Finding a New Groove with Community Collaboration

In August of 2020, I started my seventeenth year in education and my fourteenth year in a school library at Liberty High School in Lake St. Louis, MO. As I began to plan for the year, I felt the overwhelm that I know all of us, regardless of tenure in our libraries, experienced. The programming, the flexible spaces, the collection of tech–many of the “Future-Ready” elements I had dedicated time and money to build or curate–suddenly weren’t what teens or staff needed as our school district launched with a hybrid schedule. And that general “groove” I’d found myself in professionally for the last few years? It was gone. I felt scared, I questioned my value, I didn’t know how to help.

I did, however, have a dynamite network of local school librarians I had grown even closer to in the first few months of the pandemic, thanks majorly to our frequent Zoom meet-ups. And as I began to kick around the idea of trying a school-wide shared reading experience, I felt safe asking for their opinions and guidance. Was I too ambitious? What did they think about my book choice? Would they be interested in collaborating? These amazing women were immediately supportive and open to working together so the project could benefit not just my school community, but theirs as well. We dove in as a team, choosing Kate Moore’s The Radium Girls, titling the program, “One Read,” and dividing the work.

Our visit to one of the towns featured in The Radium Girls

Through our collaboration, we created a shared slidedeck full of lesson ideas, discussion questions, video links, activities, and more. We connected the book to various curricula including science, health, English language arts, business, art, and social studies, and we even took a group trip to film a virtual field trip of one of the towns featured prominently in the book. We agreed on a program hashtag, created a kick-off video, and created our own t-shirts. We even got our hands on a couple of Geiger Counters to enhance our students’ learning. We geeked out! Multiple switches to and from remote learning in my district complicated our efforts to talk with students about their One Read experiences, but teachers shared grateful emails and visited us in person to speak about how they were engaging students with the content.

Happily, our collaboration on this project extended beyond our school librarian group. Early on, we approached the staff at The St. Charles City-County Public Library District to discuss a partnership, and they didn’t hesitate to join us. We met via Zoom to share our program’s goals, and they responded by scheduling multiple events over the next few months that tied into our One Read, including a virtual panel of experts discussing “How to Be an Activist” and a Q & A session with the director of a documentary about buried radioactive waste in a local landfill. Their library staff also volunteered to record chapter summaries we’d written, and they ultimately ended up adopting our One Read for the entire county, promoting it as one of their “Reading Challenges” and marketing it to all of their patrons.

Now that the project has wrapped up, I am so proud of how our cooperation benefited and united our entire community. We’ve committed to doing an annual One Read, and we’re even exploring grant funding to further the project. Next year, we’re hoping to engage our middle and elementary schools by choosing a theme that would allow them to participate with a book geared towards their own populations. We’ve discussed selecting a social justice theme so we can focus on the change we all want to see in the world, and we hope students will be part of the conversation about which book we choose so the program can be more teen-led. We’re also hopeful many of the challenges we experienced this year (collecting feedback, measuring participation) will disappear along with COVID-19.

In a school year that started with so much uncertainty, I have been grateful for all of the library staff who make up my professional learning network. Our One Read was a huge undertaking and a definite pivot for all of us, but it helped me to feel connected to my library colleagues as well as my patrons and community. This experience reminded me that I don’t have to work alone even though I am the lone librarian in my school. It also helped me to see that discomfort, a disrupted “groove,” can make way for even better things.

–Kelly Oliva, Librarian
Liberty High School
@LibertyHSLib