Building the Reader of Tomorrow Today

The penultimate post in the current series on the importance of school libraries is by Matt Imrie, from Farringtons School in Kent. Matt quite rightly points out that school librarians help make tomorrows reader today by encouraging and developing a love of reading in pupils.

Literacy is the single most essential life skill and the importance of a good education in enabling social mobility cannot be over-emphasised. One of the ways the government can encourage this is to fund school libraries.

The Importance of School Libraries

Often overlooked by campaigners and just about everybody not actively involved in schools and education, it is easy to underestimate the importance of School Libraries and their contribution to learning, literacy and reading for pleasure.

In recent years (since the advent of austerity) many former Public Librarians unwilling to leave the work they love have found alternate employment as School Librarians. The irony that a non-statutory service is marginally safer for employment than a statutory service is not lost on many. It is akin to jumping out of a collapsing building and landing on a field composed largely of quicksand, but even with uncertain futures School Librarians do press forward with their duties.

Building the Reader of Tomorrow Today

School Libraries often work in intangibles, ‘reading for pleasure’ is one such example – impossible to measure but easy to identify. I do not think there is a school librarian alive that has not seen the look in a reader’s face when they find the book/magazine/comic/fan-fic that makes their love for reading come alive. Nurturing this tender and fragile love can be done at home and in public libraries but for children with parents that do not read or take them to the local library and in areas where the local library has closed, it is usually their School Library that first opens their eyes to reading as a pleasurable activity.

Once children get too old for the Summer Reading Challenge and they enter their teens, their library use often tapers off and for many it stops entirely. For these students it is often the School Library that remains their only regular access to books, information and professional assistance in using them.
School Libraries have a captive audience, and unlike public and university libraries, many of the students that come in for reading and library lessons do not want to be there. Integrating a class consisting of students that want to be there, others that may be ambivalent and some that indulge in active disruption is a skill that School Librarians learn fairly quickly. Turning the latter two groups into the former is an activity that takes time and individual attention; this is something that School Librarians are well-equipped to do as they see the same students regularly and can work on breaking down the barriers that troubled students have towards reading and learning.

Once the School Librarian gets to know their students they are able to recommend books that cater to their individual tastes and for those that struggle with reading many school libraries use programmes such as Accelerated Reader to help them improve their reading levels.

Returning to the Summer Reading Scheme briefly, in the run up to the end of the summer term, Children’s Librarians often visit schools to promote the SRC. These visits are usually organised with the School Librarian as the initial point of contact. If the library service is unable to provide a librarian to visit a school then usually posters and joining forms are sent to the School Librarian to distribute to the classes old (or young) enough to participate.

Transferable Skills

Most School Librarians offer regular Library Lessons to equip students with information literacy skills that work on a cross-curricular level. From introducing research skills (finding and using information as well as citing sources) to identifying fake news, making use of reliable online resources, becoming aware of and avoiding plagiarism and enabling students to use the library catalogue and Dewey Decimal System to find the books they are looking for and locating the information required within the book in as short a space of time as possible. Included with these skills are critical thinking, improved social skills from teamwork to taking responsibility for completing ones work and more.

It is best to embed these skills early and this is where School Librarians that work with primary school students can get involved with making sure that their students do not fall into the trap of seeing the internet in general and Wikipedia in particular as the be-all and end-all of research.

These skills not only enable them to do homework for school but also prepares them for college or university where they will often not have a librarian on hand to help them locate everything they need. These skills are also usable in public libraries, as school librarians and teachers often recommend that their students broaden their access to resources by making use of their local library where possible.

The Oft-Hidden Role Of The School Library

The following post is written by Barbara Band, School Library, Reading and Literacy Consultant, Features Editor of The School Librarian, and Ex-President of Cilip.

This is the first of a series of guest posts around the importance of School Libraries and in support of the recent letter from Dawn Finch to the Secretary of State for Education, Justine Greening to highlight ‘the shocking decline of library provision and the numbers of qualified librarians in state-funded schools and colleges in England.’ The letter has over 150 co-signatories including authors, illustrators, presenters, the Bookseller Association, National Literacy Trust, and Society of Authors.

All publically funded libraries; public, school, FE etc, are facing a sharp decline in funding, staffing, and resources. That’s why it’s important we work together to highlight the essential and valuable work done by libraries across all sectors.

The Oft-Hidden Role of the School Library

The figures concerning mental health and young people are rather alarming. Sixteen million people in the UK experience a mental illness with 75% of these starting before a child reaches their 18th birthday. Figures also show that 75% of young people with a mental illness are not receiving treatment causing many of them to self-harm, become suicidal, violent and aggressive, or drop out of school. The mental health and well-being of students needs to be addressed so they can develop – socially, emotionally and academically – a young person who is dealing with mental illness is unlikely to reach their full potential with consequences both on a personal level and for their future within society.

At a time when a young person is transitioning from child to adult, when they have a need to be accepted and find their place within the world, the school environment can feel very hostile. Busy days are measured out in short periods of time, punctuated by bells ringing and people rushing about – the pressure is on to achieve, meet targets and deadlines with the resulting increase in stress and anxiety.

The school library is a unique space. It is often described as “the heart of a school” yet I also feel that it is frequently an “oasis”, an area of calm within a frantic milieu. A place that supports the whole child – their reading and literacy needs, their study and curriculum needs, and their well-being. This latter pastoral role is too often overlooked and undervalued.

The school library with a librarian provides a safe environment with a member of staff who is not a teacher and does not have to rush off to deliver a lesson to a class somewhere. We have very different relationships with the students; when I was nominated by two students for the SLA School Librarian of the Year Award, one of their comments about me was “It’s a formal relationship but we think of her as a big friend”.

During break and lunchtimes, students are able to step back from what they have been doing in the classroom and “just be”. Many of them hang around the desk, chatting, and it’s at times like these that an often seemingly innocent remark can ring alarm bells – all school librarians will have received safeguarding training. In my previous school, students who were dealing with stress, anxiety, panic attacks and depression, and were unable to cope for the whole of the school day, were often sent to the library. Some people may see this as “babysitting” and yet I recognised that I was providing a distinctive service they could not get elsewhere.

How much worse would these students have been if there hadn’t been a library for them to use? What would have been the impact on their long-term mental health and academic achievements? Over the years I have supported so many students in so many ways.

Benefits

– School librarians are able to provide authoritative and trustworthy resources to those who, perhaps, have just heard a family member has cancer, have been told they have dyslexia, are being bullied, want information on managing exam nerves, coming out or improving their self-confidence. Alongside this comes the time to just listen or answer questions.

– Bereaved students can often feel overwhelmed in the school environment. As an adult, I know how grief can suddenly overtake you and yet I am able to step away from my desk to collect myself. Students aren’t able to do this – they have no other option and they don’t want to cry in front of their peers. Many times such students were sent to the library – I would give them the box of tissues and space, or stop what I was doing and let them talk, depending on their needs.

– Students with Asperger’s Syndrome can find school a confusing and sensory overloaded environment. Being able to spend “downtime” in the library at breaks enables them to reset and cope with the rest of the day. Many of my Asperger’s students would have their “own” chair and table where they would sit and read, ignoring everyone else, and I made sure that nobody disturbed them.

– I had a very active pupil library assistant team, many of which had SEN (Special Educational Needs). I nurtured their strengths so they could become active and useful members of the team, gaining valuable workplace skills and increasing their self-confidence. The then Headteacher remarked that “it was no surprise that all of them found the transition to University life straight forward”.

– Break-times can be tough on those who have not yet found their “place” at school. This is especially true for younger students who have come from smaller schools and find the larger older groups of students a bit intimidating, as well as those who are not sporty, arty, musically inclined or part of the “popular clique” – the school library gives all of these a place they can escape to until they find their feet.

– The school library is an ideal place for projects and activities which bring diverse groups of students together engendering a sense of community and belonging. In the past I have seen miscellaneous students connect over a chess board or Warhammer game; in fact, it is rather wonderful to see those slightly lonely souls being drawn into the group by a common interest, and to see them laughing and interacting with the others.

The school library has a huge role to play in the well-being of students which should not be underestimated. If we are serious about improving the mental health of young people then we need to recognise that school libraries and librarians are part of that agenda.

Why Reading Matters

It’s been well attested how libraries can change lives for the better by supporting educational and work aspirations. Even, provide an escape for a short time, from the reality of poverty and social deprivation.

Therefore, it saddened me greatly to see the OECD report that stated young adults in England have scored among the lowest results in the industrialised world in literacy and numeracy tests . Not only that but younger people are actually falling behind the older generation in such skills.

Now I know that in many ways this reflects failings within the education system, perhaps even poor parenting, but it also highlights the huge role public libraries still have to play in providing literacy opportunities for children and young people.

This is further reinforced by the recent IOE report that shows reading for pleasure in children increases both literacy and numeracy skills.

Such a pity then that public libraries are in such crisis with many community libraries closing in areas of social deprivation, precisely the areas that need them the most.

As I saw recently on a library protester’s placard  ‘cut libraries and see wot happens’.