Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Librarian who thought outside the box....

A while back I had a graduate student in an advance Instructional Technology course, the objectives which were to examine how we use resources in the schools. Anna (not her real name) was an American who worked and lived across the border in British Columbia (Canada). She had been a fourth grade teacher and wanted to be the new librarian. She knew that the present librarian was about to retire.

Anna was one who challenged my thinking at every level--indeed she challenged her own thinking as well. She was more then a delight to have in class. College instructors can be invigorated by the type of students one has in class. And Anna certainly took the opportunity to invigorate the class. "What makes a good library? How many electrical outlets is optimum in a class? Why can't the library have a door to the playground? Why can't the school have a greenhouse so that children can check out plants?" Anna found the textbook that I had chosen boring so she checked out several other textbooks on school resources but she didn't care for those as well. At least she gave me credit for picking probably the best of the bunch.....but that wasn't saying much in her mind. I remember taking her and the rest of the class on a field trip to Bellevue Community College to look at resources. I think for the first time she understood where I was headed and agreed with me. Bellevue Community College was at the time probably one of the best in the country with Chester, their phone in tape source, an advanced television studio(s), a very modern library system, and classrooms that were optimized for the teacher and the subject. Their lecture series was televised and on the cable shortly after the presentation. Anna was in her element.

Shortly afterwards, Anna got the position of librarian at her school. Because the elementary school was just over the border I had the opportunity and good fortune to visit it on several occasions. I think the school was built in the eighties to service the local community which was blooming with new houses and communities. It was a time of growth in the lower BC delta area and new schools were going in fast.

When I first went up to see Anna in her new position she was in the library helping kids. She gave me a quick tour of the school with kids asking her questions most of the time. Anna was unhappy with the size of the library and the fact that it had no storage space and no working area. But never mind, she said to me, I take care of it. The principal had already said that expanding the library was not in the future. There was a kid crunch and they needed all the space for students.

About a month, if I remember correctly, I stopped by to see how things were progressing. Progressing they were as Anna had taken all the furniture out of the library including the check out desk, all the tables and all the chairs. No furniture at all. And she had book piles where new shelving was going to be placed.

Wait, I forgot. There was one small table in the corner covered with a cloth. Underneath it was the opaque projector and a hard bulletin board. The kids would find a picture they wanted to copy from a book, crawl under the table, put the book in the opaque projector and tape a piece of paper to the bulletin board and copy away. Colored felt pens were kept in a box under the table as well. Anna said this worked well...she didn't have to turn the lights off and the kids could keep working on their projects. There always seemed to be two or three kids working on tracing something out of a book.

But I also asked about how she checked out all those books without a card catalog and a check out desk. Not a problem, she had the children write the name of the book and their name on a clip board by the door. She would help the first graders but it was not hard to see that the little ones could soon print their names. I asked if she knew where most of the books were? And typical Anna response..... "Most of the books are in the classrooms and the children are reading them. When they are done most of the time, one of their friends wants the book too and it is just handed over. Most trained librarians would be aghast at this system but it worked for Anna. I also asked Anna if the kids were really reading the books or were they just keeping them in their desks. "Good question. I'll work on that."

The next time I visited the school I didn't see Anna at first--I don't know where she was. But the library was busy with kids. Some were putting books back on the shelves and others were checking them out. As usual the opaque was busy with a waiting line to use it. I found Anna down one of the two halls putting stars on some charts. Anna had decided that if a child read a book and verbally reported it to Anna, she would give that child a star. After so many stars after the child's name, that child could give a book to the library.

What! GIVE a book to the library? Anna explained that first she knew most of the books in the library--she had cataloged them and at the time skimmed them. If a student could tell her enough about the book she would give them a star. When that student had accumulated enough stars (I forget what the number was) a bookplate was pasted in the front of the book with that student's name...This book was earned for the school library by ...and the students name. Already she had a number of books with "earned bookplates."

But here is the kicker. It turns out that the district office had sent out a memo (a paper before e-mail) with the policy that all library books would have a sticker of some sort in the front of the book indicating it belong to which school and the school district. Anna was just making use of that policy and using it for the kids.

About a year after Anna took over I went back to the school and children were showing me what books they were reading. A number of them pointed out that their big sister or brother had earned the book for the library. Cool, eh?

Another interesting tale. Apparently Anna found out that this school had a significant less number of books then other schools in the region. She went to the district meeting and requested more books which the district agreed to. They agreed to bring the school up to date with the number of books. However Anna had a plan. She ordered all the expensive books like atlases, coffee table books, and picture books. The district reported to me that it was one of the most expensive book purchases they had ever made. But that school could now say they had the right number of books available for the kids.

There was one book on motorcycles that was a favorite with the boys. It was never check in for almost a year. One boy would get done with it and then someone else would take it and go down to the library to check it out. One day when talking to Anna some young boy wanted to know where the motorcycle book was? "Go down to Mrs. Blyth's class--Tommy has it." Anna knew pretty much where all her books were most of the time.

Oh yes, Anna's office. When the school was built a workroom and small office was built for the librarian. As usual, Anna declared it too small for an office and not needed anyway--she was always out with the children getting books to read. So she made it into a storage space for the teachers. She went down to a local men's clothing store and bought two dozen boxes in which new suits were sent home. About three feet by two in size, Anna labeled them with subject areas that the teachers wanted and used every year. Barn yard animals, Spain, Canadian railroads, lumbering....what ever the teachers studied in their classroom year after year, Anna collected the material and stored in these boxes. They held pictures, maps, books and booklets, overhead transparencies, even lesson plans. When the time came the teacher would asked Anna for the box on........ Over the years, Anna kept adding material and keeping them up to date. The teachers loved her. I know I would had I been teaching there. Here is an interesting point--the books that were in these boxes were not part of the collection so that when they were made available in the classroom, children had not seen them as yet. New material in a way.

By the way, for some reason, student reading scores jumped after Anna was hired as librarian and continued to rise. It was too small a library but Anna had her ways. After being at this school for about six years, Anna was hired by a district in the eastern part of the province as an Assistant Superintendent in charge of Instructional Technology. The last I heard of Anna was that her school district had bought out a local print shop and was printing material for the teachers.

Anna, thanks for teaching me in my class. You were a delight and you certainly pushed the envelope on how to teach kids. Thanks my dear.....

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