Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Connecting Kids to Books (the work of school librarians) - November 2014 East Side Monthly

For November's East Side Monthly, I wrote "Connecting Kids to Books: A Closer Look at Our School Librarians," based on a lovely conversation I had with recently retired middle school librarian Sarah Morenon, who happens to look a bit like the lovely librarian in the illustration! Enjoy.

Lovely illustration by Kendrah Smith.
Connecting Kids to Books: A Closer Look at Our School Librarians

I suspect that most of us take school libraries for granted. It’s a given that a school has a library, right? Along with the gym, cafeteria and classrooms there is, of course, a library full of books. This is utterly unremarkable. But of course, the existence and quality of a school library is not at all a given, as I learned in a recent conversation with East Sider Sarah Morenon. She retired in June from her career as a school librarian in the Providence Public Schools, most recently at Nathanael Greene Middle School, where she was part of the faculty for 15 years.

Morenon became a school librarian mid-career, deciding to leave a 20-year career at the Social Security Administration to earn a Masters degree in library science at the University of Rhode Island and follow her passion for books and learning. Morenon’s love for middle school kids and passion for the books that light up their minds is wildly infectious, making it abundantly clear that she chose her second career wisely.

Morenon shared with me what it took for her to build an impressive collection of 15,000 books at Greene, which currently educates 1,000 sixth through eighth graders. In recent years, there has been no predictable budget allocation to buy new books. This is true throughout the Providence Public Schools. Morenon brought books into Greene’s library through donations and fundraising efforts. She made a serious effort to be familiar with every book on the shelves so she could perform what is, in her own view, the essential function of a school librarian’s job: “To match the right book with each kid so they could stay in love with reading.” This means, of course, that good school librarians know not only the books but also the young people who enter their domains. School librarians do more than facilitate the literary lives of students, but that’s the core of their profession, in Morenon’s view. She points out that due to the demands made on classroom teachers, the librarian is often the only person in a school, and sometimes in a child’s life, to inspire and facilitate reading simply for pleasure – an essential part of education and modern human experience.

She worries that in some schools, the lack of full-time school librarians makes it far less likely that kids will connect with books that they love. Several elementary schools in the district, including Vartan Gregorian Elementary School, don’t have full-time librarians. When the librarian isn’t present, the school library is often shut. This also happens when school librarians are pulled away for other responsibilities such as lunch supervision. This is a common practice that reduces the already sparse time during the school day when librarians can connect with students and collaborate with classroom teachers to support their teaching and connect with students to inspire their reading. As Morenon says, “I worry that the district may not be using us wisely.”

In Morenon’s view, when school librarians are seen as “utility players” on a school staff, rather than key personnel with a specific role, Providence may be less likely to attract top candidates for open school library positions. The diminishment of the school librarian’s role also has real consequences for educational equity. According to research gathered by the American Association of School Librarians, the lack of well-trained, dedicated school librarians and high-quality school libraries can significantly reduce student achievement, a loss felt most acutely in urban schools.

Morenon suggested ways that you can help ensure sure that the school libraries in our neighborhood remain vibrant places for learning. Book donations are always welcome, though please remember that, as Morenon says, “It’s the librarian’s decision.” School librarians know what they need and cannot necessarily serve as a dumping ground for all titles. If time permits, you can connect with Inspiring Minds, the nonprofit that organizes school volunteers in Providence, and work with a school librarian directly. If nothing else, you should view school libraries with new appreciation and understanding that every book on the shelves and in a student’s hands is there because of a school librarian’s efforts and dedication.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

High School football: moving from no way to okay

Recently, Slate's parenting podcast "Mom and Dad Are Fighting," aired a segment on kids playing tackle football. As my own kid (oldest, ninth grade) has started doing this very thing for the first time, I listened with interest, and responded to the conversation via email, and am sharing a version of that email here. I'll add that this captures much of what I've found myself saying to people who give me side-eye or offer outright judgment when they learn that my kid plays high school football. It doesn't happen often, but it happens enough to be a real thing. People + football = opinions, it turns out. Read through for an update, of sorts.

Over the years, I've shifted from "no way" to "okay" and perhaps even "yay!" on the subject of football and my oldest kid, who is now a ninth grader and member of the freshman football team at Classical High School in Providence, Rhode Island (go Purple!). 

Though he's been wanting to play football for years, this is his first time on a team. When he was younger, I "no way"-ed his interest. His dad and I didn't particularly share it, and football seemed like a bummer combination: dangerous, time-consuming, and endlessly expensive, necessitating intensive, parent-driven fundraising commitments. Clearly, no way. 

High school approached, and at freshman orientation, he indicated interest in both soccer and football as fall sports. When the time came to choose, he broached the football subject again, and I knew that a flat "no way" wasn't going to cut it. Complex factors drove his interest in football: branching out socially (most of his close friends are soccer players), physical suitability (the kid is big, strong, and quick), and autonomy (football was finally within reach, at school - he didn't need us to help him find a team or make the necessary commitments). 

So we researched. We talked with football families at his high school about the coaching staff's training and responsiveness to head and other injuries. We talked with the coaches themselves about their training and experience and the ways they'd deal with a football novice (the coach's first words to me: "How do YOU feel about this?" Good question, coach). My son interviewed his pediatrician about football injuries. His pediatrician's take: kids get hurt in football and soccer, pretty much in equal numbers in high school. They are injured in other high-intensity contact sports, too. Avoiding football while embracing other sports in the interest of injury prevention is irrational.

After our info gathering, I felt that my son's serious interest in playing for his high school's football team, and all the good that might accrue as a result, outweighed my concerns, which didn't necessarily apply immediately. Worries about the effects of multiple concussions and other impact injuries may matter if he plays in college (highly unlikely) or professionally (vanishingly unlikely). But now, long-terms concerns about injury to his brain, body, and soul aren't rational.

As I listened to the three of you cover this ground, I identified with each of you in some ways, but also suspect that none of you are yet dealing with the specific focus and passion of an adolescent, who can and should have a meaningful say in the matter. Ultimately, had I forbade my son to play football in a carefully-run program, I would have been indulging my own prejudices to the detriment of my son's growing independence. Saying yes to football has strengthened our relationship meaningfully in ways that help him see that we care about his welfare and trust his judgement.

And he loves it. He's playing a lot, as a tight end, defensive end, kicker, and punter. I see him thriving as he masters new skills, makes new friends, and adjusts to high school's challenges and delights While I still don't love football, I love this kid wildly, and am glad that he helped me get to yes on this issue.


Update: At last week's home game, a player from the opposing team was injured onfield at the start of the second half. The game stopped, and as far as I could tell, the coaching staff handled the situation as needed. Eventually, an ambulance arrived. Paramedics put on a neck brace and backboard and carried him off the field on a stretcher. Thank God his family was there, and I dearly hope he is now doing well and not significantly banged up. 

I realize that this could happen in any high-intensity contact sport, but it was still scary. Though we understand that this particular incident didn't actually involve a head injury, it nevertheless prompted us to talk with our kid about concussion symptoms and the urgent need to report them to his coaches if he were to experience any symptoms, a conversation I avidly hope that neither my kid nor any of his teammates (okay, nor any kid, ever, anywhere) ever need to have. 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The blog is back.

Hi! The blog is back. Longtime readers are aware that I take this blog in and out of service, depending on what else is going on in my life. You shouldn't see this current reawakening of Providence Schools and Beyond as a sign that I have free time to burn. From that perspective, committing to writing regularly here is a bad idea. Life is as full and engaging as usual. Nevertheless, the blog is back to think through the impact that a new governor and mayor may have on our state and city's educational system and to write about a few other issues that have come up that are demanding to see the light of day.

So who am I? 

I've lived in Providence for nearly 10 years; my family and I moved here from San Francisco at the end of 2004. I have three sons in the Providence Public Schools: a ninth grader at Classical High School, a sixth grader at Nathan Bishop Middle School, and a third grader at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School. I try to get involved with the schools' Parent-Teacher Organizations and in other ways as much as reasonably possible.

I'm the director of publications and communications at Engaging Schools, an education nonprofit based in Cambridge, MA. Engaging Schools (which until recently was known as Educators for Social Responsibility) offers professional development, mostly to middle and high schools, in order to support schools and districts to be come safer, more engaging places for teaching and learning. We work nationwide (and sometimes beyond) and publish resources to support educators' work. I edit and publish those books, and also manage our external communications, writing our blog and newsletter, doing our social media, etc. 

In Providence-related professional work, I also write a monthly education column for East Side Monthly (recent stuff is here) and occasionally contribute on the topic of education to other local publications. 

So this blog is where I share what I think about as a result of the interplay between the personal and the professional. I make no promises to keep it up forever, or perhaps even for long. But for now, I'm back and though I don't mind talking (writing) to myself, I'm grateful for any comments, interaction, or contributions.