Recently I was presenting to middle level educators in Columbus, Ohio (where by the way, they are reinstating middle level principles after a ten year hiatus) on integrated curriculum. A participant waved me over to her table and remarked how important librarians/media specialists were to any efforts to integrate curriculum. I concurred, and then she told me that Columbus had been cutting school librarians. She said they were viewed as merely book checker-outers. We agreed that this decision was outrageous, and I thought to myself, “How could anyone think it was a reasonable decision to make, even in these difficult budget times!?!” Then I got home to find out that my local school district had cut the high school librarian as a money-saving strategy and that there would be one librarian, K-12. I was appalled.
I can think of at least three significant reasons why a librarian is a critical member of any middle grades staff:
1) Robert Marzano in Building Background Knowledge For Academic Achievement: Research On What Works In Schools states that students’ background knowledge is a major indicator of their potential for academic success. A lack of background knowledge is a major detriment. One of the ways schools can build background knowledge, according to Marzano, is Silent Sustained Reading. Matching students to books that will interest them is everyone’s job, however a school librarian knowledgeable about young adolescent fiction and non-fiction is key to a successful SSR program. S/he knows the students personally and is able to suggest 3 or 4 books when a student walks through the door and says, “ I need something to read.” or “Do you have something like…?” Librarians like Kathy Foss as Camden-Rockport Middle School and Julie Purdy at Mt. Ararat Middle School help kids build that all-important background knowledge while inspiring them to become life-long readers. Becoming a life long reader is a compelling academic goal as far as I am concerned. However, in these days of number-crunching and data-driven decisions based on test scores, it seems to be imperative we pay attention to all of the components of academic success including building student background knowledge. Middle school librarians/media specialists are critical to this process.
2) “21st century skills” is a term bandied around these days. Look closely at the frameworks from the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, ISTE, and enGauge and they all share an emphasis on Information Literacy: accessing and evaluating information, gathering and synthesizing the information, and figuring out the ins and outs of intellectual property. Graduating students who are not adept at managing the research process for both academic and personal uses is educational malpractice. These skills cannot be learned in one shot during the senior exhibition process; there must be a K-12 systemic approach. Maine middle grades students are uniquely fortunate to have an MLTI laptop that allows them easy access to the digital world. Many teachers are knowledgeable about Information Literacy skills, however a school has an obligation to ensure that students’ expertise in the world of Information Literacy is not dependent on whether or not they have teachers expert in this area. A school librarian teaches everyone—teachers and students—about Information Literacy. They are the ones who are continually reading about this topic, keeping abreast of the latest copyright issues, and learning about new databases and other resources. Information Literacy is their curriculum, not an add-on to their other responsibilities. Research strategies that worked in the last century are outdated; the middle school librarian is the person to keep us all updated!
3) The library-media center is the heart of learning in the middle school. The librarian/media specialist is the heartbeat. She or he is the one who creates the atmosphere that says to students… We read here! We explore here! We love to learn here! Everyone is welcome here! We have something that will interest you here! The librarian is the person who sits down with a team and helps them plan an integrated unit that includes a variety of resources, who understands how lexiles can be used to differentiate and ensure that each student is able to access curriculum materials, and who helps them design a Plan B for when the school server goes down or the electricity goes out and the laptops become mere paperweights for a while. Teachers turn to the librarian for suggestions for read alouds that connect to a curriculum unit and engage the students. Librarians lead the way as teachers are encouraged to incorporate more inquiry into curriculum and instruction. Teachers work hard to engage their students in intellectually stimulating and relevant learning, and the librarian is a vital component of those efforts. When the librarian has gone missing due to budget cuts, students are denied a 21st century education.
In closing, my students and I were so fortunate to be able to work with outstanding librarians and media specialists. I can’t imagine teaching without a library-media center and librarian at my right hand. Any trend to cut back on fully funding school libraries needs to be nipped in the bud!