School Librarian Perspective: Angela Maxwell
Casey Matthews is a forward-thinking teacher who thinks about the long-term impact her class is going to have on students’ thinking and learning. She’s always looking for ways to stretch her students. She’s a passionate English teacher who has just wrapped up her PhD., so she definitely doesn’t have a shortage of ideas or expertise. Still, she wants to collaborate. She’s full of great ideas, and just as importantly, she’s open to ideas.
One of our best collaborations is continually evolving. It began from a discussion centered around graphic novels and book tasting. Since then, we’ve presented our collaboration and refined it. In March of 2021, Casey and I were honored to present at the Let's Talk Racism virtual conference based in North Carolina where we spoke with educators from around the country. My rule in the presentation was to talk about the role of the school librarian in curating graphic novels with diverse perspectives for teachers and students, some of the research incorporating graphic novels into the curriculum, and increasing student choice.
Our partnership begins with a student book tasting of graphic novels centered around diverse characters. Right from the start, student voice is important because they are making the choice. I curate a selection with Casey’s recommendations and my own. A Goodreads shelf of the books is created, and then I design menus, a presentation, and our school library holds a book tasting event. Because of COVID-19, innovation is required, so I recently designed a fully online Would You Rather Read virtual activity that I love and am excited to implement.
Starting a collaboration small and watching it grow is satisfying. Working with a teacher with as much expertise as Casey can be intimidating, but with her it’s fun and exciting. I know we’ve made a difference in our students’ educational experiences. I know there’s still a lot of work to be done when it comes to our students recognizing themselves and their history in our curriculum choices. Casey and I had a quick, natural connection, but as all school librarians know, that’s not going to happen with all of our colleagues.
Collaboration on a continuum can’t be overlooked. Starting deliberately with small steps builds trust. Curating a book list, recommending a new approach, and all the times we say YES to something we might not have the answer to yet, are just some of the ways we build relationships. Innovation is fostered through those small steps. We are a profession full of challenges and opportunities. When I am able to work with someone like Casey to realize the full potential of our ideas and planning, it’s a good reminder why I became a school librarian.
The collective creativity of our profession is always an inspiration to me, so if you are interested in connecting, I’m @angelajmax on Instagram and I’m happy to share the resources I discussed with my OELMA friends.
Usually whenever I speak the words “I have an idea!” I am met with hesitation, caution, and in extreme cases, fear.
It is not that I have bad ideas; I have no intention of doing anything that would cause bodily harm or property damage. My ideas are usually just big in scope, and because they may have never been done before in my department, they are daring in execution. Undeterred, I go to the one person who not only embraces my ideas but then provides the detailed steps to make them possible.
Angela is not just the school librarian in the building; she is a visionary, a researcher, a program developer, and a mentor. Everything Angela does is solely for the benefit of the students and staff, and she and I have collaborated on many projects and presentations, the most recent being a presentation on graphic novels at the Let’s Talk Racism Conference. We work well together not just because our personalities are so similar but because we both believe that creative evolution is important in pedagogy. The “we’ve always done it this way” mentality is what leads to the cycle of systemic oppression of our historically marginalized students, and in order to create inclusive and empowering spaces, educators must be willing to push forward and dismantle the barriers.
Collaboration is not always easy. Great ideas take time to plan and execute, and we, as educators, are stretched and stressed in this particular school year. Right now, many of us are just trying to survive. But it is also in these ambiguous times when new ideas are ripe for growth. The disruptions that we have experienced can provide reflection about the possibilities of the next school year, and for teachers who are looking to diversify their curriculum, there is no better advocate or resource than their school librarian. Whenever I decide to revamp units, the first person I go to is Angela for help. When I wanted to create a book choice unit with books that fit a specific theme, Angela provided me with a stack of books that fit the criteria. When I wanted students from my African American Literature class to read books and do a craft with our elementary school students; Angela made it happen. Whenever we moved to remote instruction, Angela built an entire ebook unit from her end to support my students. I texted her about two weeks ago and said, “So, I have this idea for my Honors class...,” and I know she is going to help me create the research-based unit I am envisioning. Angela will say that she’s just doing her job, but I know better. I know how much time and effort she puts into every project that she coordinates with me and with other teachers.
If anyone knows the history of librarians in this country, then they know that librarians are always ready for a good fight. They will come out of the stacks swinging. In our current sociopolitical climate, our librarians are facing a battle of misinformation and interpreting media, and now, more than ever, we have the important task of teaching our students how to be critical thinkers.
So, to my fellow teachers, lean on those school librarians in your building as frequently as you can. Collaborate with them, plan engaging and interesting activities with them, and let them show you all of the amazing things they know and can do for you and for your students. With our school librarians, we can begin the work of dismantling the institutional barriers that are harmful to many of our students and going forward, we can fight the good fight together.
Casey Matthews is a 20-year veteran of the English classroom. She is passionate about decolonizing the curriculum and recently defended her dissertation (Making sense of the gutters: How advanced-level English teachers use graphic novels) through Cleveland State University. She loves traveling to Maine in the summer with her husband and two boys, just to read books and drink coffee on the front porch. Drop a good book suggestion on Twitter (@CaseyPMatthews) because now that graduate school is over, she has time to read ALL the books for fun.
Angela Maxwell is a School Librarian at Beachwood High School in NE Ohio. With a broad background in Instructional Technology and Special Education, Angela helps teachers and school librarians use edtech with less prep and more punch. She's a Google for Education Certified Trainer, reading advocate, and is passionate about providing a safe space for all students in the library. Angela loves a good campfire, a good book, cooking a good meal, and a good chat. Connect with her on Instagram for library and tech tips, tricks, and the occasional cute dog and fam photo @angelajmax