Top 5 Takeaways: My Experience at SLJ Leadership Summit 2017

One of the things I love most about being a school librarian is networking with other librarians – to collaborate, share ideas, and get inspiration for how to improve my practice. Through a generous scholarship from the Virginia Association of School Librarians, I was able to attend the 2017 School Library Journal Leadership Summit in Nashville, Tennessee this past October. Limited to 300 participants, this Summit also attracts the “top names” in Libraryland every year, including owners & CEOs of companies we use all the time (here’s looking at you, Follett, Mackin, and Rosen!). Now that I have had time to reflect and digest the notes I took during the incredible summit, I was able to summarize it all into my top 5 takeaways.

The Need for Purpose

As I discussed in previous blog posts this year, my 2017 #oneword is purpose. When so many things vie for our attention as school librarians, we really have to consider what is going to forward the purpose we have established for our libraries and for ourselves. Tamiko Brown, 2017 SLJ Librarian of the Year, spoke on Sunday about her purpose: “I want to build a library that is inclusive, empowering, and engaging.” To me, this seems to be an all-encompassing purpose that allows for innovation in our practice as well as buy-in from our users to utilize our space. This was especially seen on our Friday tour of local school libraries when we visited Harris Hillman School, a special school for students with severe and profound disabilities. I really appreciated the super-focused purpose of this library, taking into account all the students’ different needs and making information and the library come to life for them. I was riveted by the innovation and intentional thoughtfulness to make a useful, enjoyable library for their students. How do we do this in our libraries – for all our students?

It was also extremely inspiring to hear from one of the superintendents on the administrator panel that they are not necessarily focused on test scores, but rather career- and life-readiness. Dr. Bill Chapman, superintendent of Jarrell ISD in Jarrell, Texas said, “We want them to be able to do whatever it is they want to do after they walk across that stage at the end of high school.” This is so important when thinking about purpose; we are one of the few places in the school where students don’t necessarily feel the pressure of test scores and can feel empowered to explore, study, and learn whatever they would like. Ultimately, we’re helping students discover who they are as people – not as test scores – and this needs to be part of our purpose as librarians.

The Need for Diversity

Increasingly, our libraries serve students of diverse backgrounds, socioeconomic levels, and family situations. Students at my school in Northern Virginia come from 53 countries and more than 20 languages are spoken at home. The need for diversity was reinforced especially during the panel discussion with four high school students and Gene Luen Yang, author of American Born Chinese, among other titles. The panel discussed their class’s experience with reading and sharing ideas of Yang’s American Born Chinese, specifically related to race, self-identification, and graphic novels. Their discussion was eye-opening.

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Panel of high school students from Jesuit High School (Portland, Oregon), and Gene Luen Yang, author of American Born Chinese, discussing how to use graphic novels to develop racial literacy in today’s teens.

Although this graphic novel has been subject to controversy for its racial insensitivity, Yang shared that the story was semi-autobiographical, that it was his group of friends growing up who made fun of a group of boys similar to the main character, and that his family was subject to the racial stereotypes that are portrayed in the graphic novel. These issues powerfully resonated with the students, however. Some sentiments they shared included wanting to strive to be better to others after reading it and that it was weird to see their culture reflected in a book for their English class. (Weird! It was weird to see their culture in English class!) Another student commented that American Born Chinese was “a mirror I enjoyed looking into because it was the first book that ever reflected what I felt. Some of that mirror wasn’t so pleasing, though.” Our students want to see themselves on our shelves. Our students need these reading experiences to celebrate similar successes with their characters, to experience the heartbreak and humiliation of being bullied for cultural traditions, and to reflect on what they have done in their short lives to either cause or combat these issues.

Diversity on our shelves is a must, whether we serve students from 53 countries or 1 country. Students deserve to see similar and also completely different experiences from their own, regardless of potential challenges from parents, administrators, and other students. A library collection should reflect everyone and all issues both in and outside of your school community.

In the words of one student on the panel, “You are the one who puts books into the hands of people who are still forming their identities.” Besides the fact that the statement is incredibly empowering and humbling, it is completely true, too. Diversity on the shelves – racial, familial, and cultural – help students form their identities as compassionate, reflective, and validated. If we don’t have those books to put into students’ hands, what opportunities are we missing for dialogue, for righting misunderstandings, and for helping students think about who they are as people?

The Need for Advocacy

I was grateful for the subtle (and not so subtle) reminders of the continual need for advocacy for not only our programs, but for us as librarians, too. I attended a breakout session led by Jarred Amato, founder of the Project Lit community in Nashville. Discussing how he got Project Lit off the ground, he stated, “You start making enough noise about something and people will start to allocate money that way.” How powerful is this! We truly need to get our events, data, photos, and everything else in the faces of our community, our staff, and our administration in order to show our impact on school life and student learning.

This concept was reinforced in a separate session with a panel of superintendents. When talking about advocacy, Dr. Bill Chapman, suggested when tweeting photos of happenings around your library, tag the principal, your school board member, and district superintendent. Having an event in your library? He suggested inviting all the people that have input on decisions regarding the library to attend. In his words, “Make it so there is no choice for them to not know what’s going on in your library.” This was super powerful for me. We document, we work hard to get students and staff in our libraries. When it makes your school and district look good, and you’re showing off learning in your library, why not get the attention of those that make the decisions on your behalf? These two comments reinforced easy ideas to advocate more for our library, our students, our programs, and our budgets!

The Need for Collaboration

I really picked up on this during two sessions, one was about visual literacy with a panel of graphic novelists and illustrators, including Gareth Hinds, CeCe Bell, and Javaka Steptoe (who won the 2017 Caldecott for his work on Radiant Child). Their panel reinforced the point that we have skills to integrate into all content areas, including art. They agreed that they weren’t artists, but rather storytellers. As librarians, we can get behind that – and help teach that! Our art staff may want support in helping their students in seeing the concept of telling a story through their art. How can storytelling components be integrated into art classes? This could be a powerful collaboration between art teachers and librarians, revolutionizing how students see themselves as artists – and working on their visual literacy skills, too.

This also made me think about students who learn visually and how this translates to students making visual representations, sketch noting, and digital visuals. The elements of storytelling are a viable topic at the table when discussing novels with students, and they should be when students are making their thinking visual, as well. (Below: Meeting Cece Bell, Gareth Hinds, and Gene Luen Yang!)

That concept was fully reinforced when I attended a breakout session on media literacy and research, led by Alicia Abdul. She challenged us to help teachers think about the different skills it takes when students present information through different media: oral presentations vs. essay vs. blog vs. podcasts vs. newspapers vs. Twitter projects. These all take different visual and media literacy skills. This is a BIG deal that not many teachers are thinking about when assigning projects – and are often disappointed when students’ end products are not as expected, or every student chooses the same option for an end product. As librarians, we have the opportunity to offer professional development on these topics – and can help teach these skills to students. I would be interested to see if students know the difference in which skills they need for each end product. Also, do students naturally gravitate away from some of these projects because they haven’t mastered the skills required? (Food for thought, for sure…)

Abdul suggested an activity I thought was brilliant, that relates to collaboration possibilities for all content areas: can students take an infographic and make it an article? Can they take an article and make it an infographic? While seemingly easy, these both take skills that students need practice to do – and yet, both activities require different sets of skills to do well, related to media literacy, visual literacy, and reading/writing. They need to summarize, determine importance, elaborate, make sure they are using credible sources free from bias, collaboration skills (if working with others), among many others. This is one of those collaboration opportunities that reinforces that we don’t just check out books, and that learning in the library (or the classroom!) is quiet. Yet it hits content standards and library standards, as well.

The Need for Relationships

Finally, relationships are key to our success as librarians. We need to interact with others in order to do our job well and make the most impact on learning and students’ lives. In the panel discussion with the high school students and Gene Luen Yang, two students really illustrated this concept for me. When discussing what he had learned throughout the book discussion of American Born Chinese, one student stated, “Human beings are a dynamic process, and race is a dynamic process.” This is so true, especially when thinking about students, parents, and staff. We are all works in progress, but we will only get better by having discussions, learning about and from each other, and working together. Another student in the same panel, in giving advice to Summit attendees on how to improve relationships, stated, “Figure out how to fall in love with every single person you meet. And that’s horrifyingly difficult.” Think about that. How do you do that with staff who don’t want to collaborate, that admin who cut your budget, the student whose only positive attention during the school day is when he checks out books from the library? 

Above all, this summit reinforced to me the need for relationships with other librarians. Networking helps solve problems, gain new ideas, and find support you need. The School Library Journal 2017 Leadership Summit gave me new focus, new friendships, and the renewed interest to reflect on practices both new and old. If you ever get the chance, don’t hesitate to go. It is by far one of the best professional development opportunities I have had as a librarian.

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Speaking of relationships: I was so grateful to attend SLJ this year with my principal, Dr. Amy Goodloe, and library coordinator, Priscille Dando!

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