Hooking it up: UAA professors connect new teachers with classroom libraries

Kathryn Ohle, assistant professor of early childhood education, and her project partner Jennifer McKay, assistant professor in the UAA/APU Consortium Library, along with their student assistant Tia Shira (center), spent the summer curating book collections for newly graduated UAA teachers. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)
Kathryn Ohle, assistant professor of early childhood education, and her project partner Jennifer McKay, assistant professor in the UAA/APU Consortium Library, along with their student assistant Tia Shira (center), spent the summer curating book collections for newly graduated UAA teachers. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

For new teachers, there are many challenges during their first year in the classroom. But before the first day of school bell even rings, teachers—novice and experienced—are preparing bulletin boards, creating lesson plans and scouring summer garage sales for classroom supplies—specifically, children’s books to beef up their classroom libraries.

For newly graduated teachers, creating a classroom library from scratch is a huge hurdle, as they are often having to invest their own time and personal money into developing one.

“Two summers ago I had a student who had received all of a teacher’s children’s books, because that teacher was retiring,” said Kathryn Ohle, an assistant professor in Early Childhood Education, at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Her student ended opting out of teaching in the fall and came to Ohle with the classroom library to see if she could use the hand-me-down books. For Ohle, it was a moment of inspiration.

She made a few phone calls to former students, who she knew had recently been hired, to see if they were interested in the books. The resounding response was, yes.

“They were so appreciative and excited to receive them,” said Ohle. “There were two elements to it. One, they were getting books for free—books are super expensive—and second, is that it was a really carefully cultivated library.”

Ohle realized she’d stumbled upon a much needed niche for new teachers in getting their classrooms set up. She started formulating a program that would facilitate the exchange of retiring teachers’ classroom libraries to brand new teachers.

She contacted Jennifer McKay, an assistant professor in the UAA/APU Consortium Library, with her proposal to see if she was interested in partnering with her. That’s when the project really took off.

Building a successful project

The two hit the ground running, turning Ohle’s idea into a concrete plan for a program that would provide retiring teachers an outlet to offload their classroom libraries, while helping new teachers start their own. Ohle and McKay approached the university’s Center for Community Engagement & Learning (CCEL) for help and funding for the project, and were able to obtain a Community Engaged Student Assistant (CESA) to help with work and research.

“We just put our necks out there and said, ‘Hey, let’s just see what happens if we start this,’” said McKay.

Both Ohle and McKay knew some groundwork needed to be laid before fully launching their project, and with the help of their CESA student they created two surveys to assess the need of a program like this. They conducted both through UAA’s Internal Review Board, one which surveyed professors on campus to make sure they weren’t overlapping their efforts with a potentially already existing program. The other was an external survey distributed throughout the Anchorage School District (ASD) and Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District for new and retiring teachers to see if they would be interested in a program like theirs.

The response was overwhelming on both sides, Ohle said. New teachers were ecstatic about the possibility of inheriting well curated libraries, while retiring teachers were happy to pass along their resources.

Ohle and McKay’s CESA student Tia presented their findings at CCEL’s CESA Fair last April—which gave them the final push they needed to fully launch their program.

“Tia (their CESA student) kept getting questions of, ‘OK, now what are you going to do? Are you going to do this project?’” said Ohle. “So Jennifer and I said OK, let’s see what we can do in the next couple of months.”

They had to work quickly, as the end of the school year was rapidly approaching and would only have a few months once summer hit to gather books. McKay emailed every elementary school principal in the ASD and asked them to pass along her callout for children’s books.

About a dozen teachers responded, volunteering their classroom libraries, as well as a few principals, one whose school was closing and a few whose libraries were acquiring new reading materials for the fall.

It was more than Ohle and McKay could have hoped for their project, but the two had a long summer ahead to prepare, sort and create collections for new teachers to pick up before the beginning of the 2017 school year.

Since launching their project, Ohle and McKay were able to provide 19 teachers with collections containing an average of 200 books each. Both Ohle and McKay spent their summers ensuring they’d make their fall deadline, but the real hero of the project, according to Ohle was their CESA student Sonya Sheaver who dedicated more than 75 hours to the effort, who sorted the all the books they’d received. Once the sorting had been completed, Ohle and McKay set to work creating the collections and notifying the teachers.

Future reading

Both Ohle and McKay hadn’t realized the time-intensive work of their project, but feel their efforts are going to pay off big in the long run, not just for new teachers, but primarily for students—who they both acknowledge are the end goal for the project.

McKay said providing new teachers with a head start on their classroom libraries benefits students by giving them an opportunity to read and expand their educational horizons. The end game? Maybe one day those students will walk through the doors of UAA to pursue a degree.

For now the project is moving forward. Ohle and McKay have another CESA student working with them this fall and winter to follow up with the 19 UAA teachers who received books to see how they’re using them in their classrooms. McKay is using her connections with librarians in Anchorage, to develop a collection policy, so she and Ohle can be thoughtful in the books they collect. They want to make sure their classroom library collections are useful and the new teachers who receive them get the most out of the resources being given to them.

“I just think this is a great partnership—especially through CCEL—they’ve been so supportive of us pursuing this project,” said McKay. “They’ve connected us with CESAs and community partners—all of that has been a huge benefit—working with CCEL has made this project very successful.”

Ohle and McKay’s project is still in its infancy and they have more research to do to determine if this will be become a full-fledged program. They hope it will. The challenges going forward? Space and resources. Ohle said they’ve gotten such a great community-wide response and although they are still receiving books, they’re completely out of children’s books and still taking donations. For a first year project, both Ohle and McKay are pleasantly surprised with it’s enormous success.