Archive for March, 2008

Library = Literacy

Saturday, March 15th, 2008

Literacy is about reading…right?

Libraries overflow with things to read, on paper and on-screen. What is ‘not to get’ about school libraries and literacy?
Perhaps we are blindsided in the scramble to attain higher reading comprehension scores while avoiding the fallout of the” information explosion”. Or we are distracted by the sound of grinding axes anxious to cash in on the definition - just add the word literacy to the following terms: functional; cultural; multicultural; information; media; visual; computer; mathematical; scientific; new media; digital; technology; and global. We feel the pressure to provide Band-Aid solutions; send in the literacy troops, buy more laptops.

Is the library - literacy connection too obvious?

It is hard to separate the process of reading from the reading material itself.

But simply put…Kids + books = literacy.

Now, kids can be led to books, and they can decide to watch hockey instead. Let loose in the most beautifully-designed library with comfy chairs and volumes of age-appropriate, enticing reading material - they can still choose to zone out. There is no shortcut to literacy. We learn to read by reading. Non-readers become readers by reading beginner books, which enables them to read books just a bit harder, which allows them to grasp more sophisticated writing and concepts.

We need inspired teachers and teacher-librarians to lead us on the path to literacy, but books are perhaps the more subtle, and throughout our lives, the more powerful teachers. Without knowing it, we, as readers, absorb not only the phrases and vocabulary, but also the thoughts, images, values and visions of the writer. To a literate person, the library is a world of collective wisdom, a map to everywhere. No wonder it is the cornerstone of our schools, society, and institutions.

Further reading

A Call to Action: What We Know About Adolescent Literacy and Ways to Support Teachers in Meeting Students’ Needs; A Position/Action Statement from NCTE’s Commission on Reading
May 2004

Judith Comfort

Dr. Charles Best Secondary School Library, Coquitlam

Bypassing the Brain; homework and kidnapping

Sunday, March 2nd, 2008


Take my kid for example. He’s 15 and this is how he does his homework: Ears are plugged and wired to rap rap rap; eyes are flitting between screens: left to TV hockey, right to candy glow, diving through windows, Facebook pokes from messaging pals, to, to Merriam-Webster (online), to Google (images - search), along the way kidnapping text and images and audio and video to paste, without glue, uncensored, into his word doc homework - and almost by-passing his brain.

You have to wonder if anything sticks.

Another example of the new homework in the digitized school library: 17-year-old students, of a course titled, no less grand than Comparative Civilization - line up at the printer, laboriously spitting out Sphinxes and Mona Lisas. Great world mysteries elude the brains of these students, who barely give the facsimiles a glance before stapling them to ripped-off paragraphs, to be handed in as their very own.

Students have always sought an easy way out of homework, taking the intellectual property of others, and pretending it was their own. But in the olden days of book and magazine research, every borrowed phrase and idea had gone through a catharsis of writer, editor and publisher. Now teachers cannot tell the difference between essays composed of online paragraphs and those of their students, because they are equally flawed.

Not that teachers aren’t getting more savvy. They teach about the evils of plagiarism (from the Latin: plagirius, kidnapper). In course descriptions, they warn about stern consequences. Research essays are assigned with extreme note taking systems - ” Do not under any circumstances write any of your own ideas on the same sheet of paper that has quotations from other sources.” The mantra is quote, cite, quote, cite. The latest adaptation of teachers is to set up creative booby traps to ensure the single user essay (Compare Anna Karenina to your mother; Create your own planet and
describe how you would build a swimming pool on it).

Behind the 8-ball is the CAD (formerly known as drafting) teacher, whose digitized assignments could theoretically be done by only one student in a class of 30, e-mailed to the remaining 29, and with names changed to protect the guilty, all electronically submitted within minutes. Forced to adapt to the new technological challenges, the teacher adds a personal creative spin to the assignment and now has to take triple the time to mark 30 individualized assignments.

In class the temptation to check out Facebook, chat with Jared in the next computer classroom, or play at is too much.

We put amusement machines under the noses of the kids and then expect them not to play. We give them computers, with drone-like brilliance to copy stuff and to instantly link minds world - wide. And the kids, adaptable and fresh, with a compelling need to connect, have taken to them, like ducks to water.

But make no mistake. Computers are not teaching machines, unless the content of the instruction is computers. “Interactive” sites are ok at best, compared to the interactivity of a flesh and blood teacher with an imagination.

A computer connected to the Internet may be school library at a child’s fingertips. But entrance to a room full of books does not guarantee a student will read or make sense of anything. The burgeoning volume of information is no reason to be impressed. The world is large and complex. Always has been.

Internet data comes flying at kids out of the blue, out of context. A book at least has some kind of order, usually chronological, or thematic and a door to open it; a contents page and an index.

A good book has the presence of the writer and is more like a living teacher, whose job is to inspire students to think, analyze, compare, synthesize, and create.

Accessing information instantly does not make anyone learn faster. Reading with understanding is a subtle process that takes time.

Instead of a neck-crunching, eye-scrunching hour in front of a monitor, try this. Lay out the 32 “black heirloom” volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica, the “over 44 million words”…”written and revised by the world’s foremost scholars and experts, including many Nobel Prize winners” on a table, and ponder how much you don’t know. Be awestruck.

So, who or what has been kidnapped?

Perhaps it is the teachers who need to create faster-and-faster in- class songs-and-dances, to keep up with the fragmented, multi- tasking young minds sitting before them. Taking time from precious one-on-one with students, preparation and contemplation, they are busy wrestling with report card and attendance software, scooting kids off the toys, and adding ugly confrontations with addicted game
players to their school day.

Perhaps it is the school boards caught up in a whirlwind of computer expenditures, replacing teachers, librarians, textbooks and library books with upgrades, laptops and techie handmaidens to keep the damn things going?

Or is it the kids, who click as easily as they breathe?

Judith Comfort

Dr. Charles Best Secondary School Library, Coquitlam