MSLA 2021: What can we help you discover today?

Banner: School Librarians at the Crossroads: Be the Hero of Your Journey

This was my first year attending the Massachusetts School Library Association (MSLA) annual conference. It was entirely virtual this year, and it was great! Between an app (Whova) and various platforms (zoom, YouTube), everything worked smoothly. I noticed that most attendees were chatting when live chat was enabled, but not many were tweeting, even though several are on Twitter. As usual, I took compulsive notes, which I’ve tried to consolidate here into useful takeaways. Thank you to the MSLA Conference Committee, who did amazing work, and to all of the presenters, keynote speakers, and panelists, who delivered inspiring and thought-provoking ideas.

Saturday, March 20

Jarrett Krosoczka, Awards Night Keynote

Cover image Hey KiddoKrosoczka is the Massachusetts-based author of the popular Lunch Lady series of early graphic novels, as well as the award-winning graphic memoir Hey, Kiddo. He talked about his long history of virtual author visits and book launches, and how his model has changed over the years as technology has changed. He asked himself, “I don’t want to be just a talking head, how can I make this more interesting?” When the pandemic arrived in March 2020, he began “Draw Every Day with JKK,” a popular series of drawing sessions. His home setup has improved with time; he noted that phone cameras are usually better quality than computer cameras, and if you mount one on a tripod, it doesn’t hurt to put googly eyes on it so you know where to look. Krosoczka closed with, “Students just want to be heard. They just want an adult to listen.”

Sunday, March 21

Books and Bytes Keynote: The School Librarian as Information Specialist, Jennisen Lucas (AASL president-elect)

When it comes to libraries – school or public – there is a huge equity issue. Generally, affluent towns and cities have library buildings staffed with qualified professionals who manage a collection of a variety of materials and offer a range of services. Poorer towns’ libraries aren’t as well-funded, may not have the same number of open hours (an access issue) or amount of materials or the same program offerings. In school libraries, the inequality is even starker, if possible, and it seems as though the barely-adequate staffing levels can be slashed at any time. School libraries might not have a budget at all, or they may have an insufficient budget; libraries might be staffed only by paraprofessionals or parent volunteers, or by a certified librarian serving several schools at once. This knife-edge existence is frustrating for a profession that knows its vital importance to student learning outcomes, yet constantly has to explain and defend itself. School librarians don’t just check books in and out; SLs nurture a love of reading, teach research skills, support the curriculum, and teach media and news literacy. “We are vital,” Lucas said. “We are trying to be everything to everybody.”

Lucas addressed the common misperception that “what we do is read to kids and check out books”; that now that there’s the Internet, librarians aren’t necessary anymore. Lucas argued that we have workout videos – and yet we still have gym teachers. We have calculators, and yet we still have math teachers. “We teach things that no other teachers teach.” Lucas said, “Our school library ensures learners become effective and ethical users and producers of ideas and information.” All learners deserve libraries with certified librarians.

A few more takeaways:

  • Recommended books: Start With Why by Simon Sinek; Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman; The Information by James Gleick; Our Enduring Values Revisited by Michael Gorman
  • “It is not the amount of knowledge that makes a brain. It is not even the distribution of knowledge. It is the interconnectedness.” -James Gleick, The Information
  • “Information” is one of those words like “research,” we use it all the time to mean a lot of things. Information is directly tied to communication.
  • Ask students: “What is research?” (Their answers will surprise you!) Research is answering questions: start with a question. Teach learners how to ask a question. 
  • Many hats: School librarians are “a guide, instructor, facilitator, coach, administrator of programs.”

Fostering Diversity in the Library, Felicia Quesada Montville

Felicia Quesada Montville works as a middle school librarian in the Newton Public Schools. Her presentation focused on diversity, inclusion, equity, and antiracism. Librarians have many tools to move past “superficial” representation and build an antiracist library.

  • Collection development: Prioritize diverse voices. Seek multiple review sources. Weed, weed, weed! Know your community and assess their needs. Analyze your collection and identify gaps. Do a diversity audit. Identify priority areas (e.g. summer reading lists, books taught in classrooms). Examine the images in your space and on your website.

  • Displays, and a student-centered environment: “There’s a lot of power in the books that we choose to put on display.” Students and teachers and people coming into your space see the books that are there. Make the library a safe space for everyone by centering students. What professional practices can you improve to help your students?
  • Advocacy outside the library: Librarians have power – use it for good. Advocate for inclusive and diverse texts outside of the library. Use position in school as a leader to help move social justice forward. Advocate for equitable school policies. Lead by examples – lead by doing. Speak up.

Using Picture Books in High School, Susan Harari, Morgan Keohane, Blake Barich

Blake Barich, and English teacher at Boston Latin, developed an assignment for her 12th grade students to find and examine “existentialist themes” in picture books. School librarian Susan Harari helped find the picture books, using both her own library collection and the Boston Public Library to provide 150 texts for the students to choose from. She also taught a lesson on picture books, covering Rudine Sims Bishop’s concept of windows & mirrors, what is(n’t) a picture book, types of children’s books, the role of author/illustrator, audience, design elements, and interplay between text/illustrations. Thus equipped, students chose their picture books and began work on a 4-6 page essay.

But the unit didn’t end there. In a fantastic example of inter-school collaboration, the 12th grade students took a field trip to a BPS elementary school, where each was paired with a younger student (K-1) and read their book aloud. Elementary librarian Morgan Keohane got teacher buy-in by presenting the many arguments in favor of the collaboration: it’s a chance for students to get personalized, individual attention from an older peer (who is very familiar with the picture book – not a typical guest reader). It models the value of 1:1 reading time (child:adult). In their diverse community of learners, a lot of volunteers are white; this is a chance for students to see themselves in successful older roles.

“The value of this project is that it’s a learning experience for both sides.” High school students gained an appreciation for visual literacy, an understanding of windows and mirrors, and increased literary criticism skills. Younger students (who completed simple book reviews with a star rating and a sentence or drawing about their favorite part of the story) got one-on-one attention from enthusiastic older peers who were deeply engaged in the book they had brought to share.

Cover image of I Want My Hat Back

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this blog post on Monday’s sessions.

4 thoughts on “MSLA 2021: What can we help you discover today?

  1. Wow this is awesome! And you’re right about the tweeting – I could never figure out if I wanted to chat or tweet and I found it very distracting to try to do both! I usually opted for the chat, but when there’s no chat (when we’re live) I tweet a lot. Just a difference in the two formats that I didn’t expect I guess.

    • I was surprised because usually SLs are pretty active on Twitter but I didn’t think about that because this was my first MSLA conference! Makes sense that people would tweet more if the live chat wasn’t there. It worked really well though!

  2. That BPS high school/elementary school project is brilliant. The elementary school (if my sleuthing to figure out which one it was is correct!) is right near where I used to live.

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