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In Conversation With ... James Allen

James Allen

on K-12 school libraries of today and tomorrow
Kentucky School Advocate
April 2020
In Conversation With … features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a representative of the Kentucky School Advocate.
In celebration of National School Library Month, James Allen, school library lead/digital learning coach at the Kentucky Department of Education, talks about K-12 school libraries of today and tomorrow. Allen joined the state Department of Education in 2019 after serving as school librarian at Eminence Independent. Before becoming a librarian, he taught music in Oldham County.
Q. Not everyone understands the role school librarians play in K-12 education. How do you describe the job?
A. Things have changed drastically since I started in 2003-04. School libraries look different depending on the school or district. The general public might think of the librarian behind a desk, checking books out. But today, that might not even be a part of your job because you have a classified staff member who does it or you have self-checkout, as we did at Eminence Independent. Ninety percent of kids know what books they want so they don’t need our help finding a book. That frees you up to help kids who do need help.

Q. What kinds of things are librarians doing then? 

A. Librarians support teachers in their curriculum. They help students use technology better. In Oldham County, where I started, every school librarian was also the school technology coordinator. Other districts have different people to fill each of those jobs. 

And we aren’t always working in the physical library space. We might do mini lessons for teachers in the classroom. Teachers might send small groups to us. If we’re helping students with a research project, we might review resources and show them how those resources work. At the same time, we give instruction on information literacy, how to vet sources, talk about biases, how to cite sources and the importance of intellectual property.

Q. You've been with the Department of Education since August. What are your goals as school library lead/digital learning coach?

A. Our biggest project is to create academic standards for libraries, which we’ve never had in Kentucky. These are elective standards so they won’t be required or assessed officially like math or reading. We hope these will be adopted, similar to the computer science standards. 

Q. How is work on this project progressing?

A. We started last summer. Our group includes about 30 school librarians and representatives from higher education. Our standards will be based on the American Association of School Libraries’ national standards. Our final draft will go through a monthlong public comment and then a first reading before the state board of education. I think we are shooting for a final reading in October. 

Q. Why is it important to have standards at the state level?

A. The national standards are good, but they are not written for grade levels. Our state standards will be broken down into probably four levels. Each level will have specifics. School librarians are good about knowing what they need to do, but I think the standards will give administrators, parents and other teachers an idea of what our goals are for students, and how we can connect those standards to academic standards. It’ll basically tell you what should be going on in your library. 

Q. How will the standards help school libraries?

A. I think it will help because not all school libraries are in the same place. One might look like it did 30 years ago, but you might also walk into Eminence Independent where we’re doing laser cutting and 3D printing and checking out books at the same time.

Q. Did your work at Eminence help prepare you for the statewide job?

A. Yes. It helped to get EdHub going and to practice in my dream library, where everything is fluid and we do different things and teachers are in and out, and we’re in and out of classrooms. It’s what I would like school libraries to look like. I don’t mean the physical space or the activities, but the relationships and the learning; having the school library be where all that happens.

Q. By state law, every school must have a librarian but it doesn't necessarily have to be a full-time librarian, right?

A. Yes. We have some districts where one person may oversee libraries at two, three, five schools. But around 75 percent of our schools have a full-time certified school librarian, and Kentucky is ahead of most states in this area. We want to get that last 25 percent of our schools to have a full-time person. That’s my ultimate professional goal.

Q. You’re also the digital learning coach. In most districts, is that part of the school librarian’s job?

A. I don’t think there’s one correct answer. I believe you need both. We talk about it at the Office of Education Technology all the time, like the human factor of educational technology is really way more important than the things – the Chromebooks, 3D printers or whatever. It’s really more about having the people. I don’t think that’s a goal to just call every librarian a digital learning coach. It’s more about tying those two fields together.

Q. Makerspaces have been added in a number of libraries. What skills do they build? 

A. My goal at Eminence was getting kids opportunities to learn things that they may not have a chance to learn somewhere else. Some schools might have an engineering track where you would use some higher-tech tools like 3D printers and laser cutters, but often those are off-limits to the general school population. So having a space or a program in your school library that’s open to everyone is a game changer. Not every kid will use it, but it is there if they want to create something that they can’t create somewhere else. The biggest thing is expanding choices students have when they want to demonstrate their learning. Some are digital, some may use 3D printing, others might be a place where you keep crafting supplies. Then you’ve got the person there to help you learn how to create new things. 
Q. So the library is about much more than reading and books?
A. Yes, and that’s not really new. If you go back in history, say to Roman times, libraries were places where people would come to learn how to cook, play musical instruments or do artwork. They’ve always been this place where you would come to learn something new, not just through checking out books. 

Q. Librarians also coach Student Technology Leadership Program (STLP) teams. Why does that make sense?

A. Well it’s similar to makerspaces. As a librarian, you have a broader view of education. You’re not content-area specific. You have a broad sense of what's out there and where to find information and how kids can take that information and turn it into projects. 

Q. You moderate a twice monthly school library media Twitter chat. Why is it valuable?
A. It’s a little bit lonely as a school librarian because you’re usually the only one in the building. In Oldham County, our 20 school librarians met monthly. But in many districts, there isn’t a network for librarians to lean on. We’re in our sixth year and the monthly chat is every second and fourth Tuesday during the school year. We meet at 8 p.m. EST on Twitter. Each chat is archived. The topics are broad. This past one was about meaningful educational technology. The one before that was on the newest Newbery and Caldecott winners. It lasts for about an hour. 
It’s also given us connections to other states. Texas has a chat on Tuesday, right after ours. Sometimes they’ll jump in early to ours and we’ll stay in theirs. I’ve met many friends all over the country through our Twitter chats.

Q. How can school board members support school librarians in their districts? 
A. In districts where every school has a school librarian, understanding what those people do is important. Some librarians are comfortable sharing what they are doing and maybe showcasing it to the school board every once in a while. When our standards are established, it will be important for school boards to stay up on those standards. Our goal is to follow the national model and develop learners’ standards then standards for school librarians and for the school library. Having the standards will give the school board something to go by and review as they work with librarians and libraries in their district.  
Photo: Before joining KDE, James Allen was school librarian at Eminence Independent which opened its EdHub in 2016. The Hub has eight different labs including virtual reality, filming projects for class, a LEGO wall and more. (Photo provided by KDE)

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