Middle School readers Skype, battle over books during National Library Week

4/13/2017 | TACOMA, Washington

Hands shot into the air as Baker Middle School teacher-librarian Kristin Sierra asked a group of middle school students from across Tacoma School District if they enjoyed reading Blackbird Fly, a novel about a girl who dreams of becoming a rock star but faces bullying at school. 

Sierra then revealed a screen with the author of the book, Erin Entrada Kelly, ready to use Skype from her home on the East Coast to video chat with the students. Students asked Kelly questions about the book and what inspired her to write it. 

​Middle School students use Skype to talk with author Erin Entrada Kelly
during the Battle of the Books. 
The Skype session occurred during Tacoma Public Schools’ annual Battle of the Books, an event where teams from each middle school compete in a trivia-style game about books. The event encourages reading and teamwork as students work together to remember key details from 10 books selected by middle school teacher-librarians. 

This year’s Battle of Books occurred during National School Library Month and National Library Week, movements that recognize the crucial role libraries and librarians play in educating students. In Tacoma Public Schools, libraries serve as a key research, technology and discovery hub of each school’s teaching team. The district started a “Library of the Future” initiative in 2016 that reimagines the role of a traditional library to better support modern learning needs. 

“The library is a third space. It’s not school, but it’s not home,” said Suzanna Panter, a national school library expert who oversees the district’s Library of the Future program. “Students use the library for clubs, for Robotics, for finding their life passions. It’s a vibrant place where our number one job is learning and synthesizing the skills students need to be successful in the digital age.” 

In addition to hosting events like Battle of the Books, Tacoma’s teacher-librarians find innovative ways to reimagine the role of the library. At Lyon Elementary School, teacher-librarian Roman Maunupau-Paige started a “Genius Hour” for fourth and fifth-grade students based off the concept at Google, where the company gives employees time to work on projects they’re passionate about. Lyon students will use research skills to access books and databases that can help them pursue passions such as learning American Sign Language, or choreographing and teaching others how to dance.  

Other libraries are piloting self-service checkout kiosks so students can check out their own books. Teacher-librarians at all schools lead technology training in their building to help students and teachers understand digital Microsoft Office 365 tools available now to all students and staff members. 

Last year, the district expanded the number of books students can check out from school libraries. Since then, students have checked out 28,000 more books. 

“Students are expanding the types of books they look at,” said Maunupau-Paige of Lyon Elementary School. “Before it was all popular fiction, now they’re also diving into art, cooking, sports—even a few poetry books.”

The updates to the district’s library program come thanks to voter support in 2014 for a technology levy that raised $10 million a year for new technology investments. In 2015, the district moved oversight of the library program to the Instructional Technology Department, strengthening the link between libraries and technology. 

Book Battle and Bullying 
At the Battle of the Books, students from each middle school huddled in teams to answer questions like:
“In which book is a character famous for driving off substitute teachers?”
(Answer: The Iron Trail)

After neck-and-neck competition, teams from Baker and Meeker middle schools landed in a tie-breaker, where Baker ultimately triumphed. 

All participants received a free book of their choice from Follett Corporation, an education company, for winning their school competition and moving to the district-wide competition. 

​Baker Middle School students (l-r) Jazmyn Douglas, Adrienne Washington,
Bruce Braudway, Cynthia Carlson and Alina Prots won the Battle of the Books.
​​​​​​​​​​​Members of the Baker team said the hardest part of the competition was getting over their fear of getting the answers wrong. The most fun part? Reading the books. 

Skyping with Kelly, whose book Blackbird Fly was one of the 10 books the students read for the competition, drew raves from students.  

“That was awesome,” said Jazmyn Douglas, a seventh-grade Baker student. “She’s one of my favorite authors, and it was so amazing to meet her and hear her talk.”

Jazmyn and her teammates Bruce Braudway, Cynthia Carlson, Alina Prots and Adrienne Washington marveled that the Kelly based the book off a true story—her own life. As the only Filipino in her school, Kelly was bullied for looking different. 

“I can’t imagine writing about bullying,” said Alina, as her teammates nodded their heads. “It was really brave of her.”