on “real reading”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found myself defending children’s reading of insert kid-friendly format or genre here to concerned (albeit well-intentioned) adults. Sadly, some authors/series get branded as not “real reading” more often than others. Captain Underpants, Johnny Boo, Diary of a Wimpy Kid…you get the drift.

And here’s where I get stuck, because “reading” is what the learner does—not the book. “Real reading” is format and genre neutral, because it’s about the reader.

How do we allow what matters most (the readers and their thinking) to shine? To me, there are just as many ways thinking can be made visible than there are reader preferences. Here’s just one:



difficult conversations

A few years back, I read Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen of the Harvard Negotiation Project. Given the important, difficult conversations that have been taking place recently in the children’s literature world (and elsewhere), I thought it was worth revisiting my notes on the book (as well as this helpful guide). Paraphrasing and sharing does not make me an expert on this—I’m learning just as much as the next person. But I do think it is important to remember that this discourse is healthy and necessary.

The authors posit that people tend to make three big errors when having difficult conversations:

  1. Assuming you know everything
  2. Hiding your own feelings OR getting so emotional you let your feelings loose in ways you later regret
  3. Acting as if your identity/lens is separate from the issue at hand

Stone says that they key to engaging in difficult conversations is to “Shift your thinking from I need to explain myself or deliver a message to I need to listen and learn…

Stone also provides tips, in the form of 5 steps, for tackling tough conversations:

Step 1 is to reflect on the “3 conversations” that actually occur when discussing something difficult. The first is what happened to prompt the discussion, the second is what feelings are evoked relating to the topic, and the third is how one’s identity effects reactions and responses. Thinking about all of these ideas will inform how you engage and interact with the other person.

Step 2 is to consider your purposes for engaging and decide whether the conversation is worth having. Questions to reflect on include:
What do you hope to accomplish by having this conversation?”  and
“Do you need to raise the issue to achieve your purpose?”

Step 3 is to approach the issue “as if a third, neutral person is looking on.” The idea is to promote collaborative problem solving by trying to see the two viewpoints as objectively as possible and consider the differences between them.

Step 4 is to explore both stories. Acknowledge the other person’s feelings and perspectives while sharing your own. Ask questions, listen, and paraphrase to assure understanding. Be open-minded and willing to reframe your assumptions as you learn more.

Step 5 is to work together to develop solutions. Stone reminds readers that one-way relationships rarely last. Keep communication open and develop strategies for moving forward together.

Other advice in the book includes using the word “and” to highlight how two truths can coexist. (For example, I find this book beautiful AND I find it problematic.) Sometimes scheduling a conversation for a later time/date is helpful. (I think social media has made this challenging –perhaps some of these conversations need to be prompted on social media but continued on the phone or face-to-face.) The book shares that “people are most likely to change when they don’t HAVE to,” and that statements like “I feel” and “to me” and “I believe” are a big deal (as they show that you aren’t rushing to judgment).

To me (see what I did there?), 🙂 the big takeaway is that these conversations are not easy: they take commitment and courage. In them, we are always listening, evaluating our stances, shifting perspectives, and growing. There is rarely a single “right” answer. But with practice, these difficult conversations can become second nature. As I say to my students, practice makes better.

I bought Stone and Heen’s newest book, Thanks for the Feedback, but haven’t had a chance to read it yet. If you’ve read these books or anything similar, I’d love to hear your ideas.

board book love

I don’t always get a chance to look closely at board books, but I’m always on the hunt for titles that I think are worth celebrating and sharing. And I have a new favorite: Whose Tools? by Toni Buzzeo and Jim Datz. Below is a write-up I did for a Mock Caldecott in which I’m participating:

Image from http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/612pzMqHIdL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

In this board book which poses questions directly to readers, page borders offer visual hints to the answers; for example, bricks surround the question, “Whose tools are those?” on a spread featuring a mason’s tools. Borders also offer balance of color by matching the background fill of each recto page. Datz’s cartoony style humanizes the anthropomorphized tools and makes the presentation of information cheery and accessible for children. Horizontal signs with questions on them direct readers to each gatefold; when opened, another horizontal sign revealing each answer is exposed (pointing in the opposite direction). These inward facing signs mirror each other and draw readers’ eyes to the person demonstrating the practical use for the tools in the center image. This consistency (in which a speaking worker is featured in the middle page and their colleagues and labels are featured to the right) allows readers to predict where different types of information will be located on each spread. Dotted white lines connect vocabulary words (featured on rectangular labels) to each tool, creating a blueprint-like effect, which ties fittingly into the construction concept. Textures (for instance, spongy marks on green grass and dark to light color gradients on the silver tools) add depth and make central images stand out amongst their settings. By showing a variety of tools being used and a diverse cast of characters using them, an inclusive theme is communicated: building is for everyone. When children are shown using blocks inside a completed house on the final spread, this theme is enriched and expanded by representing the collaboration required for a finished product.

Image from https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/56/7f/86/567f86e0466913102a8473aafcf3ce11.jpg

I don’t buy many board books for the library, but this one (for reasons listed above as well as the fact that construction is part of our curriculum) will be right at home with other books in our collection, including Dreaming Up and Building Our House. I can’t wait to take a look at Whose Truck? too!

day(s) in the life

“But what does an average day LOOK like?”

I get that question a lot, as I work with several practicum students, interns, and visiting teacher-librarians (both virtually and in real life). Our library has what we call a “fixed-flex” schedule. This means that we have regular bi-weekly library enrichment class visits built into our schedule, but we also have the flexibility to meet, collaborate on planning, and teach with faculty. During student extension visits, we integrate information and literacy skills into students’ learning in other curricular areas. Because that description still leaves people wondering what it actually looks like when the rubber hits the road, and because every day is different, I thought it’d be fun to provide a snapshot of not one, but two days in the life.


7:20 – 7:45 AM:
I arrive at school and open the library (turning on computers, checking in books, unlocking our iPad cart, and filling displays). I pull resource books for 3 different teachers who have emailed me over the weekend. Several teachers drop into the library on their way to their classrooms to find books to use for upcoming units and activities. When I get a chance, I plug in and turn on my laptop and log into my email (so I can see when new messages are received throughout the day). I also spend a few minutes readying my instructional supplies for the day (making sure I have the visual guides I need, books ready to read, graphic organizers made, etc.).

7:45-8:15 AM:
This is what we call “Open Library” time, where kids and families can browse our collection and check out materials before school. There is always a flood of children ready when our doors open. Today, I had to explain to a group of kids that Firelight (Kazu Kibuishi’s Amulet book #7) doesn’t come out for several months. The countdown has begun.

8:15-8:45 AM:
My colleague and I meet with a parent to discuss our book fair and ways that the library can recommend books to be added to the fair inventory. We also developed a plan for creating and sharing a suggested book list for parents to use when the book fair is in session.

8:45-9:15 AM:
Fourth graders visit for library extension. We explore our digital library resources using a thinking routine called SEE – THINK – WONDERseethinkwonder

9:15-9:35 AM:
I catalog a few new books that needed to be added to our collection. I also touch base with a teacher about a book that we’re thinking of incorporating into a unit on Chicago later this year.

9:40-10:35 AM:
We have back-to-back kindergarten classes visiting the library for enrichment. We are kicking off our state children’s choice book award (The Monarch Award), so together we read last year’s school- and state-wide winners.

10:35-11 AM:
I notice that our display in recognition of National Hispanic Heritage Month is looking small, as a lot of the books we had featured have been checked out. I take a few minutes to pull and display additional books from our collection.

11:05-11:30 AM:
This is when I take a minute to grab lunch and reply to a few emails. Before I leave the library, a group of third and fourth graders drop in looking for “just right” books. I also show an assistant teacher how to use our self-checkout process.

11:30 AM – 12 PM:
I have lunch duty and help children in the cafeteria. At this same time, my teaching colleague has another kindergarten group visit for library checkout.

12-12:15 PM:
I go to my mailbox, where I find a few catalogs, some junk mail, a new Booklist, and bills for our subscriptions. I print out resources that I will need for my 12:15 meeting.

12:15-1 PM:
I meet with my supervisor to go over my goals for the year. We discuss many interesting topics and ideas, and I leave with a burst of energy (from our conversation and also from a piece of candy that I get from her office).

1:10-1:35 PM
Junior kindergartners visit for computer science class. (I teach CS as part of a 7-person faculty team.) We discuss how computers follow directions given to them by programmers, and we play a game of “programmer says.” We also explore how directions have order and the kids contribute to an idea map where we consider and define “order.” We read Z csorder1is for Moose by Kelly Bingham and Paul Zelinsky and 1-2-3 Peas by Keith Baker to think about other things in our lives that have a certain order (or sequence).

1:45-2:15 PM:
Fourth graders visit for library enrichment and to borrow books. We review routines and norms for using the library. Children sign a contract for the space and also help to create signs that will go up in our space all year. For the signs, the children pose in photographs that teach “how to use the library.” These photographs model library tips, tricks, and expectations to our visitors.

2:30-3:30 PM
After school “Open Library” begins. Kids and families drop in to take home materials for the night and tell us what they’ve been enjoying reading. One family has fun at our MakerZone center and creates a wacky hairstyle with chenille strips after learning about magnets.

3:45 – 5 PM
I attend a meeting of teachers and administrators. We engage in a thinking routine (Compass Points) which helps us consider goals for teaching and learning in the years to come.

5 PM
The library officially closes at 3:30, but five is consistently the “end” of our day. If I’m not at a meeting after school, I’m usually checking in books, emailing our volunteers, replying to emails, making pathfinders, creating book lists, or setting up extension visits for student groups.


7:20-8 AM
I arrive at school and do the same morning routines as yesterday. I work with our facilities department to move furniture to accommodate a large group for an event that will begin at 8:15.

8-8:15 AM
As fourth graders enter school, they check in with their teachers and then make their way down to the library. They have a few minutes to explore the collection and converse with one another while we wait for everyone to arrive for our morning guest speaker.

8:15-8:50 AM
The fourth graders have been learning about Japan, and next month they will visit the Chicago Botanic Garden’s bonsai collection. A special guest (who studied under Ivan Waters, past curator of the CBG bonsai collection) teaches children about bonsai and what to look for and appreciate when they look at trees on their field trip.

My students gave this thank you card to our speaker.

8:50-9:10 AM
It’s picture day! I run upstairs to get my snapshot taken.

9:10 – 9:35 AM
I have to sign and deliver paperwork that approves some recent book orders. I also send an email to a local bookseller about special ordering titles for a “One Book, One School” event I’m coordinating for the spring. I notice that our book drop is getting full, so I check in a couple books.

9:45-10:15 AM
First graders visit the library for enrichment. They learn routines and read Audrey Vernick and Matthew Cordell’s First Grade Dropout with my teaching colleague before checkout.

10:20-11 AM
Our laminator is broken. Luckily, my colleague fixes it right away.  I notice I have a voice message from a parent. I write a note to myself to contact her later. I also take this time to look at a post-it on our computer screen about a few books we need to order. I do a quick online purchase of those titles. I take a moment to put on my “co-department” chair hat and call my co-chair to discuss the agenda for our next department meeting. I also reply to an email from a high school teacher about an independent study one of her students is doing on the topic of children’s literature (specifically, beginning chapter books). I upload a few back-to-school library photographs to our intranet. Before our next class group arrives, I print out and post the photo signs the fourth graders helped finish yesterday on the bulletin board by our library’s main entrance.

11:05 – 11:30 AM
Second graders visit for enrichment. We talk about the different rooms (sections) of the library, and read Wolfie the Bunny by Ame Dyckman and Zachariah OHora. The children demonstrate their knowledge of the library sections by classifying Wolfie the Bunny as a fiction picture book that belongs in our “Everybody” section.

11:30 AM – 12 PM:
I have my lunch duty in the cafeteria.

12 – 12:10 PM:
I grab a quick lunch.

12:10-12:35 PM:
A group of second graders will soon be visiting with their teacher for what we call “book shopping.” The books go into special bags the kids decorate and are used during reading instruction. We set up three tables of books (similar to a bookstore display, but there is a table for early readers, a table for emergent chapter books, and a table for other chapter books). The children choose between 3 and 8 books to borrow. Since these books are chosen for reading instruction and the children are limited to “just right” levels, they get checked out under the teacher’s name.

12:35 – 1:10 PM
The children visit and “book shop” with their teacher’s guidance. If a child falls in love with a title but it won’t work for reading instruction, we check the book out for the child.

1:10-1:35 PM
Junior kindergarten visits for library enrichment. This is their first library enrichment visit of the year! After introductions and learning and practicing procedures, my teaching colleague leads the children in a compare/contrast activity between two picture storybooks: I Don’t Want to Go to School! by Stephanie Blake and Whatever by William Bee.

1:45-2:10 PM:
A fourth grade class visits for extension. We do another see-think-wonder routine to help us set a purpose for reading The Peace Tree from Hiroshima by Sandra Moore and Kazumi Wilds. The kids make thoughtful, insightful predictions using the information they learned about bonsai from the morning.

2:30-3:30 PM:
More families visit during “Open Library.” I help one caregiver find two abridged versions of the same classic story for her child. I notice someone pulled all of our Magic School Bus books onto the floor, and spend a moment putting them back on the shelf. A bunch of children create magnet hairstyles at our MakerZone. (We have a Padlet that students use to save and share their creations.)

Screen Shot 2015-09-23 at 9.15.56 AM3:45 – 5 PM:
After the library closes, we have another faculty meeting after school. Before I leave the library, I think about writing this post and run a circulation report. In two days, 302 books were borrowed from our library! I wonder how that figure compares to most days/weeks (I know we circulated over 16,000 books last school year).


Before I leave for work each morning, I will read my emails and make a to-do list for myself. I do most of my ordering, article reading, checking up on social media, and lesson planning on weekday evenings. I do most of my book reading during my commute or right before bed. (Fun fact: I just started using Boomerang to manage when emails are sent. This is worth looking into if you’re a night owl or early bird who doesn’t want people feeling one way or another about receiving work emails from you in the wee hours.) I do other professional development and projects (such as reflecting on this blog) whenever I get an opportunity, which is usually on weekends or during breaks from school. Today is a non-attendance day. I look forward to multi-tasking while I get my car serviced. 🙂

So, those are two back-to-back days. Even though there is no such thing as a “regular” day in the school library, hopefully this begins to answer that question up at the top of this post.

library photo tour

The first day of school isn’t for another two weeks, but tomorrow I meet with new teachers and assistants re: all things library. I’m always challenged with trying to tell them about our physical space without being in it. After seeing on Pinterest how another librarian used ThingLink to solve a similar problem, I knew I should give it a try.

Ever wondered what my library looks like? Wonder no more.

A Fine Dessert: Sweet Intentions, Sour Aftertaste

Cover image from http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/205549/a-fine-dessert-four-centuries-four-families-one-delicious-treat-by-emily-jenkins-illustrated-by-sophie-blackall/

As a teacher-librarian, there are many ways I think about books. When I collaborate with children on their reading choices, we consider purpose: WHY are we choosing right now? Is it for a class assignment? For research? For fun? Together with teaching colleagues, I consider age of the learners, presentation of ideas, time restraints, curricular connections, and more. Different needs lend themselves to different questions—and ultimately different conclusions as well. Reflecting on these questions and our answers to them opens pathways and helps us determine excellent material for each reader and for each need.

As a librarian-librarian, I know and respect the First Amendment. I work to check my privilege and biases to ensure access and protect my patrons’ right to read. It’s a constant exercise (one that I hope I get better at every day). I understand that there is a difference between picking a book for a lesson or storytime or giving it a space on your library’s shelf. There’s a difference between saying a book doesn’t have the right to exist and raising concerns about it.

Which leads me to A Fine Dessert. There’s much to praise about Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall’s book, and numerous thoughtful people have already done so here, here, and here.

A Fine Dessert allows readers to ponder what has changed over four centuries, as well as what hasn’t. It shows scenes that leave room for young readers to question and reflect. But it also shows something that to me is quite problematic: smiling, working slaves.

Here is a sketch of the picture in question (posted by Sophie Blackall on 11/4/13 at http://sophieblackall.blogspot.com/2013/11/a-fine-dessert-part-5.html).

In the end matter, illustrator Blackall discusses how she considered the characters’ emotions when bringing her scenes to life. Jenkins writes in her author’s note:

“This story includes characters who are slaves, even though there is by no means space to explore the topic of slavery fully. I wanted to represent American life in 1810 without ignoring that part of our history. I wrote about people finding joy in craftsmanship and dessert even within lives of great hardship and injustice—because finding that joy shows something powerful about the human spirit. Slavery is such a difficult truth. At the end of the book, children can see a hopeful, inclusive community.”

I appreciate the creators’ efforts to not ignore that part of history, but I wonder: Showing smiling slaves might not be ignoring this part of history technically—but isn’t it ignoring a huge, essential part of it? Is illustrating a watered-down snapshot any better than leaving it out all together?

In exploring the concept of slavery with young children, I’ve found that stories in which characters show courage and resistance are the most empowering, as they help learners process the ideas in ways that inspire them (ever-aware of contemporary injustices) to work to make the world more equitable. The scene in which the young girl and her mother hide in a closet to lick the bowl when they’re not supposed to is one of these moments. My concern about this book isn’t that the characters, despite hardship, share moments of joy together. I’m questioning if working to make a dessert and then having to hide to taste it is an honest enough representation of the experience of slavery in South Carolina in 1810.

It’s clear that the creators had noble goals, and a criticism of their work is just that—a criticism of the book (not them). But despite the best of intentions, the result is a narrative in which readers see slavery as unpleasant, but not horrendous. The result is a book in which the word “slave” isn’t used until the end matter, but the word “master” appears in the narrative. What message might this send to readers about what American slavery was or what it really did to people?

With the right guidance, I know my patrons will be able to use A Fine Dessert for a variety of purposes. But for me, the thorny handling of slavery is a distraction that will get in the way of me choosing to use it as part of a compare/contrast activity, how-to unit, or thinking routine about societal norms. The only time I’d imagine selecting this book for classroom use would be to evaluate it collaboratively using an anti-bias lens (like the guide by Louise Derman-Sparks found here).

I have confidence that Jenkins and Blackall toiled over each decision, none of which were probably easy and many over which they might not have had much control. I know that one book can’t and shouldn’t have to represent an entire experience, good or bad. I don’t have an easy fix or “should’ve done it this way” to offer. I am just disappointed. This book had such delicious promise and a few spectacular moments (including Blackall’s inclusive 2010 tableau in the final pages), but the misleading depiction of slavery is something I can’t overlook. As much as I wanted to savor it, A Fine Dessert just left me feeling sour.

(school) year-end check-in

A half a year ago (is it June already?), I made some resolutions. Now that the school year has officially ended, I figured it’s as good a time as any to report on them:

1. Take more photographs
More photos have been taken, but students were hesitant to grab our community camera without prompting. In the fall, I hope to introduce our library’s camera alongside the rest of our routines. Hopefully this will make the children feel more comfortable picking it up and snapping something they think is worth recording.

2. Bring in the experts
I feel good about this one, as our library hosted student guests, authors, illustrators, and more in the second half of the year. We had visitors come and speak with our second grade about their immigration experiences. Author and artist LeUyen Pham spoke to every student in our division. We collaborated with the Middle School to bring in Matthew Baker for both our 3rd and 5th graders. I even got to prank students with help from Mac Barnett & Jory John! In my opinion, these types of visitors demonstrate to students that learning happens all of the time, both formally and informally. And it’s fun!

3. Get out of the library more
The library collaborated with almost every grade level during their various research processes this year. I am proud of my students and I learn so much by working with their teachers. People are surprised to enter the library and find it empty at times, but the community is starting to understand that libraries connect patrons with information and skills. Similarly, we’ve been able to share our screencast demos with community members and they’ve worked wonders for helping answer questions over weekends and at other times when we aren’t together physically.

4. Less fluff, more professional learning
This was by far the hardest of the resolutions to keep. I haven’t been perfect, but I have been more mindful about spending time productively. There have been several occasions this spring where I’ve opted to read a longer book or work on other personal research or writing instead of posting online, exploring Twitter, or even reflecting here on this blog. With this (as with anything), balance is key.

reading buddy bunnies

Back to my 2015 resolutions: I’m trying to take more photographs. We had children make paper snowflakes out of pages of weeded books last month, but I’m not sure if I remembered to take a snapshot or not. (I’ll check the camera tomorrow and update this post if I can find something.) Before I forget to share, here is what our Maker Zone looks like right now:makerbunny3

We are currently inviting students to create Reading Buddy Bunnies! We color copied the design (which was given to us by a friend) on cardstock, put a bunch of book cover images in a pail, and let loose the scissors and tape. Here are the directions we provided (as seen on the blue door): makerbunny1

1. Take a sheet.
2. Cut out and assemble the pieces.
3. Pick a book from the pail.
4. Glue the book to your buddy’s paw!

Once the buddies are finished, children can tape them to our wall, give them away to friends, or read to or with them. I love seeing the kids’ results and how happy each critter looks with its little book(s).

book love

febdisplay2It’s February 3, which means the 2015 ALA-YMAs have been announced. I am so happy with all of the committees’ choices this year, especially the Newbery and Caldecott. The beginning of February also means that Valentine’s Day season is upon us. I’ve been considering putting together a Pinterest-inspired “blind date with a book” display for a while, but it doesn’t work for most elementary school settings because a) they don’t date and b) who has time to wrap all of those books?! My colleague and I didfebdisplay4 some brainstorming and made our own variation of the theme. Our “Books You’ll Love” display was inexpensive, easy to execute, and it invites quality passive RA. (The wrapping says “If You Loved Other Book Title Here” and the book featured for checkout is a readalike.) When kids bring a book to the circ desk (either in a bag or wrapped in baker’s twine), we remove the decoration and check it out to them. We then find another readalike that matches the title on the label and recycle the fluff. Sometimes that little something extra is all that’s needed to get a kid psyched for a book. The passive readers’ advisory helps too. A Newbery or Caldecott sticker never hurt either.

booktalking w/a twist

Traditions are important, especially when your school has been around for 125+ years. Old or new, to say that we love our traditions up would be an understatement. When I joined my school’s faculty three years ago, I was able to start an annual tradition alongside my colleague, the middle school librarian. We now host a Middle School Awards Prediction Assembly each January, where we booktalk titles (of interest to middle schoolers) that we see as contenders for the ALA’s Youth Media Awards. This collaboration allows for us to connect with past and current students, share titles for which we have enthusiasm, and show that although we have two separate library spaces, we are one department and school. Booktalking is always fun in and of itself, but what makes this tradition extra special is that we pick a unique theme for our assembly each year.

The first year, we presented our predictions in a Mock Oscars ceremony, with a “well-read” carpet and a video tribute to books that we lost in the past year (weeded from the library due to damage). We shared our booktalks as if they were nominees for the awards. We also did a bit a la Will Ferrell & Kristen Wiig in which we talked up books (that we supposedly hadn’t read) using only their covers, titles, and author names as prompts.

Last year, we presented our nominations in the style of a game show called The Page is Right. We invited children and faculty from the audience to “Come on Down!” and we booktalked each set of contenders as a bidding showcase. At the end of each showcase, the participants had to guess how many page numbers each set of books comprised. Winners went on to play Price is Right –style games, such as Hi-Lo and The Big Squeeze, while trying to predict page lengths instead of prices.

This year, we noticed that the ALA-YMA press conference will occur on Febraury 2, the day alsocfter the Super Bowl. So our assembly was dubbed The SuperBooks Bowl 2015 and presented like a pregame sports news show. We wore jerseys and school spirit gear and talked about the books as if they were the teams. We debated committee strategy and each title’s likelihood of success. We also had a nonfiction pep rally (complete with a Sibert Award t-shirt toss), a Coretta Scott King Award-sponsored commercial break, and plenty of audience participation, with in-the-stands interviews with students and faculty.

I would share with you the titles we booktalked this year, but someone in my family is serving on one of the award committees and I made a promise not to publicly comment on any eligible titles. It’s not necessarily about accurately predicting each year’s winners anyways. Instead, it’s about raising awareness about and appreciation for the awards, sharing some great titles, and building community along the way.