MSLA 2023: Gear Up: Moving Forward Together (Day 2)

See the Sunday summary (Day 1 of conference) here.

MSLA President Jen Varney introduced Monday’s keynote speaker, the Director of Amherst College Libraries, Dr. Martin Garnar, who spoke about Fighting the Good Fight: Supporting Intellectual Fredom in Your Library. He asked, “What is intellectual freedom?” It is actually three freedoms: freedom of expression, freedom of access, and freedom from surveillance (i.e., privacy). Garnar handed out scenarios on slips of paper, and each table group considered how we would respond to, for example, a parent challenging a book from the school library collection and the principal removing the book to their office; or, for another example, a parent requesting a list of every book their child has checked out from the school library. (Pro tip: remind your administrators, public or private, that if they ignore their own school’s policy, they are open to lawsuits. Pro tip #2: Make sure you have a solid, up-to-date policy! More on that soon.)

“It’s not enough to have equal access, it has to be equitable access.”

After the keynote, Garnar offered another session: The Importance of Policies: Promoting Our Principles in Practice. There are six key policies for libraries to have in place:

  • Collection development and resource reconsideration
  • Internet use (required by law if the library receives E-rate or LSTA funding; can be a district-wide policy)
  • User behavior and library use (e.g. anti-bullying)
  • Privacy and confidentiality (FERPA and state laws)
  • Social media (if the library uses it)
  • Use of meeting rooms and exhibit spaces

Garnar went in depth on each of these types of policies (I won’t do that here), and also offered solid reasoning about why are policies are important. Well-written, board approved policies and up-to-date procedures based on those policies achieve several things:

  • Encourage stability and continuity in the library’s operations while reducing ambiguity and confusion
  • Demonstrate that the library is running a businesslike operation
  • Give credence to the library’s actions
  • Inform the community about the library’s intent, goals, etc. (e.g. equity)
  • Give the public a means to evaluate library performance and show that the library is willing to be held accountable for its decisions
  • Help disarm critics
  • Serve as evidence of the library’s normal practices

Policy resources:

Best Features of the Statewide Databases for school libraries, Tressa Santillo, Massachusetts Library System (MLS)

Tressa (on behalf of MLS and also Transparent Language) and representatives from Gale, Britannica, and PebbleGo described and demonstrated some of the features and resources of their respective databases. I’m so grateful that Massachusetts libraries (public and school) work cooperatively to share print and digital resources; all school libraries with a certified librarian have access to databases for students and staff to use. I’ve been guiding patrons and students through and around these databases for years, but there are more resources than I realized – like alignments to standards and frameworks from PebbleGo, and a media literacy guide from Britannica. (Also from PebbleGo: an axolotl coloring page.)


Well, I was hooked by the axolotl coloring sheet, so I went to hear Dr. Kelli Westmoreland talk more about PebbleGo and PebbleGo Next: Databases for Elementary. (Also, the only other session was the MA Teen Choice Book Awards, and since I’m not working with a teen population right now, PebbleGo made more sense. You can see the MA Teen Choice Book Award Nominees here.) Dr. Westmoreland offered a tour of PebbleGo and PebbleGo Next, explained the importance of modeling digital literacy – especially given the increased amount of time students spend on screens – and spoke about the science of reading and the importance of nonfiction texts. She showed off some of the features of PebbleGo, like the randomizer and the question of the day, and gave examples of how it can be used to support classroom teaching (e.g. librarians can create text sets). She showed examples of simple graphic organizers for inquiry (Person/Action/Trait, It Says/I Say/And So, Somebody/Wanted/And/So).

Perhaps one of the neatest features is the correlation to standards: you can look up content by standard, or standard by content.

Screenshot of Grade 1 Reading Standards for Informational Text

My goal at every conference is to have at least one useful takeaway from each session, and that definitely happened this year! Plus, it was just lovely to see people in 3D. (Previous conference committees did an amazing job the past few years putting together virtual conferences full of engaging presentations from librarians and authors, and I definitely enjoy “attending” from home, but it was nice to mingle in person too, and even meet some people I’ve known for years now, but only via zoom!)

I’ve already put some of Liza’s ideas and resources about comics to use (is it possible to say enough good things about Liza Halley? I don’t think so), and I’m looking forward to adding some of the new books I picked up at vendor booths to my school library collection and seeing kids scoop them up off the New Books shelf. Thanks again to everyone involved in the conference – please leave a comment if I missed anything here, or if you want to share something about a different session you attended!

MSLA 2023: Gear Up: Moving Forward Together (Day 1)

The annual Massachusetts School Library Association (MSLA) conference was in-person again this year for the first time in a few years. The conference committee, sponsors and vendors (especially Odyssey Bookshop, which also put together the author panel), presenters, and venue all did a wonderful job putting together two very full days of learning and creating the opportunity for connections among colleagues, who are so often siloed in our own buildings, to share ideas and resources.

Here are recaps of the sessions I attended. I’ll try to keep it concise!

Sunday Keynote: Librarians as Leaders in DEIB, Lawrence Q. Alexander II

Photo of slide with text
“Diversity is a fact. Equity is a choice. Inclusion is an action. Belonging is an outcome.” -Arthur Chan

Alexander spoke engagingly on the topic of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging and the value proposition of a culturally inclusive curriculum. “It’s not enough to fly the flags, wave the banners, make the statements” – school districts must have policies that support DEIB, accountability, and money in the budget to support it. Alexander listed four questions students might ask about their school environment: “Do you see me? Do you hear me? Will you treat me fairly? Will you protect me?” Can students bring their full selves to school and feel welcomed, valued, and safe? (Think of the “Circles of My Multicultural Self” exercise.)

Alexander explained why it’s important to talk about race in schools: “When we ban dimensions of identity, when we ban books, we ban students. When we say that conversations are not important, we say that students and families are unimportant…Where can a student learn when they cannot fully be themselves?” He cited Batts, Capitman, and Brown’s Multicultural Processes of Change, from monoculturalism to pluralism. Reflection questions for faculty and administrators include: (1) Who feels at home here? (2) Who feels like they’re just visiting? (3) Who feels tolerated?

Alexander encouraged us to consider: “Where is our community on this continuum? What will it take to move us forward? Who do we need on our team to advance this work?” and concluded with the three dimensions of change for individuals and organizations: cognitive, affective, and behavioral – with a warning not to jump directly into behavioral changes without doing the cognitive and affective work first.

Medium Matters: Using Graphic Novels in the Classroom, Liza Halley

Cover image of Comics: Easy As ABCThe brilliant Liza, who insists she is not an expert on comics (but who is totally an expert on comics, and is also an excellent teacher) started us off with a variety of hands-on activities to choose from, as part of her presentation on how to teach comics/graphic novels in school, and how to get teachers, administrators, and parents on board (because GRAPHIC NOVELS ARE REAL BOOKS; this is supported by research).

“This is the gateway for students to become avid readers. Do not shame kids for reading what they want! We want to grow lifelong readers. We want them to be excited to pick out a book.”

Liza shared teaching materials, sample lessons, research, and resources (see her Medium Matters site for more resources). Each year, she teaches a three- or four-week unit to all her students (K-5) on graphic novels, and she showed us some examples of assignments and student work. She also writes about the topic on the MSLA Forum Newsletter (like this piece from February 2022). I’m excited to borrow many of Liza’s ideas and collaborate with the art teacher at my school to design a comics unit for at least one grade this year, and more next year!

Building Research Consistency K-12, Dr. Georgina Trebbe

Research K-12 mindset slide from Dr. Trebbe's presentation
Research K-12 Mindset

Dr. Trebbe is “passionate about information literacy” and has spent much of her career and education on it. In this session, she took us through the steps of building a research plan, from “pre-search” to the “a-ha moment” to developing a thesis statement (the “rudder” that steers the research) and questions (the “oars” that propel research forward); considering lenses (e.g. political, social, environmental, ethical), developing sub-research questions, recognizing multiple perspectives, creating an outline, identifying keywords and key phrases, selecting resources, recording information, and reporting. Reporting doesn’t need to be a paper or a report: it could be in the form of a board game, a comic, a quiz, a timeline, a diorama, a speech, or more. Throughout her presentation, Dr. Trebbe used two examples, one for elementary (beavers) and one for secondary (Puritan hysteria over witchcraft). She also described how to build citation awareness: young students can identify the title, author, illustrator, and publication date of a resource, and “gradually build appreciation for the creativity of others.”

Middle Grade Booktalks, Laura Gardner

One of Laura's realistic fiction slides, with book covers face out on a shelf
One of the 80+ slides

When Dartmouth Middle School librarian (and Newbery committee member!) Laura said she was going to talk about 50 books (during her allotted 50 minutes), I was pretty sure it was some sort of verbal typo, but it was not. She shared her collection of 80+ slides that she created during remote schooling and has continued to maintain because some students like using it. (Books with blue stars are novels in verse; in her library, these are shelved together, and it’s a very popular collection.) She focused on realistic fiction, mysteries, sports, survival, animals, graphic novels, historical fiction, and nonfiction, quickly highlighting appeal factors of dozens of titles: a unique setting, a compelling main character, a strong hook, interesting conflict, and any awards or honors the book has won. I spoke with Laura briefly after her presentation, and she encouraged me to copy her slides and adapt them for my library, which I would love to do…on a smaller scale, and over time. This is not a project to be done overnight!

Teaching Students Why Media Literacy is Important, Colleen Simpson

Colleen Simpson's slide of essential understandings for the course
Essential Understandings for the course (slide)

Middle school library media specialist Colleen Simpson teaches a six-week unit for eighth grade students guided by two essential questions: (1) Why is media literacy important for citizens in today’s democracy? (2) What role do individuals play as digital citizens? This course covers several of the DESE frameworks for Digital Literacy and Computer Science. Students complete a First Amendment project on a topic of their choice (Colleen showed examples of student work).

“To be news literate is to build knowledge, think critically, act civilly and participate in the democratic process” -Robert R. McCormick Foundation


The final event of the day was the author panel, organized by Odyssey, and moderated by yours truly (thus, not nearly so many notes). Here are the panelists, followed by their most recent (or soon-to-be-released) book in parentheses:

  • Janae Marks (On Air with Zoe Washington)
  • Hannah Moushabeck (Homeland: My Father Dreams of Palestine)
  • Jeannine Atkins (Hidden Powers: Lise Meitner’s Call to Science)
  • Sarah Prager (Kind Like Marsha: Learning from LGBTQ+ Leaders)
  • Charnaie Gordon (Lift Every Voice and Change: A Sound Book: A Celebration of Black Leaders and the Words that Inspire Generations) (Charnaie also has a new book coming out in October, in collaboration with Roda Ahmed, author of Mae Among the Stars. I am so excited for this!)

I asked the panelists about their inspiration (how did you come to write this book, at this time), their research process, collaboration with illustrators, and important takeaway messages. Regarding the latter, Jeannine said: “Take time to find small beauties in life.” Charnaie: “Be kind to one another. Show empathy.” Sarah: “LGBTQ+ people have been here throughout history.” Janae: “There’s always hope. Anyone of any age has the power to make change.” Hannah: “It’s the first Palestinian picture book [by a Palestinian author] in 30 years.”

Whew, and that’s a wrap on Day 1. Notes on Day 2 coming soon!