iStaff: a judgment-free community

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Author: Sue Kowalski
Date: Oct. 2014
From: Teacher Librarian(Vol. 42, Issue 1)
Publisher: E L Kurdyla Publishing LLC
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,909 words
Lexile Measure: 1380L

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It is an integral component of the middle school library. It has a significant presence throughout our school. It has become a celebrated program of our district. It is open to students of all abilities and challenges. Next year, we are taking it across the entire district.

It is the Pine Grove Middle School Library iStaff in the East Syracuse Minoa School District in New York. The iStaff is a team of students in grades 6-8 who seek out and accept the opportunity to work as part of this leadership crew facilitated by the library.

The Pine Grove Middle School Library is a conduit for teaching, learning, and leadership. Its mission is to be the place where all students and staff find answers, guidance, information, tools, support, solace, and inspiration. With the iStaff team on board, the library program is able to thrive well beyond the walls of the school library and empower participatory leadership opportunities for all students.

Four years ago, there seemed to be a constant stream of students who were "bored," "done with their work," or just generally willing to contribute their time to the library during study hall, lunch, and before and after school. The library staff (full-time librarian/ library clerk) would accommodate and direct students to poster making, tidying up the facility, shelving books, creating displays, or making deliveries to classrooms. Though the help was welcome, the consistency and investment by these volunteers was sporadic, and it seemed as though much adult staff time was spent creating and explaining the jobs at hand. The initial plan was to stop accepting volunteers, as it was becoming quite a time zapper. The thought of turning away interested stakeholders, however, seemed counterproductive. A more formalized plan was implemented, and the iStaff concept was born.

Like any new concept, especially one that is student centered, decisions had to be made to balance the goals of the iStaff program, consider overall library operations, and keep student academic needs at the forefront. Initially, there was an overzealous campaign to recruit, hire, and get students on board. All who applied were accepted. The enthusiasm was high, as were the numbers of kids who wanted to be part of the team. Committed to honoring their interest, the librarian invested a great deal of time updating lists, creating passes, providing training, managing the range of abilities of the team members, and keeping productivity high.

It didn't take long to realize that quantity didn't necessarily align with a quality opportunity for students or program facilitators. Slow shifts were made to better align the iStaff with overall program needs and individual student expectations and abilities. It was evident that they wanted to work, they wanted to take charge, and they were willing to try new things. But if there were ten to twelve volunteers on a shift, it became more social, less productive, and a potential overall distraction to instruction and other activities in the library. Students who were less confident and less self-directed seemed uncomfortable with the lack of structure and got lost in the shuffle.

To better accommodate all learning styles and varied abilities of applicants, the iStaff program continues to go through healthy transformations and has evolved into a practice that is differentiated and based on shared management. Now in the third year of the formalized program, interested students submit their applications via Google Forms, indicate their strengths and preferred job areas, and describe a student they admire and why. The iStaff team works together to hire, train, and delegate tasks. No longer is it a group run from the top down but rather a collaborative approach to management. With less time being spent on the details of the program, there is more focus on differentiating tasks for individual iStaff members.

The main goal of the program is for students to take the lead in the areas they feel the most confident in and challenge themselves in the areas that cause them more angst. Students work in teams, tap into each others' strengths, and strive to get the projects done.

The iStaff roster for the past three years has included students with physical challenges (vision/hearing/speech impaired), learning disabilities, Down's syndrome, autism, Asperger's, ESL students, and students managing emotional and behavioral issues.

Two years ago, Seth, a young man with Down's syndrome (predominantly nonverbal) joined our iStaff and came daily with his aid to manage his own area. At first Seth kept the baseball (his passion) books organized, and that evolved into managing the entire sports section. Seth's aid, other iStaff members, and the librarian supported him, as needed, to shelve books, organize displays, and create labels and signage. He arrived each day with focus, donned his name badge, demonstrated a sense of pride, and had a huge smile (he also received a standing ovation every day-a one-day tribute that turned into a standard display of appreciation for him). This young man even shared his perspective at a professional event for librarians (with Dr. David Loertscher, professor, San Jose State University), with the help of his voice-assisted technology.

Another student, Mitch, struggled with confidence, anxiety, and a multitude of age-appropriate social and academic skills but joined the team after he developed a connection to the library staff and the library as a safe haven. He had an interest in technology, a willingness to self-teach, and patience to teach others. His classroom teacher, the library staff, and his parents worked collaboratively to ensure he had a positive experience that wasn't counterproductive to his academic needs. He, too, presented at Dr. Loertscher's workshop with a PowerPoint presentation that he worked on at school and home about the talents he brought to the iStaff team in the areas of technology, gaming, and game design.

Strong libraries level the playing field for kids of all abilities and challenges. The Pine Grove Library iStaff program empowers students to become a part of the leadership team regardless of their disabilities. Providing students with authentic experiences that recognize their talents and gifts while giving them a safe opportunity to explore new ones has an impact on the library program and, more importantly, on the student. Students, whether they verbalize it or not, strive for acceptance and want to be a part of things. For some it's a relatively easy path; for others, the journey is difficult. Libraries, through programs like iStaff, offer students the chance to be a crew member rather than simply a passenger in the library, school, and life.

The iStaff program at Pine Grove Middle School is one example of how school libraries can provide authentic learning experiences for students with disabilities. Librarians from across the country are providing inclusive services and empowering students of all abilities to succeed. For example, school librarian Teena Lauth (Binghamton, New York, School District) works with a program for autistic students at the high school level. When students work in the library, she coordinates tasks and works with the students on overall job skills. Through this authentic environment, students get experience interacting with others, providing verbal responses, and managing changes in routines, schedules, and situations.

There are ample opportunities for students of all abilities to lead in and through the library. Librarians need to assess their environments (grade level, schedules, staffing, facilities) and align student talent with opportunities for them to shine. Consider students to manage daily tasks that will connect them with books and provide a great service to the entire community. Creating thematic displays, organizing series, developing book trailers, designing contests, gathering requests from peers, promoting new titles, meeting with sales reps, and managing daily transactions will give students a chance to be immersed in one of their interest areas and share that knowledge and expertise with peers. Even the youngest of workers can assist with deliveries to and from the library, help with booktalks, organize books into genre and/ or desired arrangement, and contribute to purchasing decisions.

Libraries frequently host special events for students, staff, and the community. Designating a team of students to lead the way with facility setup, prepare for meetings (technology, refreshments, signage), or work as tour guides will enhance the level of customer service.

Instructional opportunities for students to lead are limitless. Every student, regardless of age, can be an incredible asset to teaching and learning. Charge students, or a team of them, to be the local experts or "geek squad" to support learning in the areas of coding, game design, presentation tools, multimedia productions, social media, the library catalog, and support for multiple platforms and devices. Have students test apps, websites, virtual tours, games, subscriptions, and online applications and develop (or locate) guides to support new users. Even just having a student (or team) at the ready to respond to a variety of on-demand troubleshooting is a win-win for all involved. Students are willing and able-they just need to be empowered to lead.

Promotions and advertising of a library's programs, services, and campaigns are critical to connecting with the community. Put students in role of public relations managers, and they can create print and online posters, banners, flyers, teasers, media, and face-to-face presentations that will increase awareness and buy-in to what the library has to offer. A team of even five students can have exponential impact. Students can write press releases, design logos for "swag," contact the media, present to teachers or administrators, give feedback on grant applications, take pictures, and use social media to expand the circle of influence.

The leadership that students can provide will be as unique as the program warrants. Students who are part of an effectively managed leadership team will become invested in the mission and vision of the program. Tasks and priorities may shift throughout the year for a multitude of reasons, and the expectations that the entire team will shift needs to be clear. A new district initiative, building project, special event, curriculum focus, or thematic emphasis may call for a transformation in the way the library does business, and the entire leadership team, including student workers, needs to be a part of that focus.

A strong school library can impact an entire school community. Empowering students of all ages and abilities to become leaders who will invest their time, energy, and talent with others for the good of the entire school will maximize that impact. As librarians make decisions about ways to effectively lead their programs to be integrated into all aspects of their schools and communities, the inclusion of student leadership teams should be at the top of the list. Student leaders are one of our greatest assets--let them help you lead the way to long-term success.


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Sue Kowalski is the librarian at Pine Grove Middle School in the East Syracuse Minoa District, NY. Pine Grove was honored as the 2011 ALA/Follett School Library Program of the Year. Sue and her team are passionate about creating a student-centered program that inspires learning for life. She served (2012-2013) as president of the New York Library Association/SSL: Section of School Librarians.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A387953017