Alabama native Steven Yates is coordinator of the school library media certification program and an assistant professor in the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Alabama. Prior to teaching at the university level, Yates held posts as librarian at two Alabama high schools and, during one of those stints, worked simultaneously as a public librarian. He has long been a volunteer for AASL, and he was president-elect for the 2016–2017 term before becoming president this past summer. We spoke with Yates during the run-up to his organization’s National Conference in Phoenix and asked him about the enthusiasm surrounding the gathering and his vision for AASL.
What are some of the pivotal issues your membership is talking about and dealing with?
What we hear from our members is that they are truly student-centered. They are talking about the same issues you hear about in the news; the same issues that are creeping into the minds of the adults also impact the students. Our members want to continue to receive resources and have thoughtful discussion about how school libraries can be the safest and the most nurturing environments, especially when it comes to resources for LGBTQ students. Not only for students looking for resources, but also providing a level of awareness, letting people know that the school library is a trusted resource in that area. Our members are also talking about looking for ways that they can support DREAMers.
As professionals in school libraries we are trying to not only provide that safe, nurturing environment, but also provide what we think is equally important for any issue—an inquiry-based learning program. We are helping students to understand how they can navigate the news and social media and how to find quality resources about whatever topic they’re being faced with, whether it is a topic in their personal life or a political topic. Maybe their political awareness is blossoming and they want to find resources to help them better articulate their views. Or it may be just, “I really need to understand what was going on during the War of 1812 for my history assignment.” Whatever it is, we want students to be able to develop their critical thinking skills by working through whatever issues they’re faced with.
Another example is some of the natural disasters and other recent events. A few colleagues have asked, “How do you help students build a level of discernment about which relief efforts are legitimate?” So many students are coming in and they want to help, they want to make an impact. Some of them say they want to collect items, but you have to help them consider: Are items what the people going through that recovery process really need? Where would your resources be best utilized? Again, it’s taking that process of inquiry and thinking about how to apply it. If we are able to internalize that with our students, we are able to develop hopefully responsible producers and consumers of information.
What are your goals for helping to steer the organization during your term? Can you describe your presidential initiative?
In general, my role is to lead AASL in taking a strategic look at our resources and the needs of the profession and trying to best align those resources to meet the needs we see. If you think of it as a train on a track, or a ship on a specific course, I work with the executive committee and the board to make sure that we’re striving to meet the goals outlined in our current strategic plan.
Personally, my presidential initiative has three prongs to it. First, I want to support our National School Library Standards rollout. The way that I want to do that is to make sure that ALA members have a chance to see the standards and get to know them. Hopefully that will entail taking time to meet with executive committees or groups of members in other divisions and roundtables across ALA, at the Midwinter meeting in Denver and the ALA Annual conference in New Orleans; and I invited the presidents of the other ALA divisions to this year’s AASL National Conference.
We are introducing the ALA members to the new standards and also at the same time thanking them for their continued support over the years. I think the term “silo” can be overused, but we can sometimes get narrowly focused on divisional goals and do not always see ways that our colleagues in other areas of librarianship are helping us and can help us. We really saw that with the widespread ALA support we received from across the country and across the profession during the ESSA process [implementation of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act]. I want to take time to make face-to-face contact with as many of the conference attendees in these constituent groups as I can to say, “Hey, thank you so much for supporting school library–related endeavors.”
And also, we want to take a few minutes and reacquaint people with what today’s school librarians are doing. We are really highlighting this role and emphasizing our particularly strong skill set around collaboration. We are ready for new partnerships across ALA that can strengthen the position of school librarianship and raise awareness of the robust, diverse collections of resources we’re managing and how we’re working to impact student achievement in ways that some of our ALA counterparts may not realize.
Have you encountered any surprises yet during your presidency?
I recently talked with some colleagues about this. It’s a matter of “the year is short, but the days can be long.” I knew there were passionate school librarians and that we had passionate advocates. I knew that in theory, but I’m getting to experience that passion and how much those in our profession—I see it from those who are members and not members—care.
AASL’s new national school library standards will be unveiled during the national conference. What was the impetus behind revising the standards? Are there some key themes of the revisions that you can share?
We have a rich tradition in AASL of setting standards for school libraries. We have not only developed the role of the school librarian but also provided guidance about what a well-developed resource collection looks like and how best practice can impact student achievement over time.
For the latest revision, we started back in 2015. We developed an approach to start by looking at our 2007 Standards for the 21st-Century Learner as well as our Empowering Learners: Guidelines for School Library Programs from 2009. In 2015 we did surveys, focus groups, and multiple layers of research through this revision process. We talked to instructional technology experts, we talked to administrators, we talked to parents, asking, “What do our current standards do for you, and what would you like the new ones to do?” We not only looked at what worked well but asked, “Where can we improve?”
At the same time that we had a standards and guidelines editorial board working, we also had a task force working to develop an implementation plan so that the revisions of both Standards for the 21st-Century Learner and Empowering Learners could launch simultaneously. These efforts have produced the combined document National School Library Standards for Learners, School Librarians, and School Libraries, which will launch at our conference in Phoenix. Parts are going to feel familiar, but there are going to be some evolved concepts.
To accompany the standards launch, we have launched our new standards portal at standards.aasl.org, where you’ll find updated Common Beliefs list [of principles answering the question, “How do we define the qualities of well-prepared learners, effective school librarians, and dynamic school libraries?”] and our new Shared Foundations infographics [that name and define competencies to foster in students]. The Shared Foundations infographics do a nice job of summarizing the competencies for learners that anchor the integrative framework for the AASL standards. After the launch, the portal will be a gateway to demonstration videos and all sorts of professional development resources to aid not only with implementing the standards but also with helping the profession and friends of the profession—all parts of the education community, whether it be administrators or parents—to best understand the role of the school library in education.
What’s new at this year’s AASL conference? What are a few highlights you can point to? And what are you most looking forward to at the conference?
One of the things that’s new this year is that we typically have conference celebration on Saturday, but we moved it this year to Friday. We did that because many attendees have to fly home on that last day of the conference, and we didn’t want them to miss the celebration. We used to call it Closing Celebration, and now it’s called Conference Celebration. It’s a unique event, and it’s always memorable. This year it’s going to be off-site, on a ranch, and it features a rodeo. My understanding is that I am somehow involved in that rodeo, so I can only imagine what’s in store! AASL staff and the members of the committee know that I’m a good sport, and I believe they are going to test my “good sportness.” But I’m looking forward to it.
That’s the fun part. In addition to the fun, the networking opportunities are so critical. It’s such a value-added portion of the conference that is hard to describe until you’ve experienced it. We have added a new author event, called Authors in the Afternoon. It will give a more intimate look than maybe our members are used to for popular authors Jordan Sonnenblick, Christian Robinson, and Sarah Dessen. Each attendee at that ticketed event will receive a signed book from each of those authors. People are excited about the chance to interact with authors, and that engagement is continuing to be more and more robust at our conference.
And, of course, the biggest thing, as we’ve been discussing—this conference is where our new national school library standards debut. There is so much excitement around that. One of the general sessions will be all about the standards.
Personally, I’m really excited about getting to hear Jason Reynolds. Everything I’ve read and seen about him—he is so inspirational. Assuming I survive that rodeo, I’m really looking forward to hearing from him on Saturday morning.
Also, it’s such an exciting time for the field—seeing the years of work come to fruition on these standards. I know how hard all the committee members have been working on organizing the conference. We can work day to day, sometimes as loners; some of us don’t get that interaction with other school library professionals every day. This is a chance to be among your people and really talk about and dig into things. The concurrent sessions and the richness of them—we have more than 120 sessions—are a chance to learn new things and a testament to just how many entries we received. In Phoenix, we’ve created a desert oasis where we have the luxury of time, to dive in and celebrate and enjoy what it means to be a school librarian and the type of work we do as we strive to impact student achievement every day.