Andrea and I were going to meet at a warehouse after school at 3 pm sharp. A brilliantly sunny yet absolutely freezing cold day about a month ago. We were picking up free books that had been gifted to a local organization by First Book Canada (they donate brand new books to organizations BUT the books have to go home in the hands of the children – they cannot remain with the organizations) and they had in turn gifted them to us. We had been tasked with contacting this organization and then retrieving the books. We drove separately as we were unsure how many books were going to be waiting and Andrea’s husband was going to be joining us with his truck just in case it was the mother load.
The wind was incredibly biting and the loading dock we pulled up to was wet and muddy. We knocked on a steel door and walked into a dimly lit warehouse where a gentleman was zooming around on a forklift to our right and to our left two beautiful smiles and two massive skids of brand new novels and story books in bank boxes awaited us. The community organizers were delighted to walk us through the titles and the efforts that had gone into sorting and labelling the bank boxes for us so that we could get them to schools. We were in shock. I attempted to lift one box and felt a twinge in my back. The two ladies who had been waiting waved over the forklift driver and he moved the skids to the loading dock door. We pulled our cars up to the mud below and we began. We dragged and hauled and lowered and shoved in the biting cold as many boxes as each of us could ram into our cars – my car held 4 in the trunk, 6 in the backseat and 2 in the front. Andrea has a bigger car and we jammed more into hers. Her husband arrived (I admit I may have teared up with relief). He layered the boxes in the back of his pick up and managed to load every last box as we did not want to leave even one book. We thanked these ladies for waiting and thinking of us and promised pictures when we distributed them. We then proceeded to drive the books to Andrea’s garage and unload them as my librarian friend wanted to make a list of the titles and a small summary of each for the receiving schools. I drove home barely conscious I still had arms.
Andrea delivered books to elementary schools and I have been slowly making arrangements with secondary schools. One school in particular elementary school was able to give every child a brand new book to take home with them. The principal told Andrea that he was able to give every kid in the whole school a book and they were absolutely thrilled.
I received an email from one of the secondary schools that received 6 boxes of books. I had taken them to his house and we had jammed them into his SUV. He clarified, “free for all and they are for the kids to keep?” I said, “yes and take pictures.” This principal takes thousands of pictures yearly so I was not worried. Two days later he emailed me looking for a title that was part of a series of some of the books he received. He said there were not enough books of book one in the series and that the students kept asking. I need to be clear that the titles he was referring to were hardcover books and were an inch and half thick. They had put the books out (hundreds of them) and they had 6 remaining and students wanting book 1. I was going to check my remaining boxes and I asked him for pictures. He admitted to me that he had none and he himself was stunned. The books were gone by the time he came down to take pictures. A small rural secondary school that struggles with attendance, engagement, where many teachers read the class novel as students struggle to read the book and who all work tirelessly to prepare their students for the OSSLT had students self-select titles and take them home, only to come back and ask for more.
I realize am dragging this tale on and on and have thought about it relentlessly since I got his email. I did not expect his email nor did I expect to be thinking about it after the books had been handed out. I may even admit I wondered if all of the books would be taken. I thought about book rooms, I thought about the front matter of the curriculum …
And I wondered for a very long time about choice and autonomy and critical literacy. We hope when they were 4 that they chose a book and dragged it to bed and shared the story telling and reading with a parent. They listened on the carpet and went every week to the library for a book to bring home. At some point we believed they all had to have the same book with the number on the spine and that we would have to all share the same narrative, the same perspective and get the right answer on the line. They respond to the survey on the literacy test with little desire to read and to explain for what purpose they might read.
First Book Canada states on their website that 25% of Canadian households have not one book. We provided brand new beautiful books of all shapes and titles and they were gone in minutes to be taken home and consumed. I thought about Maria Vamvalis of The Critical Thinking Consortium and her explanation of the engagement spectrum from compliance to care and challenged and which end gets you to deep critical thinking.
Do the thousands of dollars piled in those book rooms matter when they won’t enter the text alone and they fight you all the way to “the end?” I am left wondering how we replicate the need of the principal to call and say, “I need more books?”
A: Those students have a full library, a gorgeous Learning Commons and books in their classrooms – what is different about this for them? Is it different?
K: I seriously wondered about that exact thing…their learning commons is magical and the librarian an incredible human being. Everyone is welcome and help is there. I wish I had gone when they had put the books out as I tried to picture it in my mind. I know the students asked numerous times, to keep? To take home? Like have for myself? I wonder if the library still feels like we chose? I have no idea? Do you?
A: From what little I know about teenagers, I’d say yes it does feel like that. But I should check my assumptions. We had a side conversation about the books we read in a learning team the other day. Where I am ok with other people’s books, they were not. I have to have it and hold it in my hands and put it on my shelf, they said. This is from one particular educator who is completing the 52 books in 52 weeks challenge.
K: It simply never occurred to me. I actually was crossing my fingers that he wouldn’t call and say what do I do with the leftovers? I did not think there would be a rush followed by requests and now a hunt for additional books. That being said, I have seen the data about reluctant readers and have anecdotal evidence that declares the same thing, “they don’t want to read books, they want to be on their phones.” “ If I don’t read it to them we won’t get through the novel.”
A: That was another difference between this group and myself – strangely enough. They said that they force themselves to read books that they are not enjoying. They force themselves to read to the very last page. I was very, very surprised. Both my son and I have giant, like giant, stacks of books beside our beds that we peruse and nibble on. Eventually they’ll be finished and if not – it wasn’t that good anyway. I don’t know if it’s my Librarianness, but books are about abundance – pure abundance of ideas and narratives and humanity.
K: I remembered my daughter at that age. Same piles and a shelf that was ridiculous. She has every book from 0-23. She buys more shelves. But I wonder if the take home is a throwback to that? Do we remember those book shelves, the piles, the stories and the reach for? I know there will be students who have not had that experience, will have had the book they bring they home from the library when they had such a thing and it was placed in their backpack. I just cannot let go of the vision in my head of the table and the choosing and the taking home. I want to know why they fight with all of their might to not read and to declare themselves as hating reading? Do we make that?
A: Maybe they are not the kind of people that force themselves to the last page or a least comply when someone else is asking. Reading, the dive into an author’s narrative, is personal. As you said, choice matters. They have a book to take home and no one is checking. They may read it or they may not – it’s their choice.
K: I just thought about the adolescent literacy guide. They speak of this learner – as you typed I wondered if it has ever been about reading at all or about the not asking or the not choosing – and if there is choosing, we still tell them what to think about it and quantify the whole experience to meet the reading expectation. I thought about those bank boxes and titles I had not heard of, but how beautiful the new books felt and smelled and the moment they were simply invited to take books home…what did they think about right then…and what did they feel?
A: Oh my, they were beautiful. So many hard covers and multiples that can be shared among friends to compare thinking. This brings to mind another fundamental thing about libraries: access. Could you imagine checking out books and being asked if they are the right level for you,or if you are mature enough for such content? Or when checking in, if you had read every page and could provide a summary as proof?
K: Wait a second….whoa. I read your words over and over as I was typing…their perception of the judging, the critical eye – right from library period when you went down as a class…Could it feel like buying condoms? Someone is looking? Someone not only sees but is then going to ask follow up questions. Perhaps, like the self-check out at Home Depot – we might have to trust them – all the parts – from choosing to checkout?
A: Reading as a human right.
K: I just had to reread above – where you wrote “reading is personal.” We have trouble understanding them. They put their whole lives on social media, struggle with compliance and fight us all the way home as they try to figure out who they are. We respond to this with limitations and rules and expectations. Reading as a human right is as simple and practical a notion as I have ever thought about, yet we want to control it and organize it and sort it out for them – leaving nothing to chance. Everything about adolescence is screaming at us that all they want to do is take chances and we can’t let them.
A: I hear stories about books hidden within the library. Someone has not found the courage to check that book out, but reads it while there and then stashes it for next time.
K: I hear about students carrying thick books around with small words that they checked out of the library and the observation is that they couldn’t possibly read that because they don’t read in class. I have proceeded to the librarian on more than one occasion and asked about said student and one particular librarian smiled at me and said two things, first – who cares if they read it at all – they come, we talk and they exchange books and two – that student reads every word – I hear them telling other students about what the read as they recommend the book quietly over by the shelf. Yet this student won’t turn a page in class. Are the books in the classroom actually for them?
A: The engagement spectrum – something has to matter whether it’s the conversation with the Librarian, the status or challenge of holding a thick book, or the connection to the content or perspective. The student chooses what matters…to them.
K: The curriculum says a variety of texts…when, and I know this is long ago, did we decide we all read the same book? Was it money, organization, ease of prep, good for students…I wonder who thought it was a wicked idea to have students all read the same text – I am going to have to google it. That being said, I know of a teacher who is starting literature circles and there was a ton of choice for her students in the grade 9 applied course type. I can hardly wait to hear about the learning…I have been invited to come and listen in a couple of weeks. I have some questions for them.
A: Wouldn’t it have been “the canon”? Books are classified by significance and educators may have felt that it is their duty to expose students to the most important books in literary history. I think this would explain the whole class novel study as a default teaching tool.
K: Hmmm – I did not draw a line from “authoritative scripture” to novel study but you just did. Books we think they have to read as they are of value and importance in their education. Allan Luke just popped up like a daisy in my brain. I have to remember I am not my students. Is their value in To Kill a Mockingbird and studying it as a class in 2018…I know a teacher who does and the students hang on every word as she reads it – literally hang. They do not do one comprehension question and learn out loud. Would they ever check it out of the library? Probably not…but if we brought a huge pile of books to bring home about social justice and the value of every life would they take them home as important? Is the act of them reading right in front of us an actual thing they have to prove? Nevermind that was a really absurd question. Of course they do – sigh. We believe they don’t want to be alone with the text…they cannot or will not read it and make meaning.
A: Wow. That is such truth. I think the question might be, whose meaning?
K: Yes, I think it might be. My books, my meaning, my black lines. “I was so disappointed. I did not get the answers I thought I should be getting.” I am thinking about those tables of take home books. Books with no strings attached.
A: Me too.