School administrators from across the US opened the second day of the 2021 American Association of School Librarians (AASL) National Conference in Salt Lake City with a general session full of frank, insightful conversations about what they need and expect from school librarians—and how administrators can empower school librarians in their work.
Moderated by Kathryn Roots Lewis, retired director of libraries and instructional technology at Norman (Okla.) Public Schools and 2018–2019 AASL president, and Kathy Carroll, school librarian at Westwood High School in Blythewood, South Carolina, and 2020–2021 AASL president, the October 22 session featured four administrators who had participated in the AASL School Leader Collaborative, an OverDrive-sponsored initiative that champions the school librarian’s role in teaching, learning, and school culture. Lewis and Carroll asked questions submitted by librarians, covering issues from obtaining library resources to professional development concerns to how to get involved in curriculum development.
When asked what librarians can do to convince administrators to provide more support and services, Sean Doherty, retired superintendent of the School District of Clayton, Missouri, stressed the need for librarians to advocate for themselves by telling their stories.
“The role of the school librarian is really multifaceted and … so many of the stories that happen in the library are unheard,” he said. “You have to create space for administrators and your colleagues to understand the work that you do that can’t be measured—how you build relationships with students who need motivation to find that perfect book or being a coteacher in a classroom. You have to be able to present to an administrator: ‘This is why I need this resource, this is how it’s going to have an impact, and this is how it’s going to help grow our students and staff.’ You have to create the case for ‘this is a need, not a want.’”
Joel Hoag, principal of Freedom Intermediate School in Franklin, Tennessee, reiterated the need for librarians to be upfront about their needs, especially regarding specialized professional development.
“Librarians need to come to me because I’m not the expert. I don’t know what [they] need, but I want my librarians learning,” he said.
On the flip side of that notion, Kelly Gustafson, principal at Wexford (Pa.) Elementary School, said that sometimes the onus is on administrators to initiate open, honest conversations with librarians about what they may need.
“You don’t know what you don’t know,” she said. “In order to grow our leadership, sometimes an administrator has to come to you and say, ‘What about being vulnerable?’ That’s a hard conversation, [for you] to be vulnerable with your administrators, and it’s hard for us to be vulnerable with our librarians and teachers … but sometimes it has to happen.”
When asked how librarians can be seen as leaders who are included in the school community in ways that influence curriculum and instruction, April Grace, superintendent at Shawnee (Okla.) Public Schools, said that librarians need to be proactive.
“If you have professional learning communities in your school, ask to be a part of them. Ask to part of those grade-level meetings where you’re a part of the conversation and hearing about the learning that’s going to take place, the school goals,” she said. “Because you have tools and you have resources, and you’re the one who knows how to connect those pieces.”
Straight to the source
Using primary sources to augment history and social studies courses can make the past come alive, especially when paired with graphic novels. That was the thesis of “Teaching the Civil Rights Movement through Library of Congress Primary Sources and Graphic Novels,” led by Karen Gavigan, professor and interim director of the School of Information Science at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, and Daniella Ann Cook, associate professor of social studies education also at University of South Carolina. The session explained the importance of primary sources, the types of primary sources available from Library of Congress (LC), and examples of graphic novels that can be paired with LC sources when teaching the civil rights movement.
“Primary sources serve as entry points to difficult subjects to start a conversation,” said Cook. “They allow students to draw important conclusions [and] they allow discovery of important details about horrific events in the past, especially the often-overlooked human response to those events. They uncover little-known facts and different perspectives and help to consider the origins of prejudices and stereotypes. If you can understand the origins, you can think about how to combat and eliminate [them].”
“Since primary sources are predominantly visual, we thought it would be unique to pair them with graphic novels [for instruction],” said Gavigan, before sharing examples of such pairings: the graphic novel Little Rock Nine, set during the integration Little Rock (Ark.) Central High School in 1959, complemented by contemporaneous photos of white men and women protesting integration at the Arkansas State Capitol; the graphic novel King, about the life of Martin Luther King Jr., paired with audio from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech; and the March graphic novel series, told from the perspective of the late civil rights leader and US Congressman John Lewis, alongside photos of the 1965 Bloody Sunday march in Selma, Alabama.
Gavigan also recommended pairings on baseball trailblazers Satchel Paige and Jackie Robinson. “We’re always, as librarians, trying to collaborate with social studies teachers,” Gavigan said. “But what about coaches? Get a baseball coach from the high school and work with them on something like this just for something different.”
Creating inclusive spaces
Meg Boisseau Allison, a teacher-librarian at U-32 Middle and High School in Montpelier, Vermont, opened her session, “Radical Inclusion in Every Classroom,” by defining radical inclusion. “It means welcoming and affirming the voices of all library stakeholders in a way that shares power,” she said. “It means that libraries are not neutral or apolitical spaces. And we have to find a way to share power with all of our students.”
Allison shared strategies and experiences to help center historically marginalized voices in schools. The process begins by asking hard questions and reflection, she said. “How do we know if students feel welcomed and included in the library space? Is our curriculum meeting inclusive goals? What community corrections can be built to honor nondominant cultures?”
Implementing diverse programming and collection development is a good first step, Allison said. She recommended inviting BIPOC and LGBTQ authors and speakers to the library to discuss their work. And applying a critical lens to collection development is essential, she said. “We’re not [talking about] canceling things that make us uncomfortable,” she said. Rather, reexamining racist and xenophobic texts will allow these works to be put into context and, in turn, allow librarians to think with intention about the books they promote.
Allison also noted that economic barriers need to be removed. “I’m a firm believer that billing students for lost library books is traumatizing them and making them perform their poverty over and over,” she said. At her library, Allison invites students to have conversations with her about how to reimburse the library for lost materials. “They always come back with great ideas, like helping out at the library, doing social media posts [for us], or buying replacements from Amazon. They want to do the right thing, but often they’re penalized. And guess what happens? They stop coming to the library.”
Confronting personal biases and microaggressions is critical to creating a radically inclusive library, Allison said. She recommends that white librarians take implicit bias tests and be vigilant about addressing racism that they may see in the school. “We have to be aware and mindful and cognizant of our privilege,” she said.