Start by telling your story

Last Friday (August 26, 2018), the board of education in the district where I have the privilege to serve adopted and announced a campaign to lift every library under their leadership from the condition it is in to one that reflects an “exemplary” status. According to the Alabama Department of Education’s guidelines, this means a collection that includes 15 books per student enrolled in the school (volume) and an average copyright date of 11 years or less (age). At the outset of this work, none of our 18 libraries meet that standard. A decade of missing or woefully inadequate funding have left almost every school library in the state below that standard.

It would be difficult to exaggerate how proud I am to be part of this work. When I launched #Kili4Kids in the spring of this year, my hope was to begin raising awareness of the need to have this conversation. In our district, we are going beyond talk and taking action. The reason is simple: it is disingenuous to pretend like it is possible to build strong readers (and thus “improve” schools) if the students just don’t have access to a robust collection of high-interest books.

This decision was a long time in coming. Moving from the status quo to a position dramatically different from what has been is risky and difficult – even when it is something as obvious and logical as giving students what they need to be successful.  It was not enough to propose a change.  Simply pointing out the problem would have been insufficient.

More than two years ago, the librarians in our district decided to start telling our story.  We have been sharing in every way we could think of steadily and consistently since then.  We produced and shared graphs that compared the state of each library to the targets for which we should be aiming.  We tracked and shared circulation data.  We analyzed the impact of high frequencies of reading on other data points (reading achievement).  To their great credit, our superintendent and board members listened and have chosen to take action.  BUT, this started when agreed together to take the risk of stepping out and telling the truth.

As is the case in your district (probably), librarians had been generally forgotten in most of our schools.  They still did libraryish stuff but in most cases, the library and the librarian were not central to the school’s mission and strategy.  Our schools were trying to build stronger readers without consulting the folks who had the formal training and experience to support that very work.  Instead of turning bitter, our group of librarians decided to start advocating for ourselves.  We went Jerry McGuire, starting with the superintendent.  We invited him to a meeting in which the group basically said ‘let us help!’  Today, we are at a much different place in this regard than we were a couple of years ago.  But none of that change was magic – it was hard, strategic work.

As our district moves into this next stage, we want to invite as many schools as are willing to join us.  We recommend that you do that by getting involved with a campaign to shine a light on school libraries that we are calling #MyLibraryStory.  Here are just a few specific suggestions:

  • Use social media to make public the truth about your library.  What is the state of your collection?  How is the physical space?  What do you know about your library that your community (or maybe even your teachers/principal/superintendent) would be surprised to know?  Tag your tweets and posts with #MyLibraryStory
  • Find the data on your school’s library.  Our team has put together a toolkit with several different resources that can help with this. Visit bit.ly/MyLibraryStory (case sensitive; don’t add www. or .com) to check out these tools, all of which are completely free.  Run an analysis of your collection; create an infographic that shares your profile; share widely and often!  If you have resources to share, we would love to add them as well.
  • Start (or continue) sharing what your school’s library can and does do.  Perhaps your library has lots of challenges.  No matter how tough they are though, that space and that professional has something special to contribute to the school.  Share!

We know how scary it is to take a risk.  And if you aren’t in these shoes, let me assure you that speaking up like this is specifically a professional risk because it is a suggestion that things should be different than they are.  Unfortunately, too many of us have been beat down as disloyal, not-a-team-player, or a trouble-maker when we try to point out that there is a better way … for the benefit of our kids, not to make our lives easier.

Let me switch from ‘we’ to ‘I’.  I challenge my fellow administrators to be part of this telling.  YOU need to be personally involved in this advocacy.  This is not about advocating for libraries, it is about advocating for what works for kids.  If you think what we are doing (by starving libraries) is working, you are crazy.  Empower your librarian to speak out and stand beside her/him in calling for our communities and state to do better by kids.  You have a stronger voice and great opportunity to use it in your community than the librarian in your school does.  Don’t leave this work to him/her. To all the librarians out there – recruit your principal and superintendent but don’t wait for her/him to act.  Start sharing – in our case, the courage to speak up first was exactly what got the ball rolling.  There are lots more actions we can take between here and being where we need to be as a state.  But start with something simple: tell your story.  Join the movement by contributing to #MyLibraryStory.

We can do this if we just decide to try.

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Climbing mountains

In case you missed, I climbed a mountain.D1FFB441-CD56-4781-84E0-3DFFE92CB140 I traveled to Tanzania with my dad and brother at the end of June and spend nine incredible days climbing the tallest mountain in Africa and the tallest freestanding mountain in the world: Kilimanjaro.

It was breathtaking – literally. The views were incredibly beautiful and I was short of breath a lot. By the way, when they say it’s “hard to breathe” at high altitudes, they don’t mean inhaling is difficult. They just mean breathing doesn’t suck oxygen into your body quickly enough.

It was exhausting. We walked 30 miles uphill over six and a half days. We were on the trail eight or more hours at least five of those days.  We climbed up out of one and then into and out of two more canyons on one day.  We descended 20 linear miles and 2 vertical miles in a day and a half.  My muscles did not forgive me for a week.

It was inspiring. My dad, brother and I intentionally made it a time of bonding and spiritual retreat. We planned a book together. We sang, told stories and teased each other; we encouraged, hugged and prayed for each other.  We are already talking about what we want to do next.

It was humbling.  Seeing a tree that has stood 15,000 feet above sea level for 180 years will make you rethink your place in the universe. Realizing that entire ecosystems existed on this mountain for thousands of years before any human climbed up to see them fills you with awe.  Considering the difference between impossible and very difficult takes on a new dimension in that environment.  Emptying your guts into the snow and clumsily slipping to slide down several yards of ice will remind you that you are weak.

I meant for this trip to be a metaphor for the uphill climb to restore school libraries. Somehow we have come to accept that it is possible to build strong readers without a healthy school library and have given ourselves permission not to do anything about the embarrassing shape they are in (both the readers we are growing and the libraries they have access to in school).  Over the last couple of months, I have repeatedly heard friends and acquaintances say ‘I could never’ about Kilimanjaro.  And that’s our attitude about school libraries too. Casting off this mindset and healing our libraries is going to be tough. It is foolish to think that naming the problem and reversing decades of decision-making are the same thing.  There will be headaches.  We will probably have the wind knocked out of us.  We will have to stay on the trail for long hours and many days.

But I say it’s worth it. The main reason me, my brother, and my 70-year-old dad all made it to the top is that we decided not to quit before we started. Before we had any idea how hard it would be, we promised each other to keep going until we got to the top – and to help each other get there.  I now promise this: I will not rest until the libraries in my district are all in the shape they need to be.

Thank you SO much to the more than 50 people who contributed to #Kili4Kids. Thanks to your generosity, we raised almost $3,800 for Tuscaloosa City School libraries.  I take these donations as a vote of confidence and as motivation to keep working hard. The funds will go directly to our libraries!

Now the real work begins. I have two invitations.

  1.  Tuscaloosa City School’s library collection campaign, “Strong Libraries, Strong Schools” officially launched on Monday (7.30.18).  We are committed to raising EVERY school library to the “exemplary” level. We don’t have a hill to climb to make this happen, it’s a mountain. It is going to take a few very big donations and LOTS of small donations to make this happen. Visit http://www.tuscaloosacityschools.com/libraries to learn more and to donate.
  2. Tuscaloosa only has 18 of the school libraries in Alabama. Almost all of the more than 1,600 school libraries in our state are in desperate need of help. We ALL need to be doing this work. Start by finding out what state your school library is in. Is the collection big enough (15 books per student)? Is it young enough (average of 11 years or less)? Join the awareness campaign that needs to become a movement: #MyLibraryStory  We can do this but only if we work together.

I am just one guy and definitely can’t do this alone. But I believe that we owe it to the next generation to make school libraries strong. And that we absolutely can. Join me; I’m already climbing!

P.S. If you enjoy pictures and videos of adventures, check out bit.ly/Kili4Kids to catch up with mine.

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Climb Itinerary

Thanks to everyone who is following this quest so closely and for all the well-wishes.

As many of you have asked, here is a copy of our rather detailed projected climb Itinerary I have inserted the dates so that you can have an idea of what we are supposed to be doing each day.

As I have shared, I will not be able to post updates during my climb and am not sure that I will be able to get to wifi before I get back into the country.  At the latest, though, watch for at least one teaser picture when we land late in the day on July 8th in Atlanta.

 

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Kili – 6 days and counting

This post is for everyone who has expressed a personal interest in my trek and in the details of it.

First, background.  I’ve been sharing about this adventure on social media in connection with my campaign in support of school libraries. But my brother and I have had plans for this for a very long time – since before I even knew I wanted to be an educator.  I wouldn’t call myself an outdoorsman in the way you probably think about it but I did spend most of my childhood outside.  Barefooted.  Routinely engaging in “play” that makes gardening and working in the woods seem downright pedestrian.  Matter-of-factly engaging in massively challenging things was one great lesson I learned from my father.  Don’t get me wrong; he’s been training for this like crazy – which is probably a good idea since he turned 70 a couple of months ago.  The point is, Maxey Mens Retreats are a thing and have been for a while. This is just the first one that includes summiting a legit mountain.

Some stats:
Mt. Kilimanjaro is the tallest free-standing mountain in the world at 19,341 feet above sea level.  Of the “Seven Summits” (highest mountains on each continent), it ranks number 4.  However, it does not require any technical climbing skills and is (essentially) an exceptionally strenuous hike.

While the record for fastest ascent and descent was completed in under seven hours, for mortals like us, a much longer journey is recommended.  The primary danger is acute mountain sickness (AMS) – the most dangerous of which is “high altitude pulmonary edema”.  This can be life-threatening but most often results in less severe symptoms many of which are similar to those one could experience with the common flu.  The cause of AMS is typically a climb that is too rapid.  As a result, we have opted for a very leisurely nine-day hike.

We will not be setting any records on this trip, a seven-year-old summited earlier this year (in spite of park rules prohibiting anyone under ten from attempting the summit); my dad will have to go back in 17 years if he wants to set the record for oldest.  On the other hand, this will be a personal best for me and the first of the Seven Summits.  Perhaps this will get me moving towards that bucket list item to do them all.

One of the amazing things about the Kilimanjaro climb is the fact that the mountain has a huge range of temperature zones.  We will essentially experience all four seasons in those nine days.

We will be guided by a group of professional climbers who were highly recommended and have made the accent dozens of times.  All but the last two items on my detailed packing list are ready to go.  With the help of my young assistant, my backpack and duffle are scheduled for packing on Wednesday.  Watch for an update.

 

P.S.  Do you think I have enough socks?

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Kili4Kids

I’ve written, spoken and worked a great deal in advocacy for public school libraries. While we have no shortage of hypocrisy in our society and in public education, one of the more egregious examples is the way in which school libraries are ignored, starved or outright closed. Once again I assert that we never will accomplish much in the way of producing proficient readers if we do not commit ourselves to rehabilitating our libraries and treating them like an indispensable part of our schools.

But these are all just words. How about some action?

This June, I will be climbing Mount Kilimanjaro with my dad and brother. It is the tallest mountain in Africa and the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. Although summiting does not require great technical climbing skills, walking to 19,341 feet above sea level is no joke.

Here’s the connection. The total amount needed to bring every library in my school district up to the national “exemplary” standard is about $1.9M. I’m paying all the expenses for my trek up Kilimanjaro but I wonder if you would consider “sponsoring” me. I want to raise $19,341 for the school libraries of Tuscaloosa City Schools. That’s 1% of what we need. It could be one small step for Literacy in my town and one giant trek up a mountain for me.

If you’d like to help, you can make a donation through this link.  Every dollar counts.

Here’s another thought: I’m willing to carry five items up the mountain with me: t-shirts or tiny banners to take a picture with at the top or small (painted?) rocks. The first five people to reach out to me (amaxey at tusc dot k12 dot al dot us) and contribute at least $1,000 can take me up on this offer. You’ll need to provide the object and I’ll need to check it out before I agree. Or let me know if you’ve got another idea.

I plan to have an amazing trek with my dad and brother. It would be incredible to do something to support school libraries while I’m at it. What do you say?  Join me in making this climb up Kili truly about kids?

Update: If you prefer to donate directly, you can write a check to “Tuscaloosa City Schools”. Write “#Kili4Kids” in the memo line. Mail or deliver it to my attention at: 1210 21st Avenue, Tuscaloosa Alabama 35401. We can handle cash or gold bullion donations as well.

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Subtexts: A postscript in support of stronger libraries

In the first three blog posts in this series, I suggested that an effective focus on literacy must include both the science and the art of reading, that most public schools are woefully under-equipped to produce proficient readers (through the neglect of library collections) and that librarians and the libraries they manage are incredibly powerful but generally forgotten agents to produce the results schools want.

This final post is meant to be an afterward, an appendix or a postscript.  A written “…and another thing!” If you were not already convinced that your school’s library should be stronger than it already is, let me share some reasons why it should be.

As I have already mentioned, funding for libraries has been a mixed bag in my state.  There is funding for a librarian for every school – a commitment better than that of other states.  Funding to maintain library collections has been abysmal for the last ten years. If you have been paying attention, you will recall that our world and society has changed significantly in that time.  Here are just three ways in which conventional wisdom has shifted that should be reflected in our library collections.

  1. Most reasonable thinkers today acknowledge the importance of having access to texts that include protagonists and other characters like the reader.  Even a cursory review of the literary “canon” reveals the fact that the hyper majority of protagonists have been male and white. In the last ten years, the publishing world seems to have finally awakened to the importance of producing texts that feature a diversity of characters that more accurately reflects the diversity of humans likely to read those texts.  The twin shift has been the proliferation of texts by a more diverse range of authors. If schools are truly to prepare students for the world they will live in as adults, the texts to which they are exposed must be as diverse as the humans around them. I have no doubt that your librarian is fully aware of the importance of this issue and has made heroic efforts along these lines.  If the funding available is as limited as it is for the libraries I work with, that effort has probably produced no more than a ripple on that ocean of need.
  2. In the last two or three years, the discussion about the work of schools in my area has finally begun to shirt seriously and systematically aware from elevating test scores to actually lifting student learning.  In other words, I am at last thrilled to be part of work to produce thinkers instead of merely answerers.  In the past I have been absolutely transparent about my position on standardized testing both in the blog and in my professional conversations: during this Age of Accountability, public education made the decision to value higher test scores over more learning.  The failure of that movement is well documented by thousands of scholars and voices in the profession.  It was no mistake that libraries have been starved, marginalized and (in some places) literally abandoned: we were spending the resources that should have been allocated to them on the latest magical solution for better test scores.  So the choice seems clear to me: to truly produce young women and men who are critical thinkers, they need a massively wide range of ideas to think about.  There are simply not enough hours in the day to provide students exposure to enough content in the classroom.  They must have access to high quality, relevant, powerful texts that they select to read.  A healthy library directly supports the core mission of producing engaged, thoughtful citizens. 
  3.  Finally, a study of the history of education in America reveals the explicit purposes for which the education of the young has been set.  Too often in our past, the purpose of school has been the training of the young to fill the role set for them in adulthood – roles heavily pre-influenced by class, race, religion and other factors.  In short, education has been the instrument of control. At the risk of being entirely disregarded as alarmist, let me point out that at many, many points in history a recurring strategy for increasing control on a population has been the wholesale destruction or harsh censorship of books.  If public education simply refuses to prioritize funding for libraries in a way that measurably leads to the slow decay of their collections into irrelevance, how can we in good conscience avoid the conclusion that we are denying students access to a resource absolutely essential to their intellectual and social formation?  Many students do not have access to a library other than the one in their school. By allowing those libraries to fall far below reasonable standards of operation, we undermine the efforts we public insist we are committed to undertaking.  Instead of being instruments of control, our schools and libraries should be catalysts of agency in our youth.  Weak libraries can provide no such support.

And there’s more…  There are probably dozens of other ways in which school libraries should advance the core mission of schools but do not.  I would love to hear your ideas. Above all, do something.  If you can’t solve the entire problem, start somewhere. Our children deserve our action.

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The Silver Bullet We Always Had

In the first two blog posts in this series, I made the case that literacy is much more than a science to be executed and that nothing short of an avalanche of books for students to select freely from is enough to develop strong readers.

In a profession that seems obsessed with finding the answer, it seems ironic that the mechanism for igniting and nurturing the art of literacy has been so often forgotten, downplayed or outright abandoned.  No teacher can possibly handle the crushing weight and range of instructional duties assigned and allocate enough time to curate, acquire and manage a collection of books diverse and extensive enough to serve the individual needs of the students he/she serves.  Fortunately, just such a professional educator is available to serve the needs of students – the school librarian.  Most school librarians are exceptionally well qualified to serve as a school’s lead in nurturing the art of literacy. Many hold a degree in library science that provides specific training in skills particularly relevant to developing readers, many of which go well beyond what teacher preparation programs provide.  They can be counted on to celebrate reading, to serve individual students’ developmental needs, to collaborate closely with classroom teachers and to provide both innovative and research-based recommendations for improving reading in their school.

But somehow, far too often, they are not the strongest voice in the conversation about how to build strong readers.  Many times, they are not included in the decision-making process of the school at all.  Some schools do not even have a librarian.  As the spaces in which they work have become known as “library-media centers”, they have been expected to be tech “gurus” – a role which most have embraced enthusiastically, even as it has forced them to spend less time on what should be their essential function.  In some cases, the library has become a space in which students are encouraged to learn and collaborate and innovate – with technology.  While technical and digital literacy are particularly essential to the success of everyone entering the workforce now and in the future, to allow this focus to come at the expense of reading is exceptionally dangerous.  Many librarians have also been tapped to support the task of reading instruction – often in the form of “small group instruction”.  Again, direct and even individualized instruction in reading is an important part of becoming a strong reading.  Structures that prioritize that objective at the expense of equally important work are evidence of the imbalance we have been discussing.

The evidence is clear that public education and decision-makers in the public arena are willing to allow libraries a long, slow death by ignoring them.  While there are doubtlessly examples of this around the country, I will limit my examples to those in the environment where I work.  In my state, librarians are funded at the state level like teachers – with a formula based on student enrollment.  If a school’s enrollment is too low, they do not earn a “full” librarian.  School districts in such situations must either assign librarians to serve multiple schools or find money to pay the missing portion of the salaries required to have a full-time librarian in each school.  Students most likely not to have a full-time librarian in their school are naturally those who are in school systems with the least available resources – children who are almost all part of poor families.  On the other end of the spectrum, very large schools do not receive funding for an additional librarian.  Even elementary schools with more than 1,500 students receive state funds for one librarian.

Funding for the library itself comes from the state as well.  Under the current formula funding structure (a per-teacher allocation), a school can purchase about 1.5 books for every teacher in the school per year if the entire amount is spent on books and not on the other supplies that are necessary to keep a library running.  This amount is certainly not enough to maintain that avalanche we talked about earlier.  But it is more than the $0 libraries were allocated for eight of the last ten years.

It seems impossible to excuse this abysmal lack of funding as a function of “budget pressures”. At the same time that we have spent literally nothing on libraries, we have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into other educational priorities.  Educators and leaders everywhere spoke up and spoke out on lots of issues – as well they should; the voices calling for attention to this most basic resource in schools – books – were few and completely ignored.

To avoid misunderstanding, massive credit goes to the hundreds of librarians who have been speaking out all along and who have found increasingly creative ways to keep their libraries healthy.  Hats off to the school principals and system leaders who have made reading their core mission and who have found and invested funds to make their libraries strong.  As a rule, their schools are strong as well – along with their students’ literacy skills.

For most of us though, we are here in this quandary that we may not have created but that we have definitely exacerbated by foolishly focusing on just half of the equation.  To be clear, it would have been equally foolish to abandon reading instruction and focus all our efforts on independent reading.  In today’s educational climate, that course of action seems inconceivable.  The way forward, however, should be simple.

Restore the balance.  Make both sides of literacy the focus.  Continue to apply excellent, evidence-based practice to reading instruction.  Take steps to build a culture of reading by making truly independent reading a part of the school’s DNA.  

Here are five suggestions for getting started:

  • Accept that literacy is not one dimensional.  Control the things that are meant to be controlled.  Stop trying to control (or quantify or “track” or just ignore) the things that aren’t.  Recognize that the lopsided approach we have been taking just. does. not. work! Let the joy and the passion and the magic of reading be your best friend. Crazy little secret – when kids love to read, they do. A lot.  When kids read a lot, they get better at reading.  When kids get better at reading, they can prove it on a test.     
  • Invite your school librarian to be the school’s “culture of reading” director.  Trust her/him to lead the process of figuring out what your school needs to do to become a community of passionate, strong readers. Folks trained in the science of literacy can help with this work too.  They should not be leading/doing this work instead of the librarian though.
  • Evaluate your school’s library collection.  Organizations such as the American Association of School Librarians offer resources and recommendations. The key questions are “Do we have enough books” and “Is our collection young enough”.  If you have thousands of books so old students will not read them, they aren’t helping. As we pointed out last time, this is especially important with non-fiction books.  Be ready to hear that your library needs help.  My children’s elementary school has valued and support their library for decades.  Seriously, someone raises money for it literally every day of the year … and that library’s (amazing) collection still does not meet the national standard of an “exemplary” collection.
  • Find money for your library.  It’s that simple.  Ask the generous members of your community.  Sell concessions at the ball game.  Write grants.  Make the case to your board.  We are doing all this and more.  By the way, it’s working for us.  But that’s a story for another day. Figure out how to make this a priority and make it happen. The good news is that “we need books” is one of the statements your community members are most likely to understand and accept.
  • Recommit your classroom, school, district to a focus on literacy that makes actual results the goal.  Keep in mind that test scores are symbols; our goal should be to improve the reality those symbols signify.  Young people who are actually strong readers will display behaviors and provide evidence of their excellence in ways that go far beyond what a test can measure.  That outcome is one to be excited about and work towards.

 

  • Bonus: Get the adults in your school/district involved in modeling a culture of reading.  Share with others what you are reading, host book talks, make specific recommendations to students, show what an adult who reads looks like.  Give students an example of someone who reads when s/he does not have to.  If you are not on fire for reading, why should they be?

In the first two posts in this series, I tried to make the case for change like this.  Next time, I will wrap up the series by pointing out a few more positive effects this change is likely to have.

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