Kingston media specialist wins Intellectual FOI Award

Posted 5/8/18

Another Bartow County media specialist is being spotlighted on the state level. Leigha Burnham, the media and technology specialist at Kingston Elementary, has won the Georgia Library Media …

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Kingston media specialist wins Intellectual FOI Award


Another Bartow County media specialist is being spotlighted on the state level. 

Leigha Burnham, the media and technology specialist at Kingston Elementary, has won the Georgia Library Media Association Intellectual Freedom of Information Award, which she will receive at the 2018 GLMA Summer Institute, a conference for all Georgia librarians, June 11-12 in Peachtree City.

The award recognizes an individual who upholds the principles of intellectual freedom as set forth by the American Library Association of School Librarians and the American Library Association.

Nominations were open to all Georgia school librarians who are current members of the GLMA and meet at least one of the following criteria: has developed and implemented an exemplary selection policy or challenge procedure, has developed an innovative information program on intellectual freedom, has upheld intellectual freedom principles in the face of a challenge, has contributed to the literature of the field and has been active in establishing and/or continuing a coalition relating to intellectual freedom at a local, state or national level.

"I was shocked when I heard I had won the award," said Burnham, who will receive a plaque from last year's winner at the conference. "I received a phone call letting me know of my selection, and it was followed by a public announcement on the Georgia Library Media Association's Facebook and Twitter pages." 

The Armuchee resident said she was "honored" to be nominated by a fellow media specialist, Deana Cicero of Little River Elementary School in Woodstock.

"Deana and I were in graduate school together, and she heard me speak of my challenges within our school in limiting student book choice so she decided to nominate me," she said. 

During her time at Kingston, Burnham has advocated for her students’ right to have unrestricted access to all resources available in the media center and has worked to educate her teachers on the importance of label-free leveling for students, according to the GLMA website.

"It is important, as a librarian, to allow students to have freedom in selecting books to read from the school library," Burnham said. "In the classroom, teachers use a multitude of tools to teach reading skills to students, Lexile levels being one of those tools. It has become a common practice under the pressures of data collection, TKES [Teacher Keys Effectiveness System] and Title I funding to push librarians to label and shelve books by their Lexile levels rather than by the Dewey Decimal System or by genre."

The 20-year educator — half of that in the school library — said she "found it surprising" that books in Kingston's library were color-coded by Lexile "and that students were required by some teachers to only select books from a certain level."

"This violates the American Library Association's intellectual freedom policies," she said. "I began educating my literacy committee and my teachers about the value of student choice in book selections. Many were open to the ideas I shared; others were not. I took the first step in the collection by creating a graphic novels section of books, which houses the most popular books in our collection. I removed [Fountas and Pinnell] reading-level labels and replaced them with a genre label. The new section was well-received by students. I can't keep the books on the shelf! And more and more students are selecting books based on interest [rather] than reading levels. It is a start in what will surely be a long process of transformation."

Burnham has written about her transition to a label- and level-free media center on her blog, The Happy Library Blog, and has shared her efforts on Twitter and Instagram as The Happy Librarian.

"My life's work has been in advocating for students and for school librarians," she said. "I am excited to continue to instigate change, ask the hard questions and champion readers."

Her principal, Philena Johnson, called Burnham a "deserving recipient of this award."

"She is dedicated to ensuring that all students develop a love of reading," she said. "Ms. Burnham is committed to students becoming lifelong readers. She uses student choice and exploration to promote reading for pleasure, helping students to develop a true love of reading." 

Jason Dailey, instructional technology specialist for the school system, said winning the award was "quite the honor" for the Carrollton native, and he is "very happy for her."

"Leigha is so passionate about everything she does to improve the lives of her kids and faculty," he said. "She is upholding the ideas of intellectual freedom by sharing her knowledge about the dangers of leveling school library collections."

Burnham earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from Berry College and a Master of Science in library media and technology from Jacksonville State University and will graduate Thursday with an education specialist in library media and instructional technology from the University of West Georgia.  

She lives with her husband, Capt. Sam Burnham of the Rome Fire Department, and their three teenage sons.