LifeChanger of the Year Nominee Profile

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Rebecca Harris

Position: Library Media Specialist
School: Mark Twain Elementary School
School District: Tulsa Public Schools
City, State: Tulsa, OK

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Music that Describes Rebecca

Rebecca Harris was nominated by her colleague, Joyce Hembree.

If there was an education doctor, and the doctor prescribed a remedy for changing the whole atmosphere of a school, the prescription would read, "One dose of Ms. Harris, every day, all day." Ms. Harris came to her school when teacher morale was at its lowest point. The staff was on their third principal in three years. There was no trust or synergy among the staff. From the minute she arrived, she re-energized the whole school population.

Ms. Harris' commitment to the students is primary to who she is an an educator. She creates robust lessons that serve the lower socio-economic students with pride. Her lessons are exciting and relevant, and the students consider it a reward to come to her library. She shows students a new take on life by being a grand literature cheerleader and bridging the digital divide between the students and technology.

"Our students were not conditioned to get a 'just right' book when visiting the library, and they didn't really know if there were sections to attain just right reading," said Hembree. "Ms. Harris developed sections in the media center so every child could successfully read a book from the library. At present, we now have an Emergent Reader section, an Easy Chapter Section, and a just-completed High-Low Section. She has shown teachers how to help the students find a "just right" book by reading the first page, etc. Every student has a success level thanks to her."

Mark Twain Elementary has a high rate of students with trauma. Fortunately, Ms. Harris has been all about social-emotional learning throughout her whole teaching career. She has a section of books with a plush animal that accompanies the book because she knows the plush might be the only thing that will give that student comfort during the day. She has over 25 books suited for that purpose.

Ms. Harris not only services struggling readers, but she also promotes and stimulates the bibliophiles in her school. Her library has an Electric Reader section with reference material books, books with CDs, books with pop-ups and pull-outs, books with gadgets, etc. These books are not for the masses. She reserves them for responsible readers who want to make a difference in their own lives through their love of reading. Because she wanted to develop these sections fully, she wrote three grants to make sure the books were specific to the needs of students and their love of reading. She also created a Zone Section for students who lost their books because of basic needs they had no control over. This section is made up of regular books that are consumables. She does not want the students to ever go without books. Because of that, she developed this section from books donated to the library.

Ms. Harris has Share Parent cards for her school's parents. These are library cards for parents that enjoy sharing the love of reading with their child. They can come in anytime and check out books for and with their child using their own library Share Parent card.

Ms. Harris orders hundreds of books each year. She does not order them in bulk. Each book is hand-picked for a specific reason. She keeps up with current trends in the media world and promotes all books when she receives them. Ms. Harris will have Literacy parties when she receives the new books and has parties at the end of the year for the state books that are read. She also has a school-wide reading incentive for all students who earn Reading Counts points. She has over ten rewards that the students will earn, ranging from holding the guinea pigs, to karaoke parties, to outings at Incredible Pizza. Ms. Harris monitors and distributes these prizes to each child in the school who earns these points, all year long. Ms. Harris provides one free book for each child in the school when evening literacy nights are held for the parents. The students love to be able to have a book they can call their own. These examples are just describing what Rebecca does to arm the students for making them life long readers.

In terms of academics, Ms. Harris does not simply teach a lesson. She is a testimonial to teaching with personal connections, relevancy to life, and life-long learning.

"When she heard about the monarch butterfly crisis in America, she immediately wrote a grant after brainstorming with me about my class starting a Monarch waystation in an area of our courtyard," said Hembree. "The students get to know the world outside of our little red schoolhouse with this project, as with so many others that she teaches. She worked with the sixth grade science teacher to research the ills of pesticides in our diet. As part of this project, students used the raised garden beds to grow their own organic fruits and vegetables for the other students at our school. The students had a taste-testing table for their fellow students as they entered the cafeteria. A grant was written for this project."

Ms. Harris knows that the genre of poetry is one of the hardest genres for the students to wrap their heads around. She immerses the fifth graders into this style of writing through a Poetry Coffee House. Not only does she teach them the different forms of poetry, but she extends their knowledge by introducing them to Poetry Slams and the genius and depth of the poets who participate. She includes lessons on the Beat Generation and how they shared their poetry and changed the world in many cases. She arranges for a local coffee house to allow students to dress up like beatniks and use the coffee shop as a showcase to highlight their written verses. The students love when the audience snaps their fingers in agreement and beat their bongos instead of applause. This literacy event brings parents out after school hours who normally would not come to a school function. The students start out withdrawn and shy. By the end of the evening, Ms. Harris has to pry the microphone out of their very resistant hands. They eventually take off their berets and call it an evening.

Ms. Harris is stringent about exposing students to the world around them. The sixth grade students research the four types of human trafficking. Then, they raise funds for that cause. They read outstanding books by Patricia McCormick. They culminate this unit by walking with Ms. Harris in the A21 national and local Walk for Freedom in our city.

Each year, Ms. Harris creates an after-school club. This is her chance to reach out to her most disenfranchised children while building community and helping others. She has a Reverse Selfies after-school club. She wants the students to know that in today's "selfie society," it's a good thing to think of others. The students learn about the Green Book in the history of our country. Ms. Harris wrote to one of the local benefactors, and she purchased tickets for the Reverse Selfie Club to see a play about the Green Book that was playing at the performing arts center. This really brought it to life for the students, especially those who have never attended a play before.

The students in Ms. Harris' classes get very adamant about changing the world when it comes to social inequity. They are dear students who are struggling themselves, and they don't want to see others around them struggling, also. These lessons are just a sampling of the types of lessons taught in her media center. Additionally, she's an incredible storyteller. She plans field trips to places like the Woody Guthrie center and the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 Museum. The list goes on.

Ms. Harris positively adds to the development of her school's atmosphere. She organized a Sunshine Committee so that all teachers would be recognized on their birthdays, when they were in the hospital, or had a death in their family. She plans the holiday blow out every year for the whole staff. Ms. Harris works with a food truck to have them provide meals once a month. She wrote a grant to brighten the school bathrooms, which hadn't been updated in a decade. Now, they have positive thoughts, books, plants, and happy colors to make the teachers feel special. There was no special place in the school to celebrate all the good things going on, so Ms. Harris wrote another grant for a Celebration Wall. This is centrally located and has pictures posted of students and teachers who need to be recognized for all the good work they're doing.

The school's exterior needed a facelift, as well, so Ms. Harris took it upon herself to weed out the front garden with a Gardening Club she formed. They would stay after school and weed years of bermuda grass, trim the trees, beg for bushes from local greenhouses, and work with partners to lay stone along the back of the garden that leads to the Solitude Bench she placed there. This would not only give students and parents a happy feeling when they entered the building, but other stakeholders would know that Mark Twain Elementary is a school of esteem and quality. In another example, the teachers would constantly have to walk through the grass to get to the front door. Ms. Harris and her Landscaping Club spent the whole quarter digging, leveling, moving large sandstone, and learning how to use a rototiller so there would be a quaint, cobblestone path for the teachers to walk on as they entered the building. She even included a cement planter that is permanently in the middle of the path that holds flowers.

"I had birdfeeders from previous years, but had no money to fill them," said Hembree. "Rebecca wrote a grant for a squirrel-proof bird seed holder and bird seed so all the students could enjoy our feathered friends in nature every day. She also cleaned out the back 13 raised beds that had been forgotten so the teachers could begin their new chapter of STEM-related project-based lessons in the beds."

"Ms. Harris sometimes walks around when you least suspect and hands out cards to other colleagues that say things like 'You must be from NASA' on the front," said Hembree. "When the teacher turns the card over, the back says, 'Because you are out of this world.' Teachers need appreciation most of the time, and these cards are especially appreciated when that teacher doesn't think that anyone is noticing. I've watched them smile ear-to-ear resembling a big Cheshire cat after receiving one of her cards."

Ms. Harris has brought fresh flowers every week she has been at her school. She places them in the front office. Everyone that enters enjoys them and comments of them. It's always a good day for flowers. She also brings big pots of flowers to the school for the sunny windows, so that those dreary winter days will have a little color pop for the students.

Mark Twain Elementary's mascot is a tiger. Ms. Harris found a gigantic stuffed tiger to place in the entryway for students and parents alike to greet them when they enter the building. She is completing her mission to make the media center the most inviting library in the city, with the purchase of brand new mid-century modern furniture, bamboo wallpaper, and new interior wood blocks with thought-provoking sayings on them placed around the library to motivate the students. 

Ms. Harris works tirelessly as the union representative. She helps ensure that everyone is treated fairly. She has a listening ear and sound advice when a teacher is struggling.

"One of my favorite things during the year is to observe Ms. Harris as she teaches students," said Hembree. "Although I have been teaching for many years, I learn something new from her teaching style. I am constantly learning about new books from her that excite me. We are a district of many young, inexperienced teachers. Watching seasoned teachers who constantly reinvent themselves like Ms. Harris allows them to gain skills. She also takes new teachers under her wings when they're developing collaboration skills, research, etc. She holds workshops and works with individuals on grant-writing. Ms. Harris is known throughout our district for having a successful media center, and she has librarians from across the district watch her as she teaches her lessons."

Ms. Harris has a record of excellence at the professional level. She has always taught social-emotional learning before academics. On her own time and funds, she attended a week-long workshop at the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley, which trained her on the most current trends in that area. She purchased applicable SEL curriculum which is now being implemented in her school. Recently, she attended a National Geographic workshop for Giant Maps. Many of her students are kinesthetic learners. Ms. Harris has secured Giant Maps to come to her school so the students can physically stand on geographic landmarks they're learning about.

Ms. Harris likes to use and study the USC Shoah Foundation site started by the Steven Spielberg Foundation. This website has over 1500 video testimonials, and it's a great resource for making the students aware of the history and the cultures involved in World War II. The local Jewish Community Center has workshops that coordinate with this website, as well. The library program has just adopted as a new resource. Ms. Harris  has chosen this as her professional development study and is fully immersing herself into the many parts of this program as she develops digital citizenship lessons for her students. She is known for participating in webinars in different disciplines from the comfort of her office after hours. She loves learning. That is one of the reasons she is still fresh and vital after many years of teaching.

"The common thread that runs through everything Ms. Harris does is social-emotional learning," said Hembree. "Ms. Harris is our soulmate. She loves the students. She is there for all staff members. That is part of who she is. She has guinea pigs in the library to help those who need that unconditional love of an animal. She bridged a gap between a very angry sixth grader this month with the furry friends and continues to do so."

One of her students had bed bugs in his house. His only love was that of books. To allow him to continue to check out books, Ms. Harris checks the books in a plastic bag and personally checks them when they come back in. She does not want him to be without books. Ms. Harris buys items for the students when she sees their love for something in life, such as artist's sketchbooks or poetry journals. She likes to reward the students instead of giving them consequences. She has Grandma's Treasure Box, which holds hundreds of Beanie Babies for all the students who interact with the lessons and take responsibility for their learning.

Ms. Harris takes groups of responsible students who help her in the media center on outings in the city after school to places such as the botanical garden or the bowling alley as a reward. She took them Christmas caroling this week and to a holiday show. Ms. Harris wants her kinder, gentler, more methodical students to have a quiet space to share with each other. She wrote a grant for a puzzle holder and puzzles, one for the sixth grade boys and one for the sixth grade girls. A small group of students can now exit after eating their lunch and spend the remainder of their time working puzzles with each other. These puzzles have some type of literacy theme.

"It is a rare day when I do not see Ms. Harris in the hall without a student hugging her," said Hembree. "She loves the students. They know and feel that. She does not have a shortage of love, as the students pour it out to her every day as she gives it back. They know she will always be their advocate and will stand up for all injustices in the student body that might happen."

Ms. Harris has been trained in human trafficking and works with the counselor to teach students about the signs of human trafficking. Tulsa has the fifth highest rate in our state.

Ms. Harris is a cheerleader for the whole school. She shouts out successes during morning time in the gym together so that all students will be recognized for their awesome behaviors. She noticed the teachers had no place to meditate and be still during the work day. Ms. Harris wrote a grant so the teachers would have an outdoor lounge with tables and chairs, along with new bushes and elephant ears under a big oak tree. The students cannot access this area. The teachers can exhale.

Ms. Harris is an upstanding person with high moral and ethical standards. She is Vice-President of the Mingo Valley Homeowners's Association. She created and maintains their webpage. Ms. Harris also created the Nextdoor link and continues to build that resource. She helps arrange meetings for community building and addressing issues. She visits any new neighbor with a plant when they move in and welcomes them to the neighborhood. Ms. Harris becomes involved with unwanted meth houses and homelessness in the neighborhood. She attends bible study and church every week. She reads scripture, but also walks that scripture. Ms. Harris is involved in creating and maintaining the two gardens at the entrances of the building. She writes grants to fund those gardens. She visits shut-ins at the church with a friend. Ms. Harris creates activities to help with community building and the neighbors around her church. She collected over 50 t-shirts for her niece, who started a track club for children in Africa while she was in the Peace Corps. When she hears of a need with a parent, she will try to fill that need, such as by getting a couch and chair last week for a family without furniture.

"Ms. Harris is a LifeChanger," said Hembree. "She has not only changed my life, but the lives of all of our students, every day. She is the teacher that continues to exemplify what enthusiasm and love for our profession is, whether it's by giving a very sincere smile when students enter the gym, or helping them developing their questioning skills. I love her and would like to see her recognized."

Comments (8)

Sheila Martin Posted over a year ago

January 1, 2020 To Whom It May Concern: It is my pleasure to recommend Rebecca Harris as the recipient of the Lifechanger of the Year award. I have known Ms. Harris for two years in her capacity as the Librarian at the elementary school where I serve as the New Teacher Instructional Mentor. I have worked closely with Ms. Harris and I am very impressed with her professionalism, work ethic, and dedication to children. Rebecca’s leadership ability is evident through her daily work with the teaching staff. She co-teaches, advises, and shares instructional strategies with each teacher on the basis of her expertise as a school librarian. Rebecca interprets and organizes data proficiently and uses the information to drive the instruction in our school. Our community recognizes Rebecca as a humanitarian and role model of an outstanding citizen for all. Rebecca goes beyond all expectations with her unstinting work with struggling students. The library doors are always open as she empowers students and families to be co-owners in our very public library where they can locate and use all materials. Because of Ms. Harris, our community has access to computers where all are welcome to the resources of the world through the use of the World Wide Web. An outstanding element of Rebecca’s character is her devotion to the children with whom she works. She knows every child in our school by name, by behavior, and by reading achievement. She looks for the best in every child and leaves no stone unturned in her efforts to help each one reach full potential. She not only considers the child as he or she is now, but also considers how academic decisions made at this time will impact that child’s future. One of my favorite moments with Ms. Harris is when she brings in service dogs monthly for students to read to. The library is filled with words/barks of hope floating through the air and love in the hearts of all! Mrs. Harris has been and remains a priceless resource to the teachers in our district. Her core knowledge is vast and she shares that knowledge with the same generosity that she shares her time, her kindness, and her understanding. She treats all staff members, parents, and children with genuine respect and consideration. I wholeheartedly recommend Ms. Harris to you as a life changer! I can honestly say that anybody who is blessed to meet Rebecca, even for a brief moment, is a better person for the encounter. As she gives, she receives, and gives some more! Sincerely, Sheila Martin Instructional Mentor

Denise Klein, MLIS Posted over a year ago

I am honored to be able to call her my friend. I had the opportunity to observe her teaching during a brief librarian training session 4 years ago. Wish I could have spent a whole week with her. She is truly amazing!

Robin Ferrell Posted over a year ago

Rebecca, congratulations on the award. And thank you for the suggestions to use in my school library! Robin

Hildy Agustin Posted over a year ago

What a life changer, indeed! So much energy and care devoted to children, whose lives are undoubtably changed.

Heather Farris Posted over a year ago

I was Ms. Harris' Library Assistant years ago, and she was part of the reason that I decided to go for it and get my MS in Library Media. She had such a powerful impact on me in all the ways she supported students learning, in so many areas of development. When I was in Graduate School, she was my mentor, and she is always encouraging me with my nutty ideas, as our students and their needs change so much. I am overwhelmed to hear that she still continues so many of the programs she always has without a Library Assistant! Always a rock star! Ms. Harris has always made time for what she thinks is important for the students. Congratulations on this nomination!

Andrew Roberts Posted over a year ago

It was wonderful to read everything you do for your school and your community Rebecca. Congratulations on the award - very well deserved!

Gail Harris Posted over a year ago

Wow..I am so impressed with your accomplishments . I know that your dad would be busting his buttons. Much love and good wishes.

Vicki Ruzicka Posted over a year ago

It was so fun reading this about Ms. Harris! For the past several years, Ms. Harris has included me as a guest reader in her Read Across America activities that bring guests in to share favorite books with students. When I arrive to read, I am always welcomed by student ambassadors that have been trained in using the best manners to greet guests, provide welcoming hospitality and location guidance through the building. Ms. Harris thinks through the little things that go beyond just curriculum teaching to provide meaningful life skills to her students. She is an outstanding choice for this award.