All hail the mighty media specialist

I’ve got to start this post with a disclaimer:  During the course of my sixteen year teaching career, I’ve worked with a ton of GREAT media specialists.

In fact, one of the thinkers that I admire the most in my own school district is a high school media specialist named Kerri Brown-Parker who is doing great things to support teachers interested in integrating technology into their instructional practices.  And the media specialists in my current school are both wonderful women who work hard with classroom teachers and students alike.  They are thoughtful and innovative—and well-respected by everyone as a result.

I also believe that media specialists can play an important role in any school community.  When they’re skilled, they teach students to manage information fluently and how to judge the reliability of sources.  They help students to sift through heaping cheeseloads of content to make sense of what they are learning.

Finally, they often find ways to help teachers integrate media literacy skills into their required curriculum and do the heavy lifting on shared projects that are at once motivating and essential for students.  All of that work adds value in the schoolhouse and yet it can be easily overlooked and/or underestimated.

But I’m also tired of the lofty rhetoric that media specialists and their professional organizations tend to sling.

Take this comment, left by a school media specialist named LaDawna on an interview that I did with Kelly Gallagher—author of Readicide and expert on teaching reading in the public school classroom—here on the Radical:

I am a teacher librarian in NJ and I completely agree that schools are not considering their best resources – the teacher librarian in helping teachers switch kids onto reading. Additionally a school library may be the only library a child might experience because they don’t have a family structure that gives them access to books at the public library.

The school library touches every single child and our national standards begin with the common belief that reading is the window to the world. I help run a parent/child book club, have lunch in the library programs, celebrate poetry, reading, storytelling and so many other initiatives that help to inspire my students to love reading. Recreational reading CANNOT be overlooked.

You see these kinds of comments in almost any conversation about media specialists swirling through the blogosphere.  Check out what Kitty—a one-time TLN member who works as a library media specialist—had to say when I questioned the role of media specialists in our schools a few years back:

I would also have to challenge your assumption that the media specialist is only about teaching the difference between fiction and nonfiction or even about teaching kids how to navigate the ever growing digital landscape. We do WAY more than that — assuming, of course, that we are doing our full job.

Reading is still the foundation for all other learning, is it not? As the media specialist in my building, I am responsible for maintaining a collection of high quality literature and other reading material that students can read for fun or for information depending upon their specific need at a specific time.

How are kids to learn to read for the love of reading if they have no library, no library books, and no library media specialist to guide them through the world of literature? What happens if we neglect teaching reading as a life-long skill as opposed to simply consuming information presented in a digital format?

I get the sense that many media specialists believe that they are the “lead readers” in any school and that the success or failure of any reading program depends primarily on the work done in the media center.  I mean, look at some of the phrases these media specialists have used:

How are kids to learn to read for the love of reading if they have no library, no library books, and no library media specialist to guide them through the world of literature?

Schools are not considering their best resources – the teacher librarian in helping teachers switch kids onto reading.

As a full-time language arts teacher, these kinds of comments bug me.  After all, I think I do a pretty good job teaching students to love reading too.  I’ve switched more than my fair share of kids on to books, and I do a pretty good job guiding my classes through the world of literature.

What’s more, I’m held accountable for that work in ways that media specialists can’t even begin to imagine.  They’re not sprinting through skills or panicked about end of grade exams.  No one questions their effectiveness based on nothing more than a set of numbers generated by multiple choice tests.

What I wouldn’t give if the standard that I was measured against were based on the same fluffy core beliefs set by the American Association of School Librarians.  Heck, I’m not even sure how you could measure something as soft as “Reading is a window to the world” even if you wanted to.

And what I wouldn’t give for the professional flexibility to have the kinds of poetry readings, parent/child reading groups and storytelling that LaDawna describes as a cornerstone of her work.  In the era before NCLB, my classroom was driven by the simple joy of reading, too.  We had shared book talks and story time every day.  We acted out scenes from our favorite titles, swapped story titles, and ate tons of brownies while reacting to our favorite reads.

But I don’t have the time for that kind of work any more.  I’m too concerned with getting my students to identify bias in an author’s words or to determine how emotionally loaded phrases are likely to influence individual readers.  My lessons are packed with worksheets that introduce the differences in points-of-view or the elements of figurative language that are likely to appear on end of grade exams.

We talk about complicated terms like semantic slanting and study sets of strategies for answering the kinds of multiple choice questions that appear on the district-wide formative assessments that we take every three weeks.  Pressure defines my reading classroom simply because everyone—parents, teachers, students and school leaders alike—knows that accountability is looming and the stakes are high.

Now I get it:  Media positions are on the chopping block all the time.  Standing up for your profession is always admirable—and I’d hate to see schools lose the services of the most accomplished media specialists, who are an irreplaceable resource that can save teachers time, reach handfuls of struggling students, and support colleagues who are unprepared for the demands of a changing digital age.

But I’m bothered any time that my own role as a reading advocate and expert is pushed aside.  After all, I’m the one that is being held accountable for reading performance in our schools.

Does any of this make sense?

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