Not All Heroes Wear Capes

From instructional videos to curated online collections, today’s librarians are forging new pathways to learning and discovery amidst the disruption of a pandemic.

GUEST COLUMN | by Tina Davis

As school districts across the country closed their doors in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the race was on to find ways to connect teachers and students with as little disruption to learning as possible. The response by most districts was swift: move teaching and learning online. While getting there brought some pain and frustration, many of today’s education professionals are finding new opportunities as they transition to doing school online. And while much of the focus has been on how teachers will deliver curriculum to students from afar, there’s an essential link connecting them: librarians.

“Especially in this time of uncertainty, librarians have never been more critical to the nation’s schools,” says Bill Bass, Innovation Coordinator for Parkway School District in Missouri. “As master curators, we rely on librarians to sift through the abundance of information and digital noise. They are essential in helping teachers and students understand how to find and utilize high-quality digital tools and content, as well as celebrating and highlighting best practices in the digital age.”

Leading the way to and through today’s digital landscape

Librarians of the past would curate collections of physical materials, most of which were discovered via a card catalog or by browsing the shelves. Today’s librarians still develop and maintain collections of physical books, but the digital landscape has vastly increased the types, quantity, and accessibility of materials they have on offer to students, families, and teachers.

‘Especially in a time like this, our librarians are providing essential leadership in the areas of training students, teachers, and parents using a variety of digital resources.’

“Today’s librarians are university-trained professionals who assist their school leadership in implementing viable digital literacy and digital citizenship programming, says K.C. Boyd (pictured), a library media specialist with the Washington D.C. Public School System. “Especially in a time like this, our librarians are providing essential leadership in the areas of training students, teachers, and parents using a variety of digital resources.”   

Boyd says librarians have been instrumental in encouraging students to access the school district’s rich eBook collection to continue to “read, discover, and imagine during the COVID-19 quarantine period.”

Turning to tech can take on a variety of appearances. In D.C., Boyd reaches a community that is socioeconomically diverse with a range of experience using technology. “We wanted to find a way to reach everyone. I began simply with family-centric activities, like scavenger hunts and nature walks, and brought in free apps that people can use for exercising or calming their minds,” she says. “From there, I moved to finding materials for kids that supported curriculum—that included eBooks and databases. Families and students received access to our Lightbox titles from home, and the kids love how interactive the eBooks are.”

Boyd represents libraries in her role on Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Task Force on how to reopen, advocating for access and illustrating the essential nature of the role of a librarian. That role has been brought into stark relief against a growing cloud of uncertainty: a number of librarians in Boyd’s district were informed by their principals that their positions would close at the end of the school year. Boyd and some of her colleagues began petitioning for a roll-back of the decision, which was announced before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“D.C. public school librarians have served as the ‘anchor’ of instruction, digital literacy, and social/emotional resource professional for their schools,” Boyd says. “Their efforts should be applauded and never forgotten.”

Once merely convenient, eBooks are now crucial

Lauren Jaeger, Library Media Specialist at Mays Chapel Elementary School in Maryland, says her school’s eBook collection has been invaluable as the district transitioned to remote learning. “While eBooks could be seen as a convenience in the past, they’re absolutely essential now,” says Jaeger. “Our Follett eBook collection is giving our school community important access to literature at a time when accessing books has changed—kids can’t just walk into the library now.”

For each of her school’s 31 homerooms, Jaeger created screencasts and an infographic that model how to access, check out, and read eBooks from home within the school’s learning management system. She also curated themed collections, collaborating with teachers to create collections that support curriculum.

“During the first week that our elementary school students were home, 36 eBooks were checked out,” says Jaeger. “But that number quickly grew, and now we easily see more than 300 were being accessed weekly. Our numbers grow every week, especially as students discover the interactivity of and the title they find in Lightbox titles. It really sparks their interest. Kids are engaged and learning, and that’s our number one goal.”

New opportunities to connect

Elissa Malespina (pictured, above), teacher librarian at Verona High School in New Jersey, has long been at the forefront of using Web 2.0 resources and tools to engage students. While the shift to online learning felt seismic to many, Malespina’s years-long foray into the digital world meant she was ready to not only make the shift to going fully online, but also eager to help others succeed in this new space—near and far. She and a colleague created Virtual Debate in 2013, which uses tools like Edmodo and Google Hangout to have students in different schools debate each other virtually. Today, schools across the country and around the globe can benefit from this virtual debate model.

“I’ve been working with a school in Brazil who found information on the virtual debates that I have done—it’s been great to assist them,” says Malespina. “I also made a Wakelet of remote learning resources that has been accessed more than 2400 times by teachers and educators. No one would choose to be in the situation we’re in today, but I think this outbreak has really made people realize just how valuable libraries and librarians are.”

At Skyview High School in Washington, teacher librarian Traci Chun hosts “Skyview Shares,” a weekly video series where she shares with staff a new resource or tool and illustrates how to utilize it during remote learning. She’s also taken to video, giving visual tutorials on how to access eBooks. “Our staff and students need a visual reminder sometimes of how to access eBooks instead of just written directions,” she says. “It is a wonderful time to be a librarian. I know that sounds crazy, but I feel like it really is our time to help others.”

‘It is a wonderful time to be a librarian. I know that sounds crazy, but I feel like it really is our time to help others.’

‘Remember to rely on your librarian’

Tracy Ferguson, a fifth grade teacher at Van Meter Community School in Iowa, says she can’t imagine going through the pandemic and the remote learning experience without the help of her school librarian, Shannon Miller.

“She’s introduced us to countless resources, involved my students in dynamic and engaging lessons, and drops everything to make sure I have what I need to engage students and keep them learning in line with my curriculum,” Ferguson says. She urges other teachers to work with their school librarian as they develop new strategies for working through what’s a challenging time for everyone involved.

“Don’t try to be everything for everyone, because every family is in a different situation,” Ferguson says. “Just let families know that you are there to support them in whatever way they need. Remember to rely on your librarian, and also remember to take care of yourself.”

Tina Davis is a freelance education writer with a long history of experience with literacy and libraries. Previously a television journalist, she has worked for education publishers and public libraries. Write to: walkert@yahoo.com.

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