Thursday, June 25, 2015

Millvale Community Library as a Model for Pittsburgh Public Schools

Kidsburgh: Destination Millvale from Sprout on Vimeo.

Do you know about the Millville Library? I think of it as the Little Library That Could. The first library in Millville, it was created by members of its own community. It offers a donated collection, computers, a really beautiful space complete with coffee and tea for purchase, a professional librarian, a community garden with a water garden in the back, and a Maker Space, staffed by professionals by the Pittsburgh Children's Museum.

The MakerSpace, when I saw it, was housed in the coolest wooden cabinet on wheels. It had drawers that pulled out to reveal wiring, soldering irons, switches, cogs, wheels, bobbins, scissors and thread for the sewing machine, LED lights, fabric, clay, and enough who-zits and what-zits to warm a mad scientist's heart. There were complimentary parts to the MakerSpace: a floor to ceiling whirling set of bins that held other stuff for building, creating, imagining and reimagining, for iterations of STUFF that kids could make.

The best part of all of this, of course, was the wry and funny professional guy from the Children's Museum who came out once or twice a week to teach kids how to use iPads and arduinos and LED lights and wiring and switches to make robots that drove, turned, lit up. On other days, kids learned other skills so that their imaginations were linked to real skills, so they could build things that really did drive, light up, turn, speak, obey commands, do work, be useful, or just become the thing the kid wanted it to be.

Here's my dream: Let's have a MakerSpace in each Library in the Pittsburgh Public Schools. Let's have our Pittsburgh Public Schools decide that we are ALL going to embrace STEAM, and:

1. Become a District of First Choice by:
A. Partnering with Pittsburgh assets to empower teachers with best practices. That begins with Pittsburgh teachers as assets. Therefore:
B. Libraries are the places in schools best suited and most easily prepared to be transformed into Learning Commons. Learning Commons contain the most up to date information and technology. They also lend themselves to collaboration, which is the best model for STEAM education.  Since the Library is the natural place to center STEAM education as a school-wide model, start by placing a high-quality, licensed and qualified professional Librarian in each Pittsburgh Public School.
C. Work with funders of all kinds to create school libraries as Learning Commons, complete with all resources needed, including updated book collections.
D. Here's the MEAT:

HAVE THE BEST TEACHERS IN BUILDINGS DO THE PD they need to do for each other. Have the best teachers in buildings go to other buildings and do PD for other buildings. Have the Children's Museum embed teaching artists in each Learning Commons to teach kids and Librarians STEAM skills. Keep PD dollars local, for God's sake. Why aren't there teaching artists from the Warhol, the Museums of Art, Natural History, all of the Universities and Libraries in every Pittsburgh Public School? Let's skip the blah blah blah about red tape, its complicated, etc. These things, like all things, are personality driven. Take two people-oriented ego-less, kid-first professionals and put them together and amazing things happen.

I know amazing things happen because I've been blessed to be part of amazing things. The Manchester Miracle was created by Yinzercation Nation and Manchester residents and Neil Gaiman and Laurie Halse Anderson and Pittsburghers. Pittsburgh City Paper writer Allan Smith featured our book drive in a really wonderful piece in this week's Edition of the City Paper. People make beauty happen because they believe in equity. We can create the conditions we want to see for Pittsburgh's school children if we want to. Reality is just our own creation. Local PD. All that's beautiful, strong and good channeled into Pittsburgh Public Schools. Less canned curricula, purchased at great expense from money grubbing multinational businesses with little interest in our kids. Like Millville's  Little Library That Could, PPS can rise from where it is, to be for the whole community, on a 'mission of positive change."

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Outlaw Rides Again

Two years after I wrote this, I accepted a high school Librarian position at Perry Traditional Academy on the North Side of Pittsburgh. Who'dve thunk. I guess you can't keep a good outlaw down.

Back in the educational world, things look quite different. Thanks to Jessie Ramey, Kathy Newman, Pamela Harbin and all the other outlaw King-Makers at Yinzercation, we have a new, pro-public education Governor, swept into office by a blistering roar of angry parents, furious at the starvation of their kids' schools. Governor Wolf promises to reverse his predecessors's grotesque $1 billion cuts to public schools. He promises to bring back arts, music, and yes, SCHOOL LIBRARIES. See this:

The funds are not rolling yet, and my job at Perry is not due to the new Governor. However, it is nice to come back to education at a moment when things are looking up.

I have been at Perry for about two months now. My students make me laugh every dang minute. They are hilarious, and tender and sweet and gifted. Together, we have begun a book drive to diversify our book shelves. We hooked up with the national #WeNeedDiverseBooks folks and tweeted out messages. Sue Kerr, the North Side and national blogger, wrote a great piece about that effort. See more on that here. We were featured on the front page of the Pittsburgh Public Schools website. Today, the Pittsburgh City Paper came out to interview us about the book drive. To date, we have received 63 books from our Amazon Wish List. We hope to get more. The book shelves at Perry are deceptively full. What stocks them are books that desperately need to be updated. To those who have donated, we say thank you. You are making a difference in children's lives. You should know that kids attack the new books like freshly baked muffins.

What an exciting time! What a great place to be in! Much different than two years ago, when as a sub, I was ready to leave education forever. But outlaws aren't easily satisfied. Lord knows I'm not. Not when kids such as Pittsburgh's languish in inequitable situations. Let me tell you a story.

There is a kid at Perry who watches Youtube videos at home of people playing the piano. He carefully watches where they put their fingers as they play. Then this kid comes into school, sits down at one of our school pianos-- and plays what he watched. Really.

What the video above shows is the kid in question playing on one of the three pianos in the Library. My friends and colleagues, Gerald Watkins, the Choir Director and Music ITL, and Richard Lane, the Instrumental Teacher at Perry, had them moved up to the Library with my blessing. Libraries are workshops. They are places for kids to create content, not be containers to be filled. In the age of the Read-Write Web, kids need their school libraries to function as labs. Now kids such as this one have one more place to practice music in school. One more place to build the day in creative joy.

Which brings me to the reason I'm still so unsatisfied. The wonderful young City Paper writer and I spoke today of the Observatory that used to exist at his high school in Mt. Lebanon. You know, an observatory-- for observing the STARS. It worked.

Television stations, raku ceramics studios, oil painting, Latin, robotics, wood shops, Mac labs with Garage Band, etc., Maker Spaces, and mostly-- people. Enough people. Enough Librarians, library aides, books, music teachers, social workers, counselors, teachers, etc. to enable kids to have small classes, and their needs met. These things exist in schools for some kids in the Pittsburgh area, and we know which kids. Just not my kids at Perry.

It's great to have donated books and pianos in the Library. It's a joyous and optimistic start. But nobody with daily access to kids like these would dream that it is enough. Our kids need to have every opportunity, plain and simple. And what drove Jessie Ramey and Yinzercation to get a new Governor elected was a lot of work. A lot of funky, schlepping, sweating, on the bus, sign making, phone call making, unglamorous, risky work. That's what it takes to make change. And that is what I'm calling for when I say-- we Pittsburghers need to choose equity. We need to call our Republican congressfolk and demand they vote for arts and libraries and special ed teachers and counselors and film studies in schools. We must demand they work with this new Governor. And we must demand the new Governor stay on track with what he was put into office to do.

The viral book drives I have been lucky enough to be involved with have shown that Pittsburghers believe in and want equity for children, all of its children. I know that as surely as I have opened a zillion Amazon boxes and cataloged those books. That is why I won't be satisfied-- and I know Pittsburgh won't be satisfied-- until all of the things and mostly, staff and services that matter so much for kids' success--- exist in each Pittsburgh school.

It's either equity-- or more of the gun violence and more jails full of children who could be pouring out art from their fingertips and hearts and souls into the very air we breathe. Like the smokestacks used to pour out smoke. Choose, Pittsburgh. Equity for our school kids. Or jail. For our kids. Each one. Like that child, the one at the piano.

Post script: Pittsburgh Public Schools offers free music lessons this summer for 5th-8th graders!  Call Dr. Kymberly Cruz at 412-529-3518, or sign up at