Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Sunday Reflections: How I Came to Love School Uniforms, a discussion of girls, boys, and the dangerous message of dress codes

I am an artistic type, married to an artist. Creativity and self expression is very important to us. So when we moved to this new place and found out that my kids would have to wear school uniforms, I cried. I literally cried saline tears, bereft that my daughters would be shackled by this dress code that limited their self expression and caged their identity inside the threads of four generic colors and polo shirt collar.

And then I completely changed my mind.

For one, my mornings are, it turns out, amazingly swift and easy. The girls have 4 different color choices of polo shirts and two different color choices of pants (skirts, shorts or slacks). What this means is that they literally don’t care. So they reach into the shirt drawer, grab a shirt, repeat with the pants, and then – voila – they are dressed. No trying on multiple outfits. No fits or tears. The morning is amazingly simple because they simply don’t care. My mornings are drama free, outside of the occasional bad hair day and dear lord please don’t wake me up while it’s still dark outside harrumphing.

I worried about the cost of it all but school uniforms of this nature turned out to be much cheaper than buying their regular clothes. During the summer every store around here starts selling their polo style shirts for $5.00. Pants almost always go on sale for $10.00. And the last two years we’ve actually gotten all of their clothes at the local thrift store for below this price. I can buy a whole weeks worth of uniforms for around $75 – or less – and then all we have to do is laundry, which we have to do any way.

The only real problem in the uniform code are things like the shoes and socks. I know friends whose kids have have been asked to remove their shoes and when their socks were found not to be white or black, they were sent home which is incredibly ridiculous to me. And I get frustrated with having to force my girls to wear brown or black closed toe shoes or lace tying tennis shoes while the teachers wear flip-flips. Not even fancy flip-flops, just plain old fashioned flip-flops. The Tween is smart enough to question the disparity of the rules and it’s certainly easier as a parent to answer those questions if the answer is because the teachers are held to a higher, more professional standard, and in this case they are not.

So this dress code – these uniforms – are not perfect, but it is far better than most other dress codes because it isn’t sexualizing our girls and sending the wrong message to both genders. You see, many dress codes target girls, clearly outlining what it is they can and can’t wear with the underlying motivation being the boy students around you can’t control themselves so therefore we must limit you and your choices to protect our boys. It’s a maddening message on so many levels: Girls shouldn’t be forced to define themselves in terms of what is best for others, in this case the boys surely can and should be expected to exhibit self control and take responsibility for all aspects of their behavior and education; and the girls aren’t singled out and given the message that boys and their education are more important than you and your bodies/comfort/clothing.

Interestingly enough, our school districts dress code is in fact incredibly sexist in one way and it targets boys. You see, girls can have hair of any length but boys here have a very strict hair code inspired by the antiquated notion that long hair is feminine. Therefor, our boys are not allowed to sport long hair.

The big argument in terms of being pro-uniform is that it helps minimize bullying and lets those who are economically disadvantaged blend in more easily. This is a good theory, though not fully actualized. It certainly makes it easier for the less advantaged kids to blend in, but there are other tell tale markers like backpacks, shoes, lunches, etc. that make it possible for those kids who want to look hard enough to suss out their newest and latest targets. School uniforms are not the end all that it claims to be in this regards, but I do think it makes it easier for more of the kids to feel comfortable among their peers.

The interesting thing is that the students still find ways in which to express themselves. Their personality pops up in the backpacks they choose to carry, the jewelry they wear, the way they choose to embellish themselves.

When I was in high school, I had a skirt. It was, actually, kind of a plaid school uniform looking skirt ironically. One day I was wearing it with a long sleeve turtleneck. It was the complete opposite of sexy in any way. But it was just a smidge too short. And I do mean a smidge. I remember being forced to bend on my knees in the middle of the school hallway while a teacher fretted over whether or not it was worth it to send me home. It wasn’t, but she did.

My first job, I worked at a movie theater. We had to wear black pants and a white button up shirt every day to work. We paid for and thus chose our own, but there was a dress code. At every library I have worked at there has been a dress code. I’m not opposed to the idea of dress codes in schools, but I am opposed to dress codes that are motivated by sexist thinking, reinforces dangerous cultural messages and gender norms, or in any way suggests that my girls, that any girls, are responsible for the behaviors of anyone but themselves – they are not. This messaging is dangerous because it tends to lend itself to both slut shaming and victim blaming. To suggest that what a girl wears should be limited to help boys control themselves is incredibly dangerous.

When I was in high school I crushed on several different boys at different times. I know how to read some basic Latin, debate, and play chess because of a crush on one boy or another. I could sit there and spend an entire period staring at a boy. But I also graduated in the top 10 percent of my class with almost straight A’s because I made the choice every day to do what I needed to do. My education was my responsibility and I took that responsibility for it. It didn’t matter that the boy had glorious hair that I wanted to daydream about running my hands through, it didn’t matter if he wore a too tight t-shirt that made me fantasize about what was underneath, it didn’t matter that I could imagine a hundred different scenarios of how he might lean into me while standing at my locker and give me that amazing first kiss. What mattered was that every day I made the active choice to pay attention in class and learn. We should expect the same of our boys. It doesn’t matter if a girl is wearing the very threatening spaghetti strap tank top, an alarm bell ringing pair of yoga pants, or supposedly slutty jeans that hug her posterior in just the right way – boys are still responsible for their own behavior and girls are responsible for their own and everyone who identifies as somewhere else along the gender spectrum is similarly responsible for their behavior. The truth is, school is the perfect time to be teaching members of the human race this very important life lesson.

But if we must have dress codes, I enthusiastically support gender neutral uniform codes that emphasize what you can wear as opposed to what you can’t wear that creates an equal school system for all persons and, it turns out, can minimize cost and help those who are economically disadvantaged blend in and feel more like they belong with their peers.

When my children walk in the door after a day at school, the first thing they do is change their clothes. The 5-year-old will only wear tank tops and knit shorts without pockets (she knows who she is and what she likes). The Tween is less particular and it is still kind of a non issue for her. But the truth is, no part of our day involves the clothing stress that I remember from my own school days. There is no angst and wringing of hands about whether or not it is the right thing, or a good enough thing, or a thing that they can wear like an armor to make them blend in – it’s just this thing they have to wear so they simply don’t care and it is beautiful. And the best part is this: at no time are my girls being told that they are somehow responsible for the boys in their class and they are made to feel like they matter just as much as their male peers in the education environment. That’s a message I can get behind so bring on school uniforms.

Bootalk It! Developing a Booktalk Program to Network with Area Schools

What does every librarian love?  A captive audience!  You want to get into your schools, into the classrooms, and develop relationships with your teachers.  One of the best ways to do this is to develop a booktalking program.

In its most basic description, a booktalk is a short introduction – think commercial or movie trailer – for a book.  What you want to do is give just enough information about a book to tantalize teens and then leave them salivating for more!  If you have done a booktalk properly your audience will be on the edge of their seat asking, “what happens next?”  And your answer is always, “you have to read the book to find out!”

Stop here and make sure you know some booktalking basics:

A very basic intro from the state of Vermont

And don’t forget to look at the booktalking research:

Booktalks on Wikipedia (I know it’s evil, but it refers you to a lot of good resources)
A booktalking program can be an effective tool in your school/library relations toolbox.  What you want to do is develop relationships with teachers who will keep you coming back again and again into their classroom to introduce new books to their students.  It can be once a month, once a grading period, or at the very least before winter and summer breaks.  So you have to sell yourself to the teachers to get your foot in the door, and then you have to deliver the goods.
1.  Making Contact
Do some research and put together a really good introduction to your area teachers about booktalks.  Let them know what booktalks are, why they want to let you do them, how they support the curriculum, and how they encourage students to read.  Make it short, simple and visual: you are marketing a service to them.  An example 3-fold brochure follows . . .

I created this brochure over the years based upon my own MLS final project which focused on booktalking.  In addition, I gathered feedback from students and teachers over the years to help me sell the program.  Always remember to save positive feedback to use in future marketing materials. I have always found that teachers and students both respond favorably to booktalks and their feedback helps me sell the program.

Your basic selling points are this:  Teens find that reading is more enjoyable and are more likely to finish a book if it is a book they select for themselves, booktalks introduce teens to a wide variety of books and allow them to make those successful choices, and booktalks increase reading pleasure.

Booktalks = more reading success, more reading variety, and more reading enjoyment!

Plus, it will help move items in your library.  Thus, booktalks = increased circulation.

Booktalks are win, win!

Wait until the second or third week of school and send a letter of introduction and brochure to each Language Arts/English teacher and each school librarian.  Ask the school principals if you can have a few moments to speak at a teacher in service day and give some example booktalks.  Do everything you can to get your foot in the door, then wow them.

2.  Creating a Package

Start out by creating for yourself a basic building block of say 20 booktalks of the best teen books that will reach the greatest audience.  Be sure to write your booktalks, practice them, and keep them readily available.  As you read a book, create an electronic file (or an old fashioned index card if you would like) that gives a basic description of the book, the appropriate audience, and a “hook” for that book.  What is it that will help you sell this book to teens?  You want to include a wide variety of books and talking styles, including some Booktalk 2.0 styles (included below in Tech It Up).

Some basic booktalk rules to follow:

3.  Play to Your Strengths

Honestly, I am not a funny person  (well, not intentionally any way).  I can never even remember the punch line to a joke.  So I don’t try to do funny booktalks.  Teens would see right away that I am out of my element.  In order to sell a book, you have to be authentic.  Don’t try and sell a book you hate.  Don’t try and sell a book you know nothing about (really, you should read it).  And don’t try to be something that you’re not.  You want the teens to trust you because you are trying to get them to do something . . . so be authentic.  Trust is vital.

However, you need to be able to employ a wide variety of styles.  Booktalking expert Joni Bodart discusses the different types of booktalks as being character based, mood based, plot summary, or anecdotal.  Find out what motivates the story, and then figure out your hook.  From there, you can engage in a wide variety of booktalking styles and techniques.  There are other places that cover that topic well.  You need to know these names Joni Bodart (check out her books), Nancy Keane and Naomi Bates.  They will help you develop the tools you need to be a successful booktalker.

4.  Get Your Audience Involved

Remember, in the ideal scenario you will go to a teacher’s class and booktalk to each and every period.  This means that you can be entertaining each class for anywhere from 15 minutes up until the entire period, depending on what you and the teacher agree upon.  So you want to make it fun for the teens – get them involved.

Ask a question and get them talking.  For example, when booktalking No More Dead Dogs by Gordon Korman, ask them if they have read Where the Red Fern Grows and how they felt when the dogs died.

Take a portion of the book and make it into a short reader’s theater

Create a short news show or interview that ties into a book.

Believe it or not, a lot of the same techniques your children’s librarian employs for story hour can also be successfully used in a fun, interactive booktalk.  So make cards with words on them and ask teens to yell them out every time the you show them the card.  Ask teens to sing, dance, act, and get involved.  It doesn’t have to be you standing up in front of them. 
5.  Tech it Up (Booktalks 2.0)



In fact, it doesn’t always have to be you at all.  Today most classrooms have a computer and an overhead projector in them, so take advantage of this.  Download book trailers onto a flash drive and share them.  You can download a wide variety on YouTube or at various publishers sites, or visit Naomi Bates and use hers (she also teaches you how to make your own).
You can also create PowerPoints or basic images to share and give that “wow” factor.  I find these to be particularly useful when I want to booktalk a book that is never in on the shelf – this allows me to show them the cover.  In fact, I now almost always create a visual presentation to go with my booktalks.  The visual reinforces the verbal.  Plus, I can leave it behind in the classroom for the teacher and students.

Check out the August 2011 edition of VOYA, it has a good article on alternatives to the traditional slide show.  Scholastic also has some video booktalks you can use.  Multnomah County Libraries have a variety of Podcasts available online.  There are a lot of great tech options out there to tech up your booktalks.

6.  No Really, Get Teens Involved

Teachers are always looking for creative ways to help students explore literature and share what they have read, so get the students writing their own booktalks and creating their own book trailers.  You can share what they do in the classroom in a wide variety of ways in your library with the proper permissions and platforms, such as on a web page or social media page or display screens in your teen area.

7.  Make Their Trip to the Library Successful

I have always been amazed when visiting the classroom how students will write down titles and come up and ask you about them.  If you can, find a way to check titles out to the students at the end of the day. I have written down book barcodes and library card numbers and gone back to the library and checked them out.  But what if the teen doesn’t have a library card yet?  Chances are, they are going to come in to the library and ask about the book – but they won’t remember much.  So you need to make sure all public service staff know not only that you visited a school and booktalked, but what you booktalked.  Make sure all staff have a list of the books, a copy of the cover so they can know what it looked like, and a general book description (or a copy of the actual booktalk).  You can do this electronically or in print, or both.  Then, when a teen comes in and says, “this lady came to our library today and talked about this book set in the future where everyone has a job given to them”, the staff member can pull out the list and determine that it is The Giver by Lois Lowry.  Teens are satisfied, co-workers feel informed and everyone walks away having a successful library interaction.  That is always our number 1 goal.

Also, if you make slides you can print them out and put them on display in your teen area.  And if the books are in you can put them on display.  Whatever you do, you want to make sure they can check out the book (buy multiple copies!) or put them on hold.  There is nothing worse then coming into the library to ask for a book and there is no one there who knows what you are talking about. 

Also, don’t forget your school librarians! Take the information to them and introduce yourself.  Chances are some of the students will go looking for the books at their school library, so help the school librarian find them there if the school owns them.  We want teens to have successful library experiences, whether it be your public library or their school library. 

It Only Takes 1!

If you deal your cards correctly, you can establish a good repeat customer relationship with at least one teacher – and if you visit one teacher’s class room every month for 6 or 7 periods, well that is a lot of booktalks.  At one library I worked at I visited one particular teacher’s classroom every month for 5 years.  The great thing about this is that after a year, you have a really good backlog of booktalks to draw from the next year.  All you have to do is add the new books that you read.  And that teacher, she could be counted on to spread the word to other teachers who would occasionally take me up on my offer.  Best of all, it was amazing getting to know those students throughout the high school years.

So good luck to you as this new school year starts.  Now get booktalking!