Pop Culture in Public Schools

Most librarians are familiar with the ever popular Bluford High series of books. These books are available in most school and public libraries across the country. They are VERY popular with my students. In some cases, those are the only books students will read. There are 20 titles in the series and the plots surround a group of African-American teenagers at the inner-city Bluford High School. They seem to reflect popular culture that is of interest to our current student population.

In my school, I can attest to the fact that students love these books. They are targeted to African-American and Latino students who live in poor urban neighborhoods. The books have been praised by the Young Adult Library Services Association and other literacy groups which want to encourage students to read. The are written at about the 5th grade reading level, but the content is often very mature and, according to the author and editor Paul Langan, they reflect the environments in which many of our minority inner city youth are growing up.

So what’s the big deal? Why do I have a problem with them? Well, I worry about the fact that the images reflected in these books are too negative. I know I read books to escape the negativity in my life. Why would I want to read about it in the books I choose to read for pleasure? I’m not convinced that the Bluford High books allow minority youth to actually engage in escapism or to learn that there may be more in life to aspire to than just going out with the hottest chick in the senior class. Are they real? Yes. But I am concerned they may have a tinge of stereotype to them.

Several years ago, my coworker and I were hosting an event in the library. It was called “Speed Dating with Books.” We invited reading classes to come in and “date” books. We had different genres sitting on different tables. Students had 5 minutes per table and there were 5 tables. The object was for them to find a book they would like to “date” (read). They had to actually touch a book, look at the cover, read the fly leaf and write down a sentence or two about the book. if they thought they might like to check it out, they could take it with them to the next table. Ultimately, the goal was for them to have a book to check out and take with them at the end of the activity. We set the mood, turned the lights down, played a little mood music. It was pretty fun. The kids really got into it.

Speed Dating with Books

All in all, it was a very successful activity. There was laughter, kids were engaging with books in ways I had never seen them do before, but there was one thing I worried about as we worked our way through each of the cycles of the speed dating activity. It was those Bluford High books. As I walked around the room looking at all the various books we had picked to share with the students, I began to compare the images portrayed on the covers of the Bluford High books with the covers of the other books placed on all the tables. I really began to be concerned about the Bluford High books. Were they showing positive images? Was the content too explicit or graphic for a high school student? I know that many of our students do live in very negative environments, but do I want to drown them in those same negative environments in the books I offer them. Maybe it’s just my “old white lady” mentality, but the images on the Bluford High book covers all look negative. Everyone looks angry on them. The characters depicted on them look mean and uninviting. The thought that ran through my mind is how are these books any different from the cariactures depicted of black people in old Hollywood movies? Or the images in advertisements for things like Aunt Jemima syrup? The only difference I could see between the covers of those books and say the old Little Black Sambo character from pre-Civil Rights days was that these characters looked tougher and harder; but to me, they still seem to be a stereotype all the same. Is it OK just because they’re not being made to look simple minded or they’re not being made fun of? A stereotype is a stereotype. And it really doesn’t make me feel any better that the two most prolific writers of the series are white people. Paul Langan who created the series and Anne Schraff who has written several of the titles are white people. What do they know about being poor and African-American or Hispanic in America? I think that’s an issue. It’s white people telling young African-American and Hispanic people what their life is like or how it should be. I may be the only person on the planet that feels this way, but I don’t think that’s OK.

They do very much reflect the current gang and inner city culture, or least as I see it. But again, what do I know about it? I’ve been white all my life. I’m not rich, but my experience as a poor white person is going to be way different than that of someone of a different ethnicity. And even if all the books were completely 100% accurate, is that the only image my students who happen to be minority and inner city need? I don’t think so. I think they need positive images that reflect their stories. They need images of people who look like them and yet, have overcome tremendous obstacles to succeed in life. They need images of that average kid who has never seen someone inject themselves with heroin or has never been in trouble with the law. There have to be those poor kids out there. There just have to be. They’re poor, they’re African-American, and they go to school, they date, they have a job and yet, they don’t experience the negative, self destructive turmoil that may be going on around them. I could be completely wrong. Being part of a gang and the criminal and drug world may be completely unavoidable for those who struggle with poverty and happen to be African-American or Hispanic, but God, I hope and pray that is not the case.

I know we as educators are very eager to meet students where they are. We are eager to find that hook that will make them want to learn more . . . to READ. But sometimes, I wonder at what cost? I am not at all sure that falling wholeheartedly into the pop culture trend is the way to go. We definitely really need to think about the messages we send out to our young people in everything we do . . . whether it be in print or in media. They are dependent on us to show them the way. If we are responsible educators, we will be very careful how we go about doing just that.

 

 

Challenges in Education

One of my biggest concerns for teachers and schools of the future is the trend I see happening at a very rapid pace throughout the country, and that is the race to undermine and destroy public schools. Everyone, except public school teachers, seem to be of the opinion that public schools are failing . . . that somehow they need to be fixed. And every Tom, Dick and Harry out there seems to have the magic formula to fix American schools. And yet, the people who don’t ever seem to be asked when it comes to developing a plan to “fix” public schools are the American school teachers.

Education has to be the only professional field where it is not only perfectly acceptable, but actually encouraged for anyone to espouse some opinion on why public schools are having issues without the educational and professional background to back up their opinions. Our illustrious new Secretary of the Department of Education is only the latest in a very long line of pompous know-it-alls who think they can solve the “problems” of education. How about we as a country look to the actual people in the trenches and ask them what they think would solve some of the challenges they face in the classroom? What a novel idea!

 

I don’t think anyone would ever presume to tell a lawyer how he or she ought to win a tough criminal case; we wouldn’t tell a heart surgeon the best practice to complete an open heart surgery without losing a patient; we wouldn’t even be so bold as to tell our plumber how best to do his job to clean out the clogged sewer pipes in our houses; and yet, over and over again, there are people in ALL walks of life who feel qualified to tell teachers how best to do their jobs. How arrogant is that?

I’ve been a teacher for 20 years and a school librarian for 11. I think I am very qualified to let local school board members, state legislators, and federal legislators know what I need to be more successful in the classroom. So are my colleagues. We all know. But we never get asked.

You see public school teachers are required by law to teach ALL students. Unlike private schools and some charter schools, we don’t get to pick and choose our students. We teach them ALL . . . the good, the bad and the ugly. WE TEACH THEM ALL. We teach those kids who are homeless. We teach those kids who haven’t eaten in three days. We teach those kids whose parents were ripped out of their homes the night before and arrested for prostitution, selling drugs, you name it. Those kids are far more concerned about where they’re sleeping at night and where their next meal is coming from than whether or not their homework is done. We’ve got parents who will come up to the school and start a physical fight with a student who made some perceived slight against their child and they see nothing wrong with that. That activity would NEVER have crossed the minds of my parents. EVER. I mean who does that?

We’re also asked to be not only teacher, but mom and dad to our students because there is no one at home to be the adult. I see teachers in my building staying at school until 7:00, 8:00 at night when school ends at 2:30. And the kids never want to go home. They don’t want to go to class, but they don’t want to go home either because home is oftentimes not a safe place.

I have a daughter who will be graduating from high school this June. So, I’ve gotten to see public schools from the perspective of a teacher and a parent. It has been my personal experience that the most successful schools in my area are ones where students have at least one functional parent at home if not two. I know that’s not a politically correct thing to say in this day and age, but there is something to be said for a student having a somewhat functional and supportive family at home. Those schools that seem to struggle are the ones which have the least parental involvement and support. If the parents don’t care about the progress of their children in school, the kids don’t care either. That’s just the way it is.

So what do we need to overcome the challenges we face? I need politicians to put their money where their mouth is. Schools should never have to hold fundraisers to get the required materials to educate their students. Teachers should be given some input on how children are educated and promoted to the next grade level. We should stop being so obsessed with standardized tests and data charts and take a look at real kids. Students are far more important than a graph or a chart. And before we try to educate a child, maybe we should make sure they live in a safe environment with adults who will watch out for and protect them while holding them accountable for what they should be doing while they are at school. I know everyone is very familiar with the old African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” There were no truer words ever spoken. From my perspective, parents have abdicated their responsibility in that equation and  we need them desperately.

I have always felt that teaching was a vocation, not a simple career choice. People don’t get into teaching to get rich. We get into teaching because we love kids. We want to help mold our students into the adults they are meant to be. It is a noble profession whose members should be treated with honor and respect. I’ve been waiting for a long time for that to happen. I guess I’m just an eternal optimist. A girl can dream can’t she?

Free Web Tools?

This prompt came into my e-mail inbox and I read it, I stopped to ponder how to attack this topic. Free web tools??? What are those? Do I use them all the time as the prompt suggested? Basically, I had questions, you know?

I have been in education a very long time now and I’ve watched the evolution of computers and the Internet through the years. I would venture to say we are somewhat obsessed with technology at this point. It’s always about the newest, the fastest, the coolest new thing or gadget that’s out there on the market, not about whether it’s actually functional in the way we need it to be for the task at hand.

Everything I know about computers, various kinds of software and any other kinds of technology you can think of, free or otherwise, I learned about because I had to in order to do my job. You might say I was forced into it if I wanted to keep my job. I’m thinking of things like e-mail, online gradebook programs and the like. Do I think those technological programs make my job easier? Why yes, I do. But, to be honest, I wouldn’t have searched these programs out by myself.

Since computers have been a part of my professional life, I have discovered free online tools such as Citation Machine, EasyBib and Purdue Owl to help my students cite their work when writing research papers. We’ve also discovered Creative Commons and Morgue File for copyright free images to use in PowerPoint projects and videos.

I have used Audacity as well to modify music to use in movies. But each and every one of these programs was one that I was told about or discovered on my own to fix a problem that I had. I have to say that the citation sites are my favorite. That’s because I went to college in the Stone Age and had to actually memorize the MLA rules when I typed my papers. Students today don’t know how easy they have it! All they have to do is copy and paste and it’s done. Not quite as bad as my grandmother walking four miles both ways to and from school, up hill, in a snowstorm, but it’s kinda close.

Anyway, what I have learned in all these many years using all sorts of technology is that consumers need to research the software, the apps, or the devices just like you would research the purchase of a new car, a new house or any other major purchase before we dive right in to promote it or use it. It’s just common sense.

I do realize that the technology is here to stay and that I need to adapt; but I gotta say, sometimes, I just wish things could go back to the way they used to be. Paper and pencil don’t ever go down like the Internet does. We can’t function without it anymore. Sometimes, we can’t record absences or tardies because our servers go down. And the world’s worst is when it’s the end of a grading period and the servers go down. My old timey writing implements never just decided to take a “nap” in the middle of the work day like my computer and iPad do today, but what do I know? I’m just an old lady.

A Day in the Library

We’ve all heard the saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Nobody could argue that images do have an emotional impact on the audience. They can cause joy, they can cause sadness, and they can create anger in the people that view them. We can also argue that images add so much meaning to a text document whether it be online or the old fashioned print copies of books, magazines, and newspaper.

I find I have to use images all the time to justify my very professional existence. You know, all those years I spent in the classroom, I never once had to justify my value to anyone: parents or administrators. As a high school librarian in the 21st century, I feel I have to justify my value in the educational field every single day. I think the reason for that is no one in positions of power actually understands what we do. They don’t realize how our contributions to student learning only enhance and support what the teacher is able to do in the classroom.

What administrators think happens in the library.

I believe many administrators feel that the library is just a big huge empty space with a bunch of books in it. I can tell my principal every day how much I am collaborating with teachers on lessons and how much actual teaching I’m doing in the library, but an image will go a long way to impress upon administration just how vital I am to the education of the students in my building. My value is worth so much more than helping the student who’s a voracious reader pick out his next favorite book.

My co-worker and I work really hard to provide our teaching staff with the academic support they need to do the job they need to do with their students. However, at the end of the day, it’s the teacher’s name on the class test passing averages, not ours. As in many states in the US, our students take a mandatory standardized test at the end of every year in English, math, science and social studies. There are a total of 5 tests that must be passed before a student can graduate. We can help prepare students for all of these tests. I have to use pictures to illustrate our contributions because we all know they aren’t going to be on the test data sheets that are published over the summer.

Pictures show my administrators better than any words I could speak or write that I am a teacher as well as a librarian, and that I can collaborate with teachers to create fun and creative lessons which will motivate students to learn. In the past, I’ve done this with e-newsletters that I’ve e-mailed to my administration at the end of every six weeks. Sometimes, I’ve gotten positive feedback, but most of the time, there’s no feedback at all. Maybe I need more visuals. I’m not sure. Maybe I should share with them the American Association of School Libraries infographic supporting the importance of school librarians.

 

My hope is that I can turn this blog into something that I can use for my coworker and myself to promote what we do in my school. We work very hard to be plugged in to everything that happens on our campus. Sometimes, there aren’t enough images to illustrate that. The analogy that I use comes from the movies. School librarians are kind of like movie directors. No one really knows exactly what they do; but when they’re good at what they do, the movie will be outstanding. And oftentimes, it will be the actors who will get all the credit. I have no problem with that at all. That is as it should be.

Leaders always . . .

I remember as a very young teacher being in awe of those teachers in my building who were 15-30 year veterans. To say the least, I was having a very difficult time my first year. I was so overwhelmed. I had no one I could talk to, no one I could confide in about all the insecurities I felt. Actually, that’s not really true. I did have those veteran teachers I could have turned to, but I didn’t really want to confide in them because I didn’t want them to know just how much I was struggling. I was afraid it would make them think less of me as a professional. They made the job look so easy, so I knew I just had to be doing something wrong. There was no way teaching could be that hard.

The administration that I worked for at that time was bringing in speakers for professional development from all over the nation. I wish I could remember some names, but I don’t. I do, however, remember their curricula vitae all had one glaring thing in common. Most had only taught for 5 years sometimes less. Now, they were making it big on the speaking circuit going from school district to school district talking to teachers about how to be a better teacher. As young and naive as I was, that fact struct me as strange. I would find myself looking around the room at my new friends who had many more years in the classroom than the speaker had and wonder what must be going through their minds.

About two years into my teaching career, I was fortunate enough to serve on a campus committee that my building principal put together to help the administration plan professional development activities for the staff. The assistant principal who was placed in charge of this committee was sharing with us information about various speakers that he was hoping to secure for the upcoming school year. He felt the folks he had chosen could provide us invaluable information about how to be a better teacher. I remember asking him about the teaching experience these potential speakers had. I wanted to know if they were seasoned veterans or not. He wanted to know why I was asking. I suspect because he knew that the very ones he wanted to schedule had very little experience in the classroom.

I was very proud of myself that day. It was one of the first times as a very young teacher that I squared my shoulders back and I answered his question. I looked him straight in the eye and I told him that I wasn’t interested in what some rookie had to say about what makes a good teacher. I wanted to hear from someone like our Latin teacher at the time who had 20 years in the profession, or the Social Studies Department Head who was closing in on 25, or the English teacher in my hallway that I had so much respect for who was closing in on 30. The students loved and revered these teachers and I so wanted to be like them when I “grew up.” I wanted to know WHAT WAS THEIR SECRET???? I was dead serious! How had these people I envied so much managed to maintain a successful work/personal life balance AND their sanity all at the same time? How did they make it all look so easy?

As I told him quite frankly, I was ready to throw in the towel after only two years of teaching. I was ready to walk away from a job that I had worked so hard to get because it was the hardest thing I had ever done. It would be so easy to put a few years in and decide to go and do something else. I told him that as soon as a speaker’s credentials were read at a meeting and I discovered they’d had less than 10 years in the classroom, I totally tuned them out from that moment on, because from my perspective, they were a quitter. And if they chose to leave this very worthy profession for something far more lucrative like public speaking, why should I listen to anything they had to say? Why should they be given any credibility in the education field at all? I desperately wanted to hear from these veterans I had seen in the classroom. I wanted to learn from them!

To his credit, this very astute assistant principal took what I said to heart. He reached out to these veteran teachers and asked them to create and hold workshops for the entire staff. I learned more in those next few years about how to manage students, parents and administrators than I had ever learned before or since. I guess you can chalk it up to the fact that I am, at heart an historian. I like learning from those who’ve gone before me and been successful. Not those who dallied at something for a brief time and then, chose to move on.

So, I’ve told this very long story about what I experienced as a young teacher growing within the profession to illustrate what I think a good, maybe a great leader does. A good leader listens. He listens. It’s as simple as that. What I experienced in that moment with my assistant principal was life changing for me. I was heard. I believe that good leaders listen to those they manage. What a beautiful gift that was! He allowed me the opportunity to ask for what I needed to grow and become more successful in a job that I loved, but was struggling with. He also responded to my request. He responded by providing me the very help I so desperately needed. He didn’t get offended because what I was asking for wasn’t the trendiest thing to do. He genuinely heard me and gave me what I needed to grow.

Now, that I in the library, I try very desperately to be that sounding board for teachers who have no one else to turn to. Unlike that assistant principal in my story, I am not in a position to make any changes for the teachers in my building, but I can let them vent. Sometimes just being able to verbalize the frustration in a safe, nonjudgmental environment is good. I can also offer them advice on how to deal with the stresses they’re feeling. Now, it’s my turn to to be a 30 year veteran that some of my teachers look up to and come to for advice about how to deal with students, administration, and parents. I can only hope that what I provide them is as valuable to them as my assistant principal’s gift was to me.

My Library

Can I just say I love my library? I really do! I love the physical space that I work in now. When I was a classroom teacher, I also loved my classroom. I had my student desks all in neat little rows and beautiful, inspiring posters on the wall. I taught US history for many years and I loved it. I loved my students, I loved the school, and I loved the subject matter that I taught.

Being in the library is much different than being a classroom teacher. I find that my passion about the library I manage for my school is that I want it to be a safe, inviting place for ALL people to be . . . not just the students, but the teachers and staff as well. I want them to come in, have a seat, read a magazine, or just sit and visit a little bit. I want the students and staff of my school to feel they can come in with a joy to share or a problem to solve. I’m here for them through it all.

I sometimes joke about my school library being an academic version of that bar in the TV show Cheers. If you remember that old show, the lyrics to the theme song referred to the bar as a place “where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came.” Teaching is one of the world’s most difficult, yet rewarding professions and being a teenager in today’s society is also very difficult. Sometimes, my students and staff just want to be where somebody knows who they are and what makes them tick.

My library has relaxation stations where people can just sit and read. We have tables and chairs where people can work and we have 23 desktop computers, two printers, a scanner, and many books and magazines for people to use for pleasure or research. My co-worker and I do everything that we can to provide support to both staff and students as they go through their day.

We have three distinct sections of the library which affords us the opportunity to serve three classes at the same time in the library. Between two of the three sections, we have a long book shelf. Every month, we feature different books on this book shelf. We decorate the shelf for whatever holiday there might be in the near future, or maybe just for the season. Books are faced outward so students and staff can see the cover and are encouraged to pick the books up and look at them. Most of the books that are checked out in the library are checked out from that book shelf.

I’ve added some pictures to this post which I hope will reflect the buzz of activity that I like to see in my library. I’ve had more than one person, usually an older adult, who has come into my library only to come to me and say, “Why is it so loud in here? I came thinking it would be quiet.” My standard response to these people is, “Have you met me? I am not quiet and I cannot expect people who come into my space to be quiet if I cannot be quiet.” There are some quiet times, but we like activity in our library and when there is student activity in the library, it is never quiet . . . and I LOVE that!

 

My Blog Story

I am a blog virgin. Apparently, I created an account and created one post in October of 2015 and completely forgot all about it. But then, I saw this e-mail about the blog challenge that Edublogs was hosting and thought it looked interesting. I really don’t follow other blogs per se. I occasionally read blogs that friends or acquaintances write and post on their social media sites, but I don’t subscribe to any of them on a regular basis. I have a friend who writes a blog about her experience struggling with cancer, a friend who writes about her struggle with infertility, and another who writes about her struggles with her special needs child. Each blog is very personal and I read them because I care about these people and I want to keep up with them and what’s going on in their lives.

I do sometimes think about writing a blog as well, but it all feels so personal. It feels kind of like I’m allowing someone to read my diary. So, I’m conflicted about actually wanting to do or not. I want to, but the question I keep asking myself is do I have anything that I want to say that I want to actually put in print AND on the Internet for all to see and to be available into perpetuity. So, my goal with this challenge is to learn. . . to get to feel comfortable with putting my thoughts out there knowing that people could be offended at what I say. That’s the scary part. It’s one thing to feel that you are the only one in the world who feels a certain way. It’s quite another to have it blatantly proven as people express their opinions about what I’ve written. Writing and posting on the Internet is quite an anonymous activity so it’s hard to gauge your audience because you don’t know who’s going to actually be reading your work. If this activity can help me overcome my fear factor, I will feel it has been a success. Ultimately, I would like to write a blog and be able to find joy in that process.

I am looking forward to the veterans who may be part of this challenge. I want to learn from you. I am looking forward to this challenge and the positive outcomes I am looking to come from it.