Back to Books

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. 

Textbook-Only Teaching

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. 

Fully-Funded Teaching

“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

Who’s Hungry?

Did you know that nearly one in ten Minnesotans live in food insecure homes (Second Harvest, 2015)? That means every single member of the Junior League of Minneapolis (JLM) knows someone; whether it be a cousin, a neighbor, or a friend who lives with food insecurities. We know that hunger adversely affects our communities in many ways from an increased burden on our health care system to ill equipped work force. But how does hunger affect the education gap?
Personally, I could write and tell you all about hunger and the negative correlations in education, but the writer Steve Holt at Take Part wrote a wonderful article on the subject that provides insight into this issue and its impacts. To read the full article find the link below:
http://www.takepart.com/article/2013/09/11/going-back-school-hungry

Children’s Health Watch put together an easy to read fact sheet that provides a very straight forward view of the issue. This approach is appealing to me as it gives the reader the facts even if it’s unpleasant. To read the full report find the link below:
http://www.childrenshealthwatch.org/wp-content/uploads/toohungrytolearn_report.pdf

The Junior League of Minneapolis (JLM) has focused their efforts on tackling the achievement gap in the Minneapolis area. So how are we doing it? One of our major programs is called Backpack Buddies. Founded in 2008, Backpack Buddies set out to reduce the effects of hunger by providing easy to prepare food to cover the needs of children residing in food insecure homes. Currently, the Backpack Buddies project sends out 800 backpacks per week across three different schools. That ends up being 15,000 pounds of food per month. The number are staggering. The even crazier thing is there is always more to be done.

To get more involved Junior League members can sign up for an unpacking/packing shift or donate to the Annual Fund. Community members can get involved by donating non-perishable food items to a local food shelf or signing up for a volunteer shift at Second Harvest or similar non-profits.

Feeding Hungry Students: One New Mexico Teacher Making a Difference

The day’s lesson isn’t the first thing on Marvin Callahan’s mind after the first school bell rings. Instead, the Albuquerque, New Mexico, teacher wonders whether his students have eaten. His routine begins by asking each one of his first-grade pupils what her or she ate for breakfast that morning.

“I have kids that come to school every day and they’re hungry,” Callahan said. “They can’t come in here and be at their best.”

Every day, the 20-year veteran teacher spends a chunk of his own salary to feed hungry kids in his classroom. For the kid who came to school on an empty stomach, Callahan either sends the child to the cafeteria or simply walks over to the supply closet behind his desk for some food. Many teachers at Comanche Elementary School use their own cash to buy supplemental food for their hungry students. More than 60 percent of the kids at Comanche qualify for the federal free or reduced-priced lunch program.

Callahan said that the school lunch is the last meal of the day for many students. He began to think about what his kids were facing after Friday’s dismissal bell. So Callahan and the school counselor, Karin Medina, started a backpack program for the Comanche students who need the most help on the weekend. Every Friday, kids from 25 families get meals and two snacks to take home, enough to fight their hunger pangs until Monday arrives.

The Comanche backpack program is not an official nonprofit, nor does it have any outside funding. The program doesn’t even have a name. However, even without a name, it serves as an example of community generosity, which has others aiding it. A local business brings by boxes of food weekly, and a Boy Scout troop has donated money twice this year.

Teachers feeding their students isn’t uncommon in our nation’s schools. In fact, 73 percent of teachers have hungry students in their classes, according to a report issued in 2013 by the advocacy group No Kid Hungry.

(Taken from a collection of articles and interviews from the fall of 2014. Google Marvin Callahan for more information.)

Post contributed by Kristy Barnett.

CDF’s The State of America’s Children 2014 Report Published

Children’s Defense Fund published a new report, The State of Americas Children 2014, which provides a comprehensive analysis of national and state data on population, poverty, family structure, family income, health, nutrition, early childhood development, education, child welfare, juvenile justice, and gun violence.

The report suggests that the number of homeless children enrolled in public schools in the state of Minnesota increased by 97% between the 2006 and 2012.

The study also shows that students who live in poverty fare far worse in the public school system than those from higher income families.

Approximately 75% of lower income fourth and eighth grade Minnesota public school students performed below their grade level in math and reading in 2013; less than 50% of higher income students performed below their grade level in math & reading during the same time period.

Source: http://www.childrensdefense.org/child-research-data-publications/data/2014-soac.pdf

The Impact of the SNAP & SNAP-Ed Cuts

The 2009 Recovery Act’s temporary boost to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) ends today which means a benefit cut for nearly 48 million SNAP recipients.  For a household of four, this cut equates to a $36 reduction in SNAP benefits per month.  Congressional work on the Farm Bill, which funds SNAP and SNAP-Ed, commenced this week with both the House and Senate proposing further cuts over the next ten years.  The House proposal would cut the $80 billion program by an additional $4 billion per year while the Senate proposal would cut the program by $400 million per year.

The lesser recognized component of the SNAP program, SNAP-Ed, is a federal / state partnership that supports nutrition education for persons eligible for the SNAP.

State agencies who conduct nutrition education are eligible for reimbursement up to 50% of their SNAP-Ed costs by the USDA Food and Nutrition Service.  In Minnesota, SNAP-Ed is delivered by community educators from the University of Minnesota Extension and Minnesota Chippewa Tribe; these two agencies serve all counties in the state and six tribal reservations.

Snap Ed