FernWithy (fernwithy) wrote,

Libraries and education

feylin17 asked for a rant about education, specifically from a library perspective.

Education. Everyone has different ideas about it and there are SO MANY ways the public education system is not right in this country. That or the role of parents in education, or how teachers are being fired if their students dont pass the proficency (even though the test is for what they leared the years before with different teachers.), or the whole evolution/creationism debate. Or anything really. I'm a science teacher in Ohio so I've seen pretty much all the ways things are wrong.
I'm giving you this rant because i have never had this discussion with a librarian(sp) and I know that your profession has a stake in education. I'm interested to hear what you think about all of this.

I worked at circulation in an Albuquerque library for quite a long time before I went to library school. I realize New Mexico is in the bottom ten states on education (I think it's in the bottom five), but it scarred me. Kids would come up to the desk--fifth graders, sixth graders, sometimes older--and be unable to fill out a library card form. I don't mean anything sneaky. I mean things like either not knowing how to write their addresses or not realizing that they needed to know their addresses ("I live over by the park," a child told me once, pointing vaguely toward the back of the building). Or, the one that finally broke me: "Um, on the name thing, does it have to be my whole name? 'Cause everyone calls me Bill and I don't know how to spell William."

This child was in fifth grade. Please tell me--please--why no one at any point had noticed that he couldn't spell his own name and rectified the problem.

Tell me also why I routinely meet high school students in a state that's in the top ten who don't understand that nonfiction is shelved by subject, and subject is identified by call number. Or that when looking up an author by name on the shelf, it's under the last name, not the first name. I mean, I know they've gutted school library budgets and that probably means kids aren't getting their special library classes every week (with or without the story hour), but by high school, shouldn't they have already used the system at some point? I don't mind teaching library skills--I actually really enjoy it; it's one of my favorite parts of the job--but I'm flabbergasted at how often I have to do it.

Honestly, I can't say where all of the gaps in their education are. I see them when they come in looking for help on specific things now, and what they know about other things never comes into play. But I do see students being students outside of the school setting, so here are a few random observations:

  • "You don't understand. It's an assignment. I'm not interested in it."
    That is an exact quote, delivered by a high school girl when I was trying to help her find a book that met the criteria laid down by her teacher (if I recall, it was one of those, "Read a book by a black/Hispanic/Asian-American author" assignments). I was trying to come up with a good rec for her, because the assignment was so broad, but she had no idea what she was meant to get out of the assignment, just wanted to get it out of the way, and wasn't interested in finding something interesting. And frankly, I haven't the first idea what the point of that assignment was. "Read a book by an author in category x"--regardless of what the book is--is a baffling notion to me, and apparently to the students. It would be one thing if there were an assignment attached, like, "Read a book by X author and a book by Y author, and tell me where they differ in attitude" or something. The student might still be bored, but at least s/he wouldn't be floundering around as well.

  • While I'm at it, what is the point of "Read a book by a black author" as an assignment? There are tons of good ones and tons of bad ones, and of course the vast majority of books are written by people whose picture doesn't happen to be on the back cover at all, and I'm frankly not going to make a guess as to their ethnicities. But even limiting to those whose ethnicity can be confirmed, what's the goal of the assignment? Is a porno novel by Zane an acceptable book? After all, it meets the assignment's sole criterion. What about a time traveling sci-fi mystery novel co-written by Billy Dee Williams? Or possibly something by Octavia Butler or Lion's Blood by Steven Barnes? Or are they meant to be reading authors like Richard Wright and Langston Hughes? If so, please be specific. African American writers are not a rarity which a student can browse in a five minute shelf session. Nor are Hispanic or Native American or Jewish writers.

  • "No! I need a book about how electricity is conducted through different stuff, especially shampoo! My teacher said I need a book!"
    This one, I actually get. It's the opposite of the above problem--too much specificity rather than too little. I know what the teacher means, and the teacher presumably knows what she means: Get information from a book to give background for your project. Learn about conductivity. Learn about shampoo. And use an actual book. Please. What students hear, however, is, "You must check out a book whose sole subject is the exact topic of the experiment." This causes a great deal of anxiety in kids who don't have a lot of experience yet. I can usually get them set up with useful books, but I have a feeling that they go home very, very nervous that they have not fulfilled what they perceive as the assignment, which would more often than not be impossible short of highly technical books that they aren't going to be ready for until they've already made it through the class anyway.

  • A corollary to this is the complex project problem. I've gone through school, have a Masters degree, etc, and I know that the whole point of a question like, "In what different ways has the youth community addressed violence in local history, and how effective has each method been?" is to look into different sources and combine the information into a new reference--one's own paper. But young students aren't aware of this yet, and panic when they discover that there's not a single book, or a section of them, which addresses the topic. Prepare them for what material they are actually likely to find, and how you expect them to make use of it. It's our job to get them where they need to be, but you're the ones they're aiming to please, and if they know you're not expecting them to come back with five references on their exact topics, but instead with five references which will then be used to address the topics, it will save a lot of anxiety.

  • While I'm on the subject of teaching students what to expect at the library, may I take a moment to strongly recommend that teachers are familiar with it as well? I'm perpetually surprised to hear teachers say that they didn't realize simple things about the library, like the fact that they can access the catalog from the web browser, or--with their library cards--access the electronic databases from anywhere and at any time. I mean, I'll grant that librarians know a lot about the library that there's no special reason for teachers to know, but things like that? That's darned useful for students, not to mention teachers! I'm actually thinking of doing a workshop specifically for teachers who'd like to know more about what the library can help them with, because even small libraries tend to have things that are huge surprises. These are your local resources, and your students'. And they're free.

  • Reading-list-wise: Aside from questions of entertainment value (talked about a few days ago), think about availability. A large urban library will have many copies of books, but "many" isn't going to cover every eleventh grader in the city from every school looking for the same book because it's the only one on the reading list that looks interesting. Or the same five books because the school has required them all. Especially if we have to wait for the students to come in with their reading lists before we get a copy. If you want to make sure every student in the class reads a particular book, then you might want to do it during the school year and provide the books in the classroom (if your school doesn't buy those little books in bulk, you can probably work with the public library on getting copies for a discrete amount of time).

Anyway, I have tons of education rants, but those are the main library-related issues.

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