July 2008


I feel kind of weird linking up to yet another New York Times story, but I have a bad habit of reading the Times online every day. And I keep finding great stories there. Here’s one of David Brooks’s political op-ed columns that talks, for a change, about those things we early literacy fans always go nuts over.

Brooks thinks we need to be paying more attention to education right now, and less to gas prices. Read this piece, “The Biggest Issue,” and I think you’ll agree with him that the saggy economy we’re dealing with at the moment is tied, at least partly, to the sad dropout rate in plenty of high schools – and the even sadder job prospects of those dropouts.

We’re passing into a time when everyone needs to be literate to get a decent job, and most of the young people dropping out of high school aren’t. Brooks cites a recent study from James Heckman of the University of Chicago called “Schools, Skills and Synapses” (the link is to a pdf of the paper):

Heckman points out that big gaps in educational attainment are present at age 5. Some children are bathed in an atmosphere that promotes human capital development and, increasingly, more are not. By 5, it is possible to predict, with depressing accuracy, who will complete high school and college and who won’t.

Of course, most educators, and most librarians who have been working with kids for any length of time, know this stuff. It sure seems that most of the rest of the country doesn’t, though. I’m amazed by how easy it seems to be to fund a war, but how difficult it seems to be to get Head Start funded at anywhere near the level it needs to be.

As librarians, we have opportunities to reach new parents that most teachers haven’t had a chance to reach yet with the message that literacy is important. And we can establish the idea that literacy is fun, and silly, and challenging. We need to be doing everything we can to encourage those parents – especially parents who don’t come from educated backgrounds – how important it is to read, talk, and sing with their children. And to use, and play with, lots and lots of words.

And come next year, with a new president, we can hope for a little more funding…

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If you’ve been a librarian for more than a couple of years, you probably have memories connected to cassette tapes – circulating those book ‘n’ tape combinations; practicing your storytime songs or puppet shows or storytelling; or learning songs in your car on the way to work.

But those days are mostly over, and the cassette tape will soon join its brother, the 8-track, and its cousins, the 5 1/4 and 3 1/2-inch floppy disks and the VCR cassette, in the Misty Never-Never Land of Obsolete Technologies. This New York Times story, “Say So Long to an Old Companion… Cassette Tapes,” reminds us of what’s passing. It reflects on the things that made cassettes special, right to the end:

While the cassette was dumped long ago by the music industry, it has lived on among publishers of audio books. Many people prefer cassettes because they make it easy to pick up in the same place where the listener left off, or to rewind in case a certain sentence is missed….

Cassettes have limped along for some time, partly because of their usefulness in recording conversations or making a tape of favorite songs, say, for a girlfriend. But sales of portable tape players, which peaked at 18 million in 1994, sank to 480,000 in 2007, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. The group predicts that sales will taper to 86,000 in 2012.

That’s the end of the line for cassettes, but can you guess where cassettes hung on longer than anywhere else? In libraries, of course. Libraries accept and give up technologies reluctantly (why do you think it took libraries 12 years or so to get into video gaming?), and this story reminds us how perfect cassettes have always been for one important kind of library material:

…for audio books, the cassette is an oddly elegant medium: you can eject it from your car, carry it home and stick it in a boombox, and it will pick up in the same place, an analog feat beyond the ability of the CD.

In the 80s and 90s I spent a lot of time on the children’s room reference desk putting boys (and girls, but mostly boys) who were reluctant readers together with an unabridged cassette copy of books like Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet or C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe along with the book itself. “Have them read the book while they’re listening to the tape,” I’d tell their moms, and many of those moms came back, smiling and saying, “He read the whole book! Do you have any more of those tapes?”

Now those books are all on CD, and soon they’ll all be downloadable. I certainly don’t feel as if future generations will lose much by never having experienced the cassette. But I will miss them – I remember, as the article mentions, making mix tapes of favorite songs for girlfriends, and practicing lines for my puppet programs on cassettes. I also remember all those times my old cassette player pulled the tape out of the cassette (I had a car player that especially used to do that), and I’d have to eject that jumbled mess of tape carefully and wind it back into the cassette with my fingernail.

Do you remember doing that? Digital files aren’t quite the same…

Here’s a great New York Times article that every librarian who works with people under 18 should read: “Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?” by Motoko Rich. It deals with some critical issues that only a few scholars are looking at seriously – namely, is the reading that people do online fundamentally different from the kind of reading they do in a print book or magazine? And if so, how is it different?

Rich describes the ways people read online as often not having a clear beginning or end. Online readers skip and zip around – click, click, click – far more, and less thoughtfully, than print readers do, and leave one online message via a link without finishing it, often never to return. And most younger Web readers accept such leaping from text fragment to text fragment as the normal way to read online. The story also says:

Young people “aren’t as troubled as some of us older folks are by reading that doesn’t go in a line,” said Rand J. Spiro, a professor of educational psychology at Michigan State University who is studying reading practices on the Internet. “That’s a good thing because the world doesn’t go in a line, and the world isn’t organized into separate compartments or chapters.”

Some traditionalists warn that digital reading is the intellectual equivalent of empty calories. Often, they argue, writers on the Internet employ a cryptic argot that vexes teachers and parents. Zigzagging through a cornucopia of words, pictures, video and sounds, they say, distracts more than strengthens readers. And many youths spend most of their time on the Internet playing games or sending instant messages, activities that involve minimal reading at best.

And we all know that young people, even when reading sizable chunks of text, are also, as Rich mentions, seamlessly “reading” graphs, illustrations, anime, YouTube clips, and a huge mishmash of varied media. This isn’t the same as sitting in a chair or under a tree reading Charlotte’s Web or War and Peace. Can we really compare online reading to the traditional method of sitting with one’s attention focused on one format – plain old text – told by one storyteller, or one argument by a nonfiction author, without being turned aside? Is the ability to shift rapidly, not just from point of view to point of view, but also from text to animation to podcast, a more powerful skill than the ability to remain focused on a task for an extended period of time?

No one is certain yet what this massive change means, since Net literacy as we conceive of it now is only about ten years old. Educators are struggling to define exactly what “Net literacy” is, and how it will affect the way in which young people will learn the things they need to know to function in this century. Here’s a quote from the story that, depending on how progressive or conservative we are, will either stir our hearts or roll our eyes. Or maybe a little of both:

“Learning is not to be found on a printout,” David McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, said in a commencement address at Boston College in May. “It’s not on call at the touch of the finger. Learning is acquired mainly from books, and most readily from great books.”

Is McCullough correct any longer? I wonder, since so much of what we used to look up in dictionaries or encyclopedias we now find online (note the links in this quote, for example). So many of the facts we need to gather to write an essay or understand a concept are scattered like sesame seeds all over the Net, yet can be scooped up really quickly, thanks to Google. But are those scattered facts correct? Are they from a worthwhile source?

It’s the other kinds of literacy skills – the “boring” skills such as the abilities to focus, to evaluate, and to make informed judgments – that the coolness and speed of the Internet often fool young people into thinking they fully grasp or don’t especially need. Sometimes a human teacher – often armed with print books – can be a better way to gain the talents all thinking people must have.

Here’s a story about a children’s librarian, Judith Flint, at the Kimball (VT) Public Library, who on June 26 held off five state police detectives who wanted to take the library’s public access PCs. She said, ‘not without a search warrant,’ and the detectives didn’t have one. They backed down – temporarily.

The detectives were investigating the disappearance of a 12-year-old girl, and had a lead that she might have used one of the library’s PCs to leave a message on her MySpace page. The girl, it turned out, had been kidnapped and was later found dead. Police arrested her uncle, a convicted sex offender. It’s unclear right now whether the library’s PCs were involved or not.

Because the girl was in jeopardy, was Flint correct in preventing the detectives from taking the PCs? Librarians who are intellectual freedom activists say that she was:

Cybersecurity expert Fred H. Cate, a law professor at Indiana University, said the librarians acted appropriately.

“If you’ve told all your patrons `We won’t hand over your records unless we’re ordered to by a court,’ and then you turn them over voluntarily, you’re liable for anything that goes wrong,” he said.

A new Vermont law that requires libraries to demand court orders in such situations took effect July 1, but it wasn’t in place that June day. The library’s policy was to require one.

The librarians did agree to shut down the computers so no one could tamper with them, which had been a concern to police.

It’s an issue that any of us could face, any day, by surprise, when we’re in the middle of doing something far more mundane. Are we prepared to deal with it?

When kids play, they use their imaginations. When kids watch a video screen, they’re hypnotized and use less of their imaginations, receiving everything passively. So it’s kind of scary to read a report in USAToday about a study from Daniel Anderson, a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, who monitored how toddlers behaved when Jeopardy – a show that presumably offers toddlers little that interests them – was on a television set in the room.

The article says:

Perhaps most significant: When the TV was on, kids of all ages played with a given toy — a jack-in-the-box, a baby doll, blocks, a toy telephone, a school bus with toy passengers — for about 30 seconds, on average. Without TV, it was 60 seconds.

This may not seem significant, but when a TV is on in the room with young children, it means that children’s attention spans are broken up, and kids are engaging in less, and more fragmented, imaginative play.

I’m concerned that as kids grow older and become more and more fixated on screens – in particular, the Net and video games – they use less and less of their imaginations and let their brains fall under the direction of Web designers and game designers. Is this okay? I dunno, but somehow I doubt it. How much time are the children visiting your library spending in front of screens, or checking out items they’ll see on screens?

If, like me, you don’t read a lot of the children’s publishing blogs and newsgroups, you might miss a fascinating New Yorker article by Jill Lepore called “The Lion and the Mouse.” It’s about the almighty Anne Carroll Moore of a bygone era, the original grande dame of children’s librarianship, who from her post “behind the lions” of the New York Public Library’s big main building on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street, established children’s librarianship, but also, for better or worse, passed judgment on children’s books published during much of the first half of the 20th century.

If you’ve never heard Moore’s story but work with kids in libraries, you should read this piece, because Moore had a big influence on how children’s books were written, illustrated, and promoted, and her influence continues. You can see a lot of the beginnings of children’s literature criticism in the article, too. Here also is the story of E.B. White, his wife Katharine – an early children’s book critic – and his first children’s book, the immortal Stuart Little.

Moore encouraged White to write it, but then ended up offended by the way White had mixed up fantasy and reality. A woman giving birth to an anthropomorphic mouse? Moore asked Harper, its publisher, and White’s editor, Ursula Nordstrom, not to release it. “I never was so disappointed in a book in my life,” Moore said.

It’s definitely worth your time. And there was a quote that caught my eye and drew me away for a few moments on a completely different path. Lepore writes:

Children’s literature, at least in the West, is utterly bound up in the medieval, as Seth Lerer, a Stanford literature professor, argues in “Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter.” Lots of books for kids are about the Middle Ages (everything from “The Hobbit” to “Robin Hood” and “Redwall”), but the conventions of the genre (allegory, moral fable, romance, and heavy-handed symbolism) are also themselves distinctly premodern. It’s not only that many books we shelve as “children’s literature”—Grimms’ Fairy Tales or “Gulliver’s Travels” or “Huck Finn”—were born as biting political satire, for adults; it’s also that books written for children in the twentieth century tend to be distinctly, willfully, and often delightfully antimodern. “The Phantom Tollbooth” has more in common with “The Pilgrim’s Progress” than it does with “On the Road.”

As I wandered around the publisher’s booths at the ALA Conference, I noticed that so many new books are fantasies – and I mean books for children, teens, and adults. (Have you noticed how many vampire romances appeared in the wake of Anne Rice? The Twilight series brought them to kids and teens, but now it seems as if there are hundreds, for all ages.) And have you noticed how little science fiction is being published and read these days? I feel that there’s something in so many modern middle-class Americans these days that longs for a good king who can command something and everyone must obey, or wizards who can wave wands and make wishes come true, and even vampires who can love us and protect us in this raggedy world. Science fiction reminds us too much of the pervasive technology that seems to be slowly strangling us as it daily transforms the world, and that so many people feel they can’t keep up with.

This is why I keep going on about the importance of libraries supporting literacy and the printed word. No medium develops our imaginations and stretches us the way the printed word can, whether we want to escape to a vampire romance or an article about global warming. But I digress.

Several times, I’ve pointed out the Reading Rockets site from WETA Public TV as a good place for library folks who work with kids to visit. I wanted to point out a couple of worthwhile articles on Reading Rockets that you might find worth a read.

One is called “Making Reading Relevant: Read, Learn, and Do!” For adults working with K-3 kids, it offers several activities that turn what’s in a book into a real experience. Don’t pass up any chance to let parents and other caregivers know that “making reading relevant,” putting printed words together with large motor skill activities and 3-D objects, is one of the most important things they can do – especially for boys, who are often behind girls in language development skills, and especially for kids whose parents have less education.

Making reading “relevant” means making the difference between a child who gives up on reading by the fourth grade and one who becomes fascinated with learning about new things through print.

Here’s another, called “Use Summer Fun to Build Background Knowledge.” One of the biggest problems children from lower-income families face in school is a lack of “background knowledge” – the basic information about how the world works that many school lessons, and books, assume that children of a particular age already have. But not all of them – particularly not all of those kids who have gained most of what they know sitting and watching cartoons on video most days – may know things such as that the earth rotates around the sun and the moon around the earth, or how plants grow from seeds.

If you haven’t looked at Reading Rockets yet, pay a visit. It’s a great way to pick up lots of child development and literacy tidbits – the kind you can pick up and then pass along – quickly and pretty painlessly.

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