Written by Elizabeth Gill
Do you have a stack of books that you have been meaning to read? How did that pile grow, what compelled you to purchase these books? What enticed you to buy those at the bookstore? Was it the clever title or interesting cover that sparked an interest?
Back to school season is upon us and as a teacher, it is an especially poignant time for me. I love the new starts that it brings: new colleagues, new students, new parents, and new school supplies!
Over this past summer, I have been reflecting on all of the places that I’ve been a teacher. I taught in struggling schools in St. Louis, Missouri before moving up here and getting to teach in a top district in the Twin Cities area. In each and every building, the language arts teachers are passionate about books and teaching students lifelong literacy skills. The differences have been in the resources given to teachers to meet that goal.
The linoleum floor gazed up at me in all its green and cracked glory. I had to be careful when I went to work with Trinity because her desk was next to a spot in the floor where I could see the brown subfloor, and I didn’t want to catch my heel on it again. Surprisingly, the textbook on Trinity’s desk was brand new. I spoke with her teacher about it and the district had purchased the whole textbook suite, including workbooks, the year before. It was a last-ditch effort to get reading scores up. But the single-use workbooks were not for students to write in. Who knew if those would ever be purchased again? To be safe, the teacher had those stored behind her desk. There weren’t enough for everyone anyway.
I was impressed by the textbook. It had well-written stories by well-known authors. The interior had full color illustrations and deep questions at the end of each tale.
The students didn’t read them.
Sure, they read a few stories as a class. Yet, there was no time for students to leaf through and find a story to read on their own. The textbooks were heavy and thick. None of the students seemed interested in trying to find anything to read there. No other books were available. During my year there as a student teacher, it was rare for me to observe students reading anything that wasn’t in the textbook or being read to them.
They were 7th grade students in one of the most poverty stricken schools in the region.
“Think of this as a book spa. We have our books organized by content level, reading level, interest level. With the district budget each grade can choose between 95 and 100 books and those will all be ordered for each ELA classroom districtwide.”
The sixth grade language arts teachers met as a group for an hour and a half surrounded by newly published books, award-winning books graphic novels and high-quality picture books. We were each able to take a cart and gather a collection of books that we thought would be great for our students and would connect with our students to build their identities as readers. We debated the merits of individual books and selected books that students would want to read and could be challenged by.
When we went to scan the books and order them, we had enough money to go back and choose another book to add to our list. Each sixth grade reading classroom in three different middle schools was going to receive 97 brand new, never-been-read-before books. Each seventh and eighth grade classroom was going to receive their own stack. Oh, and a teacher that teaches seventh and eighth grade? She would receive almost 200 new books without ever having to buy anything herself.
Book Access and the Opportunity Gap
You know that phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover?”
Young students DO judge based on what a book looks like. Certain characteristics are more important to students than adults, particularly the age of a book, the pictures on its cover, and the summary on the back. These all work together to entice a student to read or, horribly, prejudice a student against a book. Effective literacy programs embed choice reading, so more books that students want to read translates well into increased skills and abilities in reading. For school districts that have a budget tightened by poverty, teachers are the ones building the libraries out of their own funds. Direct donations of books and grants for buying books go a long way towards impacting the opportunity gap.
As we think about the fresh beginnings that come with the back to school season, think about what you can do to freshen a child’s classroom library.
Call to Action
Help encourage a child to read: The Junior League of Minneapolis will be helping all children enjoy the excitement of the Scholastic Book Fair by sponsoring the whole 3rd grade class of Partnership Academy, the school that HOMES partners with on science activities. At the September GMM we would love you to write encouraging words on book plates that will go into the front pages of these books. Due to the large Spanish speaking population in the school, our focus will be to include books in Spanish and about science. Kids will be able to choose their own books which is just as much fun as you remember!
Watch a documentary on the Opportunity Gap in Minneapolis: Love Them First – Lessons from Lucy Laney Elementary is a Kare 11 News Channel Originals Screening about a school in North Minneapolis. There will be a screening at Riverview Theater on 9/5 and on television on 9/12. Join the JLM at the screening on the 5th.