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October 23, 2014

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Librarian Appears on “Ellen” and Transforms Her Library: A Q&A with Ashley Kirby Thomas

Talk show host Ellen DeGeneres has recently been highlighting school libraries on her afternoon talk show “Ellen.” In a show that aired February 20, Ellen surprised Ashley Kirby Thomas, a media specialist at McAuliffe Elementary School in the Union Public Schools District (in Broken Arrow, OK), with a bookmobile filled with books and iPad minis and a $25,000 check from Entitled Books, an ebook publishing company. In addition, Target donated $75 gift cards for over 700 students at McAuliffe Elementary, a Title 1 school.

Thomas, along with other teachers at McAuliffe, runs a summer reading bookmobile program where she brings books to the low-income neighborhoods in her school’s area. The McAuliffe media specialist appeared again on “Ellen” (on a segment that aired March 12) during which she updated the talk show host on what she’s been able to do with the money donated. During that episode, Thomas’s boyfriend (now fiancé) got down on bended knee and proposed.

School Library Journal caught up with 28-year-old Thomas to discuss her school, her program, and her newfound celebrity.

Watch Thomas’s February 20 appearance on “Ellen” here:
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What made you become a school librarian?

I didn’t truly fall in love with libraries until the very last year of [study] in elementary education from Oklahoma State. Once I did, I felt like I’d really missed out on some great experiences by not frequenting local and school libraries as an elementary school or high school student. I wanted to get into a school library and make sure I caught others at a young age and helped them to fall in love with the library, so that they could carry that love… for a lifetime. [When I was studying for my Master’s degree]… one of the few programs my scholarship supported was Library and Information Science. I knew I had to pursue it.

Tell us about your school and your program.

Our school is an amazing Title I elementary school serving high poverty pre-K through fifth grade students, many of whom are English Language Learners. Our administration and staff are very supportive of our library and their loud librarian. We [at the school] look at [the library] like an emergency room—people should be able to get in and get taken care of at any time of the day. We love to explore, inquire, and learn about resources, but we also have a strong focus on the seemingly simple task of making sure kids are exposed daily to excellent books, and they learn to love to read and experience stories.

You were named “Teacher of the Year” for your school. How does that work?

The staff votes for “Teacher of the Year” from a list of staff members who have worked in the district for a certain number of years. After the initial voting, the top three candidates are announced, and we vote again among those three.

How did you come to be noticed by Ellen DeGeneres?

My dear friend Amanda Griffin (who teaches first grade at McAuliffe) and I [both] decided two years ago that we wanted to try to get ourselves featured on “Ellen.” Ellen was doing a promotion at the time called the “Dance Dare” where she encouraged her viewers to dance with people who did not know they were being danced with. We submitted two “Dance Dare” videos—and never made it to the show… Many emails, tweets, pictures, and video submissions later, another wonderful teacher from our school sent an email to Ellen after I was named “Teacher of the Year” in which she explained how much we loved Ellen, her show, and the joy she brings to people. [That teacher also told her] about our summer book van, and how we work to make sure that our students keep reading and have access to wonderful books all summer long. The next thing I knew, Ellen was calling my cell phone.

What are your plans for the money you received from the program?

We want to create an iPad exploration station for inquiry projects and research. We are planning to use some of the money to purchase materials in Spanish so that we can further reach out to our families. We are accepting great ideas from teachers and students for what they would like to see us do with it, and what else we can do to support them.

Your appearance on “Ellen” has put school librarians in a positive light. Any advice for school librarians on how they can be advocates for their programs?

My best advice is to lead by example. If we are excited about our jobs and what we get to do for children, it will trickle down to others. They will be excited about it as well. Libraries and librarians are important, and we should be so present in the school climate that the library isn’t even questioned as being crucial.

How has your life changed since being spotlighted?

Primarily, it got me engaged to the love of my life! But, I also have been amazed and deeply encouraged by the outpouring of support from the library community across the country. I think that this has been just one tiny example of the role that libraries play and how close they are to so many of our hearts. It has also been a cold, hard reminder for me about the importance of funding for our schools and libraries. I have seen the transformation of our library and what has happened merely based on funds that we’ve received. Most of all, I am so grateful that this experience has connected me to so many amazing educators and library professionals.

Rocco Staino About Rocco Staino

Rocco Staino @RoccoA is the retired director of the Keefe Library of the North Salem School District in New York. He is now a contributing editor for School Library Journal and also writes for the Huffington Post.

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