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September 27, 2019

Middle school librarian hooks students on books

Photos/Don Del Rosso
Marshall Middle School’s Lanelle Hilling says more students than she expected prefer paper to electronic books.
“She’s the kind of teacher that wants you to do the work and helps you get it done,” says Marshall eighth-grader Erika Harrington.
One of the things I love is pushing them through their boundaries of ‘I don’t like to read,’ because my answer is, ‘Doesn’t matter.’
— Marshall Middle School Library Teacher Lanelle Hilling
Lanelle Hilling
• Age: 46

• Home: Jeffersonton, Culpeper County

• Work: Library teacher, Marshall Middle School, 2008 to present; library teacher, P.B. Smith Elementary School, 2004-08; full-time Spanish and English-as-second-language teacher, Prince William County Public Schools, 2001-03; part-time reference librarian, Prince William County, 2000-02.

• Education: Master’s degree, library and information science, Catholic University, 2000; bachelor’s degree, political science, Oklahoma Wesleyan University, 1996; Eustis (Fla.) High School, 1991.

• Family: Husband, James, 53; daughter, Nina, 20.

• Hobbies: Reading, flower gardening
By .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Staff Journalist
When it comes to reading, the Marshall Middle School library teacher means business.

Incapable of taking no for an answer, Lanelle Hilling seems determined to ignite an appreciation, if not more, for the written word in young people.

“One of the things I love is pushing them through their boundaries of ‘I don’t like to read,’ because my answer is, ‘Doesn’t matter’,” explained Ms. Hilling, who joined the Northern Fauquier school staff 11 years ago. “ ‘We’re going to push through and push through and push through. And, I will keep going until you find something and find success’.”

The dogged library teacher considers reading an essential, indispensable skill.

“You have to read,” Ms. Hilling, 46, tells students, delivering the message with almost commandment-like zeal. “You have to read for the rest of your life. You will read. You have to.”

Marshall Middle has about 470 students. Ms. Hilling meets with each class — Grades 6 through 8 — once every two weeks, helping students throughout the year select books and set quarterly reading goals.

Her students — an average 23 per class — know the drill.

At the start of class, they filter into the library, settle into beanbag chairs gathered under a pop-up tent and begin to read their books. Each in turn meets with Ms. Hilling for what amounts to a brief progress report. The librarian inserts thin Post-it notes in their books, indicating the number of pages they need to read.

“She doesn’t baby you,” said eighth-grader Erika Harrington, a library volunteer. “It’s more independent. She’s the kind of teacher that wants you to do the work and helps you get it done.”

Erika, 13, smiled, adding: “Once you get to know her, you know she’s caring.”

Marshall Principal Donna Guzman has nothing but praise for the librarian.

“She’s phenomenal,” Ms. Guzman said. “When you think of a traditional librarian, some people think about putting books on a bookshelf and checking out books to students and maybe making recommendations. But, she goes far beyond that.”

Ms. Hilling goes out of her way to work with families whose students face reading challenges, the principal said.

“If she finds kids that are having some difficulty, she’ll bring the kids in, bring the family in and really work with them to make sure the kids are successful,” she said.

Ms. Guzman called the librarian an “integral part to the actual teaching of reading.”

As part of her “outreach” efforts, Ms. Hilling hosts “Doughnuts with Dads” day, giving fathers a chance to socialize with their children at the library, the principal noted.

Ms. Hilling also routinely works with teachers across disciplines, helping students research all manner of projects and assignments, ranging from social studies to math.

“You are an instructor,” the librarian said of her responsibilities. “That is why you are there. I’m really militant about that. You are there to have an impact, to transfer knowledge to children.”

Teacher Liz Wines has worked with three other librarians during her three decades at the school.

Ms. Hilling “is without a doubt the strongest library teacher/librarian I’ve ever worked with,” Ms. Wines said.

Ms. Hilling has a remarkable talent for matching students with books that engage them, according to the sixth-grade English and reading instructor.

Ms. Wines speaks with first-hand knowledge.

Her son Michael, 20, who attended Marshall, proved an uninspired middle school reader, she said.

“That kind of hurt my English teacher’s heart a little bit,” Ms. Wines recalled “But, when he met Lanelle, she got him hooked into a series and he’s been a reader ever since.”

Ms. Wines said she shares that story with parents who talk to her about their children’s reading issues.

“She’s driven,” Ms. Wines said of the librarian. “It’s her goal to find something the kids are going to like and to just push them to say, ‘You don’t get better at reading unless you read.’

“And, so she takes no excuses. She accommodates no shortcuts. You just will read.”

Ms. Guzman agreed.

“They know that (Ms. Hilling) loves them and that she would do anything to help them,” the principal said of the students. “But, she’s going to hold the expectations up here (raising her right hand above her shoulder), and they’re going to meet them. You have to do the work. Figure out a way.”

Ms. Hilling started her Fauquier teaching career at P.B. Smith Elementary School near Warrenton in 2004.

As much as the Florida native enjoyed her time there, her heart belongs to middle-schoolers.

“Middle-schoolers are my people,” explained Ms. Hilling, the daughter of a teacher and an accountant. “I love them. They can hold a conversation. You can see them progress between sixth grade and then into seventh and eighth. You can literally watch them build they’re cognitive capacity.”

Teachers also can “mold” middle- schoolers’ thinking, habits and “practices” in ways perhaps not possible in high school, she added.

Absent research, Ms. Hilling offered no opinion about the internet’s influence on young readers.

But, based on 18 years of classroom experience, she believes students’ appetite for a good read continues to grow.

Ms. Hilling partly attributes that to the high quality of young adult literature.

“There are so many good books on the market,” she said. “You have these series that absolutely hook kids.”

And, for students who want to read but “have some impediments, there’s technology that equips them to read and to listen, to access stories in ways there never were before.”

The library has 16 Kindle tablets, which students can borrow for two weeks at time. They get plenty of use. To Ms. Hilling’s surprise, more students than she expected prefer paper to electronic books.

But paper-versus-electronic may beside the point.

In the end, the work and results count most for her.

“I love equipping students to read, and to read well, and to grow their imaginations, to grow their vocabularies, to grow as individuals.”

Contact Don Del Rosso at or 540-270-0300. 
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