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Thursday, January 16, 2020

Of A Newspaper Article That Made Me See Red!

Here is a link to a newspaper article that made me angry.

It involved some school in Queensland which had had this new and original, brilliant idea to get kids reading - they were going to do twenty minutes a day of reading for pleasure! Well, not exactly reading stuff that you might want to read. You’re not allowed to read non fiction or graphic novels, only novels, presumably of the kind the school approves. The article showed a picture of a smiling young lady reading in front of a bay of books that might be in a school library, but looks to me like a good quality classroom library. Anyway, it doesn’t matter, as the picture was not from the school in the article, not even a school in the same state. What does this suggest to you? 

I sent a letter to the paper, below, as so far the paper has not published it. They still might, but I suspect not. Too late now.  

As a retired teacher librarian and a children’s writer, I read with interest the article about the Queensland school’s “bold plan to get teenagers reading”.  I wonder if the school has a library, run by a professional librarian, and suspect it doesn’t(the photo with the article is not from this school) or it wouldn’t be the Principal trying to find ways to get kids reading, it would be the librarian. And the librarian would have come up with something better than “twenty minutes a day reading for pleasure and it’s not allowed to be non fiction”, something many students love, or graphic novels, something else they enjoy and which is not just another name for “comic book”. They are often complex and even difficult reading. I can understand why they would ban class texts from the daily read, but not these.  As someone who ran a school library for many years, I know what they borrowed and what invariably ended up on the overdue lists,  and which books were falling apart from reading. A library professional would have advised the Principal better than this. And it’s nothing new, sorry! Schools here have been doing it for years, often with books from the library, before many schools started closing them down to save money and because “they’re doing it all on the Internet now, aren’t they?”

I suppose the daily read is better than nothing and I hope it is working, but a truly bold plan would have been to spend some money on a new library, if they don’t have one, and a qualified, enthusiastic professional to run it. 

If they are going to publish one of my letters, I often get a call from the letters editor asking me to “declare my interest”, but not this time. In any case, remembering this, I made sure I did declare my interest in the very first sentence, so I can only assume they aren’t going to print it. 

So, let’s discuss it here. I suspect the school in the article doesn’t have a proper library. I’d be very surprised if they do! Maybe one of those small collections of books with an integration aide running it half a lunchtime a day. But not a librarian, or they would have asked her/him for advice. 

 That means that someone without any qualifications or passion for reading has come up with something that sounds good to them, and this same someone has definite Opinions on what is acceptable. How is it reading for pleasure if it doesn’t give everyone a chance to read something they enjoy?

 I have no doubt the well meaning principal discussed it at a meeting, either with staff in general or with a school committee. It does take time to organise your timetable to fit in even this minimal program, so I understand why they aren’t doing it right away. But they have given themselves about the same amount of time it took to re-arrange the entire school timetable for the massive literacy program my school does(it works out as 200 minutes a week, or four periods), which involves actual teaching, not just reading(the kids do get about fifteen minutes a period), so why not do more? Why not, in fact, get a library going, with a professional who can make sure the kids have somewhere to go at lunchtime and help them choose books just right for them? They can still have the twenty minute thing, and the kids won’t have to bring books from home(what if their home is one that doesn’t have books?), and can bring books they will enjoy. Doing it this way is simply lazy.  

And then you call the newspapers to brag about it! 

It also irritates me that the journalist thinks this is new and worth writing about. I guess she has to do something for the education column every week and pounces on anything that sounds vaguely interesting, but she really should have done her homework. Plenty of schools are already doing this, including one where a friend of mine used to work, years ago. He even told me that he and some of his students were amused to find themselves all reading the same new Harry Potter book. That should tell you how long it has been going. 

When I think about how much I did as a teacher librarian, with my tiny budget, how many kids I looked after and took to writers’ festivals and organised voting for favourite books in the Inky Awards and the YABBAs and gave the chance to interview their favourite authors on this blog, I can’t help being furious, both with this principal and with the newspaper that thought this story was news. 

Screaming right now... AAARGH! 


Brian Joseph said...

It is kind of amusing that the plan was labeled as bold. The statistics on the number of children that have abandoned reading are very concerning. I suspect that the presence of school libraries and school librarians would help prevent kids from falling into that category.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Hi Brian! You suspect correctly. Unfortunately a lot of schools don’t see it this way. They save money by closing the library down or at best replacing the professional with someone without the skills to do what the professional can do, under the impression that they just have to check books in and out. There is so very much more to it than that. This is why you get a school like the one in the article, whose principal thinks she is wonderful and original for coming up with this minimal idea, because she had no one who actually knows their stuff to consult.

miki said...

My brother works with children ( from 6 to 13y) and he always has a book with him to read during his break and that amaze some children they are like " whoah that's a big book! do you really read that?" etc and he answers them tell them a littel about the story before asking them for their taste and then if he read something that fit their taste he tell them about it. ( in some school he gifted books out of its pockets)

i don't think you should ban a child to read what he loves he must eb allowed to pick its genre of interest either comic or novel, fictyion or not fictionn fantasy or not ....we should just see that it's apropriate for the age ( or mantality age as some can read "stronger" books earlier as well) they need to love reading and imposing any genre or banning some can only stop that interest and love.....

In my eyes it's sad from that school first 20min what can you read in 20min?! and thens electing some over other....really not an example

Sue Bursztynski said...

Well said, miki! And a I think your brother sounds like he might make a good librarian.

AJ Blythe said...

The high school my Barbarians attend doesn't have a librarian. I think it's sad, but "it isn't in the budget" for one. Luckily in our house, books are prized possessions and we are overflowing with them. Reading is something we all do a lot of, so the lack of a librarian doesn't hurt my kids, but I cringe at the thought of all the kids it would benefit.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Exactly! If kids can get it at home, it’s nice for them, but not all of them can. A school really needs someone not only to look after those kids but to extend the reading of all kids. But there is more to it than the books. A teacher librarian is involved with curriculum development and teaching research skills and literacy. Whenever the English department at my school discussed potential texts, I was respected enough to be asked for my opinion. I taught English, so was at the meetings anyway; I did team teaching with the campus VP when we were doing Literature Circles, and HE asked my opinion. I worked on deciding reading levels for our school’s literacy collection.

In my experience, schools that say it isn’t in their budget are often spending the money on something they consider more important. My school, for example, was spending it all on the maths program. They spent - probably still do - $100,000 a year on maths department photocopying alone! You could hire an experienced teacher librarian for less than that and have money over for a decent library budget. And that was just the photocopying.

Hels said...

Right near my home in Melbourne there is a book-borrowing cabinet in front of an ordinary house, facing into the street. Meant for adults, and based on the honour system, anyone can take a book out of the cabinet and put another book in, in return. So far so good - the books are interesting and in good condition!

For a school, a part time librarian would have to fill the cabinet up with suitable books in the first place. Then keep a minimal record of who borrows what, and which books they returned.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Hi Hels, I’m familiar with those “little libraries”. There is even one in Melbourne Central, a full sized bay of books. I remember once when I took some students to the Melbourne Writers Festival and we were heading for the food court before returning to school, I pointed it out to them. They fell on it with cries of delight and showed each other their acquisitions. They weren’t planning to return them, but that’s okay, as there are always people donating books they have finished with. I assume there must be someone to keep the place clean and tidy the shelves.

However, if you are suggesting schools could have these instead of a real library, I think you may have missed the point of my post. For starters, you don’t need a librarian to shove a few books in a box and keep basic records. Any staff member could do that, including the cleaners. My point is that schools need professionals to encourage kids to read, help design curriculum and give advice for resources needed. They also run classes in research skills, arrange school author visits, take kids on festival excursions, make the library available at lunchtime for kids who might just want to chat, do their homework(with which you might help), play games... They, not the Principal, know what individuals enjoy, and help kids find it. I ran a lunchtime book club for years. During Book Week I did displays, encouraged kids to read the short list and had a lunchtime trivia quiz. I couldn’t afford to pay authors to visit, so did everything else they might enjoy.

There’s more, but the thing is, no “honour system little library” could do any of that! Cheers!

Melanie said...

Interesting post... made me think about how we're encouraging children to read today. Libraries are still at risk (like some endangered species) here in the UK. But we've got people like Neil Gaiman leading the charge to keep them safe. Honestly, I remember them being so much grander when I was young. But maybe that's because every book was new at that age. What frustrates me now as an adult is the four miserable, tiny shelves of sci-fi at my local library. Whereas crime and mystery take up two walls. Not that I don't love a good mystery! But a library without a Terry Pratchett section is not a library in my opinion. :)

What I did want to say is how baffling I found the 'no non-fiction' element of the story. Surely what we're trying to encourage children to do is read at all. And when I was growing up, my absolutely beloved series was the Horrible Histories. Reading them introduced me to different time periods and when I saw fiction of those historical events or periods, I would feel safer picking them up because I already knew a little bit of that world.

Even without that, some non-fiction I've read has been more engaging and vastly better than some fiction. Just off the top of my head, something like How to be a Victorian. And though I started reading graphic novels later in life, I dare anyone to read Sandman and tell me there isn't enough there for a child to sink their teeth into.

This post has really got me thinking... thanks Sue!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Thanks, Melanie, well said! I have heard(mostly on Twitter!) about the dreadful things happening to public libraries in the UK. Here in Australia it’s school libraries that are feeling the pressure. That really stinks, but at least we still have our council libraries. Mine is very good and had(don’t kill me!) an excellent SF/F Section. There used to be a crime/mystery section too, but they got a new head librarian who decided to mix everything up. The staff sneaked out the SF/F books into the “new books” section, even the old ones! Thankfully the dreadful woman is gone, so we have our SF bays back.

The fact is, kids enjoy non fiction. Not all, but most I have encountered. I remember once reading aloud an over-the-top newspaper story to a class I taught, mostly made up of noisy boys. As I read, and the story became more bizarre, the voices stopped. They listened. They asked, “Miss, is this TRUE”?” If I had said no, they would have lost interest. But it was true. After that, I went hunting for crazy true stories. I should add that I write the stuff, and my own books in my library were falling apart from borrowing. Word of mouth got them off the shelves.

Unfortunately, people who have no knowledge of this often assume that fiction has to be superior, even if they don’t read children’s or YA books themselves. I wish I had a dollar for every time I have seen teachers tell kids tompu5 down their non fiction book and get a novel!