When Librarians Teach Teachers

Public librarians are training early learning professionals in a range of literacy-boosting skills, from in-depth professional development to puppetry.
Illustration by Steve Light

Illustration by Steve Light

Preschool teachers and child-care providers have long taken young children to library storytimes and participated in book-borrowing programs. But these days, public libraries are serving the early-childhood education workforce in many other ways, addressing topics from social-emotional development to puppetry skills, and offering professional training that allows them to advance in their careers.

More library systems started offering support to early childhood educators when the benchmark Every Child Ready to Read (ECRR; everychildreadytoread.org) initiative launched in 2004, sending out a strong message about libraries’ commitment to early learning. The ECRR toolkit, a project of the Public Library Association in partnership with the Association for Library Service to Children, includes presentations on practices that can “help young children develop skills they need before they can learn to read.” The first edition focused on teaching parents and caregivers about the six early literacy skills of print awareness, vocabulary, print motivation, phonological awareness, narrative skills, and letter knowledge. A 2011 update uses simpler terminology and emphasizes five early literacy practices: talking, singing, reading, writing, and playing.

As the importance of early learning has gained national attention, many libraries have gone well beyond those directives to provide preschool and child-care teachers the essential materials for engaging activities in the classroom, as well as coaching and networking opportunities.

“More and more librarians are coming out of graduate school with training in early childhood education and literacy,” says Donna Celano, an assistant professor of communication at La Salle University in Philadelphia who focuses on young children’s access to and use of information resources. “Others have picked up how to do teacher workshops through their own training with the ECRR initiative or similar in-house training. Many are positioning themselves as educators in the community, breaking the traditional mold of the librarian as the ‘guardians of the books.’"

Librarian Susan Anderson-Newham leads a storytime at a acoma, WA, child-care center.

Librarian Susan Anderson-Newham leads a storytime at a Tacoma, WA, child-care center.

Providing professional development

Workshops provided by the San Antonio Public Library’s Little Read Wagon early literacy initiative, for example, help local providers meet their annual requirement of professional development training hours. In Washington State, Pierce County was the first library system to become an approved training provider within Washington State’s Training and Registry System (STARS), meaning that participating teachers can earn the 10 hours of professional development they need each year.

Educator Regina Pittman began attending early literacy training provided by the Pierce County Library near Tacoma, WA, back in 2001—not long after she entered the early learning field.

Now the director of the Child’s Time III center in Tacoma, she still takes advantage of the workshops and resources the library has to offer. She and her staff feel “spoiled” by having access to free books, blocks, and other learning materials, Pittman says.

“I am so proud to have learned how to read books to children and how to engage them in reading and early literacy,” says Pittman, whose center serves a diverse mix of families, 75 percent of whom receive state-funded child-care subsidies. “We also get free tubs of books monthly with new books for the children to check out, and there are no problems if the children rip a book or it gets lost. We never see a bill!”

Susan Anderson-Newham, early learning supervising librarian for the Pierce County system, describes the rigorous process she undertook in order to be part of STARS. She was required to submit college transcripts for herself and other participating librarians, write a statement about her training philosophy, and prepare a detailed agenda and objectives for the training to be posted on the STARS website. The trainers also have to participate in ongoing professional development related to early childhood.

Involvement with STARS has led Anderson-Newham to partnerships with a variety of organizations across the state that focus on early learning. In cooperation with the United Way, for example, her staff will train senior citizen volunteers to lead story times in family child-care homes. She also represents the library as part of Thrive Washington, a public-private partnership working to support the development of a high-quality early learning system in the state. The Early Learning Public Library Partnership, which includes the Pierce County system, is also part of Thrive.

“It’s amazing what’s happened over the past 10 years,” she says.

In Mississippi, the First Regional Library in Hernando, outside Memphis, was the first library to become part of a network of Early Childhood Resource Centers. Initially, the library offered teachers and caregivers services including the use of a laminating machine; they could also borrow a variety of books, toys, games, and puzzles for their centers. However, the service grew to provide workshops on topics such as early learning standards, working with infants and toddlers, and creating inclusive classrooms for children with special needs.

Coordinator Victoria Penny says that working with providers is an important way to reach children, because most are spending their days in child care. “We really believe that a library is a perfect agency to offer these kinds of services,” she says.

Kids from a hild-care center in Abbeville, MS, on board the Word on Wheels BookWagon, a bookmobile from the First Regional Library in nearby Hernando.

Kids from a hild-care center in Abbeville, MS, on board the Word on Wheels BookWagon, a bookmobile from the First Regional Library in nearby Hernando.

Blocks, puppets, and literacy

With literacy at the core of this training, librarians demonstrate how to support children’s vocabulary, listening, book awareness, and other skills in a variety of ways—through the arts, math, cooking, and block time.

Anderson-Newham has an extensive block program in which providers, along with classrooms of children, visit the library to hear a story and build with blocks. When she recently had to cancel because the library carpets were being cleaned, the children were not happy.

“I told her our children were really disappointed,” Pittman says. “So Susan just said, ‘OK. I'll be there, and I'll do storytime at your center.’”

Librarians also cover topics such as social-emotional development and creating inclusive classrooms for students with special needs through children’s literature. Many trainers provide “make and take” activities that providers can use back in their classrooms.

“They appreciate having something tangible to use with the children,” says Cresencia Huff, who leads Little Read Wagon in San Antonio.

Across the state in Austin, child-care providers are acquiring a new skill from librarians—learning how to hold, manipulate, talk for, and tell a story using a puppet.

“Puppetry is a unique medium for supporting early literacy concepts,” says Kathleen Houlihan, a librarian at the Faulk Central branch of the Austin Public Library. “Puppets help extend stories into the real world, but they are also great listeners, for children to practice or pretend to read to.”

Puppets also teach fine motor control that will later be helpful with writing, and when puppets sing, they contribute to children’s phonemic awareness because their mouths open and close with each syllable, Houlihan says.

Early learning educator training at the library.

Early learning educator training at the library.

Participatory teaching

When Anderson-Newham first began offering training, the model included visiting centers to observe the providers and see how they were implementing the strategies they were learning. The process was labor intensive, however, and Anderson-Newham says that her relationship with the providers felt more like monitoring than supporting.

“I don’t want to make people nervous,” she says. “It felt too judging to me.”

In 2002, the Little Read Wagon program began with a similar pre- and post-visit approach that involved taking pictures of the classrooms. Huff also changed the model to offer training sessions at the library—to remove the evaluation piece, and to draw the teaching staff into the library for their own enjoyment.

In Mississippi, Penny still visits about 45 centers on a regular basis in a bookmobile to offer a mini-storytime and model practices for teachers. But she adds that she learns just as much from the teachers she visits as they learn from her.

The early-childhood workforce is a diverse population—ethnically, educationally, and in years of experience. Providers range from having no college education to having advanced degrees. Because of that mix, “it’s challenging to try to hit the sweet spot where everybody is taking away something,” Anderson-Newham says.

Her presentations used to include a lot of lecturing, but now participants usually work in groups and learn from each other. “We’re really structuring our classes to take advantage of the expertise in the room,” she says.

When new picture books are released, providers gather for a book talk and organize into groups based on the age level of the children in their classrooms—infants and toddlers or preschoolers. They pass the books around and brainstorm ways they can use them.

“With every training that we have, we put a lot of books in their hands,” she says. “We always try to reiterate the literacy skills because that is who we are.”

A ‘trifecta of awesome’

While many libraries are part of organized early-childhood initiatives, relationships between children’s librarians and early learning providers also develop informally. Jenna Nemec-Loise, the children’s librarian at Chicago Public Library’s Roosevelt Branch, was initially asked to give a team-building workshop for teachers at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Children’s Center. The director then asked her to model some storytelling techniques for the staff. The session was so well received that the director asked her to give the presentation to parents.

It’s a strong hook. The mother of an 11-year-old recently told Nemec-Loise that she’s a regular at the branch because of participating in the workshop when her daughter was in preschool.

Nemec-Loise calls it a “trifecta of awesome”: the library connects with the center and the center encourages parents to read with their children and visit the library. These partnerships, she says, also expand the skills that librarians have to offer.

“It galvanizes the importance of both professions,” she says. “Not just the library profession, but the early-childhood profession.”

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Vicky Hays

In Colorado, we have early childhood councils in most of our counties. I have been a member of our local council for over 10 years and share an early literacy moment (a tip about one of the 5 practices of ECRR2 or general early literacy) at each monthly meeting. It is also great to network with others who work with and for young children. I also collaborate with our school district's early childhood department to share information on what is happening at our libraries and materials and services. One of the newest projects that I am happy to add is becoming a media mentor helping parents, caregivers and children in navigating digital media. Our library district has library staff as liaisons to our local schools including those with early childhood programs and our outreach department does lots of programming at non-profit early childhood programs. Thanks for the article; I gained a few more ideas on how we can expand what we do now.

Posted : Jul 08, 2016 12:45

Ann Schuster

I love the idea of these partnerships but how awesome it would be to see the school librarians from these attendance areas included so that our incoming kindergarteners have another "literacy friend' to connect to on the their first day of school. We visit with incoming Kindies and their parents at registration but I like the thought of trying to arrange another opportunity to work with these little friends and our library colleagues. Superfecta!

Posted : Jul 07, 2016 10:30



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