By: Diane Stirling
Teacher Librarian, the magazine of the Journal for School Library Professionals, selected Sue Kowalski ’03, of Brewerton, NY, librarian at the Pine Grove Middle School in the East Syracuse-Minoa School District, for the honor. She was cited with the magazine’s inaugural “Teacher Librarian Leadership Award” for her visionary leadership and contributions to the learning commons concept in creating and using new models of teaching and learning.
The award cites Kowalski’s work revamping the middle school’s library setting and operations, changes that came about because she was willing to take a hard look at the existing offerings, she said. As she considered various improvements, she reached out to Dr. David Loertscher, an expert in the field of school media, for his perspective. Loertscher, who also serves as co-editor of the Teacher Librarian magazine, later visited the school and hosted a regional presentation for librarians and administrators.
“He liked what he saw, then made recommendations that amounted to an extreme makeover,” Kowalski laughed.
Over time, the once-standard library started optimizing all available resources – physical, informational, instructional and human. A storage room was turned into a conference room. A clerk’s office became a quiet study room. A group of tables was rearranged into an i-Lab café. Desktop computer stations were switched over to wireless laptops. A standard presentation area was made into a mobile one. Interactive elements were developed to replace a static web site.
Kowalski also introduced shifts in operational structure, activating a network of 100 interested students (out of a population of 800) who volunteered to help out through the course of the year. Among them are the “i-Staff,” 40 to 50 students who commit to ongoing roles in programming, upkeep, and library functions. Though the effort began with students doing routine tasks, it soon morphed into an energetic team of students offering additional skills and grasping new opportunities to help, according to Kowalski. “All the tasks were so surface. Then, I saw kids really start to rally” in the talents they could offer, she said. As a librarian and former teacher, that made Kowalski question, “Why am I not tapping into all of the different natural talent they had,” she said.
She soon decided to formalize the student program with a job bank, and began to solicit teachers for tasks that needed doing. She installed “rangers” to support floor functions and desk services. “I really tried to up the stakes of what I was doing. And it was just exponential. Now kids are coming out of the woodwork to help,” she emphasized.
Some of the biggest changes were in the way the librarian viewed her own work and role, including learning to step back from day-to-day tasks and facilitate students’ adoption of activities, she said. “Thank god I had an ‘aha’ moment really early,” Kowalski expressed. “I understood that I’ve got kids who want to be part of the library and help, and this should be where I put my efforts. I tried to really focus on the big life skills I wanted these kids to leave with.” She also determined, “This isn’t about a librarian training program. It’s about leadership training that happens to be going on in a library. It’s nice that students are using the library as their training ground, but I’d be just as happy if they used their leadership skills with [other organizations].”
Students have greatly benefitted from their involvement, too. “They say it’s fun, it’s cool to be a part of the team. But they also say they’ve developed leadership skills, talents, and they are not afraid to try new things. It’s the confidence that they can take charge, they can be leaders; they can be the kids that other kids look up to and teachers need,” Kowalski observed.
Kowalski’s selection was highlighted in the publication’s April edition. With a circulation of more than 26,000 in North America and overseas, the publication is one of the largest independent library journals, and is considered a top publication in its field.