Kids Need Books Everywhere by Jennifer LaGarde and Donalyn Miller
Indisputably, children and adolescents benefit when they attend schools with degreed librarians and well-developed library collections (Scholastic, 2018). We also know that providing kids with reliable access to books is one of the easiest, most cost effective ways to influence their achievement. (Allington, McGill-Franzen 2014). Unfortunately, too many young people live in “book deserts” without meaningful, consistent access to books at school and home–disproportionately impoverished children of color in rural and urban communities.
The research is clear, much of what we describe as the “achievement gap” is caused by differential access to books (Alexander et al., 2007). The majority of public school children live in poverty with limited resources for books. Our school and classroom library collections may be the primary (or sole) source of books for many of the children we serve. Understanding our students depend on schools to provide reading material, our goal is clear: to create the most robust, inviting and relevant collections we can. This means offering books throughout our schools and working together to build collections responsive to our students’ needs and interests.
We have seen libraries wedged into every corner of the schools we visit: libraries in principal’s offices–filling walls and overflowing closets, Little Free Libraries in school parking lots, cafeterias with books wedged into flower boxes along the wall, school nurses’ offices offering magazines (from the school library’s back issues), book baskets in school offices, rotating collections providing books for in-school suspension programs, and of course, lots of classroom and school libraries of all sizes and levels of quality. It’s in these environments, where every space provides a potential opportunity for kids to engage with books, that school-wide reading cultures can become a reality. Spaces where all kids have equitable access to books–a resource proven time and again to improve their academic, social, and personal outcomes.
Recognizing the urgent need to provide all of our children with consistent book access, it’s disheartening when we see the scorn some school librarians express towards classroom libraries. Conversely, our school librarians don’t get the respect they deserve and recognition for the role they play in student achievement and engagement. Fearful that classroom library initiatives erode the perceived value of the school library, some school librarians see classroom libraries as threats to their jobs. This concern is valid. Librarians are becoming endangered species in many schools. In states like Oregon or California, fewer than 10% of students have access to degreed school librarians. When your job is constantly in the crosshairs, it’s easy to feel defensive. We need our librarians more than ever. Full-time, degreed librarians increase students’ test scores, improve their writing skills, and help close the gap between high and low achieving students (Lance, 2012). Cutting librarians and slashing library budgets is a short-term financial solution that has long-term academic and social consequences for our children.
Supporting classroom libraries doesn’t mean we don’t value our school libraries. Kids need both. In classrooms with adequate library collections, children read 50%-60% more and report higher reading engagement (Allington, 2007; Morrow, 2003; Neuman, 1999). Classroom libraries should co-exist alongside school libraries. We cannot replace school libraries and librarians with satellite collections around the school. Removing librarians and breaking up school libraries reduces children’s access to books. Undermining classroom libraries limits their book access, too. How could you support any initiative that removes books from young people, whether it’s in the library or the classroom?
Kids need books everywhere. They need school libraries, classroom libraries, home libraries, and public libraries. This is not about who owns the books. This is about making sure all kids have the book access they deserve. We need to stop being curators of the books at the expense of children’s reading lives.
Concerns about the inconsistent quality, currency, and diversity of classroom libraries remain valid. For every well-stocked engaging classroom library, there’s another filled with ancient garage sale finds few children want to read.The quality of most classroom libraries collections hinges on individual teacher’s book knowledge, financial resources, and willingness to scrounge for books and professional development. Most teachers with classroom libraries purchase books with their own money and often depend on used bookstores and donations to stock shelves. There is little institutional support for classroom libraries in some school communities in spite of the evidence proving their effectiveness. Even when funding sources exist, teachers may not have the ability to build a good classroom library. Many teachers lack the professional knowledge to develop relevant, engaging, high-quality classroom library collections. Don’t judge teachers for their classroom libraries if you aren’t willing to fund them and offer the resources and training teachers need to implement classroom libraries effectively.
School librarians can be powerful partners in helping teachers develop inclusive collections that both spark and support children’s reading lives. Any school investing in classroom libraries should deeply involve their librarian, who probably has the most training and experience in building book collections of anyone on your campus. In collaboration with librarians, schools should develop guidelines for book selection and collection development to ensure that every classroom library includes diverse representation, a variety of genres, and a mix of topics and formats. Classroom libraries should not become static and must evolve from year to year in response to the children in the room. Rotating collections from the school library keep classroom libraries refreshed and current.
Working together, teachers and librarians can offer students the best book access possible and provide them with reading role models and mentors throughout the school. Surrounded by books and encouragement, more children will become readers. We know there are many librarians, teachers, administrators, and community groups who work together to provide consistent, high-quality book access to young people. Please share your successes and challenges in the comments. We look forward to learning with all of you.
Jennifer LaGarde is a lifelong teacher and learner, with over 20 years in public education. Her educational passions include leveraging technology to help students develop authentic reading lives and meeting the unique needs of students living in poverty. A huge fan of YA Literature, Jennifer currently lives, works, reads and drinks lots of coffee in Olympia, Washington. Follow her adventures at www.librarygirl.net or on Twitter @jenniferlagarde.
Donalyn Miller has taught fourth, fifth, and sixth grade English and Social Studies in Northeast Texas. She is the author of two books about encouraging students to read, The Book Whisperer(Jossey-Bass, 2009) and Reading in the Wild (Jossey-Bass, 2013). Donalyn co-hosts the monthly Twitter chat, #titletalk (with Nerdy Book Club co-founder, Colby Sharp). Donalyn launched the annual Twitter summer and holiday reading initiative, #bookaday. You can find her on Twitter at @donalynbooks or under a pile of books somewhere, happily reading.