Thursday, October 17, 2013

Looking back: the evolution of the Red Dot Book Awards & Readers Cup in Singapore

The Red Dot book awards ( are one of those hybrid awards:  students vote on shortlists selected by adults (school librarians).  Eight books in four categories, one winner in each -- followed by a Readers Cup competition between international schools here in Singapore.

"But what's the mission statement?  Good literature or just promoting books from various countries?" someone asked as we gathered to sort through the longlists of the four categories this year.

My gut response was "good literature from various countries."

The awards website's "About" page says:
The Red Dot categories are roughly based on readers, rather than book formats or school divisions.  (NB: It is up to every librarian to determine which books are right for which classes in your school to read.)
  • Early Years (ages 3-7) -- formerly Picture Books
  • Younger Readers (ages 7-10) -- formerly Junior) -- (where Captain Underpants and Geronimo Stilton are the assumed reading level)
  • Older Readers (ages 10-14) -- formerly Middle) -- (where Inkheart and The Lightning Thief are the assumed reading level)
  • Mature Readers (ages 14-adult) -- (formerly Senior) --  (where Twilight and The Book Thief are the assumed reading level)
Shortlist titles are chosen by a committee of teacher-librarians from recent children's literature (first published in English within the past four years), with the goal of offering a range of books from around the world
The initiative is now entering its fifth year, just long enough for its origins to deserve review -- especially given our transient teaching population.
As one of its creators, it was interesting for me to go back through the minutes of meetings and  posts in the Google Group of our local network - ISLN (International Schools Library Network - Singapore) and remember how it developed.

First there was Barb Philip Reid, a NZ/Australian teacher-librarian at Tanglin Trust School, back in September 2008 wanting to get a Readers Cup going between all our schools, similar to the Readers Cup in Australia.   As research, she and I did a librarians-on-tour trip to Hong Kong in May 2009 to watch the finale of the annual Battle of the Books (based on a well-established American model) run by their international school library network, ALESS.

At the same time I had been wanting to get an annual international students-voting book award going in Singapore, inspired by the Panda Book Awards created by SLIC (School Librarians in China) and the Sakura Medal started by the international school librarians in Japan.  (The French international schools in Asia run a similar program: see here and here -- and there is now the Morning Calm Medal in South Korea.) 

Barb and I figured, why not combine the two ambitions and start an annual book award program, whose shortlists would become the source of the Readers Cup competition booklists.  Introduce the books in Oct/Nov, vote in March, and the three older categories (as shown) would compete in May.
  • Younger Readers - Year 3, 4 & 5 / Grade 2, 3 & 4
  • Older Readers - Year 5, 6, 7, & 8 / Grade 4, 5, 6 & 7
  • Mature Readers - Year 8+ / Grade 7+
Our booklists would then necessarily be "formative" ones, meaning only fairly recent literature, in contrast to the "summative" kind most "Battle of the Books" (Google it) use, mixing old and new titles.  Both have their place.  The "summative" approach guarantees kids don't miss great books from any era.  The "formative" ensures students and teachers are exposed to the best of the latest -- and encourages schools to buy multiple copies of new titles every year, potentially freshening up the book cupboards.

We got a committee together and in October 2009 it was announced the award would be called the "Red Dots" (as Singapore is proud of that epithet).   The shortlists followed in November, with 14 schools immediately signing up to participate, including a British school, an American school, a German school, a French school, a Canadian school, an Australian school, plus just plain Anglo-heritage/international ones.  And so it started, and has continued, with some variation in implementation.

Each school can do what they want with the lists.  Buy them all or only a selection.  Participate in voting or not.  Participate in the Readers Cup or not.  Give your students different criteria for choosing one book to vote for in each category.  (Your personal favorite? The one you would recommend to friends the most?)  We only say students should probably have read at least two books in a category in order to make a choice.  We do expect just one vote per student per category.  Results are tallied by category and school, and then for all the schools, giving us overall winners.

An International Approach (in Singapore)


But back to the question, how do we choose titles?   What assumptions has the committee been working on over the past five years?

Barb and I did a presentation at the 2010 IASL (International Association of School Librarians) in Brisbane, Australia, on "Creating Internationally Literate Readers" (see the workshop website and our conference paper), which recounted the Red Dot story and summarized the challenges we face in choosing books suitable for and accessible to the wide range of students in our various international schools.

We brought up the danger of the single story (a la Chimamanda Adichie's TED talk) and the need for books to serve as both mirrors and windows of culture for children, especially given the predominance of "third culture" kids in our schools.  We showed examples of books that bridge cultures well - and others that are problematic.  For example, the question always has to be asked, is this book too American? too British? too Australian? too Canadian? too Singaporean? etc.

There are so many factors, but these are the major ones considered for the Red Dot books:
  •  Publication date:  published in English within the past four years.  That seems to increase the chance that books are available in paperback.  It also allows enough time for us to take advantage of other/national book awards which may be limited to just the past year - we can choose from their backlists.
  • Cost and ease of access:  If a book is perfect, but not available through our regular book-buying channels, or only available in hardcover, we hesitate to choose it.  Likewise, if a book is available as an ebook as well as print, that would give it extra points.  Everyone runs their Red Dot program differently, but we assume multiple copies will be purchased.
  • Genres:  with only eight titles per category, variety is desirable, but there is no formula.  One non-fiction? One poetry or verse novel? One graphic novel? One fantasy? One historical fiction?   One book in translation?  One book featuring global concerns, like child labor or refugees or war? There has been talk of starting a separate category for graphic novels.  Maybe next year?
  • Reading Level vs. Reader Maturity Level:  This is the hardest thing to gauge.  Where to place a book.  Sometimes we get it wrong.  There is an assumed one year overlap (at least for the Readers Cup) between Younger and Older Readers, and Older and Mature Readers.  And schools have different comfort levels with language and content.  All we can say is, each librarian is responsible for reading and placing the books in their school.  There is no requirement that each school stock each book.  Students don't have to read all the books in order to vote.
  • Country of origin or country of flavor:  We like to include a book or two in each category that reflects the region.  Having said that, we try not to privilege country of origin over quality.   If there's a good one from Singapore, that's great (especially if the author likes to do school visits), but if not, we would be happy with a good one from, or set in, another Asian country.  Also, no one country of origin should dominate a list.  When in doubt, think international.
  • Literary vs. Popular:  This is the tension in the modified children's choice style of book awards.  They don't pick the longlist or shortlist - they only get to vote.  So are we choosing books we want them to read?  Or books they would choose to read on their own?  Should we choose a book if we already have a sense that it's going to a big hit?  Or avoid the easy choice and try to put another one in their path, a lesser known one that could have just as much appeal?  (Some of our past choices might look like we went for a bestseller, but if you check the dates, we chose them before their massive popularity - e.g., "The Hunger Games".)

    The bottom line is, we are buying multiple copies of these books.  They might not have to be texts worth teaching in depth, but if the extra copies are going to be used (after the Red Dot cycle is over) for literature circles or to enhance class libraries, then we want both quality and appeal.  I know I want books my students can possibly make at least two connections with (using the Keene & Zimmerman / Harvey & Goudvis strategies):
    • Text-to-Self -- emotional or personal connections -- think empathy...
    • Text-to-World -- social or political or historical connections -- relevant issues or introduction to other cultures...
    • Text-to-Text -- literary/literacy or intellectual connections -- perhaps an author, series, or genre that will keep kids reading...

Balance is Everything

This means within the list, across the categories, and across the years.  For all the factors above.

I found some old photos of our Red Dot committee shortlist meeting from September 2010.   Here we are:  drinks, nibbles, laptops (note the person being skyped in), smartphones, and books.  I recall it was a marathon session.

And here's the whiteboard where the balance of the lists was incessantly being assessed.
This year we've split into two groups to do the selection:  Early/Younger and Older/Mature.  Time is ticking and we should be finishing our lists within the next two weeks.  There are books to be bought.  And a new website to get up and running.  Watch for updates......

Monday, October 14, 2013

Title talk: Librarian + What? Teacher? Facilitator? Curriculum Leader?

The last time our school posted a library job, it asked for a Teacher-Librarian (TL).*

This time it says we need a Library Facilitator.  (Apply by October 23!)  Primary or secondary.  (While I'm in secondary now, I'm flexible.)

Jane & Louise Wilson "Oddments room"
Where did the teaching go?  It's still in there, but shifted - from direct to indirect - while retaining learning as the priority.  Read the job responsibilities:

  • Work collaboratively with library staff across the campus and college.
  • Work collaboratively with the curriculum leaders and department heads to develop resources and promote inquiry-based learning and all forms of literacy.
  • Work collaboratively with all members of the community (whether students, parents, or staff) to support teaching and learning.
  • Manage the library as a learning environment and public space, including patron services and library staff.
  • Manage and develop learning resources, physical and digital, both for the library and classrooms/departments.
  • Lead the development and promotion of the library as a centre dedicated to the spread of ideas, information, and learning.
  • Other responsibilities as determined by the Head of Libraries and Head of Campus.

 The issue is our librarian-student ratio.

With only two teacher-librarians, one in the primary library and one in the secondary library, and 2,600 students total, the ratio is challenging (to be euphemistic).  We  have roughly 1,000 students in primary and 1,300 students this year in middle/high school (secondary) - and will be adding another 300 students in secondary next year, for a maximum of 2,600 on this new campus.  (And we have a mirror campus across town with 2,900 students, K-12.)

How can one person "teach" 1,000 students?  They can't.  At least not regularly.  Instead they must focus on developing teachers' capacity (as a coach, modeling lessons and acting as a consultant) and learning resources (from pathfinders via Libguides to videos, podcasts, slide presentations), not to mention running a facility that is a learning space by default (the environment as the 3rd teacher), hosting events and initiatives.   Our libraries are in prominent well-trodden paths.  There's no danger of students not coming into them.  Two major pillars of support are the stalwart library staff and the motivated and multi-talented parent body.  Both are critical to maintaining library sanity.

Did I mention that, at this campus, the library is also responsible for the processing and management of all teaching resources?  This includes textbooks for secondary (where we have them) and reading/writing workshop resources for middle and primary (i.e., literature circles and class libraries).  In addition, the secondary library works closely with departments to ensure multiple copies of great books for each age and subject are available (imagine "Hot Reads for High School" across disciplines).

In this situation, we decided that the librarian half is more important than the teacher half in recruiting a new person.  Hence the word "facilitator" over "teacher".  We played with several others.  Coach? Curriculum Liaison? Curriculum Developer?  Curriculum Leader?

We have great teachers.  And we have a great number of resources, digital and physical.  What we need is someone dedicated to connecting the two efficiently.  Perhaps we are just looking for a TL committed to the Flipped Classroom -- who is also excited by metadata.  Because that's what the librarian end should be focusing on -- ensuring easy, intellectual access to everything (the curriculum++) from anywhere.  And this must be accomplished while living in the center of the library, where the students live each day.   It's a front-of-office job with back-of-office responsibilities.

So consider applying.  Whether you agree with our label or not.  What's important is that you appreciate our situation and feel you could not only cope, but add value.

Head of Library role is another interesting definition to consider.  This is how I describe it at the moment.

  • Develop staffing plans and co-ordinate staff recruitment and deployment
  • Co-ordinate the budget process
  • Represent the library team in a variety of settings
  • Facilitate communication between libraries across the campus and college
  • Develop a strategic plan and co-ordinate goal-setting for the libraries
  • Co-ordinate staff professional development
  • Manage facility planning and development
  • Develop library policies and procedures
  • Liaise with heads of departments & grades about policy and procedures relating to the management of learning resources (e.g., textbooks and class libraries)
  • Oversee the provision of information services

Comments welcome.... as well as sympathy.

Update Oct 15:

I forgot to mention two other very very very important positions that complement the library ones.

The primary school has two digital literacy coaches as well as one literacy coach (in charge of the reading/writing workshop learning).  There are also two digital literacy coaches in secondary.

So five other people in the school are supporting other literacies (digital, traditional, etc.) that in a smaller school would probably fall within the teacher-librarian's remit.  Which helps a lot.

I always draw the relationship like this:

Also note the head of library responsibilities listed above are additional to a basic role.  I have to do that as Head of Library on top of being the secondary school teacher-librarian (or library facilitator).

Update Oct 17:

Several questions keep coming up.

1)  Is this a teaching position, with a teacher's contract and benefits?  Yes.

2)  Is there library support staff?  Yes.  Lovely, hard-working staff.  And we have just been given approval to advertise for a local-hire, administrative librarian for our campus (the other campus already has one - giving them three fully-qualified librarians, including the TLs).

3)  What about the online portfolio that must be submitted?
In addition to the usual requirement for applicants to submit a resume and letter of application, candidates for this position should also submit an online portfolio showing evidence of implementation/innovation in these six overlapping areas of the library:  patrons; resources; teaching & learning; events & initiatives; the library environment as "the 3rd teacher"; library staff/team.
Our campus is moving towards teacher portfolios instead of appraisals, so this seemed a good way to have new staff start off -- by showing us things you've done that you're proud of and that have made a difference to the learning in the institutions you've worked in.  Feel free to interpret the six areas as you will and to fashion a portfolio that suits you.  Just give us something to click.

* For the record, I have always been irritated by the American term, "Library Media Specialist".  Years before I became one, I imagined such a person in charge of just CDs and DVDs (ok, it was many years ago).....