Meet Tamiko Brown, SLJ's 2017 School Librarian of the Year

Tamiko Brown embraces innovation at the Ed White E-STEM Magnet School in El Lago, TX.

Photograph by Felix Sanchez

Tamiko Brown shoots for the stars, fitting for a librarian who works at a school named after the first American to walk in space. For the past five years, Brown, School Library Journal’s 2017 School Librarian of the Year, has served as the librarian at Ed White E-STEM Magnet School (EWS) in El Lago, TX, a suburb 20 minutes south of Houston. Early astronauts including Neil Armstrong and the school’s namesake, Ed White, once lived there. Today, many of the elementary school’s 616 children, of whom 36.8 percent are minority students, have parents who work at NASA or in jobs related to the space industry.

EWS principal Matthew Paulson says Brown’s forward-thinking mind-set was essential when the school formally adopted a STEM focus in 2014. “Tamiko represents the type of thinking that librarians must exhibit in order for libraries to remain relevant,” he says. “Her work has been focused on aligning her library programs so that they match, and increasingly anticipate, advancements in technology—how students must learn and how they must work together to be successful in the future workforce.”

Suzy Ferrell, director of library media services for the Clear Creek Independent School District (CCISD), describes Brown as a “front-runner” in the school’s STEM transition. “She wanted the library program to be an integral part of this new school environment and began an active campaign to bring new programming, technology tools, and collaborative experiences to her campus,” says Ferrell. Around the same time, EWS lost its full-time library aide, as did all the schools in CCISD. Still, Brown was determined that her library remain a vital part of the campus.

A place to tinker

News about a student Maker Faire hosted by President Obama at the White House in 2014 inspired Brown to give students a chance to tinker, and adding a maker space was one of her first steps toward bringing the library into the 21st century. “This is how I can connect [with] the students and keep the library [as the] hub of the school,” she says. Brown also brought students to the Houston Maker Faire and hosted a Maker Faire at EWS in 2015.

The district’s first elementary librarian to create collaborative learning spaces, Brown also integrated maker space and STEM activities into daily library and classroom programming with mobile maker space carts. Teachers can check out the carts for classroom use. For kids to learn outside of school hours, Brown designed initiatives including a Minecraft club and take-home maker space kits.

Initiating all this with zero budget and a staff of one (herself), Brown first set out to acquire some basic supplies using book fair revenue and a $1,000 grant from Donors Choose: six Raspberry Pi computers and a 3-D printer. She opened the library before school and during recess and launched a Robotics Club. As a result, the library serves as a home base for some kids. “The maker space has a true core group,” says Brown. “That’s their passion, just like [other kids are] interested in sports or cheerleading. I have coding kids, crafting kids, robotics kids.”

In two years, the maker space has grown to include VEX and LEGO WeDo robotics, Bloxels, stained glass, and paper crafts. “It’s so popular that the students give up recess to work in the maker space,” says instructional coach Laura Mackay.

Every EWS class visits the library once a month—but Brown wanted students to have more opportunities to play with the maker supplies and explore their interests in their free time. Each maker kit consists of a plastic tub filled with books and supplies to fit a theme. Engineering tools include Arduino, Makey Makey, and littleBits. Others kits have supplies for knitting, crochet, and cross-stitch.

All this comes from a librarian who describes herself as “not very science-y.” Brown’s array of STEM activities feeds the wider goal of teaching critical thinking and how to collaborate. “It’s OK to make mistakes. It’s part of the process of being successful,” she says. “It’s helped me as a librarian to do that, and I encourage the same thing of my students.”

At a deconstruction station, students take apart old, donated
items such as VHS tapes and VCRs to see how they work.
Photo courtesy of Tamiko Brown

A collaborative spirit

One of Brown’s strengths is her collaboration with other teachers, at her campus and at others in the district. In 2015, EWS library hired one part-time maker space aide who works for 12 days in the fall and another 12 days in the spring to help with setting up seasonal programs. In 2016, Brown worked with two librarians at the secondary schools that EWS feeds into, Seabrook Intermediate and Clear Falls High, to win a $10,000 grant from the Clear Creek Educational Foundation. Each school received 30 take-home maker kits for students in second through 12th grade.

“In the district, we believe in collaboration between levels, which can be a great source of support and knowledge, and also build family and community,” Ferrell says. The emphasis on collaboration extends to the students, who are encouraged to make video tutorials about their maker kits to share with other kids. Brown’s library lessons incorporate a variety of topics, such as experimenting with plastic animals in quicksand to explore science along with reading Tomie dePaola’s The Quicksand Book, or designing a solar oven to bake a pizza.

Brown also aims to provide access to opportunities for all kids, regardless of socioeconomic status. “We provide them with the materials so the parents don’t have to buy [them],” she says. Even amid the region’s aerospace industry, 13.3 percent of the students come from economically disadvantaged families, with many more living just above the poverty line and reading below grade level. Nearly 25 percent of students are considered at risk.

Genius Hour is also part of Brown’s library curriculum. Modeled on Google’s program to allow employees to set aside time not dedicated to work tasks to explore their passions, the students in third through fifth grade research a topic they choose, not necessarily linked to their studies. One student took on hoverboards, while others studied homelessness and hunger, holding a bake sale to raise money for a Houston food bank.

To give kids a glimpse into possible career paths, Brown invites in professionals, including computer programmers, ballerinas in full costume, a singing zoologist, and doctors, to talk about their careers. Being so close to the Johnson Space Center, she also brought in NASA engineer Frank Delgado to discuss robotics. During a Pitch Day, kids give Shark Tank–style presentations to a panel of adults from the community.

Community oriented

In keeping with the district’s goals of building community and family, Brown also hosts an annual Grandparents’ Day each fall. On the first day of the book fair, grandmas and grandpas are invited to the campus. Photographers are on hand for family portraits, and children can eat lunch with their grandparents. “The kids get a kick out of having grandparents at school, and the grandparents get a kick out of seeing the school,” Brown notes. In addition, 10 parents volunteer in the library each week. “It’s exciting to volunteer with someone so forward-thinking,” says Liz Lowe, who has been helping out since her fourth grade son was in kindergarten.

Along with the vibrant tech focus, Brown’s library maintains a strong emphasis on books. “I grew up in a very middle-of-the-road type family, [and] we didn’t travel a lot,” she says. “I got to see the world through books.” When she arrived at EWS, Brown added murals and curtains to make the space more inviting and arranged parts of the collection by genre. Fourth and fifth graders can participate in a lunchtime book club, and Brown is also piloting a district program for ebooks.

Brown’s generous spirit is contagious. When a teacher from Swaziland visited the school as part of a Rotary Club exchange, the teacher mentioned that their classroom did not have any books—so Brown started a book drive. “I want [the students] to see that they are part of a much bigger space than the classroom,” she says. “They are part of the world.”

In turn, she has been surprised by what her students can do—not just academically, but as community members. This became clear when one take-home maker kit featuring bracelets made out of nylon parachute cord proved especially popular among fourth-grade boys. “Like wildfire, they started checking out the paracord bracelets,” she says, referring to the wristbands worn by outdoors enthusiasts. “One student came up and said, ‘Ms. Brown, do you want to buy this paracord bracelet for $10?’” It turned out that the boys were not only making the bracelets, but they had built a website to sell them to raise $5,000 to help a classmate with muscular dystrophy.

Photograph by Felix Sanchez


Librarians throughout Texas look to Brown as a leader. As one of CCISD’s two lead Science Librarians, Brown meets with elementary science teachers twice a year. She frequently speaks to community organizations, and at least once or twice a month she hosts tours of her library for other librarians from the school district or state. Her maker space talks have been featured at the Texas Computer Education Association and Texas Library Association conferences, along with CCISD’s What’s Trending: Librarians as Leaders Conference. Last fall, school administrators from across the state visited Brown’s library as part of the Texas Association of School Administrators STEM Conference.

Brown also keeps a maker space blog, and for the past four years, she has taught a Social Studies Methods night course at the University of Houston Clear Lake (UHCL). “I always [bring] my UHCL students to the EWS library for one class session,” she says. “Libraries play an important role in classroom instruction.”

In 2016, she was named Ed White Teacher of the Year and was one of five finalists for the district-wide top teacher award. While Mackay is struck by the “seed of creativity she has planted in others,” school principal Paulson credits Brown with inspiring fellow teachers to tie in the library curriculum with their own lessons and to apply for grants for their classrooms. “She modeled for our staff the connection between their work in the STEM Lab and the independent work they were doing with research,” he says.

Brown will soon get a renovated library space to match her dreams. In May 2017, local voters passed a $487 million school bond, which will fund—among other things—new libraries at six district schools, including EWS.

About the Award

SLJ presents the fourth annual School Librarian of the Year Award in partnership with sponsor Scholastic Library Publishing. The award honors a K–12 library professional for outstanding achievement and the exemplary use of 21st-century tools and services to engage children and teens toward fostering multiple literacies.

This year’s award recognizes one winner and four finalists honored as Heroes from a strong pool of 42 applicants. The winner receives a $2,500 cash award, plus $2,500 worth of print and digital materials from Scholastic Library Publishing. The Heroes each receive $500 in materials of their choice from Scholastic Library Publishing.

Maker Hero: A standout creative individual leading the way in promoting hands-on learning with entrepreneurial and innovative programming in the maker tradition.

Hero of Equitable Access: A champion who promotes equal access to information, library services, and technology in his/her library and school, with particular attention to reaching the underserved.

Hero of Family Outreach: This model of engagement connects with families, helping meet the unique needs of the community and helping promote a home/school connection through the library.

Hero of Collaboration: An exemplar who demonstrates great collaboration skills, teaming with a teacher, staff, administrators, or community members at the local or district level—all toward benefiting students.

The 2017 Judges

Todd Burleson, 2016 School Librarian of the Year; Glenn Robbins, superintendent, Tabernacle (NJ) Schools; and the editors of School Library Journal.

Read more about the award.

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Library Specialist

Having spare book fair revenue and $1000 grant is NOT starting off with a Zero dollar budget. Very misleading title. This librarian also receives part-time assistance. Any librarian knows that having an extra brain and set of hands to put in work creates a world of difference in a single day. The area where this school is located is part of a higher socioeconomic class which houses many families who are employed by NASA. Therefore the interest and importance of science and math in public primary schools is deemed a higher priority to the overall public. So of course, grants and bonds are coming their way in abundance. The amount of support she's received from her administrators to create her STEM programs reflect that. Meanwhile other libraries around the country do not have this option. This library is a rare is a rare gem that's being highlighted as one that started with nothing and became something. That is not true. While the success and efforts put in by the staff are inspiring, I found this article deeply out of touch with reality and a little insulting. If anything, this story gives public school librarians an idea of what could be, but it also serves as a reminder of how far behind students in low-income areas will continue to slide.

Posted : Dec 16, 2019 05:42



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