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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.

1 Comment

Dear Jennifer,

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post. I am an early primary teacher and promoting a love of reading to my students is so important to me. I found it very interesting and concerning that research shows that “children raised in homes with (access to) more than 500 books (over the course of their lifetime) spend an average of 3 years longer in school than children whose homes contain little or no print material” and children living in poverty “by age 3, are exposed to roughly 30 million fewer words than their more affluent counterparts”. That is extremely concerning as you mention more than half of students in the US public school system live in poverty. I work …

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