August 23, 2017

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SLJ Leadership Summit 2016: The Power of Purpose

Carla Hayes and Todd Burleson Photo by Shawn Miller

Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden and SLJ‘s School Librarian of the Year, Todd Burleson, at a post-Summit meeting. Hayden is holding up a card made by Burleson’s students, while Burleson shows off his September SLJ cover. 
Photo by Shawn Miller

From stirring keynotes by a civil rights legend and an award-winning author to a lively Hackathon rife with crowdsourced ideas toward tackling major issues in the profession, the 2016 School Library Journal Leadership Summit was one to remember. A record 210 registrants gathered in our nation’s capital October 15–16 for the Summit, made possible by platinum sponsor Capstone; gold sponsor Follett; and silver sponsors ABDO, Diamond Book Distributors, Gale Cengage Learning, Junior Library Guild, Lerner, littleBits, Mackin, Rosen Publishing, and The Library Corporation (TLC).

With the theme “Taking Charge in the New ESSA Era,” the event featured rapid-fire “Fast Learning” sessions and filled-to-capacity preconference tours of local school libraries and the Library of Congress. New this year was a superintendent’s panel and a Maker Playground, led by school librarians Colleen and Aaron Graves, where visitors tinkered with paper circuits and more. On hand, too, was SLJ’s School Librarian of the Year, Todd Burleson, who got the thrill of a lifetime with an in-person sit-down with the new Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, following the Summit.

Newfound purpose

Karim Abouelnaga Photo by Audrey Lew

Karim Abouelnaga, founder and CEO of Practice Makes Perfect, urges attendees to consider their individual purpose. 
Photo by Audrey Lew

Karim Abouelnaga, founder and CEO of Practice Makes Perfect, kicked off the first day with a thought-provoking keynote on redefining your sense of purpose, which became a through-line for the event. Abouelnaga’s goal is to close the achievement gap “one summer at a time” with his Near Peer Program, which matches at-risk kids with mentors who are just a few years older. To crystallize one’s own purpose, he urged attendees to ask: “Why is this important now? Why is it important to me now? Why am I the right person to be doing this now?”

That emphasis on the value of individual effort continued as four school district superintendents—Mat McRae, Swan Valley, MI; Pam Moran, Albemarle County, VA; Timothy Purnell, Somerville, NJ; Karen Sullivan, Indian Prairie, IL—shared their thoughts on how school librarians can raise their profiles and advance the profession. Their candid advice centered around the idea that it’s personal involvement and enthusiasm that make a difference, not programs. The importance of directly working with classroom teachers was emphasized. “If you can’t make a list of teachers you’ve worked with in a day, you’re putting your job in jeopardy,” said McRae. But that requires outreach on your part. “You have to build relationships with teachers. That’s all there is to it. That takes time and trust. They will not invite you into their classroom until they know you care about them.”

McRae was also blunt about the need for school librarians to advocate for themselves. “I don’t think you do enough of it. You have to find ways to market the great things you do,” as tired as you might be at the end of the day, he added. Purnell had a tip for doing so: “Find articles about how the role of the librarians has changed, request a meeting and say ‘I can help out in these areas.’”

“Find a way to get in the way”

Congressman John Lewis Photo by Audrey Lew

Congressman John Lewis was a memorable speaker with a powerful, inspiring message. 
Photo by Audrey Lew

Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) and Andrew Aydin, coauthors of the “March” graphic memoir trilogy, about Lewis’s involvement in civil rights movement, also underscored the import of personal responsibility. Lewis recounted how, when he asked his parents about segregation, they replied, “Don’t make trouble. Don’t get in the way.” But the civil rights leader, inspired by Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., told the Summit audience, “When you see something that is not fair, not right, not just, you have an obligation to find a way to get in the way. We hope young people will adopt the philosophy of nonviolence and save a little spaceship we call Earth for generations yet unborn.”

Aydin, after recalling that the library where his mom worked was his “liberation” as a kid, drove home the idea of being the change you want to see. During the process of writing “March,” he said, “Sometimes [Congressman Lewis] fell asleep, sometimes I fell asleep. But we felt we had this mission. Imagine if we could instill social consciousness in every nine-year-old in America.”

Shaun David Hutchinson, author of We Are the Ants (S. & S., 2016), also emphasized the difference one librarian can make by resolving to reach out. Hutchinson shared his struggle with depression and finding his footing as a gay teen. In the books he read, the only gay characters were beaten, died of AIDS, or became the punchline of a joke he would never find funny, he told the audience in his closing keynote. “Being gay was as foreign an idea as being a vampire. But the difference was, I could find and check out a dozen books about being a vampire.”

A voracious reader in his youth, Hutchinson plowed through every book in his Catholic school library, and he recounted how his librarian struggled to keep up. She started slipping him “Dune” novels, along with books by Robin McKinley and Stephen King. He didn’t realize until years later that these weren’t from the school library; the librarian had put her job on the line by bringing in her own books. Hutchinson insisted, “A kid you give a book to today may be standing up here tomorrow telling you it saved his life.”

“The most important word is community”

Burleson ended the Summit by looking toward the future and underscoring, one last time, the power of the personal efforts of one librarian. “With the right mind-set, skill set, and tools, the library of the future will be more exciting than ever,” Burleson, the librarian at Hubbard Woods School in Winnetka, IL, said in a final “Fast Learning” session. What is the right skill set? It varies, depending on your community. “The answer is rooted in place,” he noted.

Burleson illustrated what he meant by relating his recent mission trip to inner-city Detroit. His team sought refuge from the 95-degree weather in a library—which wasn’t air conditioned. Despite the stifling heat in that tiny library, a single librarian welcomed them with ice pops and friendly conversation, while also managing a slate of programs. The place was packed with patrons attending story time, printing resumes, and more. The librarian had posted signs: “Free lunches, 4:30–5:30” and “Prizes for Book Reports Anytime.”

“The library of the future celebrates community and develops connections,” Burleson concluded. “And the heart of it will be certified and passionate librarians.”

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Christina Vercelletto About Christina Vercelletto

Christina Vercelletto is School Library Journal’s news editor. An award-winning writer and editor, Vercelletto has held staff positions at Babytalk, Parenting, Scholastic Parent & Child, and NYMetroParents.com.

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