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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Filed under EdLeadership, Libraries and Literacy

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