Takeaways from SLJ Summit Sunday

From superintendents to Drag Queen Story Hour and SLJ's School Librarian of the Year, there was a lot to take in during Day 2 of the SLJ Leadership Summit.

There was no rest for the weary at Day 2 of the SLJ Leadership Summit. Here are some of the takeaways from Sunday in Brooklyn.

Author Adam Gidwitz (above, left) and Evanston (IL) Public Library collections development manager and superstar SLJ Network blogger Betsy Bird sat down to talk to kick off the second day of the SLJ Leadership Summit.

Gidwitz is known to many for his reworking of the Grimm fairytale classics—A Tale Dark and Grimm, In a Glass Grimmly, and The Grimm Conclusion—and add a humorous spin that makes them, well, less terrifying. He stumbled into this success when asked to substitute for a school librarian one day. He grabbed a book of fairy tales off his shelf, only to find the kids in the story getting their heads chopped off by their parents. He decided he would read it anyway, but he threw in some jokes and warnings. While some of the second graders were horrified, one girl came up to him and told him he should make that into a book.

So he did. And an agent agreed that it was pretty good.

“What I try to do is to respect what was great [in the original stories]," he said. "But try to make sure they have the humor.”

Bird and Gidwitz also discussed cultural appropriation and the importance of #ownvoices.

Four superintendents from school districts varying in location, size, and demographics sat with moderator Joyce Valenza to give the librarians in attendance a look at the profession through their lens. From left to right above, Michael Prayer (High Schools, Brooklyn South, NYC) and assistant superintendent Toni Pace (Tacoma, WA, Public Schools) and superintendents Sean Doherty (Clayton, MI, Public Schools) and Dave Schuler (Arlington Heights, IL), offered their thoughts and advice on making librarians a more integral part of each school and district.

But first, Valenza asked the panel what keeps them up at night. All four said safety and security. Other concerns that weigh on the minds of the district leaders: equity, the achievement gap, creating the proper culture, ensuring a well-rounded education (including social and emotional learning), and relevant curriculum. They also mentioned legislators making decisions for the schools who are not working with them but “doing to” them in ways that negatively impact the schools. Community partnerships creating spaces for students to have conversations about global issues are also concerns. 

When asked how librarians can get superintendents to recognize their work and give them a seat at the table when making decisions—as well as keep them from being the first jobs eliminated in a budget crisis—Schuler said librarians can’t wait to be asked to speak up. They must let their work be known.

“Specifically, invite us in,” he said. “If you’re doing something super cool, bring us in, tell your story. A lot of times, the librarian is the backbone or the supporter. No. Lead. As you’re leading, think through that lens of a leader…and let us know about the leadership contributions you’re making.”

SLJ School Librarian of the Year Ali Schilpp (above) spoke to attendees about her journey to find her calling, her projects and philosophy at her rural school in Accident, MD, collaborations with other educators around the world, and how working in a school library "has changed and inspired movement."

That journey has involved "allowing my students to move about the library, the freedom to research and read what moves them, and to provide opportunity for the student's to become the movers and shakers," she said. 

Schilpp discussed her robotics projects and a recent discussion with her students on whether robots would take over the world one day, a conversation that reminded her of a library's importance right now.

"Even today's most brilliant machines have limitations," she said. "We need humans for creativity, innovation, and inspiration—skills that will make our kids employable in the future, and I think the best place for those skills to be learned is in your school library. This is where we model empathy, and this is where we encourage human connections and read diverse books. This is why I'm always cautious to keep a healthy balance of the arts and humanities while supporting STEM initiatives."

Schilpp also revealed that she may be forced to leave her successes in Accident behind and start over at a new school again. 

"I may need to make another move soon because of budget cuts and consolidation, and that's okay," she said. "I'll just make what looks like a possible end and turn it into a great beginning."

Ona Louise (above) from Drag Queen Story Hour (DQSH) NYC’s chapter read  Arlie Anderson's Neither aloud, showing those in the room exactly how a DQSH program would run with children—the way the book is read and issues in it are discussed. She also led everyone in a song.

After the performance, co-founders of the DQSH NYC chapter Rachel Aimee and Jonathan Hamilt were asked about how they handle and respond to the criticism and protests of their programs.

“We have a lot of feedback, both positive and negative,” said Hamilt. “We don’t have fear-based thinking. [When] the negativity comes, we deal with it. If you’ve been reading the news or following us, there’s been a lot of controversy in the south, in Louisiana and Alabama. We just come with it as it comes. We want to keep everyone safe and happy and have really strong programming.”

Aimee added, “There are two different kinds of negative feedback we get. One is from people who are just hateful—homophobic, transphobic, and proud of it. Those people—there’s not really any point trying to engage with them.

“There are also people who are trying to be open-minded but just not sure if this is really appropriate for kids. So then we’ll explain. A lot of people associate drag queens with adult entertainment, so we’ll explain this is a program created for children. There’s nothing of an adult nature about it.”

The website provides resources and talking points to help anyone wanting to bring the program to their location. The organization has created the Dragtivity Book, which helps respond to some questions from kids that adults may not know how to answer.

Jake Barton (above), principal and founder of experience design studio Local Projects, spoke about his firm’s projects—including the National September 11 Museum and Memorial in New York City, The Legacy Museum in Montgomery, AL, and Planet Word, a museum of word and language opening in Washington, DC, next year—and the thought process behind their creation.

He gave the educators in the room new ways to think about their own projects and programs.

“Really, really think when you’re making an experience if it’s actually really supporting vision and mission,” he said. “If one of your goals is access, [figure out], how do you provide the most amount of access? And work backwards from there. It’s the most effective way, we find, to work with boards or explain to the general public why you’re making changes.

For most, changing things is a challenge—even if the change makes something better or more convenient, he said—just because of the nature of habituation. They are just used to it being that way.

“Just that cognitive load of having to change, much less the social pressures, is a big challenge,” he said. “So going back to your vision and mission to say, 'we’re doing it this way, we’re putting in this programming because it’s part of our general mission for access. 'That can be very, very helpful.”

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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