Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Librarian's Role in Overcoming Poverty

'First day of school' photo (c) 2010, Dave & Margie Hill / Kleerup - license: loss, recession, foreclosures, and poverty are highlighted in the news every night. The number of American children living in poverty now is surpassed only by those that lived through the Great Depression. Residents of my district are no exception. Check out this poverty infographic that shows where America's poor are most concentrated. We're a dark red county. The families in my area are facing these realities every day, which means my students must deal with obstacles that I can only imagine. In my school we have a 68% poverty rate. That translates to almost 7 out of 10 of our students living at or below the poverty line. What does that mean for me? How does the services of the library need to change to meet their needs? What can our school do to help the students rise above these challenges?
This is our focus as a faculty this year and I've been thinking and researching ways that librarians and libraries can help students in poverty. Research supports the following goals:
  1. Increase access to books
  2. Wide variety including magazines, comics & anime
  3. Build support for Silent Sustained Reading
  4. Build relationships
  5. Eating and reading in the library
  6. Plan a summer outreach
1. Children in poverty have limited or no access to books at home. Access to books increases reading which positively influences writing, grammar, spelling, and vocabulary. This connection makes access a huge priority. Our community and many others have no book store; therefore, the public and school library provide the only access to books. Unfortunately some of the same areas of high poverty are also on the map of library closures. Luckily, our district has been very supportive of our school libraries by maintaining our budgets and keeping a certified school librarian in each school. A few practical steps I take to increase student access to books is opening early before school and staying open after school. The library stays open during lunch unless I have scheduled classes. Yes, that means I do not get a "lunch break" because I do not have a library assistant, but I feel like remaining open is more important. This gives students opportunities to visit the library often. Our ELA teachers have all agreed to biweekly visits for check out and I have already planned "book cart" visits. Last year we had two book swaps which were very successful in getting books into our students' hands. I hope to repeat that event this year. The library hosted two book fairs and plan more this year. Other than the limited selection at the pharmacy or grocery store this is the only time our students can purchase books without traveling at least 20 minutes to a larger town. Classroom libraries are also important and I have shared suggestions with our teachers (4 of whom are 1st year ELA teachers) on how to build a classroom library on limited funds.
2. Stephen Krashen discusses the impact of reading comics and the concept of "home run" books in his articles. When students were asked about their favorite books the answers are widely varied. This means that I need to have a collection that appeals to many interests and levels. I have increased our selection of anime by purchasing 10 additional series, added to our popular supernatural and cars sections, and I buy popular titles, not just the award winners. I completely changed our magazine subscriptions. I dumped the "educational" magazines that collected dust and ordered titles that the students requested. Maintaining a collection that appeals to my students will help all readers find something that interests them. As is often the case, our boys usually score lower on reading assessments, especially low income boys. This year I am organizing a book club just for this population. I selected four low level, high interest books for the group to read. I will write more when all the details are decided.
3. I am so grateful to have administrators that allow for 15 minutes of Silent Sustained Reading (SSR) each day in our schedule. Carving out time for students to read for pleasure at school is so important and supported by the research. I understand the important of SSR, but I do not feel that everyone on our faculty feels the same way. For SSR to have the highest impact it must be supported by all of the teachers and students must see the teacher reading during this time. I am afraid that this time has become a time for reading emails, grading papers or catching up on other work. I need to do a better job of communicating the importance of the program to our teachers and making them aware of the influence they have on students in regards to reading. Unfortunately there are teachers that do not like to read and some even share this opinion with our students both in speech and action. I hope to share research at faculty meetings about SSR and possibly change their minds. I created signs for each classroom and office that read "Mr/Mrs. ____ is currently reading ____". I hope these signs will spark conversations about reading and give our students reading role models.
4. Building relationships is vital for students living in poverty. They need role models and mentors that can show them an alternative to their current situation. It is often recommended that teachers loop with their students in order to deepen relationships. We do not currently loop at my school, but having a relationship with the librarian is a long lasting one. It is important for me to learn names as quickly as I can, make students feel welcome and safe in the library, and be as involved in their learning as much as possible. Collaborating with teachers and teaching in the library and in the classroom furthers this connection. Showing up for performances and games and expressing interest in the students' lives is another component of connecting. Librarians have a unique opportunity to create relationships that last more than one academic year.
5. Children of poverty are often food insecure. Either they are undernourished and hungry or they have a fear that they may be hungry in the near future. You may wonder how this is related to libraries, but there is a connection. I allow students to eat in the library. As long as they clean up any crumbs or paper I do not mind food and drink in the library. In the cooler months I sell hot chocolate. The cost is $.50 and I basically break even, but the students enjoy the cafe atmosphere. In an interview of Stephen Krashen he mentions the benefits of oatmeal cookies and apple juice. This has me thinking about bringing these items into the library. I believe I could find them packaged individually at our local wholesale store and offer them in the library.
6. Summer slide is another concern of mine. Children of poverty suffer the most because they lack access to books. This summer we organized a summer reading program. It ends this month so I am not sure of the participation yet, but I feel that there is more I can do to reach out to our low income students. I know some schools have summer hours and allow students to check out books during summer months. This is a possibility for next year. I have even heard of some schools operating a summer book mobile program. I am going to contact the elementary librarians in my district and find out if they would be interested in working together to do something like that next year. Our school already has a Meals on Wheels route so possibly we could combine efforts to bring books to those same neighborhoods.

Some of our school wide initiatives, both new and continuing, include a school food pantry, a school-run market for clothes, school supplies and toiletries, tutoring before and after school, lunch time learning, breakfast in the classroom, neighborhood bus tours for teachers and a poverty simulation professional development. I would love to hear from other librarians and educators on how they reach out to students in poverty. What does your school or library do for these students?

Almost anything by Stephen Krashen:
Interview with expert, Stephen Krashen:
Children's Access to Print Materials and Education-Related Outcomes:
Jim Trelease on Summer Setback:
Trelease on Teachers that do not read:
Ruby Payne's lecture on poverty:

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