Curriculum Q&A

Amid Changes, School Librarians Keep Student Learning Central

By Kate Stoltzfus — April 29, 2016 7 min read
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In recognition of School Library Month, BookMarks spoke to three schools in Washington, D.C., to hear librarians’ take on the current state of school libraries.

Ashley Simpson and Tony Hurst

Beauvoir: The National Cathedral Elementary School

Washington, D.C.

Type of School: Private

Grades: Early Learning (6 months+) to 3rd grade

Number of Students: 395

Number of Books: 17,000

When librarian Ashley Simpson arrived at Beauvoir 21 years ago, she helped to convert the library’s old, paper catalog system to a new, digital one. Now she and Tony Hurst, a former school librarian at Brent Elementary in Washington, D.C., are trying out several trial e-book services to see what will best compliment the private school’s well-stocked shelves. The library, designed for early learners, has been built up by years of healthy budgets, and both Simpson and Hurst said the changeable space—with rolling shelves—is central to the elementary school as it helps them work closely with teachers and parents to incorporate classroom learning and personal interests into each student’s library time.

Sereena Hamm

Washington Latin Public Charter School

Washington, D.C.

Type of School: Public Charter

Grades: 5 to 12

Number of Students: 685

Number of Books: 6,500

It is not common for charter schools to have full-time credentialed librarians, said Hamm, who arrived three years ago to become the charter school’s first. The school, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, built its first library in 2013 after years of having a roomful of books and a part-time librarian. Hamm created a curriculum in tandem with the school’s classical education mission where she works closely with every one of the schools’ 685 students on at least one research project a year. She has an open-library policy throughout the day and runs a student internship program, all while growing the collection by about 1,000 books a year. She is also co-president of the D.C. Association of School Librarians.

Pamela Lipscomb-Gardner

Woodrow Wilson High School

Washington, D.C.

Type of School: Public

Grades: 9 to 12

Number of Students: 1,800

Number of Books: 16,000

Lipscomb-Gardner is a library media specialist who was recognized by D.C. public schools this year as a 2016 Standing Ovation winner for her teaching and library program. In her 10 years at Woodrow Wilson, the 1973 alumna has seen many changes. The library became a new, two-level space when the school was renovated in 2011. Lipscomb-Gardner began receiving funding of $20 per child for the year from D.C. public schools in 2015-16, but there have also been budget cuts that removed a library aid in the last year. As the school’s only librarian, she relies on parents and students to help run a program that includes sponsored poetry and book clubs, author talks in partnership with the nearby independent bookstore Politics and Prose, a digital archive, and Lipscomb-Gardner’s online library resource guides.

The theme for School Library Month is “Schools Libraries Transform Learning.” How have you seen this at work?

HAMM: It’s really exciting to be the person who starts a library program in a school because you see nothing but that all the time. It’s a place where students can come and study during study halls, get specialized help from me on a project or homework. Instructionally, I think the library has transformed the way our school teaches research. One thing we are doing now is plotting an information and literacy research curriculum that follows students from grades 5 to 12 to make sure they are ready for college and career, and it lines up with the common core and PARCC testing. I’ve seen students who have had very disjointed experiences with research make amazing growth.

HURST: I think that the thing that makes libraries a little bit special is that you get to go with what you’re passionate about. Students don’t have to get told what they’re learning today--they can make a choice. We have kids come into the library who start off interested in ships and want to learn everything about that, and that goes on to the Titanic and natural disasters, and it pulls them forward. I think when you’re getting pulled forward by what you love and what you’re interested in and what seems fascinating, it’s a whole different kind of learning, as opposed to being led forward.

LIPSCOMB-GARDNER: I’ve seen it transform learning, and I’ve also seen it transform students. I’ve seen students grow from hall-walkers and disengaged to being actively involved in the library. I became a librarian not just because of a library, but because a librarian is the single person in the building who can support children academically throughout their entire time in the building. The library doesn’t give a grade but it supports them in accomplishing the tasks and assignments they need in order to get that grade. It’s the relationship they build with me, with any librarian, because you get to know them.

SIMPSON: I love children’s literature, reading in general, and art, which is an important part of much of children’s literature where the pictures are an integral part of the story. I love working closely with children. It’s exciting to see them respond to stories, to respond to language in stories, and then, as they begin to read to themselves, it is just fabulous to see the energy and the excitement they have as it really begins to take hold, and they figure out more about how words work together.

How do you see the role of librarians and libraries changing in a digital world? In what ways are students interacting with print and digital resources?

HAMM: The one thing that is interesting about reading behavior is that it is more fragmented than in the past. If students reach a passage in a book that reminds them of something they’ve seen online, they’ll go look it up. There are more ways to engage with the text than just sitting and passively consuming it. I think it’s really an exciting time to figure out, how do we snag those ways? How do we pull them into the classroom to enhance student literacy skills? We should welcome all new formats because we want students to interact with big ideas and information and if we penalize certain formats, we have students who may read less.

HURST: I would imagine at some point there will be the equivalent of Netflix for books which will be able to both match interests and pair students with what they’re wanting to learn and their reading level more accurately. I don’t think that will happen as much with pre-kindergarten and kindergarten because I think for a while, the physicality of turning the page is something that needs to be taught.

LIPSCOMB-GARDNER: Libraries have always been in the technology age. The first technology was the book, then we had overhead projectors, then listening centers, then cameras, then VHS, then DVDs. We had technology, but in the computer era, we were able to extend the library beyond the facility. With our library guides and our website, students can go online all night long and over the summer and continue to work because those resources are available to them.

SIMPSON: We have seen less technology at this lower level. Children who come to school are not yet literate and working with print, we have discovered, is the best way for the children at this grade level. When we’re working particularly with younger children and picture books, illustrations are a huge piece of them beginning to comprehend the story and help them to understand the written word better as they are just beginning to be interested in reading.

What do you predict for the future of libraries?

HAMM: I do think libraries will continue to provide technology and be a tech leader, but I don’t think that negates the great work we do with print and connecting kids with great words and great information and big ideas. In many ways, I see technology as the new medium that we are using to explore some of the same big ideas and essential human questions we’ve always explored. As curriculum becomes more complex, as we emphasize college and career readiness, as we emphasize what our students need to be able to do in college—for example, identify a problem; discern levels of expertise; read something critically and understand its bias—our students need the skills that someone who is a research expert can teach. The work of the library naturally becomes more important.

LIPSCOMB-GARDNER: Because the common core requires students to take more ownership of their education, and because students are interdisciplinary—this is a neutral ground, the safe space. This is the out-of-classroom classroom where they can build, research and develop ideas, refine their thoughts, and sometimes escape because they need a quiet place just to read. Over my time as a librarian, I have seen years where resources just flowed in, where people wanted to provide the students with books and computers and all kinds of technology, and then I’ve seen lean years where the collection’s average copyright date was 1970, and it was the 21st century. So how do we overcome that? As the curriculum needs match the ability of the libraries to provide for students, as ESSA incorporates libraries, as principals are more educated in what a library is supposed to do and how it benefits the environment, and teachers embrace technology, we will have all the resources we need. Because with the human resources, if you have a computer for every child, that’s all you really need.

The interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Photo Credits: Kate Stoltzfus

A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.