Sunday, 10 July 2016

DO WE NEED LIBRARY LESSONS?


A school library is (or should be) a whole-school facility, enabling the learning needs of all students, supporting staff to deliver the curriculum, and providing resources for reading and information within a unique space. That’s the theory. The reality, however, is likely to be a librarian constantly juggling between the diverse needs of various groups; library lessons full of hands-on activities, busy research lessons using a multitude of resources, quiet periods of study and times of silent personal reading. All this usually in one room during one day! It is said that you can’t be all things to all people and yet that is exactly what a school librarian tries to do.

Most of the time this works although it does depend on what sort of space you have – an area that lends itself to being “zoned” will be more accommodating to differing needs than a large square room – and it also requires tolerance, recognition of diverse needs and flexibility but it is no surprise that sometimes the needs of one group override another’s. This is not usually a problem if it’s short-term, such as during the intense exam period when students may need a quiet place to revise but when the school library is permanently designated for a specific use, it means the rest of the school population lose out.

There have been a couple of trends I’ve noticed recently in many schools: one is to use the library as a dedicated sixth form space, making it a silent study area often with the librarian supervising students (a waste of their skills and expertise) and preventing other groups from accessing resources and services. The other is to stop regular library lessons, deeming them lacking in progress and learning, with the often-heard comments that “students don’t need to read in the library because they read in English” and the general consensus that the library is open at breaks for them to visit.

Does this matter? Do students need regular library lessons? What do they lose when these don’t happen?

·         Library induction delivered in one or two sessions does not work. The beginning of a school year is a busy time, even more so for new students who have to cope with finding their way around a huge site and integrating with their peers whilst remembering what to bring each day, where to go for each lesson and what their teacher’s name is! So it’s no surprise that the Dewey Decimal Classification system is low down on their list of priorities. How to use the library and where to find resources needs reinforcing via several lessons not delivered in a quick session fitted in between other subjects.

·         Regular library lessons mean that students become comfortable with both the space and their librarian. They soon recognise that the library is somewhere “different” in the school; it’s not a classroom - and the librarian is not a teacher yet has that authority of being a member of the school staff. Students also learn that whilst certain behaviours are expected of them during lessons, the library can, and often is, a much altered room at breaktimes.  Every school librarian I know will tell you that their library is a safe haven for the vulnerable, for those students who have not found their niche within school, and for those who are not easy with the masses. This pastoral role is much undervalued yet so important as the library provides a unique space for such students within the school.

·         Library lessons mean exposure to books! Even if a library is accessible at breaks, those visiting it are likely to already be readers and comfortable with being surrounded by books. The students that you want to lure into the library – the reluctant and non-readers – are unlikely to be anywhere near the library. And contact with books on a regular basis sends an important message – that the school values reading and considers it important.

·         Regular library lessons are SO important! They enable the librarian to develop relationships with each student, to find out what type of reader they are, what sort of texts (if any) they like to read and what their interests are. They allow us to guide each student in selecting books, something even the more-able readers need at times. They expose students to a wide range of genres, medium and authors and, essentially, give students “permission” to read. In an environment where reading is often seen as “not cool”, regular library lessons incorporating time for reading enable those who enjoy books to do so knowing that this behaviour is expected of them and they won’t be disparaged. Without library lessons, you are unlikely to turn non-readers into readers for pleasure.

·         A lack of regular library lessons means it is difficult to organise and promote many of the activities that encourage reading and boost literacy levels such as competitions, book talks and author visits as well as participation in both local and national initiatives. Communication via tutors and posters dotted around the school site has a limited reach.

·         In addition to library skills, many librarians deliver an information skills programme teaching basic competences that are essential for both further education and the workplace, and that create independent learners with the capabilities to cope with further and higher education. These skills are sometimes taught via the curriculum albeit in a piecemeal fashion so the librarian is able to incorporate all of them into a cross-curricular programme using research lessons designed in collaboration with teaching staff. Restricting use of the library limits the delivery of such a programme.

Basically, reduced access to books (which is what happens when the library is used exclusively for one group of students or library lessons are not part of the timetable) means a reduction in reading. This impacts on reading for pleasure which needs choice AND access as well as discouraging students to use the library for their information needs. A school that allows this to happen is not using its librarian or library efficiently or effectively, and is providing a much diminished service to its students..

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

LIBRARIES ON TWITTER

A week ago, #libraries was trending for over 8 hours on Twitter, that’s a long time in world of social media. This was started by a BBC article linked to research they had carried out regarding the closure of public libraries and the resulting loss of jobs. If you’re interested, 8,000 jobs in UK libraries over 6 years with 343 libraries being closed during the same period. And a further 111 closures planned for this year.

Following the publication of the article, several “library” people had interviews with media around the country including Nick Poole, Phil Bradley, Alan Gibbons, and Philip Pullman amongst others. And people tweeted links, comments, responses; I would like to say that all of them showed “library love” but sadly, many didn’t and some of the misconceptions, half-truths and even lies that were spouted amazed me. What was even more astounding was that when these people were given correct information, data that was accurate and could be verified, they still continued to believe their own message. Or perhaps they decided to ignore the fact they were wrong in the first place as the truth didn’t suit their cause. I think many of the comments were made to gain attention and get media coverage but, unfortunately, such negative messages don’t do libraries any good; too often it’s the first message that seen and believed – not the follow-up responses.

Things like:

·         People don’t use libraries anymore – there were actually 224.6 million visits to public libraries in England in 2015, that’s more than visits to Premier League football matches, the cinema and the top ten tourist attractions combined.

·         Everything is on the internet – which it isn’t. Even assuming what you want is online, you have to have internet access in the first place and know how to find it. It was also pointed out that, as libraries have the internet together with resources you can’t find online, then libraries actually have more than is on the internet. I don’t think people tweeting quite grasped this concept though.

·         You can buy books online for a few pennies – that may well be true but you still have to pay postage which brings them up to a few pounds. Besides, people don’t want to own every book they read – I certainly don’t, apart from anything else I’d never have room for them all. This also supposes that the book you want is available to buy for pennies. So this attitude is basically saying that any book will do, that you have to take what you can find rather than choosing what to read.

·         Library visits are declining – well, I guess if you close libraries, reduce opening hours and decimate the book stock then you may well find less people visit. This really is a catch-22 situation as people can’t visit libraries if they no longer exist and yet the fall in visits is being used as an excuse to close even more libraries. Mind you, even with a decline 224.6 visits is still quite a lot.

·         I don’t use them so why should I pay for them out of my taxes, if the demand is there then let people voluntarily donate to keep libraries open – I found this attitude the most shocking and wasn’t quite sure how to respond politely, and it’s not often I’m lost for words J. I did point out that I’m a tax payer myself and wanted my taxes spent on libraries. I also suggested that there were likely to be services that the tweeter used which I didn’t yet was funding them via my taxes. A good example of this is the local skatepark – as I’ve never been on a skateboard in my life I could argue that the numerous youths who use it could voluntarily pay for it. There will be times in all of our lives when we use different local services and the fact that we personally have no need of them now doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be provided for others.

·         People don’t read books anymore – this isn’t quite true either, 9.8 million people borrowed books from libraries last year. But then libraries aren’t just about books as those of us who use them know, they are social and safe places where you can learn, study, relax, escape; for many they are a lifeline. Also this generic use of “people” is rather discriminating … babies and children do read books, they NEED books in order to learn how to read and to discover the pleasure of reading. The 787,547 children who participated in the 2015 Summer Reading Challenge demonstrated this.

·         Libraries don’t make any money – libraries aren’t meant to be income-generators although sadly we seem to be heading towards a society whereby, if something doesn’t make money, then it’s considered worthless and useless. Emptying our rubbish bins and repairing potholes doesn’t make money either but nobody suggests that the council stops providing these services. However, Enterprising Libraries added value of £38M to the UK economy in 2013 – 2015 and £27.5M of savings was made to the NHS through public library services so libraries do bring financial benefits to other areas. Plus I wonder how much value having a literate workforce is worth?

What was clear from all this is that we still have a long way to go to inform the public of the value and benefits of libraries. Those of us who work in them see the effect they have on a daily basis but many of those who have no reason to visit their local library are completely oblivious to how important they are. As Ian Anstice said in his Public Library News we “need to shout loud, very loud, about what is going on, or we will be drowned out by those who want libraries gone”. Let’s make sure we keep tweeting #libraries and sending out positive messages.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

READING SCHEMES OR READING FOR PLEASURE?


Every few months, there’s a discussion amongst school librarians regarding the pros and cons of reading schemes. I’ve never worked in a school that has bought into one of these although I’ve created plenty of my own to encourage wider reading of genres and authors. But the commercial schemes on the market are far more than that. They involve assessing students to ascertain their reading level then directing them to suitable books. Some have quizzes, most have competitiveness involved and some schools have even linked them to their in-house rewards system.

I’ve got nothing against reading schemes. As far as I’m concerned, anything that gets students reading is a good thing but whilst these schemes can certainly improve a student’s reading level, do they actually turn the participants into “readers” – people who choose to read above other activities because they enjoy it? If you think about what you love doing (and I’m not necessarily talking about reading here) - did you discover this pleasure through being forced to do it? Or did you come across it, was given the freedom to explore and discover its delights, and encouraged to pursue it?

Reading is a skill and like any other skill – riding a bike, playing a musical instrument, partaking in sports – you need to practise regularly to get better. You also need to challenge yourself, try something a bit harder than you did last time and push yourself. Reading schemes, if they are run properly, do all of these but in order to show any sort of progression within them, you need a system of measurement. And this is where they fall down because the minute you start tracking progression, setting reading for homework, making participation of the reading scheme part of a lesson, it becomes another subject, another chore. It is turned into a systematic and mechanical activity, and not one that is done for pleasure or through choice. It is also important to remember that students have a limited amount of time for reading. They are busy with their homework, extra-curricular activities and own interests so have to fit reading in (like most of us). If they only have time for their reading scheme reading then that’s all they’ll do. It’s the same as when I’m on a book selection panel – I do not have time to read any other books and I know this can take the pleasure out of reading (although luckily for me it doesn’t).

There are also other difficulties that can occur - students have been known to avoid reading a book that is popular with their peers because it’s not at the “right” level so it “doesn’t count”; participating in shadowing groups can be problematic with students not being allowed to select all of the shortlisted books (those levels are the reason); book-giving schemes (such as Bookbuzz) can run into difficulties with students being told they can only choose a particular book (levels again) and library lessons – which should encompass a range of activities exploring and introducing students to books (YouTube reviews, book talks, time to browse and select, etc.) – can be lost to the rigidity of reading schemes. And don’t get me started on schools who think a reading scheme is the answer to having a library with a librarian.

We need to make the distinction between reading for improvement (R4I) which is what reading schemes do and reading for pleasure (R4P) which involves a wide-range of stock, access to it and time to browse and select – without restraints. Reading schemes certainly tick all the boxes – for Ofsted, for knowing reading levels and setting targets – but it should not be an “either or” choice between R4I and R4P. Both should be found within the school timetable yet, sadly, too often the former is given priority to the detriment of the latter; however, whilst reading for improvement does not automatically result in reading for pleasure, reading for pleasure will result in an improvement in reading skills.

So perhaps it is time to start giving reading for pleasure the priority and recognition it deserves?

If you would like to read more about the benefits of R4P, try these links:



 

Saturday, 5 March 2016

WHAT DID YOU DO ON WORLD BOOK DAY?


We’ve just celebrated the 19th World Book Day (WBD), this year on Thursday 3rd March which is different from International World Book and Copyright Day, organised by UNESCO, on April 23rd each year. I vaguely remember WBD occurring on Shakespeare’s birthday but then it moved. And I’m still not really sure what the difference is between “World” and “International” although the “world” in this case refers to the UK and Ireland!
WBD is the celebration of authors, illustrators, books and reading, and thousands of children, teenagers, young and older adults took part. Whilst a lot of this happened in bookshops, much of this was done in school libraries - where would these organisations and their initiatives be without school librarians? And what are they going to do when all the school librarians are gone?
It’s great fun reading about all the activities that were organised, seeing the photos and reading tweets, you really do get that sense of excitement and enjoyment that comes from being part of a much larger event. Some people were extremely inventive creating book character costumes and I’m sure there must have been quite a few parents tearing their hair out trying to think of what to do. I also wonder how many “Elsas” turned up? I guess if you wanted to argue the point you could say that there are now books available telling the story of the film.

What amazes me is the range of events and activities that were held. Some of these involved the whole school with staff and students alike dressing up, everyone taking part in book-related activities, events running throughout the day  - in fact some schools have even turned World Book Day into a Book Week – others, however, kept it low-key with a competition and the distribution of World Book Day vouchers.

I don’t think it matters what you do; one of the things I say to people is that you have to take into account your own circumstances when planning and organising anything but seeing whole schools taking part in WBD can leave you feeling a little bit flat and left out if all you’ve managed to do is get a dozen or so students doing your quiz.
It’s important to remember that for any event to be successful it needs all parties involved to get behind it. This basically means the Senior Management Team (SMT) and rest of the staff. It’s no good trying to organise a “guess who’s reading” competition if your staff aren’t interested in joining in. It’s also difficult to create a whole-school WBD event if it clashes with something else in the school calendar and yes, this happens. I find that so many people live in their own bubble and don’t think to check what else is happening when they arrange things. You organise an author talk for a whole-year group, months in advance, book it on every school calendar possible and send out numerous emails then find, two days before, another department are planning to involve half the year group in something else. Sometimes there are already long-standing events that happen each year and you just have to accept that your WBD plans are going to have to take a back seat.

The other aspect of all this is that it takes a lot of planning and effort to organise a WBD involving the whole school and not everyone has the time to do this.
So … don’t stress about not being “as good” as others or get disillusioned because nobody else in school seems interested. It’s not a competition; we can only do the best we can within our own situations.  It’s important to remember that small things can make a big impact – especially if your school doesn’t have a reading ethos.

And there’s always next year …

Sunday, 16 August 2015

SELECTING BOOKS


I am often asked how I select books for my school library and my response is to ask how long the enquirer has because there’s no quick, simple answer to this question. Sometimes I just buy a book from hearing about it – I know the calibre of the author and have read several of their books previously, it is part of a series or I can tell, from experience, that it will be popular because of the cover or theme. Most of the time, I prefer to physically see the book (this is especially true for non-fiction) and assess it via the cover, blurb, dipping into it to determine its level, suitability, relevance, ascertaining whether it fills a gap in the collection or whether it will add to the several books I already have on that theme or subject. Often I will buy something slightly esoteric that catches my attention and will then be asked for exactly this topic a week later … sometimes I think there’s a sixth sense at work. However I choose though, the process I use is a skill gained through experience and expertise.

Thus in answer to the question, in no particular order and most definitely not a definitive list because I’m bound to have forgotten something:

v  Talking to friends and other librarians (either in real life or online) – not surprisingly, many of our conversations involve books and what we have read/are reading;

v  General recommendations where people have praised a book they’ve read, often on Facebook or Twitter, sometimes at local School Library Association (SLA) or CILIP School Library Group (SLG) meetings - not necessarily people I know personally;

v  Specific meetings where the focus is on new fiction; our local SLA meetings always have a slot for book recommendations;

v  Goodreads – which enables me to see what books others are reading and what they think about them;

v  Tweets from librarians, authors, publishers, people that inhabit the book world;

v  Enewsletters from the CILIP YLG (Youth Libraries Group), publishers and other literacy-related organisations such as Booktrust and the National Literacy Trust. These organisations also have useful booklists;

v  Websites that focus on teen/YA books, reviewed by young people, librarians, adults … too many to mention or keep up with, the best way is to use what works for you;

v  Publishers’ catalogues;

v  Browsing in bookshops and other libraries (both school and public);

v  Conferences – where we have author talks, publishers’ stands, meet other librarians and talk lots about books;

v  Author’s news via Twitter, Facebook, their own websites;

v  Pinterest;

v  Book Awards – definitely the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway but there are all sorts of others: SLA Information Book Award, Excelsior, Blue Peter, Roald Dahl Funny Prize, Peter’s, Bookseller’s YA Award. Not to mention local ones such as the Berkshire and Hampshire Book Awards. And I don’t just look at the winners but also what made the shortlists too;

v  SLS meetings and book exchanges – if you still have one!;

v  Newspapers and magazines – although there’s not enough in them about children’s/teen/YA books;

v  Newsletters from companies such as Peter’s, Scholastic, Waterstones, etc.;

v  Reading books – the majority of my personal reading is teen/YA, often chosen for myself but then added to my school collection.

All these sources combine to create a sort of multi-input into my consciousness of “information about books” which is the start of the process of “selecting books” – you can’t make any choices unless you know what’s available. It’s difficult to ascertain the exact number of children’s/teen/YA books published each year (although the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook suggest about 10,000) but regardless of the number, it is a necessity for me to keep up-to-date, maintain awareness, sign up for (and read) relevant newsletters, check out social media sources, be aware of trends, popular authors, curriculum topics, my own students’ needs and interests as well as what’s coming next to help me make an informed selection as to what to buy. Especially as I have both a limited budget and available space.

I see this as part of my job and it’s something I cannot do at my desk so is often done in my own time. This is true for almost every school librarian I know. Fortunately, I’m slightly obsessed with books and even just reading about them gives me pleasure (not to mention making my to-read list exceptionally long) but this is also why I argue that librarians are the “book experts” in schools …

Sunday, 19 July 2015

CAN YOU TEACH READING FOR PLEASURE?

Reading for pleasure is a discussion topic that occurs quite a lot amongst school librarians. Usually it results in an exchange of ideas and ways to use our resources but during the past week, the discussion has turned towards whether you can “teach” reading for pleasure – as opposed to teaching children how to read, the mechanics of deciphering those squiggles on the page into meaning and context.

Reading for pleasure is the Holy Grail. It is what we all want to achieve in every single one of our students. The benefits of reading for pleasure are well documented via research: increased attainment in all subjects; improved writing and communication skills; increased self-confidence, empathy and tolerance, to mention just a few. In fact, reading for pleasure is more important to educational achievement than a family’s wealth or social class. This is recognised by the government and Ofsted so you have to wonder why more support isn’t given to school libraries and librarians, one of the major players in the reading for pleasure arena. Below are just a few of the articles that a quick search brings up and there are many more:
But can this be taught? Can you “impart knowledge or instruct someone how to read for pleasure”? I’m not sure you can – and if it is possible to teach then we haven’t yet found out how, otherwise we would all be doing it and have a nation of readers!

It’s a bit like teaching somebody how to swim. They may well master the methods and become good swimmers but still not actually enjoy going into the water. Reading is like that. There are many programmes and reading schemes designed to encourage students to read using various techniques. Several work via a reward system or by adding an element of competition. I’m sure that some students, participating in these, may find that particular book which sets them on their reading journey but I think many don’t. They join in because they have to and it may well improve their reading skills so that targets can be met and boxes ticked but they don’t choose to read for pleasure.
However, there are things we can do to increase the likelihood of this, to create situations and provide catalysts. Obviously it helps if a student has basic reading skills in place but even the youngest child can enjoy “reading” a picture book sat on the lap of a grown-up and differentiation enables targeted activities.  So what can schools do?
·         Create a whole school reading ethos – again there are lots of online resources about how to do this so I’m not going into details here. The important thing to remember is that it will take time, possibly around 2 – 3 years.
 
·         Get staff on board (although don’t stress if not everybody is as enthusiastic about this as you are).

·         Get parents on board – this is extremely important. Parents reinforcing the message about reading and supporting school initiatives are one of the major success criteria. It is particularly important to get male family members involved.

·         You need a school library! With a wide range of relevant, up-to-date and appropriate resources. Reading for pleasure is about CHOICE, it is not about choosing something that everyone else is reading (though peer recommendation works) or that the class needs to study or because it’s at the “right” level.

·         Give students GUIDANCE and advice to help them choose something suitable. People who are non-readers need this help; they need to discover what type of reader they are and what resources are available to them. But even more-able readers need assistance with helping them progress. This is where the LIBRARIAN comes in! Most teachers, with the best will in the world, do not have the range of knowledge or expertise that librarians have.

·         Ensure that students have TIME where they are able to browse books, to pick up and reject, to dip in to and continue reading. Where, if they need to talk about what to read and to explore the shelves, they are not being urged to “find a book and sit down”. This is where library lessons come in. Many schools do not like these as they cannot visibly see “progression and learning” but anyone who does not read for pleasure will not go near the school library voluntarily. Thus you need timetabled periods to give the seeds of reading for pleasure time to grow and work their magic.
Our reasons for reading for pleasure are not right or wrong but different and personal to each of us, and teenagers are likely to be lured by the same reasons so make the experience relevant to what is important to them, to what they enjoy and are interested in. I knit so can happily spend hours browsing books full of knitting patterns which would be completely incomprehensible and totally boring to many;  my partner likes to read computer books which may as well be written in another language for all the sense they make to me. We both read for pleasure.

Friday, 27 March 2015

WHY A PUPIL LIBRARY ASSISTANT AWARD?


Throughout the UK, day in and day out, you will find a large group of reliable and committed pupils giving up their time and volunteering in their school libraries. Many of them do this for years, providing a valuable service to other pupils and staff and yet, so often, this goes unrecognised. School receptions and display cabinets are full of certificates and awards given for sporting achievements, drama performances and prizes won in writing competitions. Occasionally an individual school will acknowledge the work a pupil does in their library and present them with an internal award but there is nothing on a national scale. And it was this idea of a national award that gave shape to the CILIP School Libraries Group/School Library Association Pupil Library Assistant of the Year Award. 
Launched in September 2014, the award is open to all secondary school pupils who have volunteered in their school libraries for a minimum of two years and is supported by the two main professional bodies that represent school librarians; the CILIP School Libraries Group and the School Library Association. Aware of the time pressures on people, it was decided to run most of the award electronically with the judging panel meeting for the first time to discuss the nominees and create the shortlist. Additionally, the structure and guidelines for the SLA School Librarian of the Year Award were used as a starting point and to add a sense of connection.

I thought the award might attract a dozen or so entrants so was pleased when we received almost sixty nominations, all of an extremely high calibre showing excellent work being done by pupils within their school libraries, although this did make selecting the finalists and then the winner very difficult. We also attracted some very supportive sponsors including our guest speaker, Charlie Higson, and had our logo designed by Chris Riddell.

As for the award ceremony itself, this was held at the BT Centre on a lovely afternoon affording us wonderful views of St Paul’s. All finalists, their librarians and members of their family were able to attend, we arranged for each citation to be read out and award to be presented by an individual author, and succeeded in making the focus of the afternoon the pupils and their achievements.
So … apart from an excuse for a ceremony with cakes, balloons and books, why have a Pupil Library Assistant Award?

School libraries do not exist in isolation. There is a synergy between them and their pupils that extends beyond the room and the obvious. The school, the library and the librarian benefit from the work that pupils do within their libraries – be it desk duties, creating displays, helping others to find a book to read or a resource for homework, leading reading groups, talking in assemblies about the library – the list is long and varied. But this is a reciprocal arrangement because the pupils that volunteer in their libraries also benefit, in ways that are sometimes impossible to measure but that are extremely important, gaining those soft skills that employers find so essential: increased self-confidence, improved communication, working both as a team and using their initiative, working under pressure, customer service – skills that impact on academic work, career and life choices.

So this is one reason for the award, to acknowledge this mutual impact between school libraries and their pupil assistants, to show the difference a school library has made to them. But it is also an opportunity to showcase the incredible amount of work done by school librarians throughout the country, with the help of their pupils. To illustrate that a school library is not just a room full of books and other resources, that it is not just a place to go and read or study, it has a much more pivotal role to play within a school and when you close a school library, you are removing a place that is unique within the school. A place where interaction and collaboration occur to change pupil’s lives.  As the winner, Abbie Craske says, of her school library: “In the beginning it was an escape from life – now it enhances my life. It has made such a difference to me and it is a privilege to give something back to the place I love.”