Teacher Tuesday

I haven’t kept careful tabs on where all of my wonderful interviewees for this feature have been from, but I think today’s guest is the first one to represent a truly urban school.  I am so grateful for Sylvie Shaffer for sharing her unique perspective today. Sylvie is in her fourth year as school librarian at the Parkside Campus of the Cesar Chavez Public Charter School for Public Policy, located in northeast D.C., in what Sylvie describes as “an isolate urban neighborhood.” She works with about 730 students, grades 6 through 12.
By now you know the drill! We’re going to start with a peek at Sylvie’s past.

  • Favorite school lunch as a kid: I brown-bagged it most days: pb&j on whole wheat bread, a fruit rollup, juicebox, and some carrotsticks. (boring, I know- sorry!) 
  • Best friend in grade school: Jennifer L and I were inseparable in elementary school- I loved reconnecting with her over social media a few years back and saw her for the first time in over a dozen years earlier this fall. We laughed at how much we hadn’t changed! 
  • Times you were the new kid in school:  I was the new kid five times. It was always hard, but the most challenging time was a mid-school year switch from a small private school in the suburbs to a larger inner city school. It’s been almost thirty years, but I still remember how scared I was. The day I was supposed to switch turned out to be a snow day and I felt such relief that I got one more day to psych myself up for the change. 
  • Teacher that inspired you to stretch: Reference librarian extraordinaire, Barb Wurtzel my community college professor, and current dean of library services at Springfield Technical Community College, was and continues to be a huge influence over my life and career path. I started community college after some time away from school and my lack of confidence was as big a challenge to overcome as my lack of research skills- I gained both in her honors research class and her approach to teaching: heavy on patience, encouragement, and allowing students to explore research topics that interest them, shape my interactions with my middle and high school students today, over a dozen years later. 
  • The one thing you always wished you could do in grade school but never achieved: This seems so silly (and dangerous!) now, but at the time it was a really big deal: there were some benches around the perimeter of  the playground, and the cool thing to do at recess was to leap from bench to bench all they way around the playground. I’ve always been short, with short legs, so although I was pretty flexible and wiry through elementary school and could turn perfect cartwheels, the leaping from bench to bench thing just wasn’t happening for me. I remember trying to practice in secret after school once, in the hopes that I could dazzle my classmates at lunch the next day, missing by several inches, and scraping the heck out of both knees and palms. Ouch!
We’re glad you survived the bench jumping, Sylvie, because you are making such a difference in connecting kids and books. You work with a population of urban youth, many of them in poverty. How do you see this harsh fact of life impacting your students’ experiences with books and reading?

As we all do every time we read, my kids bring to each book their own set of life experiences, or lack thereof. Reading through the lenses of poverty and urban life presents challenges at times – not getting mainstream cultural references, lacking vocabulary, or not being able to identify with the experiences they’re reading about can prevent kids from engaging with books. It’s also sometimes the case that my students don’t see reading modeled outside of school, or may have responsibilities (childcare- their own kids or siblings/relatives, afterschool jobs) which can make it harder for them to carve out time to read. 

Do you have one particular goal or guiding principle you strive for? What is it?

The right book for the right reader at the right time. 

How can/do you support your students at school to make reading a higher priority?

By putting books that they want to read in their hands- it’s challenging to get kids to “prioritize reading”- much easier to find a book that grabs them from the first pages, gives them that sense of urgency to find out what happens next in the story. 

You bragged about your students, saying they are “absolutely amazing.” Please, tell us about the ways in which they are amazing and how they inspire you.

One of the ways in which my kids never cease to amaze me is their ability to really grapple with big ideas about public policy and equality, and to speak up for themselves both as individuals and collectively. I’m especially proud of my high school debate team and of all my seniors each year as they present their senior theses on a public policy topic they’ve researched over their senior year. Watching them cross the stage to get their diplomas each spring makes me cry, especially knowing that not only will most of them be the first in their families to go to college, a great number of their parents didn’t graduate high school. 

Have you used technology to boost access to books and their creators? If so, which ones and how?

I’ve connected with the amazing An Open Book Foundation via Twitter and Facebook, which has led to my hosting some incredible authors this year, including Ruta Sepetys, Maureen Johnson, Matt de la Pena and Gigi Amateau. I am also looking forward to an exciting collaboration with Kurtis Scaletta next fall, coinciding with the release of his forthcoming book, The Winter of the Robots. A group of my middle schoolers who will be competing in the First Lego League Robotics Challenge will read the book and do a skype visit with Kurtis. I am so grateful when authors are open to projects like this and Twitter makes it possible to explore opportunities like this one. 

How do your students’ needs and interests impact the way you add to your collection?

Finding that sweet spot where need meets interest can be tough, especially considering so many of our kids are reading several grade levels behind. I definitely stock lots of hi/lo (high interest/low reading level) books, like those from Saddleback, Lerner and Orca, as well as books by authors with reluctant reader appeal, especially those featuring an urban setting- Coe Booth, Walter Dean Myers, Sharon Draper, Sharon Flake, Paul Volponi, Janet McDonald, Matt de la Pena…a lot of my kids are drawn to funny stuff, too, like Tom Angleburger, Dave Lubar, and of course graphic novels and graphic hybrids are huge with my students as well- Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Dork Diaries etc. Oooh, and short stories- The Guys Read collections are very popular, even with some girls. 

What has most surprised you about the books your students passionately strongly connect with? 

I can’t really say I’m ever surprised when kids connect with books, delighted, yes, surprised, not really. I do especially love it when a kid falls hard for a title I’ve loved (or hated!) and we’re able to engage in conversation about it. Actually, I would say the inverse of your question happens more often: a kid will be surprised that I’ve read and loved a book they connected with. 

How do you work with a kid for whom pleasure reading is a hard sell?

My approach is to try to identify what the obstacles to pleasure reading might be (often there are more than one in play) and work from there. It may be the case that reading doesn’t come easily and we need to find a book with a simpler vocabulary and/or storyline to make reading less frustrating and more fun. Or, it could be that the kid is a fine reader but just hasn’t yet experienced getting lost in a book. When that’s the case, I walk the stacks with them and ask lots of questions to get a sense of their interests- what are some of their favorite movies and tv shows, what sports do they like to watch or play, that kind of thing. Also, I’ve found that narrative nonfiction, especially biographies and memoirs, can be the magical gateway to pleasure reading. I booktalk a ton, across many genres, and don’t let anyone leave my library empty-handed. 

What do you see as your most important role as a book advocate?

To be really public about my reading- engage students, teachers and administrators in frequent conversations about books…share what I’m reading, and make suggestions for what they might enjoy reading next. 

How might the book community (publishers, editors, authors, illustrators) support you more? 

There’s a huge need for more high-quality books featuring tweens and teens of color and/or set in the inner city but that aren’t “urban issue books.” Although I get a ton of requests for books about gangs, drugs, teen pregnancy, and life in the projects, it’s both disappointing and problematic that nearly all the books available that feature kids who look like and share daily experiences with my students are almost exclusively ones that portray kids of color as living lives fraught with extreme and stereotypical challenges. Where are the books about inner city black kids who aren’t involved with gangs and drugs? It would be great for my kids to see themselves represented in a more positive and more mainstream way, but without being super-didactic or having religious overtones. 

Do you think a connection with books makes an even bigger difference for students who may struggle in their personal lives? If so, can you speak to that?

Absolutely. Kids who may not be ready, willing, or able to talk about serious issues like rape, drugs, poverty, pregnancy, gangs, mental illness, sexuality and sexual identity can process by reading fiction that tackle these themes, as well as find accurate, non-biased information in nonfiction texts about tough issues. Some students also find comfort in the escape provided by reading about entirely different challenges than the ones they’re experiencing can provide- my fantasy readers, especially. And of course, there’s also so many wonderful books that don’t necessarily tackle such heavy issues, but more un
iversal tween and teen troubles- sibling issues, first crushes etc. It can be so validating to read about characters going through the same stuff you are. I wrote a guest post for The Nerdy Book Club about this very question a while back. You can read it here, if you’d like. 

What are your library’s biggest needs? 

We desperately need to update the current computers and add a laptop cart. Currently, we have only 12 outdated desktops – students need to double and often triple up to do research or type. What’s worse, most of them don’t have computers or Internet access at home, so it’s important that they have ready access to computers at school, to get them college and career ready. (I asked Sylvie for more details about the dollars needed to meet this big need and she shared this info from a grant proposal she put together last year: Cost of empty cart- $2,150, which would allow more students to use computers within the library, while seated at the six already existing tables, and it will also allow librarian-led, technology-enhanced learning throughout the school building. 25 Laptops- $14,150. ID theft plates- $375, each laptop must be equipped with an ID Theft plate and the accompanying free software to secure against theft. Currently, 12 Wireless Access Points service the campus. In order to support additional computers and maintain the wireless infrastructure, 8 additional wireless access points will need to be added at a cost of $800 each. )
Look at this happy librarian face! We need to find her — and her school! — a fairy godmother.

What do you wish I’d asked you that I neglected to ask? 

I wish you’d asked “What are you currently reading?”, so I could talk up Tanya Lee Stone’s latest, Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickles: America’s First Black Paratroopers. 

It’s absolutely fascinating- the writing is so crisp and engaging and the photographs add an additional  layer of interest. I couldn’t help myself from starting to read it when my library’s copy came in a Junior Library Guild delivery, and a kid caught me reading at my desk (when I should have been processing it!) and as excited as I was that he demanded I process it on the spot so he could check it out, I was disappointed that I couldn’t take it home that night myself! Luckily, my local public library had a copy available. 

I’m sure you were sorry you couldn’t take that book home but that disappointment was FAR outweighed by the pleasure of knowing you’d gotten a kid hooked on a book! Sylvie, I so appreciate your insights and I’m confident anyone reading this today is grateful for you, too. 

Want to hear more of Sylvie’s thoughts on connecting kids and books? Follow her on Twitter: @sylvie_shaffer