Common Dialogic Threads: Library Collections and Your Student Writers

Many of you know I was an English teacher and then a school librarian for over ten years before returning to the classroom in 2016.  Both professions and all that has come “before” and “after” inform the work I do and how I think about my practice as a literacy educator.   Sometimes it is an interesting place to be because you never ever really leave either identity of teacher or librarian completely behind; these days it’s fuzzy where one begins and the other ends.  There are many unwritten reflections about the intersection of these worlds and the ongoing revision of my perspectives, but today an insight struck me like a bolt of lightning as I was driving home, and I’d like to share it with you in hopes that perhaps it may help or encourage another educator.

When I was working on my graduate degree in School Library Media at the University of Georgia, Dr. Mary Ann Fitzgerald shared sage advice with us:  “The best way to get to know your collection is to get your hands on it and get IN it.  You have to touch it and see it firsthand.”   While that advice sounds obvious, most librarians agree that is sometimes easier said than done.

This wise insight was one I first applied when I opened The Unquiet Library way back in 2006.  I had ordered over $200,00 of books and my principal at the time asked me if I wanted PTA volunteers to help me unpack and shelve the books.  My answer of “no” shocked him; I explained I needed to touch every book to get to know the collection I had ordered—all 8,000 of them!  It was hot and tiring sweaty endeavor in late July, yet I worked for hours and hours and felt joy as I touched every book and thought about what student might love that particular read.  I could begin to envision the library program.

July 2006-Here is a photo of me the day 8000 books arrived for the opening of my new media center! There were 13 pallets with 20 boxes each from Follett. Amazingly, I unpacked these babies in 2.5 days! It was fun!

Flash forward nearly 10 years later when Jennifer Lund and I were weeding the collection at Norcross High in 2014-15; then yet another major weeding project I undertook at Chattahoochee High in 2015-16.   In both instances, a tremendous amount of time was spent looking at every single book and contemplating its history as well as it relevance for today’s students.

So what does this have to do with my work as an English teacher in 2018?

For the last three weeks, I’ve been fretting about the amount of class time I’ve devoted to a book analysis essay my 8th graders have been composing.  My worry began morphing into waves of panic as I looked at the calendar and saw days turning into weeks.  In September, I wrongly assumed they knew more than they did about how to do go about this type of assignment and had to triage quickly once I started seeing the first paragraphs of drafts.  Even though I had provided two options for drafting the essays, lots of modeling, lots of examples, and paragraph frames for students who weren’t confident writers…..I realized very quickly that this writing assignment would needs lots of hands-on feedback as they drafted to help them even get a workable draft.

So we have been knee deep in drafting and ongoing feedback via Google Docs and 1:1 writing conferences nearly every day since late September in the classroom with our Chromebooks and in our 8th writing lab.  It has been exhausting and frustrating at times—even dare I say tedious on some days—but the experiences have also been infused with joy and elation when I see a student take a revision strategy and “level up” the quality of their writing.  I am seeing them grow as writers and learners right before my eyes.    This constant and near daily interaction with students as they draft a section at a time has helped me get to know my students as writers and as learners in ways that I had not seen prior to late September.  This challenging writing task has provided them an opportunity to wrestle with writing skills, critical thinking, and new ideas; it has given me an authentic context to engage in formative assessment and teach writing skills in context.  One student shared with me today how much he liked this way of working on an essay and the continuous feedback.

From my perspective, it’s a win for all of us.  Even though the final drafts may come up short of where I hoped students would be, they have still grown and we now have a starting point for writing skills to tackle in our next upcoming writing assignment.   More importantly, I have gotten to know my students’ strengths and weaknesses both individually and across classes to see patterns of understanding as well as gaps in knowledge.   I am also fortunate that I don’t have classes larger than 25 and that my total student load is just under 100, so devoting in-class time is more doable, especially with a somewhat flexible pacing guide for 8th Language Arts.  I could not do this kind of work last year with 200 juniors and seniors and pressure to be at certain points in the American Lit canon.    While I don’t have the luxury of time to devote three plus weeks to a single major writing assignment throughout the year, I am glad I recognized my students’ points of need and made time with this first major writing endeavor.    Reading this recent post from the Moving Writers blog reaffirmed the importance of process to help writers grow and eventually help them develop the skills to craft the quality of writing we hope to see by the end of the academic year.

I share all of this backstory to say how this afternoon I really understood how getting to know my writers is much like getting to know your library collection.  You have to get knee deep with the students and with the books—you can’t have surface level interactions.  You have to pause to really look at the writer and look at the book—what do you see before you?  What is the history there that you see and don’t see?  How does what you see inform your next steps for helping that writer or rethinking your collection to grow with the times and students it serves?   What are the stories unfolding in front of you, and are you merely hearing , or are you truly listening?  Sometimes you’ll wonder if anyone really cares about the work besides you.  However, you must get up close and personal with the work at hand—you’ll never truly see what is before you if students write in a vacuum all the time and if you only know your collection from the circulation desk.  Both kinds of work are important, both require patience and persistence, and making time for both is crucial to the work of both literacy teachers and librarians.  We will always have mandates and other pressures intruding and demanding our time and attention, but we should always let our core principles be our compass in thinking about what we value and how we make time for it to elevate our work in meaningful ways.   Though the work is often messy and arduous, it is also gratifying and essential.

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