How School Libraries Act as
Windows Into Children’s Lives
Raquel C. Cuperman
Raquel C. Cuperman works in a school library in Bogota, Colombia.
Libraries are different spaces in schools: they don’t have the same furniture or teachers as in the children’s regular classrooms. Children can come into the library in their free time to pursue their own interests. When they come in with their class, library time is different from the usual classroom routine. Yes, there is a curriculum in the library, activities there have a purpose, and rules must be clearly stated and followed. However, the absence of homework and grades generates a more relaxed atmosphere. Therefore, these spaces often allow librarians and teachers to discover many things about students they would not otherwise know.
In Lecturas: Del Espacio Íntimo Al Espacio Público, Michele Petit shares some stories about young people and the role that libraries play in their lives. For example, 16-year-old Agiba has many conflicts with her parents and finds refuge in the library. Zohra, a young girl from the suburbs of France, discovers a totally different world in the library. Books and libraries offer new perspectives, and opportunities to go beyond required explorations and experiences and thus realize more about who they are and what they like and dislike. But this does not happen magically; someone must open that library door and invite them into an area overflowing with liberty, emancipation, comfort, and expression. Librarians must be willing to listen and watch readers. If they do so, they can learn a lot about the people, both children and adults, who visit the libraries: what they like or dislike, their habits, and even their worries and frustrations.
In libraries, assignments may be corrected but not graded. However, the students must somehow demonstrate what they learned, thought about, researched, and applied; teachers/librarians will most likely provide follow-up and feedback to work done in the library. Thus, while students research required topics or topics of particular interest to them, they are also learning about themselves: how they learn, what distracts them, and what works for them and what doesn’t. The absence of grades and judgments allows readers, of all ages, to share personal opinions, impressions, and thoughts without fear.
Reading and literary discussions enhance development of one’s own individuality and offer opportunities to experience personal recognition. Readers become aware of previously unrecognized aspects of themselves. The library transforms into a space of shelter where it is possible to meet with one’s self. Petit uses the following quote from Proust to highlight this idea: “Every reader finds himself. The writer's work is merely a kind of optical instrument that makes it possible for the reader to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have seen in himself.”
CASE # 1 – CHILDREN HIDING BEHIND BOOKS DURING RECESS TIME
Libraries are often very busy during recess time: students come in to finish up homework or study for an upcoming test, borrow or return books, read silently, play with the available games, or even simply escape inclement weather. A study in the United States found that 52.1% of students use their own time, between classes or during recess, to visit libraries. Libraries are normally cozy and warm spaces, filled with color and light, that children find to be inviting places to spend time.
It is common to find students in the library who are having social problems with peers. Some are being bullied and others have not found friends who share their interests. For these children, the library beckons as a perfect hide-out. In her gender research in schools, Ashley Lauren Sullivan interviewed students who described the library as a safe place:
“When you went to the library you could pretty much sit down anywhere you wanted to sit. . . . I liked the library because it was the one place I was allowed to choose what I wanted to do and if I wanted to read a book on a certain subject, then I could choose it, whereas [in] the classroom you had to do whatever the teacher wanted you to do.” (p. 237)
“The library . . . was quiet. I could go to a small intimate corner and sit. My back would be against the wall. No one could come behind me. I could sit and concentrate. I could sit there and escape.” (p. 238)
Librarians must keep their eyes open for students who repeatedly spend their recess time in the library by themselves, absorbed behind a book or computer/tablet screen and possibly even talking to themselves or to the book’s characters. Students might be found in hidden corners of the library with swollen eyes or silently sobbing, reacting emotionally to both fiction and life. Discovering these voracious readers or frequent visitors to the library might seem to be a librarian’s dream; the children often offer to help (stacking, storing, cleaning up, and organizing) and they may be willing to participate in very interesting book discussions. However, it is important to recognize that these students may be hiding out from problems that would be better addressed in some manner. In this case, librarians should reach out to homeroom teachers or to school psychologists to ensure students receive the help they need with regard to resolving their problems.
CASE # 2 – CHILDREN TELLING FAMILY SECRETS AFTER READ-ALOUDS
In neutral, non-judgmental, and thus more relaxed, environments—such as the school libraries described here—children may be more likely to say exactly what is on their minds. Library talks and discussions promote spontaneous expressions of thoughts, ideas, and opinions. Often, read-alouds will prompt students to share feelings and concerns not heard in any other space in school. Family secrets and personal situations may be revealed as a story touches a chord and young students find it is impossible to keep inside something that just happened at home. Amazingly, they often don’t even cry when sharing emotional, personal stories; it just seems normal to share in the supportive, relaxed environment of the library.
Read-alouds about family events and situations are very likely to prompt student sharing about their own families. When reading Changes or I Want a Brother or Sister with a preschool class, it is common to hear a child tell the class that he wants to have a baby brother or that his mother is pregnant. Often, the librarian will find out a student is expecting a new family member before Mom and Dad have informed the school. During a read-aloud of Mama and Daddy Bear’s Divorce, a child might tell of a similar family disruption or share a sentence overheard when Mom and Dad were fighting. Careful commentary about abuse or a parent leaving in the middle of the night might be advisable after reading books like Dad Doesn’t Live With Us Anymore or Dad Runs Away With the Circus. Other books address less sensitive topics that nevertheless prompt sharing of personal situations, like humorous portrayals of parental anger (My Mother Is Weird, Shrill Mother, or The Balloon) that cause laughter during the read-aloud. Children will often be inspired to talk about a parent crying, yelling, or punishing them. In a space where children feel comfortable and free, and not judged, they may casually make such comments and the rest of the group will not demonstrate pity. They might not say anything at all. Some may laugh, but not out of mockery; rather, they find it interesting that someone is reacting to the story. Sometimes, children’s comments are very subtle and telling reactions may be nonverbal; librarians and teachers must be alert and attentive to hear what the children are really saying.
Fear of those personal comments cannot impede reading, personal or collective, of those books. Children often make personal associations with books that apparently have no relationship with the particular issues addressed in the story; only the child can find the connections. Librarians must be willing to read, listen, and observe so that students can find a way to tell the adult world what is on their minds and in their hearts.
CASE # 3 – CHILDREN LOSING READING MOTIVATION DUE TO FAMILY DYNAMICS
Although the ideal is that family motivates children to read, that is not always the case. Parents may say during parent-teacher meetings that they read with their children, but that might not be true. When students return books to the library, they may candidly tell the librarian that they have not read the books or possibly that they have not even taken the books home. Librarians can overlook such comments due to lack of time or because they don’t want to intrude into personal matters, or they may decide to inquire further to discover whatever the child may be comfortable sharing. When librarians do ask, they may hear the following answers:
"There was no one to read with me and I cannot read by myself yet."
"My parents came home too late and they didn’t have time to read with me."
"Everyone was too busy at home to read to me."
"I had too many things to do and I didn’t have the time to read."
"No one reads at home."
Preschoolers, in particular, need parents to read with them. Some children need adult involvement because they are not yet able to decode and decipher by themselves, others read too slowly and therefore lose interest and motivation, some need help with vocabulary to fully comprehend a story, and many just crave the physical contact and attachment of reading with an adult family member. Yet, some parents will eliminate shared reading time once the child learns to read.
Children love to be read to, regardless of their age. They love library class because someone reads to them, and because a teacher/librarian will listen to what they have to say during a book discussion or follow-up. Certain dynamics at home may result in reduced time and motivation to read. While the school cannot always do much about a particular family situation, it is important to promote reading activities at home. The best reading habits are born out of shared work at home and school.
Books and libraries offer us windows into the lives of children. Children make comments and share emotions and thoughts when their environment is safe and comfortable, and when they realize they are not going to be judged about what they share. They learn that they can really be themselves in libraries, or at least try to discover who they are and what they have inside.
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