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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Oakdale librarian does more than stock shelves, she connects with students

Aug 02, 2022 10:16AM ● By Julie Slama
By Julie Slama | [email protected]

On an Oakdale Elementary library bulletin board, students had written favorite memories— – getting my a dog, doing a cannon ball off the high dive, riding roller coasters, eating macaroons with my a great-grandpa — on little paper balloons. It was an engaging activity, tying into “The Memory Balloons,” a book where a grandson shares his favorite memories he had with his grandfather, who had forgotten them.

“I liked doing that,” one student said. “She always gathers us on the rug, reads a story, then we can draw or write about it. We’ve done ones on poetry and Earth Day. Last year, we had one about making a difference in the world. She knows where to find all the good books.”

She is Tami Carlson, or sometimes “Mrs. Carwash” as students have fondly combined her name with her with longtime colleague Shannon Walsh, and through Carlson’s 31 years at Oakdale, she has intermixed activities with library time, breaking the stereotype of a librarian holding her index finger up to her lips to shush students or stocking the shelves of a bookmobile.

Former Oakdale Principal Lori Jones recalled a lesson where Carlson would introduce the character trait of kindness.

“She read the kids stories about being kind and then, they wrote letters to seniors in nursing homes to cheer them up,” Jones said. “A lot of the teachers do that too, but she reinforced the bigger picture going on in school and made the library a fun and cheerful place to be.”

Carlson started working at Oakdale as a playground and copy center aide while her mother was the school secretary. The next year, Carlson slid into the open position in the library and has worked there ever since. She has worked under the direction of nine principals, through changing enrollments (its high was more than 600 students, now it is about 400) with five co-librarians, including Walsh who has worked beside her for 16 years.

“We just can't imagine working without each other,” Carlson said about her colleague, who used to be a reading interventionalist and would work with students in the library.

Walsh feels the same way.

“Tami is just hilarious, and she is just an easygoing person. She's a storyteller. You know when she tells a story, she's very animated with the kids. When she's talking about a lesson, she brings it to life and connects with the kids,” Walsh said. “Tami loves children, and she loves reading in that order. She just loves being around children and making them smile, but she also loves the reading sector and what they learn from it from them. I don’t think she’ll ever leave this job. I think she enjoys it too much.”

Alice Peck, who served as Oakdale principal for four years, remembers Carlson knowing all the students.

“She has a familiar face, and she knows all the students by name. She’s always bubbly, upbeat, and positive and never in a bad mood. She has a lightness, a smile for everyone, so kids just adore her,” she said. “She and Shannon just work together so well, whether it’s checking in books with the barcodes or doing lessons for the kids. When they found out I was moving to the district, they created a bulletin board of students’ limericks that was the sweetest thing. Then, they presented me them in a big binder. It was just touching. They’re the dynamic duo.”

Through the years, Carlson has seen change in education. When she started, the school featured open classrooms.

“It's so ridiculous that anyone ever thought that would work. You could literally roll a ball from the office down to the sixth grade or hear a piano playing and singing going on or hear a video over here or hear a teacher who spoke loudly over there,” she said, also recalling that they’d prop open the school doors so even a stray dog wandered through the school a couple times.

Walls and air-conditioning were installed in the 1990s after a before-school fire broke out in the music room, which was located inside the back door.

“Back then, none of the doors were locked. Most of the teachers were here and a few students were outside because the opening bell had not run yet. We think someone came in that back room and set the music room on fire. We didn't know who or why because there weren't security cameras back then, but man, that fire marshal and two other men in suits sat on one side of a table and you were on the other and they interrogated all of us one at a time in a very intimidating manner. Like, ‘do Do you smoke? Have you ever had a vendetta against anyone at this school?’ We did learn an accelerant was used and that room was filled with storage from floor to ceiling with desks, equipment, chairs— – and with student records. That room was burned to the ground and then the fire traveled through the false ceilings. There was a lot of smoke damage, especially to our beautiful art collection that we inherited from the old Union Elementary. They had to send all those paintings out to be cleaned with the smoke damage. Our school wasn't closed for more than a few days. It was the end of the year, so they brought in those giant fans, and gave a warning to kids that have breathing problems,” Carlson remembered.

She was at Oakdale on Sept. 11, 2001.

“I had been just watching the news like I do in the morning when I'm getting ready for work and saw those planes hit those towers. I just wanted to stay home, curled up in a ball and cry all day, but we had to come to work that day. The principal called us in and said, ‘We're not going to bring it up with the kids. If they ask, you smile and say that you're safe here.’ And we didn’t know that, but we were told to try to have as normal day as possible. We had to just keep quiet and carry on and know that their parents can help them when they get home. That was a day I was wished we’d have off because that was a hard one to get through,” Carlson said.

She also worked at Oakdale when the Jordan School District split, and Canyons School District was created for the eastern schools.

“A lot of people were highly opinionated about it. Are you for or against? I think it's been a really good thing because that district was so big and it was hard to get help or be heard because there were so many schools,” Carlson said. “Canyons has been so good about technology. We have technology devices and support in every school. There’s someone to answer your questions on the phone or send someone over. We have someone assigned to our school to help just with that and that has been a wonderful thing, especially recently during COVID.”

During the pandemic, the library had assigned seating, which started when students were tracked to minimize the spread of COVID-19. 

“It somewhat mimics who they sit by in class and that's actually been helpful to minimize the distractions and interruptions, but now, younger students who were at home are needing to learn all the normal routines of how to walk quietly, sit still and not wander around and be disruptive. At the beginning of the year, they scattered like mice. We'd have to call the office and say,id ‘I've got three kids on the loose’ because I’d just look up from a lesson and they’d be gone,” Carlson said. “I think most kids if one thing they learned from that is they do love going to school and they never want to go home again and do schooling.”

Jones said that when schools transitioned to COVID-19 protocols, “Mrs. Carwash” was there.

“They had jumped in and helped us with a lot of things like checking out the Chromebooks and helped me with that immensely. They also helped with checking out new curriculum to our teachers, doing bulletin boards, posting what teachers and staff were reading to interest kids in reading, and they are able to wear so many different hats,” she said, adding before COVID, they maintained the Red Bookshelf, which provided students a place to grab a free used book.

Carlson’s own job has changed from those early years when there was a card catalog.

“When we got a book, we would create cards. That book had a card for the author, another card for the illustrator and so on. One book would have maybe six 3three-by-five 5 cards that needed to be filed. Then, if someone asked if we have a book about unicorns, we’d go to the card catalog to look up unicorns. It was time consuming and insane making up all those cards, then filing them and discarding them when we got rid of the book. Now the kids can go to the student computers and look up unicorn and be able to find the book. We still use the Dewey Decimal System because it works. We've worked with the kids to teach them to find their own books because county and government libraries are still using the Dewey Decimal System,” she said.

Walsh said that when they get new books, “It’s like Christmas to us. Tami gets all giddy because we get to read new books to students and show them all the new books and introduce them to new genres.”

Those new books are put on display; recently, Carlson put out some new biographies she was excited to share with students.

“Biographies used to be hundreds of fine print pages and few pictures, and the kids would have to read the entire book to find out basic facts about someone. Now, we can Google, but these books are just beautiful and inviting. Look at this one about Kamala Harris. You know how she wears the sneakers? On the inside cover of each of these is something unique to the person and hers is sneakers. It’s just fun and engaging. These kids are just dying over these books and they’re going to learn all about these people and they’re just colorful and beautifully illustrated. The books are made with better quality ink and pictures, and they’re nicely bound,” she said, recalling when she started in the library, the district would send books to the school. “We had no say in it whatsoever; they ordered the same books for every school, and they’d weed out the surplus books that were out-of-date or not being checked out. But we do everything now which we should because we know our school population and we have kids ask for certain books and we try to make that happen.”

As Carlson and Walsh place orders, they make a conscious effort to get books that represent diversity.

“We try very hard to choose books that kids can see themselves in and their families. So, children of color and children with disabilities, or say, my parents are divorced, or I have two moms, so we look for books that are inclusive. We don't sit we don't talk about it too much, but we have books that reflect that. We buy books about different holidays, so they aren't all Christian holidays. We want them to find books that are age appropriate and aren’t all mainstream, so all our students can see themselves and their families in them,” she said. 

That’s something former principal Peck appreciated about Carlson: “She’s very much an educator that is beloved by kids. She chooses books that are appropriate and enjoyable on any level and often, they correlate with topics in the classroom, so we have an integrated support for our curriculum.”

Carlson said the library continues to check out classic children’s books.

“We just ordered a bunch of new copies of Beverly Cleary books, and I love a book by Kate DiCamillo called, ‘Because of Winn-Dixie;’ we have four copies that are constantly being checked out,” she said. “I can’t choose my favorite book because it is like choosing a favorite candy. It can't be done.”

“Mrs. Carwash” also works with teachers to match their library lessons with the class curriculum.

“Back in the day, we read them a story and let them check out books. Now we always plan. We teach them library skills. We look at the core curriculum and try to hit on as many of those as we can. Sometimes we find a book that we just love, and we do a lesson around that book,” Carlson said, adding that in recent years, they’ve also begun to meet on a regular basis with the school principal to learn about schoolwide schedules, trainings, drills and concerns so they’re in the loop with faculty and staff. “We also meet with other school librarians. We can exchange ideas and trade book suggestions and support each other.”

Even with the skills and lessons that are taught in the library, Carlson said there is a goal above those.

“We try hard to make the kids feel loved and to make them feel like this is a safe, happy place. When they come in here for a minute, we want there to be no stress, just a place that they can relax and enjoy,” she said. “That’s the most important thing for me, more important than learning about the genres of the books and how to do research. That's my goal.”

This is the second of three profiles spotlighting long-time Canyons School District employees.