The New Librarian

I started this blog with the intention of creating a space where I could reflect on my classroom practice teaching middle school math and science.  I came up with the name, Teacher Evolution, to remind myself how important it is as an educator to challenge myself, take risks, fail, learn from my mistakes, and continue to grow.  This is what I want for my students and I expect no less of myself.

It is with great pleasure that I announce to my legions of readers (all two of you) the next step in my evolution as a teacher.  I am now the librarian for a K-8 school in New Orleans.  Crack a virtual bottle of champagne across the bow of this blog – it is now about my adventures as a new school librarian!

Library of love...photo © 2009 Nicola Jones | more info (via: Wylio)

This position has taken me to a new school.  As I said good-bye to the school I worked at for the past two years, some of my colleagues were surprised: “You’re leaving the classroom?  But you love teaching!”  Others gave me a knowing smile: “That will be nice.  Some peace and quiet for a change.”  These reactions underscore what I’ve learned in my grad school classes over the past year, that there is widespread misunderstanding as to what it is that a (good) school librarian actually does.

I get it.  Although I have fond memories of school librarians from my childhood, as a teacher I’ve worked with some real stinkers.  The don’t make a sound, don’t touch the books types.

Then, in 2007, I took a job at a school in Los Angeles where I met the intrepid Nora Murphy, the teacher-librarian who changed my life.  Working with Ms. Murphy opened my eyes how positive and far-reaching a school librarian’s influence can be.  Her library was the heart of the school.  Students flocked there at lunch, before and after school to return and check out books.  Teachers, including me, came to her to for feedback on our lesson plans.  She made my research assignments more manageable for students by bookmarking quality websites and creating pathfinders.  She was an enthusiastic collaborator and co-teacher, turning her library into a second classroom for many of us, and my teaching improved as a result of working with her.  She facilitated a faculty young adult book club, exposing us to compelling titles that we could recommend to our students.  She organized and led staff development meetings showing teachers how to incorporate technology into their instruction.  She attended department meetings and served on school-site council committees.  Ms. Murphy was (and still is) everything AASL tells us a school librarian should be.  She is a treasure.  For a teacher looking to challenge himself, to move into a leadership position without giving up teaching or the daily interaction with students, I could not have asked for a more inspiring model.

So for the record, my motivation for moving from the classroom to the library is not about getting away from students.  It’s not about escaping the classroom.  It’s not about looking for a peace and quiet.

And if you’ve read this far, I hope you won’t mind me listing some reasons I did become a school librarian, especially considering that many people are questioning the value of school librarians in the age of the internet.

I became a school librarian because:

  • I love teaching kids.  I love teaching math and science.  But now, instead of trying to cajole kids into liking math or telling them we don’t have time to learn about that really cool rock they found because it’s not in the scope and sequence, I get to teach kids how to learn about whatever it is that they are passionate about.  You like butterflies?  Let’s find out more about butterflies!
  • As Blanche Woolls says in her book, The School Library Media Manager, “the media center is the only room in the school where no student need fail.”  How wonderful to motivate students by their interests rather than the threat of a bad grade.
  • Our “digital natives” are not as good at navigating the internet as adults imagine.  Can they get to Facebook?  Yes.  Can they find the information they need for a research assignment and evaluate it for accuracy, timeliness, authority, or relevance?  Can they search effectively through the morass of information found on the internet? Anyone who has been a classroom teacher can tell you that our students desperately need instruction in research skills, and it is hard to find time for this in the classroom.  Accessing and evaluating information is a skill that adults take for granted, and it is extremely short-sited to neglect its place in the school curriculum if we want our students to succeed and develop as critical thinkers in the information age.
  • Once students do find the information they need, do they know what to do with it?  MOST students I know think it is perfectly acceptable to copy and paste a website and turn it in as research.  Librarians teach students about copyright laws and ethics, about citing sources and synthesizing information, about building upon the knowledge of others rather than plagiarizing.
  • And sure, students can get to Facebook, but do they know how to behave once they get there?  Bullying is easier than ever with current technology and social media.  Many students make bad decisions online that can come back to haunt them.  Librarians teach students about digital citizenship, addressing an area of their lives that is extremely important to them but absent from the traditional curriculum.
  • I get to collaborate with other teachers!  As a classroom teacher, it is not always easy to find opportunities to interact with other adults.  As a librarian, it’s my job to work with every teacher and ensure that the library supports and enriches their curricular efforts.  I get to work on lesson plans with people from every department!  I’m lucky to have landed at a school with fantastic teachers who are excited to have a librarian, and I look forward to supporting them as much as I look forward to learning from their expertise.
  • I get to work with every student in every grade level, from the pip-squeaks up to the older ones that I’m accustomed to.  Far from getting away from students, as a librarian every child in the school is my student.
  • I have a reason, indeed I’m expected to spend time geeking out on the latest technology and web resources related to education.
  • Did I mention I love books?

I am extremely grateful for my ten years as a classroom teacher, and I look forward to being challenged and growing as an educator through school librarianship.  I know I have chosen a career path with tenuous job security in tough economic times.  There is no telling how long I will be able to enjoy this position, but I intend to make the most of it while I it’s mine.  If funding dries up, if the library closes its doors, I’ll gladly make my way back to the classroom, and as my mentor and friend Nora points out, a better teacher because of my experience as a librarian.

So in my opinion this blog title, Teacher Evolution, still stands.  The teacher is evolving!  I was hired at a school that its entire facility, including the library, during Hurricane Katrina.  We are currently in a temporary building without a library.  A new building – with a big, new library! – is currently under construction and is slated to open this winter.  I look forward to writing about my experiences as a new school librarian, with a rare and fortunate perspective of seeing the construction of a new library and putting together a collection from scratch.

Even better than a new building with new books is the incredible administration and faculty that I will be working with.  I’m so impressed with everyone I have met so far.  My principal has been introducing me to future colleagues as “our new librarian.”  It has a nice ring to it.

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Dividing Fractions

This picture came from one of my favorite days teaching math this year, a couple of weeks before summer vacation:

"Why is the answer smaller?"

Dividing fractions is a completely bizarre procedure for students.  Only the adventurous think to ask why.

The last few weeks at this school tend to devolve into chaos.  Field trips.  Dances.  Award ceremonies.  Teachers tacitly encouraging students to stay home.  For all of the reasons listed above, on this day there were only six students in attendance.  I had just finished showing them that when you divide 12 by 8/9, you come up with 13 and 1/2.

C: If you’re dividing, why is the answer bigger than 12?

Ten years of teaching this skill and nobody had ever thought to ask that question.  I was so excited!

Me: What does it mean if we divide 12 by 4?

J: If divide 12 by 4, we get 3.  3 groups of 4.

Me: Could we subtraction to show how that works?

Class: (blank stares)

Me: Yes, we could!  If I start with 12 and subtract 4 over and over, how many times can I subtract 4?

I do this on the board and the students see that you can subtract 4 three times.

Me: So division is the same thing as repeated subtraction.  What would happen if we subtracted 8/9 from 12 over and over again?  Is it okay if we try this together?  I’m really excited about this!  

Class: (humoring me) Yeah, Mr. Young, let’s do it.

Me: Alright.  What do I have to do if I want to take 8/9 away from 12?

T: Find a common denominator!

Me: What would 12 be rewritten as ninths?

T: 108/9!

Me: Yes!  So 108/9 minus 8/9 would be. . .?

Class: 100/9!

Me: And 100/9 minus 8/9. . .?

Class: 92/9!

We keep subtracting 8/9 over and over again.  My students tell me the difference faster than I can write it.  Each time we subtract, I circle 8/9.

A: Mr. Young, just look at the pattern.  0, 2, 4, 6, 8.  It keeps repeating.

Me: Thank you, A.  That makes it easier for me to subtract.  This is so much fun!

We come to the end.  Only 4/9 left.  We can’t subtract 8/9 anymore.

Me: How many times did we subtract 8/9?

Class: 13!

Me: And how much is left?

Class: 4/9!

Me: What is 4/9 compared to 8/9?

T: 4/9 is half of 8/9.

Me: Yes!  So when we divide 12 by 8/9 and get 13 and 1/2, what does that 13 and 1/2 mean?

C: It means if we divide 12 by 8/9, we get 13 groups of 8/9 plus 4/9, half of 8/9.

Me: So why is the answer greater than the dividend – the 12?

C: Because 8/9 isn’t very big.  It’s less than a whole and you can get more of them out of 12 than just 12.

Me: How close is 8/9 to one whole?

J: Real close.  Only 1/9 away.

Me: If we divided 12 by one, how many groups of one would we have?

Class: 12!

Me: So, C,  does it make sense that if we are dividing 12 up into pieces that are less than one then we would have to end up with more than 12?

C: Okay.  I get it now.

Me: I think that was the most fun I had all year!  I’ve been teaching division of fractions for ten years and nobody has ever asked me a question like that before.  Thank you for letting me go through all of that work with you and for paying attention while we did it.

A: We should have six people in our class every day.

Me: Maybe you’re right.  That would be nice, wouldn’t it?