachers, we took daily risks with our students. While students are still the primary “audience” for our teaching, school librarians work in fishbowls. When we take risks, we have witnesses: students, classroom teachers, student and adult library aides and volunteers, and administrators, too.
Remote teaching and learning during the pandemic have upped the ante. With libraries closed or in a hybrid model, we often have parents and caregivers who are supporting their children in the (Zoom) “room” just like today’s classroom teachers do. This may test our willingness to take risks, fail, recover, and risk all over again.
The NCSLMA school librarians shared their experiences with taking risks during school closures. They realize that their ability to be vulnerable has been tested in these challenging times. Those who shared expressed that their confidence has grown as they have tried new strategies for serving their learning communities remotely.
Innovation: “Innovation is not about changing everything; sometimes you only need change one thing” (Couros 2015, 60).
Striving for equity can lead to innovation. Spring semester 2020 required thinking outside the box, especially when technology devices and access to broadband were unequally distributed among our students and families. We talked briefly about how the Washington (D.C.) School District, led by Washington Teachers Union President Elizabeth Davis delivered 100% teaching via TV when they learned that 38% of students had no devices or connectivity.
One elementary NCSLMA school librarian talked about collaborating with art, music, and PE teachers to develop televised presentations that could reach all their students. This powerful experience with collaboration could provide the experience these educators need to continue offering topical or thematic connections among their disciplines into the future.
NCSLMA school librarians who were experimenting with curbside pick-up for students expresses the age-old concern of all librarians: will the books come back?
One NCSLMA high school librarian solved the equity problem at her school. She gathered all of the computers that remained in the building and set up an appropriately distanced Internet café in the auditorium. Students who lack/lacked devices or connectivity in their homes signed up to use these workstations to continue their learning.
Technology: “Technology invites us to move from engaged to empowered. It provides opportunities to go deeper into our learning by giving us the ability to consume, and, more importantly, create” (Couros 2015, 140).
The NCSLMA school librarians discussed the problem posed by an emphasis on consumption over creation in face-to-face or remote teaching and learning.
One NCSLMA school librarian mentioned a professional development plan she created in conjunction with her new principal. Their goal is to engage students in inquiry learning using “Applied Digital Skills with Google.” The outcome and deliverable she has proposed is for 4th/5th grade students to create tech-enabled learning products.
One challenge NCSLMA school librarians identified is that when learning went remote last spring many devices were sent to students’ homes. With the return to hybrid or in-person learning, the resources that were previously in school are now dispersed.
As a result, we asked these questions: What do teaching and classroom-library collaboration look like when all the tech is in students’ homes? Could this be a return to “slow” hands-on learning? How will students respond to using pens and pencils to physically write and to use tactile materials to create learning products?
We talked about the potential of real “hands-on” learning and students working in collaborative small group pods as strategies for helping them rebuild social skills they may have lost when they had little or no face-to-face contact with their peers. We talked about how engaging small groups of students in projects such as writing and performing scripts and music could benefit the whole child/student.
We also mentioned the idea of an “emotional café,” a physical or virtual space, where school librarians can help classroom teachers stay grounded in today’s reality with its current affordances and constraints. We all agreed that leading the social-emotional health of our learning communities is important work for school librarians and other school leaders.
Collaboration: “To truly integrate new learning, it is critical to carve out time for exploration, collaboration, and reflection to allow educators to apply what they are learning. It is the application of learning that breeds innovative ideas and practices that work for your unique context and begin to make an impact for the learners across schools and classrooms” (Couros 2015, 182).
In meeting other people’s needs, school librarians are in a position to build strong collegial relationships that lead to collaboration and build advocates for the contributions we make to the learning community. Through learning with our colleagues, we will be able to apply innovative ideas and practices. We will be able to analyze the results, modify our practices, and engage in continuous improvement as we explore and integrate our own professional development.
Leadership and Vulnerability
I just finished reading Senator Kamala Harris’s autobiography, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey (2019). While I highly recommend the entire book, the “Test the Hypothesis” section near the end connected with the NCSLMA Leadership Academy conversation and with other school librarians navigating these challenging times for teaching and learning.
“Innovation is the pursuit of what can be, unburdened by what has been. And we pursue innovation not because we’re bored but because we want to make things faster, more efficient, more effective, more accurate… We expect mistakes; we just don’t want to make the same mistake twice. We expect imperfections; it’s basic for us… We know that the more we test something, the clearer we’ll understand what works and what doesn’t, and the better the final product or process will be” (Harris 2019, 253).
Thank you to the NCSLMA Leadership Academy school librarians for sharing your experiences, questions, and plans with each other and with me. I leave you with a parting quote: “Leadership requires confidence and vulnerability” (Harland and Cellucci forthcoming). You will be able to achieve a high-level of leadership if you continue to take risks, remain vulnerable, and continually increase your confidence through practice and reflection as you lead students, colleagues, and families through this challenging time.
Couros, George. 2015. Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead in a Culture of Creativity. San Diego, CA: Dave Burgess Consulting.
Harland, Pamela, and Anita Cellucci. 2021. “Leadership.” In Core Values in School Librarianship: Responding with Commitment and Courage, ed. J. Moreillon. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.
Harris, Kamala. 2019. The Truths We Hold: An American Journey. New York: Penguin.
Pixabay. “Abstract Blackboard Bulb Chalk.” Pexels.com, https://www.pexels.com/photo/abstract-blackboard-bulb-chalk-355948.