Sunday, March 29, 2015

What's the Most Important Thing?

It's a question I ask myself every morning when I walk into one of my libraries and am overwhelmed by the crazy amount of work in front of me for the day: What's the most important thing?

And lately I've been asking it not just in the context of my daily to-do list, but my entire mission as a school librarian.

Reality bites

After I left the corporate world, library grad school led me to believe that I would spend my time working with classroom teachers to devise high-order-thinking research projects with tech-heavy final products. Not so much.

There's just no time for this kind of collaboration - I'm split between two schools, have 31 classes to keep track of at 9 grade levels with students who range in age from 3-12, lack access to enough computers for a full class (up to 28 students), and only see the kids for 30 minutes a week. (On top of that, because of the short periods, week 1 is a lesson week and week 2 is a checkout week.) Even trying to coordinate library time with classroom projects already in progress doesn't work very well if kids' notes are due on Thursday and I only see them on Fridays.

I've tried library-time-only sustained research projects, but they were a disaster. Even if kids were working together and sharing laptops, by the time they had reviewed their work from the last time, gotten online, and managed to find a trustworthy web site (many couldn't even get this far), class was just about over. Gathering a couple of facts a week - even during those checkout weeks - does not make for momentum.

Seeing what other librarians post on Twitter or share via articles was making me depressed, until a colleague in another district revealed that the amazing projects she was tweeting out were the result of enrichment "boost blocks": three 45-minute periods a week for six weeks. 810 minutes. I have 600 instructional minutes A YEAR with my kids.

So it would take AN ENTIRE YEAR PLUS SUMMER SCHOOL for me to do what I feel my job should really be. Leaving no time for reader's advisory, digital citizenship, or just reteaching the kids (AGAIN) how the catalog works and where to find call numbers on the shelf.

Ok. Reality check. Until changes are made to the system, I cannot achieve the ideal. So what value CAN I bring to my students, with the time and resources we're given, that will have a lasting impact?

Read me a story

As Common Core standards have been put into practice, I've become concerned about my students being able to just ENJOY a text without having to parse it for theme, author's purpose, evidence, etc. Yesterday I read the cover story of the most recent issue of American Educator - "For the Love of Reading: Engaging Students in a Lifelong Pursuit" by Daniel T. Willingham - and I share Willingham's concern "that children might confuse academic reading with reading for pleasure. If they do, they will come to think of reading as work, plain and simple."

When I heard that I would be thrown out of my libraries at both schools for three weeks in March because they were needed for PARCC testing, I let my principals and classroom teachers know that I would be throwing out my planned lessons and doing readalouds instead. The reaction was pretty universal: "Oh, my kids love readalouds. It's one of their favorite parts of the day."

I was relieved to have no pushback and set about choosing the books I would read.

At one school, author Mark Tyler Nobleman is coming to speak during Reading Week, so I am sharing his Boys of Steel and Bill the Boy Wonder with grades 3-6. They spurred some great discussions about intellectual property - a topic in my curriculum.

For 6th grade at my other school, I went with Newbery-winner The Crossover by Kwame Alexander. The students had played the annual basketball game against another elementary school the prior week, so I thought it would hold their attention. About 10 minutes into the book, a student (who has read nothing but Sports Illustrated for Kids all year) asked me if he could check the book out.

On a colleague's recommendation, I chose Jon Sciezska's Knucklehead for 5th grade. Noisy and rambunctious themselves, they loved hearing his crazy stories about growing up. It only took 5 minutes for me to hear a student tell his friend, "I am so getting this book out of the library."

Obviously, these readalouds were a success.

Checking it out 

But here's the thing. I've put Knucklehead out on display before. When I pointed out to the 5th graders who wanted to borrow it that it's been in the library their entire elementary school lives, one student said, "Oh, yeah, I saw it, but I never picked it up."

How do I get kids to pick up the books?

On checkout weeks, I'm overwhelmed. Especially on a day where I see 8 classes - more than 200 kids - it's all I can do to keep up with the returns, the holds, the ILLs, and the circulation desk traffic. I make personalized suggestions when I can, especially if someone turns in their library card without taking anything out. But that's usually in the last 30 seconds, as their class is trailing out the door, and the next group is coming down the hall. The response is usually, "Maybe next time," and then two weeks later we have the same exchange.

So I'm starting to think ... why not give over more of our "lesson" time to booktalking? To exploring resources for figuring out what to read next? To creating reading plans?*

Kids are going to be taught the research process in middle school and high school. They will receive training in web searching, note taking, and paraphrasing, among a plethora of other skills. But will they receive training in choosing a book for recreational reading?

I know some teachers might assign pleasure reading in the upper grades, but as Willingham notes, "If a teacher makes pleasure reading a requirement (10 minutes per night, say) or demands accountability (by keeping a reading log, for example), she risks sending the message that reading is nothing students would do of their own accord." He also states that tracking the number of books or pages a student has read "puts too much emphasis on having read rather than on reading."

So what if my goal for each student next year is this:

Find a book you love.

And I mean LOVE - a book you want to marry, a book you think everyone you know should read, a book you could dance about.

Is this a goal that can be made into a Student Learning Objective for my evaluation? I'm not sure.

But is it the most important thing? Maybe.

* Idea from my colleague Melanie Colangelo Roy


Melanie Roy said...

Meredith, you are AMAZING! I've been toying with the idea of starting a blog but have not. You may be my inspiration to try. You are such a gift to the kids that work with you. I love how you're always thinking, reflecting, and planning how to make things better. We need people like you in our profession and I'm proud to call you a friend.

Patti McChrystal said...

This speaks volumes, Meredith! Kids need to be allowed to appreciate literature and develop a love of reading without the pressure of all the chaos you note here. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Meredith, between you and Stephen Hawking, I think you have hit on The Theory of Everything. Especially having kids memorably find and read something they love. <3

MM said...

A friend sent me this link today, and it just reinforced my plans for next year:

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