Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Five Ways School Librarians Can Meet The Needs of Students in Poverty

This afternoon the librarians in my school district had the great privilege of (virtually) spending an hour with Donalyn Miller, talking about all the ways that we can be independent reading champions for our students. The conversation was rich and important and I am so grateful to her for sharing this time with us. 

That said, one of the (many) pieces of information Donalyn shared during our time together was the recent research suggesting that children raised in homes with (access to) more than 500 books (over the course of their lifetime) spend an average of three years longer in school than children whose homes contain little or no print material. In fact, this research goes onto to point out that growing up in a household with 500 or more books is “as great an advantage as having university-educated rather than unschooled parents, and twice the advantage of having a professional rather than an unskilled father.”

That’s kind of amazing. But it also got me thinking….

500 books. That’s huge. Even though we’re talking about children having access to that number of books over the course of their lifetime (and not all at once), for families living in poverty, that number may as well be a million.

I’ve written and spoken before about my own experiences growing up in poverty, but I don’t think I’ve ever shared this story: Like most kids, when I was little, I had a small collection of picture books. I don’t remember all of the titles, but some of my favorites included Curious George and those by Richard Scarry. When I was five, these books were lost to a fire - not a house fire, but rather, they were used as kindling during a particularly cold winter when my family didn’t have money for electricity or firewood. I remember the day we burned them: my whole family huddled around the wood stove and my mother saying we’d get new books when we had more money. But, of course, that time never came and I don’t remember owning another book of my own until I was in college. My entire life, I’ve been quietly envious of those people who still have treasured, dog eared copies of the books they had as children. To this day, there’s still a small, bookshaped hole in my heart that will never entirely be filled. And although I don’t pretend to speak for every family living in poverty, I can only say that in my experience, a lack of exposure to print material in my home wasn’t due to a lack of value placed on reading or learning. Rather, books were a luxury we simply couldn’t afford.

Of course, we know that poverty has lots of other (potentially) devastating effects on children. For instance, we know that students living in poverty are…

The list goes on and on. But did you also know that, over half of US public school children now live in poverty? Let me allow that to sink in for a moment. Seriously. Stop and think about this for a minute: In the richest country in the world, a majority of public school students now live in poverty. And while I could go off on a rant about how unbelievable, insane, criminal this is, I guess what I’m trying to say is that these are not “other teacher’s students.” Kids living in poverty are all of our kids. 

Now... I know what you’re thinking: Jennifer, this is the most
depressing post ever! And you might be right, except for one thing: we can fix this. No, really… we can. Here’s how:

As Nelson Mandella said, “... [poverty] is man made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.” I am living proof of this fact and the undeniable truth in his words gives me great hope. So, let’s talk about how school librarians can and should be part of this important work:
  1. Be A Champion of Choice: We all know that choice is a powerful motivator and yet far too often students have little choice when it comes to selecting their own reading material. For students who have yet to develop the habit of reading, this autonomy is especially critical. Here's how you can be their champion: 
    • Fight for your students’ right to select books for independent reading based on their passions, interests, questions or other authentic reasons for selecting a text. Be their voice when no one will listen to them. 
    • Talk to students about how YOU pick a book and model that process whenever possible. 
    • Relax your circulation limits to allow students the flexibility to “try on” different genres, authors or difficulty levels. 
  2. Be A Reading For Pleasure Evangelist: For too many of our students, reading is something they associate only with assessment. It’s time to change that. 
    • De-emphasize reading as a key to “school success.” Quit talking about how students are doomed to fail if they don’t learn how to read. Instead… 
    • Re-emphasize reading as a joyful, social activity. Let your reading geek flag fly! Let kids know when a book makes you "ugly cry" or tell them about the book that made you laugh until you nearly peed your pants. Passion is contagious, and they need to see yours. 
    • Validate and celebrate all types of reading. Stop telling kids that reading manga, skateboarding magazines, Captain Underpants, _______ is not a real, or a good enough, reading choice. Every time we tell students that their reading choices are not good enough, we send the message that they are not real readers. 
  3. Use Reading To Build/Strengthen Relationships With Kids: 
    • Use every book talk as the opportunity to connect with a kid. 
    • Allow books to open doors to important conversations. 
    • Build book displays that are about students instead of books and that specifically target your most vulnerable kids.
    • Be “that person” for kids who have no one else. 
    • Create reader advisory groups, made up of students, who help you pick books that will interest their classmates. And make sure kids from all backgrounds are represented. When students have stake or ownership in the library, the more likely they will be to use it. 
    • Stop charging overdue fines. Period. Or at least allow students to continue to checkout books even if they owe money. Make the library a space of possibility instead of punishment. 
  4. Harness The Power of Social Media To Cultivate Reading Communities: It’s been well documented that even though many of your poorest students don’t have access to the internet or a traditional computer at home, most do have access to a mobile phone. Instead of competing with student screen time, leverage it to get kids excited about reading: 
  5. Create Spaces And Collections That Inspire Hope: One of the more insidious, but under reported, effects of poverty on children is its ability to crush a child’s natural sense of hope. Children living in poverty are less likely to report that they feel hopeful about the future. It’s imperative that we create collections and spaces that provide students with windows into a more hopeful world. 
    • Make sure students see themselves and their stories reflected in both your space and your collection. 
    • Make sure students see you and your space as a “safe place” where everyone is welcomed and respected. 
    • Connect kids with books and authors that offer a glimpse into a world other than the only one they’ve ever known. 
    • Share your own stories of personal struggle or of how reading changed your life. Especially, if like me, you’ve also experienced poverty. Kids need to see that things get better. 
I’ve written and spoken before about the role libraries played in saving my life. And about how literacy turned out to be the engine that would propel me out of poverty. I know, first hand, the power of your work. What’s more, I know that for many of your students, you are their last hope. And I also know that while the problem of childhood poverty is huge and can feel overwhelming, you can make a difference and change outcomes for students. You just have to choose to.

40 comments:

  1. Thank you for your post. Each week, I look for the "one thing" that will motivate, inspire and educate my team to to the "good work, the right work" that is needed and will make a difference in the lives of our children. Your post is it!

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    1. Thank you, my friend. Your confidence in me means a great deal.

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  2. Oh my gosh Jennifer LeGarde you made me tear up and you made me mad and you made me determined, all in this one post! I was all ready working on big ideas for next year to change me and the library and wow did this post make me even more determined to do just that! You have inspired me before but I got to say this post is just AMAZING and POWERFUL!

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    1. Hi Lisa. Thank you so much. This comment has made my day! Go get 'em, tiger!

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  3. We read so many inspiring posts by you and your colleagues (Donnalyn, Colby, Mr.Schu, etc.) but this one stopped me in my tracks. The image of your family burning those books will stay with me a long long time. I had only seen you as that "rockstar" librarian posing with so many startstruck librarians and teachers and conferences. I will add this beautiful post to your portrait, and join those who are starstruck by your honesty, passion and personal history.

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    1. Hi Denis. Thank you so much for your kind words. I will carry your comment with me on days when I need a pick me up. :)

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  4. Awesome and powerful post. Thank you for sharing from your heart.

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    1. Thank you, Joanna! I am so grateful that your big heart continues to serve students in NC.

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  5. I work in an academic library but our area churches are now hosting free community dinners at the school once a month. I think a little library cart of free books is just what we need. Thank you for such an inspirational message.

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    1. Thank you for all the work you do to serve the needs of kids who need you. We're all in this together!

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  6. I love your authenticity in honoring your story, which makes you so genuine and even more lovable! Thank you for sharing, your heartfelt words are inspiring! Loved the article so much, copied it to keep in my save file!

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    1. Thanks so much, Jeanne! Your comment made my day!

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  7. Jennifer, this post makes me stop and think. Thanks for the reminder that it IS about our students and as an educator to ALL students, it is sometimes difficult to get to know of our students situations so empathy is required in all of our interactions with them. I needed that reality check. Words of wisdom for us all. Thanks!

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    1. Thank you, my friend! Your students are luck to have you! Keep fighting the good fight!

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  8. Here in New Zealand we have a charity Duffy- Books in Homes, that gives free books to children from low decile schools (poorer areas identified in our national govt census). It works very well to get books into homes. http://www.booksinhomes.org.nz/Home.aspx
    It's a shame you don't have something similar. I know this is not the only answer but it is very good, so I thought you might be interested. It was set up by a NZ Author, maybe some American authors could start something similar?

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    1. Thanks so much, Leaann. That sounds like a great program!

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    2. In the US, First Book (https://www.firstbook.org/) does similar work, although their model is to provide low-cost or free books to programs and schools that work with children in poverty, who can then provide those books to the children either as a library or as gifts.

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  9. Thank you so much for the inspiration, Jennifer. I will be quoting you often, because who could refute the power of truth in this post? And not only do you inspire, you give us concrete ideas we can put into action today. Anyone reading this who was looking forward to the end of the school year is now feverishly waiting to get back to work in the morning! You are such a gift to us!

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    1. Oh my stars! I'm, literally, teary reading your kind words. Thank you so much, Mary. YOU are a gift my friend and I'm buoyed knowing that we're all in this together!

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  10. Wealthy schools often discard books that are in good condition and current. How can we recycle those books to schools with a high poverty community rather than recycle them into paper pulp? Do you know of any models?

    Thank you for bringing attention to this topic.

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    1. Hi Janet. We can definitely do a better job of making sure resources are equitably distributed. Thanks!

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  11. I'm waving with my cardigan and coffee cup screaming AMEN SISTA!
    Thank you for this great post. Will share far and wide...including my local professional journal

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    1. Thank you so much, dear! Go get 'em, tiger!

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    2. Jennifer this post was so powerful. I too grew up in a very poor household but luckily we were able to afford a few books (which I do have and what a treasure they are!) but it was the public library which was my refuge. This is why libraries are so important and we have to do everything we can to preserve all kinds of libraries. Our most vulnerable students need them!

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    3. Indeed. Our work so vital. Connecting children to books, especially those for whom resources are scare, is serious and important work. I'm go grateful for people like you (and the rest of our profession) for making this their life's mission.

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  12. Great article! Can I buy you a Curious George book?

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    1. Haha. Thank you, but I actually bought myself a Curious George book several years ago. The funny thing is that as an adult, who loves books and libraries beyond measure, I actually own very few books of my own. I buy lots of books. And read them. But then I give them away. I always feel like there's someone who needs to read this book next. :)

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  13. I echo everyone else's comments, Jennifer. This post almost makes me regret retiring. But I do still have contact with my middle school, and I can ramp up my involvement.

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    1. You definitely don't have to be on the payroll to make a difference. Go get 'em, tiger!

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  14. Thank you Jennifer for promoting the elimination of overdue fines. I quite doing it my 2nd year as a librarian, when I saw poorer kids looking at their coins to see if they could afford their reduced lunch cost after paying their fine. It broke my heart, so fines went away. I discovered kids read more--they wouldn't turn in books and check out more because they didn't have money for the fines, and once fines went away I had such demand I had to raise my circulation limit!

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    1. Hi Barbara Thank you for putting the needs of your students first.

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  15. Our school librarian has done an outstanding job in getting books into children's hands. Most recently, she is working with the management of Royal Palms to install a neighborhood "Take One, Leave One" book stand. The manager is getting men from that community to build the stand to house the books, and our school is supplying donated, discarded and New books to get them started. Keeping our library open over the summer with fun activities around reading is another way we continue to promote reading.
    During the school year we have open check-out times in the library with library workers. Students want to "apply" for the job to work in the library. This also gets them excited to read more books. Motivation is key to getting some of our students to read. The challenge is finding out what motivates them.

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  16. This is a sad, but wonderful post. The result of poverty and how high our poverty rate is needs to be in the media more prominently. The fight for $15 minimum wage goes hand-in-hand with what we are seeing in schools. Pay the parents a proper wage, they can better care for their children by not have to have several jobs. Therefore, they are able to spend more time and money on their children. Those children will be more nurtured and more educated. Working to break the cycle. It's all cyclical. We teacher-librarians must be political advocates for the rights of our students who are future voters. #fightfor15

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  17. With your permission, I would like to send your post to my school board and superintendent. Three years ago they cut all media specialists from schools. We were archaic and unnecessary in our superintendent's eyes. We fought hard but lost the battle. I still try to fight the war and get media specialists back.

    In the last two weeks there has been a great deal of hoopla over The Perks of Being a Wallflower. The superintendent had it yanked from EVERY shelf. This is not the first time this has happened.

    I am hoping that your powerful and eloquent words will move him. I cry for the kids in my county who have no one to champion their reading for pleasure or choice in reading anymore. In fact, the county is pushing to get rid of media centers altogether. My former media center is closed much of the year for testing. It breaks my heart.

    Thank you for all you do to create life-long readers and we will keep fighting the fight to get media specialists back in schools in Pasco County, Florida!

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    1. Hi Christi,

      I'm am so sad to hear that the children in Pasco County Florida do not have access to quality school library programs staffed by certified teacher librarians. This is a short sighted decision that will certainly come back to haunt your district. You are welcome to share anything of this post or anything else of mine that you feel might be helpful in your struggle to restore these necessary and valuable positions. Good luck.

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  18. This post made me very sad for you as a child. My family had their struggles when I was very little, but not to the point that we had to burn books. I am sorry you had to go through that.

    You mentioned something along the lines of not judging what a child reads, but if we do not advise them to choose more challenging books, then how will we help them grow? For my first grade students, they are allowed to check out two books from the library. For those that need to be challenged, I have asked them to get one Everybody (picture) book and one chapter book. I have introduced them to series that I enjoyed as a child, that I have learned about/liked as adults, or other series I know previous students have enjoyed. Should I not be doing this?

    Thanks!
    -J. Haluska

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    1. Hello J.

      First of all, I commend you for being such a reflective practitioner. Your students are lucky to have you. That said, it is my strong belief that independent reading should be driven entirely by choice. This helps young readers build the habit of reading and to associate reading with joy and relevancy. Every restriction we place on students as they select books for independent reading reinforces the idea that reading only serves an instructional purpose (and often that purpose is assessment). And every time we tell a student they can't read the book (magazine or graphic novel) they've chosen, we're sending the message that they are not real readers because what they love to read isn't "good enough." The purpose of an independent reading program should be to help students see themselves as readers and to help them see reading as an essential part of their lives. In order to do that, we have to make it look as authentic as possible. Think about the last book you read independently. Did you know the level? Were you guided to it by someone who was hoping to challenge you? Did you employ the "5 finger rule" or some other contrived measure for picking it out? Chances are the answer to all of those questions is no. Real readers pick books because they interest them or because someone recommended them, etc. We have to help our kids develop those habits so that they can grow into "real readers" themselves.

      Having said all that, guiding students towards more challenging texts is an important part of reading instruction. When teaching students how to read, we absolutely must guide them to texts that appropriately challenge them and that help them sharpen the skills that will enable them to dissect similar texts in the future. But reading instruction is different from independent reading. And both are equally important.

      Think of it this way... reading instruction should be about the HOW of reading. Whereas independent reading should be about the WHY of reading.

      Thank you for your thoughtful question and for all you do for students.

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  19. You're such an inspiration! A couple of years ago you spoke at my school district (Durham Public Schools, Mary Gray Leonard) and you inspired me so much that I created my own brand to inspire and motivate my students to read... theReadingLibraryLady

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    1. Thanks so much, Alice! I'm so glad your students have you as their Reading Library Lady!

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    2. Jennifer, Thanks again!!!
      A few years ago Dr. Stephen Krashen spoke at the NCSLMA Conference about this. Your and others sharings add the power of personal experiences to the research findings. Below are some of his postings the last few years.

      Monday, December 5, 2016
      http://skrashen.blogspot.com/2016/12/failing-schools-poverty-and-libraries.html
      "Failing" schools, poverty and libraries

      Friday, January 24, 2014
      http://skrashen.blogspot.com/2014/01/the-common-core-disaster-for-libraries.html
      The Common Core: A Disaster for Libraries, A Disaster for Language Arts, a Disaster for American Education

      Thursday, January 23, 2014
      http://skrashen.blogspot.com/2014/01/the-common-core-and-voluntary-reading.html
      The Common Core and Voluntary Reading

      Saturday, January 4, 2014
      http://skrashen.blogspot.com/2014/01/the-spectacular-role-of-libraries-in.html
      The Spectacular Role of Libraries in Protecting Students from the Effects of Poverty

      Tuesday, August 13, 2013
      http://skrashen.blogspot.com/2013/08/the-common-core-disrespects-self.html
      The Common Core Disrespects Self-Selected Pleasure Reading


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