Something magical happened on National School Librarian Day this past April 4. School librarians from across the state of Nebraska gathered together (virtually) to connect over topics that lift up our profession. But, more importantly, we were able to connect and lift up each other during these very uncertain times. As a member of the Nebraska School Librarians Association (NSLA) Board for the last several years, I have had the opportunity to be part of planning and attending most of our professional learning events.
The spring is often a busy time for events for NSLA. We have a presence at the largest ed-tech conference in our state, with sessions featuring board members and a featured speaker, as well as an information table. We also have typically hosted our own stand-alone spring event called Nebraska School Librarians Day (NSLD) in multiple locations across the state for people to gather, connect, and learn together. A literacy conference is also sponsored by the local state university in our biggest city, Omaha.
With the need for social distancing and not gathering in large groups, none of that was possible this year. As we began to see events like concerts and theater performances canceled, we knew it was the right decision to cancel Nebraska School Librarians Day just as it was the right thing for other organizations with spring conferences. It was heartbreaking in many ways, because these events allow school librarians in our state access to professional learning they may not receive in their home districts. Events like these are also the way we come together as a school librarian community to learn from each other about what is happening outside of our buildings or districts. These conferences are, for me personally, like the high school reunion you WANT to go to. It’s the chance I have to see friends and colleagues I don’t get to see any other time of the year.
The NSLA Board was not quite ready to let it go, though. A small group of board members started talking about options for what we could do to still hold our planned NSLD but flip it to online. A few years ago, a blizzard made us turn the in-person NSLD into a virtual NSLD. So, we knew it was possible to host our event online via our paid Zoom account. But, we were crushed that school librarians were not going to have the opportunity to hear from the fabulous speakers lined up for the ed-tech and literacy conferences. We wondered if it might be possible to combine components of NSLD, the ed-tech conference, and the literacy conference into one event and began brainstorming.
Our original date of April 25 didn’t work for one of our speakers, but after checking everyone’s schedules, we moved it to April 4—the original date of the literacy conference and, by happy coincidence, National School Librarian Day. We also decided that this event should be free for any school librarian in Nebraska who wanted to attend. We don’t typically make any money off of NSLD, as members simply pay to cover their lunch, but we also didn’t want to lose too much either. Generous support from the University of Nebraska-Omaha School Library Program helped offset some of the cost of the speaker fees for this event. With their kindness, we were able to stay on budget for the year.
The board knew that the online format would require us to adjust our original plans and shorten our day, but we knew we could make it work. We took elements from all three conferences to bring into this new online event. We sent out the link to our membership and to the list of school librarian e-mail addresses curated by our regional educational service units. We also posted the opportunity on social media and let people know to contact us for the link. The only folks who received the link were members and/or school librarians in Nebraska. At the time we decided to host the event using this platform, Zoombombing wasn’t really a thing. We just wanted to honor the agreements we had with the speakers that the audience would be only NSLA members and school librarians in Nebraska. It may have worked in our favor that the link was only available via e-mail, because the event wasn’t hacked in any way.
Our typical schedule runs from 9:00 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and includes lunch. As a board, we decided to host a 3-hour format from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. CST so that anyone in our western time zone wouldn’t have too early of a start.
Doors opened a half hour early so people could chat and say hi. It was a great time to see everyone’s faces, check in on each other, and see what was happening in schools across our state with online/remote learning. We also asked people posting to social media to tag @NSLAorg and use the hashtag #NSLD2020.
During the first hour, participants discussed the recently updated AASL position statements on the Role of the School Library (updated 6/2019) and the School Librarian’s Role in Reading (updated 1/2020). We asked that participants read the position statements prior to the event and identify areas where they felt successful in achieving the goals of the statement and areas where they were experiencing issues with fulfilling the goals outlined. We spent about 20-25 minutes on each position statement. Participants shared their answers in the chat, and members of the board moderated sharing what was being posted. If we saw something we wanted more explanation on, we would ask that person to share a little verbally with the group. After the event, the chat transcript was shared with attendees. It was such a great way to get ideas from each other that we wanted to make it available to everyone who participated. Then, we took a 5-minute break during which we asked everyone to share what city/town they were joining us from.
During the second hour, Ashley Cooksey (the featured speaker for the tech conference) did a fabulous presentation about connecting picture books with problem-solving activities that connected to coding and computer science. She used examples that appealed to our K-12 crowd, and, based on comments in the chat, people were able to walk away with some ideas and tips they could use with their students. During the next quick break, we asked people to share their social media handles so they could further connect with each other after the event.
During the third and final hour, Colby Sharp (the keynote speaker for the literacy conference) shared stories about his reading journey, had us share and discuss our journeys, and shared some of his students’ reading journeys. It was an incredibly powerful experience that showcased why we all go into education—to make a difference in the lives of our students. There were many of us without dry eyes by the end.
When I said this day was magical, I honestly meant it. One of our board members summed up hearing the speakers perfectly. “Ashley gave me so much to prepare for and explore. Colby gave me my heart back at a time when it was breaking.” I would like to add that our conversations about the position statements brought vital connections to each other.
I left feeling like we came together with each other in ways that we might not have been able to do otherwise at this time. In fact, we had such a good time, that we are now planning another meet-up just to check in and share in a few weeks. If successful, this may be something we do more regularly moving forward. While not the biggest, our state still feels very vast at times, and anything we can do to bring us all together is one of the main goals of NSLA.
How else are we measuring success for this event? We had 55-60 people online at any given time during the NSLD event. As we typically have numbers around there for a total of the three in-person locations, we found the online format to be a success. And, that’s not the best part. I leave you with this image of the cities our attendees were joining us from. Moving the event online allowed all of the school librarians to connect with each other, not just those in their area. We truly did have people from all over the state coming together while we are staying apart.
Author: Courtney Pentland
Courtney Pentland is the high school librarian at North Star High School in Lincoln, Nebraska. She is adjunct faculty for the University of Nebraska-Omaha School Library program and has served on the Nebraska School Librarians Association board as board member at large, president, and chapter delegate to AASL. She is the 2023-2024 AASL President. Follow her adventures on Twitter @livluvlibrary