School Libraries: Oklahoma Librarian Receives Check from Ellen Degeneres

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This week, Ashley Kirby Thomas, school librarian at Christa McAuliffe Elementary School in Broken Arrow, Okla., found herself "living in a dream."

The dream came courtesy of talk show host Ellen Degenres, who presented her school with a check for $25,000, a van and Target gift cards for her students.

Degeneres visited the school via Skype, as she was broadcasting her show.

The segment shows Thomas, blindfolded, before the new bookmobile drives up behind her students. 

“Oh Ellen, thank you so much!” Thomas shouted over the excited students.

“You are welcome, Kirby. I want to meet you so much. I want you to come to the show. I want to meet you in person. I want you to come to the show so we’re gonna send you out here at some point. Okay?” Ellen DeGeneres said.

The gifts came after the talk show host found out that the van Thomas' school uses for Mobile Media, its summer reading initiative targeted at low-income areas, was too small to hold the necessary number of books.

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The new van not only has books and iPad mins - it also has a seating area. donated the $25,000 to purchase more books. The school also received 711 $25 Target gift cards, one for each McAuliffe student, for school supplies.

According to the Union Public Schools website, "McAuliffe learned about the possible visit last week and invited Thomas' students for the announcement Wednesday, although they were not sure exactly was going to happen but their excitement was obvious.

"Thomas, who has been actively encouraging students to read, is a long-time fan of the show and has written to the show many time and even sent her YouTube videos."

Assistant Principal Lisa Gildea, who helped organize the surprise with her show, said, “Kirby Thomas, our librarian and McAuliffe Teacher of the Year, was given  a mobile media van that was customized by the Ellen Show to carry books with shelves and has benches in it for students to sit and read. It is decorated with McAuliffe Mobile Media on the side."

“The $25,000 check from Entitle is an electronic book subscription,” Gildea said, adding the school received six Ipad minis, and a $25 gift certificate to Target for each of McAuliffe's 771 students, a total of $20,000.

Gildea added, “Kirby was also invited to come to the Ellen Show. They will be in contact with her once the Oscars are over because Ellen is hosting them. They provided pizza and drinks from Mazzios for all students and staff that stayed after school. There is a 10 minute piece on the Ellen website that was aired today at 3 p.m.  on her show. We showed it here at McAuliffe at 2:10 p.m. before the kids went home so they could an see themselves on TV."

Thomas is no stranger to the spotlight, at least locally.

She was named the McAuliffe Teacher of the Year for 2013-2014.

According to the website, Thomas became a teacher because teachers were her favorite people growing up.

“As a child, life at home was not always easy and school was my sanctuary,” Thomas said. “The teachers I had while at Union showed me what I could be - that college was an option, that reading and learning offered an escape to a better life, and they showed me what it looked like to have someone who believed in you unconditionally, all of the time. I loved that I could go to school and be surrounded by people who knew my story, yet saw some potential, and would do anything to help me succeed.”

Thomas said, “I am a teacher for the students who are just like I was, the ones who see school as a way out from where they came from, and who look forward to school because it is their safe place. Who step off that bus and walk into our building and are happy because they know that they will have two warm meals today and will be surrounded by people who love them.

McAuliffe Elementary students with new books

“But I am also a teacher for the students who are just the opposite of me, who hate school and don’t yet understand its value. For those students who think school is boring and pointless and just want to go home. I am a teacher for those students because I love seeing them change their minds. I love setting a goal at the beginning of the school year for that handful of kids, deciding that I WILL see them smile every day that year."

Thomas said some of her favorite moments happen when she is looking for something in a cabinet or a drawer and she finds a piece of paper that says, "Dear Ms. Thomas- thank you for giving me that book… you make me want to wake up in the morning and come to school” with the signature of one of “my kids” at the bottom."

She calls her job as teacher the best in the world, saying, "What other career would allow me 90+ hugs every day?  Or let me talk about books, make discoveries, and experience the joys and the tribulations of life with some of my favorite people day in and day out?”"

In her experience with the 711 students at McAuliffe, the students want to participate in their learning, whether that means choosing the book they want to read that day, choosing their own writing topic or creating their own topic for research.

“It might sound terrible, but my very favorite teaching method is probably to just step back and watch!  Some of the best thinking and learning happens when students are given the tools and resources and are then set off. I also love arguments in the library! It is a beautiful thing when a book brings a group of students to ask some big social questions and “talk them out” with their classmates. I think it is important to show students how to have these conversations respectfully and in a way that lets everyone benefit, but ultimately allow it to be their conversation.”

Thomas said the biggest issue facing students today is poverty.

“Just like our teachers, our students are fighting many different battles each day in their efforts to learn, but the overarching problem that students are dealing with is socio-economic.  Poverty is an issue that affects every student, not just the ones who are living in poverty.  The issue of poverty trickles down even to our more affluent students because of the things they see their friends go through, or things they see in the classroom, or the daily battle to give the right amount of attention to every student when there are a few of them in each class that need it constantly."

One of the major issues facing students - a byproduct of poverty - is parental involvement.

"I do not believe, by any means, that this is a sign that our families do not care about their children. I believe it is an issue of parents feeling like they do not know what they can do to help. They see their struggling child, and they have memories of themselves struggling and being frustrated with school also, so they do not feel like they have the skills necessary to 'fix' their children.  It is also that sometimes the parents themselves have had poor experiences with schools and they are afraid because the schools do not feel like a safe place to them."

She said, "We have to work to convince them that school is a safe place and that we are here to partner with them in their child’s education. Even more parents just do not have the time to be involved in their students’ education.  When all of a parent’s time and resources need to be spent meeting immediate needs such as putting food on the table and keeping the heater turned on, helping with homework or making sure reading minutes are logged becomes pretty low on the to do list. As educators, we have to work with families to find ways that fit each family that ensure each student’s learning is a priority in the home."

Teachers, she said, need to make what the students are learning bigger and better and more interesting than what is already facing them - whether that means finding a topic or a book that ignites a students' curiosity.

She said, “Many of our students walk into school with their minds a million miles away from what is on the learning agenda for that day.  For some, their minds are on things that are going on at home, or what they will eat that night or who will be fighting when they get home, for others, their minds are on what video game they will play that night or the birthday party they are going to this weekend."

Engaging students is critical to their success.

She said, “For many of my students, our library is the only library that they will ever step foot in during their youth, and I take this influence that I have very seriously. It means that every day I have the opportunity to drop that one book that will light that fire into that one student’s hands, or to ignite the argument that will get them interested in a topic that they can run with."

For Thomas, who began teaching at Union in January 2009, bolstering the Mobile Media program is important.

“When summer approaches, my primary goal is to strengthen the impact of our Summer Mobile Media Book Van to have more visitors and an even stronger family impact than last year.  In addition, I would also like to become more fluent in Spanish so that I can better communicate with and reach out to our Spanish-speaking families.  I would also like to pursue a certification to teach Speech and Drama as well as a National Board Certification.”


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