In each of our 22 schools, there is a space where one finds evidence of The Bellingham Promise everywhere, every day. It’s a place where students find an answer or develop a topic for a paper, or even search for themselves. This is the school library.
School libraries first and foremost hold book collections, but they also host family and school activities, and give students a place to explore interests and discussions beyond the classroom.
Books and breakfast events take place in many elementary libraries and are a chance to come together, usually before school, to connect students, families and staff. Sharing a quick bite, chuckling together as a story is read aloud, and giving parents an opportunity to be in the school with their children, is an effective way to build community.
Guest authors also make appearances in our schools and share the joy of writing or illustrating. The author of “Skippyjon Jones” Judy Schachner recently made an appearance at Lowell and Wade King; Dan Hanna, illustrator of the Pout Pout Fish books visited Carl Cozier and Cordata; and award-winning illustrator Christian Robinson of the Antoinette books joined the Roosevelt community last February for a fun morning of sharing with the entire school. At the high school level, there have been visits by Sherman Alexie and Jim Lynch. These visiting authors and illustrators ignite and engage the imaginations of students.
In our middle and high schools, some librarians also coordinate a time and a space for after-school book clubs, book discussion groups or whole school book reads. Kulshan’s library media specialist Nicky Cook-Desler shared that she may propose reading “The Distance Between Us, a Memoir” by Reyna Grande, as a whole school read at Kulshan.
Collections that Feed Both the Mind and Spirit
Our libraries stock their shelves with books that support classroom work, academic resources and reference help. A student will find books that relate to each of the outcomes in The Promise, whether they are knowledge-based, action-based or character-based. There are non-fiction books that include books on math and science, history and geography, (remember that Dewey Decimal system?) or classic literature and new fiction and stories; there are biographies of great figures in history, and autobiographies of those who have risen above challenges.
Keeping up with changing academic needs and with current titles and topical conversations is constant work. While a portion of the library budget is for curricular needs or replacements, library staff also try to find the books that will work for their particular school community. At the same time, they also try to add books that reflect the needs and diversity of all students. This is intentional work so that students can find themselves included in texts. This diversity can be based on ethnicity, race, socio-economics, sexual orientation, gender identity, immigration status, disabilities or diverse family structures, to name only a few.
Katy Ackerson, Carl Cozier’s library media specialist, appreciates the intentionality of adding to collections, and for her own school would like to add books which may resonate with the Somali students who have recently arrived at her school.
In all cases, these books focus on inclusiveness of all students, on anti-bullying messages, and on loving all students. The intent is to help address feelings of isolation, anxiety and bullying that some of our students may feel.
Charisse Berner, director of Teaching and Learning, believes that books that address bullying or intolerance help us reach the core belief of The Bellingham Promise that all children should be loved.
“The Bellingham Promise compels us to love all of our students. We intentionally create safe, inclusive schools and classrooms where all students see themselves as valuable and valued members of the community,” Berner says. “We work to develop students who are compassionate and books help us to develop empathy for each other.”
Taking on Difficult Topics
The world is moving faster and faster all around us, and libraries keep up the best they can.
In a healthy, democratic society, a public or school library will mirror the patrons and keep up with current conversations/issues. Sometimes this can lead to sensitive topics, and lead to discussions of tolerance and intolerance and whether something is age-appropriate. Quite often this is played out in libraries. To acknowledge these historical and current conversations, some libraries will host ‘banned book week’ activities to emphasize the first amendment issues around books.
Here is a list of some resources for families as their child’s first teachers to support conversations at home regarding timely topics in the news.
Questions and Answers with District Staff
Staff members took time to respond to a few questions about library collections and issues of inclusion.
How do you pick titles for your library?
Denisa Anderson, Roosevelt Elementary library media specialist (LMS): We choose books based on curricular needs; reading levels and interests that span 4 years to 12 years; award book nominees. We pick award-winning books; series, popular and prolific authors; community needs — an LGBTQ text for a transgender student, texts about disabilities for a child without a hand, for a student who is blind, or for kids in wheelchairs, plus texts for everyday issules like getting glasses or braces. These books might help them feel less isolated or different and might help others understand them. We also have books on different faiths/cultures/languages/geographical areas.
Tracy Shaw, Squalicum LMS: At Squalicum, we use a variety of ways to choose books. I read specific young adult book blogs, read through book reviews and articles with authors, read twitter feeds from authors, peruse book shops, chat with students and teachers about books they love or want to read. I also meet with the other high school, middle school, and public and school librarians from around the counties to talk books.
Do you feel it is important to choose books with your particular school community in mind, keeping in mind the diversity and needs of your school?
Denisa: It certainly guides our choices and we are constantly adding in what we can afford. We try to weed out the old and bring in the newest and the best. We read reviews for books and check other collections to see what is the most worthy.
Tracy: The only way, in my view, to choose books that are appropriate to my school community is to know my students, to know who they are as people so that the library can accurately reflect their values and interests back at them.
Why is it important to have books of diversity on your shelf? E.B. White once wrote “A library is a good place to go when you feel unhappy, for there, in a book, you may find encouragement and comfort. A library is a good place to go when you feel bewildered or undecided, for there, in a book, you may have your question answered.”
Denisa: It is important to not only see yourself in a book but to see someone who is completely different than you. This raises awareness and you can begin to see what does connect you to others who appear to be different in many ways. It makes our world smaller by broadening our views.
Tracy: To read about someone who is “like” oneself, who has had similar struggles can be an affirmation and can have a positive influence on the reader. However, to read about someone else’s life, one that is vastly different from one’s own experiences or life struggles/circumstances, can be a life-altering experience. One can learn a tremendous amount from another person’s cultural differences and challenges, joys and sorrows can move and teach one.
Analisa Ficklin, principal of Cordata (former LMS): At Cordata, the philosophy behind our focus on social-emotional learning is that all children (in fact, all humans!) are motivated by a desire for belonging and significance. One important way to develop these feelings of belonging and significance is to make sure that children see people who look like them in the learning environment around them. This includes the books in our library, that circulate to children and families, and sometimes become read alouds in our classrooms.
Bethany Barrett, director of Teaching and Learning for ELL: Books are important springboards for conversations and activities that lead to empathy and understanding. Most of us have favorite books that resonated with us as children because they told a story that touched on a feeling or caused us to think differently or more deeply about something. When we read about other’s experiences, we are better able to put ourselves in their shoes and learn from their point of view. Teachers rely on talented authors to tell stories in new and innovative ways, stories of acceptance and empathy that speak to the hearts of our children.
Do you have any firsthand experience on how maybe a book (story) can reflect back to the student a sense of worth or validation or inclusion?
Denisa: All the time. One of the Washington’s Children’s Picture Book Award (WCCPBA) nominees a year or so ago was about a little girl who discovered that her friend didn’t have much food in her home. It’s called Maddie’s Fridge and that book is never on the shelf. We have a low income population and I think it helped kids on both sides of the fence to step into a world to both be aware and not alone.
Tracy: There have been two students who every year read and re-read the same book because each of the students found that that particular story spoke to them. That story validated who they were, their struggles, their choices in life and gave them the ability to continue fighting “the good fight.” They found a character whose struggles matched their own, and the character was able to transcend their circumstances. And so the students were empowered to feel the same way.
Bethany: As we learn more about our student populations, we are compelled to make sure their lives and experiences are reflected in our schools. It’s our responsibility to reflect our students like mirrors. When a child walks into any space in our school, they should be able to find themselves represented there, whether that’s on posters and books in our classrooms and libraries, or in the curriculum we teach. We honor our students’ lives and feelings when we reflect their experiences.
When you have a student who is especially thrilled by a book/story, how do they respond? Do they share their enthusiasm?
Denisa: The most powerful way to get kids excited about books is to be excited about them yourself and to promote the books by reading them aloud. Also, when an author or illustrator come to visit the school, it’s like the kids go into a frenetic panic to get the books. It’s amazing really.
Analisa: When kids find a book that they love, they often have a natural urge to share it with others! They want their teacher to read it aloud, or they want their parents and friends to check it out and read it next. Our librarians look for ways to encourage that feeling, letting kids promote their favorite books in posters, on bookmarks, or by sharing reviews online.