Organically Arising Themes
Not long ago, I attended the School Library Journal’s Leadership Summit 2019. There were so many interesting speakers, great workshops, and amazing colleagues to learn from and grow with! But I noticed that there were several themes that seemed to recur throughout the weekend. They came up organically, themes that require more time, attention, and focus in the modern school librarian’s daily practice.
Last month I wrote about the ongoing importance of advocacy and the importance of being engaged and proactive as defenders of our school libraries and school library positions. This month, let’s talk about storytelling!
I can already hear lots of school librarians saying, “But I already do World Read-Aloud Day with my students!” And that is outstanding! But I’m talking about a very different kind of storytelling. Rather than reading from a book, school libraries need to be a place where school librarians, and our students and educators, tell their own stories.
“Green Card Voices”
During the SLJ Summit, we were treated to hearing several very important, powerful, and moving stories from a variety of speakers. One of the most engaging and thought-provoking panels was provided by Tea Rozman Clark and Zaynab Abdi. These two women work with Green Card Voices, a group dedicated to sharing stories of those new to the country. These two women display their bravery frequently. As emigres to the United States, they stand up and tell their stories in a time and place where they face harassment just for being who they are. Their stories, and those of the other Green Card Stories authors, speak to important experiences.
While these stories have value in and of themselves, they also point to the importance of stories for their tellers. The first time Zaynab was approached, she said, “Why should I share my story?” The response changed her whole outlook. She was told for the first time ever that she is an author, and people want to hear her story. This floored her and motivated her to consider the importance of her own experiences. We have the ability to empower ALL our students by acknowledging that their experiences matter!
Storytelling as Empowement
Zaynab’s experiences proved to be so compelling, her storytelling brought her all the way to the United Nations! There, she spoke about the importance of educational access around the world.
Encouraging storytelling doesn’t just empower our students. These before and after images of student responses to reading Green Card Voices stories clearly show the critical importance of sharing stories from a variety of experiences and perspectives!
Stories change perspectives. The Green Card Voices stories clearly have value for all our students. These are stories of overcoming obstacles and pursuing dreams–universal themes for all our students, but with windows and mirrors that give different perspectives.
But having our own students and faculty share their stories can open up windows and provide mirrors that students might otherwise never notice. They can take advantage of the immediacy of those stories as they consider their own place within their communities.
It is important to give our students and educators a safe place to tell their stories. But it is also important that school librarians tell their own stories. As Dr. Joyce Valenza has said, “Stories alone are not enough. We need to make people aware of the stories, and why those stories matter. Because school libraries matter. They need to know the things that only we do.” Too many stakeholders don’t know how much impact certified librarians in staffed and resourced libraries make for student outcomes. We need to let them know!
Storytelling As Advocacy
This is where storytelling and school library advocacy overlap. School librarians need to be LOUD about the importance of school libraries! We need to get out and tell the stories of school libraries and the professionals who make them work! At the SLJ Summit 2019, a panel of school superintendents pointed out that storytelling is vital to keeping library programs. Tell administrators and the school community the stories of your successes. Make your school board aware of and educated about what school librarians do. Even better: Bring local legislators into your school and tell them your story! If you make it an event, politicians will respond!
If you’re not comfortable telling your own personal story, go to the numbers! Our stories can be told through data. Check out what professor Susan Neuman has been finding and sharing about the importance of having library resources to hand to increase childhood literacy. She also pointed out the need for paying attention to library stakeholders, as well as the supporters of those stakeholders. That means we need to LISTEN to the stories told to us by our stakeholders, as well as TELLING our stories.
Librarians Can Learn from Storytelling
We make assumptions about who we are serving. If we ask to hear their stories, we can move from assumptions to certainty, and make sure we are providing our students and faculty with what they actually need, rather than what we think they need.
Storytelling should be a primary focus of school librarians’ practice. Providing reading times is not enough; engage the community in sharing our stories. The entire community benefits when we learn from, and with, each other!
Author: Steve Tetreault
Steve has been teaching middle school English for 20 years, has several degrees in education, and recently finished his last semester as a school library media specialist student. He is certified as a teacher, school library media specialist, supervisor, and administrator. He is an old dog constantly learning new tricks!