Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Mario Kart Frenzy!

Who says that the "June slide" must occur? Just as much learning and discovering was filling my library on the second last day of school, thanks to the efforts of teacher extraordinaire Julie Johnson. Julie is a special education teacher at Goodfellow Public School with the Simcoe District School Board. We attempted a little experiment this year with our school's Nintendo Wii systems. We wanted to see if we could help some of our male students that struggled with appropriate social behaviour by playing video games together. The hope was that the students would internalize positive social traits that they honed while playing in the comfortable and enjoyable game environment and be able to apply them to situations in the school yard and with other students. The two groups met each other several months ago and participated in a Tribes (c) activity to help build community. We then spent the intervening months with our separate school clubs, gaming, encouraging, and modeling. We weren't able to synch the Wiis so that we could directly play each other, so instead we hooked up via Skype and recorded our times. Our five boys faced their five boys and we played. There was lots of cheering and at the end, when the competitors turned to the webcam to look at their fellow player, positive comments were exchanged (like "good game" and "congratulations").

I wish I could report that my school's Wii Social Skills Club was a magic bullet (or Bullet Bill, for those who know the Mario Kart game) and that all my students' social awkwardness disappeared after playing together. I had to talk to one boy who knocked away the hand of another boy who was only trying to pat him on the back to say "good job". I had to remind one of my other players that he could not threaten another player to withdraw his friendship because he was in the way. However, I think it was an excellent step in the right direction. The students were a bit shy when conversing with the kids from the other school, but they did offer kind words and praise. The students really enjoyed being part of the club; they felt honoured and special.

I want to thank all the folks over at Goodfellow P.S., especially Julie, for organizing our first-ever tournament and I look forward to working with her more on projects like this in the future. I also want to thank my teaching partner in my own school, Renee Keberer, for joining me on this crazy journey. Renee has been promoted to a central position in our board, so she and I will no longer be in the same building. Naturally, this is very bittersweet news for me. It's so important to have like-minded teachers around you to be willing to try out innovative and possibly bizarre ideas in the name of helping students. I hope all of you have a Renee in your school.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Comic Clubs and "Who's the Boss?"

Way back when (May 20, 2011, to be precise), I gave up my Professional Activity day and instead of marking in preparation for report cards, I took my school's Graphic Novel Club to visit Borden Business and Technical Institute. Dr. Peggy MacInnis (person on the left in my photograph) is the teacher-librarian at Borden. She and I participated in a study by Dr. Elizabeth Lee from Queens University (person in the middle in my photo) on graphic novel processing vs traditional novel processing. My school club was the elementary school study rep and Peggy's group was the secondary school study rep. We said we wanted to get our groups together to meet one day, and we were finally able to arrange a gathering.

My students thought they had died and gone to manga heaven. See the shelves behind us? Those are all manga, and that's just a small selection of Borden's massive collection. The Borden GNC (Graphic Novel Club) did a wonderful job of welcoming my club. Despite being two very different groups (elementary vs secondary, mostly female vs mostly male, university-graduate "leanings" vs skills and trades "leanings"), my students overcame their shyness because they were able to "talk comics" with this enthusiastic and eager bunch of students. Borden's principal paid for the pizza lunch. Dr. Lee brought cookies. The students planned all sorts of activities like "name that manga character" and sketching in the manga style. There was even a comic book sale in the school of which my students took full advantage.

A little "foot-in-mouth disease" on my part made me once again see the possibilities of a learning commons and notice the differences between elementary schools and high schools. When the adults were making their final comments to the students, I said I wanted to acknowledge the person they called "The Big Boss", Dr. MacInnis. All the high school students laughed at me - "Big Boss" wasn't their teacher-librarian; it was Candace, one of the student members of the club. I was a little embarrassed by my slip-up and talked/apologized to Peggy afterwards.

"All I do is buy the books" Peggy said. "They do everything else. They run the meetings. They choose which books I buy. They do it all. Sometimes it takes them a long time, because of the types of kids I have here. It took them a half an hour to figure out the seating plan for lunch. I let them do it."

Those were pretty powerful words for me. There were several times during the get-together where I wanted to dive in and get things progressing a little quicker or suggest a rule to the game that would make it smoother or more fair, but I sat on my hands (with difficulty). Peggy was right - the students had to learn how to organize things, how to handle a talkative crowd of fellow students, how to select teams in a way that mixed both groups - if I jumped in to "fix" things, how would that help their learning? I thought I was doing a pretty decent job in my school club of letting my students lead the way (by letting them pick which books to read and having them lead discussions) but I saw that I have so much farther that I can go with allowing them more say and power in the club (by letting them decide if or when a club meeting needs to be cancelled instead of choosing to do so myself because I was too busy, or by letting them determine the content of club meetings/activities). I know things are a bit different because it's a high school and these are teenagers, but why is age a barrier? When I admired the excellent condition all of the comics were in, I learned that the students use special book cover materials and they themselves volunteer to coat the covers and preserve the books. One of the high school students offered to have me send my collection to him so he would repair it. I think, if I can arrange it, that he should come to my school and teach me and my library helpers how to do it.

Our comic clubs had a great time socializing. My students didn't want to leave. We hope that we can do it again next year, and maybe I'll have learned a bit more about loosening control of things so that onlookers will wonder who truly is "the boss".

Monday, June 13, 2011

The KISS principle and the best reps

This past weekend, I attended an Ontario School Library Association council meeting. I couldn't stay 'til the end of the session, as I had to drive my children to a birthday party, but we did get quite a bit accomplished (although the to-do list is still pretty long). The group is working on a shared document (in Google docs) that will help us with talking to both political candidates in the future provincial election and to media outlets interested in the future of school libraries. We call it our "elevator speech", based on something that someone (Carol Koechlin? Ross Todd? Ken Haycock?) once advised - you should always have ready a brief and clear description of what it is you do and why it's important that you can share at a moment's notice, just in case you happen to share an elevator with someone important or influential.

That's easier said that done! When I was interviewed by Global TV a few weeks ago, I found it hard to articulate in just a few words what makes me unique (and by extension, worth preserving). I was struggling with a Twitter friend with this topic as well - how do you describe exactly what a teacher-librarian does? How is a teacher-librarian different from a classroom teacher? How is he/she difference from a public librarian or a library technician? We need to be super-clear and avoid edu-babble or edu-jargon as much as we can. Even when we think we are providing a direct message, it doesn't always work out that way. During the recent flurry of news on school libraries, it seemed like some people were trying to twist the message of "Together For Learning" (the OSLA vision document that describes how the school library of the 21st century is like a learning commons) in a way that justified the staffing and budget cuts they are making. That's completely contrary to the message of that document - in this world full of information, you need someone who knows what's going on to help you sift through it all - but even that description reeks too much of the old "resource manager" and not enough of the "instructional leader". If / when I figure out exactly how to KISS it (Keep It Simple, Stupid!) I'll share my "this is what a teacher librarian is, and this is why we need them" in 3 sentences or less.

What I am clear about, however, is that we need the best representation possible. We need to showcase teacher-librarians who are great at what they do, not the ones that enter the job to "get out of marking" or the ones who are placed there by administrators because that's "where they can do the least damage" to the unfortunate students around them. We don't want complainers; we don't want techno-phobes; we don't want people who lack people skills. At an awards ceremony I attended recently, I met the antithesis of what we want to see in our teacher-librarians - sadly, the person was the recipient of an award. Her acceptance speech was so unspeakably horrible (and she ended it by insulting the company representative that sponsored the award) that this quote from the Adam Sandler movie "Billy Madison" came to mind: "What you just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I've ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response, were you even close to anything that can be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points and may God have mercy on your soul."

I won't spend any more "screen time" discussing this less-than-ideal situation (note to self: remember the positive position, Diana!) - but just try to be the best representative you can be. The damage a specialist teacher can do will radiate beyond their own job and possibly result in a principal or set of teachers believing that there's no need for that position in a school there or elsewhere. Don't do damage - be the best you can.

Monday, June 6, 2011

And the winners are ...

On May 24, 2011, my school hosted the Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Children's Book Awards. Our students were the young jurors that selected the winners of this illustrious and coveted prize. We were super-fortunate to have both winning authors come to our school to accept their award and address the student body. The winners were:

Melanie Watt for "Chester's Masterpiece" in the Picture Book category.

Kenneth Oppel for "Half-Brother" in the Middle Reader / Young Adult novel category.

It was a wonderful opportunity for our students. Our grade 3-4 and grade 7-8 judges took their responsibility very seriously. They read their books and kept their decision secret. They were so excited to meet these authors in person. (To be honest, I was just as excited. I've met both Melanie and Kenneth before, but having them in my own school was an added treat.)

The Ontario Arts Council and the Ontario Arts Foundation were very pleased with the caliber of the judging and the commitment of our school to making it the best possible awards ceremony we could manage. We had our school percussion ensemble perform as part of the event and ensured that the little things were present to make things special, like food in the "green room" / library for the authors, publishing house representatives and council members, signs in the hall and gym, over-sized cheques perfect for photo-taking, and special seating arrangements.

Our principal wanted to arrange to purchase copies of the winning books so that each staff member could own the pair of winning titles - in a delightful and surprising turn of events, Kids Can Press and Harper Collins offered to donate copies to the staff. It was totally unexpected and much appreciated. (If your school is lucky enough to be chosen to be the jury for this event, don't think this is a regular situation! We were prepared to pay full price for these autographed gems.)

This was the 35th anniversary of the Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Children's Book Awards. The very first winner was "Jacob Two-Two Meets The Hooded Fang". I have to admit, however, that until my school was invited to be a part of this awards process, I knew very little about it. I had seen the award mentioned on the backs of Canadian books: "nominated for the Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Award" - but I didn't know it was chosen by a selected few students. I didn't realize that it was a substantial monetary donation. I consider myself a pretty knowledgeable teacher-librarian - why wasn't I more aware? I was also surprised that, despite the invitations and notifications sent out, not a single media outlet came to report on the event. Why is that? Are newspapers and TV stations swamped with press releases advertising this gala and that showcase that it just wasn't newsworthy?

I made a promise to myself - I need to arrange to write (or have written) an article featuring all the Canadian children's literature awards that currently exist, so that I can publish it in "The Teaching Librarian" magazine (the official magazine of the Ontario School Library Association). I need to educate myself about the different opportunities out there to celebrate Can-Lit and Kid-Can-Lit in particular. If it weren't for author Anna Kerz (who should be a subject of a future blog post), we might not have had the chance to participate in this great event. Everyone we had the chance to deal with, from the Ontario Arts Council folks to the publishers, to the gracious and patient authors, were just wonderful. If you are lucky enough to get that invitation from the Ontario Arts Council, grab it up!

(Just in case you were wondering if I just always say nice things about authors ... I don't like every author I meet but I make it a point of honour to be as positive in my public writing as I can - the Internet is too full of negativity as it is without me adding to it - plus, I'm married to an author and I've seen what thoughtless harsh ignorant words can do. Having said that, both Melanie and Kenneth were super to work with, even when they had to hide backstage!)