Laurens County, South Carolina – The South Carolina Association of School Librarians surprised two Laurens County educators from opposite ends of the county with two of the top honors bestowed each year by the organization.
Eddie Marshall, principal of Joanna Elementary School in District 56, was presented with the Administrator of the Year award, and Michelle Spires, librarian at Gray Court-Owings Elementary and Middle School in District 55, was presented with the Librarian of the Year award.
Both the educators were selected for the many ways they promote literacy within the confines of their school libraries and the community, and both will be celebrated at the 46th Annual SCASL conference in March.
Spires has spent only the last six of her 17 years in education as a school librarian, and the last four of those have been at Gray Court-Owings. She’s also been serving on the state level in SCASL, advocating for the importance of strong library systems within schools. After being named Librarian of the Year, she said she assumes that her emphasis on developing programs to increase literacy, collaborations with teachers and building community partnerships were part of the equation which earned her the title.
“This last year has been different because of so many restrictions, but when we were allowed to bring people in we’ve encouraged partnerships with people in the county,” Spires said. “We brought in people with Clemson Extension to do lessons with classroom teachers and their students on watersheds, for example. I was constantly looking for ways the community could be involved with what we are trying to do here.”
A challenge Spires felt was unique to Gray Court-Owings was how to help the broad age-range of students connect with each other as a school family.
“We have a different dynamic, and I thought how could I bridge that gap so that we are one community,” Spires said.
That began to occur when she began a program where older students could read to younger students.
“The middle school students were always impressed by how well the younger students were reading, and they have helped encourage the younger kids to be lifelong readers,” Spires said.
Her Book a Day program meant that all participating elementary teachers would spend a few minutes reading the same book to their students each day, so all the classes not only had the shared experience of reading the same book each day, but they’d gotten through 180 different books by the end of the year.
Working with young children with phones in their hands has provided all librarians with a new challenge, and she said she and the district and state level librarians have to recognize that children will use these phones as a distraction or as a tool.
“We have to teach them to be discern what they are reading online before taking it as truth,” Spires said.
She’s also partnered with the Laurens County Library and wants to develop that partnership even more.
“We ended up getting ebooks through the educational equivalent of Overdrive and the students all got library cards,” Spires said. “They have access to all those resources. I want to partner more so by the time they graduate from school, they have learned the value of a public library.”
Across the county in his hometown of Joanna, Eddie Marshall has spent the last 12 years as principal. He knew his media specialist, Tina Hurley, had nominated him for the award only because she’d come to ask some questions.
As a principal of the school he attended as a student, he has encouraged literacy in every way that he can, making sure there is money budgeted for the library each year, bringing in members of the community to read to classes and inviting authors and illustrators every year to speak to his students.
Since his tenure at Joanna, Marshall has worked to increase literacy through celebrating every reading day in as big a way as possible, especially those which might encourage the boys in his school.
“We did the Real Men Read and invited men to come and read to the classrooms, and for Women Who Work we brought in career women to read,” Marshall said. “But I try and steer the boys in the school toward any types of books that will interest them because that’s what it takes.”
When Marshall was alerted several years ago of the outdated nature of many of the school library’s books, he led a fundraising effort which brought in $10,000 for new books.
He had already selected “Kindness Rocks” as the school theme for this year, and they are working on a Kindness Rock path at the school.
“This summer we had an online Kindness Book Project and invited people from all 50 states to donate a book about kindness from their state,” Marshall said. “We got at least one book from all 50 states. Last week I read one of the books from Alaska called Scribble Rock to one of the classrooms, and it actually went along perfectly with our theme.”
Such book drives are crucial to keeping the library up-to-date, Marshall said, and when the influx of new books came in, older books were weeded out and set out on a table for children to take home.
“Anytime I can get books into kids’ hands and have them at their house, we do it,” Marshall said, explaining there are many children attending Joanna who don’t have books in their homes.
COVID has made it impossible to bring people into the schools but he is determined to continue the tradition of at least one author a year. Author Matt Tavaras will do a virtual visit in March.
“I try and bring an author or illustrator every year,” Marshall said. “When I was young, I never got to meet an author and now the children can find a book on the shelf from an author they actually got to meet. And someday they can tell their children and others down the road about that experience.”
Marshall tells his students every year how important reading has been for him and why it will be important for them.
“I struggled with reading and reading comprehension all my life and the place literacy and reading has brought me is amazing. No matter what you do in life, there is some kind of literacy involved,” Marshall said, admitting it’s surprising that he is often the only male educator and often the only principal at the many state and regional literacy events he attends.
“I feel like we are the instructional leaders in the building and we need to be aware of what’s in our library, and what our library needs,” Marshall said. “I tell the students I struggled so much to read, and look where I am now. I want to impact these students and especially the boys and steer them to something they will like to read.