Journeying with Jones: Amanda Jones, 2021 School Librarian of the Year

Throughout the pandemic, Amanda Jones brought the world to her students. In person or virtually, her library is a hub of exploration.


Photos by Kathryn and Travis Photography


Amanda Jones’s library at Live Oak Middle School is typically a hive of activity. Pre-COVID, students buzzed in, did STEM activities in the makerspace, met with one another, took out books, and completed homework assignments. And in a corner painted yellow, there was an actual beehive.

With holes drilled in the wall leading to an internal courtyard, Jones set up a spot where bees could fly through tubes and students could study everything from pollination to hexagons to how Egyptians used honey medicinally.

But all those activities halted in March 2020, when the coronavirus stopped in-person education at the school, located in Denham Springs, LA, a rural town with only two stoplights. Jones remembers feeling lost without the daily connection to her students in the 1,800-square-foot library. She consoled herself saying that what she thought would be a “two-week break” would be a welcome respite from school. Still, on her first day at home, she started hatching plans to keep the school’s 720 fifth and sixth graders connected during the pandemic.

Four days later, she debuted “Journeys with Jones,” a program where she escorted students (and any tagalong siblings and parents) on virtual trips, starting with the Palace of Versailles in France. Wearing a beret, this 43-year-old librarian took about 100 students to Paris via Zoom, Google slides, and VR. She’d mastered that technology a few days before.

“I just wanted them to have an escape when stuck at home,” she says.

That spirit, attitude, and ability to keep students feeling like part of a community during a pandemic earned Jones SLJ’s 2021 School Librarian of the Year award.

READ: Amanda Jones and Diane Mokuau Named 2021 School Librarians of the Year

Speaking about the importance of Jones’s journeys, Live Oaks parent Jennifer Dorhauer says, “she knew what we needed before we needed it.” Dorhauer, who has had a child at Live Oak for the past three years, adds, “I don’t remember knowing my junior high librarian. [Jones] has established a community. She makes it more than just a school.”

When Jones continued her journeys through the summer break, Dorhauer’s children set the alarm to join her. “When they did that, I knew it was important,” Dorhauer says. “She became the centering point of our weeks.”

More than a thousand other parents and fans tuned in to Jones’s virtual activities. Her library Facebook page grew from 900 followers pre-COVID to more than 2,100. “I’m really proud we built up such a following,” Jones says. The percentage of views and interactions with her Instagram and Facebook accounts jumped 400 percent after school closed. Her page is now up to a half million views.

Jones ran two journeys a week during the school year, cutting back during the summer. But even with Live Oak in-person since October, she has continued the program, hosting more than 35 virtual trips so far. “At first they were just for entertainment,” she says, “but this year they are geared toward standards, covering places the students are studying through class.” Jones has already taken students to Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, as well as steering them through the Library of Congress and the collections of the Smithsonian.

But not every program is thriving post-pandemic, and Jones is adjusting accordingly. She typically runs two reading groups, including a 40-book reading challenge to encourage students both to read more and to read books outside their usual interests. In the past, students ran to the library when they finished the challenge, and typically around 200 students participated. Jones says that’s down to only 15 to 20 now. “This year has been a strain. There’s not much participation in anything in school,” she says.

Jones has had better luck with a new program she created called MESH, where she encourages students to read books about media literacy, ethics, sociology, and history. Live Oak is 92 percent white and located squarely inside the area’s Bible Belt, Jones says. While she says she has to “tread lightly” around teaching Black Lives Matter or about LGBTQ issues, this program includes books addressing those themes. “I want to be proactive in anti-racism,” she says, especially after the protests of the summer.

With anywhere from 500 to 1,000 books checked out each week, Jones, the school’s sole librarian, admits the quarantining of each book—wiping them down and holding them out of circulation for a spell—can be labor intensive. Still, she praises her school principal, Ryan Hodges, for allowing her to be a librarian and not saddling her with countless tasks outside the library.

Jones says her relationship with Hodges took work. She used statistics and research to prove her worth when she moved from the classroom to the library six years ago. In return, he agreed not to task Jones with running IT support or overseeing special education planning. “There’s a trust there, and support. He gives me freedom [to do my job],” she says. The library gets about $7 per student per year for books and supplies; Jones uses grants, read-a-thons, and two book fairs to fund other programming needs.


Pandemic programming

In this tight-knit community, the school has many teachers who attended Live Oak, including Jones and principal Hodges. She says that six of the school’s current teachers were her pupils, and she has 40 “grandstudents” now, students whose parents she also taught.

Her day doesn’t end with the last bell. She runs a gaggle of after-school clubs, including a Silent Reading Club, Girls Who Code, and a STEAM program. Jones has been running a Family Night for 17 years, drawing in more than 1,000 families to learn about various activities parents could do with their children. Pre-pandemic, the library was home to a weather station as well as the beehive.

While Live Oaks has been full-time, in-person since the fall, Jones did use the pandemic lockdowns to her advantage. Instead of planning and paying the costs to bring one author to town each year, she’s hosted a handful of Zoom calls with writers including Tommy Greenwald, Rita Williams-Garcia, Pablo Cartaya, and Jason Reynolds.

Dorhauer watches some of the author visits with her children and says they frequently spur conversations. When one writer showed their “vision board,” with a bunch of sticky notes and updates, it was an opportunity for Dorhauer to talk with her kids about how ideas don’t always come all at once.

Reynolds’s virtual visit was by far the most popular. “The kids talked about it for weeks,” Jones says. “He connected with them on a level I’ve never seen before.”

Another book discussion that got everyone’s attention was Boy Bites Bug by Rebecca Petruck. The book details how a seventh grader ate a bug to divert attention from his friend’s bullying and soon became famous around his school. He turns this into a class project, getting classmates to eat grasshoppers. Jones ordered crickets and grub worms for the students to try, surprising some parents but thrilling her students.

Jones is also active in the greater librarian community online and with her peers at Live Oak. When the virus pushed school to be virtual, Hodges says he knew a lot of his teachers weren’t well versed in Google Classroom. As he was looking for professional development resources, Jones told him she had just posted information about how to use the tool on the library website. “It was just what I was looking to do,” he says. Jones created a total of 16 webinars to cover such topics as how to host virtual tours and use various tools that are handy during remote learning.

Jones has presented at conferences, from ISTE to AASL, on topics including grants, literacy shaming, and building a Twitter professional learning network. The Louisiana 2020 School Librarian of the Year, she is the current state Middle School Teacher of the Year. She relies on a loose affiliation of 100 or so librarians on social media to keep up on issues and has received two AASL awards, including 2019 Social Media Superstar Program Pioneer.

“When I grew up, you couldn’t talk above a whisper in the library,” Hodges says. When she took over, she said her goal was to make it the hub of the school. “It’s just a different mindset.”

“It’s the best job in the world,” Jones says. “I would never trade it.”

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About the Award: SLJ presents the sixth School Librarian of the Year award with sponsor Scholastic Book Fairs. The winner receives a $2,500 cash award and $2,500 in-kind digital and/or print products for their library; a Scholastic Book Fairs “Mr. Schu’s Picks” collection of books; and a visit from John Schumacher, Ambassador of School Libraries, Scholastic, including
a book giveaway for every student in the school.

The 2021 Judges: John Schumacher, Ambassador of School Libraries, Scholastic; Cicely Lewis, 2020 School Librarian of the Year; and Glenn Robbins, superintendent, Brigantine (NJ) Community School district; and SLJ editors.

Read more about the award :

Wayne D’Orio writes frequently about education and equity.

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Kathryn Girlinghouse

It is such an honor to work with Ms. Jones! Congratulations on being recognized for all of your hard work!

Posted : Mar 22, 2021 01:13



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