By Susan Polos
As miners are alerted to dangers from noxious gases when a canary dies in the mine, community members should immediately wake up and take notice when budgets propose cutting school librarians. This is an early sign that the school culture is endangered, that access to information is at risk, and that student-centered learning may well be compromised.
School librarians are getting quite a bit of amount of attention lately. Education blogger Anthony Cody has written about scams rife in the corporate reform movement, citing librarians as an antidote to destructive policies. Education Activist Peggy Robertson addressed the critical importance of school librarians recently in her blog, Peg with Pen. In July Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis shared a post on Facebook about the bleeding loss of school librarians in Chicago. Under that post, I linked a comment to the Chicago Lab School where one can clearly note the rich school library programs present in schools of the, well, rich. Stories, literature, information literacy – all this matters to families of Lab students as “skills and dispositions learned through library use allow students to explore the wide range of human experience through a variety of media.” Shouldn’t this exploration of what it means to be human be available to public school students? Yes, of course, but with the omnipresent test culture and extreme focus on data, something – many things – has to give. It’s a different, less humane, world in public schools. Witness the dearth of school librarians.
In New York, where I live, elementary librarians are often cut not because administrators don’t value their expertise but because their positions are not mandated. At a recent NY DOE meeting, Regent Roger Tilles remarked that he believes it is inequitable for some elementary school students to have the guidance and support of school librarians while others do not. He has opined more than once about the value of school librarians. But in the current climate, it is known that mandating elementary school librarians would require additional funding while the tax cap assures instead further cuts.
What little money can be found in tightening budgets is often directed to purchase technology as needed for testing. Technology is also assumed to be critical for assuring that our students will be college and career ready. Jamie McKenzie, author of “From Now On,” an education technology journal, predicted over a decade ago that in the future poor students would have computers but the rich would have teachers. We see this playing out today with consequences that are not narrowing the digital divide but widening it.
One study by Neuman and Celano cited by Annie Murphy Paul in a recent issue of the Hechinger Report compared two groups of students of different socio-economic status who were provided with identical technology resources. It was clear that disadvantaged students did not use technology in the same way as the more advantaged students did; adult guidance mattered decisively. The authors concluded that people, practices and knowledge are essential to any meaningful application of technology in education. In the absence of such guidance, technology tends to widen the achievement gap. In schools, this plays out as well. In fact, Jamie McKenzie claims that eliminating librarians is “intellectual disarmament,” noting that media centers must be techno-savvy but still book rich.
Cautionary tales abound. We read that in Racine, Wisconsin, administrators saw fit to “weed” books according to a computer program that advised keeping no books published before 2000 that hadn’t had a certain level of circulation. With no input from librarians, books including Beowulf, To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men were destined for the dumpster; only when this was brought to the public’s attention was the process reconsidered. Now the district librarians will be consulted and a situation likened to Fahrenheit 451 will be averted. In Hoboken, New Jersey, the Hoboken School District made the news this summer for throwing away a school-wide set of laptops purchased with stimulus money because the technology ultimately wasn’t working for the community. “We had the money, but maybe not the best implementation,” said an administrator.
Clearly relying on computer programs to determine which materials will line a library’s shelves or simply purchasing computers and hoping for the best are not best practices. What does work? Study after study shows that school librarians have a positive qualitative and quantifiable impact on student achievement. According to a 2011 NY Comprehensive Center Information Brief: Impact of School Libraries on Student Achievement, “effective school library programs can serves as consistent drivers for student achievement in times of constant changes and churning educational reform.”
Certified school librarians are instructional leaders who understand how to guide students and staff in through the vast opportunities – and unexpected landmines – of technology (and, yes, books are technology, too). I can’t help but think of the children’s book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie and the seemingly obvious reality that “If you give a student a computer (or book), s/he’s going to need a librarian to go with it…”
The library represents a vast array of possibilities, especially in today’s module and program-based classrooms where students are reading packaged stories without the whole arc of a plot, without the depth of fully developed characters. Students know they will be tested and that the scores matter; the scores determine their groupings. They may learn a tidbit about a topic they wish to further explore. The library provides the extended information they seek. Sometimes students are curious about dinosaurs or the Solar System or rocks or any number of subjects that are no longer covered in the K-5 curriculum. As more and more focus is placed on tracking skill development, more and more content is set aside. The library responds to this need. We have content – tables of content, shelves of content, a web of content – and we welcome and nourish inquiry!
School libraries are often backdrops for photo ops. My own school library is the most attractive physical space in our district. It’s a place of joy, often filled not only with children reading books but also with balloons and pillows and even a “Reading Rainboat” salvaged from a local reservoir, lovingly restored by school custodians. Our library is so beautiful that it is the place the district hosted the State Education Commissioner, John King. It’s the space used for eight school days to welcome incoming kindergartners. Some days our principal stops by and says, “I just need to be in this happy place.”
Yet my position, elementary school librarian, has been seriously threatened twice in the past five years. Each time members of our department have been able to speak persuasively at BOE meetings and the positions have been reinstated. In the county where I live, there have been several instances of elementary school librarians cut and after a year or two reinstated because it’s discovered when the position is lost that the position was actually invaluable.
The Facebook page of the Section of School Librarians of the New York Library Association features a photo of school librarians holding bullhorns. Our hashtag is #leadoutloud, created by NY school librarian and the Section of School Librarians of the New York Association Past President Sue Kowalski. When fellow school librarian Melissa Heckler and I spoke at the United Opt Out Occupy event in 2013, we repeated the Dr. Seuss mantra of Horton the Elephant’s Whos, “We are here! We are here.”
Sometimes I think that school librarians, like school nurses, are most at risk because we are doubly doing what was considered “women’s work;” I remember when girls chose among teaching, nursing and librarianship. Sometimes even the leaders fighting school reform marginalize school librarians. That’s infuriating because we know our value. We are charged to move away from the “Shush” jokes and speak out, not in self-interest but in the absolute certainty that the school librarian is the essential link between students and their own individual passions. In a time of standardization, we are needed more than ever as we celebrate and sustain individual interests.
We have to keep speaking out. Libraries are the foundation of our democracy. Many of our students are simply unable to visit public libraries because their parents work multiple jobs. School libraries open minds to all they can learn, the worlds beyond, and also help them learn who they are, through carefully curated collections that reflect the needs of the community. School libraries without librarians are crippled. In fact, R. David Lankes, director of Syracuse University’s Library and Information Science Program, says it’s the librarian, not the library that fundamentally matters. “Knowledge is created through conversation,” says Lankes. In schools, students seek out their individual interests and it’s the special privilege of school librarians to guide and provide access to online or on shelf resources. School librarians know every student as these students move through their entire elementary school years. The conversations we have with students lead them to what they seek while informing our knowledge of how to curate and build collections that best serve a particular community.
Last year I had a good year. My work was affirmed in many ways. Yet the most meaningful affirmation came on the last day of school when a rising 11th grade ELL student stopped by to visit. This student told me that he wanted me to know that a story he’d written had been published. He told me that he wants to be a writer. He said that when he reads, he hears my voice reading to him.
As quiet leaders, school librarians have always held unique and powerful roles within schools. Our critical importance is only increasing as we navigate the shoals of technology while not losing sight of all aspects of literacy and keeping the individual needs of each student at the forefront of our work. The most important work we do is one-on-one, reaching out to every member of the community, holding the life raft, whether the open book or other device holding information and stories. We cannot be quiet about our work. In fact, today I am headed to the NYLA Section of School Librarians Leadership Institute at Cornell where I will hone my skills and spend time in dialogue with 160 other NY school librarians and library systems directors. And along with many librarians, I am packing my bullhorn. Soon I will be more than ready for the new school year.
What do you think? Should we be listening more closely to our librarians?
Photo of librarians with bullhorns by Sara Kelly Johns. Other photos by Susan Polos.
Susan Polos has been a school librarian in a Title I school in Westchester, NY, for 15 years. A National Board Certified Teacher, she is active in regional, state and national library organizations and was a member of the 2014 Newbery Committee. She is an educational activist. Follow her on twitter: @spolos