Hail in a Handbasket. . .

The past week has been an interesting one to say the least.  On Sunday morning, I wrote a riff titled All Hail the Mighty Media Specialist that asked one central question:  Do media specialists inadvertently turn off reading teachers in their advocacy for their positions? 

Comments poured in for about 72 hours—on my blog, in the Twitterverse, in personal conversations and in countless emails that landed in my inbox.  Many were thoughtful.  Others were wholly inappropriate and hateful.  The most shocking—which came in an email on Sunday afternoon—went a little something like this:

Are you kidding me?  You really believe that you know as much as your media specialist?  How can you possibly introduce students to novels as well as we can?  What do you know about information literacy?  We do this for a living, you idiot. 

And if you don’t like your job, that’s not our fault.  Don’t blame us for your problems.  Your whining doesn’t help anything.  Get over it or get a new job. 

Thankfully, things started to settle down ‘round about Wednesday—and better yet, really thoughtful media specialists started to stop by and share their thoughts.  Unlike the knee-jerked-ness of some of their peers, they showed a willingness to listen and an ability to push back without emotional attacks.  It was cool. 

The whole experience has left me with a TON of questions. 

Here they are.  Why don’t you grab on to one and see what kind of answer you can craft—and what kind of conversation we can have—in the comment section:

Questions for media specialists:

Are you systematically considering the consequences of your advocacy? 

Your position is so much different than mine because in many districts, you have to fight just to keep your jobs.  That leads to systematic advocacy and attempts to persuade.  How careful are you when choosing your words to make sure that you’re not alienating reading teachers?

How should the contributions that media specialists make to the development of skilled readers be measured? 

Should your professional organization(s) be pushing to have media specialists paired with reading teachers in interdisciplinary teams responsible for the performance of students on standardized reading exams—an idea that SRB detailed thoughtfully in this comment

Is it enough to simply rely on external research studies, or should media specialists be held accountable in more tangible ways, too? 

Do some of your standards leave you open to criticism? 

Nothing seemed to set more people off than my assertion that media specialists are measured by fluffy standards—but I stand by my argument:  Some of the standards set by the AASL look pretty darn loosey-goosey to those of us working outside of the media center. 

(I highlighted some in this comment.)

Wouldn’t it make sense for a profession that is constantly trying to prove itself to outsiders to hack these kinds of warm fuzzies out of their standards document?  In a time where policy-makers are always trying to save a buck, don’t you make yourself vulnerable when your own organization paints a vision for your contributions that can be easily questioned?

Questions for classroom teachers:

What kinds of value do you think media specialists add to the work done in your reading classroom?

How well do you understand the unique set of skills that media specialists bring to the table?  What kinds of things do you rely on your media specialists for currently?  What kinds of things would you like to rely on them for? 

How are media specialists helping you to develop young readers or to prepare your students to navigate new reading environments?  Has your need for the media specialist grown or decreased over time? 

What are the barriers that are preventing meaningful collaboration with media specialists? 

The comment sections of the posts that I wrote this week are loaded with language about teams, aren’t they?  Time and again, media specialists have expressed a willingness to collaborate with classroom teachers in almost any capacity, and I believe that in the best circumstances, this kind of collaboration is rule.

But I also believe that in most circumstances, meaningful collaboration between the media center and the regular reading classroom is the exception.  Why is that?  What’s keeping teachers from working closely with the media specialist in your building?  Does collaboration work for some teachers but not others?  Why? 

If things are working well in your building, what structures and/or processes do you have in place to make shared work possible? 

How has accountability changed the way that you feel about your colleagues working beyond the classroom?

If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m jealous of anyone who works in an untested subject.  While they’re still judged based on qualitative measures like observations and performances, I’m judged based on test scores alone—and no matter how many times y’all push the “we’re a team” speeches, “we” becomes “you” as soon as negative numbers come back from the testing office. 

The results have really been ugly over the past few years.  I can sense a shift in the way that I feel towards anyone working in an untested subject or a position beyond the classroom.  Resentment is building as I buckle under the pressure of being “held accountable.” 

Am I the only one who feels this way?  Has the testing movement created any divides in your faculties?  If not, what have you done to make sure that the teamwork you talk about is real and not just a super nifty slogan to make everyone feel good?

Better yet, how much do your colleagues in untested positions know about the pressures of accountability? 

Questions for everyone:

Are we being divided by accountability and alternative compensation programs?

My favorite comment all week was posted by WWMS who wondered whether or not the accountability and alternative compensation movement in our country was intentionally designed to divide and conquer educators. 

Now, like WWMS, I’m not sure that the accountability and alternative compensation movement is intentionally designed to divide—that would depend on policy makers having an actual understanding of schools and teachers—but I am pretty convinced that division is the end result.  I see it in my own feelings towards my peers.

So how do we change that?  What would accountability and compensation plans that actually encouraged teamwork and shared commitment look like in action?  Can educators working at the school level take steps towards these kinds of healthy practices outside of their districts/states/unions?

Who owns a blog conversation?

One of the more interesting twists this week was the beating that I took after pulling my original post down—something that I did in response to the sea of negative commentary that I was buried in.  I wanted to save my mental energy for my wife and baby instead of coming home angry about a conversation gone awry. 

Lots and lots of people questioned that decision, though.  Some encouraged me to stand by my words because they had merit.  Others saw my decision as a sign of weakness and attacked with sarcasm.  Everyone, though, had an opinion!

So what’s yours?  Did I have a right to pull down my original entry or did the conversation belong to my audience as soon as it was posted?

Looking forward to hearing what y’all think.  Here’s to hoping the dialogue is a healthy one!

15 thoughts on “Hail in a Handbasket. . .

  1. Butwait

    Bill, I’ve had this post of yours open in my browser for ten days now.
    I’m neither a classroom teacher nor a media specialist (college counselor by day, haiku writer by night), but something in this reflection – and your earlier struggles with it – resonated with me.
    I feel an increased awareness of two of the things you mention. First, as some of us find the worlds beyond our classroom walls suddenly and dramatically within reach, we are locating ourselves on spectra that have only recently seemed to even exist. The already considerable gaps between the superstars and the duds are going to be HUGE, going forward.
    And second, as we move to develop our own learning networks and move from consuming to creating, we may be finding externally imposed definitions of sufficiency or success less and less relevant.
    It’s interesting to think about what a savvy principal might be looking for in a staff member now that he/she wouldn’t have been able to look for (let alone known to look for) even five years ago.
    As Steve Dembo once memorably asked, “Is joining a PLN bad for morale?”
    Anyway, I wanted to take a moment to thank you for your continuing willingness to learn out loud, and to hope for you a course that moves you away from the “tied to the test” version of accountability.

  2. Bill Ferriter

    This is a great post, Marsha, that details a vision for media specialists that would be unquestioned anywhere, isn’t it? If every media specialist did the kinds of things you’re describing here, there’d never be conversations about cutting them from our schools.
    Contrast that with this email I received from a buddy of mine last week:
    “The one thing I asked our media specialist to do last year was to find a collection of folk tales from the countries that we’re studying.
    What I got was a list of websites. Curious, I typed “Folk tales from around the world” into Google. The sites that he sent were the first five sites on the Google search.
    I definitely could have done that by myself—and I definitely wondered why we were paying someone really good money (considering that our media specialist has 30+ years of experience) to search Google for us.”
    Now I know that there are always going to be superstars and duds in any field, but what media specialists have to do is make sure that the majority of their peers fall further down the spectrum towards your colleague.
    Too many stories like the one my friend sent to me and positions will be cut without a second thought.
    Fair? Nope. But it’s reality.

  3. Marsha Ratzel

    You asked..”What kinds of value do you think media specialists add to the work done in your reading classroom?” I’ve had the privilege of working with a world class librarian and her value cannot be measured.
    First, she was the HEART of our school and the curriculum. She helped each team (grade levels and explo) to plan an overview for their year. She was the common thread throughout all teachers in the school and she knew how to pull teachers together from different areas to make the learning even more powerful.
    Second, her knowledge our the curriculum was vast and only matched by her knowledge of books. She ran amazing extra programs to suck teachers into bringing their kids into the library…Boo in the Library, the Ididarod, Harry Potter Book Clubs, Buffalo boxes, The Wolf Center. She invited local celebrities in to read aloud during the Dr. Suess PTA Day, she invites veterans into tell their stories during Veteran’s Day and engages kids in censorship conversations on Ban the Books Day. She had library pets and read everything that came through the doors. She knew when articles appeared in the magazine subscriptions (and put copies in our boxes) and pushed us to read aloud.
    Boundless energy and a love for kids and learning.
    Lastly, she did the most amazing book talks. Made sure that they linked with what you were teaching. She got kids revved up to read books related to those topics….and she made sure she brought extra information that would either excited them, gross them out, amaze them or intrigue them.
    I miss her. She was one in a million. But I can tell you she had the position and power to make a huge difference (and still is doing so at her school) for every single person in the building.

  4. Bill Ferriter

    Hey Scott,
    Thanks a ton for your kind words. Just knowing that you find my thoughts valuable is pretty darn rewarding simply because I respect what you write so much.
    And I’m with you: I know that retracting a post sends the wrong message about whether or not I can “take the heat.”
    As a full time classroom teacher, I still dance on a fine line, though. I’m always worried about making waves because I never know when those waves are going to roll into the offices of district leaders.
    Now, my district leaders are pretty progressive and have encouraged teacher voice for a long while, so I don’t EXPECT there to ever be backlash against what I write, but when I stir the pot up good, I find that I don’t sleep well for awhile.
    Isn’t that crazy?
    I also know that pulling a conversation ends opportunities for conversation too, but sometimes the tenor of the conversation—and in this case, the negativity span out of control in my email inbox and in a particularly ugly Twitter exchange—-trends towards the unproductive quickly!
    It’s like the conversation isn’t really a conversation at all. Dialogue requires a willingness on the part of both parties to listen and reflect, and I didn’t always see that from my media specialist friends!
    It’s been an interesting experience, though. I’ve certainly had a lot to reflect on/about.
    Rock on,

  5. Mikespeaksout

    Found your blog post to be very insightful. I truly believe that alternative compensation programs are destructive and counterproductive. Sorry about the negative comments you received. Dome people are more destructive than constructive.

  6. Scott McLeod

    Bill, of course you have the right to take down posts, delete comments, whatever. It’s your blog, not your readers’. But you’ve made the conscious choice to put yourself out there publicly. Not that you asked me, but I suggest that you ask yourself 2 questions:
    1) What message do I send to my readers when I retract because I ‘can’t stand the heat?’
    2) What opportunities are lost for dialogue and learning when I retract?
    Keep up the great work. You’re one of my absolute favorite blogs.

  7. John

    This is an interesting discussion as more and more States enact tighter accountability with the Race to the Top money. In Michigan beginning in the 10-11 school year teachers will be attached to their students and the students performance is to be “a significant portion of the teachers evaluation”. My question when I initially read the law was, are non-core teachers going to have to show student growth in their content (say gym) or in math and reading? It seems that at least in Michigan all teachers will be held accountable for math and reading in their evaluations. This could resolve the issue about division but also could put many non-core content areas at significant risk.

  8. K. Borden

    Mr. Ferriter:
    Snyder’s The Egypt Game is actually the book the club I moderate is discussing tomorrow. How about that for a coincidence? They read a book to discuss every two weeks, so we can afford diversions back in time. I have mentioned these young readers before, and must give them a well deserved shout out for reading well done!
    What are the odds eh?

  9. LaurenceB

    My stand on this is: your blog, your game! You want some time to breathe, to regroup, pull out the post, and be ruthless in deleting comments that YOU don’t like, and more importantly, you don’t have do explain yourself! You feel ok to put it up again, your choice. You ARE the master of this dungeon ;o) if people don’t like it, they can go elsewhere!

  10. Bill Ferriter

    Lisa wrote:
    I think this conversation is productive, but the fact is that we all must work together and our successes are intertwined.
    I don’t question this statement at all, Lisa. I know full well that our successes are intertwined. I see students every year who hit it off with someone working in an untested position—media specialists, guidance counselors, coaches, art teachers, band directors.
    Not only is the learning that they do with those people real, but the motivation generated trickles over into my classroom and makes my work easier.
    I get it.
    What’s not intertwined, though, are the consequences of accountability. My classroom has changed dramatically in response to the tested world. My evaluations are driven by numbers. And if I worked in a district like Houston, decisions about my employment would be directly connected to results.
    That’s why I struggle with the team rhetoric in schools.
    Think about this: Imagine two equally qualified reading teachers in Houston working in different schools. One has a remarkable media specialist that truly supports learning in a meaningful way. The other has a dud who still mourns the loss of the card catalog and who hasn’t read a Newberry winner since The Egypt Game.
    (How’s that for an obscure literary reference?!)
    At the end of the day, the scores generated on the standardized tests of those two groups of students are likely to be different through no fault of the classroom teachers involved—-yet each of those teachers is going to be judged differently based on those results.
    And unless their principals are great at holding colleagues in untested positions accountable for making meaningful contributions, the lives of the two media specialists will never change. There will be no official pressure placed on them even though their contributions—or lack thereof—made all the difference in the world.
    That’s hard to swallow for me.
    Does any of this make sense?

  11. Lisa Perez, Chicago Public Schools Dept of Libraries

    I’ll just reiterate a point that I made in a previous comment. Many school librarians have taught in the classroom in earlier parts of our careers, so we understand the dynamic of direct accountability via standardized test scores. There is another side to that coin, though. In our role as librarians, we are also held accountable for the performance of our colleagues who teach directly in the classrom. We work with colleagues who are dynamic, hard-working teachers who bend over backwards for their students and consistently produce results. We also work with those who just roll into the building and do the bare minimum with their students. Some teachers team with us and some do not. (By the same token, some librarians are very invested in their work and some are marginal.) I’ve seen various librarians lose their jobs when full schools are closed, turned around, reconstituted due to low test scores. I’ve seen them lose their entire budgets, as money is diverted to structured curriculum packages. I think this conversation is productive, but the fact is that we all must work together and our successes are intertwined. Working together effectively for our students should be our only goal.

  12. Clix

    Who owns a blog conversation?
    These days? Nobody. As easy as it is for a blog owner to set a post to ‘draft’ status or delete it altogether, it’s not many more steps for anyone else to select-copy-paste-repost. You absolutely have the right to add or remove content as you see fit (within the bounds of any ToS you may be subject to). Your readers certainly have the right to let you know what they think about it (ditto).
    What kinds of value do you think media specialists add to the work done in your reading classroom?
    I’m disheartened to realize that I don’t know. (In fairness, I teach ELA, so it’s a bit different… but not much!) Certainly, the school library has more books then my classroom library, but I feel like there should be more to it than that.
    I guess if I hadn’t been busting A to build a classroom library of books I’m familiar with, the statement a school library may be the only library a child might experience might carry a lot more weight with me.
    As I’m thinking through this – I’ve been workng on this comment since yesterday! – I realize that I need to point out that my situation is probably different from most. My classroom is actually a mini “media center” because (a) I love books and particularly enjoy YA, so my bookshelves are fairly well-stocked; and (b) I’m in charge of our school publications (newspaper and yearbook) and have become the Hand-Me-Down Technology Queen over the years, so I’ve got a class set of oldish computers.
    What I would love to have our librarians do is focus intensely on getting more good books into our library and into the hands of our students. However, I know that not all teachers have had the same opportunities as me, and (alas!) what I want isn’t necessarily what’s at the top of everyone else’s list… although it should be!

  13. Kevin

    There are (at least) 2 approaches to blogs: the support group and the discussion forum. Support-group blogs are often ruthlessly censored by the blog owner so that only comments that agree (or mildly tweak) are let through. These blogs clearly belong entirely to the author. Discussion-forum blogs are usually conversations between the readers, triggered by the blog owner. The blog owner moderates and censors to keep the tone civil, but usually does not shut down active discussion.
    I think that you need to let your readers know which sort of blog you are trying to create.
    Your initial blog post was a bit inflammatory—it read like a “some of my best friends are librarians, but …” post. People reacted more to the tone than the content. The current post has a more neutral tone, and is more likely to result in the discussion you were hoping for. The difference in reaction might even be worth discussing in a writing class, particularly if you have a lot of students who have trouble with tone.

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