Each year, the American Library Association introduces its new class of participants in its Emerging Leaders program—librarians with fewer than five years’ experience working at a professional or paraprofessional level who have been selected from a pool of applicants. These participants—no more than 50 per year—then gather at the ALA Midwinter Meeting for a daylong orientation and training session, during which they learn about the project they’ll be working on for the ensuing six months, as chosen by various ALA divisions and affiliates. They continue their collaboration in an online learning and networking environment until the fruits of their labor are revealed during a poster session at the ALA Annual Conference.

The Emerging Leaders class of 2019 separated into 11 different groups, and Emerging Leaders Team A, whose five members come from different school library settings, was hosted by the American Association of School Librarians. Team A’s assignment, devised by Kathryn Roots Lewis, 2018–2019 AASL president, was to create materials and compile resources inspired by the organization’s Shared Foundation of “Include,” found in the National School Library Standards for Learners, School Librarians, and School Libraries. The team focused on such key concepts as “seeking balanced perspectives, global learning, empathy and tolerance, and equity” as they crafted professional development tools to help school librarians create an inclusive school library environment. Their work resulted in a Developing Inclusive Learners and Citizens toolkit comprised of an activity/resource guide, an infographic, and an applied framework, which is available on the AASL Standards web portal.

Though Team A unveiled their activity guide at ALA Annual back in June, that didn’t spell the end of collaboration for the group. They literally took their show on the road to the AASL National Conference in Louisville, Ky., in November, where four of the five members presented a panel titled “Practical Approaches to the Shared Foundation Include: A Conversation with Ellen Oh and AASL’s Emerging Leaders,” during which they discussed scenarios from their toolkit, and asked Oh, a middle grade and YA author and cofounder of the nonprofit organization We Need Diverse Books, for her input.

Aided by Stephanie Book, communications manager for AASL, who played a key role in guiding this Emerging Leaders project, we recently connected with Team A via video-conferencing platform Zoom and asked them about their experiences working on the toolkit. Here are a few highlights from that conversation.

Team A members:

Corey Hall, school librarian, Manheim Central Middle School, Pa.

Matthew King, elementary library media specialist, Orchard Farm School District, Mo.

Beth Raff, elementary school librarian, Parsippany–Troy Hills School District, N.J.

Jhenelle Robinson, school media specialist, Academy of Mount St. Ursula; New York, N.Y.

Bianca Spurlock, middle and upper school librarian, St. Catherine’s School; Richmond, Va.

Did you have a favorite part of this project, or a favorite example of something that made it into your guidebook?

Robinson: At the beginning of this project I was a novice librarian, so I was trying to develop my librarian philosophy. Educating myself and networking with and learning from my fellow Emerging Leaders helped me home in on my vision. Because of this project “inclusion” is a major part of my librarianship.

King: My favorite part of this program, and I say this time and time again, is that it made me a better librarian. Sometimes as librarians we’re very isolated, we work only one in each building. The nice part about this was I was able to talk weekly to four other librarians across the United States—they were able to share their expertise and what was happening in their libraries. It made me a more well-rounded librarian, too, because I was able to hear from four people who were complete strangers before we met, and who I now consider my close friends.

Hall: For me it was opening my eyes to some things. Bianca and I got to have a really cool purposeful debate at the AASL Annual Conference about the LGBTQ labeling of books, and that was fascinating to me, because I hadn’t spent a lot of time thinking about other ways to handle that. For me that was a huge moment, and I really did go back to my students and my GSA [Gay Straight Alliance], and we had a big conversation about what does that look like and what do we want to do. That was probably my favorite part of the project, because Bianca had so much information and so much knowledge on this topic, and that discussion changed the way I want to do things.

Were there other similar examples that came up while you were designing this toolkit?

King: Beth and I had the discussion, because we’re elementary librarians, the idea of, we pull books for Black History Month, we pull books for Women’s History Month, but is that enough? Are the displays appropriate? The answer’s not there. We don’t have a yes that we should be doing it, or a no we shouldn’t. I think it’s whatever we can do to make people feel included.

Raff: I think that question gets a lot of coverage on Twitter. Every now and again it pops up: why do we have to have these months? We should be doing this all the time. Well yes, we should, and I mix my Black History Month with my Women’s History Month by featuring books about black women during Black History Month. I tend to do it now naturally throughout the year. I’m really careful about books that I pick. I want them to reflect the world population, not just the school population. But if we didn’t have those months, would there be schools that just paid no attention to those cultures? That’s the debate. Those of us who are trying to be mindful of the standards, and Include is a big part of that, we’re probably naturally doing it, and we’re diversifying our collections.

Hall: Matt, your part was the diversity audit, right? I never even thought about that until you put that in the project. I thought that was phenomenal.

King: And Bianca actually did that in her library.

Spurlock: Yeah, I did. I followed Matt’s example, but we did it in the lower middle school, with our fifth graders, so I had to make it simpler, and more visual. But I followed everything that Matt had put in there, the principle of it. We did a small section, just one shelf in our biography section to see how many books we had in a girls’ school that were primarily featuring men. We looked at how many different abilities we did not showcase. Did we showcase people that had mental or physical disabilities? We didn’t have that many. It was a really eye-opening process and something I had never done. And, again, I think having these sessions where we were able to pull from each other and try out some of the things that we were going to put in our publication was really helpful.

Raff: I’ve gone back and shared some of those things with the 10 elementary librarians in my district. During a PD [professional development] day, I talked about our project and shared the links and talked about diversity. I was personally connected to the scenario in our toolkit about religious observance, because I grew up Jewish in a community where there weren’t Jews, and I always found the Christmas tree and the Christmas paraphernalia upsetting. And now I work in a school where there are a lot of Asian Indian students, and I went to pull books for Diwali and we only had three of them and they were horrible. That made me think about my collection in a different way. And although this is only my second year in the library, I’m really making an effort to bring in books that represent not only the world, but more specifically my school population.

Hall: We had the book challenge policy as part of our project, and that was really important for me, because we didn’t have one in place. I teach in a very rural, very conservative district in central Pennsylvania with a strong Mennonite presence, so trying to diversify is challenging. Fortunately, I have the support of administration to make sure that everybody is included and there’s lots of diversity on my shelf. But we did actually change our book challenge policy after doing this project. Now, a parent has to go through a very lengthy process to get a book challenged and taken off the shelf—they can’t just say they don’t want a certain book on the shelf.

What are some of the ways you’re helping to get the word out about your toolkit?

Spurlock: I am the ALA ISS [Independent Schools Section] chair elect for 2020–2021 and my platform was focused on EDI [equity, diversity, and inclusion] because of how much work I’ve seen that comes with this standard. I think the toolkit is a great start for any level of librarian. Beth, you’ve actually presented, correct?

Raff: Yes, at my state conference, the New Jersey Association of School Librarians annual conference. I felt like I owed them. They sponsored me for the Emerging Leaders program and paid for everything—for Midwinter, for Annual. So during our annual state conference in December, I did a presentation about the project and I shared our graphic and QR code and I also wrote about it in our NJASL newsletter. In my district, I gave a presentation on a PD day and I focused mostly on diverse books. Our topic is bigger than that, but I thought a place to start with my colleagues was diverse books.

Hall: I’m a member of my state organization, PSLA, and a committee chair. One of the things they did for me was they shared our graphic and our resource guide across all of our communication channels in Pennsylvania, so it went out on our social media channels, it was on our website, that sort of thing, so that people could access it.

King: And I think we are all being advocates in our own libraries, too. We’re all truly living that document, and we are trying to make our libraries as inclusive as possible, through the books we select, the reflections we make, the activities we teach.

How long did the project take, overall?

Raff: We spent a lot of hours.

Hall: A long time.

Spurlock: From the first time we met in January, we hit the ground running pretty fast.

King: We met once a week for probably an hour and a half to two hours. And we divided up the tasks. We all worked together very well. We’re also a diverse group—we’re as diverse as diverse comes. Our libraries are all different, the grade levels we teach are all different, our personal lives are very different. Many times, the ladies here spoke from personal experience, and I think that really helped. We shared things I don’t think we would have shared other places.

Spurlock: Overshared! I also think we worked really well together. We have people who are hyperorganized—Matt organized us really well.

Hall: Heck yeah!

Spurlock: Corey could knock out a paragraph really quickly where I couldn’t find the words. And even though she’s being quiet right now, Jhenelle comes up from behind you with really great ideas, settling in on what you’re trying to say. She’s almost like a secret weapon, where she’s so quiet but then comes out with, “Well, did you mean this?” and we’re like, “Exactly.”

Hall: And Bianca’s the encyclopedia of anything to do with EDI (Equity Diversity and Inclusion).

Spurlock: Then we have Beth, who is really good at asking the hard questions—questions we might have but don’t know how to express yet. Like, “Wait a minute, what does this mean, or why are we doing this, or where is this coming from?” I think that chemistry worked really well with our group and it propelled our project forward pretty fast.

Raff: I literally stepped into my position last September. I was a teacher for 21 years but I had not been a school librarian more than a minute or two. It was so amazing to work with these people, because they helped bring me along and they also made me realize that I’d made the right choice, because it was a big change.

Spurlock: Can we give a shout-out to Ellen Oh? One of my favorite parts of this project was being connected to someone who is really involved in this work. She was really personable and great on the panel.

King: And also Stephanie. Without Stephanie this would never have happened.

Raff: She let us do what we wanted to do, but she kept us on the time frame we needed to be on.

Hall: And once Ellen got an understanding of what we wanted to do with the panel, she was just so open and responsive and receptive to our ideas. She ran with it.

Spurlock: The panel was one of the things our toolkit opened up an opportunity for. We were really surprised at that and happy, even though we were kind of scared and nervous at first.

Raff: Usually the Emerging Leaders groups just finish at Annual and it’s done, from our understanding.

Spurlock: Not us!

Hall: We just keep going.

Raff: When we were presented with the panel opportunity, we were like, “Sure!” And I certainly never would have gotten that kind of exposure otherwise, so it was great.

Hall: And we all like each other a lot, so it’s awesome that we get to keep working together.

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