Teacher librarian, blogger, and gamer Matthew C. Winner, media specialist at Longfellow Elementary School in Columbia, MD, is having the year of his life. Thanks to his innovative ideas and boundless enthusiasm for student learning and engagement, Maryland’s 2012 Outstanding User of Technology Educator can also claim a few more distinctions these days: 2013 Library Journal Mover & Shaker, White House “Champion of Change,” and published author. Ahead of ISTE’s annual conference in San Antonio—at which he will accept yet another honor, ISTE’s SIGMS (Special Interest Group for Media Specialists) annual Technology Innovation Award—Winner sat down with SLJ for an in-depth conversation.
For the past six years, Longfellow’s approximately 450 students (from PreK–5) have met with Winner about once a week for classes that include everything from book selection to digital literacy skill-building to math gaming on the Wii to Skype sessions with other schools. Those efforts have garnered Winner a reputation among students as a provider of unique interactive experiences in the library and—he hopes—created a generation of lifelong library lovers and users.
In our twelfth and final follow-up interview with the school and youth services librarians named as Movers & Shakers this year, Winner shares with SLJ his inspirations and passions for the profession, his thoughts on the state of school libraries, and his exciting plans for the future.
You were a teacher before becoming a librarian; how were you called to library science?
I taught 4th grade at Waverly Elementary for 2 years. In that time, I most treasured DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) because we stopped all instruction and shared a read-aloud together. I carefully selected what book to read—often from whatever new children’s literature had the biggest buzz—and it became a time in our day that the students would not allow to be interrupted. In my first year of teaching I began work on my Masters in School Library Media…Waverly’s [librarian] is amazing and was definitely the inspiration for me pursuing a career in school library.
What are your top books for kids? For educators? Just for yourself?
Picture books: Anything my 3-year-old and I select from the “New Books” shelf at our public library. Recent favorites include Bob Shea’s Cheetah Can’t Lose, Inside Outside by Lizi Boyd, Night Lights by Nicholas Blechman, and The Boy and the Airplane by Mark Pett.
Chapter books: here’s what we’ve read with BookBirds (our quarterly book club for students in grades 3–5 and their parents). Otherwise, my wife and I enjoy reading aloud to one another at night and we’re currently reading Rebecca Stead’s Liar and Spy.
Graphic novels for kids: Hilda and the Bird Parade by Luke Pearson, and A Wrinkle in Time: the Graphic Novel adapted by Hope Larson.
Video games and gamification: Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter by Tom Bissell, The Gamification of Learning and Instruction by Karl M. Kapp, and Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America by Jeff Ryan.
Adult books: I’m currently reading Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn with my ears (audio book) and it is amazing. I’m also rereading Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game in excitement for the movie release.
You’ve made a big push in your school for game-based learning. Can you tell us more?
I’ve been playing video games my whole life. Atari games like River Raid and Adventure are still deeply imprinted in my memory. It’s probably fair to say that each year of my life can be marked in some way by a personal video game milestone, whether it was getting my first issue of Nintendo Power, pretending to be Mega Man with my elementary school friends on the playground, or beating the Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past for the first time. I started using the Nintendo Wii in our library two years ago, when our school purchased two to be used as part of our positive behavior incentive system. I was considering it as an educational tool and something just clicked. I realized there were an endless number of math applications with which the students could connect and that the Wii could be used as an instructional tool. From there it was a bit of a whirlwind of writing math lessons using the Wii, and meeting my colleague Meghan Hearn, [a math support teacher in another Maryland county.]
Your Wii lesson plans have engaged students, parents, and the community—and led to another interesting development. Can you tell us about your upcoming project?
Our Wii Family Competition was designed to offer a night of gaming which encouraged family cooperation and togetherness. I modeled the event after a Wii Math Night thrown by Meghan Hearn. Her evening incorporated stations in which students got to participate in various Wii games while station volunteers facilitated math conversations.
I started seeing all of these connections to Common Core Math Standards when playing WiiSports, WiiSports Resort, and Wii Fit. What started out as a way to support [positive behavior] in our school quickly turned into an experience in which I felt compelled to explore the educational implications of what the Wii had to offer. There are a ton of math concepts inherent to WiiSports games which most players take for granted, so I started looking at what math concepts are being covered at each grade level and then considered which games could be used to support those standards.
If I taught or supported a math standard using the Wii during a Library Media class, then kids could continue practicing that same skill on their Wii at home. Meg was also trying similar things at her school. We very rapidly began to compare notes and consider larger implications for all of our work. So, [now] Meg and I are writing a book for ISTE (expected publication in October 2013) on using the Wii in the general math classroom. It marks the first time in my career where I was able to combine two passions (teaching and gaming) together to create something totally new and original.
Your student programming isn’t limited to educational gaming, though. Can you tell us more about your other learning activities, both online and offline?
At the end of the 2011–2012 school year I embraced Skype in the Classroom and ended up expanding my PLC tenfold through activities such as Poem in Your Pocket Day, Read for the Record, National Book Day and others. At the start of this year several members of my PLC including John Schumacher (LJ Mover & Shaker 2011) were gearing up to participate in International Dot Day, a celebration inspired by Peter Reynolds’ The Dot, encouraging kids to “make your mark and see where it takes you.”
I knew this would be an awesome opportunity to connect with other classrooms via Skype to share projects and make friends and so I set about creating a plan that would allow me to organize all of these connections. It quickly became apparent that the infrastructure I was developing could benefit many others. I launched a “Be a Connector” project via Skype in the Classroom which allowed others from around the world to connect classrooms to celebrate Dot Day. I then built a GoogleDoc to host “Want Ads” of those who were seeking classes to which they could connect as well as a place for teachers to post their Dot Day schedules and organize connections. Over 50 educators from across the globe became members of and edited the Google Doc. The Skype in the Classroom project page had 40-plus members interested from nearly every continent.
I think it’s really important for the students to have the experience of working, connecting, and collaborating with other students.
Do you partner with the public library near you?
I’m blessed to teach in a county with a phenomenal partnership between Howard County Library and our Howard County schools. [It] is something truly amazing and I’m proud to work with our HCL friends every chance I get. I think it’s also a great bridge for our students to see and, through the partnership, our students have gotten to experience some truly awesome events.
What’s it like to hear back from kids you have taught (and their parents)?
It’s the very best feeling in the world. My wife is also a teacher in the county and our house is situated in between our two schools. We run into our students and families all the time. It is an absolute honor to remain in the lives of my students and I consider myself very lucky. I started teaching 4th grade in 2004, so those students actually just graduated from high school. I’m looking forward to running into them now and seeing which are pursuing careers in teaching or (even better) library media sciences! I’m so proud of each and every one of them.
Library Journal called you a “Tech Leader.” Is that how you view yourself?
I’ve always seen myself as an unresting advocate for my students, pushing [for] the very best of myself in my profession and working to innovate in our library classroom while ensuring that our work is student-centered, authentic, and meaningful.
But I don’t view myself as a tech leader, though technology is a central part of my instruction. We use technology when it’s the right tool. I incorporate games into my instruction because video games are a language in which many of my students are fluent, as am I. Gaming is a connection we share. But I try to let the students and their interests lead my instruction as much as possible. In that sense, they are the real tech leaders. I’m just harnessing their powers in the name of good instruction.
What do you think are the biggest challenges now for school libraries?
I see school librarians losing their jobs locally (and across the country) and it just makes me want to scream. There has never been a more important time to advocate for school libraries. In this way, I’m really glad I’ve had so many opportunities to speak with friends, family, colleagues, and the local news about Movers & Shakers. It’s provided the opportunity to talk about school libraries and what really cool things are going on in libraries all across the county.
I feel optimistic about our future. Our work and influence is all over the Common Core and school librarians are proving to be leaders and innovators in our information rich, technology-driven world. It’s a very good time to be a teacher librarian.
What do you think school libraries will and should look like going forward?
I operate as if my job could get cut any day now. It keeps me vocal and my program transparent to all of those who may be watching. Advocacy may be the single most important aspect of my job and it’s a banner I’m proud to wave. I need my students to be able to communicate what they’ve learned about using information in Library Media. I need our school families to understand what goes on in Library Media every day and what aspects of the library media program are serving the communities various needs. I need my colleagues to step out of their comfort zones, feel confident in the work they’re doing, and advocate for our profession, whether at the school, district, state, or national level.
What’s on your career wish list? What would you love to do that you haven’t done yet?
I don’t foresee myself leaving the school library any time soon, unless it’s to start a career in writing books for children. I have a couple of developed manuscripts for picture books as well as some ideas outlined for novels or graphic novels. I would love to see if my ideas are worth publishing and would love even more to see a child reading a book that I authored. (Wouldn’t any of us, really?)
What are the best professional development experiences you have ever had?
Being a part of the Level Up Book Club is hands-down my absolute favorite and best professional development experience. Jennifer LaGarde [Mover & Shaker 2012] and I set out to create a book club for professionals to learn more about gamification and game-based learning.The twist was that the online book club itself was run on the principles of gamification, which is to say that it ran like a game…complete with opportunities to level up, achieve epic wins, compete against opponents, and quest with guild members. We hoped to reboot [it] this summer but unfortunately both Jennifer and I are at different stages of our careers and the time we have to give to [it] now would not be sufficient or what [it] deserves. We both hope we’ll be able to revive [it] in the future, though.
What is next for you and why?
The idea I’ve had going on the back burner for some time now is to start an ed podcast version of my Busy Librarian blog. I listen to podcasts constantly and I think it would be awesome to create something as conversation as the Nerdist podcast, as interesting as Radiolab, and as fun as Comedy Bang Bang. I envision a weekly chat with someone in education (someone different each week) in which we carry on a conversation about ed trends, swap stories, and inspire others.
Being a teacher librarian grants me the curriculum flexibility to try bold things, take giant risks, and venture off the beaten path. Now in my 8th year of teaching, my experience has brought me to a point where I can seek change and make change through the projects and activities I develop for my students. It’s a very good life.