Learning With Leaders at the School Library Journal Summit

Written by Jennifer Sharp and Erika Long

Your authors (self-proclaimed conference junkies): Jennifer Sharp (L) and Erika Long (R)

Two years ago, after attending in our own backyard here in Nashville, the two of us made a pact: if the School Library Journal Leadership Summit is within reach geographically and financially, we are determined to make the trip every year. The reason we keep returning? It is, hands down, one of the most phenomenal conferences we’ve ever attended. 

Set over the course of one whirlwind of a weekend, SLJ Leadership Summit allows school library leaders from across the country to convene for a few short (but full) days of learning and networking. One thing that makes the Summit so unique is the format of the event. A significant portion of the Summit takes place in a large, banquet-style room where all attendees take part in the program of featured presenters; smaller breakout sessions occur only once or twice during the entire event. This may sound overwhelming at first, and you may be cringing at the thought of not being able to move around and have a change of scenery between each session. Let us reassure you, though: in this case, that is the last thing to cross the mind of anyone in the room. The fast-paced structure of the event, brief but energizing pauses interspersed throughout the day, and extremely high-quality content all make it nearly impossible to pull yourself away from the meaningful conversations taking place in that big room. 

This year, all of those conversations focused on the theme of “Equity and Access for All.” The weekend’s keynote speakers were physician and United Nations Commissioner on Health Employment and Economic Growth Dr. Alaa Murabit, political organizer and community activist Dayvon Love, and journalist Scott Pelley. Murabit challenged us to consider how we translate the value and importance of what we do for our stakeholders and those who don’t use school libraries, then determine ways to 1) retain and strengthen our communities and 2) advocate for policymakers to support us in doing so. Love spoke about the importance of telling ALL stories when we speak about history, and about the “unintended limitations” we place upon people based on our preconceived notions. Pelley spoke about the importance of truth and journalism in today’s divisive and confusing political climate. One of his truths that resonated with us: “Freedom of speech and of the press are rights; for us, they are work.”

Jennifer with journalist Scott Pelley

In between these fantastic keynote speakers, we heard from a flurry of impressive and empowering speakers. Here’s a quick overview:

  • Katie Bowers, Managing Director at The Harry Potter Alliance, shared examples of how their organization achieves its mission of turning fans into heroes. She encouraged us to use the love of stories and media as fuel to support social justice efforts.
  • Former US Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Susan Neuman discussed the significance of supporting families through early access to print and literacy activities. Research shows that there are fewer books per child in libraries in poorer communities, and Neuman stressed that access to books and opportunities to read are the most important game-changer in literacy outcomes – so we need to ENSURE that students in ALL communities have those resources. Neuman noted, “it is not that people do not want to read, they haven’t had the opportunity.”
  • Marijke Visser (ALA) and Nicky Rigg (Google) had us up and moving – well, dancing – as a way to exhibit computational thinking/unplugged coding. The pair shared quick tips and resources from ALA’s Libraries Ready to Code initiative. If you’re ever afraid of coding or teaching it to your students, Ready to Code is an easy way to get started. Guaranteed excitement! 
  • In a fantastic panel moderated by SLJ Editor Daryl Grabarek, authors David Bowles, Malaka Gharib, Kevin Noble Maillard, and Isabel Quintero spoke about the celebration of home, culture, and identity in their books.
  • Dr. Tea Rozman-Clark and Zaynab Abdi of Green Card Voices left us in awe of the power of print and digital storytelling as positive narratives for the immigrant community. As Abdi so eloquently put it, “Immigration is not only struggles; there is also beauty before and hope after.”

Another big highlight for us was the administrator panel. Each year, SLJ brings in high level district administrators, including superintendents, to share about their experiences with school libraries. The questions asked of these panelists enable attendees to learn more about how best to advocate for ourselves and our students with these critical decision-makers in our own local landscape. Administrators in attendance are always honest and open, no matter what tough questions they are asked by the facilitator or the audience. We weren’t the only ones frantically scribbling notes as the administrators shared their candid thoughts! This panel is something that SLJ does every year, and it always yields major takeaways and a-ha moments.

Beyond the fantastic programming, another exciting aspect of the Summit is the opportunity to visit school libraries in other parts of the country. Each year, SLJ selects a few local schools to host these school visits – and they always prove to be one of the most enlightening parts of the conference! While there were multiple tour options, we selected the one that offered us the chance to visit a middle school in the Baltimore County Public Schools and an elementary/middle school in Baltimore City Schools. 

During our visit to Catonsville Middle School in Baltimore County, we first had the opportunity to speak with many different librarians (school-based, district level, and public) in a “fair style” environment in the cafeteria. We learned about everything from a school/public library partnership to a special independent research seminar that high school students have the option to take with supervision from their school librarian. Then, we moved into the library, where students were engaged in a pre-reading lesson. Students were preparing to read The Cay, and the librarian and classroom teacher were facilitating a lesson with station rotations, including a makerspace activity, learning about the context/setting of the novel, and more.

Scenes from Catonsville Middle School in Baltimore County Public Schools

Then, in Baltimore City, we visited Windsor Hills Elementary/Middle School. The space had recently been renovated thanks to a partnership with the Weinberg Foundation, a local organization that funds school library renovations. We watched the librarian facilitate a lesson with a small group of students and learned about how their district partners with the city for One Book Baltimore, which recently kicked off with a special visit from author Jason Reynolds. In both schools, we were very impressed with the fact that we were able to witness library instruction and activities. The schools and librarians were so welcoming and truly shared “a day in the life” with us, which was so valuable. We took LOTS of notes – even the smallest details can spark ideas that will inspire us long after we return to our own schools.

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Scenes from Windsor Hills Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore City Schools.

Summit attendees also had the opportunity to meet with vendors and sponsors, and to play and explore in the TLC-SmartTECH Innovation Playground throughout the weekend. This is a special interactive room where educational technology products and services are featured; this year, the offerings included 3D printing, augmented reality, robotics, and more! Each year, attendees also have unique opportunities to interact with the Summit’s sponsors through special interest focus groups and evening functions. These opportunities to interact with vendors are unique in that they are more intimate and relaxed than experiences you might have at larger conferences.

The weekend is a whirlwind of learning, networking, and sharing with colleagues. We rarely have much free time (which is a little bittersweet since the locations are always exciting) – but sometimes we’re able to take a few hours for sightseeing! This year, we were able to be “library tourists” at Baltimore’s renowned Enoch Pratt Free Library, which just recently underwent a major renovation. It was absolutely beautiful and included all the modern amenities you’d expect, but with a lovely underlay of historic charm and original details. 

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A few photos from the beautiful Enoch Pratt Free Library.

We’d like to extend a big thank you to School Library Journal for hosting such a fantastic event each year, and to all the sponsors who make it happen and the speakers who share their expertise and excitement. With all that said, we hope you’ll consider joining us for next year’s School Library Journal Leadership Summit 2020! The location is typically announced in the spring, and registration follows a few months later. Follow SLJ on Twitter at @sljournal so you’re in the loop when registration goes live. In the meantime, if you have any questions (or just want to hear us talk more about how much we love this event), feel free to reach out to us!

unnamed-12   Jennifer Sharp is a school librarian at John Overton High School in Nashville, TN and the 2019 President of TASL. You can follow her on Twitter @JenniferSharpTN or @OvertonLibrary.

Erika Long   Erika Long is a school librarian in Nashville, TN and the    President-Elect of TLA. You can connect with her on Twitter @erikaslong. 



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