Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Sunday Reflections: Everything I Learned About Advocating for My Dyslexic Child I Learned by Being a Teen Librarian

As a teen librarian and the mother of a child with dyslexia, I have had to learn to be a good advocate. I’ve been reflecting on advocacy a lot these past few days as I had to put on my advocacy armor and fight hard for my child’s education as she was recently put in an inequitable situation. And anyone who has a child with any kind of special needs is used to advocating, trust me.

Background: Thing 2 was diagnosed with dyslexia in the second grade. We had to fight long and hard to get the school to test her. When we finally did, we were able to create a 504 plan and in this school district dyslexic kids are pulled out of class for an intervention called MTA. She was supposed to be in the MTA plan from the time she was diagnosed until she completed 6th grade.

Unfortunately, due to over crowding in the schools, the district re-arranged the school system in this district and they created a 5th and 6th intermediate campus. In fact, they created two of them and this year Thing 2 started 5th grade at one of those campuses. We soon learned that while the other kids in her school would get to take an exploratory class of art, music, band and STEM, children in the MTA program would not. This means that for the next 2 years my child would not get to take art, music or STEM with her peers and she was being denied the same educational opportunities and advantages as her peers. And make no mistake, art and music education is an advantage that should be afforded to all children. It’s not optional, it’s imperative. There are a wide variety of well documented advantages to art and music education.

I had a lot of concerns regarding the lack of art and music education in my child’s curriculum. For one, as a child with special needs, she was now being put into a more rigorous intense and rigorous academic program with no time built into her schedule for creativity, calm and potential success. These kids were now suddenly going to be without a recess (another issue, for sure) and they were going to have to be fiercely and academically focused for 8 periods a day. In addition, she would be missing out on the advantages that come from having art and music to round out your curriculum, she was being singled out and left out from her peer groups. But also, my kid just really likes art and I wanted her to have an opportunity to learn more about it.

To make matters worse, I learned that the 2 intermediate campuses were not handling the MTA program the same and that the kids on the other intermediate campus were able to take these classes. So last week I once again put on my advocate hat and fought to get my child the education that she needs, deserves, and is guaranteed by law. I went through several steps that were going to talk about in a minute and in the end, the school agreed to change their approach so that my child got the MTA intervention that she needs AND an opportunity to do art, music and STEM education.

So here are 5 of my do rules when it comes to advocating for youth . . .

Do a Gut Check

I’m not going to lie, when I found out how the system was set up and how it was denying my child certain educational opportunities, I was instantly in a blindingly hot white rage. This is something that happens to me when I feel that an injustice is happening, which is why I personally always stop to do a gut check. My gut instinct says this is wrong, and in this case possibly illegal, but I wanted to be sure. So I did what I always do and called some of my peers and explained to them what I was upset about and asked them if I was right to be upset. I highly recommend having some trusted professionals in your pocket that you can reach out to in situations like these to help talk you through a situation and make sure you’re right to be concerned before engaging. This has saved me in many of my jobs. Sometimes my peers have said yes, and I’ve gone to admin and fought and sometimes they have helped me put a situation in perspective and while I vented to them, I didn’t approach the subject with my admin.

In this case, I called several teachers that I knew and explained my worries and they said yes, this was not the correct way to handle an intervention and that I was right to be upset and I should definitely pursue it. So having done that gut check and being affirmed that my concerns were valid, I pursued it. Doing a gut check always helps me to calm down and get focused, it also helps me to get to that place where I can approach a situation in a more professional manner and not get myself fired or thrown in jail.

Do Your Research

I then went onto the next stage, which for me always involves research. I got together information about what was and wasn’t legal in a 504 plan. I got together research on the value and benefit of music and art education. I found out how to contest what I thought was a special education violation. I asked my teacher friends the right terminology to use. I researched and put together a solid case that I could present that was well reasoned, supporter and clearly articulated. When I am asked to talk about an issue I’m advocating for, I want to make sure that I know what I’m saying and the most effective ways to talk about it. Using the right terminology and citing precedent or law or statistics can help your case more than most people realize. Research is a key component of advocacy.

Do Your Best Impression of a Grown Up

I put all the information together and wrote up a letter making it clear that I was not going to back down and filed a formal complaint. I was clear, articulate, fierce yet professional. So although I cussed up a storm to my husband and it was clear that I was in a blindingly white hot rage, I wrote my letter in such a way that it was both respectful and had to be taken seriously. I was calm, respectful, but fierce. How you present your case can make or break it.

At one point as I talked in person to the vice principal I even said, “I’m getting really upset so I’m going to walk away right not but I need you to know that this is unacceptable and we are not done with this discussion.” I mostly walked away because when I get really, really upset I cry or dip into the swear jar and neither one of those were going to help my case so I walked away to give myself an opportunity to calm down and collect my thoughts. There are moments in life where protest and dissent are called for, the key is learning how to gauge what approach is needed for a situation. At work and when dealing with the school system, I have found that starting out from a place of professional respect and courtesy is a good tactic. But yes, there are moments in life when you have to escalate or take something to the next level.

Do Your Due Diligence

I have found through the years when advocating that it is very important that you maintain a paper trail. I like to put things in writing as opposed to having face to face or telephone conversations for this very reason. When I write a letter or send an email, I have documentation that proves I have approached someone with my concern and helps prevent denial on their part. And if someone does talk to me about the subject, I then write up a follow-up email saying something like, “thank you for calling me and discussing the matter I emailed about on <insert date here>. As you stated on the phone, you will do x, y and z by <whatever date>.” This way, I have documented what happened in the phone call or an office visit. I have found that some times people will call because they don’t want a record so that they have plausible deniability and it is very important that you do your due diligence and create a record. Trust me, sometimes you will need it. Having a paper trail is essential.

Do Your Part with Whatever Comes Next

Whatever comes next, be sure to do your part with follow through. If the situation is resolved in a satisfactory manner, say thank you. If you have agreed to do certain things to make a resolution possible, be sure you do those things as agreed and by any end dates you have said you would do them by. Whatever happens next, don’t let the situation fall apart by not doing your part. And sometimes, that means taking it up to the next level because you didn’t get a resolution at the first phase.

Sometimes, a matter is resolved quickly and satisfactorily, and this is great. There is much rejoicing. Sometimes it’s not and you have to decide what to do next. Sometimes this means continuing to fight and going on to the next step or next higher up person, whoever that may be. Sometimes, especially in work situations, this means asking yourself whether you can live with this new policy, procedure, or task and deciding to stay or seek new employment. This is a hard thing to acknowledge but sometimes, leaving a job if possible is the right decision.

I am happy to say that in the dispute with the school district about my child’s education, I was quickly contacted by the school and my child is now going to get both her MTA intervention AND to take music and art education. I am thankful that in this instance, advocacy worked. It doesn’t always. I was setting up for a long and hard fight and I am so glad that I didn’t have to. I can breathe a moment of relief because my child is going to get the education she wants, needs and deserves.

Over the years, because I have dedicated myself to working with teens, I have found that I have had to advocate a lot for our youth. I have fought against age discrimination, I have fought against LGBTQ discrimination, I have fought against racism and sexism, I have fought against classism, I have fought against policies and procedures that I felt were discriminatory. I have fought for larger spaces and larger budgets and new materials and services. Sometimes I have won and sometimes I have lost. Advocacy is part of teen librarianship, and parenting. I never knew how important it was to both of these roles in my life, but here I am, teen librarian, parent, and professional advocate.

Let me tell you a secret: They’re all worth it.

Teen Politic: The True Politics of Being a Teen Services Librarian in Our Public Libraries

thingsineverlearnedinlibraryschoolTeens, as a culture, are pretty maligned and misunderstood. They’re loud, they’re lazy, they’re disrespectful, they’re dangerous – pick your stereotype. They like to travel in rabid packs, that’s my favorite. I believe lots of adults sit around and visualize teens as actual packs of wolves in their minds.

Teens get a bad rap. In the media, in community planning, and yes – in our libraries. I am a teen services librarian. I have been for 24 years. And I love public libraries, hands down. But I’m not going to lie, there is a lot of politics in being a teen services librarian in part because we are always fighting against stereotypes and a general dislike of teenagers. Yes, even in our libraries.

A group of teens can come in after school talking, and it feeds into the rabid pack of roving disrespectful teens mythos. They can be standing right next to a group of mothers with loud toddlers who have just run into each other at the same entrance, one is leaving just as the other is walking out and they then proceed to have a loud “oh hey how are you” reunion right there in the doorway. But only one of them will be called out for it, because the actions are only reinforcing one type of stereotype. That’s part of the politics we have to deal with and navigate.

Kids throw themselves on the ground and have tantrums, adults fume and threaten and yell at the circulation desk over ten cent fines, but one rude teenager continues to reinforce the firmly held belief that all teenagers are rude. It’s that one rude teenager that staff will often fume about behind closed doors (and it must be behind closed doors, never in a public space). That’s part of the politics we have to deal with and navigate.

Being a teen services librarian is a constant struggle against harmful stereotypes, the personal prejudices of your coworkers, and a fight to get support and funding when, if we’re being honest, a lot of coworkers want you to fail because they don’t like having teenagers in the library. It breaks my heart, but it’s true. That’s part of the politics we have to deal with and navigate.

When we talk about advocating for teens, what we often mean is that we have to advocate for teens inside the very public institutions which are supposed to serve them. We have to continue to put teen behavior in perspective, to highlight the positive, to cheerlead, to pep talk, and to re-form those damaging stereotypes. That’s part of the politics we have to deal with and navigate.

It often feels like our successes have to be bigger, our numbers have to be higher, and our teens have to be angels in order to justify the existence of teen services. Teens and teen services often seems like it is viewed through some type of skewed lens, in part because I believe that it is. 24 years, 4 library systems and 2 states have taught me that the hurdles are higher, the support is harder to gain and retain, and often our biggest enemies are not politicians or parents, but our very own co-workers.

So, what do we do? As we do in all jobs, we play politics. But what, exactly, does that mean in the library world? We have to be advocates, not just for public libraries, but for teens and teen services within our public libraries. And here are some of my tips for doing that.

1. Keep good facts and figures. At all times.

Be prepared to answer questions at the drop of a hat. I like to do a yearly infographic to help create a visual of what we did the previous year in youth services. Even if no one asks you for this, do it anyway so you have the information and can make it appear when someone questions teen services or when asking for increased funding. I kept separate YA circulation statistics for years in one position even though the library system I worked for didn’t. This information really helped when we got a new library director who was not very teen services oriented and helped me to get the support I needed from a director who was not predisposed to giving that support.

I even like to do a TLT Infographic to help us know how we're doing

I even like to do a TLT Infographic to help us know how we’re doing

Some of the statistics I recommend are: YA book circulation figures, YA program attendance, YA visits (if you have a way to measure this, we measure teen visits to our Teen MakerSpace), total spent on YA services, money spent on YA services broken down by category, money spent on YA services averaged to a per capita amount (so even if it’s a high total number, saying you spent $1.22 per teen visit helps it seem less daunting), and percentages of overall totals (What percentage of overall circ is YA circulation? What percentage of the overall budget is spent on YA services?).

If you can, find comparable numbers of other departments and other libraries. Numbers in themselves can be easily judged, but comparing them to other departments or libraries can help put them in perspective. Network with other area teen services librarians and share data to help tell your story and put it into perspective.

2. Share success stories

makerspaceeditorial2

And here I’m not talking about those facts and figures, but the personal stories we all have in our pockets about that one teen who said we made a difference, the one teen who we helped raise, the one parent who came in and told us what a difference the library made in the lives of their teenager. Everyone loves a good success story, and we’re full of them. If you don’t have success stories to share, then you are doing something wrong and should re-evaluate the what, why and how of what you’re doing.

3. Know key facts about adolescent development

Serving Teens in Libraries Infographic

When a staff member claims about behavior, help them put it in perspective. The teen brain is literally different then an adult brain, know how and why and be able to talk about it. We can talk about toddlers throwing temper tantrums because they lack freedom and choice over their lives and the communication skills to express themselves fully, and we should be able to do the same for teens. Understanding the why of teen behavior can often help us accept and deal with it.

4. Speaking of perspective, help staff maintain a positive one

teensread

If I have 24 teens that come into my Teen Makerspace on a Monday and 1 teen gives staff attitude, I remind them that 23 teens did not. It is human nature to hold on to and emphasize the negative, but we can help remold the way we view our patron experiences, even the teen ones. Be their cheerleader. If you can’t be their cheerleader, you’re in the wrong job.

5. Share what other libraries are doing

Again, this is about perspective. The truth is, people compare libraries and library services in the same way that we talk about Target vs. Wal-Mart or Amazon vs. Barnes and Noble. Help put your teen services in perspective for co-workers and admin by talking about surrounding and comparable libraries, the reactions to those services, and the positive impact on local communities. This is where networking and being up to date is really important. Don’t work in isolation, spend part of your time each week reading about other libraries. It will inspire you, and it will also help you help your admin and co-workers keep what you’re doing in perspective.

6. Be intentional in what you do as a teen services librarian and be able and willing to talk about it in professional terms

Tada: The Stupendously Amazing TEEN MAKERSPACE MANUAL

Tada: The Stupendously Amazing TEEN MAKERSPACE MANUAL

Have measurable goals and talk about the impact of your services and programs on teens, on the library, and on the local community. Don’t do a program just to do a program and check it off of your to do list, do a specific program and be able to talk about why you did THAT program. Be able to answer the questions why? how? how much? and what did you accomplish? Talk about impact.

7. Have a strategic plan and a budget

Again, this goes back to intentionality, but having a plan and being able to talk about your plan is vitally important. Be able to talk about what you’ve done, what you are doing, and what you are looking to do in the future. How, what, why, when and how much are great questions to keep in mind and be able to answer. If your admin don’t ask, tell them occasionally any way.

8. Be a team player, but thoughtfully

At the end of the day, we all work for the library and are working towards a lot of the same goals, so being a team player is important. Support your colleagues as you ask them to support you. However, I have been in situations where I kept getting pulled into other departments, in part because the work of teen services isn’t seen as valuable, and it can be hard to know when to draw the line. But sometimes you have to remind admin that if you keep getting pulled into other departments and projects, then knowing is doing the important work of teen services. Finding balance is hard, but stand up for your teens by insisting that they deserve qualified, dedicated services.

9. Don’t donate your time or money

I know this seems weird to say as someone who is saying we must advocate for teens, but donating your own time or money is harmful in the long term. Remember up above where we talked about having good facts and figures? Donating our time or money skews those facts and figures and harms teen services in the long run. Administrators making budgets and determining staffing levels need to know how much teen services actually requires to be successful, so don’t skew those numbers by donating your time or money. If you leave and a new person is hired, you are setting them up for failure because they will be expected to do the same with what you had not realizing that a lot of it came out of your own pocket and on your own time. Just don’t do it, be the opposite of Nike in this one instance.

10. Take pictures

teenprogram

People respond to visual images, so make sure you have images to share. Do an annual report and include positive pictures of teens using the library, attending programs, making art and more. Do a highlights reel, share memos after big programs or dramatic changes, and yes, even take pictures of teens just reading that graphic novel quietly over in the corner. A picture really is worth a 1,000 words. The pictures don’t even have to be public or have names attached to them, sometimes you just need a visual to share with admin or the library board. Be sure to follow whatever your library’s policies are regarding pictures, but take and use them to help tell your story.

In truth, you’re not just doing this for your admin and you’re coworkers, you’re doing it for you. Sometimes the politics of being a teen librarian can be overwhelming and discouraging, so use this information to not just advocate but to motivate. Keep yourself fueled for the fight. You’re doing great, keep going.

What other tips do you have? Please share them with me in the comments. And keep advocating.

Book Review: Safe is Not Enough: Better Schools for LGBTQ Students by Michael Sadowski

When I’m reviewing books for professional publications, I stay quiet about them on social media. I’m always really excited once a review comes out to be able to talk about the book, finally! Here’s one of my most recent reviews, which originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of School Library Journal.

 

safe-is-not-enoughSadowski, Michael. Safe Is Not Enough: Better Schools for LGBTQ Students 

ISBN-13: 9781612509426 Publisher: Harvard Education Press Publication date: 08/09/2016

★In his introduction, Sadowski writes, “Safety is an essential baseline…but it is not a sufficient goal in itself.” Aimed at educators, this book lays out many clear and detailed ways that schools can better meet the needs of LGBTQ students. The author advocates for moving beyond antibullying policies, safe spaces (often indicated by stickers), and gay-straight alliances (GSAs) to creating a more inclusive curriculum and environment. Chapters address integrating LGBTQ issues in the classroom, comprehensive inclusiveness throughout the school, the important work some GSAs are doing, the impact of race and socioeconomic status, transgender students’ unique needs, and avenues beyond GSAs for students to meet and talk. Sadowski profiles educators and programs, looks at policies, and offers arguments and counterarguments. He notes that progress is not uniform throughout the country and that students in some identity categories are more at risk than others. Additionally, there is a chapter dedicated to helping schools implement the ideas outlined here. It is clear that everyone benefits from more inclusive curriculum and policies and that moving beyond the idea of just being safe sends a stronger message of affirmation, value, respect, and acceptance. Though this is a brief volume, the detailed suggestions for advocacy and change are comprehensive and persuasive. Appended are a course syllabus, handouts, GSA materials, and a policy regarding transgender students that can be adapted for use. Online resources addressing curriculum, student support, and more are included. VERDICT As useful as it is essential.—Amanda MacGregor