Monday, October 09, 2006

Blog Interaction with John McDonald – Thurs. Oct. 12 to Sat. Oct. 14, 2006

John McDonald is the latest SLMS from Indiana to receive the prestigious "Frances Henne Award" from the American Library Association (ALA, 2005) as the outstanding new school library media specialist of the year. He is also currently serving as President-Elect of the Association for Indiana Media Educators (AIME, 2006).

Learn more about John McDonald at

John is another returning blogger for the class. You will find that he is energetic and innovative, willing to try new ideas and ways in his middle school position. Something seems to be working, and John is willing to share his candid insights. If you're looking for conversation/question starters, then John encourages you to read parts of the annual report at his Media Center website. Most of the major initiatives are outlined in that document.


  1. Hi John,

    I taught choir at Connersville Middle School for two years before you took over the LMS position. Can you address any difficulties you experienced as the successor of a pretty much "old school" librarian? How have you had to work at changing attitudes and expectations of the faculty and the administration?

    Jennifer Clifford (Nancy's daughter-in-law)

  2. John:

    I read where you were able to create a school wide iniative for information literacy skills. I think a program like that is great! I'm interested to hear what convinced the naysayers in your building and what your largest hurdles were.

    As a high school media specialist can you give me advice on how to begin such an undertaking. It seems at the high school level we're so locked in to credits, lack of time, and AYP - NCLB goals there's barely any energy or time left for something else.


  3. Jennifer,

    Great to hear from you. Actually, I think we worked together for the two week stint you put in as you were moving to your new school. The renovation was going on, it was my first two weeks so you might not remember.

    That's quite a question to start off with. Taking over for a traditional librarian has its pros and cons. On the up side, I would like say that my predecessor had spent a great deal of time developing the collection and the core was very solid when I arrived. Unfortunately, no weeding had taken place for 27 years (we are still working on the nonfiction section).

    On the other side, I had to start from day one to try and change the perception of the library to one of a media center. My first step was to be brutally honest in my interview. I asked as many questions as a was given, and I let the administrators know in no uncertain terms that if they hired me that the keyword would be "change." I think that the renovation that was ongoing at the time had everyone in a mindset of change so they hired me anyway.

    Second, and don't overlook the significance of this, I absolutely insisted on a name change from library to library media center or media center in every document and conversation during my first two years here. That may not seem like much, but they really didn't know what the term "media center" meant so in their own minds they were questioning how that was different from a library. If you can get someone to question an idea, you have an opportunity for change.

    Third, we started changes immediately. You might hear from some experts to wait during your first year and not make many changes. I do not subscribe to that philosophy at all. When you are hired you are a change...they are watching to see what you do. There is a reason that the president is judged critically during his first 100 days. However, be focused in your changes. Focus on the important stuff. We had the luxury of having a new facility that wasn't quite completed, but if I was hired in to a position with an existing collection I wouldn't spend the bulk of my first days changing the shelves, weeding, etc. That stuff you can work on gradually. I focused on talking with teachers, listening to my secretary and trying to find ways that we could serve the curricular needs of the entire staff and students.

    You need to get the administration on your side early. My principal was quite open to making changes in the media center, but she was apprehensive about what form that would take. I began to systematically "educate" her as to what a media specialist can be and also to the idea that my role will change as the need arises. Even today I do not have a real job description. Beth, my principal, actually jokes that they like to write my job description one year after I do my job. The key is communication...and not just what you are doing, but why it makes good educational sense. Communication with administration is the key. I send out monthly reports. Keep this reports short, concise, and hit the high concepts. Also, I advocate that you don't focus exclusively on the positive as growth doesn't occur there. Change comes from addressing challenges, so I usually focus on what we are working towards. At the end of the year I pull together a comprehensive report. You can see an example at . The report is on my main page is about 24 pages long. I send this to the school board members (they actuaully read it) and all administrators. Regardless of who reads the report it gives them the idea that this is a media center program that is developing, working in the best interest of the kids and is on the ball. Now to me I know that we are one step away from complete organized chaos, but letting stakeholders know you are focused and working with a purpose is important.

    As for the teachers, I try to help them in any way I can. I view our media center as a resource to teachers. I do have my setbacks, daily sometimes, but on the whole I have found a core of teachers that are willing to try new things. We started by adding services that would benefit staff. For example, we will take any classroom books and prepare them for their class library. We receive hundreds of books during the year for this service. Actually, I could list all of the things that we do in the media center, but it would probably be easier if you read that section of my annual report. The most important thing to do is collaborate with the teachers when they are planning lessons. Start small, but work with them at the planning stage. Offer to coteach, help them focus on the important steps in assignments, grab appropriate resources. Also, view yourself as both student and teacher. They know the content, but you should know of new resources and media formats. Sometimes it is as simple as showing them that the something like the biography resource center is actually reprints of "print" sources so they should be allowed in the antiquated (my opinion) practice of requiring a certain number of books in a research project.

    Jennifer, I don't know if I answered your question very well, definitely not succintly, but I hope this is a start.

    Ben, I will answer your question shortly, but my 3 year old just woke up and I need try to get him back to sleep before he wakes up the 5 and 7 year old.

    Until my next posting...


  4. Heidi Lauger7:26 AM


    It sounds like you do a lot with technology. I have three questions related to technology:
    1) Do you promote the use of technology in the classroom as part of your library program, and if so, how?
    2) Do you have many teachers who are reluctant to use technology (this is still the case in my school)?
    3) How do you respond/react to the teachers who are "technology resistant?"


    Heidi Lauger

  5. Emily Schubel12:01 PM

    I am also curious as to how you can get those computer reluctant teachers excited about all the things the Internet has to offer. This is the fourth year I have been in this position and there is one colleague in particular that I struggle with all the time. It's a building effort to try to get her to work with the computers, but to no avail. She's truly set in her ways. I recently found out that she has been having her assistant print out her e-mails so that she doesn't have to get on there herself. It's very frustrating.

    What kinds of things would suggest I could try with this teacher?

    Thanks, Emily Schubel

  6. Hi! I'm interested in your collection development policies as a middle school LMS. How do you dealk with the special challenges that come with building a collection both for the youngest of your patrons whose parents might strogly object to more mature material, and your older patrons who crave that material?

  7. John,
    I have just been reading about circulation policies and was wondering how you handle them in your school. Some questions I have are: How long do students have when they checkout an item? How do you handle overdue items? Fines, notices,etc? Also do you have any problems with theft or students damaging items and how do you deal with those issues?

    These are issues I never really thought about until recently. I am a just a student and have limited professional experience so any information can help me.

  8. Ben,

    Let me point out that there is a big difference between having a schoolwide information literacy initiative and having 100% buy in. We face all of the issues of time, standards, etc. that you mentioned. At CMS we have come a long way, but we have a long way to go. Last year I collaborated with teachers on more than 15 unique "research" projects encompanssing more than 40 classes. However, we have whole groups of teachers that we haven't seen. Our strongest areas of collaboration are with science, social studies, foreign language and language arts.

    Let me also say that there are many facets to inquiry projects that have to be addressed. The first thing I tried to address with teachers was where they were placing emphasis on projects. We tried to move from focusing on the product to focusing on the process. Specifically, I tried to illustrate in teacher's own terms that the most effective information inquirers asked good questions, were aware of their own research processes and took some time to develop prior knowledge. Consequently, many of projects have much greater student choice, focus on providing some background before selecting topics, and spend more time on the first few steps of research such as developing effective questions.

    We also encourage collaboration between disciplines. We are a teaming school so this has been a little easier than I expected. My personal belief is that research projects should rarely be initiated in Language Arts. I'd much rather see us teach research skills within the process of authentic inquiry.

    We will always have teachers that do not buy in, but right now I've been so busy with the ones that are buying in that I haven't had time to consider these other teachers. Though we've come a long way, we have a long way to go. That is where some of our most exciting possibilities are developing.

    I am trying to get the teachers to realize that research does not have to (and really shouldn't) be relegated to the "research" report or project. We need to move to more focused, exploratory projects that might last 20 minutes, or 1 week, or whatever it takes. Instead, we tend to take them on artifically constrained, linear projects with everyone in lockstep. When we formalize the process, as we historically have, we make it artificial. I encourage you and my teachers to examine the inquiry based events in your own life. Our processes are rarely linear, yet that is the model we use in schools. We need to change the paradigm of how we approach inquiry in the schools to make it more problem-based and authentic.

    I think the staff at CMS has started to realize that we can't possibly teach kids all of the "facts" they need to know in life (old model). Now we focus on critical thinking and inquiry processes. This helps form a foundation for getting teachers to design more inquiry-based opportunities for students.


  9. Heidi and Emily,

    For background: Before I became a classroom teacher I was a computer professional for 5 different colleges for several years. Consequently, I have an extensive technology background. However, I am not a blind proponent of technology use and do not fit into the mainstream in many regards.

    First, I firmly believe in effective teaching. An effective teacher could create a wonderful, critical-thinking rich environment in the backwoods of Montana with no electricity. I believe these students would pick up needed technology skills very quickly because the thought processes would already be there. A less extreme example is seen daily in our schools. Schools across the country use Microsoft Word because they think that is what the students will see in the real world. I think this is misguided. Teaching a student using an open source software such as Star Office word processor will prepare them just as much as long as there is some focus placed on how to use the software to effectively communicate.

    However, I do believe in the levelling power of technology. Tools such as INSPIRE allow economically disadvantaged schools to offer the same resources and opportunities as some of our most affluent systems (provided the basic hardware infrastructure is in place).

    I advocate the use of technology in the classroom when it is an effective tool for the educational process and more specifically communication. I try to keep this in mind as I work with teachers. For example, I might suggest a teacher use a video streaming product to enhance the presentation of a topic by addressing multiple intelligences. Conversely, when a teacher suggests using powerpoint with no other reason than to use powerpoint I might try to persuade them to change the assignment to focus on how the student used PP to enhance communication or even leave it out altogether.

    I also believe that some technology skills are needed to thrive in our world today. The big one that comes to mind is media literacy. I see that as a technology question. However, many of the skills needed to become effective consumers and producers of various media have existed for decades, even centuries, but new technologies require reworking our approach as needed.

    My teachers have been admirable in their willingness to try new technologies. I do provide frequent mini-training excercises, workshops and guides. Whenever I try to introduce a technology I try to think through how it will help the teacher and enhance the student's learning. I also try to work with them to effectively incorporate the technology through lesson planning and collaboration.

    As for the question about technology resistant teachers. We have one or two. However in the extreme case I relied on the administrators to assist me. If this teacher's reluctance to embrace technology is at the expense of the students, either through lost staff time or other, and you have tried everything, you need to get an administrator involved to suggest or enforce any technology mandates. It is better to work with this teacher, but sometimes it also helpful to have a principal saying "I want to see you use xxx technology as part of your professional goals or before your next evaluation." Work from gentle enticement to persuasion to more extreme measures in that order.

  10. John,

    Thanks for your thorough answer. Your insights help a lot. You offer great advice about asking the right questions in the interview and not waiting to make changes. I agree that you should let people know what you're all about right away.

    It sounds like you have great communication with Beth and with the teachers. I wish you continued success at CMS!

    Thanks again!

  11. Empressofanime,

    I work in a middle school with only 7th and 8th grade students, but we still have the issue of collecting for varied reading abilities, maturity levels and different value systems. I buy a variety of books that hopefully hit the various aspects of the spectrum. I have students that help me with book selection as well as serving as a sounding board for purchases. As for controversial material...I use my best judgement and my collection policy. If the material supports the curriculum (which I interpret to mean high interest reading material) and fills a need, I'm inclined to purchase it. That's the pat answer. In practice there are many personal choices that give my library a certain "flavor" that would be different depending on the media specialist. For example, I have chosen not to include books by Stephen King because our high school has all of them. Unlike some of my colleagues I have parental permission required to check out all of David Pelzer's books. However, I also have 10 books on how to exist as a gay teenager...which would be taboo in other schools. You have to know your school and community, but when it comes to controversial material I decide if I'm willing to fight for it. I feel I can get enough good horror without messing with Stephen King, but I know that our gay population is suffering in silence and depression.

    I strongly advise you to make sure you have a written collection development policy, challenge policy and an advisory group to bounce off ideas. You will still find yourself making many judgement calls. Right now I'm trying to figure out what to do with Sharon Draper's Copper Sun. Two of the chapters have graphic descriptions of horrendous acts towards slave children, but the book is quite good and written by a noted African American author.

    Working with teachers, and especially special education teachers, is quite helpful in creating a balanced collection in terms of reading levels. You need a widescale approach that includes many stakeholders.


  12. Lindsay,

    One of the most significant changes we made early on regards circulation policies. In a nutshell:

    Students may check out up to 4 items at a time, not counting classroom sets. Books check out for 2 weeks, but can be renewed up to 10 times if nobody is waiting on them. Magazines check out for one week, but may not be renewed due to high demand. We do not charge any fines...ever, but if a book is lost they must pay for the cost of replacement. I do not believe in paying for processing costs related to labor as I feel the taxpayers are already paying our salaries. I bend the book limit on a regular basis (daily)and if a student has an overdue, but has not reached the 4 item limit, I will still let them check out one book. We have a large population of students in financial duress, so we have begun taking books in trade on special occassions.

    My philosophy is that no student should leave the media center without a book if I can at all help it.

    Last year students lost 34 books, and all but 4 were paid for. We also manage all of the classroom sets for book units and students must pay for those as well. We lose most of our books when students move out of Connersville on no notice (part of the culture here). We usually get these books back, but not always.

    I don't believe in charging fines because I don't want the students to equate penalties with the media center or reading. Too many students will check out little or nothing in order to minimize the risk of owing money. Further, their parents pay our salaries, pay for the books, etc. They pay enough. We'll charge them if they've lost it, but that's as far as we go.

    We do not have a security system in the media center and I refuse to put one in. I believe students will rise to your expectations and these security systems send a message I don't want give. Also, I figure we lose about $300 in materials each year. The personnel time alone to manage one of these security systems would cost much more than that each year...not to mention the supplies, etc.

    Students lose more magazines than anything and I charge a flat rate of $4.00 for replacements. The staff at CMS is great at helping to get books back in and including the media center in their behavior/incentive programs.

    We work with students individually when we can. This often heads off some problems. I am also candid with them. If they have had two lost books recently, I might ask them to only check out one book for a few weeks. I have a bigger problem with kids wanting to check out the first four books of a series, knowing that they won't get to book four for a month. I simply mention this to them, promise that I'll do everything in my power to get the books for them when they are ready and usually they check out one or two books and leave the remainder for other patrons.

    In all of my transactions with students I try to realize that they are pretty much controlled from the time the walk in the doors until they leave. I focus on the positive even though I know some students will not come through...however the overwhelming majority will. Working with middle schoolers is a magical experience if you believe in them. I find that the few dollars this costs us is more than offset by the atmosphere of safety, respect and trust that we have established in our media center. Give them a chance to meet your expectations, celebrate when they do, redirect when they don't, and remember...they are only books as compared to lives.