August 2008


I was happy to see this week that the ukulele has gained another library-related fan – Bill Barnes of the “Unshelved” comic strip. Evidently Bill, who homeschools his kids, was one of a multi-family homeschoolers’ camping trip, and several families included instrumentalists – and there were plenty of sing-along sessions. Those sessions inspired Bill to take up an instrument himself.

But when choosing an instrument, he had some conditions:

  • I’m lazy and undisciplined, so it needs to be easy to learn.
  • I travel a lot, so it needs to be highly portable.
  • It needs to feel fun, so that I’m inspired to practice and play.
  • I love to sing, so it needs to be a good accompaniment instrument.
  • I’m a cartoonist, so it needs to be inexpensive.

Guess which instrument, as I’ve been saying here for some time, meets all these criteria?

Check out his post on the Unshelved blog. And if you haven’t yet picked up a uke, take a look at his list once again. If you have any music in your soul at all, who can resist?

Somewhat less library-related, but just as much fun, is this story from the Worcester (MA) Telegram site: “Ukulele lovers stand tall.” It’s a great run-down of the story behind the huge boom the uke has experienced worldwide in the past few years – almost all of it inspired by the Internet. I played the uke for nearly thirty years, thinking that everyone else who played an instrument played the guitar or piano or trumpet – but not the uke. I never came into contact with another uke player until around 1998, when I discovered that ukulele fans were posting on the Net.

It’s a perfect example of the “Long Tail” (or “Short String” might be better) phenomenon – a niche group of widely scattered but passionate folks who have finally discovered each other and put together festivals like the “Uke-stock” mentioned here.

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I’ve always thought it exceedingly odd that there are two well-known songs for young children that feature ducks, and one is called “Five Little Ducks,” while the other is “Six Little Ducks.” I’ve sung ’em both (not at the same time) for a long while, and I posted “Six Little Ducks” here some time ago. (If I had to choose one as my favorite, I’d choose the Six, as it’s happy and goofy all the way through. But I like the Five, too.)

The fact that I like “Five Little Ducks” doesn’t mean, however, that I’m not troubled by the fact that up until the penultimate line, this is a really tragic song. Like in a bad crime thriller, the mother of the Five Little Ducks is losing her children one by one. Is it a kidnapper? A child molester? A serial killer? The Big Bad Wolf?

We never do find out. (My wife rolls her eyes at my suggestion of serial killers and says, “They’re just exploring; you know, asserting their independence.”) But at least they’re all returned to her in the triumphant climax. Whenever I sing the song with kids, I always stop somewhere between verses to ask, “Well, where did they go? Where do you think they are? I sure hope we find them.” When I get to the verse in which the “sad mother duck” does her “quack, quack, quack,” I do it very melodramatically and mournfully, with a loud snurgly sniffle. And when the five ducklings reappear, I sing it with a happy smile and a cheer.

The term “media literacy” has been around for 20 years or so and I always thought it meant the ability to analyze and evaluate media – TV, radio, the Internet – and understand the messages they deliver to us. For example, does a commercial for the U.S. Army glamorize being a soldier to lure in action-movie-trained boys who are just about to get out of high school? How do car commercials, in any nonprint medium, communicate a feeling of being “master of the road”? How did the “Little House on the Prairie” TV show affect our perception of American history?

But it appears that video games in libraries communicate media literacy as well, if we believe what Jenny Levine and game-boosting librarians tell us. Here’s a worthwhile article from the Chicago Sun-Times’ Neighborhood Star section: “Library adds media literacy, including games, to list of offerings.”

The article, by Angela Caputo, does discuss whether the new Wii system at the Chicago Heights Library, which requires kids and teens to have library cards before they can use it, increases the players’ use of the library, and leaves the question open for discussion:

“We figured if we could get them into the library itself and then get them cards it’s a step in getting them to look for books,” head children’s librarian Norma Rubio said.

As libraries turn to more unconventional materials, such as games, to satisfy patrons, a debate over whether libraries are “dumbing down” their collections has gained steam, the American Library Association’s Jenny Levine said.

Levine, of course, promotes games as a great way to draw young people into the library, and I know that research is going on as we speak to demonstrate whether or not games will lure kids into reading – of any kind – or not. Here at the Austin Public Library, the librarians running game tournaments have set up tables with reading lamps in the darkened rooms in which the tournaments are held, with a pile of young adult books and graphic novels to look at while participants wait for their turns at the game machines, and I’ve heard that at least a few of the kids are taking advantage of them.

But do games really teach any kind of “media literacy”? Not the kind of media literacy I know. Blasting monsters and winning races don’t teach much as far as my way of understanding how the media subtly communicate real-life messages is concerned. Now, the game “Grand Theft Auto” probably communicates a lot as far as a vision of America goes, but I don’t think many libraries are about to use it in their teen tournaments.

Nor, as far as I can see, are librarians doing anything to communicate what what media literacy really is when they present these game programs. I still feel the games are a lure, plain and simple. Some teens (mostly boys who never got the it’s-okay-to-read-if-you’re-male message) want them, so we provide them to get them into the building.

(Not that’s there’s anything wrong with that. But I think we should openly admit that we’re using non-literacy-oriented media to draw kids in who’d never touch a book with the proverbial ten-foot pole.)

And – honestly? I think game tournaments are not a good way to convince kids that reading print is good. We should be booktalking way more – nonfiction booktalking in particular – and doing more poetry and comics programs to do that.

But I can’t wait to be proved wrong.

Lots of children aged 9 and over are told to go home after school, lock the door, and not let anyone in until Mom gets home. Or they’re told to go to the library. Typically their parents simply can’t afford child care, or an emergency situation sends kids to the library as a baby-sitting service for a short period of time.

For a closer look at what happens to parents in New York City, take a look at this New York Times article, “Children Left at Home, Worriedly.” Life in NYC for many lower-income working parents, usually single moms, is truly life on the edge, in which every penny counts. The story says:

“The only option many parents have is to quit the job and get thrown out of their house because they can’t pay the rent, or have your child taken away for lack of supervision,” said Richard Wexler, director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, a nonprofit child advocacy organization. One reason states may not have laws on the subject, Mr. Wexler suggested, is that “it would bring a hidden problem out in the open, which is all of the parents who leave children home alone not because they want to, but because they have to.”

Although the story doesn’t mention how many parents use the library as a place they believe their children will be safe between the time school lets out and the time they get off work, all of us working in libraries in lots of other cities, and suburbs, and small towns, serving lower-income families know how often those parents do. This story is worth reading because all too often those of us working in libraries don’t get much of a chance to understand the kinds of pressure these parents are under.

Last week, the U.S. Census released figures showing that due to the massive migration of Hispanic families into this country, in many places the majority of children under 5 years old are combinations of Asian, Black, Native American, and – especially – Latino. This change in population is particularly noticeable in the South and West, and in states in which Latino migration is highest. The story in the Washington Post explains it this way:

As with minorities in general, immigrants tend to be younger than non-Hispanic whites and still in their childbearing years. As a result, in five suburban Washington counties, more than half of children age 4 and younger were minorities when the annual Census Bureau survey was taken a year ago.

Demographers have long predicted this change; it’s the breaking wave of what the U.S. population in general will become by the middle of the 21st century, when no single ethnic/cultural group of Americans will make up more than 50 percent of the American people.

The biggest reason, however, to be paying attention to this shift in the numbers of children under 5 is that with huge amounts of children entering school, many of whom do not speak English well, educators are concerned about the levels of literacy these children will achieve in American schools:

… although most Hispanic children younger than 5 are native-born U.S. citizens and therefore eligible for government health care and other benefits, research indicates that if their parents are not U.S. citizens, they will be less likely to claim assistance, said Michael Fix, director of studies at the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute.

“All of this really reinforces the importance for counties to increase their investment in early childhood development now,” Fix said.”If you don’t make that investment, one of the penalties you pay down the line is that you have kids in school who don’t speak English well and whose overall performance lags behind.”

Fix pointed to studies indicating that as many as 75 percent of elementary school children learning English as a second language were born in the United States.

“Even more worrisome is that over half of the English-as-a-second-language learners in high school were native born,” Fix added.

It’s pretty clear that the new generation of librarians in both public and school libraries should be learning at least the basics of Spanish, as well as learning how to work with ESL kids. Helping these children become literate will become a major challenge as their numbers grow over the next 15 to 20 years.

Update: Here’s a story on CNN.com that explains the population changes we can expect by the year 2050 in more detail.

Hooray for the ukulele!It was great to discover a feature story in the Style section of this weekend’s New York Times about the resurgence of the ukulele, called “Those Four Irresistible Strings.” Well, in truth, I know that lots of adults can resist them and aren’t uke fans. (I find that pretty unbelievable, but oh, well.)

But you know and I know that kids love ukuleles, and a great deal of the reason why is that they grasp pretty quickly you can learn to play well enough to accompany yourself on whole bunches of songs without much hassle. And if you want to buy your own, there’s not a huge investment involved. Plus the sound is great fun, like being tickled without needing to be doubled over in discomfort – you can’t beat that. The story says:

“You can’t walk down the street with a ukulele without being asked about it,” said Chris Johnson, who plays the instrument with the Deedle Deedle Dees, a Brooklyn-based rock band for children. “I teach some kids music lessons, usually starting with piano, but they are all interested in ukulele.”

What the world seems to need now is something tiny, fun and inexpensive.

Here’s a special announcement for those interested in learning to play or practice some uke who are here in the Austin, TX, area. I’ve met some folks who have put together a uke hobnob, or as they call it, a “Wail ‘n’ Flail,” at the Ruta Maya coffee house every few Sunday afternoons at 5 p.m. The next one is August 17, but check out the Wail ‘n’ Flail page for the date of the next one if you happen upon this post after that.

I hope I’ll see you there. If you’re interested in learning the uke to sing with kids, I’ll be happy to get you set up with all four of those strings you’ll need.

Have you visited AdLit.org? It’s part of the WETA Web site family from Washington, DC, Public Television. It’s a great resource on adolescent literacy for teachers, parents, and librarians working with teens.

The AdLit home page as I write features a piece on “Background Knowledge and Reading Comprehension.” For young people to be truly literate, they need more than the ability to simply decode the words they see on a page or a screen. They need to know the basics of the things being discussed. On which continent of the world, for example, is Iraq or Bolivia? What’s the difference between a reptile and an amphibian? Which war came first, the Revolutionary War or the War of 1812? More middle and high school students than you think have no clue.

Most important, students can find all these facts through Google, but can they explain them in their own words? An awful lot of students in 2008 subscribe to a copy-and-paste-without-really-reading-anything mentality.

Even though librarians don’t teach young people the knowledge they need to succeed in school, it’s important for library folks to understand how kids and teens learn and what they need to know to become truly literate. The AdLit.org site is a good one to read and keep in your bag of resources – in other words, it helps you build up your background knowledge about how young people learn and what they need to know – and to pass along to parents and others working with middle and high schoolers.

I’ve mentioned them before, but remember WETA’s other two literacy sites: Reading Rockets for pre-readers and beginning readers, and Colorin Colorado to encourage literacy skills in Spanish-speaking families.

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