The Teacher Librarian: Taking the Long View

If librarians want to support in-depth inquiry learning, then they must assume four roles in the school: catalyst, connector, coach, and caregiver.

—Barbara Stripling, Curriculum Connections (pp. 33-36)

My librarian observation had three stages. The first was a group interview with credential library media teachers Jean Pytlik and Loretta San Souci and the Hayward contingent of the FPU cohort at the library which Loretta runs. The second was a direct observation of Loretta San Souci in the library which we share. The third was a follow-up phone conference with Loretta San Souci for clarification. All three contacts were very illuminating. The main impression I got from every answer was to step back and look at the big picture, from developing curriculum to collaboration to facility management.

The Interview

The group had many questions for our librarians. I have summarized the answers, as well as my observation of the library itself.

Library Appearance and Arrangement

The library which Loretta manages exemplifies the role of librarian as caregiver. The approach to the library has an inviting bulletin board with posters with a library theme. Although the library is situated in a small room with only 2 or 3 computers, it has been transformed into a colorful, inviting environment with an effective use of the available space to meet the various needs of students and maximizes the effect of the good natural light. There is a rug space for read-alouds, tables for seat work with older students, a circulation area, and reference books on carts easily available to students. Boxes and baskets of books organized by theme, series, genre, and reading level are displayed attractively throughout the library. Essential library skills are displayed on colorful posters on walls and windows. Books with covers facing out next to corresponding puppets, dolls, and pinatas call attention to highlighted books. Although they are not yet on display, the teacher's desk has evidence of a developing seasonal theme. A large, simple chart of the 5 finger rule for choosing a book at the right reading level is prominently displayed. All elements are in place for quickly adapting the library to a personalized learning environment for the different needs of the students who use it. After the observation in the library which I share with Loretta, she made suggestions about how to transform it into the student-friendly environment she has created at her home library. A great deal of basic housekeeping has to be done before we can begin, as the library is a consolidation of two other libraries which have been closed. All of the features noted in the description of her home library can be implemented. Since our shared library is larger, there are more options for the use of space. We are anticipating the arrival of a laptop computer lab. One of her most appealing suggestions is to create a separate workspace for students to use when working or collaborating on projects.

The Librarian as Catalyst

Collaboration and curriculum are key concerns for the teacher librarian. Developing rapport and educating both teachers and administrators about what a librarian can do is an essential part of the role of the librarian as catalyst. Keeping the principal informed about the library, ongoing training, and curriculum is an important step, whether by email, conversation, or with notes or lesson left in the inbox. The librarian has many opportunities to check in with teachers about what they are doing, and what their students are doing in the library. Concerns about students, exchanging information about units, and creating custom book lists are some of the suggestions we received. Some teachers make requests for lessons on particular skills or content to support classroom instruction. Make sure the librarian is indispensable.

The Librarian as Connector

The librarian is in a unique position to coordinate the curriculum and resources school-wide. Ways to do this are to check the school calendar and Houghton Mifflin pacing guide to see what classroom teachers are doing with the themes, and coordinate library lessons with the themes. Another way to support and extend the classroom curriculum to the library is to pull books appropriate to the themes for grades 4-6 and steer students to these books. For instance, the librarian can introduce and match historical fiction to social studies lessons. In order to do a solid unit, it is necessary to coordinate with classroom teachers, since we have limited time with students. The librarian can also expand student awareness of what is available by creating book sets and book talks. If students are initially reluctant to branch out in their reading, the librarian can require short book reviews on different genres. I got several ideas for short and structured, yet thought-provoking ideas for book report formats. Finally, coordinate research and activities with computer lab activities. By implementing these ideas, the librarian can become a catalyst for inquiry and expanded horizons for the entire school.

The Librarian as Caregiver

It is the job of the library to make the library a comfortable and inviting place for reading and instruction. In addition to the appearance of the library, we can also structure our lessons to make our students feel welcome. Since we have many English language learners in our district, it is important to make instruction accessible to them. Choosing appealing picture books with familiar content and teaching vocabulary should be a standard part of ELL lessons. Spanish language books should be readily available and well-marked. Above all, all students should be aware that they can ask for help.

The Librarian as Coach

Promoting literacy is one of the primary functions of the librarian. To plan effectively, we must assess student skills, and develop lessons that challenge our students. With our demographics, activities that are authentic and hands-on, especially group activities where everyone is held accountable, are effective. Lessons should lead students to know the library layout and use it independently. They should also be familiar with responsible library usage and procedures. Research activities at grade level should be a regular component of instruction. To facilitate regular use of reference books in all lessons, they can be placed on a readily accessible cart. Attractive boxes of series and leveled books that invite student attention should also be available. The environment and activities in the library reinforce each other to create a natural pull towards literacy.

Setting priorities

One of my concerns as a teacher librarian is how to allot my time to each piece of the job. Between the many standards, grade levels, and facility management duties, there is often not enough time to cover everything. The advice I received on this question was perhaps the most helpful part of the interview: step back and look at the big picture. What do your students need most? When designing units and lessons, the librarian should touch on all the standards, but concentrate on the essential skills that students will need. It is also possible to cover quite a few standards in each unit lesson. The same approach applies to creating a good environment for students, cataloguing, and maintaining the facility. The librarian can do at least a small piece of each part of the job every day, such as cataloguing 5 books a day.

Developing a Program and Curriculum

The goal of library program is to impart the essential skills to our students over the course of the entire elementary program. Students build their knowledge base as they advance through the grades, acquiring and consolidating skills appropriate to their grade level. One lesson or unit will not be sufficient to teach a skill. It is repetition and expansion over the course of the program that accomplishes this goal.

The librarian uses a number of components to build a program. The library collection is a core element, which must be developed to support the language arts themes plus essential library skills. To ensure student success, the librarian should coordinate units with grade level themes, and use standards to determine exactly what to cover. The STAR sample test questions published each year give some insight the skills librarians are responsible for teaching. Book talks based on the principles in Information Power form a useful part of instruction. To coordinate lessons with classroom instruction, the librarian can go through the book lists in the HM Manual and make those materials available to students and teachers.

The Observation

I had the good fortune to observe veteran librarian Loretta San Souci as she handled one of the biggest challenges that librarians face. I arrived as she was ushering a special day class into the library. There were 8 students with moderate learning disabilities in the class, who came to the library at the end of a day with an underqualified substitute. The students were clearly unsettled and had particular difficulty settling in and focusing. Mrs. San Souci eventually settled the class into attentive and responsive behavior through addressing off-task behavior firmly and immediately, and by using questions and an engaging book to enlist the cooperation of her students. She began by eliciting what her students knew about bats. Then she read When I Lived With Bats, by Faith McNulty. This book imparts much information about bats in the format of an autobiographical story that engages the sympathy of young readers for animals. She interspersed the read-aloud with think-alouds and questions to her students. Students became very involved and she allowed short interruptions for comments and questions. After the story, she had students volunteer what they had learned about bats from the story, and wrote their answers on the white board. She concluded with a writing activity. A picture of a bat surrounded a writing prompt which provided a frame for a short paragraph. This activity could clearly be modified for use with more confident writers who could create a paragraph independently.

The lesson was an excellent modeling of the research process in KWL format. Her presentation encouraged student inquiry and making connections to prior knowledge. The lesson could clearly be used as cornerstone in a unit on animal research. In such a unit, the next logical step would be to solicit students to think about an animal they would like to research, and to facilitate student questions as a basis for research. The lesson provided an excellent step in scaffolding both the research process and final output for beginning researchers.

Conclusions: Obstacles and Opportunities

HUSD librarians face many obstacles to creating an excellent library program. The title of prep teacher diminishes the perception of the value we provide. The 25 minute class blocks with the primary students limits what and how we teach. Support in California for school libraries is very low. Financing is minimal.

However, we also have many opportunities to meet these challenges and establish the value of libraries and librarians. We can and do provide a high quality program, which we can demonstrate in part to teachers and administrators by include standards on grade sheets. Through collaboration, communication, and providing library services we can advocate and educate the principal and teachers about our value to the learning community. Finally, certification creates more respect and credibility in all our actions and interactions.