I think that this will be my final post for this assignment, barring any new ideas that cross the transom of my mind in the next few days. And so what I want to do is just to talk about how I think I can apply what I’ve seen and learned to the career I have today and to the career I hope to have in the future.
I want to borrow from the Harvard Family Research Project’s piece on engaging with families for my categories here, and talk about people, place, and platform.
It is not just a cliche that our libraries are only as good as our staff.
Staff need to be well trained. I think we can see (at least some of) what we need to know from this semester’s coursework. We need to know things like…
- How to engage with families and their children – especially parents with young children experiencing normal aspects of development (including the frustrations and trials of life with kids); how to welcome, support, empathize, talk, and assist
- How to partner with parents, find resources for their children – not just quality books and media, but also resources for various needs as the community demonstrates; how to be a trusted expert in the community and a destination for families
- What early literacy looks like and how to promote early literacy practices with families and children; how to work with families whose children have differences or special needs
- Why connection matters, and how to help people connect to other people interested in the same things they’re interested in
And in turn, I think there are many messages that we need to extend toward families and the community. These messages include things like…
- Parents are their child’s first and best teacher. You might have questions about how to do that, and that’s OK.
- It’s a safe place for you and your child to explore. Come ask questions, get resources, have fun, meet people.
- We aren’t really made to do this alone, and the community around storytime and/or parenting groups and other resources can rebuild the sense of “it takes a village” and help pull us out of isolation.
The more I look at this, the more I think all staff need to be trained to work with children and families – not just children’s librarians. Staff need to be ready to help any family that comes in. There might not always be a children’s librarian available to answer questions for a family, and that means sometimes the reference librarian needs to fill in. We may not all be gifted children’s librarians, and that’s OK, but I think these aspects of service matter for all staff.
I want to be a leader. If I am a leader from the bottom of the org chart, that’s fine, but I want to be a leader on this. I want to engage all of my coworkers toward the important work of children, families, literacy and learning.
I live in a county with twenty-three library branches. I haven’t visited them all. But I wrote half of this blog sitting in the flagship branch – a beautiful building with lots of windows and (sorry) little personality. There’s no adult seating in the children’s area, no toys, nothing interactive. Lots and lots of wonderful books, but nothing interactive.
In previous classes, we’ve looked at spaces for children and even designed one from scratch. It was an interesting exercise, but it didn’t fully come alive until I considered the relationship between the place and the purpose. In other words, I didn’t really think about why play in the library mattered until I considered more intentionally the role that play takes in early literacy development. When you think about how words are intertwined with every experience we have, you see that there are many skills that are promoted with intentional play and interaction.
In my school, our classrooms are set up intentionally. Our classrooms have open play areas for gross and fine motor play, creative and dramatic play, and interactive play; they have tabletop areas for teacher-led activities and art/craft/writing activities; they have a safe spot for a child who needs a moment to collect himself; and they have literacy areas throughout, including an independent self-selected reading area.
I think these are ideas we could incorporate into our libraries as well. We can do this without spending a ton of money, too. In my favorite branch where I spend all my time, we could remove one section of bookcase, add a couple of interactive elements, and a couple of comfortable chairs – and parents would feel more welcome.
One of the Touchpoints videos I referenced in a recent post talked about the library being a place where sometimes parents come when they need a break. They just need a few minutes sometimes where someone else, or something else, is entertaining their children so that they can breathe for a minute and then return to the hard work of parenting. This is exactly what we talked about in our first Collab session for this class, in which we talked about how the library can use its space to demonstrate that we understand what it’s like to be a parent. It can be a way to generate trust. I think that’s more important than we might realize sometimes.
Our people and our places give us our platform for helping families achieve early literacy success with their children. But what is our platform?
Perhaps we could sum up our platform like this: Parents, you have the ability to help your child achieve success in literacy skills and in life; and we’re here to help with whatever tools you need. Bold statement.
I think there are two factors that go into this being an important platform for libraries, and they both emerge from libraries’ history. One is libraries’ position as a place for people to freely obtain access to information and tools for success in an open, free, democratic kind of way; the other is libraries’ position as a place for people’s self-education on many topics, including literacy. I have always known the library as the place you go when you need to learn something, including how to read, because that’s been how the library has positioned itself for generations.
Our platform includes our approach to early literacy learning, including things like:
- Children learn through interacting with their world. Literacy is no different. They need to hear words, touch and feel things, and understand that words represent objects and actions and feelings they experience in their everyday lives.
- We can help mitigate various factors (both inherent and environmental) that impact a child’s literacy learning with simple, purposeful techniques employed in a welcoming and interactive environment.
- Parents spend more time with their children than anyone else, so parents need tools to support their children’s learning and development.
And it includes a vast variety of tools and approaches. I’ve looked at a lot of those, and for the most part, they end up at the juxtaposition of the early literacy skills and the early literacy practices.
- Print motivation, print awareness, letter knowledge, vocabulary, phonological awareness, narrative skills
- Talk, sing, read, write, play
I’m not sure it has to be too much more complicated than this – most everything else is local variation. But our platform has to be intentional; we really oughtn’t just read a bunch of books and sing a song and do some product art without considering what those activities will do for the children in our company. There is a place for every one of the fun activities we find in programming blogs. They just have to be placed in our programs in a way that promotes some meaningful learning in some dimension.
I spent a lot of time early in the semester trying to prove that some factors in children’s early literacy attainment are inherent, not environmental; I was then and am still now a little uncomfortable with the unspoken assumption in some of the literature that where environmental factors are at play in children’s early literacy learning, it’s parents that are at fault, and not wider factors like economics and sociocultural matters. In other words, I was looking for a way to avoid the blaming of parents who don’t or can’t provide their children with a strong foundation in early literacy, which I feel occurs in some of the conversation.
I still feel that way. I feel a deep urge to protect parents from judgment, especially from people they might consider to be elitist in some way, which sadly could include a librarian sometimes. I think the Touchpoints model confirms that instinct. Building upon strengths and filling in gaps is so much more encouraging than starting with a deficit to be made up.
But there is an extent to which nature-vs-nurture doesn’t actually matter in this context. Children will come to us with a wide variety of literacy abilities and foundation. They might have learning differences, they might speak another language at home, they might spend most of their day in front of a TV, they might come from a highly educated family and read five books a night – we don’t know. We can learn those things from our families, but we don’t know. We just know that they are children to be cared for and families to be lifted up.
I also spent a lot of time looking at STEM programs, cultural programs, cool whiz-bang things we do in our libraries. But guess which programs emerged as being really effective? Summer reading, and reading help (like reading to the therapy dog). Turns out that getting books into kids’ hands and helping them achieve a sense of success with reading makes a big difference.
Those other things fit in there, too, though. STEM is a hands-on way of exploring a variety of concepts and building vocabulary, cause-effect relationships, problem-solving, and self-advocacy – all critical school skills. Cultural literacy is part of forming a deep and broad view of the world, building empathy and interest in other people’s lives, and forming a sense of self. All these kinds of programs also have the effect of helping kids and grownups connect with each other. That’s a good deal for us, too.
So I guess in conclusion, what I want to say is that I just want to get my hands in it. I want to meet some people, try some programs, do some storytimes, invite people back, help people make friends with each other, read some books, sing some songs, learn some letters, build some block towers, play with some kids. I want to help create a place that parents think of when they need a place to get a break with their kids, when they need an idea for a book, when they need a person to tell them it’s okay.
I’m writing this post weeks after the single worst election I’ve experienced in my whole life. I want the library to be the kind of place that transcends this stuff. I want to be the librarian that provides great service to people of all varieties, that loves people and the community, and that helps overcome some of the difficulties in our world today. I want to use my tools to wage imagination, creativity, learning, play, joy, and togetherness. I want my efforts in literacy to lift people up – wherever in library-land I end up.
And I think that is what early literacy means to me, right here and right now.