My Writing Workshop
Often we librarians, being teachers first, are called upon to teach a class in addition to our library work. For me, the opportunity has actually enhanced my library program. I teach an informal Writers Workshop Enrichment program that meets twice a week for eight weeks. This year I taught two consecutive sessions. The students sign up for this elective, ensuring their interest and motivation in writing. Teaching these students in a workshop setting allows me to continue my skills as a writing teacher while forming closer relationships with my library clients. One student, Zoe, wrote a poem about her dog that made four students cry. As I was handing out Kleenex, I said, “See, Zoe? It’s no surprise you’re such a good writer because you read so much.” She answered: “Reading is breathing in, writing is breathing out” (Ernest Morrell). She was actually quoting me quoting Mr. Morrell. Is there anything better than knowing your students are absorbing and internalizing what you are teaching them?
On the other hand, agreeing to teach a class can be a slippery slope that can erode our mission as school librarians. Ellen Thibodeaux, a former Austin ISD Librarian of the Year, was collaborating with one of her teachers at Eastside Memorial High School several years ago. They created a Research writing elective, and Ellen loved fulfilling the collaboration mission by working closely with this teacher and her students daily. When the teacher left at the end of the first semester, Ellen stepped in to continue the class on her own, even though it took her away from her librarian duties. Still, she was glad to jump in and help out.
What began as a beautiful collaboration devolved into a commitment that directly interfered with her school’s library program. It all started when the assistant principal evaluated Ellen teaching the class. As a “reward,” the next year Ellen had to teach three official writing classes, which left the library to be run by a part-time assistant. At the time Ellen felt she had to say yes. She wanted to be a “team player” while also promoting her position as an instructional leader; however, in retrospect Ellen believes she should have said no.
I did a voluntary Google poll with librarians in my district, and most responded with severe wariness when it came to agreeing to teach an official class. In fact, the librarians registering most strongly against the practice are those who have agreed to do so in the past. One librarian said, “I enjoyed building relationships with students and having an ongoing project with them, but it definitely took away from my time serving other students. Overall, it feels like just another way that schools try to get fewer people to take on more responsibility.”
Being torn in two can mean failing both as a teacher and as a librarian. One librarian I spoke with recounted a story from the late 1980s. At that time, elementary librarians were put into “the rotation,” meaning they had permanent, set classes coming in constantly. The library was viewed as a class in the same vein as other “specials”: art, music, and PE. But the school library is NOT a “special.” It is an essential resource that needs to be open continually in order to meet the school community’s needs. However, librarian Hollie Jenkins took a middle view: “Every librarian has different duties and circumstances. I don’t think you can say every librarian should agree to do anything. Teaching an official class should be an option, but not an expectation.”
As librarians, we are unique in our schools. It’s so easy to be pulled in many directions. While we work hard to demonstrate that we are also teachers, we are more than teachers. We are the curators and administrators of our library collections, literacy programmers, teachers of research and technology, and instructional guides for our teachers. Oh, and throw in book clubs, makerspaces, book fairs, author visits, etc. Sometimes it can feel as though we’re pulled in too many directions and that the basic maintenance of the collection, the weeding and the repair of books, falls to the wayside until we can’t stand it anymore. Still, because of our expertise, we can be as helpful as possible in filling needed niches, but we must steadfastly adhere to our unique vocation as school librarians.
Author: Sara Stevenson
I’m a reader, writer, swimmer, and a public middle school librarian. I love all things Italian. I was honored to be Austin ISD’s first librarian of the year in 2013.