Going beyond the Dewey Decimal System: Despite challenges, fostering a love of reading

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Education is constantly evolving, as are school libraries. This is the final installment in a three-part series exploring the changing roles, joys and demands of running a school library program at the elementary, middle and high school levels in the Cranston Public Schools.

The job of an elementary school librarian is vastly different than that of a secondary school librarian.

On any given day, elementary librarian Meredith Moore can be found at either one of two schools in Cranston, as she runs between both Garden City and Stadium elementary schools serving hundreds and hundreds of children whose ages span from three to 12.

“One minute I could be singing a snowflake song with three-year-olds in the preschool class, and the next minute I could be discussing the ramifications of plagiarism with sixth-graders,” Moore said. “It’s really important to keep your sense of humor, and really important to be approachable when you’re working at this level.”

In addition to the different age levels that Moore services in her two libraries, as an elementary librarian she is also often displaced from her own space, as the library is frequently used for testing, meetings and workshops throughout the school year. Moore is periodically forced to take her show on the road for many weeks at a time, bringing her lessons to the classrooms while her library is in use by others.

Despite the many challenges she faces as an elementary librarian, she is able keep her outlook and energy positive.

Moore recently wrote on her blog about that issue, and how some of the other hot-button issues in education are impacting her instruction and her students’ love of reading overall.

“As Common Core standards have been put into practice, I’ve become concerned about my students being able to just enjoy a text without having to parse it for theme, author’s purpose, evidence, etc,” she wrote. “Yesterday I read the cover story of the most recent issue of American Educator, ‘For the Love of Reading: Engaging Students in a Lifelong Pursuit,’ by Daniel T. Willingham – and I share Willingham’s concern ‘that children might confuse academic reading with reading for pleasure. If they do, they will come to think of reading as work, plain and simple.’

“When I heard that I would be thrown out of my libraries at both schools for three weeks in March because they were needed for PARCC testing, I let my principals and classroom teachers know that I would be throwing out my planned lessons and doing read-alouds instead,” she continued. “The reaction was pretty universal: ‘Oh, my kids love read-alouds. It’s one of their favorite parts of the day.’”

As Moore took her new plan to the classrooms during PARCC testing this year, she was pleased to see how well her read-alouds – which were chosen carefully for each grade level – sparked positive reactions from her students, led to higher-level conversations and reinforced their true love of pleasure reading. What she saw in her students during that time has recently re-framed her mission as a librarian for the future, building a strong love of reading in her students, according to her post.

“I’m starting to think: why not give over more of our ‘lesson’ time to booktalking?” she wrote. “To exploring resources for figuring out what to read next? To creating reading plans? Kids are going to be taught the research process in middle school and high school. They will receive training in web searching, note taking, and paraphrasing, among a plethora of other skills. But will they receive training in choosing a book for recreational reading? I know some teachers might assign pleasure reading in the upper grades, but as Willingham notes, ‘If a teacher makes pleasure reading a requirement (10 minutes per night, say) or demands accountability (by keeping a reading log, for example), she risks sending the message that reading is nothing students would do of their own accord.’ He also states that tracking the number of books or pages a student has read ‘puts too much emphasis on having read rather than on reading.’”

To that end, Moore must constantly keep her resources in her libraries up to date and enticing for all of her students, no matter their age, reading level or interests.

Library program director Susan Rose is constantly amazed by what Moore can accomplish when dealing with so many students in such a large age span, all the while working with such limited resources.

“All of our elementary librarians are split between two schools, not necessarily anywhere near each other, and they have the challenge of keeping their library collections vital and new with a budget that’s pretty much been level-funded,” Rose said. “Meredith was able to purchase just 50 books with the money allotted to her from her Cranston Public Schools budget, but using a Donors Choose grant, she was able to double her resources. In three years’ time she has applied for and gotten nine grants.”

In fact, this year alone, Moore stated that she has added 700 books to her library collection at each school thanks to family donations, book fairs and grants.

“I want to keep my collections current, and I have stacks and stacks of catalogs that come in for books. I let the kids look through them and ask for what they want, and then I look for the most requested titles and try to order them. I try to have a separate sixth-grade collection to address the needs of my middle grade readers,” she said. “I want my students to see reading as a viable source of entertainment rather than just for required reading purposes.”

In her post, she wrote, “So what if my goal for each student next year is this: Find a book you love. And I mean LOVE. A book you want to marry, a book you think everyone you know should read, a book you could dance about.”

In addition to connecting with her students throughout each day, Moore works hard to connect with their families, too, utilizing technology to keep parents up to date on the library goings-on. Her blog is just one way in which she accomplishes that communication goal.

Her Library Links page (www.gardencityelementary

school.com/library-links.html) is a link to her blog (gardencity-library.blogspot.com), which is where she documents the outcomes of the work she’s done with her students and celebrates their accomplishments. She has also created and maintains two different district “lib guides” – one for each school – through which she provides links for students on the topics that they’re studying, such as presidents, inventions and planets, which allows the students to do responsible researching online from anywhere, day or night.

“Parent support is very important to me. I want parents to be able to get a good sense of what we accomplish,” she said. “I also make sure that I have parent permission for my students to read books above their grade level. Although their reading levels may match the books they wish to read, sometimes the themes may be above them, and I always make sure they have permission to read what they’re reading.”

In addition to linking over to her blog, there is also a link to her library Facebook page, on which she models the responsible use of social media for her students and their families.

At the elementary level, Moore constantly has to use her creative skills to keep her library lessons engaging for her students, as library time does not just consist of checking books in and out.

“She did an amazing lesson on lost teeth with a class of second-graders, using a book as the basis for the lesson and then went on from there,” Rose said. “She talked about fact or fiction, related it to the students’ own experiences with losing teeth, and she hit on all of the Common Core and literacy standards throughout the lesson.”

Moore covers a lot of ground during her lessons, and focuses on topics such as paraphrasing, using collective nouns, and using key words, just to name a few.

“I try to make anything I can into a game, and I ask them constantly, ‘Why did we play that game?’ so that they know what it is I am trying to teach them. I am also trying to use less paper and more discussion and formative assessments; I try to find different hands-on ways for them to show me what they’ve learned,” she said. “I’ve done dictionary races for a lesson in guide words, and the kids just go bananas for that game, they want to play it every week and they cheer each other on. I’m very lucky in that I work with a department of people where everyone is so generous with their time. I get ideas from my colleagues, from things I see on Twitter, from the School Librarians of Rhode Island listservs and discussion groups, and I share my ideas, too.”

Moore is relatively new to the field of education, having started out in the corporate world. She realized as she started to move up in that world that she was more than just a sales and numbers person.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do from there,” she said. “Where I grew up we didn’t have school librarians at the elementary level, and in the junior and senior high school levels they were more behind the scenes. There was no collaboration then. I’d started volunteering at the public library at age 12 and I loved it, but I had no idea this was even a career option.”

As Moore made the moves she needed to make in order to change careers, going back to school while working, she was blessed with supportive managers at work who were happy she’d found a direction and a passion. Some of those very colleagues have been book donors to her libraries in the years since she’s begun her new career.

Three years ago, she began her full-time job in Cranston, and has gone full speed ahead ever since, working hard to keep her goal of creating a passion for reading in her students, and connecting reading to real life for her students each and every day.

“I want the library to be some place that kids look forward to and want to come to, other than for check-out time,” Moore said. “I like showing them the real-world implications of what we are learning and why we are learning the things we do. When they get that, those moments make me happy.”

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