School libraries

Austin Public Library Bibliophiles

I’m back from ALA, and I have to go back to work today. But before I do I wanted to post a few more quotes from the ALA conference. And I also wanted to give a cheer for our book cart drill team – the Austin Public Library Bibliofiles – which won the silver at the Book Cart Drill Team Championships on Sunday. (That’s them on the left.) They won a Demco book cart (yeah, that’s it in the picture) that was painted silver, with a little plaque on one end.

The Championship was MC’d by the comedy duo of John Scieszka and Mo Willems, who hammed it up shamelessly and had us all chanting “DEM-co!” (Demco sponsors the Championship) throughout. It was great to watch our homies place as we cheered them on. (Those book headdresses spin, by the way.)

I saw that Alan Sitomer, Los Angeles media specialist and YA author, was giving a program on encouraging boys to read, so of course I was there. He works in an inner-city high school with kids that are almost entirely Latino and Black, and they’re kids who many adults consider not worth spending much time or effort on. These kids are often mouthy or unmotivated. But Sitomer, who could be one of the dictionary definitions of the word “enthusiastic” (he was named California Teacher of the Year, and you can tell he really enjoys public speaking), told us, “You have to believe that kids are reachable. If you don’t, nothing will reach them.”

He uses computer time, Web resources, and any technology he can to get the young men he works with to read. But he also uses something as simple as handing out jokes, printed on paper. He said that when the more motivated students start laughing, the less motivated will read them, too. (Warning – the following jokes are boy jokes):

Q. Why do gorillas have big nostrils?

A. Because they have big fingers.

Q. What’s the difference between roast beef and pea soup?

A. Anyone can roast beef.

Q. What do you call a hunk of cheddar that doesn’t belong to you?

A. Nacho cheese.

Sitomer says that for this group, many of whom are one bad grade or boring class from dropping out, he doesn’t try to tell them what they must do. “I let them tell me what they like,” he says, “and then I build bridges for them from their outside interests to what’s in the media center.”

I also went to hear T. Berry Brazelton, the Grand Poo-Bah of Pediatricians, who spoke Monday morning. He sat thoughout his talk, and seemed a little hard of hearing – but that wasn’t unexpected after he told us that he had just turned 90. (He said that members of Congress held a celebration for him in Washington, and “they asked me what I wanted for my birthday. I asked for $2 billion for children and their parents.” Ah, we wish.)

Brazelton said that the most important role for the public library should be to help parents understand child development. Anything librarians can supply and market to parents – books, videos, and programs – that will help them comprehend the ages and stages their children are passing through will help them feel more in control of what can be a stressful and confusing process.

He showed us a wonderful film clip of a 12-month-old boy who was passing through a phase Brazelton called “storage.” Brazelton kept handing the boy small toy figures, and after he filled his hands with them, he took them into his mouth, and then looked at his mother as if to say, “Aren’t I so great?” It was a lot of fun.

If you’ve never been to an ALA conference, go when you can. It’s a wonderful way to expand your “box.” (You know, the one they’re always telling you to think out of.)


Clarisse Bushman, media specialistIt’s great to know when your peers think you’ve done well in your career. Here’s a story from the online Northern Virginia Daily about a high school media specialist who has been named Teacher of the Year for the Shenandoah County (VA) Public Schools. Clarisse Bushman of Strasburg High School, one of the rare media specialists who gets officially recognized for excellence by her state or her district – there are so many more classroom teachers one might select instead, and No Child Left Behind emphasizes the role of the classroom teacher while minimizing the library media specialist’s role as “support staff.”

Bushman remembers when she used to work at Stonewall Jackson High School 12 years ago, where she had only a single dial-up connection to the Net. Now her library has full high-speed Internet access, but she’s experienced enough to teach her students that getting everything they can care of Google isn’t necessarily the best way to go:

As the library media specialist at Strasburg, where she has worked for the past three years, she helps students find the information they need and collaborates with teachers on projects. Bushman pushes academic integrity, asking students to cite sources and rely heavily on databases and reference and print materials before surfing the Internet.

“I love the fact that we have choices, I just want them to understand what are the good choices,” she said. “I want them to have the best information they can have.”

But, like most of us who lived through the transition to the Net, the need to help young people love to read real books reigns supreme:

Despite the changes around her, Bushman’s main objective is one that has stayed the same — get students excited about reading. In her time at Strasburg, circulation has gone up 164 percent, she said. The students who have usually been less inclined to read have found a genre of books to their liking, whether it be graphic novels or books on hunting, tractors or wrestling.

“That’s my passion right there,” Bushman said. “If they’re not reading, what’s the point?”

Congratulations to Ms. Bushman. It’s always great to see one of us library folk become celebrated for things – such as how to be information literate – that lots of folks not in our field sometimes need a little explanation to understand.

CLPE logoA recently released study from the UK Centre for Literacy and Primary Education (CLPE – is this group a rough equivalent of the American IRA?) reveals that many teachers aren’t using children’s books well with their classes. The CLPE has been running a study called “The Power of Reading” since 2005, with the goal of “enhanc[ing] teachers’ and children’s pleasure in reading and rais[ing] children’s achievement through developing teachers’ knowledge of literature and its use in the primary classroom.”

The study of the first two years of the project tells us that plenty of teachers don’t know children’s literature well, and aren’t using it knowledgeably with their classes. I have a fairly strong feeling – based on what I’ve heard over the years from public children’s librarians across the US – that things aren’t that much different in this country. We can only guess about this, of course, because I haven’t heard of a recent similar study in the US. Elementary teachers here aren’t required to take coursework in children’s literature, and often don’t keep track of what’s new and interesting in children’s books.

And many states, filled with school districts that are sweating to pay for their classroom teachers under No Child Left Behind, don’t require elementary schools to hire certified media specialists. That means, of course, that plenty of teachers don’t have someone to advise them about what’s new and cool in children’s books – except for the local public children’s librarian.

And it’s hard to make contact with local classroom teachers – unless we pick up that phone and call the schools around us.

Early childhood and librariesWell, I may have been a little late finding this story, but here’s an important anniversary, particularly for those of us who were working with kids and reading in the 80s. I’m willing to bet that a good number of those who remember the Reagan Administration remember A Nation at Risk, a document that – gasp – asserted that our educational system was getting worse, not better. This document was pretty shocking news back then. Here’s a quote from the USA Today news story that noted the document’s 25th anniversary:

On April 26, 1983, in a White House ceremony, Ronald Reagan took possession of “A Nation at Risk.” The product of nearly two years’ work by a blue-ribbon commission, it found poor academic performance at nearly every level and warned that the education system was “being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity.”

If you’ve been around as long as I have, you probably recall how there were stories on the nightly news, in the papers, and in every magazine with reporters clucking and shaking their heads over the threat of so many of America’s children growing up so marginally literate.

It also fed the appetites of all the right-wing politicians and writers who have always hated paying taxes for public education and who used the report to demonstrate that our public schools, with their liberal, unionized teachers, were doing a lousy job of teaching America’s kids to read.

It was the first plank in the platform that eventually presented President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law, which to this day has been a thorn in the side of US education, and has justified many layoffs of plenty of school librarians.

Don’t get me wrong; I do feel that we could be doing a better job of teaching kids to read. But it seems to me that the No Child Left Behind way of doing things hasn’t been the right way, either.

Information Literacy diagram from Ontario Library AssnJust about all librarians who work with youth agree that young people have been fairly lazy about doing research since Google got so good at finding pretty exactly whatever they need for an assignment. Kids and teens no longer need to go through the multi-step process of 1) traveling to the library; 2) looking in the catalog for the correct item; 3) going to the shelf, hoping that someone else didn’t get there before you and have checked it out already; and 4) skimming through the book/magazine article and making sure it contains what you need. Young people learned a lot from making those judgments.

Today one can do all this stuff from any spot with a device that connects to the Net, and one never needs to worry that someone got to the book you wanted first. Google piles mounds of everything with even a vague relationship to what you’re looking for in front of you with almost no effort on your part. Not that any of this is bad, but the Google-i-zation of research encourages bad habits.

Thus, young people aren’t working hard – some educators feel they’re barely working at all – to discriminate between good, useful information they find online and flaky, undocumented information. For years, school librarians have made a major effort to train young people in those skills, which are usually defined as “information literacy.”

Middle schoolers I’ve spoken to about the importance of information literacy often roll their eyes. When I spot eye-rolling, I tell them that one day soon they’ll be buying a car and insurance for it. They’ll be choosing a school or a career. They’ll be given documents with gobbeldygook to sign that might deliver big bills to their mailbox. They will need to know how to evaluate information.

But unfortunately many school districts, focused intently on one goal – getting good scores on the statewide standardized math and reading tests required by the federal No Child Left Behind law – have given information literacy about as high a priority as most of us do about being good banjo players.

And thus, we have situations like that in Mesa, AZ, School District where all the certified librarians will be eliminated, because of budget cuts. Why? Because – even though no one from the district will admit it – they can, because certified librarians are not required by No Child Left Behind the way high-quality classroom teachers are.

Here’s a quote from the story in American Libraries:

The decision came as a surprise to many librarians, who were notified of the change the second week in April. “They are just reeling,” Ann Ewbank, education liaison librarian at Arizona State University in Phoenix, told AL. “This school district has done this under the radar.” She added that since librarians are considered instructional support staff, cutting their positions is not perceived as cutting classroom dollars. “They will turn libraries and media centers into warehouses. There will be no collaborative lesson planning, no information-literacy standards, and no library media programming at these schools.”

The sad news is that because No Child Left Behind doesn’t require certified librarians and the things certified librarians do for the kids, they’re ripe for the cutting. It’s very difficult to convince anyone – teachers, principals, parents, average taxpayers – in most places that librarians really can make a difference in the age of Google.

If folks need more convincing, here’s an unsettling study from the UK – from the Centre for Information Behaviour and the Evaluation of Research, at University College London’s centre for publishing. It’s a higher education-level study, but you can be sure that those who reach a university with poor information literacy skills – which is exactly what this study demonstrates – learned those poor skills as kids and teens. Here’s a quote:

The report, Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future, found users [i.e. students] “power-browsing” or skimming material, using “horizontal” (shallow) research. Most spent only a few minutes looking at academic journal articles and few returned to them. “It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense,” said the report authors.

Doesn’t that last quote – going “online to avoid reading in the traditional sense” – sound just like what you see from the average child or teen in the average library these days? Let’s get that boring homework done, so we can go play video games.

Henry and booksThose of us in public libraries need to talk the language of teachers and school librarians. We need to be paying attention to what’s happening with kids in the schools, and we need to be checking in with school folks regularly. It may not seem fair – they don’t need to check in on us at all, but hey, they have the kids most of the day and tell the kids what to do.

Evidently there was a program about public library/school communication at the PLA Conference in Minneapolis, as Angela Reynolds reports in a posting on the ALSC Blog. The (nameless) presenter said (and I agree) that we should talk to the school folks whenever we can – in particular to reading coordinators and reading specialists who can help us massage our own programming and PR in ways that make them more comfortable to the kids and parents we serve. She met with her local reading coordinator and now says:

As a result of my 90-minute meeting, I’ve already made changes. I’ve tweaked some of the wording on our Summer Reading booklet to reflect the terms that teachers are using at the schools. For example—they encourage kids to find books that are “just right” for them—meaning they can read them without too much struggle, but are also encountering new words or ideas. I’ve included this sentence on my SRP booklet: “Have fun, and read lots of books that are just right for you!”. The school also encourages reading aloud—parent to child, child to parent, etc. So I’ve included that on the SRP booklet as well—“Audio books and reading aloud, or listening to someone read to you, counts as well.”

She also encourages us to label our nonfiction in ways that will help kids who have trouble with Dewey to find what they want. Some school librarians teach kids Dewey, but in lots of elementary school libraries there isn’t a trained school librarian and very little in the way of instructions. Even if the kids (or parents) aren’t asking for help, offer it anyway.

Henry and booksHere’s a great article by Barbara Braxton, a teacher-librarian from Australia who is a worldwide leader among those who want to encourage a heightened literacy among students. It’s called “The Teacher-Librarian as Literacy Leader.” Braxton says that “Once upon a time, the teacher-librarian was regarded as the literature expert in the school.” But [drum roll] the Internet has changed everything and has made all librarians seem less necessary and less important. We all know that. These days, we need to sell ourselves as literacy counselors, whether in a school or a public library, or we risk being ignored by parents, and by members of the general public.

This article was designed for school librarians, but that doesn’t mean that public librarians can’t find all kinds of useful stuff here. It tells us that a student’s brain continues to grow and develop well into his or her twenties – and in fact, the brain continues changing throughout a person’s life. It tells us that there are plenty of things we’re doing every day that make a difference to lots and lots of families. Such as:

Are there displays that exploit the brain’s capacity to learn at many levels? Children absorb everything, and artifacts, colors, labels, and subjects can help them build the concept of the library as a fun, alive place-where their imaginations can be entertained and educated. Displays can be large-for example, by creating Santa’s Village at the North Pole-or they can be modest, by putting a single volume on a stand in a prominent place. They can cover curriculum topics, local and international issues and events, genres, slogans and sayings and maybe a line from a lyric, and they can introduce new subjects to the students.

Even things that don’t seem as if they’re a big deal can make a difference, even to those kids and parents we may not come into direct contact with. Keep trying to do everything you can to reach everyone, even when you’re not there.

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