Reflections on Black History Month

I’ll be honest; I have mixed feelings about Black History Month.  On the one hand, our country owes Black Americans this recognition because we have done such a poor job of including anyone who isn’t white in the racial narrative we tell, whether it’s through our school curricula, the books we publish, or media as a whole. On the other hand, I’m sure we’ve all heard some version of “I guess it’s that time of year again,” when the Black History Month displays go up. (Thank you, teenagers, for your blithe cynicism.) 

Titles for Black History Month.

I worry that having these designated months potentially sends the message that the entire history of a group of people can fit into one month. I also think there is the danger of feeling that we are checking the diversity box because we celebrate everyone’s “month.” That being said, if we are striving to have an inclusive library year-round, through every book order, every display, every event, and every program, then these special months are just more opportunities to create that inclusive space. So every year in February, our library passionately celebrates, knowing that we are also representing hard the other eleven months. 

Silhouette of an african-american person painted on paper.

I work in an independent school library that serves a predominantly white population of 6th-12th grade students. While I feel very strongly that it is crucial for our students of color to see themselves represented in our programming and collection, I feel just as strongly that the white students we serve need to see this representation as well. I want to encourage as much empathy and awareness as I can, and I also don’t want any of our students to be swaddled in a cocoon of whiteness before they go off into a much more diverse world after graduation. 

As part of our Black History Month programming, our library participates in the NCTE African American Read-In. For the past four years, we’ve picked one day during Black History Month to reserve the first floor of our two-story library for reading books, shorts stories, poems, magazines, etc… written by Black American authors.  We pull out Black American #OwnVoices fiction and nonfiction and display it on top of all of our shelves, on our end caps, and as our outward-facing books at the end of shelf rows. On the day of the Read-In we also offer snacks (the library is usually a no food zone, so this is big), play music on an actual record player (from Motown to Jazz to Jimi Hendrix to Lauryn Hill), and enjoy a wonderful day of cozy reading.  We invite teachers to bring their classes and also are open for anyone – adult or student – to drop in when they have time. If a teacher’s class can’t make it on the actual day of the Read-In, we offer to schedule a time for them to come another day during the week.  

BHM titles

In addition to the Read-In event, we try to create interesting displays for the month each year. Last year’s display was my favorite by far, mainly because we got our high school’s Art Club and Multicultural Alliance involved in the process. Together, we created large-scale Black faces to hang on the front and side windows of the library.  On the backs of the faces, we wrote poems by Black Americans. (Credit to this tweet for the inspiration for this idea.) We displayed these again this year.

I wanted to make our displays this year feel more like a celebration of Black Present and Future, so I didn’t use the word History anywhere. I decided to focus our front display on current young adult and middle grades authors.  Using Canva, I created small posters with the picture of each author, surrounded by their books. I put books on display at the front of the library that were highlighted in the posters.

I also die-cut N.K. Jemisin’s book title, How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?, and put that up along our back wall, with two more faces. This has sparked a few interesting conversations with middle school students, who want to know why they’ve never heard of Black Future Month.

Framed images of posters celebrating Black History Month.

Celebrate Black Voices is written on a window inside the library.

We are trying some new programming this year and hosting lunch-time book discussions two days before the Read-In (with desserts provided). In the middle school, we are going to watch video clips of current Black authors reading their works and discuss them. In the high school, we are having a discussion of Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, which will include watching clips of the movie and part of this video of Tupac, responding to an accusation that his music incited violence against a police officer.  We are crossing our fingers for participation!

Silhouette of an african-american person painted on paper.

I know I started this post with my misgivings about Black History Month, but I want to end it with why I love this month so much. Any time I start to feel cynicism creep in, when I feel that change isn’t happening fast enough and we’re spinning our wheels, I remember a comment from a student that will always stick with me. She came in on the day of the Read-In, and as she looked around at all the books written by Black authors, she said, “I wish my mom were here.  This is our idea of heaven.” 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go pull some books.  

Disclaimer: I focused on racial diversity in this post because it’s about Black History Month and it gets linguistically awkward to list every potential type of diversity. I believe that the same assertions I made about racial diversity apply for all the ways in which people can be marginalized or othered because of a part of their identity. 

 

Whitney Etchison currently lives in Maryland and is in her tenth year as a school librarian. The best part of her job is readers advisory, although teaching research skills is pretty cool too. She loves horror novels but can’t watch scary movies.

Defending the Merits of YA Literature

Last year, the teachers of our Freshman Honors English classes gave out a winter break reading assignment. Each student was asked to choose a book and read it over break, just for fun. In my ten years at the school, this was only the second assignment I knew of that gave our high school students the opportunity to choose any book they wanted to read, so I was excited. 

 

Chart describing the literary merit of YA books.

Then we had the first student come back to the library to return the book she had checked out. 

You see, she had chosen a young adult novel, and apparently that was not allowed. She needed an adult book. My heart sank and my blood pressure rose. I was upset, confused, and really sad for our kids. At that point, it was too late in the game to talk to the teachers about their reasoning behind the ban on YA, as winter break was about to start. 

This year, I decided to make it my mission to get our teachers to let students read YA for their winter break assignment.  Being a librarian, this obviously meant I needed to do my research, gather evidence, and have it ready for them. Below, I’ve shared some of the best resources I found. I know that I am not the only one who interacts with people, whether they are parents, teachers, or even other librarians, who feel that YA is somehow unworthy reading for teens. Hopefully these resources can be useful for some of you as well. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Value of Young Adult Literature by Michael Cart (2008)

Though once dismissed as a genre consisting of little more than problem novels and romances, young adult literature has, since the mid-1990’s, come of age as literature – literature that welcomes artistic innovation, experimentation, and risk-taking.

…much of [YA literature’s] value cannot be quantified but is to be found in how it addresses the needs of its readers. Often described as “developmental,” these needs recognize that young adults are beings in evolution, in search of self and identity; beings who are constantly growing and changing, morphing from the condition of childhood to that of adulthood.

Disrupting Genre by Julia E Torres

In our ELA classrooms, white supremacy shows up in one important way: the worship of the written word. If something isn’t written down, it doesn’t exist. If a book is not in a written format and hailed as “rigorous” or labeled as “classic,” then it’s unimportant and doesn’t make it onto our book lists. If something isn’t written in a western format, then it isn’t worthy of classroom study. 

This literature is written for young people and discussing topics they are concerned with. Often, YA surfaces issues of race, ethnicity, culture, gender, and sexuality, that “classical” texts don’t address. Our own Tricia E. explained, “YA is not a genre; among other things, it’s an indicator of the intended audience. So when you disparage YA, you’re disparaging the audience.”

Quick Take: Dark or Difficult Themes for Young Adult Readers by Sean Kennedy (2019)

But decency requires empathy, and empathy requires imagination. That’s what diverse stories do. They feed our complex imaginations and allow us to develop empathy for people who are different from us, and this ultimately leads to communities built on foundations of decency.

Beyond Relevance to Literary Merit: Young Adult Literature as “Literature” by Dr. Anna Soter and Sean Connors (2009)

Much like literature written for adults, we believe that young adult literature is capable of providing thoughtful social and political commentary that raises questions about complex issues…

We willingly concede that young adult literature reflects the interests and concerns of teenagers, and we suspect that most secondary teachers would agree. However, we also believe that young adult literature has the kind of literary merit that canonical literature demonstrates.

Pedagogic, Not Didactic: Michael Cart on Young Adult Fiction by Jonathan Alexander interviewing Michael Cart (2018)

The mirror lets readers see themselves, which is a godsend because young adults, being inherently solipsistic, often think they are the only one of their kind; this is especially true of those who are treated as outsiders by their peers. 

I would argue that this is a golden age of literary fiction for young adults. I believe this is due, in part, to the empowering influence of the Michael L. Printz Award, which honors the best YA book of the year — “best” being defined solely in terms of literary merit. It is also due to the growing sophistication of the readership, which, it seems, is almost exponentially more worldly than it was in the genre’s early years…

 

2019 Summer Learning Resources Grant: Dollar General Literacy Foundation Contributes to Transformative Year at Rural Library

Community engagement and partnerships have always been essential to making library programming successful, but this year, the Dollar General/YALSA Summer Learning Grant provided our library with a unique opportunity to capitalize on an extraordinary new partnership with our local school system. We partnered with a local system and a local bank to make ChibiCon, a mini-con sponsored by our Teen Advisory Board, even better than ever–while opening new doors for even greater partnerships. 

Additionally, I was already involved in the 21st Century Community Learning Center grant at Bourbon County Middle School (BCMS), where I led a book club every Tuesday afternoon. If you’re unfamiliar, 21st Century federal grants are provided to schools to create a program that provides homework help, educational opportunities, and cultural enrichment to local children.  With BCMS, the grant manifests as an afterschool program and a two-week-long summer camp. The kids read 3-4 books per year and enjoyed STEM and art activities. 

However, the Summer Learning Grant provided us with an opportunity to take our partnership to another level by bringing a published, best-selling author (Gwenda Bond) to our rural Kentucky community and deeply involving the BCMS program. This energized all of the adults involved in the program and helped the students improve their critical thinking skills, literacy skills, and verbal communication skills as they prepared to speak with Gwenda Bond about her work. All the teens enrolled in the 21st Century Camp read Bond’s new book, the Stranger Things prequel Dangerous Minds

The teens from the summer camp made up nearly a third of the attendance at ChibiCon. The event was a game-changer for our relationship with that school program. Thanks to a generous sponsorship from a local bank, we were able to give every person who attended ChibiCon a signed copy of one of Gwenda Bond’s books. The teachers were delighted by this, as were the students, several of whom joined our Anime Club and joined our library’s fandom community. Since all the BCMS students had read Dangerous Minds, they elevated the discussion during Gwenda Bond’s author talk, contributing thoughtful questions and insightful commentary. This partnership with the school’s afterschool program made ChibiCon far greater than it would have been without their help. 

After ChibiCon, we had an even better relationship with BCMS. Since the event, we’ve been invited to join education committees and speak at school events, and we are collaborating further with the 21st Century program to co-sponsor community service events and expanded book clubs. ChibiCon proved that the school and library could collaborate on large events to the benefit of the students, building a foundation of trust that allows us more outreach opportunities–and a stronger presence in our local schools–than ever before. None of this would have been possible without the collaborations cultivated between teachers, school administrators, and library staff. School partnerships can take patience and hard work but are worth every student.

 

Beth Dunston is the Teen Services Librarian at Paris-Bourbon County Library.

Podcasting the Possibilities: Norman North High School’s YALSA Digital Equipment Grant in Action

From passion projects to final assessments for units over psychology, human rights, and more, Norman North students have flocked to using the library makerspace’s audio equipment to record podcasts. Hundreds of students utilized the library during the last school year to showcase what they had learned in a unique way, as well as record podcasts with their friends about “whatever comes up in conversation at lunch.”

With the help of the YALSA and Dollar General Literacy Foundation’s Digital Equipment Grant, the Norman North Library was able to purchase additional podcasting equipment, as well as explore a topic yet to be discussed in our students’ podcasts — books! During the summer, North students that spent their summers volunteering with the public libraries were contacted about an opportunity to be the first to use the new equipment and record a podcast about any of the 2019 YALSA Teens’ Top Ten nominees. Before the school year began, several students came in record their podcast where they passionately discussed what their book was about, what they liked best, and what made it a “Teens’ Top Ten.” Many had never used the podcasting equipment before, so a quick crash course was given to each student so that they could use it independently afterward. Anchor was used to host the episodes of North’s Teens’ Top Ten podcast and each student was taught how to use Anchor to use in conjunction with the audio equipment.

As the school year began, more students who had read Teens’ Top Ten titles came in to record episodes. Library assistants were trained on how to use the equipment so that they could begin helping students as individual appointments began to come in from students interested in recording their own thoughts, feelings, and ideas about various topics. One assistant, Emma, a Senior and avid podcast listener, was amazed the library offered this. “I love podcasts and now I’m able to create my own and it’s amazing,” she said, after a training on how to use the equipment.

Because of the Digital Equipment grant, more of the 2400 Norman North students are now able to “podcast the possibilities” and a book podcast that the library will continue to record episodes for was born. Thank you to the Dollar General Literacy Foundation and YALSA for this amazing opportunity.

Link to podcast: North’s Teens’ Top Ten

—Molly Dettmann, Teacher Librarian at the Norman North High School; currently reading Fullmetal Alchemist vol 1-3

Partnerships to Support Teens in Computing: Library Staff and School Counselors Can Team Up

This is a guest post by Jennifer Manning, AspireIT Partnerships Program Director and Marijke Visser, Senior Policy Advocate, ALA Washington Office

The National Center for Women and Information Technology AspireIt program and ALA’s Libraries Ready to Code are continuing their partnership to connect more young women and girls to computer science (CS) and technology- related opportunities. Library staff can and do play an important role in supporting youth as they explore career paths in and out of school. This month’s post spotlights a potential partner for library staff active in connecting youth interests to CS and tech, the school counselor.

CS educators across the nation are finding that collaborating with their school counselors yields positive results in directing youth to viable education and career opportunities. School counselors are key partners with community libraries as counselors regularly share out information to students about local opportunities, especially those at the library. Many families tap into the library as a hub of information, community-building, and more. Often, counselors are in the role of distributing information about community events on a school-wide level and also individually targeting students and families who would enjoy and benefit from the programs.

NCWIT Counselors for Computing (C4C) provides professional school counselors with information and resources they can use to support ALL students as they explore CS education and careers. Counselors are influencers and gatekeepers. They counsel and encourage students in their education and career aspirations, advise on course selections, and expose students to occupations through career fairs and internships. Working together, school counselors and library staff can provide the encouragement and exposure , young women are need to pursue computing in school ro as a career.

To help you build a partnership with this valuable resource, check out the webinar CS for All Teachers and C4C held discussing key strategies for creating a positive partnership with your counselors for CS advocacy.

For additional valuable NCWIT C4C resources (available to libraries for free), click here to view the collection and how to order. To find out more about the Libraries Ready to Code and AspireIT events and resources check out the 2019 Community Champion Learning Series calendar.

Book Tastings

In November, I was able to attend YALSA’s Young Adult Services Symposium with one of my coworkers. It was a wonderful experience, and we came home full of ideas for the 6-12 independent school library where we work. One idea we immediately wanted to try at our library was book tastings, which we heard about in a session led by Alicia Blower, librarian at St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School.

I like to think of book tastings as the library equivalent of free samples at the grocery store—you get teens to try a bite of various books, hoping they will find one they want to take home. The basic setup involves putting books out at tables, and having teens rotate through the tables in groups. At each table, they “taste” a book that looks interesting to them by reading the blurbs on the cover and the first few pages.


Tasting a book. [Photo Credit: Erin Lewis]

We had the perfect opportunity to run a book tasting just one week after we got back from the Symposium. All of our seventh grade English classes were coming in to check out books, so instead of the usual book talks we give to feature certain genres, we decided to set up book tastings based on the genre of realistic fiction.

First, we decided on our physical layout. Five tables was a good number for us, given the class sizes (18) and how much time we had to run the activity (40 minutes). On each table were books related to a specific theme within realistic fiction, based on what’s popular with our students. Once we decided on the layout, the next step was to pick the books for our tastings. I wanted to have six books at each table, one for each student in a group of four, and a couple of extras to give them alternatives. We also needed to replace the books that got checked out during each class, so I accounted for that when pulling books..

While making book selections, I also had the goal of providing a strong representation of diverse books. To do this, I got a piece of paper and tallied up numbers as I pulled books. How many books had I selected with main characters of color? How about LGBTQ+ main characters? Characters who were differently abled? What about books that were #ownvoices? I had to go back to the shelves quite a few times before I felt I had acceptable representation, and some tables still ended up with less diversity than others. For example, we simply didn’t have enough diverse books for the theme of survival (as in surviving the wilderness or a natural disaster), so now that’s on my watch list for collection development and content curation.

I made place cards to go at each table, with the theme of that table printed on the card. My coworker made tasting forms where students could write down the title and author of a book they looked at, give it a rating from 1-5, and put any comments they had. (See linked documents for examples.)

Filling out a tasting form. [Photo Credit: Erin Lewis]

Finally, I went out and purchased some real “tastings” to go along with the books. I got a variety of Hershey’s kisses, some miniature fruit-flavored candy canes, and a huge bag of Life Savers. At each table, we put two cups. We filled one with the candies; the other was for trash. I am proud to say that our students didn’t leave even one candy wrapper for us to pick up.

In the end, all of our work paid off. The students really enjoyed the experience. A lot of our selected books were checked out, and we were able to highlight the diversity in our collection. It took a little more time to prepare than book talks, but now that we have done it once,  there won’t be as much prep required next time.

Choosing which books to taste. [Photo Credit: Erin Lewis]

Does anyone do book tastings in a different way? I’d love to hear about it!

Whitney Etchison currently lives in Maryland and is in her tenth year as a school librarian. The best part of her job is readers advisory, although teaching research skills is pretty cool too. She loves horror novels but can’t watch scary movies.

Libraries Welcome All Families: Makerspace Mondays!

The AASL/ALSC/YALSA Interdivisional Committee on School and Public Library Cooperation is now focusing its work on equity, diversity, and inclusion projects that include library partnerships. This blog post is the first in this new series.

The YALSA Call to Action Futures Report challenges libraries to “leverage new technologies and become kitchens for ‘mixing resources’ in order to empower teens to build skills, develop understanding, create and share, and overcome adversity.” In Hampstead, MD, a small town in Carroll County, the media center at Shiloh Middle School assumed that “kitchen” motif on Monday afternoons once a month, as Media Specialist, Holly Furhman, and Amanda Krumrine, Library Associate II, Carroll County Public Library (CCPL), partnered to provide a variety of STEM experiences to middle schoolers on Makerspace Mondays.  

Makerspace Mondays was born out of the realization that tweens attending this middle school did not have transportation to the CCPL during the week or on weekends when Maker programs were offered — due to lack of public transportation in the community, dual working parents’ schedules, and the distance of the nearest library branch to many neighborhoods.  The goal was to expose students to a variety of Maker opportunities in a relaxed environment.    

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Libraries Welcome All Families: Community Partnerships to Fund Collection Development for English Learners in Urban Connecticut

One of the most difficult moments of the month was observing my English Learners come to check out books with their classes and not be able to find anything they could read at the high school level. It broke my heart to see dejection on their faces. It did not matter that I myself could not understand the words they were saying; I could just see it. Students perform better academically in literature courses when they see themselves in the materials and simply enjoy independent reading more. While I had some titles of interest for my Latinx students topically, all of them were in English. I set out to add books to my school library collection to assist my Spanish-speaking students. To purchase fiction in Spanish, I first posted a request on Donors Choose (www.donorschoose.org) for just ten novels. When the project was funded and the books arrived, I labeled each with a green S and shelved them above our fiction cases to aid new students trying to find them. After that success, I added another Donors Choose project to bring ten Spanish memoirs to West Haven High School, as all of our seniors must read a memoir.     

This project garnered the attention of the Greater Bridgeport Latino Network (GBLN), a local organization working to feature Latinx success stories, encourage political activism, and support community endeavors. GBLN showcased the story on their website, and it was subsequently picked up by a local newspaper, the New Haven Register. It was my desire to inform the audience it was not just me, my school, or my district needing these materials and support from the Latinx community:

“Literacy is necessary for being a productive member of society. Volunteering time such as reading at a toddler story hour, helping at a resume writing class, or speaking on a vocation or cause are all ways to support local libraries, especially those serving predominantly Latino communities. Woychowski welcomes the donation of new or gently used books to her own library, but she also encourages readers to donate both books and time to their own local school or public libraries.” (http://gbln.net/books-in-spanish-needed-for-high-school-library/)

Sharing this story via social media has been a blessing in terms of the varied audience reached. Links to the story appeared on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and were shared numerous times by personal friends and professional connections. Books began appearing on my home front porch and in my school mailbox from all corners of the community, from a prominent defense attorney to a small Catholic Church to a representative of the Hispanic Nurses Association of a large local hospital. Our community’s support of literacy is invaluable, and as school librarians, we must be willing to advocate for it on behalf of our students.

Jillian Woychowski is a School Library Media Specialist at West Haven High School and is a member of the AASL/ALSC/YALSA Interdivisional Committee on School-Public Library Cooperation.

The Dual Librarian: My Time As a School and Public Librarian

One of the best decisions I ever made in my life was becoming a librarian…twice. Once as a school librarian and again as a public library consultant. As an English teacher, I loved sharing great short stories and books with my students. It was one of the best parts of the profession. So when I heard about an alternative certification program to become a school librarian, I jumped at that chance. I realized quickly that I didn’t truly know all of the things school librarians were responsible for and all of the things they did. However, I learned very quickly. While I was working on becoming certified as a school librarian and earning my MLS, my journey began. I had no clue I would one day become…The Dual Librarian!

Being a School Librarian

I am so thankful that I had a support system through my alternative certification (AC) program when I became a school librarian. It was a lot of on-the-job training since during the AC program, you became a full-time school librarian as you learned and became certified. When I first start programming for my middle school students, it was difficult because none of them stayed after school – they were all bus riders. I had to get creative. I realized that our students had plenty of time in the morning after they ate breakfast and sat and socialized in the open “auditorium” area. So I began doing programs before school! During one Teen Read Week, I got the teachers involved and did competitions such as Are You Smarter than a Middle Schooler and Name That Tune. It was great! It gave our students something constructive to do and let students and teachers learn more about each other and see each other in different ways. It also helped them see the library as a fun place and more students started to be active in the library.

In high school where my students did stay after school, I started programming with only academics in mind. However, I quickly realized that I could program events that were not academic at all, like scary movie nights and game nights just to get students in the library. Other events were connected to academia like book trivia, book clubs, and the Straight Talk program which went over topics that students were interested in like college readiness and health. I learned I needed to do anything I could to connect to the culture of the school and do programs that my students really wanted. Right as I was beginning to get my in my groove and feel successful as a school librarian, an opportunity came up to shake up my world.

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Killin’ It: Murder Mystery at the Library

One of the many things I love about being a librarian is programming! The challenge of creating programs that my teens would love while also engaging them in my library program was a passion. As a Library Media Specialist at a public high school and a Teen Librarian Consultant at a public library, I had to constantly reinvent my library programs so they could stay new and relevant (see program ideas here).  One of my favorite programs was throwing a murder mystery party! After implementing the first one, I learned very quickly that tweens, teens, and adults alike all love a good mystery, and when you throw fun, safety, and food into the mix, they all wanted to be involved.

It Takes Two

At both libraries, the murder mystery turned into two separate programs. Since the theme was Mardi Gras Masquerade, I held a program that allowed students to make masks as well as attend the murder mystery itself. However, they did not have to attend the murder mystery to come make a mask. The mask making program was suggested by the patrons/students and I loved the idea because it gave the attendees who may not have the means to buy a mask or dress up still feel in costume at the murder mystery (dressing up was encouraged, but in no way mandatory). So the mask making program served many purposes: advertisement for the upcoming murder mystery event, a separate library program to get students engaged in the library, and as preparation for the upcoming murder mystery event.

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