Teacher Tuesday

What a joy it’s been this year, getting acquainted with teachers and librarians across this great country. I shouldn’t be surprised by the places this journey has taken me, but I don’t think I could’ve ever guessed this post would be going to the dogs. And it’s all thanks to Margie Myers-Culver, a librarian at Charlevoix Elementary and Charlevoix Middle Schools, way up at the tip of Michigan’s mitten.  Margie works with students in kindergarten through eighth grade and her passion for connecting kids and books hasn’t diminished one iota in thirty years. 

Let’s first take a peek at Margie’s past:

A Peek at Your Past:
  • Favorite school lunch as a kid: Grilled cheese and tomato soup
  • Teacher who inspired you to stretch: Mrs. Peggy Brown, my sixth grade English teacher, demanded the very best from her students.  It was old school teaching all the way, but despite her stern exterior I knew deep in her heart she was passionate about her teaching and wanted the very best from and for each of her students.  Another teacher I have to mention is my seventh grade advanced math teacher, Mr. William York.  We worked very hard every day for him.  The reason…he would read aloud if we accomplished all our tasks.

Margie, you’ve been a librarian for more than thirty years – that shows a lot of love and commitment! Thank you for your service. How has technology impacted your library?

Technology is a tool that has expanded our horizons and increased our efficiency.  When I think back to the changes in hardware alone, I have to laugh: hand-threaded 16MM projectors versus DVDs.  We had to type all the cards for the card catalog (ugh) when I began teaching.  When the card kits were made available with each title ordered, it was heavenly.  Now, computerized catalogs allow me to download the information into a database in seconds.  

What I think we need to remember is that technology should enhance what we already know to be true; not the end but the means.  A perfect example of this is the arrival of the Internet (I’m talking when I first used it: text only; no Netscape, Internet Explorer or Google Chrome). A student wanted to use it to find information about the Academy Awards.  After 30 minutes the answer had still not been found.  Within a matter of minutes a quick look in the World Almanac revealed the answer.  

With technology, however, new perspectives and options have been added.  We no longer simply do a booktalk; we can choose to show a book trailer too.  We don’t just read a book or website for information about an author or an illustrator, we can Skype with them.  Although technology builds bridges we still need to find the right resource for the right reader at the right time…and we need to teach them to use it independently.

You mentioned that you’ve worked hard to make the library a “joyful, fun learning experience” for your students. Can you share some examples of how you’ve done that?  

First I’ve always tried to make the space appropriately welcoming for whatever age my students might be.  Changing bulletin boards monthly with interactive options on them for students, constantly altering book displays on top of shelves, within shelves and on just about every flat surface available, covering the walls with posters that entertain and inform, having a “Xena (my dog) Pick of the Week” book, comfortable seating (large animal shaped pillows) and lighting from lamps other than the overhead lights, are all things I do.  
Margie and Xena

In one corner of the storytelling area I placed a huge birch tree branch covered with little white lights; additional lighting would be added for holidays.  Whenever skills are taught I involve the students actively as much as possible.  I have developed numerous learning games to reinforce a specific skill.  When I booktalk we almost always play the fiction/nonfi
ction game where I try to trick them about where a particular book might be shelved.  They love to “beat” me.  I always begin many book sharing sessions with “tell me what you are reading”.  Students speak about a book, others guess fiction or nonfiction or genre.  Almost every single visit without fail, no matter the age, ends with a read aloud.  Every single year I include a storytelling unit with all grades.  

Students also know that their requests for new materials will be honored whenever possible.  They need to know this is their library.  I may be the overseer, caretaker, manager, acquistioner, cataloger, explorer of the Internet, web 2.0 tool teacher, booktalking and storytelling queen, but I do everything for them.  Here is a link to short slide show of my library at the beginning of a school year (2011).   
Why is it important for students to have a positive feeling about the library?  

Public libraries were initially established to offer free materials for everyone.  They represent (or should) equal access to the best reading and information titles being published in print or virtually.  It has continually been my goal for my students to be able to walk into any library in any town at any level (school, college, public) and feel comfortable finding what they need for that particular moment. If students do not have a positive feeling about the library how will we building reading communities? How will we make them independent learners?

What are some of the skills students gain when they are taught to use their library effectively?  

Students are taught to locate, access, and use what is appropriate for their needs, on the shelves or virtually.  This might involve lessons on using OPAC or determining which information online is relevant, reliable and pertinent.  I want them to be able to zero in on the best and discard the rest.  I adhere to the process as being almost, if not more, important than the product.  My students know from my example to constantly question, to dig deeper.  New web 2.0 and 3.0 tools are continually coming to my attention through Twitter and blogs I follow.  I, in turn, incorporate those into lessons which address library use skills or coincide with projects in their classrooms.  Love of reading, also by my example, is a given.  We feel the need to read, everything, all the time, anywhere.  I love it when I’m in a store shopping, hear a voice ring out—“Hi, Mrs. Culver, see you in the library next week.  Guess what I’m reading?”
Can you talk about some of your favorite units to teach, like storytelling? 

Nearly thirty years ago I was attending a professional development day featuring a storyteller.  From that moment forward I committed to using storytelling as a vehicle to encourage reading in my students; oral telling being the connection to the written word.  I became a member of the National Storytelling Network, attending the National Storytelling Festival several different Octobers and several classes offered during the summer in Jonesborough, Tennessee.  This gave me confidence to offer it as a separate class to middle school students and later to make it a part of my elementary program as well.  Storytelling traditions within other cultures are discussed.  Types of stories are introduced.  Students listen to a variety of stories and learn to tell over the course of several weeks.  It’s amazing to see them open up when given the opportunity.

Can you give an example of some key elements of a successful booktalk?

First and foremost is to know your audience.  They need to know you care about them, their interests, their passions. My book talks cover a variety of topics and genres depending on requests from the classroom teacher, the time of year and whether we have recently acquired a new selection of books.  (I’ve been known to burst forth about a book I finished the night before as soon as a class walks in,  unable to keep in my excitement.) With younger students I might begin with—“I was going through the shelves last night and I found these lonely books.  They miss being checked out.  Why are they on the shelves?  Did you know that…” I provide a mini, mini introduction and a hook for every book.  The hook can be a thought, question illustration or my response to reading the book. Sometimes the best hook is the first sentence in the book or another few sentences showing the author’s writing style. You know your booktalk is successful if your listeners want you to continue for a particular book or they want to leap from their seats at the end to check them out or if you have to draw names and make a hold list.  You need to be full of enthusiasm for every single book you talk about with your students and they need to know why you feel that way.
Please share that wonderful story about March is Reading Month, something that happened about five years ago.
For me, that was one of many best moments.  I love the Iditarod, perhaps because of reading books by Gary Paulsen.  For several weeks each year, my students and I read a variety of titles about the history of the race, dogs, and mushing. I’ve designed various research activities altering those acquired from the Iditarod committee itself. PBS Nature has a great activity titled Sled Dogs: An Alaskan EpicStudents work in teams to answer questions on prepared sheets.  Teams report back and we
discuss the reasons for the specific answers. 

One of the activities I had the students do was design the checkpoint sheets to be displayed around the school during the month of March.  Each checkpoint on the Iditarod had a spot on the walls going around the entire inside perimeter of the school building. (Paw prints with student names and titles of books read were hung on the walls between the checkpoints.) The students needed to go to the official site of the Iditarod and locate the tab containing information about the checkpoints.  They then went to the individual checkpoint. I had them do some math figuring out the number of miles into the race (that is shown now).  You could still have students do math by figuring out how many miles are left in the race.  They had to list two important pieces of information that made each checkpoint unique.   I’ve subscribed to the Iditarod Insider so we can watch the updates during the race as soon as they happen.  

But one year, my library lessons stretched out to everyone in the school.  If we met our reading goal, an Iditarod musher would come and spend a day with us.  It happened!  Ed and Tasha Stielstra came with an entire team of dogs.  Their presentation was wonderful and top readers got pulled on a sled by a dog team.  It is a day I will never forget, a year to remember.

You mentioned that you’ve been told you have the knack for directing a student to just the right book. What kinds of things do you think about when suggesting a title? 

Every time I suggest a title, I think about what I know about the particular student.  If I know nothing about them, we chat. I ask what they enjoy, what do they do in their spare time.  Once you really know your students it’s much easier to find them something to read.  Of course, many books are favorites with all students because of the combination of the pictures with the text or because the writing has universal appeal.  And I always say, “If you don’t like it, come right back. I have thousands more.”  There is a right book for every reader.

Can you share an anecdote about a time you really hit a home run with this kind of suggestion?  
I can think of two.  Several years ago with more massive budget cuts looming on the horizon, working in two buildings K-8 and thinking I was losing my mind, wondering like so many educators do if I was making a difference, I opened my email in the morning to a surprise.  One of my former students from another district had tracked me down to thank me for all my help when he was an awkward middle school student; for providing him a welcoming atmosphere and encouragement.  I was overwhelmed when I figured out that he must be in his thirties then.  I remembered him as being quiet and quite the reader.
Just last year the sister of a twin brother came in late one afternoon and said her mother was thrilled with what I had been able to do for her son.  Now for the first time as soon as he finished one book he started another.  He’d never been a reader before.  He fell in love with reading because I matched him with Gary Paulsen books. Right book for the right reader at the right time; it works wonders.
What a terrific inspiration you are, Margie. Thank you for this great interview. Readers: want more of Margie’s great ideas? Check out her blog, Librarian’s Quest or follow her on Twitter, @Loveofxena.