I Love My Librarian Award winner Marcia Kochel: Building community

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by Steve Zalusky

Druid Hills Middle School in Atlanta (GA) serves 930 students and is a Title I school with many students eligible for free and reduced lunch. During 2017, there were 148 students at the school who were classified as English language learners or were being monitored by ESOL teachers. There are 23 different languages spoken by students at DHMS.

How does one merge all of these students from such differing backgrounds into a cohesive whole? School librarian Marcia Kochel is the answer.

Jennifer Green, her nominator for a 2017 I Love My Librarian Award, said, “Mrs. Kochel is incredibly hardworking, committed to excellence, passionate about literacy, and a believer in her students. Even with limited resources, she has worked to transform the library from a traditional book repository to a ‘learning commons’ that engages kids in creative and inviting ways. The library is now buzzing with activity as a center of community, collaboration, and creativity, and Mrs. Kochel has made it happen.”

Kochel arrived at the school after teaching at a private school in Atlanta where students had unlimited access to resources. At Druid Hills, the situation was very different, a public school with students from less privileged backgrounds.

Nevertheless, Kochel has worked diligently to provide an exemplary academic atmosphere, one that is accessible to all students regardless of their English literacy level. Her library is a beacon for collaboration in which students can develop their talents.

Kochel works with teachers to enhance the students’ experience. She worked with a teacher of English as a Second or Other Language (ESOL) and an English/Language Arts teacher of U.S.-born students on one project. She arranged book readings and an author visit by Marie Marquardt, who has written novels about young people and immigration issues. Then she brought to school the leader of a non-profit organization in Georgia (El Refugio) that helps families visit their loved ones in detention centers for immigration issues.

Green said that when meeting with students, which included ESOL and U.S.-born students, the non-profit leader described the loneliness, isolation, and hopeless feelings of many detainees. The middle school students then asked if they could write encouraging letters to detainees, and the non-profit leader matched them to detainees based on shared languages. Students were able to write in five different languages to detainees. At one point, one student even found his own brother’s name on the list of detainees, and he and his friends were able to write to him in Spanish.

In another example of collaboration, she worked with teachers on a program for English language learners called Library Literacy Leaders. In this collaborative program, ESOL students will become members in book clubs that will select a wide variety of new books for the library. In weekly meetings, the students and teachers will discuss the books and work on writing book talks that the students will then film and add to the school’s morning announcements. To make the films using film and editing equipment purchased through this grant, middle school students will receive training and mentoring from international students at Emory University and Georgia State University.

Through this program, the Library Literacy Leaders will not only be reading and writing, but also working on public speaking, filming and video editing.

Kochel builds inclusive communities in a number of ways – such as overnight read-ins, reading contents and book clubs that bring together children from such different countries as India, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Myanmar, Mexico and the U.S.

One parent wrote, “I love that the school library is becoming the safe space for every kind of child - the introvert, the bookworm, the ‘cool’ kids, the creative/artsy kids, the extroverts – Mrs. Kochel creates a space for everyone.

For one contest, children took pictures of themselves reading in funny or interesting places during winter break, which served to acquaint them with each other’s interests.

She has a way of engaging students, setting up creative stations around the library where children can work together on jigsaw puzzles and presenting them with such tools to enhance creativity as  a 3-D printer and Legos. She has encouraged collaboration by painting tables with white board paint and the sides of the front desk with chalk board paint. One week one table was covered with a multi-step math problem (in several different handwritings) and a poem written in Burmese.

According to one teacher, “In the short time Mrs. Kochel has been at DHMS, she has transformed the library experience for both students and teachers. She has created an inviting, engaging, and creative space for all of us to explore, learn, and share.”

She works with students to acquaint them with the library’s resources, making book recommendations to students based on their conversations. She orders books that are tailored to students’ interests.

According to one parent, “When I was volunteering in the library one day, a girl came and asked for books about women’s rights in the Middle East. She was from Afghanistan and had been a refugee. When leaving her country, she had to leave her precious books behind because there wasn’t space for them. Now she was so happy to use the library in middle school.” The parent shared the story with Kochel, who promptly ordered books on the topic.

Her efforts have had a quantifiable impact.  Book circulation rose from 900 to 2,700 in two years that she has been at the school.

In a recent interview conducted at the time she received the honor, she said, ““It was a huge surprise and an honor. I get to do what I love every day. I have a really challenging job, but it’s fun and it’s meaningful and I work with great kids and teachers. It’s recognition for what I do, but it’s recognition that so many school librarians are doing great things and making a difference in their schools.”

She added, “I’m doing what I love. I love children’s books. I love talking about them with kids. And I love working with technology. And I love a job that’s different every day and where I feel like I can make a difference.”

Discussing her work in public schools, she said, “I’m really happy to be in a public school and a public school that is really racially diverse and economically diverse, and I want to give the very best opportunity to every kid in the school, because I think public schools are just incredibly important and under attack right now.”

Regarding the importance of her work, she used an example. “One of my students just wrote a thank you note to me right before Thanksgiving and it said, “Dear Miss Kochel, the library is my comfort place. I love books.” And I put it up on my wall. I said, that’s it. We’re in a middle school. We are the comfort place and we are a place of challenge, but we’re a place where these kids can find a refuge, but also do so much learning and independent thinking and become who they are going to become. “