Saturday, 30 May 2020

School Librarians After Lockdown - how can we build on an interest in reading?


According to a recent survey by The Reading Agency, nearly 1 in 3 people are reading more than before during lockdown. This rises to almost one in two people (45%) in the 18 – 25 year age group. Reasons given for this increase in reading include “a form of release, escapism or distraction” and many people said “having more time was a key driver”. I suspect if you looked at the statistics for younger people you would find similar increases. Many school librarians are working from home, supporting students remotely, and they have reported an increase in engagement with reading, often from students who have previously shown no interest or who have rarely visited the school library to borrow a book. Students are signing up to e-book platforms, accessing e-books from both their school and public libraries, requesting recommendations (and making them to their peers). The things that have always distracted students – such as social media, video games, TV, etc. – are still there. So why this increased interest in reading? More time may be a factor but I think that many of them have simply discovered the benefits of reading for pleasure.


The impact of reading for pleasure has been well documented. The National Literacy Trust has undertaken several studies into this, as has BookTrust, if you’d like to read further but in addition to improving vocabulary, writing skills, concentration and memory, reading for pleasure also helps to reduce stress, aids sleep and foster wellbeing. The work of school librarians during lockdown highlights this importance aspect of their role - it seems obvious to me that if we want children to read then they need access to a wide and diverse range of books, and the best person to help them find what they need is a school librarian. It should also be said that “reading for pleasure” does not simply constitute reading fiction; any sort of reading counts – fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels, comics, wordless picture books, manuals, journals. I am currently browsing through books on acrylic painting techniques in an attempt to improve my skills - I’m actually “reading for information” but am still enjoying it and find it relaxing. So we can’t assume that just because somebody is reading for information they’re not also reading for pleasure; the two are not mutually exclusive. IFLA School Library Guidelines consider that school librarians should “support the individual preferences of readers, and acknowledge their individual rights to choose what they want to read”.


So how can school librarians build on this renewed interest when students finally go back to school and the library is reopened? Many students will want to go back to physical books. Some who have discovered the delights of reading via e-books may be encouraged to try out a physical book, particularly one by an author they’ve enjoyed or in a genre they’ve connected with. But I suspect that, sadly, several may just put books and reading aside.


·         If a school library hasn’t really offered e-books before then this is certainly something that should be considered. Not to replace physical books but to offer them as an alternative format alongside audio books – and this may well have budget implications so if schools want their students to continue reading they need to fund their libraries adequately. 


·         School librarians have been able to provide a more one-to-one service with support and recommendations, promoting books, and related websites and activities. I suspect this is because they’ve been able to concentrate on putting together resources without the innumerable ad-hoc interruptions that occur during a normal day in the library. These tend to result in ideas and initiatives being pushed down the list and, eventually, forgotten or half-started and abandoned. So staffing is another factor – if schools want their librarians to continue providing these services then provision needs to be made so they have uninterrupted time in which to create them.


·         Outreach during the past few weeks has, by necessity, been online. Several schools don’t allow their school librarians to connect via social media platforms but have had to relax the rules a bit. It would be great if these connections could continue. Many students won’t go near the library during the school day as it’s not considered a “cool” place to be seen in so this online presence allows them to continue to explore reading in an anonymous way.


·         For the majority of students a period of transition will be needed. Some will have experienced bereavement; others will have experienced abuse; those who do not consider school a safe space will probably experience high levels of anxiety; and most students are likely to feel some sort of stress about returning to school. Student wellbeing needs to be a priority and the library – and reading – has a huge role to play here in supporting students and staff so try to ensure you are included in any wellbeing initiatives, and continue to engage with the students that have connected with you during lockdown.


·         I think the largest factor at play is going to be time. Students are going to be back into the usual busy routine of lessons, activities, homework, etc. plus there will be the added pressure of everyone trying to assess how much they need to do to “catch up”. When planning all of this, it would be fantastic if some time could be given to “reading for pleasure” – time to explore and talk about books, to find out what students have been reading and why, and to build on this unexpected legacy from lockdown. 


Tuesday, 28 April 2020

Grief, Anger and Loss - School Librarians and Furloughing


We are living through strange times. A worldwide pandemic, social distancing, lockdown. For many this means working from home; however there are quite a few school librarians who have been furloughed.  You might be forgiven for thinking they’d consider that’s a great idea; they can do all those projects they never had time for or they can sit and read all day.


But the reality is, for many, very different. Furloughing is temporary suspension. The problem is that nobody knows how temporary, there’s a huge unknown quantity to this situation – when will schools reopen, will this be partial, will some people still have to social distance? And this unknown element makes everything feel as though we’re in limbo, swimming through murky waters without any sense of direction. It makes it difficult to actually start any of those projects. Personally I’ve found it very hard to focus on anything that requires even a minimum level of concentration; I’ve lost count of the amount of knitting I’ve had to unpick because I’ve gone wrong and the reading I’m doing has dropped dramatically!


Furloughing can feel a bit like redundancy. I’m a freelance consultant and yes, all my outside work has been cancelled but I also work a lot from home as well as being involved with several committees so part of this feels “normal” to me. However, I have previously been made redundant and have also off sick with work-related stress and anxiety (another aspect which has a huge unknown element to it) so I know very much from a personal aspect what it can feel like to be told of a decision that requires a significant adjustment and change to your life. 


When you are told that you’re going to be furloughed yet see other staff continue to work, the immediate response is often one of shock and shame - isn’t my job worthwhile, doesn’t the work I’ve been doing for the past “however many” years count, why me, what’s going to happen to the students, to the library? So many school librarians put their heart and soul into their libraries (and note the use of the word “their” it really does become a very personal space), they work above and beyond their contracted hours supporting students and staff. They love their jobs – to most it’s more of a vocation. And being told you’re being furloughed can result in a definite loss of self-esteem.


You know that you can continue to provide a service to students and staff, you see librarians in other schools doing this – the internet is currently awash with online resources and activities created by librarians – and yet your school doesn’t want you to do this. Even though logically you tell yourself this is a business decision it still hurts. You feel guilty for being at home, doing nothing and still being paid, when others are working. You feel as though the school doesn’t value you or your work – and this has an emotional impact leading to feelings of loss, grief and isolation. 


And the big question going round in your head, the elephant in the room, is – if the school copes without a librarian or library for several weeks will they decide they can continue to do so? Will I actually have a job to go back to?


One thing that struck me when thinking about all this was that if the job was “just” about books then it would be easy to move everything online. But it isn’t and never has been. A huge part of the role is one-to-one personal interaction with students – knowing their reading habits, likes and interests so you can give them individual recommendations; taking ad-hoc opportunities to deliver digital literacy skills when they ask about resources for their work; just being there as a trusted person to talk to in a safe space. All these are hard to do remotely. And it occurred to me that perhaps the reason for some librarians being furloughed was because those making this decision have decided that the lack of students in school means this aspect of the job, the personal side, couldn't physically happen. I know there's a huge amount of things we can do to support students online not to mention the never-ending admin work but few people see that side of the job. This personal aspect is why librarians are important and why I think schools will need them when this is all over – more so than ever as there’ll be huge discrepancies in home education to balance out plus an impact on children’s and young people’s mental health and wellbeing that we’ll all need to support.


But there’s no doubt that the feelings generated by being furloughed, together with any worry about at risk or vulnerable family and friends, are creating a lot of stress and anxiety, and impacting on people’s mental health. So I would say to any librarians who have been furloughed and are struggling, the first thing you need to prioritise is your own wellbeing. Stress and anxiety result in physical reactions – they vary but can include tiredness, a lack of motivation, sleep disturbances, headaches, changes in appetite – so it’s important to maintain a programme of self-care: a healthy diet, enough sleep, exercise, continued contact with family and friends, carry on with hobbies and interests, incorporate relaxation and mindfulness into your routine. Mental Health UK has some ideas and downloadable resources that might help but a search for “wellbeing” will give you lots more.


The thing to remember if you’ve been furloughed is that while you can’t do any work directed by the school, there’s nothing to stop you undertaking self-directed CPD. This can be for personal development or to help you improve the service you deliver. An example of this is keeping up-to-date with books being published. Knowing what’s available is part of our skills as librarians. I keep lists of books on various topics with keywords and age recommendations so that when I’m asked to evaluate a collection and make recommendations to fill gaps I can do so fairly quickly. Thus there’s nothing stopping you from doing the same – so that when schools reopen, you can order new books and create new book lists. 


There’s a huge amount of CPD opportunities currently available. I won’t list them all but have a look at FutureLearn for MOOCs, investigate TED talks on the topic of library, listen to some of the 13 Must-Hear Librarian podcasts, have a look at the School Library Association website for some further ideas, read that pile of professional journals and jot down any ideas for future events and activities, investigate professional e-books you can read. Stay connected with your work colleagues – you should still be receiving school emails so that you are kept informed and up-to-date with the situation; just remember that you can’t respond to any requests for advice, etc. (and yes, I know, it’s hard not to!). Make sure you add in some leisure activities. I’m writing more letters to friends and family, and sending that physical connection helps me, I’ve added the National Theatre At Home, Cirque De Soleil and The Shows Must Go On to my viewing each week, I’ve made myself do more painting (something I’ve been promising myself for ages) instead of sitting at my desk clicking from article to article feeling like I should be doing something productive. And if you’re a member of CILIP then this is an ideal time to think about your Chartership portfolio or Revalidation. Finally, you could always think about writing up a case study for the Great School Libraries Campaign – something around a project, event or activity you do. Have a look at the website for examples and a template. 


Everyone will have different experiences and different reactions to this situation; there’s no right or wrong response. The important thing is to find what works for you and above all, stay well and stay safe.

Thursday, 19 March 2020

Help - how can I survive with the children at home!


My blogs tend to be about library and reading-related things but in these rather strange times I thought I’d pass on a few tips about coping with having children at home for an extended period, and how to help both them and you maintain your sanity and sense of perspective. I’m not going to post a list on online resources, social media is full of these (so many that my head is spinning – and thanks to everyone who is putting stuff out there for people to use), this is more of a “how to” list. It relates more to younger children but will also help those having to deal with teens as well:
* Structure your day. I know from working at home how important this is. If you don’t then the day will just wander away and everyone will get fed-up, bored and rather disheartened very quickly. Children are also used to (and like) structure; it gives them a sense of security. This is important for young children but applies to older ones as well; those that are used to “doing their own thing” in the holidays, and being out and about with friends. Don’t forget, when they are at school their day is organised.

* The easiest way to do this is to break the day down into timed slots and allocate activities for each one. They don’t have to be detailed at this stage, just an indication of whether it’s going to be learning activities, creative time, quiet time, screen time, etc. Keep it simple; if you make it too complicated you are unlikely to stick to it. Depending on the age of your children, these could be 30 minute or 1 hour slots. Or you could follow their school timings.


·        * Then – plan what you want to do for the week. This is where you allocate specific topics and ideas into each slot. If you’ve been given activities, a curriculum, etc. from school use them. Make sure you set goals and give rewards too. And mix it up a bit for variety. Planning what you want to do in advance will save you having to think “what shall we do next”. Have more activities organised than you think you’ll need – children often take less time to do things than you think they will. And if they don’t show any interest in what you’ve got planned you have a back-up.


·       *  It doesn’t all have to be “traditional education”. Children learn through play. They learn by helping you make cakes, by playing with water and different sizes of containers, by playing games. Life will still need to go on around them being home (ie: washing, cleaning, cooking) so involve them.


·        * One of the best pieces of advice I ever read (which stopped me stressing) was that if you give a child a chore to do, remember they can only do it according to their level not yours. So, for example, if you ask them to dust they may not do it quite the same way as you. Eliminate unnecessary tasks. Yes, bathrooms and kitchens need to be clean but this isn’t the time to defrost the freezer or worry about washing the windows. It can all wait!


·        * Don’t try and fit everything into one week. You may have to prioritise the core subjects and leave others on the back burner for now. It’s important for younger children to maintain literacy skills (research shows that these drop during the long summer break) so read, read, read … and then read some more. Note - reading doesn’t have to be story books – recipes, instructions, information books, it’s all good practice.


·        * Also remember, you’re not expected to be an expert in every subject they’re studying. It’s okay to say you don’t know something or don’t understand. Find out the answer together (one of the things I loved about being a school librarian was how I was always learning something new thanks to random questions from students). Let them explain things to you – this is a great way of reinforcing what they’ve learnt.


·        * If you have children of different ages at home it can be hard. The younger children often want to do the same as the older ones but they don’t have the equivalent skills or expertise. The temptation is to give the older children worksheets and devote time to their younger siblings. But all your children need some time and attention from you. Why not involve the older children in some of the activities? For example, they could act as “reading buddies” – reading to younger children or listening to them read. Think about activities that they can all do at their individual level or games that are based on luck rather than skill. Also, if it's possible try to give them some time-out from each other.


·        * However – stay flexible! It’s your schedule so you can change it. The idea is to give you some sort of aim and guidance for the day/week but if you’ve had a bad night, if everyone suddenly feels a little bit wobbly, take time out, cuddle up under a blanket and watch a feel-good film or read a book.


·        * Make sure you build in some break times. If it’s dry and you have a garden, get outside. If you live in an area where you can go for walks, do that. Cycling is another option. Fresh air and being outdoors is good for wellbeing. Have the break times after some desk work so the children can burn off some energy. Any sort of vigorous exercise (depending on your circumstance) is probably best in the afternoon when they will have had enough of being indoors and sitting still. Limit snacks to break times – and make sure they understand this – otherwise they’ll be asking for food all day. 


·        * Set up a workspace and use it every day. People who work from home have desks; I know when I sit at mine my brain switches into "work” mode. If I’m lounging on the sofa in PJs this doesn’t happen (or, what is more likely, making the mistake of picking up my latest book first thing in the morning before I’ve even got out of bed). Have all the necessary materials close at hand so that you’re not spending time trying to find them. Get a couple of boxes to store everything in – it will make your life easier and less stressful.


·        * If you have to work from home AND home-educate children accept that your productivity is going to be lower. This won’t work with young children; it might work with older ones but they will still need some sort of direction and input from you. Keep things in perspective. This is not going to last indefinitely; enjoy the opportunity you have to spend more time together. Remember that feeling of "it's never going to be the same again" when they started school? Now you've got a chance to grab some of that special time back. 


·        * Screen time! This is likely to be where you have your biggest arguments. It’s going to be hard but it will be better for them, for all sorts of reasons, to limit it. A lot of what is available and what the school sends for them to do will be online. During a normal school day they would not be spending this much time looking at a screen so letting them chill with the iPad or in front of Netflix wouldn’t have the same effect. However, if they are spending all day doing screen work and then spending downtime in front of screens, there will be no balance. Try to mix up screen activities with creative and practical activities. If you don’t have enough computers for all the family then sort out a rota. And make sure you don’t spend all day on your phone yourself.


·        * Finally – if you have younger children and you’ve just had enough – stick them in the bath! Mine were always so amazed at having a bath in the middle of the day that they would play for hours! Doesn’t quite work the same for older children although you could always set it up as a spa with candles, chillout music and a good book!