Early each year, a special event piques the interest of school librarians. Here in Lawrence, Fallon Farokhi anticipates the annual announcement of the youth media awards with passion. Her 17 years as an educator have shown her those shiny seals on winning books catch the eyes of her students.
“Talk about Oscar buzz for the librarian,” Farokhi said, referring to the Newbery and Coretta Scott King awards and others. “Those are what draw kids in. If they see a gold seal or a silver seal on a book, they’re more likely to pick it up.”
Before the announcements, though, Farokhi might’ve already tweeted about the book or reviewed it on her blog, The Story Spectator, where she offers companion lessons for educators and families while promoting books that champion diversity and inclusion. In a post about PRIDE reads last year, she wrote, “Our students want stories that encompass various people’s perspectives.”
Sunset Hill Principal Jeremy Philipp described the library media specialist as an innovator. “She just needs the green light and needs gas to go.”
Inspired by Jenny Cook, children’s librarian at the Lawrence Public Library, Farokhi launched a library advisory board at Sunset Hill three years ago that has grown to 75 students. Farokhi also co-sponsors the student council, numbering more than 100 members.
Philipp said Farokhi empowers all 385 K-5 Sunset Hill students by giving them choices and leadership opportunities.
“With the library advisory board, she saw a need that our students didn’t have that voice necessarily. She wants to make the library be a place that the students feel like they have built, not just something that they go and consume and use.”
He said Farokhi’s scaffolded approach to teaching makes all the difference. Take coding, for example. Her hands-on lessons surpass reading about important scientists and how-to instructions. “She creates that space for kids to be able to bring books alive and see books as resources to kind of push and ask questions, and then guide their own learning.”
Farokhi describes books as “magical, for both the young and old.” But don’t call her a book nerd.
“I prefer bibliophile,” she said with a laugh.
Born in Switzerland, she was named Farima. In keeping with tradition, her Iranian-born parents did not give her a middle name. When she was 2, the family moved to Lawrence for her father’s professor position at the University of Kansas.
As kindergarten approached and her friends on Campfire Drive still couldn’t pronounce her name with ease, Farokhi’s parents suggested she choose a second name for school.
For weeks, she pondered monikers — many belonging to Jack Tripper’s girlfriends on the TV show “Three’s Company,” Farokhi joked. She finally settled on Fallon — a self-confident character from the 1980s nighttime drama “Dynasty.”
“When I enrolled in kindergarten roundup, that was the first time Mrs. Smith, she called me Fallon, and I was like, ‘OK. I can do this.’”
Farokhi holds dual Iranian and U.S. citizenship and fondly recounted trips to her parents’ homeland.
“I’m 100% Persian,” she said proudly. “My grandparents have a beautiful piece of land. It’s an orchard up in the mountains north of Tehran. And I would spend summers there and go to the Caspian Sea and go to Isfahan and Shiraz.”
After Deerfield Elementary, Farokhi attended West and Southwest junior highs, Lawrence High School and the University of Kansas, where she earned an undergraduate degree in elementary education and a master’s in curriculum and instruction.
Farokhi began her teaching career in Shawnee Mission before moving to Indiana, where she taught and earned a master’s degree in library and information science. She went on to teach in Kansas City, Utah and Junction City. Her goal: Land a teaching job in the district and move back to her hometown so she and her husband could enroll their daughter in Lawrence Public Schools.
Four years ago, Farokhi realized that dream at Sunset Hill, where she also serves on the building’s leadership and equity teams.
She said the district’s current budget challenges and proposals to trim millions concern her. “I understand the severity of this issue. But when it comes down to it, we want to make sure our children’s experiences do not get affected negatively, and I’m afraid that it’s going to trickle down to them in ways that are irreversible.”
During a recent professional development session, the school’s equity team conducted a media check using the district’s Native American Student Services rubric to assess whether a library book, resource or movie was portrayed accurately.
The team flagged items that didn’t pass the rubric’s standards and pulled them from the collection. They’ll get a second look to determine their future. “We decide, is this one that we will keep, like use it to teach students to be critical readers? Or is it one that is so flagrantly stereotypical or negative, that we just remove it from the collection?”
Farokhi said proposals to cut professional development up to $150,000 and reductions to library and learning coach positions up to $1.84 million would have a direct impact on learners. “All of those instructional strategies are targeted to positively affect our neediest students.”
The stress has been difficult on top of a pandemic.
“And now as the librarians are on the chopping block, it’s really, really a tough time right now to imagine the possibility to where I would not be doing my dream job in my dream district,” she said.
Not just books
Gone are the days of a single-file procession to the school library to take in a story, choose a book, check out and grab a bookmark on the way back to the classroom. Farokhi calls that the “old-school” library model.
The multifaceted job duties of an elementary school librarian have evolved alongside technology and are often misunderstood. Farokhi teaches coding, circuitry and 3D printing. She follows a curriculum, as well as national and state standards.
“All these apps they have on the iPads, the teachers don’t have time to teach them. And so they are getting those skills from us in the library. And we talk about digital citizenship, which is copyright. You can’t just copy and paste from a website onto your assignment and say, ‘That’s my work.’ That’s plagiarism.”
Cyber bullying, acceptable use agreements, Internet safety and research — all taught in the library. Farokhi even conducts integrity checks on student-issued technology to ensure students’ camera rolls and Internet search histories contain appropriate content. “The teacher can’t do this on their own. And that’s why the role of the library and for teaching digital citizenship is so huge.”
Farokhi participates in schoolwide initiatives involving social-emotional lessons, such as monthly character traits. In February, the school will focus on empathy. She supports fellow teachers by curating book lists on specific topics from the more than 140,000 materials in LPS’ elementary collections. She coordinates material transfers across the district and billing for lost and damaged books.
Then there’s the classroom tech support she provides. If a teacher’s presentation tools — smart board, laptop, speakers or projector — fail, Farokhi visits the classroom to troubleshoot. “The teacher has spent all this time on a lesson plan and is using the technology the district expects them to use. And when something goes wrong, they don’t have time to be on the phone with the help desk on hold when they have 25 kids staring at them.”
Farokhi also vets new books, talks with publishers, reviews galleys and monitors the book budget.
Farokhi reflected on the camaraderie she enjoys at Sunset Hill and the educators who inspired her, including Cathy Ebmeier, her librarian at Deerfield. She remembered helping shelve books with Ebmeier before the first bell. They remain friends today.
“The librarian role is just really important for the development of young people. And I feel like I wouldn’t have gone into education and devoted my professional life to children if it hadn’t been for those librarians and teachers that I had. And they were only able to do that when they had less on their plate so they could give more of themselves to the students.”