Passion for learning, teaching leads District 36’s Todd Burleson to national honor

By Kathy Routliffe • Contact Reporter Pioneer Press

SEPTEMBER 12, 2016, 4:43 PM


Pioneer Press

Here is a link to the actual Tribune Article  After a certain amount of time, it will probably be available only for subscribers, so I’ve re-posted the text and images here for my readers.

The third grade students sitting around Todd Burleson in Hubbard Woods School’s resource center one day last week were enthralled. Burleson, the center’s director, was regaling them with the tale of why one foot was in a bright blue cast. Limited mobility notwithstanding, he was animated and eminently watchable, and the youngsters responded in kind.

Burleson’s storytelling, and the way his students reacted, probably wouldn’t surprise Hubbard Woods principal Beth Carmody.

“When it comes to kids, he has so many childlike qualities of curiosity and passion, that he learns along with them,” she said. “And I think because his vision is always about learning, he passes that on to them.”

Many people use the word “passion” to help describe Burleson, who has been named 2016 School Librarian of the Year by the School Library Journal and Scholastic.

That passion – to teach students and teachers, to work with colleagues and parents to transform Hubbard Woods’ library into the IDEA (Innovation, Design, Engineering and Art) lab that he happily calls a “libratory” – helped judges make their choice for outstanding achievement and innovation.


In announcing his win, judges cited many of Burleson’s accomplishments, not just turning the library into what they called “an integrated, technology-driven space where students can exercise their creativity,” although they described that as “the highlight of his seven-year tenure as a library media specialist.”

The space opened last October after a summer during which Burleson and a dedicated team of PTO parent volunteers put sweat equity into its creation as part of the school’s centennial celebrations. Burleson stumped for the project when PTO members asked what they could do to mark the anniversary; last week, he grinned broadly and said, “When they asked me if I had any ideas, I pulled out my dream folder and said, ‘Boy, do I!'”

One project volunteer, parent Sarah Graham, said that Burleson was a great partner to work with because he wants to hear what others are thinking.

“He encourages not just the kids, but the parents, too, to take risks,” she said. “And when he comes to do anything, he come to it 110 percent … when we were painting walls, moving furniture, doing what we had to do, he was there every step of the way.

Judges for this year’s competition also lauded Burleson’s work with parents, school and district teachers, and library colleagues around the world via district seminars, national conference presentations and commentaries on his blog,

District Superintendent Trisha Kocanda was equally enthusiastic. Burleson skillfully blends high- and low-tech education techniques to make sure that the IDEA lab can enhance what students learn in their classrooms, she said.

“It’s pretty remarkable to see the engagement level of our students, and the way he can introduce them to new ideas, concepts and tools,” she said, adding that the method dovetails perfectly with the district’s mission of progressive education.

The district will honor Burleson later this month at a Hubbard Woods School town hall meeting, Kocanda said.

Burleson, 47, said he always wanted to be a teacher. The former third and fourth grade teacher actually student taught at Hubbard Woods. He later taught in North Carolina and at Evanston’s Baker Demonstration School before District 36 hired him 20 years ago.

He knew he’d been nominated for the award by a PTO member, but forgot about it until magazine officials told him he’d won the award in July. He said he couldn’t let anyone know until late last month.

Not everyone has access to the kind of financial support, parent volunteer strength, and mission friendliness that he is blessed with in District 36, he said, but all educators can use their creativity and ingenuity to do many of the things he’s been able to do for their students and colleagues.


He said that now he wants to use his newfound notoriety as a platform.

“One of my own missions is to promote the importance of progressive education and the value of libraries and librarians,” he said. “My goal this year is to help share ideas, and this is allowing me to collaborate on a global level.”

Twitter: @pioneer_kathy

Image courtesy of htps://

The Hubbard Woods Community Celebrates Our Collaboration!

This morningidea_hq_transparent I opened my email to see our PTO’s newsletter and found myself overwhelmed with emotions: pride, joy and sadness.  It could be me remembering this day fifteen years ago.  I stood, cradling my four-day old son in my arms watching in horror with the nation.  Or it could be that I’m missing my only daughter who we left at the University of Minnesota recently.  Regardless, my emotions spilled out uncontrollably.
It’s been an amazing few months.  When I got the ‘phone call’ from School Library Journal’s Executive Editor Kathy Ishizuka telling me I was the new School Librarian of the Year I was speechless.  For nearly two months, I had to keep the secret.  I didn’t even tell my own kids until the night before the announcement was made official!

I’m immensely honored and excited to see the news being shared with the community who helped make it happen!  The tireless work of this community made the IDEA Lab a reality!  This year I’m excited to see how the students, parents and faculty help continue to evolve this unique space! Thank You! Thank You! Thank You!


How Did I Get Here?

1988.590.02-1024x819Hubbard Woods School c. 1940. WHS Photo 1988.590.02.

It’s been an amazing week for me!  The 2016 School Library Journal’s School Librarian of the Year announcement has filled me with both pride and joy. I thought I would take some time and reflect on how I got here.

When I was an education student at Ohio University back in 1988-1992, I was fortunate enough to have a professor George Wood and his protege Jean Ann Hunt as professors.  Professor Wood, at the time, was researching a book that would go on to be titled Schools That Work: America’s Most Innovative Public Education Programs.

When one day in class Professor Wood asked if anyone wanted to join him on a field trip to Chicago to do some interviews for the book, I was the first one with my hand in the air. Turned out that I had the chance to visit two schools on that trip.  One was an elementary school in an area of inner city Chicago called Cabrini Green and the other was Hubbard Woods Elementary School.

Both schools blew me away, but our host and principal of Hubbard Woods, Dick Streedain.  I had never met a person like Dick before.  The two of us spent the better part of an afternoon discussing everything from educational philosophy, Carl Jung, and the Chicago Bulls.  I had formed a bond with this man that was unlike any I had ever experienced.  By the end of the weekend, Dick had asked me to come and do my student teaching at Hubbard Woods.  Not only was I flattered, but I was also flummoxed.  After all, The Ohio University was nearly 500 miles and several states away.  Dick assured me we would find a way to make it happen and a little over a year later, I started student teaching at Hubbard Woods Elementary School.

For three months I lived with a Hubbard Woods Family, the Meyer’s.  They had a third-floor apartment that became my new ‘home.’  Each morning I’d eat breakfast with their children and pack my lunch.  One of their daughter’s Emily was actually in my 2nd/3rd-grade class and we walked to school together each day.  I truly felt like the teacher on The Little House on the Prairie!

In the time between my first visit and my student teaching, Jean Ann Hunt had taken a couple of year’s leave to come and teach at Hubbard Woods School.  You probably have figured out by now that she was my student teaching cooperating teacher.  Next door to our classroom was another educator I admired, Daniel Ryan. In fact, the whole school embraced me.  My student teaching experience was exhausting, invigorating and life-changing.

At the conclusion of my student teaching, I was offered at job at one of the elementary schools in the small district.   While incredibly humbled and honored, I did not feel ready. My time at Ohio University gave me the chance to work with learners of all ages in the Appalachian communities in the area.  I treasured that diversity but craved more.  So, I accepted a position as a 5th-grade teacher at Vanstory Hills Elementary School in Fayetteville, North Carolina.  Those two years tested me.  After coming from a university where textbooks in methods classes were not used, and a school district like Winnetka where teachers create the curriculum and resources, being handed a stack of textbooks was about as foreign to me as having to teach in all Spanish.

My time at Ohio University gave me the chance to work with learners of all ages in the Appalachian communities in the area.  I treasured that diversity but craved more.  So, I accepted a position as a 5th-grade teacher at Vanstory Hills Elementary School in Fayetteville, North Carolina.  The diversity of this school was unlike any I had ever been exposed to.  Everything from the school culture to the community was foreign to me. Those two years tested me.  After coming from a university where textbooks in methods classes were not used, and a school district like Winnetka where teachers create the curriculum and resources, being handed a stack of textbooks was about as foreign to me as having to teach in all Spanish.

Nonetheless, I learned so much.  At the conclusion of my second year, I got a call from Dick Streedain and he let me know that a position at one of the other elementary schools had again come open; I jumped at the chance.

I taught for two years at Greeley School in fourth grade.  I decided to continue my education at National Louis University.  In an amazing twist of fate, Daniel Ryan (the same next door teaching neighbor) had become the director of the Baker Demonstration School! The Demonstration School was amazing!  I had a mixed age class of 4th and 5th graders.  I built the curriculum with my peers and was encouraged to explore, push and challenge both my students and myself!  After completing my master’s degree, I once again got a call from Winnetka.  This time, it was from the principal Maureen Cheever.

Over the course of a few interviews, I had been offered a chance to teach once again at Hubbard Woods!


The Past and Present Principals of Hubbard Woods Elementary School

Daniel Ryan,  Bill Meuer, Beth Carmody, Maureen Miller, Dick Streedain

At Hubbard Woods School, I taught one year as a third-grade teacher and spent the next fourteen years teaching fourth grade.  When the librarian/Resource Center Director announced his retirement, I decided that I would interview for it.  After being hired, I once again attended National Louis University to earn my Library Media Specialist credentials.

I had the phenomenal opportunity to work with some of the leading professionals in the field.

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Like anything, it took the support and patience of parent and school leaders to help make changes like this happen.  I give a lot of the credit to Maureen Cheever who hired me; first as a classroom teacher and then later as the new Resource Center Director.  She believed in the ‘vision’ back when it was in a manilla folder marked “DREAMS!”

Along with Maureen’s initial support, I have to give tremendous credit to the then principal Daniel Ryan who fully backed the transformation and to the Tech Director Maureen Miller and Superintendent Trisha Kocanda who answered every question I posed to them with a ‘Yes, and…”

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And none of the work could have been done if it were not for the OVERWHELMING support and encouragement of our Parent Teacher Organization who backed the initial project and set this monumental program in motion.  The experience of working with President Jen Hayes and Vice President Brooke Helmstetter and IDEA Lab Chair Sarah Graham could not have been more collaborative and supportive! Our custodians jumped in and went far and above to make the vision a reality.  And now, our new principal Beth Carmody is on fire for the new ideas and programs we have cued up for this year!

Seven years of trial and error, tons of collaboration and sweat equity our school and I are honored to be named the School Library Journal’s School Librarian of the Year!


So, what’s next?  Well, first of all, I can’t wait to get back into space.  Summer rains caused a lot of trouble and had the school closed right up until the last minute.  Leg surgery popped up on the radar in the final weeks of summer as well.

I hope that this year I can use the platform to encourage and promote progressive learning, a love of reading and STEAM education for ALL students!  I hope you’ll join me on the journey!



My Week Without Social Media

Last week, I had the pleasure of chaperoning a mission trip with high school students from Kenosha’s St. Mary’s Lutheran Church and Spirit Alive Church.  37 of us loaded up in three huge vans and one Chevy Traverse and headed to Detroit.  We were blessed to use Hope Lutheran Church in Farmington Hills, MI as our base camp.


While in Detroit, we spent the bulk of our time supporting the Matrix Center.  This centrally located building is an oasis in the Osborne Neighborhood, just a few miles on the edge of Detroit.  We cleared vacant lots, did landscaping, painting and a whole host of other projects that the busy staff just never had the time to do. The hot temperatures made outdoor work challenging.  The intense summer sun and heat pushed us all to our limits.  Still, the trip was fantastic in every respect.  While I enjoyed the hard work, I also enjoyed the mental vacation from social media.

Mission trip

Image courtesy Victoria Fields.

We had asked the youth to limit their phone use.  We wanted them to ‘be in the moment’ that seems to develop when folks are not forever looking down at their tiny screens.  They rose to the occasion.  It seemed only fair that if I was asking them to step back, that I should do the same.  I added ‘vacation responders’ to all my email accounts, professed to the social media world that I was taking a break from it.

While I hardly ever have my phone’s volume up, I noticed the ‘notifications’ popping up on my screen over the directions app. almost immediately.  When we stopped, I was tempted to ‘just check’ on those emails or that funny tweet that popped up.  I knew I was going to have to do something drastic.  In fact, when I told my 18-year-old daughter what I had done, she let out an audible gasp.  I deleted ALL of the social media apps from my phone.  Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Facebook Messenger.  I even deleted my email accounts.  Besides the camera and photography apps, my iPhone was basically, and somewhat ironically, a phone.  The chaperones were using a group text to keep in touch between vans and occasionally we had to place a random call, so I left those two apps intact.  Almost immediately I felt the relief, but also a bit of anxiety.  The word ‘addiction’ gets thrown around pretty loosely.  I don’t think I’m addicted to the phone, but I have been conditioned to pick it up every time it vibrates, ‘just to check.’


One of the many beautiful art pieces at Hope Lutheran Church in Farmington, MI.

Why did I delete the apps?  Mostly because I have so little self-control.  I knew that if they were on the phone, I would look.  At first just, a peek, but soon  full-fledged minutes would turn into hours and so on.  Why not just re-load them?  Well, that’s a good idea, but that would have taken time and by the time I had the ‘need’ to check notifications, the need had passed.  So, I embraced the void.  I figured if something earth shattering happened, I would find out soon enough.


The soaring sanctuary of Hope Lutheran Church in Farmington, MI.

Unfortunately, some horrible events DID in fact happen.  There was an attack in France and shortly thereafter there was another shooting of police officers.  We were alerted to the possibility of violence in major cities across America following these shootings.  I had told the other leaders about my social media ‘fast’ and they were monitoring events.  We shared the bare bones of the events with the students that evening as we gathered.  Seeing their faces reminded me how we ‘used’ to get bad news.  Because we were all essentially processing it together, we had time to reflect, cry and pray.  I think we miss much of this in our 24/7 connected world.  By the time one event hits the news cycle there is another event happening.  We don’t’ have time in this ‘modern’ world to grieve.


The baptismal font is large and centrally located at the Hope Lutheran Church in Farmington, MI.

As the week wore on, I noticed that I didn’t even really miss the facebook updates or countless photos of friends children or vacation images.  In fact, I actually found time to read.  Not as much as I would have liked to, but given the fact that I had 34 noisy teenagers around me all of the time, that I read at all is a miracle!


Detail of a building at the Heidelberg Project in Detroit.

I won’t lie. I was very anxious to re-load the apps and check in with my social media accounts.  Somewhat disappointedly, I must say that nobody ‘needed’ me.  Nobody offered me a book deal, that part in the new action film, nor had I won any lotteries.  In fact, there actually very few emails or updates on my accounts.  I’d like to think that it was because I told everyone I was offline, but I think that the actual reason is that I’m just not as important as I would like to think I am.  I say that not in a disparaging way, but in an honest and humble way.  The world will turn.  The sun will rise.  All without me.


One of the structures at the Heidelberg Project in Detroit.

And yet, despite the fact that I wasn’t ‘missed’ on social media, I made memories that I will never forget; even if I didn’t document them with a tweet, gram or post.  You could say I got to time travel because I saw the ‘future’ in the faces of the youth.  I spent countless hours with them singing, praying, working and sweating.  The future is indeed bright!


The General Motors Building in Downtown Detroit, MI.

How can you manage your social media ‘addiction?’  Well,  Ibrahim Husain’s POST on Lifehack has some fantastic tips, a couple I would like to highlight.  First, he states that you have to acknowledge you have a problem.  Use one of the many trackers to monitor your use.  MOMENT is one of the best in my opinion.  After you acknowledge this, you can start working to curb your addiction.  Husain suggests deleting many of the apps from your phone, permanently.  Do you really need Facebook and Twitter on your phone?  I personally have found that using an interface like TweetDeck helps me efficiently monitor and learn from my Twitter feed.  Haven’t found anything similarly for Facebook.  For now, I’m limiting myself to it by using a timer.


The beautiful organ at Hope Lutheran Church in Farmingham, MI.

I DID make a few changes as I re-loaded those apps back to my phone.  The first is that I turned off ALL notifications except a few key apps (text messaging and calendars).  I will NOT get notifications of new tweets, or posts to Instagram and Facebook.  I won’t even get notifications of email messages. I am sure I’ll miss a few emails late at night or early in the morning.  I apologize in advance to you if that happens. Who knows, hopefully, I’ll find some time to let my mind drift; it is in that kind of moments I find I do my best thinking.  Maybe my monumental stack of books next to my bed will gradually shrink!


The whole crew gathered along the river walk in Detroit, MI.