February 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Interview: School Librarian, Robin Levin, Wins Arch Coal Teacher Achievement Award

Robin Levin is in the news again. This time it’s for being the first school librarian to win the Arch Coal Foundation Teacher Achievement Award, which this year recognized 10 teachers in Wyoming for their leadership and contribution to K-12 education.

Levin, a media specialist at Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation at School District #21, is used to this kind of recognition. In 2007, she won SLJ’s Giant Step Award for providing outstanding programs and services to kids, and in 2008 she nabbed the National Endowment for Humanities Picturing America Award. Last year, she earned Arch Coal’s Golden Apple Achiever certificate.

SLJ spoke to Levin about the challenges of serving a Native American community, the importance of collaboration in her work, and whether this award gives school librarians the recognition they deserve.

You won our 2007 Giant Step Award, and now five years later, you’re the first librarian to receive the Arch Coal Teacher Achievement Award. What took so long for a librarian to get recognized?

For librarians this is a collective victory. We have opened the door for recognition as educators and leaders in our contribution to the education of both youth and adults. It’s an honor to be chosen, representing the Native American community and library professionals. The state librarian here in Wyoming, Lesley Boughton, was very clear that she wanted us to break the ice and get one of our own among the honored recipients, so she threw me in there with the lions.

After 31 years as a school library media specialist, or librarian, or teacher/librarian, I think this award is not coming too soon. Our profession has been immensely flexible in attending to the needs of teaching literature, communication skills, and managing library collections. It might be hard to view us as “teachers” in the conventional sense, but now we can be part of that respected genre.

Do you think your win will elevate the status of librarians in Wyoming?

This is the hope. Librarians, like teachers, nurses, and all who serve others without personal gain as the primary motivation are used to being behind the scenes, while augmenting the lives of others. Now that the door is open, more librarians may be willing to apply for the honor.

You work in a joint public/school library that serves Native Americans on an Indian reservation. What are some of the major challenges that you’ve faced and continue to face?

Since 2003, when we opened our doors to the public, we’ve been focused on developing the habit of “visiting the library,” which had not existed on this vast reservation before. Distances are immense and transportation is a problem. Borrowing items, then returning them might not be regarded with the same cultural expectations as in non-Native communities. For example, an adult patron borrowed an expensive history book on tribal politics and social structures. As he left, he placed a baggie of dried meat on the library desk. This was understood as a gift in exchange for his keeping the book. True story. Helping with adult literacy continues to be a goal, and encouraging families to bring their youth to the library after school hours for homework or online communication are on top of our list. We are now bringing library services out to the senior centers to assist their access.

What are the most important skills you teach your students?
The most important skills are to have confidence in looking for what you want to know. Be bold in seeking information, and try to understand materials that may seem challenging. Help is at the ready with a smile! Another area of skill includes treating computers, electronic devices, books and each other with gentle hands.

How big of a role does technology play in your lessons?
Technology abounds, comprising half or more of our library lessons. Youngest students are not as apt to pursue research materials, but once they reach second grade, the amount of electronics and media we employ grows as they do.

How do you make reading and research engaging in this age of technology?
Well, we have some administrative filters preventing our students from accessing the full range of electronic technology. We hope to ameliorate these limitations as we move forward. As for reading, the contemporary bibliography of youngsters’ literature grabs the attention and passion of students with just a little book-talking push from the library staff. Getting that exact book to the right child is a victory we enjoy often every week. That takes a lot of dedicated time away from the job, but the books are of such a great quality that it’s a labor of love! Students are choosing to read more now than in years past.

Have the Common Core Standards affected what you teach kids?
Perhaps this question is better stated, “How do Common Core Standards fit into the library’s objectives?” In this version, the answer may be that librarians have adapted to bring patrons to their intellectual and artistic goals, since ancient times. No matter what the media or topics, a librarian provides instruction needed to get the patron to the information he/she seeks. Anything else would be biased on the part of the librarian, and professionally unacceptable.

Tell us about your collaboration with teachers?
Collaboration is essential! Librarians are obligated to cater our teaching units to augment classroom curricula, if we want our students to retain and use what we introduce. This is true for student success and for making library research, literary appreciation, and the excitement of discovery all relevant.

How supportive are your higher ups?
We have fabulous principals and superintendents in our school district. The school board is also very supportive. We often develop unexpected initiatives and ambitious plans to make the library a central destination. Thankfully, the administration nods in appreciation and leaves us to blast ahead! If money is short, I am able to apply for grant monies and sometimes win the grants.

What specifically about your work do you think most impressed the judges?
Lesley Boughton, Wyoming’s fabulous state librarian nominated me, with the precise intent that librarians be included as teachers in this competition. And, making the case that the school librarian’s teaching schedule is rigorous, her recommendation helped sway the judges. Previous winners serve as Arch Coal Teacher Award judges, so they may have no clue regarding the actual library activities for their students. Teachers, typically, do not accompany their pupils to library class. Perhaps the history of our library’s many awards and outreach beyond school boundaries helped tilt the scales. Native American communities represent unique situations in Wyoming, which has but one large reservation. This also brings us a little extra notice.

I read that your mother and grandmother inspired you to become a teacher. Can you tell us more?
My mother always insisted that my brother, sister, and I open our hearts to the world without prejudice. She is a remarkable woman for her progressive views, despite never completing high school. She gave us a cultural education in New York City and environs that bolstered confidence in our feeling like citizens of the world. I thank my beautiful mother for her insight! Also, I made a commitment to work happily at school every day that I wasn’t sick, when my immigrant grandmother, Mama Sue, told me how she’d always wanted to attend school but never had the chance. I am still enjoying school every day. I hope Mama Sue is smiling from her resting place.

This article originally appeared in the newsletter Extra Helping. Go here to subscribe.

About Debra Lau Whelan

Debra Whelan is a former senior editor for news and features at SLJ.

Building Literacy-Rich Communities
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