“With a library you are free, not confined by temporary political climates. It is the most democratic of institutions because no one – but no one at all – can tell you what to read and when and how.” Doris Lessing
When Margaret Thatcher passed away a few weeks back, just about every retrospective of her contributions included her strengthening of the “special relationship” between the United States and Britain. That got me thinking about the special relationships in a school system, those relationships that, while quantifiably hard to define, create a web of connections that build a true learning community. I hope that your school includes many of these.
Today, I honor the special relationship between our librarians and our English department.
To be fair, our librarians create special relationships throughout our school. Throughout National Poetry Month, one of our librarians, Amy Rusk, sends out an e-mail each day that includes a timely poem. Spontaneously, teachers and staff members from all disciplines and positions in the school send her poems in return, or appreciative responses to her choices. Christie Friske-Daniels, our other librarian, teaches the library practice students important skills in managing the collection, regulating entry to the library, providing customer service, and problem-solving as well as a host of other skills, most of which transfer to the academic work they will do across the curriculum (not to mention boosting their resumes for after-school jobs). She gets to know these students and nurtures them.
We are lucky to have two full-time librarians, even though our school is over 3000 students, and they have built our very special library into a vital organ of the school, and have rendered themselves indispensable.
However, I like to think that the English department has a very special relationship with our library. Here is an example: Last year, when Kore Press brought The Big Read to Tucson, Amy helped weave together collaborations with Kore representatives, Stories that Soar, and other local groups to create a showcase of student work and performances inspired by Emily Dickinson. Most of the student work from Tucson High was completed in English classrooms during lessons that we developed and co-taught with Amy and submitted for the showcase. Amy also worked with the student gallery specialist at our school to create a display honoring Emily Dickinson and even more student work inspired by her. She partners with English teacher Kurt Garbe to head up the Poetry Out Loud effort at our school, resulting in two state champions out of the last six years. If it hadn’t been for our librarian, those community connections never would have synthesized within our school. Those showcases and displays inspired my students to read and write more poetry.
Our librarians attend our English department PLC meetings and participate in our PLC. Christie, an ex English teacher herself, has spent time creating proposals for vertical curriculum maps for research skills, helping our department to envision how the library could help us provide students instruction on the inquiry process and the evaluation and ethical use of sources. She has worked with my classes (and others) multiple times teaching lessons that we developed together to meet students where they are and move them forward in their use of library resources to expand their understanding of research topics. She even volunteers to score the worksheets they complete sometimes as they learn basic search strategies and library skills. Christie also helps me create book lists based on units and research projects my students are working on, and prepare carts thoroughly loaded with the exact right resources for what I am teaching.
Our two librarians help to create a culture of voracious readers at our school. They generously stock the fiction, manga and comics sections and create policies that allow those resources to be widely utilized. For manga, students can only take five at a time and can only have them for five days. The students who read manga visit the library often, and use it well. In addition, Amy heads up our school’s poetry club, who also creates the literary magazine. Our librarians’ curation of our collection, enthusiasm for good reads and welcoming smiles in the library make it a nurturing place for readers, and as an English teacher I greatly appreciate that.
I could go on and on. Each year, the library hosts the museum-style display developed by the Women and Writing senior class. They make computers available to students as often as possible. Amy teaches the Intellectual Freedom classes for parents and teachers. These classes qualify them to participate on committees to evaluate complaints against books which are on the shelves in libraries across the district. In other words, she ensures that every book will get a fair consideration, and that the days of a few angry voices getting a book removed from the shelves will not happen. This underscores most of our values as English teachers that students have as wide a range of reading made available to them as possible.
Who am I kidding? The English department has no special claim to these remarkable human resources. They host the science fair, provide support for research in the social studies courses as well as English, bring in community speakers such as Holocaust survivors and authors, arrange screenings of films such as a recent one we watched about the history and relevance of Wonder Woman as a superheroine, provide space and set-up for a plethora of meetings and trainings…. There is too much to list.
The librarians at our school remind me what it means to have a vital library, one that becomes a beating heart of the school, a heart in counterpoint to the stadium, the cafeteria, the attendance office, the little theater. Good librarians are irreplaceable, and yet so often they are replaced during budget cuts. When they are replaced (or taken and not replaced), books disappear off the shelves, computers and furniture are not maintained, the collection and its use go into decline, a place of warmth and light on campus becomes a place of emptiness and sterility, poems go unwritten, and voices go unheard. Let’s do all we can to preserve funding for our school libraries, and to place them in the loving hands of highly qualified and passionate librarians.