Jennifer Colby, Huron High School librarian

Huron’s Jennifer Colby is named Michigan Association for Media in Education’s District Library Director of the Year

By Jo Mathis/AAPS District News Editor

Huron High School librarian Jennifer Colby has been the right leader at the right time for the Ann Arbor Public Schools Library Services Department during the COVId shutdown, says Christina Postema, school librarian at Abbot and Angell.

“I cannot sing Jen’s praises highly enough!” says Postema, the district’s former Elementary Library Services Department chair. “Her entire focus has been to bring librarians’ existing skills to bear so that AAPS students and families can succeed in the current virtual instruction environment.”

Colby has harnessed the expertise of our school librarians to develop remote instruction plans, provide professional development, and work cooperatively with other AAPS leaders to create carefully researched proposals to purchase electronic books through Sora/Overdrive and MyOn, Postema noted.

That leadership has now been recognized state-wide.

Jennifer Colby has been named the Michigan Association for Media in Education’s District Library Director of the Year.

Colby is the daughter of Ron and Pat Pudduck, both of whom are retired AAPS teachers. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a Master’s degree in Information and a School Library Media endorsement. She is starting her seventh year as a librarian for AAPS and has been the AAPS Library Services Department Chair for almost three years.

Before being a school librarian, Colby worked as a landscape architect, a window dresser, a master gardener, an event planner, and a substitute teacher.

She enjoys reading, making soup, gardening, making pottery, singing while playing the ukulele, going for hikes in the woods, and tent camping with her three “incredibly talented” young adult children.

How did you react to hearing you’ve been named Michigan Association for Media in Education’s District Library Director of the Year?

It was a total surprise to me. Not only did I have no clue that I was nominated, but I really had no idea that this award even existed. Since the award notice, I have found out that I was nominated by Maggi Rohde (librarian at Bryant) and Chrissy Postema. They were keeping it a secret from me and the rest of the department and then announced it in our Library Services Department Schoology Group.

The best aspect of winning the award is knowing that my department felt that I was worthy to be nominated. I could not do the work of this position without the immense help of the very capable group of people in my department.

When did you know you wanted to become a school librarian?

When my youngest was in first grade I was the long-term substitute librarian at her school. After the first week of teaching, I could not think of five days total in my previous careers that I had enjoyed more than those first five days in the library. So I went back to school and earned my master’s degree… not as easy as it sounds.

What’s the best compliment anyone could give you?

That something I did helped make something easier for them or brought some happiness to their day.

Describe an average workday in the building, and now, from your home?

Like every other teacher in the district, I now spend the entirety of my workday looking at screens. I communicate with admin, staff, and students to find and create the resources they need. Much of my time is spent coordinating the work of the Library Services Department with the English Department and ITD. We are working closer than ever this year. I try to take a break during the middle of the day by taking a quick walk, but many days I work right through lunch.

At Huron, I would be personally engaging with students and staff throughout the day and not on my laptop for more than half of the day. A goal I have is to add more structure to my day. I kind of miss the bells at Huron marking the start and end of each period–they were a clear signal to me to stop and move on to something else. Maybe I need to set some alarms on my phone to force me to stop and take a break.

Jennifer Colby looks on as students go through the coding tutorials during Hour of Code in 2014.

Which do you prefer?

Absolutely no question, I’d rather be at Huron. I should make a bumper sticker—but I hardly ever drive my car!

What’s the happiest part of your day?

Shutting my laptop screen. Sometimes that is by 5 p.m., but most days I work well into the night. 

What’s unique about working at Huron?

I’m a River Rat! How many people can say that? I love working with a diverse group of students and staff. I learn something every day through amazing conversations with friends new and old.

How much contact do you have with other district librarians?

I have almost daily contact with the secondary (middle and high school) librarians via Zoom, email, phone, and chat. We have been running a teacher and staff tech help Zoom. Sometimes we call it the affirmation room because often teachers just need to be told that they are amazing and that they can do this. I wish we could deliver chocolate through the screen like Wonkavision—that would help a lot. We plan to continue the tech help room through the end of the semester and hope to continue it through the end of the school year if our teaching schedules allow. I communicate with the Elementary Librarian TLN leader and many of the elementary librarians multiple times a week to better represent their needs to help them be successful in their positions. They have so many additional demands put on them while they teach a full schedule of classes. Our Pre-K to 12-grade Library Services department collaborates often on many projects. We are a tight-knit group.

Do device-addicted teens read books anymore?

Speaking for teens, yes, they read books! Lots of books, especially fiction. And it’s not just teens that are device-addicted. We all are. I bet the average teenager reads more books now than when I was in high school. Partly because the definition of a “book” has changed so much. You can read fanfiction online, get a Kindle book, or download a digital book from the Ann Arbor District Library, among other “screen-reading” opportunities. Throughout the spring publishers gave free access to many digital books platforms, but unfortunately, many of those free reading resources are not available anymore. We are incredibly lucky to be in a school district that values the importance of reading and our school board has heavily invested in two new digital library platforms for our students and teachers.

Our entire library services department worked through the spring to evaluate dozens of ebook platforms and then I worked with Caroline Hughes (librarian at Pioneer), Anne Reader (librarian at STEAM), Maggi Rohde, Katie Burrill (Librarian at King), and Sarah Andrew Vaughan (ELA teacher at Scarlett and Secondary ELA Department Chair) to write and submit proposals to the BOE. The approval process for the two proposed digital ebook platforms ran throughout the entire summer. I spent four hours in the mosquito-laden woods of the Platte River Campground on the night of August 12 waiting to answer questions about the two ebook platforms from the BOE. Watch the recording and see me swat while keeping a smile on my face. Thankfully, both of our proposed platforms were approved, and beginning in November we will have our district-wide digital independent reading library, Sora, up and running.

On October 7, we launched our instructional reading digital library, myOn. It provides our PreK to 5th-grade students simultaneous access to an existing catalog of nonfiction and fiction titles.

It is problematic that we cannot access our print library collections at the moment. But we live in a community with amazing resources. The Ann Arbor District Library is now offering shelf-service where library staff will pull a selection of books that you may be interested in upon request. I encourage all AAPS students to get an AADL card. And a quick walk in your neighborhood could give you the chance to grab a print book from a Little Free Library.

Books you would most often recommend to high school readers?

First I need to know what they are interested in. Sometimes I ask them what their favorite movie is and that helps me understand what genre of books they might like. I highly recommend any book by Jason Reynolds, Angie Thomas, and Nic Stone. I hope they have been able to write a lot during quarantine because we need more of their books! I try to read new books from every genre and share the titles I like with my students. Most of the time I add a photo of the book I am reading to the Huron Library’s Instagram account (@ratlibrary), but I have some catching up to do. Usually, my favorite book is the last one that I read, but I am a huge fan of compelling nonfiction historical accounts. I read a lot of Erik Larson this past spring and now I am reading “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson. I also really enjoyed (former River Rat and 5th-grade student of my father) John U. Bacon’s, “The Great Halifax Explosion”.

Apps you can’t live without: 

Instagram. It’s how I keep up with what my children are doing. They even let me follow their Finstas… at least the Finstas they let me follow.

If you could know the definitive answer to any one question, what would that question be?

There is no definitive answer to any question.

If you could talk to your teenage self, what would you say?

Do not think that you are limited by what people expect from you. You can do anything you put your mind to. 

What do you know now that you wish you’d known during your first year on the job?

You can’t be everything to everybody. Set limits for yourself and work to enable others to help themselves. I could listen to that same advice right now.

How do you keep students engaged?

By being real. I listen to what they need and provide them with real-life examples that they can relate to. I pay attention to current events and pull interesting content-related stories that I hope resonate with my students. If they don’t, my students are sure to let me know… and we work together to find more interesting resources.

How do you show school spirit?

Normally by wearing my Huron t-shirts and going to student events. I really miss seeing my students do what they love to do.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

Engaging with students and supporting them in achieving their goals.

What do you wish more people realized about the work of school librarians?

The library is all around us. Even though we are not in our buildings during remote learning, we are busier than ever. We spend much of our workday communicating with students and teachers in our buildings and from around the district about finding digital and print resources and helping them with tech issues. We also teach and are constantly engaged in planning for instruction. Our biggest challenge at the moment is getting our digital independent reading library, Sora, up and running. We are starting this district-wide collection from scratch and need to choose the titles that will be on our platform. It is an extremely complicated and time-consuming process but will be well worth it when it is available for students and staff at the beginning of November. 

How do you recharge?

I haven’t figured out how to recharge on a daily basis. I need to find a way to do that. The best I can do most days is just “turn-off” by watching cooking shows about food I will never make. Going to the Rec and Ed pottery class on Thursday nights used to be the place that I would recharge—I really miss that class. I did buy some clay with the intent to do some hand molding of pottery pieces to then get fired in a friend’s kiln, but I haven’t had the time to set it up, work on it, and clean it all up. I’ve hardly taken a break since the closure in the spring. But I have gone camping a few times and love it when I am out of cell phone range in the woods of northern Michigan.

What’s most exciting about your professional life right now? Your personal life?

Representing a talented and forward-thinking department. The expectations and duties of our positions have drastically changed this year. Every AAPS librarian is actively engaged and constantly thinking one step ahead to support our students, families, and teachers. I am most proud of the work done to get our two digital library platforms up and running. They demand a tremendous ongoing effort of selection and support that we will continue well past our time of remote learning.

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