Sunday, March 25, 2012
I'm a teacher-librarian at a small elementary school in Vancouver. Over the past 10 years of cutbacks to education, the teacher-librarian position at my school has been cut from 4 days per week to 1.94 days per week. I'm not worried that I have lost time - I haven't. I have taught ESL and Prep (relieving teachers during their Preparation time) to fill the time I used to teach in the library. But I am very worried about what the loss of library programming in my school, and in the province, means to students in this information age.
Some people think kids don't need a school library - they can use the internet. While half of my job is promoting reading and literacy (a provincial goal), the other half is teaching information skills, including how to use the internet effectively. Research shows that while kids are great at playing with technology, they are not great at using it to find and evaluate information. I teach them how to identify what it is they need to know, how to search for it, how to sift through the millions of results they get, and how to evaluate a website to see if it is reliable and useful for what they need to know. I also teach them what else to use besides Google (what? is there something other than Google?).
Some people think kids don't need a school library - they can use the public library. I love the public library, and use it all the time. I take primary classes to the public library and help them get library cards, and I take Grade 7s to the public library and help them learn to use the library's databases. But the public library is no substitute for the school library. They have neither the targeted selection nor the quantity of books necessary to support the curriculum, nor do they have the flexibility to support teachers with materials to teach the curriculum. The 22 children's books on Ancient Egypt that our local branch has is an amazing number, but they won't go far in a class of 30 students. Especially if 5 students hit the library the first day of the assignment and take 4 books each! Too bad if a class in another school is studying Egypt at the same time, and there are at least 5 schools nearby.
Research shows that a well-stocked, well-staffed school library with a trained teacher-librarian results in higher achievement across the board, not just in reading. After a decade of cuts, teacher-librarian time across the province has been cut by 1/3. Very few schools have full-time teacher-librarians, and many schools have none at all. Don't blame the school boards, who have had to make a Sophie's Choice, year after year, regarding which programs to cut to meet their budget shortfalls. These cuts are entirely due to the stripping of the teachers' contract, and the resulting stripping of over $300 million a year in funding to the boards.
Sunday, March 11, 2012
I am the teacher-librarian at École Marlborough in Burnaby. We have a student population of approximately 1000 children. That is 500 kindergarten to grade three students and 500 grade 4 -7 students, 500 French immersion students and 500 English program students. I am full time and I see 40 divisions EVERY WEEK. One thousand children come through my door each week. I am unique in the school as I am the ONLY staff member who has contact with every child on a weekly basis.
Every week I read a story to 20 primary classes. We work on finding books that are “just right” or “le meilleur livre pour moi” to ensure the students are borrowing books at their own reading level. Home reading is an important part of learning to read because if you want to get better you have to practice. Finding a book that is a challenge without being too hard is a critical component of this and I am uniquely suited to the task as I know the collection of 35,000 books better than the classroom teachers. I read books from the collection every day and I work with the materials every day.
I run a “Reading Club” for the school which requires them to read every night for 15 minutes. I promote, distribute and collect the forms, and reward the students, staff and parents who participate. We have assemblies where the main focus is the Reading Club and our mascot, “Reading Rodent” makes guest appearances to encourage participation. We post staff forms in the hallway and I visit each and every staff member to encourage them to participate as well in order to reinforce the importance of reading at home.
Every week I see 20 intermediate classes. I book talk books, introduce reading contests, highlight authors and series of interest, and meander around showcasing various titles to students I think might be interested. I ask students for recommendations of titles they would like to have and I make sure to buy those immediately and go back to find those students to give them the title they requested. I make personal visits to the classroom to hand deliver titles I know certain students have been waiting for.
That is only half my job however, because although I am in a school of 1000, the only hard-wired set of computers we have is the thirteen in the library. Each classroom has two but if a teacher wants to do anything with more than a few children, they have to come to the library. Last year, we finally bought two carts of 15 wireless computers but those are very difficult to get to work properly. So, at any given time I usually have two classes in the library and sometimes I also have stragglers from various other classrooms looking for a “quiet” place to meet.
I work with staff to build research projects where I will provide and introduce various resources on a topic, help students with note-taking strategies, work on transferring of notes into paragraphs/finished product and help students understand why they need to and how to reference their resources. The staff and I also work together on classroom literature projects where I will take a group or two of students to work with in order to alleviate the pressure of six separate novel studies happening at the same time in the classroom. Because I know the library collection and I know the programs the staff offers their students, I can ensure the literature and internet resources they need are available at the reading levels appropriate for their grades.
I also work on whole school activities because I see every child. We have created a whole school rainbow where each staff member and student wrote one way they helped someone else, created a valentine tree of things we liked about each other, and have generated our own “Jazz-o-pedia” of facts collected by the intermediate population to support our Jazz Club. These activities help to create a community feel and to pull together a vast population. They remind us that we are caring people working together for common good. It may not be what one expects of the role of librarian but when you stop dictating what a teacher may or may not do, you allow them the freedom of bringing something new and exciting to a school. Qualified, dedicated professionals bring more than just academic skills to the job. We create a community of academic, emotional and social support for neighbourhoods of children and families.
I share the load and support the teachers in planning, execution and assessment of students. I support the students by providing a resource for reading, literature and in the greater picture, help them to learn how to learn, a skill that will stand them in good stead throughout their lives. The research (see below) shows that schools which have a full time school library media specialist score higher on the standardized tests the government feels so proud of. It’s time to recognize the value of the teacher-librarian and bring them back into schools across B.C.
Two leading U.S. researchers in the field offer this arresting conclusion: “In research done in nine states and over 3300 schools since 1999, the positive impact of the school library program is consistent. [They] make a difference in academic achievement. If you were setting out a balanced meal for a learner, the school library media program would be part of the main course, not the butter on the bread.” (Lance and Loertscher, 2003)
I have been a committed and passionate public educator for more than three decades. Having spent many years in secondary English, Social Studies, and Business Education classrooms and doing other things like completing a Masters degree, teaching summer school, and writing curriculum for the Ministry, I opted to complete a teacher-librarians' diploma and do more of the things I love, like working with kids, teachers, curriculum, technology, and books. I have had a leadership role in my field both at the district and at the provincial level.
I am saddened by the erosion of resources and services to the public system. I am horrified by a government that promotes a social responsibility agenda including anti-bullying programs but sits back to say nothing about the bullying of BCPSEA acting for Christy Clark whose intended direction was clear ten years ago and is further clarified by the fact that her own child is nestled into a comfy private school here in Vancouver.
Mostly however I am deeply disturbed by the impact of the deteriorating conditions and social context for young teachers in this province. Never could I, starting out over thirty years ago, have held my head up and kept the spirit and enthusiasm alive if I had been the object of public teacher bashing and half-baked polls and letters to the editor undertaken with relish by anyone who ever had a crumby teacher. I work in the learning commons (school library) at John Oliver and I see such wonderful young teachers whose obvious love of their work and of the kids must be sustained in spite of what must feel to them like diminishing public respect for their work and the capacity of the pay cheque to enable them to live decently. I am experiencing the lowest morale in the field I have ever seen...and that is not good for kids and learning.
I have seen 30% of the province's teacher-librarians eliminated, not because they aren't needed but because we borrowed notions of literacy from George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind. Based on texts and materials that turn kids off reading (recent Ontario study) and that fed Bush's friends' corporate interests, it is little wonder that there are no significant improvements; it simply doesn't work. I would happily share research that shows that reading improves with reading, that language acquisition improves with reading. Or you can check out the findings of Dr Stephen Krashen for yourselves. We need books and inquiry and resources that are supported in technology-rich but not necessarily technology driven learning contexts.
Now as we in BC education look to integrate technology with teaching and learning, the teacher-librarians and other specialist teachers who support their colleagues in doing this work are being replaced by teaching assistants who cannot teach teachers how to promote reading or integrate technology. We are rapidly losing our world class status and have missed places where the real difference can be made.
I am also gravely concerned about the emergence of such a thinly credentialled expert in 21st-Century learning as John Abbott. Have you checked out his accomplishments? I am sorry that the direction for systemic change offered by Dennis Shirley and Andy Hargreaves in their book The Fourth Way has been set aside for someone who made a change in a private school near Bath. The UK as well is not an education system we should be looking at as an impetus for change.
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