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!

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