School library media specialists evolve, champion independent reading

By Ge-Anne Bolhuis, Instructional Technology Specialist & Media Specialist Liaison  |  March 2019

The tables are set. Silverware gleams, tablecloths are elegantly draped and the place settings shine. The main course is perfectly plated, and students’ eyes widen in wonder as the hostesses, School Library Media Specialist Sonya Thompson and seventh grade language arts teacher Kerri Herendeen, announce that today’s main course is served. Welcome to the New Hope Middle School Media Center Book Tasting, where students are encouraged to “dine on a great book” as they find and take their seats.

A few miles away, Media Specialist Neely Byers at North Whitfield Middle School hosts a “Grinch Book Tasting” with a holiday theme. She focuses on helping students articulate what they like to read. According to Byers, many “middle school students don’t know what they like to read” and have trouble articulating what interests them. For her, book tastings provide a way to model for students how to ask for help locating new reading material.

The above samplings showcase some of the efforts being made to encourage students to develop a lifelong habit of independent reading by school library media specialists in the Whitfield County Schools (WCS) in Dalton, Georgia. While promoting books and the love of reading has always been part of the role of a school librarian, additional time needed to support an expanded technology toolbox and a renewed focus on classroom libraries has threatened to push this essential job to the background.

Modern media specialists often find that their jobs are in jeopardy, and those who’ve managed to stay in the profession often find that they no longer have a full-time media clerk (and in some situations, none at all) or they have so many other duties to perform that reading has taken a back seat. Media specialists are asked to troubleshoot technology, supervise classes when classroom teachers attend meetings or conferences, complete inventories and perform other jobs that fall outside of the traditional role. Recently, some states have cut funding for media specialists altogether, and others have proposed that they be left out of pending pay raises being considered for classroom teachers.

Despite this, grassroots efforts like Future Ready Librarians are thriving as those media specialists who are passionate about their work band together to showcase their skills and focus on the growth of students and how to meet the needs of the “whole child” when planning media center lessons and programming. Choice is a key component to getting students to read independently.

So, why is independent reading important?

First, if the aim of education is to prepare lifelong learners, then developing a lifelong love of reading is key. In recent years, the term “reading” has been redefined to also encompass the use of ebooks and listening to audiobooks and podcasts. No matter the delivery method, reading is a skill that all educated people must develop. However, the rise of “fake news,” digital entertainment choices and social media are vying for the attention and time that used to be focused on reading. Because of this and other factors, reading for pleasure in the U.S. has decreased enormously. A recent article in The Washington Post reported that less than 50 percent of adults read one book per year.

School library media centers are the foundation upon which readers can exercise free choice to become lifelong readers. Following American Association of School Librarians research, school library media specialists advocate for free choice in the process of selecting books while simultaneously focusing on designing engaging reading practices and independent reading spaces. Students find encouragement, modeling and helpful suggestions in the media center as they learn to choose the books they like to read.

Media Specialist Holly Jones hosts a book tasting for her young patrons at WCS’ Eastside Elementary School. Bedecked in a chef’s hat, she guides her students to the nine tables set with red-checkered tablecloths. The tables are arranged according to genre, and students are given a menu to record their selections (including genre) as they explore each book place setting for three minutes. In the “real world of reading,” Jones explains, most people have favorite genres, and she encourages readers to have fun exploring new ones. Soon, neighboring Media Specialist Tommye Mathis at Cedar Ridge Elementary will do a similar event. Together, they’ll present their findings at the 50th Annual Georgia Conference on Children’s Literature in Athens, Georgia.

Affirming the school library media specialists’ role in reading

A student participates in a speed-reading session at New Hope Elementary School in Dalton, Georgia.

In 2017, WCS began discussing the roles of school libraries and media specialists in promoting the love of reading. Recently, spurred by the works of experts like Donalyn Miller, author of The Book Whisperer, coupled with the renewed focus on independent reading choice by Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, students are being encouraged to make their own choices in the media center. The media specialists serve as guides or coaches in helping students explore the many possibilities and genres available.

Because WCS leaders have intentionally included them in the decision-making process, media specialists are represented on the Teaching and Learning Team (curriculum department) by a liaison who’s involved in new technology initiatives, literacy discussions, media center programming, digital citizenship strategy and curriculum planning. This individual is also responsible for Professional Learning Collaboration (PLC) meetings for all media specialists in the district and arranges professional development as necessary.

A renewed focus on promoting the love of reading from the school library media center is taking shape at WCS. Media specialists attend literature events like the American Association of School Librarians conference and Georgia Library Media Association Summer Institute or engage in local meetups such as Edcamps to learn new tools for sharing books, organizing book talks and connecting with authors. Additionally, media specialists are involved with the district Growing Readers cohorts — groups of teachers who learn the Growing Readers approach to raising strong readers and writers together in strands.

PLC meetings are held throughout the year to ensure that WCS media specialists have the opportunity to receive professional development training and collaborate with others. Visits to other media centers have taken place as well. These meetings are crucial to helping keep programming fresh and for sharing information about book selections, author visits and the day-to-day administration of the library.

At the February PLC meeting, independent reading promotion through reading aloud was a topic. Jennifer Eller, WCS’ literacy coach for grades 6-12, encouraged middle and high school media specialists to embrace reading engagement sessions like “First Chapter Friday,” where media specialists host a read aloud of the first chapter of a great book and encourage students to check out a copy, or “Throwback Thursday,” where the first chapter of a classic or once-popular book is read aloud in the media center. Amy Allen, WCS’ elementary literacy coach, modeled read-aloud strategies to engage young readers who come to the school library media center.

Using a different spin to present free choice reading options, Dawnville Elementary School Media Specialist Diane Tyner hosts a speed-reading session with fourth graders. After collaborating with teachers and learning that poetry is an upcoming genre of study, Tyner designs an experience called “Poetry Pass.” Students sit four to a table and play a sort of “musical books” game as they get to explore the book they choose from a stack in the center of the table. After two minutes, they pass the book to their left, and the process is repeated. After all books are exchanged, students discuss which books they liked most and are given the opportunity to check them out. Tyner reports, “After that session, our poetry books, especially ones by Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky, just flew off the shelves!”

Reevaluating practices

While some practices like labelling library books according to reading level seemed to make sense initially, WCS strives to serve the current needs of students and follows research-based practices like promoting independent reading choice. Students are being encouraged to explore what types of books and authors they might be interested in and are being provided ways to share their love of the same with others. School library media specialists are learning how to do “think-aloud read-alouds” to model the thought process that should take place when reading. Many media centers solicit purchasing input from students, teachers and families via a Google form on their respective websites. The goal: Return the choice of what to read to the reader.

School Library Media Specialist Sonya Thompson serves up a reading selection during a book tasting at New Hope Middle School in Dalton, Georgia.

Some other successful endeavors include:

  • Using Flipgrid to share books and book reviews across a school or the district via short video reviews
  • Author visits (many generously funded through the Whitfield County Educational Foundation)
  • Creative writing clubs
  • Using digital tools like Buncee, Book Creator and Google G Suite for Education to review, share and create books

Many media specialists are also choosing to move toward genre-fying the library collection to reflect the way bookstores sell books. This further puts the power of choice into the hands of the students.

What’s next?

While most people think of reading as the act of physically holding a book (or device) and decoding the text within, rapidly growing literary resources include audiobooks, documentaries and podcasts. Each offer ways for students to “read” in a non-traditional format. The potential for education is seemingly limitless, especially as this opens the world to struggling readers and those who can’t hold a book or device or turn pages.

No matter the media, literacy is a lifelong skill. When it comes to showcasing the possibilities of independent reading choice, there is no greater stage than the school library media center under the direction of a media specialist.

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