In the first two blog posts in this series, I made the case that literacy is much more than a science to be executed and that nothing short of an avalanche of books for students to select freely from is enough to develop strong readers.
In a profession that seems obsessed with finding the answer, it seems ironic that the mechanism for igniting and nurturing the art of literacy has been so often forgotten, downplayed or outright abandoned. No teacher can possibly handle the crushing weight and range of instructional duties assigned and allocate enough time to curate, acquire and manage a collection of books diverse and extensive enough to serve the individual needs of the students he/she serves. Fortunately, just such a professional educator is available to serve the needs of students – the school librarian. Most school librarians are exceptionally well qualified to serve as a school’s lead in nurturing the art of literacy. Many hold a degree in library science that provides specific training in skills particularly relevant to developing readers, many of which go well beyond what teacher preparation programs provide. They can be counted on to celebrate reading, to serve individual students’ developmental needs, to collaborate closely with classroom teachers and to provide both innovative and research-based recommendations for improving reading in their school.
But somehow, far too often, they are not the strongest voice in the conversation about how to build strong readers. Many times, they are not included in the decision-making process of the school at all. Some schools do not even have a librarian. As the spaces in which they work have become known as “library-media centers”, they have been expected to be tech “gurus” – a role which most have embraced enthusiastically, even as it has forced them to spend less time on what should be their essential function. In some cases, the library has become a space in which students are encouraged to learn and collaborate and innovate – with technology. While technical and digital literacy are particularly essential to the success of everyone entering the workforce now and in the future, to allow this focus to come at the expense of reading is exceptionally dangerous. Many librarians have also been tapped to support the task of reading instruction – often in the form of “small group instruction”. Again, direct and even individualized instruction in reading is an important part of becoming a strong reading. Structures that prioritize that objective at the expense of equally important work are evidence of the imbalance we have been discussing.
The evidence is clear that public education and decision-makers in the public arena are willing to allow libraries a long, slow death by ignoring them. While there are doubtlessly examples of this around the country, I will limit my examples to those in the environment where I work. In my state, librarians are funded at the state level like teachers – with a formula based on student enrollment. If a school’s enrollment is too low, they do not earn a “full” librarian. School districts in such situations must either assign librarians to serve multiple schools or find money to pay the missing portion of the salaries required to have a full-time librarian in each school. Students most likely not to have a full-time librarian in their school are naturally those who are in school systems with the least available resources – children who are almost all part of poor families. On the other end of the spectrum, very large schools do not receive funding for an additional librarian. Even elementary schools with more than 1,500 students receive state funds for one librarian.
Funding for the library itself comes from the state as well. Under the current formula funding structure (a per-teacher allocation), a school can purchase about 1.5 books for every teacher in the school per year if the entire amount is spent on books and not on the other supplies that are necessary to keep a library running. This amount is certainly not enough to maintain that avalanche we talked about earlier. But it is more than the $0 libraries were allocated for eight of the last ten years.
It seems impossible to excuse this abysmal lack of funding as a function of “budget pressures”. At the same time that we have spent literally nothing on libraries, we have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into other educational priorities. Educators and leaders everywhere spoke up and spoke out on lots of issues – as well they should; the voices calling for attention to this most basic resource in schools – books – were few and completely ignored.
To avoid misunderstanding, massive credit goes to the hundreds of librarians who have been speaking out all along and who have found increasingly creative ways to keep their libraries healthy. Hats off to the school principals and system leaders who have made reading their core mission and who have found and invested funds to make their libraries strong. As a rule, their schools are strong as well – along with their students’ literacy skills.
For most of us though, we are here in this quandary that we may not have created but that we have definitely exacerbated by foolishly focusing on just half of the equation. To be clear, it would have been equally foolish to abandon reading instruction and focus all our efforts on independent reading. In today’s educational climate, that course of action seems inconceivable. The way forward, however, should be simple.
Restore the balance. Make both sides of literacy the focus. Continue to apply excellent, evidence-based practice to reading instruction. Take steps to build a culture of reading by making truly independent reading a part of the school’s DNA.
Here are five suggestions for getting started:
- Accept that literacy is not one dimensional. Control the things that are meant to be controlled. Stop trying to control (or quantify or “track” or just ignore) the things that aren’t. Recognize that the lopsided approach we have been taking just. does. not. work! Let the joy and the passion and the magic of reading be your best friend. Crazy little secret – when kids love to read, they do. A lot. When kids read a lot, they get better at reading. When kids get better at reading, they can prove it on a test.
- Invite your school librarian to be the school’s “culture of reading” director. Trust her/him to lead the process of figuring out what your school needs to do to become a community of passionate, strong readers. Folks trained in the science of literacy can help with this work too. They should not be leading/doing this work instead of the librarian though.
- Evaluate your school’s library collection. Organizations such as the American Association of School Librarians offer resources and recommendations. The key questions are “Do we have enough books” and “Is our collection young enough”. If you have thousands of books so old students will not read them, they aren’t helping. As we pointed out last time, this is especially important with non-fiction books. Be ready to hear that your library needs help. My children’s elementary school has valued and support their library for decades. Seriously, someone raises money for it literally every day of the year … and that library’s (amazing) collection still does not meet the national standard of an “exemplary” collection.
- Find money for your library. It’s that simple. Ask the generous members of your community. Sell concessions at the ball game. Write grants. Make the case to your board. We are doing all this and more. By the way, it’s working for us. But that’s a story for another day. Figure out how to make this a priority and make it happen. The good news is that “we need books” is one of the statements your community members are most likely to understand and accept.
- Recommit your classroom, school, district to a focus on literacy that makes actual results the goal. Keep in mind that test scores are symbols; our goal should be to improve the reality those symbols signify. Young people who are actually strong readers will display behaviors and provide evidence of their excellence in ways that go far beyond what a test can measure. That outcome is one to be excited about and work towards.
- Bonus: Get the adults in your school/district involved in modeling a culture of reading. Share with others what you are reading, host book talks, make specific recommendations to students, show what an adult who reads looks like. Give students an example of someone who reads when s/he does not have to. If you are not on fire for reading, why should they be?
In the first two posts in this series, I tried to make the case for change like this. Next time, I will wrap up the series by pointing out a few more positive effects this change is likely to have.