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

Whither literacy?

by Maureen L. MacDonald

I chased my dream to be an elementary music teacher, and it was good. But when I taught from 1969 to 1971 in a school with a marvelous library program and a dynamic teacher-librarian named Doris Fuller, I knew that I would make a change. I quit my job and returned to UBC to take a year in teacher-librarianship, and I have never regretted that decision.

When I was first a teacher-librarian, times were exciting for school libraries. Budgets were sufficient to allow the purchase of many new books each year—perhaps two or three per student. Walls were knocked down so that the one-room libraries could expand to the size of two or three classrooms to meet the demand for shelf and student space. Collections expanded to include more than books. Teacher-librarians practiced Co-operative Program Planning and Teaching (CPPT) with colleagues. Students borrowed books and tapes and, in my school, stuffed animals to read to.

The point of the library program always was, and still is, to enhance literacy. Long before the days of mission statements and school growth plans it was understood that literacy was our goal. No one said "improve literacy" and "slash the staffing and materials budgets" in the same breath. Not until just after the provincial election of 2001.

Is it any wonder that the members of the educational community are scratching their heads in amazement at the ridiculousness of the juxtaposition of the partial closure of libraries and the admonishment to keep up high standards? Scholars, parents, teachers, students, newspaper columnists, and members of the public fail to see any logic in the plan of the Gordon Campbell-led provincial government to underfund the public education system. Perhaps the benefit of this plan is only seen by the operators of private, for-profit schools that advertise to attract well-off students to their big libraries and their small classes.

BCTF members have dealt with the library crisis in a variety of ways—endless fundraising activities to stock the libraries, calling on volunteers to pitch in where there used to be staff, relying more on student monitors. Why do we try to fill the gaps left by deliberate underfunding? You know why! We don’t want the students to lose any opportunities to learn. We add to our own workloads until we can stand no more.

The breaking point for teachers has come. We cannot do more with less. We cannot even do the same with less. We can only do less with less.

Let’s stop covering up for the deficiencies in the system. Let’s let the public and the school community have a taste of reality. How will they know if we don’t show them? Wouldn’t a knowledgeable public want to see the restoration of the library programs cut by the Liberal government since 2001?

Literacy is the cornerstone of democracy. Our urgent and immediate job as teachers in this democratic society is to protect literacy. One way to do this is to recognize the changing social and economic conditions in society and to reflect that in public school libraries. In other words, provide students with well-stocked libraries staffed by professional teacher-librarians and learning will ensue. That, my friends, is common sense.

When I see the school library in the big picture, I notice that the outline has been erased and the image is getting smaller. Multiply this times a thousand schools. The picture is not pretty.

The stripping of teachers’ bargaining rights, the elimination of class-size and class-composition clauses from our collective agreement, the mockery of assuming that libraries can run without teacher-librarians, and the slashing of budgets for staff and materials was highly detrimental to the learning conditions of our students. Success is not achieved by supplying fewer resources.

We have a different set of MLAs to educate now. Let’s tell them what a good library program would do to enhance literacy. It is false economy to reduce educational opportunities because today’s students are the most valuable assets of our future.

Maureen MacDonald is a teacher-librarian at Elsie Roy Elementary School, Vancouver.


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