by Steve Zalusky
Megan McDonald, author of the popular Judy Moody series, the Stink books, and the Sisters Club trilogy, knows the value of school librarians.
"Before I was a writer, I was a reader, thanks to my school librarian. She saw something in me, and put the Little House books in my hand. She first introduced me to Ramona and Charlotte the Spider and Homer Price and Caddie Woodlawn. And she let me check out a biography of Virginia Dare so many times, (I got to stamp the due date myself!), that she finally had to ask me to share with other readers.”
McDonald is the national spokesperson for School Library Month, an initiative of the American Association of School Librarians (AASL), a division of the American Library Association (ALA). Held each April, School Library Month celebrates school librarians and their programs.
McDonald’s story is probably a familiar one to most people who were inspired to read by their school librarian. Today, the role of the school librarian is growing more important, as students face greater demands of their ability to navigate and evaluate information.
It is a role that is transforming the learning process.
In the introduction to a white paper from the AASL on a national forum funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, “Causality: School Librarians and Student Success (CLASS),” it states that students “are facing a maze of ethical and safety decisions related to social media and digital resources. They need to be prepared for the demands of tomorrow’s workforce and higher education. It continues, “State-certified school librarians and other educators who can address these challenges through the creation of effective learning spaces are needed now more than ever….”
Throughout our nation’s schools, libraries are laboratories for innovation and student engagement. This year, the focus of School Library Month will be on this transforming role, said Suzanne Dix, librarian at the Seven Hills School in Cincinnati, Ohio.
A presentation on the virtual bulletin board Padlet for School Library Month reveals the ways in which school libraries are transforming the lives of their students.
Shannon DeSantis’s library at the Peoples Academy Middle and High School integrates technology, as students work independently using their 1:1 devices, while middle school students are exposed to coding through robots and STEAM learning in its growing makerspace.
School librarians like Charlie Kelly at Dr. Walter Cooper Academy #10 in Rochester, New York, empower students by teaching them responsibility and make it fun in the process by having students in grades 4 - 6 volunteer in the library.
Librarians like Becky Jackman of New Providence Middle School in Clarksville, Tennessee, bridge the digital divide by providing Kindle Fire Tablets for students to check out and use at home. She facilitates their acquisition of their own public library card so they can download free ebooks.
School libraries create special events that help build a community of learning in the library, whether it is a day of celebrating fairy tales or Harry Potter, supporting a Rubik's Cube or digital storytelling workshop, or hosting an author visit or comic convention, said New York City school librarian Jillian Rudes. “All members of the library community engage in a celebration of learning, together,” she said.
Dix’s library is emblematic of how libraries are evolving.
Dix said that her library serves children in grades 6-12. She said she tries to make sure that the younger and older students mingle – she will invite the middle school students to give presentations in the library to give them a sense of ownership.
“We want them as sixth graders to walk into that space, even if it might feel intimidating that there are juniors and seniors also in there. We want them to say, ‘Wow, this is my library, for the next six or seven years.’ And I think we work as hard as we can to give our kids the opportunity to be in the library as often as possible for a lot of interesting events,” she said. “We try to do lots of book talks that are open to the school. We host lunches. Sometimes we have Skype visits with authors.”
One important aspect, she said, is the lack of pressure to work for a grade.
“We try to get the kids feeling really confident that this is their space,” she said. “When you take middle school students who feel comfortable in that big environment with all these older kids, and then you start to talk to them about research and academic integrity and learning about true information and how to find it online, they are a much more captive audience. They have already bought into the library and feel empowered by it.” Dix said a school librarian has a special opportunity to connect with a child in a way that a classroom teacher may not have.
“Certainly classroom teachers, without a doubt, are making these connections. What I mean is the school librarian isn’t necessarily giving a grade. And there isn’t necessarily the academic pressure to perform in a particular environment. The library is this opportunity for those kids who need to think differently, who need to learn differently. And that’s what I really love, is that this is another place for kids to go and feel safe in a school and feel nurtured.”
Dix said school librarians act as important guides in a world that is becoming increasingly sophisticated technologically.
She said, “There are so many more opportunities for kids to create their own identity online, so I think what’s happening a lot more in schools is we’re having these chances to have conversations with kids about just what message are you trying to send out to the world. ‘Who is it you want the world to see?’ So that whole process of explaining about your digital footprint and your digital image and your digital reputation, it’s so critical and I do think school libraries, because there is a little less pressure, because there is not as much of a formality of a classroom setting, can at times, get that conversation through in a different way.”
School librarians and teachers are important partners in this process, she said. “It’s a great partnership between the classroom teacher and the school librarian,” she said, “to be able to sit down and brainstorm ways to get the kids thinking about how to use things more responsibly.”
Dix, whose library serves about 600 students, said she has seen her library undergo an environmental shift. “There has been a bit of a metamorphosis from the idea that a library should be quiet to that a library should be collaborative. While you might walk into our library and say, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s so loud in here,’ most often, it is group work and projects going on and kids studying together.
“And while that quiet has disappeared and, at time, I feel that it’s such a delicate balance of what’s too loud versus trying to constantly keep the kids quiet, I think I’m most proud that we are learning how to balance that and accepting that the kids really want that type of an environment. They don’t want a quiet environment, though it goes against the grain of the traditional library setting. I’m proud that we are evolving.”