Friday, September 10, 2004

Speaker's Corner

I was visiting a middle school library recently...

As a school librarian I love keeping my faculty up to date on the latest trends in children’s literature and helping them design reading assignments for our students. This is called collaboration.

I love teachers. I have never met a teacher who did NOT want a student to read for pleasure. They are thrilled when students read anything at all. As young people progress through their school career, however, the insidious “obligatory page minimum” requirement begins to creep in to their reading assignments.

Teachers feel like they need to “stretch” their students' reading chops by requiring books “of a certain size” for assignments. With the best of intentions, they set requirements for book length for book reports or reading assignments.

I feel the time is ripe for some re-education.

Teachers should be kept up to date on publishing “norms.” How many of jr. high teachers know the average number of pages in a YA book? A former student was recently disqualified from reading Jack’s Black Book by Jack Gantos because it fell below the “obligatory page minimum” the teacher had arbitrarily assigned. The book, the goals of the assignment, the middle school student: it was a match all around EXCEPT for the length. The title was nixed.

If you are teaching a genre it will be worthwhile to review the characteristics of that genre (ask your librarian to do this in a lesson) and THEN have students locate a book that interests them using the library catalog along with title and cover clues for that genre.

Genre spine labels are helpful but not definitive. Watching a class pass by titles that fit the assignment because they were branded with a state reading program label instead of the genre label was deflating. Also, think how many books fit more than one category. Is it a ghost story or a mystery or both? How many stickers do we cover book spines with before the title is completely obscured?

I know teachers are not trying to kill the love of reading but watching kids pull books off the shelf and only flip to the back to check the page count was dispiriting. Sadder still was watching a student trudge to the checkout desk with a book he had no interest in but it had the “right” number of pages. Is he starting this assignment on the right foot?

Your school library has a collection of books that was selected specifically for the students at your school. If you want them to read a novel for an assignment -- that is fine. Let them select a novel, in the specified genre from the school library collection. Hopefully, it has been placed there by a professional librarian because it meets the needs and interests of students in that building, not because it had a minimum number of pages

You can still make your students stretch their literary chops by the quality of information you require of them in the assignment.

I have a daughter beginning her college career in a course using YA novels and picture books as source material. Goodness, those kids are in college, shouldn't they be reading college level books? They are going to polish their writing skills by reading and writing about books that are accessible to college freshmen. They WILL be expected to produce "college level" thinking about the literature.

As librarians we must be proactive and helpful to our faculty. I have not met a teacher yet who did not welcome some support from me on the subject our students reading lives.

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