“We have books like this in our library?!”

March 7, 2008 at 5:12 pm 3 comments

Welcome to My Local High School (MLHS). Last year, a fifth of its 1200 students had to repeat a grade. A quarter of the senior class had dropped out. After the first term this year, according to the Globe, “Sixty-six percent of students had failed at least one class. More than a quarter had failed five of their six classes. Nearly half of the ninth-graders were failing. More than a third of them were absent regularly.”

I decided not to include the names of anyone involved because they’ve gotten their share of negative press. The headmaster asked that I not include names of students when writing about their reading logs, but I’m extending that anonymity to the educators and the school itself as well. (I’m happy to talk about it in person, though, and the identity of the school probably isn’t much of a mystery to anyone who keeps up with local education news.)

I’ve been doing fieldwork at MLHS for almost a month now, and in that time I’ve never seen a student check out a single book from the library. Part of the problem is clearly institutional–the students now endure longer school days and don’t have any study halls or free periods, so they have to have a pass to be in the library, even during lunch. Kids aren’t exactly flocking to the library, particularly since the computers don’t allow access to sites like YouTube or MySpace, and the head librarian often makes the rounds busting kids without passes.

So this was my backdrop for finding out what teenagers are reading.

“The kids that are reading?” The assistant librarian pondered my question. “You have to understand, it’s the same group of kids who come in and check out books.” Mr. Assistant listed stories from a minority point of view, real life situations, and books related to movies as the popular genres among his students. When I asked what the librarians do to promote books, he seemed a bit hesitant. “Well, the curriculum is changing, so we’re kind of standing back while the English department figures out what they want to do.”

According to the head librarian, on the other hand, only about ten percent of collection development work comes from teachers–the other 90% is all him. He sees the curriculum changes as more changes in approach, not content. “We have two challenges,” Dr. Librarian said, “One is getting books in kids’ hands. The other is getting the books back.” Having worked at MLHS for four years, Dr. Librarian believes his role as a library teacher is to make the widest possible range of books available to his students, from targeted interest magazines like Black Enterprise to sports biographies, urban literature, and the books students read for classes. What he dubs “young women’s fiction” is the highest circulating, and he adds that young women often come in asking for “good books to read.”

So what are those good books?

I was lucky enough to step into the ELA head’s English class, which meant I got opinions and reading logs from ten students. The logs by themselves would have been pretty depressing: not a single student listed a book for pleasure, and the only books listed were Their Eyes Were Watching God (universally disliked) and “Long Walk to Forever,” which is actually a short story, and one that was only listed when Ms. English prompted her students to remember the Vonnegut story they’d read yesterday. (“They don’t even remember Vonnegut,” she lamented.) One student listed “children’s books” and “Your baby’s first year,” which she’d read in the daycare center.

Once I got the books making their way around the room and chatted one on one with the students, though, things got a little more interesting. None of the kids considered themselves readers, but with a little prompting some of them came up with genres they enjoyed. Almost all said they had trouble finding interesting things to read or that they were too busy to read, and none of them visit the library regularly. Jayce, a bit of a wisecracker who strolled into class twenty to thirty minutes late, said he goes to the school library maybe two or three times a year. Online reading was almost universal, and all of the boys listed newspapers (mostly the free papers distributed along the subway lines) as their primary reading sources.

The books:

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You – No response. Books of this thickness were declared “too big” by one boy. (Actually he asked the girl behind him “Como se dice demasiado grande?”)

Beige – No response.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian – My new Spanish translator showed her friends one of the pictures in this one, laughing, but no one said anything about the book.

Before I Die This one was a big hit among several of the girls.

Babygirl A girl who initially declared she doesn’t read much hogged this book for the whole class. I had to literally take it out of her hands when I left the class, and she was shocked to learn that it had come from their library. “We have books like this in our library? Not just boring stuff?” She told the others what it was about, and when I was across the room talking to someone else I heard, “Girl, you can check out whatever you want, but you’re not getting this one. I’m reading this one.”

Holdup – This was the one cited as interesting by the most kids, and the only one any of the boys found even a little interesting.  Chris said he likes reading books about the mafia, and after looking at Holdup he said, “Oh, this is like Vantage Point. You know, like where they take something like assassinating the president but they tell it from all these people’s point of view.” A very quiet boy who mostly reads online–in his computer class, not in the library–also thought it looked good.

This Is What I Did – One girl thought this one looked good based on the back cover and the pictures inside.

Strays – No one mentioned this one, but the girl who bogarted Babygirl held it up as another book she was surprised that the library had.

What They Found: Love on 145th Street – Huge hit among girls. One girl said Walter Dean Myers is her favorite author, and had no idea her library has at least ten of his books.

The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl – No response. One girl said the boy next to her liked it, but I couldn’t really tell if she was serious.

Overall, the thing that struck me the most was how totally unfamiliar these kids are with their library. They don’t know what they library has because they don’t go, and they don’t go because they have to have a pass or are too busy or think the library only has “boring stuff.” None of them liked what they were reading for class and could come up with plenty of things they’d be reading if they could choose.

I loved talking to them, even though several of them had very little to say. I wanted to just hang out with them and a stack of books–it pained me to take Babygirl out of the hands of a reader!


Entry filed under: books, Education. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , .

Oh, snap. Prom Nights from Hell

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Linda  |  March 14, 2008 at 2:07 pm

    First, “they don’t even remember Vonnegut…” is it perhaps because it doesn’t connect to their real lives? What does that author really have to say to the teens in this school?

    That note about the free newspapers on the T made me realize that these might be of interest to teens in the school library. I wonder if they would paw through these if they were sitting on tables as browsing material?

    It’s interesting to think about the fact that some of the teens have trouble finding things to read. So, there’s an opening there but nobody has jumped in to take advantage of the opening. This is a great opportunity for the librarian if Dr. Librarian were willing to take it.

    The books that did seem to resonate with the teens are titles that seem to have strong connections to their real lives in some way. Either that they worry their life might turn out like that or they have had similar experiences. That makes me think that urban/street lit would be a really useful collection to add to the library – assuming that the teens would go to the library. We’ll talk about this kind of material towards the end of the semester but you might want to check out the Library Success Wiki for some info. on the topic http://tinyurl.com/y5cayb.

    That comment about not having enough time is one that I always see as an excuse – or perhaps just part of a catch-22. Teens choose what they want to do with the minutes of spare time that they do have – in and out of school. So, if they don’t see the library as worthy of those few precious minutes then they won’t visit.

    Another thing to think about, if you were able to make change here, is to get things started by going to where the teens are – as you did with this English class. You might bring books and let the teens check them out from you in the classroom. That way the teens would feel comfortable with the librarian and the collection and be more willing to spend time with both.

    I’ve said this on some of your classmate’s blogs, but it is all about building relationships with the teens. Once you have a relationship then you can really start to find out what the teens want and need and serve those wants/needs.

  • 2. Marigold  |  June 16, 2008 at 5:36 am

    Do u have any ideas on how to educate schools on the importance of reading and libraries. We have a childrens lib and would like playschools to borrow books from us. but there seems to be resistance. would liek ideas on workshops that can be held for the same

  • 3. pandanose  |  June 16, 2008 at 8:34 am

    One great resource is School Libraries Work!, a Scholasic research paper showing the links between school libraries and student achievement on standardized tests.

    The American Library Association also has great resources–check out Literacy @ Your Library to start.

    I’d also recommend the American Association of School Libraries, particularly the recently published Standards for the 21st-Century Learner.

    Hope that helps!


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