Judi Paradis, President of the Massachusetts School Library Association and School Library Teacher at Waltham Plympton Elementary School

JudiParadis.jpgIf there's one school library teacher GSLIS Professor Fran Zilonis wants the School Library Teacher Program (SLTP) students to meet, it's Judi Paradis. GSLIS SLTP students take a tour of Paradis' Plympton School Library in Waltham, Mass. every year.  She is known in education circles for her leadership role as President of the Massachusetts School Library Association (MSLA), and patrons of her elementary school know Paradis for sponsoring award-winning literacy and cultural enrichment events that motivate children and families to love reading. As the winner of the MSLA Super-Librarian Accolade and AASL's Vision Tour Award, Paradis is re-defining the role of school librarians and the future of school libraries in Massachusetts.

Why did you become a school library teacher?

I had always wanted to be a teacher. However, there were many layoffs in public service jobs when I entered the workforce in the 1980s. As a medical writer, I was taught the importance of using information for a purpose. While my children were in elementary school, I worked part-time at a local public library. The local librarian encouraged me to pursue my master's degree in library and information science. The rest is history.

What do you perceive to be the three greatest challenges facing school libraries today? On the other hand, what do you perceive to be the three greatest opportunities?

Our greatest challenge is making government officials and school administrators understand that our jobs are necessary. Since school library teacher positions are not state mandated, budget cuts affect our jobs. In addition, we are solo practitioners in a building or district, so we must stay updated about best practices and new technology outside of school hours since there are no staff with whom to bounce around ideas. As a result, complacency can occur since there is no one to collaborate with on projects. Last, we need to change community perceptions about what we do. Many still perceive school librarians as shelving and checking out books. Yet today we provide instruction and professional development for teachers and integrate technology into classrooms.

As a result, opportunities exist for school librarians to cement their standing in the educational infrastructure. The Common Core State Standards, which are being adopted by Massachusetts this year, include research, technology, and literature skills that mesh perfectly with what school librarians teach. Since students have little awareness about how to access and evaluate information, and how to think critically, we can lobby to require librarians in schools. Pennsylvania librarians have started to make inroads in this area following a major evaluation of programs in that state.  Otherwise, we are missing a significant opportunity. With the movement to individualize children's educational experiences, librarians can examine technologies to accommodate different needs. For children with physical or learning disabilities, librarians can provide a range of formats, including videos, audio, and online tools to enhance their learning experience.

In addition, technology continues to create educational and job opportunities for school librarians. For example, the Simmons GSLIS Instructional Technology Licensure Program encourages school librarians to earn a second license in informational technology. The dual certification is in high demand in many school districts.

You have participated in your school's committees, including the Literacy Team, Critical Friends Group, Professional Learning Community, Multi-cultural Committee, Teachers as Readers, School Council, Kindergarten Curriculum Study Group, Principal Search Committee, and Professional Development.  Please discuss the importance of school library teachers' involvement in school committees.

Since a library needs to reflect the needs of the people it serves, school librarians need to have a finger in every pie in their schools. As the gatekeeper to resources, librarians have a unique perspective on how to link content to communities. Besides the school principal, we are the ones who know all the students, teachers, and administrators in an academic setting. In addition to being information specialists, we are social connectors.

On my school's professional learning committee, I connect teachers with technologies and approaches they had not thought about. By knowing how to tap into various resources, I have been able to coordinate amazing projects. For example, I coordinated a 3rd grade news show, which involved students interviewing recent immigrants, town employees, and others in the community. The students used a green screen and developed a video. The nine-year-olds felt empowered to ask questions and use new tools.

Some ask, "Why would the library do this?" I reply, because it can. As librarians, we have the opportunity to build a culture for the school.

Please discuss why and how your school is shifting its focus to a different family literacy model.

We found research that suggested parent involvement was tied to student achievement. Waltham, Mass. is filled with recent immigrants, two universities, and a community appreciation for cultural heritage. The elementary school I work in also has the oldest multicultural committee in the city.

However, it is difficult for some parents to practice conversational English with their children. Initially, we offered two-hour English-language courses in the evenings for parents. The library offered free babysitting, which included literacy activities for the children, but attendance was erratic. After two years of trying to improve the program, we realized the weekly commitment was too difficult for some families, especially those living in poverty. We needed to redefine our goals and change our model.

Since our goal was always to help families feel welcome and supported, we decided to change our goals about teaching parents English. The school and PTO (Parent Teacher Organization) created an event last spring in which families could bring and share their favorite foods. The music teacher taught folk dance and the drama teacher offered storytelling. The result was a success as many families attended and made new connections. Parents were excited about the school at the event. This year we plan to offer potluck, storytelling, and craft times that are geared toward families. We have also invited community groups, such as the YMCA, and translators to the library at our annual open house for families to meet since some parents may be intimidated to approach them on their own. We hope that the new model will provide a bigger bang for the buck.

In addition, we received a cultural council grant that provides funds to help us with our immersion program, in which each grade focuses on a continent for the school year and involves a variety of projects, including community service. We've had Asian families put on a fashion show during lunch and one mother from Kenya demonstrated a dance. It positions the parents as experts and allows them to share their knowledge and feel connected to the school community.

What are your favorite school library events? Where do you get your inspiration?

The Plympton School Library offers many annual, monthly, and ongoing events to inspire a love of reading. Halloween can be a difficult holiday since some children cannot afford costumes. Instead, we celebrate Vocabulary Day on the last day in October. Staff and students dress up as their favorite word. We can make simple headbands from classroom materials so that every child has a costume.

Our monthly programs empower children to read and feel connected to the library. We have prizes for reading, such as the World Series Readers program, which encourages team support to build literacy. An ongoing book buddy program enables 5th grade readers to mentor 2nd graders. In January, the Plympton Prize allows students to vote for the best book in the library. Our Poet-Tree in April encourages students to post poems on a tree in the library and selected poems are read during the morning school announcements. Children are also involved in the weeding process and evaluate books by submitting a form that states why the library should keep the book or discard it.

I read education magazines, talk to colleagues in the field, and steal their ideas when I can't come up with my own. As librarians, we need to be the school's cultural center.

What types of enrichment services or programs do you offer for gifted students?

While it is important that schools don't leave anyone behind, we also need to recognize there are many children waiting for others to catch up. For first and second graders who are reading a year ahead of their grade level, we offer an academic support group in the library. For example, the second graders undertake personal research projects, developing expertise in an area after reading a wide range of books. Having the classes in the library allows the children to become a part of the library world. The children come in before and after school. Some have been asking for a book discussion club during lunch. The children identify the library as a place to go to stretch their minds.

Since you are President of the Massachusetts School Library Association, what are your goals and vision for the organization? In addition, as an executive board member of the New England Library Association (NELA), what goals would you like to accomplish for that organization? How has participating in leadership roles in professional organizations influenced your career?

Since I started my second career in my forties, I had to jump in with both feet to make a difference. Leadership roles provide a great opportunity to work with people and it makes the job fun. I have also found that people will have increased respect for your work when they see you take your profession seriously.

As President of MSLA, I am working to establishing priorities for the year. Since there is a new Massachusetts teacher evaluation system, we want the Department of Education to review and evaluate the school librarians as a cohort in the profession. We are hoping to standardize what a school librarian should do and how we should evaluate their work. On the legislative level, we are hoping to replicate a successful effort recently completed in Pennsylvania, in which a commission was established to evaluate the status of school library programs across the Commonwealth.  We are hoping to pass a bill that will form a similar commission here to assess the staffing, collections, and hours of operation of school libraries in all 351 districts in Massachusetts.  Based on the data collected, we hope the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will begin to make recommendations regarding school library programs for Massachusetts' public schools.  Pennsylvania's commission led to a study that correlated their findings against student test data, and demonstrated that well staffed school libraries were positively associated with student achievement. We would love to demonstrate a similar finding here.

Finally, we want to increase professional development opportunities for school library teachers.  We recently hosted a successful one-day conference about e-books and school libraries, and we have a large conference planned for March 2014 in Hyannis, Mass.

As executive board members of the New England Library Association, we are exploring professional development distance-learning opportunities for members. We are also considering sponsoring excellence awards for school libraries to provide school administrators and school boards with examples of exemplary programs. Such awards will showcase libraries and provide opportunities for publicity, thus increasing awareness about the role of such libraries in schools and communities. We also plan to expand our social media activity on Twitter and Facebook.

Please describe any upcoming presentations or workshops you will be offering to school library teachers.

I will be presenting a workshop about Teacher-Library Collaboration at the annual American Association of School Librarians on November 14, 2013, in Hartford, CT, in conjunction with Professor Judi Moreillen from Texas Women's University School  of Library and Information Sciences. A Plympton School teacher and I will be presenting several lessons demonstrating how a librarian can add value to the teacher's classroom. We presented this workshop at the 2013 American Library Association conference.

Do you have any tips for new school librarians starting in the field?

Be sure to always say "yes" to people. Be concerned about meeting people's needs. Being a librarian requires sales skills and we need to actively approach teachers to learn how we can support their curriculums. It's not worth your time to worry about students losing books.

The best way to keep your job is to be good at it. Although many hard-working librarians have lost their positions for other reasons, showing how you create value for an organization can help others recognize that your services are indispensable.

By Dean's Editorial Fellow Jennifer Moyer

Career | December 2013 | Infolink Newsletter | News