When I was asked to apply for a job overseeing nine school libraries in East St. Louis, IL, where 100 percent of students live below the poverty line, I welcomed the challenge. During the summer of 2015, the district made a decision to reinvest in school libraries, and I saw a place to make a positive impact. For five years, I had been working in Chicago as a library media specialist and the director of social media at Wendell Phillips Academy High School (WPAHS), which has similar student demographics to the East St. Louis School District (ESLSD). My WPAHS principal, Devon Horton, had moved there to become deputy superintendent of schools, and he encouraged me to apply for the lead librarian position. The challenge: to revamp library programming and serve as a high school librarian in a district that, like WPAHS, has 99 percent African American and one percent Hispanic students, all of whom receive free school lunch.
In Chicago, I helped improve literacy rates and created a community of readers through targeted collection development, tech initiatives, and other strategies. I experienced more failures than successes. But I also learned valuable lessons that influenced my instructional program. Since the fall of 2015, I’ve been implementing proven strategies and tools in my new district. My number one goal: to encourage reluctant readers to embrace books and become lifelong readers.
A recommitment to libraries
My first year at ESLSD, where I provide administrative support for all nine elementary and middle school librarians, was a time of rebuilding, organizing, and developing relationships. The district had recommitted its support of all library programming by hiring library staff, purchasing books, and investing in a centralized automation system—a first for ESLSD. For several years, it has been ranked in the bottom five percent for school performance by the Illinois State Board of Education. As with my former school, the stigma of low academic performance is difficult for students and staff to bear.
During the previous administration, the district libraries were closed and librarians laid off. When I got there, superintendent Arthur Culver and Horton reopened three elementary libraries and the high school library with certified librarians. Soon after, four more school libraries reopened to serve elementary and middle school students.
We still have a lot of work to do. During a recent district leadership meeting, I spoke about how ESLSD students did not have enough books featuring children like themselves, and also noted that the book-to-student ratio was not in line with those drawn from national school library surveys. Last month, Culver granted each ESLSD library funds to buy new books to help fill the void.
In addition to these milestones, here are the student-centered strategies I brought to the job. Many are simple ideas—with valuable outcomes.
A model for success at WPAHS
In Chicago, I had successfully implemented a strong school library program, including a blend of reading and technology that positively impacted student achievement. WPAHS and ESLSD have two things in common: a high percentage of reluctant readers, and students who needed help connecting to books that interest them.
I learned a lesson early on when working with teen patrons: if you don’t have a plan for your students, trust me, they will have a plan for you. I’ve found great success using a simple, yet sometimes challenging, six-step model (right) while working with reluctant readers.
I also tap into a student’s personal needs or interests, in part through bibliotherapy, which can help facilitate healthy development and self-actualization through reading. Useful resources include the Bibliotherapy Education Project from Central Michigan University and the American Library Association’s bibliotherapy tools (also see: “Therapy by the Book“). This approach allows me to focus on helping students grow, develop, and in some cases, heal from traumatic events in their lives. At WPAHS, after establishing trust with students, I often learned that their home lives and/or communities were very challenging. Despite outward appearances, many suffered from poor self-esteem, while others lacked positive role models within the home. Moreover, they often lacked the knowledge and understanding about the contributions and sacrifices of African Americans. Through books, I wanted to introduce them to role models and others who have had similar life experiences. That was when I began to use Pinterest.
A gateway tech tool
Pinterest provided me with a great tool to get my WPAHS students reading. I began using it as a way to share Internet pathfinders on Black History Month with my teachers. Once they were on board, students soon followed. Classes reserved computer lab time to view the website. My students enjoyed navigating the user-friendly interactive boards and learning about the contributions of African Americans they weren’t aware of. Most importantly, they were able to choose which boards interested them; they were in control. They began to request books and materials about prominent individuals. I created a Women’s History Month board, with similar positive results.
After that, I decided to provide deeper support for my school’s counseling department and their work preparing students for post-secondary success. I teamed up with the senior counselor and created the College Readiness Pinterest board. It features pins that focus on completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid: writing a great personal statement, finding scholarships, dealing with a difficult roommate, and surviving that first year away from home. The students really appreciated the boards, and some of the teachers used them as a reading activity/assignment. Students who weren’t avid readers enjoyed using the board to complete college-related assignments from their teachers.
Reluctant readers no more
I’m passionate about encouraging reluctant readers to embrace pleasure reading and needed research to convince my administration how important this was. I found it in Stephen Krashen’s book The Power of Reading (Libraries Unlimited, 1993). Krashen’s work focuses on the following principle: When you allow students to engage in free voluntary reading or pleasure reading, they will read.
With this in mind, I listened to my students and made book purchases based on their interests. My goal was simply to get them reading—and enjoying it. The two most popular genres were anime/manga and street literature. Although I had the administration’s support, some English teachers opposed my purchases in these areas, believing that reading must be related to classroom assignments or test prep. This was a huge fight for me. I presented stats revealing that library foot traffic was increasing. I also explained that when students choose books for pleasure, they become more confident with required reading, and make more of an effort with the material.
At WPAHS, my students were big fans of the “Bleach” and “Naruto” anime series and were drawn to the unique, complex story lines that aren’t usually present in comics and cartoons. I bought a small collection of these books, and the students, including nonreaders, became hooked. Soon, I was serving as the faculty advisor for the Phillips Anime/Manga Club. This provided a safe haven in the library media center, where lovers of the genre could meet and discuss the books in a respectful environment and not think about the violence on the streets of Chicago. Students were very serious about the club, meeting during lunch and once a week after school, and electing peers for leadership roles. Club discussions focused on the same literary devices covered in English class: foreshadowing, mood, irony, and point of view. Often, these conversations branched off into intense debates about the books.
Two of the club members had chronic illnesses and could not attend school or meetings regularly. In response, the others created a members-only Facebook page and website hosted by Weebly, where they continued their discussions and activities online. Now in its third year, the website can be accessed by current and former members now in college.
The animation connection
Another tech tie-in to the club at WPAHS was the video tool Animation Creator. Students made their own animation based on “Naruto” and other anime/manga characters. You can view a short video on the WPAHS YouTube channel and watch my student Jordan demonstrating how to use the Animation Creator app and see student animation.
Street literature—“street lit”—consists of fiction or nonfiction set in inner cities that accurately depicts the daily lives of people living in low-income neighborhoods. This genre has a strong following with preteen and teen readers because the stories are relatable, reflecting their lives and communities. Some of the stories serve as cautionary tales of the challenges young people face today. The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Street Literature (ALA, 2011) by Vanessa Irvin Morris, a 2016 Library Journal Mover & Shaker, is an excellent resource for understanding the genre and the impact it has made on teen readers.
During one semester, I collaborated with the reading teacher and worked with students who had been identified as reluctant readers. The partnership began when the teacher visited the library and wanted book recommendations for her students. I was awarded 25 Nook e-readers for the library through VITAL and REVITAL district tech grants I had received, and the students helped select short stories written by popular teen and street lit authors. The first was K’wan’s novella The Leak (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2011).
The Nook proved to be a great platform for this class of once-reluctant readers. They enjoyed using Nooks because they were interactive and easy to navigate. Students could relate to the story, and the built-in dictionary allowed them to look up vocabulary words privately. They also liked the Nook’s notes feature, because they could write comments, and another, similar class using the same Nooks could provide feedback. As a result, when the students in this class later read Coe Booth’s novel Tyrell (Push, 2007), they felt more at ease. They selected the sequel to Tyrell, Bronxwood (Push, 2011), as their next book to read in class that semester.
I invited teen street lit author Ni-Ni Simone to participate in a Skype session with a group of my WPAHS nonreaders. Several had never met an author before, and this was an eye-opening experience for the girls in particular; it was the first time they encountered books tackling the same issues that they face, such as the stress of living in inner-city America, relationships with family, sex, and drugs. They became huge street lit fans and used the Kindle app on their cellphones to download free stories they had read reviews of on Amazon. Many of them are in college now—and still read street lit.
My East St. Louis teens are also crazy about the “Bleach” and “Naruto” series. During lunch periods, I meet with the Anime/Manga Club, giving 30 smart, energetic members a place to meet and socialize in the library. They have now read through my entire collection and are using iMovie to create anime music videos and share them with their classmates. They imported original video and still pictures along with photos from the series to create new story lines and alternate conclusions. At first it was a real challenge to get the students acclimated to using iMovie, as it takes some time to understand and master. Eventually, they began to instruct and help one another. By the end of last year, they were using GarageBand and importing their own music. I believe that this is going to be a great year. I can’t wait to see the next creative project they orchestrate—and to stock my library with more books they want to read.
I love what I do—and wouldn’t trade it for anything. I’m a second-generation educator. My mother and my late father were instrumental in encouraging me to leave corporate America and return to school to become a school librarian. My father gave me these words of advice that remain with me today:
Know your subject matter Do your research, read the books, and practice using the social media pages prior to introducing them to students.
Have respect It’s a two-way street with today’s kids. When they observe that you are making an effort to respect them, they will be more cooperative.
Listen Students will provide you with the blueprint for any program you are trying to implement.
Have patience If it doesn’t work, try, try again.
Keep a sense of humor Laugh at yourself, make those mistakes with the students, and just keep laughing.
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