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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 7, May/June 2005

Poverty, justice, and the library

by Carrie Hinterberger

As I reflect on a very satisfying career as a teacher-librarian, I am struck by both the opportunity and the responsibility teachers have in shaping young lives—our future. Teacher-librarians have a unique place in that process. They know the children through their years of schooling. They recognize those who live in poverty and those who are advantaged. Books can be a great equalizer in a world where children lack equal opportunities. There is great pleasure in saying to a child, "Here’s a book I think you will love," with the knowledge that reading it may be a life-changing experience.

John Ralston Saul describes poverty as Canada’s gangrene. One in five children in Canada lives in poverty. They likely have limited access to books in their homes and may have difficulty getting to a public library. Books can provide a mirror for children and help them to know that they are not alone in the world. Books can broaden experiences and develop creativity. Books can develop coping strategies. Have you ever had the joy of seeing yourself reflected in the words on the printed page? Multicultural books and books set in locations around the world can expand a child’s view and help her or him to see her or his place in the global community. Books can make up for lack of economic advantages.

Books are an excellent alternative to TV and video games. A note stuck on a book returned by a Grade 6 student saying "This was a cool book," gladdens the heart. Studies in England have shown that when children have a well-stocked library and a skilled teacher-librarian, achievement is enhanced, regardless of socio-economic status, thus helping to mitigate the results of poverty. As John Ralston Saul says, "The true reflection of ourselves, of our society, is the one who has the least."

Just one person who believes in her or him can transform a child’s life. When a teacher-librarian believes the child is a reader, the child can also see herself or himself as a reader. A former Grade 4 student wanted to be a volunteer in the library but was a non-reader. He was a very helpful student who loved to do jobs. With that motivation, he took home the information he needed to learn as a volunteer, and he learned to read, something he had been unable to achieve in a classroom. A Grade 5 student who was unable to adapt to classroom routines loved books even though he was a non-reader. When a reporter from the local paper came to interview children about the books they loved, he had the opportunity to explain how much he loved books and enthusiastically show his favorites. A teacher-librarian has an unmatched opportunity to make a difference.

I have seen children’s eyes shine as they exclaim, "You have so many good books that it is hard to choose!" Picking the right book teaches competence and adds to the excitement of learning. Some only want books about princesses and some only want books about dinosaurs. If we can trust the child to pick the right resource, given some guidance, we add to their confidence and let them explore what they are interested in, not just materials at their level. We all learn by making choices and being excited by our discoveries. A book returned to the library from a home visit may have experienced some peanut butter or an extended stay under a bed somewhere, but it was chosen and had an opportunity to be loved. It may have been the one that changed the child’s life.

Children also learn from stories. One of my most memorable experiences was listening to a storyteller who visited our library. He arranged the children so they were looking out the window, at Mt. Cheam. He stood in front of them and told them the story of how the mountain came to be. It was powerful and entrancing. Many cultures around the world know the value of story, and we have much to learn about the effectiveness of story in teaching. By hearing and telling stories, children, regardless of their home circumstances, have access to information and concepts. Many of us are frustrated in the classroom when a child launches into a long and detailed story that completely loses the audience. Hearing good stories helps children to articulate and learn how to express themselves. Many of our most vulnerable children have few skills in spoken language, and the art of conversation seems all but forgotten. Listening to a good story provides advantages for all children, and those stories are plentiful in the library. Do you remember the pleasure of relaxing and listening to a good story?

Teacher-librarians provide resources for classrooms as well as for individuals. Working with the staff at a school enables us to know which resources meet the needs of the staff and students there, and how the resources can be made readily available. A good collection happens only when a trained teacher-librarian has an adequate budget and makes the choices using up-to-date selection tools. The collection can be wonderful, but without the teacher-librarian, it will not be made fully accessible. Teaching children to find information gives them a skill for a lifetime, a skill that must be made available to all children. That is what we are trained to do. A real, warm human who knows the collection, as well as the students and staff, can make maximum use of resources.

Our children, all of them, are our hope for the future. We must work toward justice in the distribution of resources and provide an escape from grinding poverty through literacy. One of the most effective ways to do that is to provide a school library with sufficient resources and professional teacher-librarians in all our schools.

Carrie Hinterberger retired in December from Evans Elementary School, Chilliwack.


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