Wednesday, January 16, 2013

School Libraries and the Reading-Writing Connection

Recently, a request to sign this White House petition came into my email inbox.  I signed it, although I am not sure it will go any further than the request last year for mandating school libraries at the federal level. The 2012 petition received enough support to gain a response from the White House, but the response focused on literacy in general, and did not address specific issues regarding the connection between literacy achievement and school libraries.

This fall, a very exciting research study on the impact of school libraries in the state of Pennsylvania was released. The research, conducted by the Education Law Center, the Health Sciences Library Consortium, and the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association, looked at the 2010-2011 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests in Reading and Writing grades 3-11. Specifically:

"The report examined the 2010-­‐11 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests in Reading and Writing for students in grades three through 11, and tracked outcomes for students based on five factors: staffing, collections, digital resources and technology infrastructure, library access, and funding.

Overall, the greatest impact on student test scores was seen from having a full-­‐time, certified librarian.
  • Students who have access to a full-­‐time, certified librarian scored higher on the PSSA Reading Test than those students who do not have such access. This finding is true for all students, regardless of their socio-­‐economic, racial/ethnic, and/or disability status.
  • For several student groups that tend to experience achievement gaps—economically disadvantaged, Hispanic, Black, and those with IEPS (Individualized Education Programs)— Reading and Writing results are markedly better when those student attend a school with a librarian and library support staff, according to the research. In fact, they benefit more proportionally than the general student population."
As a nation, we have focused on isolated reading instruction far too much over the past decade, and ignored what we know about the reading-writing connection and the valuable suggestions offered in the National Commission on Writing's 2003 report "The Neglected R: The Need for a Writing Revolution" The report advocates for many changes in how we approach writing instruction in Prek-12 schools, most of which have been ignored. In the upper grades, the report suggests "half the students" and "twice the time" in class for effective and meaningful writing instruction. Certainly, educators and literacy experts have long been aware of the reading-writing connection and the ways in which reading impacts writing and in turn writing impacts reading. Preschoolers often "encode" with drawings and attempts at forming letters and words before they start to "decode" words on the page. But writing takes time, and thoughtful and effective writing instruction takes place in the context of using trade books and other print and digital texts as mentor texts for student writing. This is yet another reason why the quantitative evidence provided by the Pennsylvania report, linking school libraries with success in reading and writing, is so valuable. Perhaps it can influence policy.

Yesterday, Deval Patrick announced a new vision for public funding of education in the state of Massachusetts, where I work as a teacher educator. There are many good ideas in this proposal  although I have not yet seen the details. I do very much hope that school libraries become a part of the discussion.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Sometimes You Read Something That Says Everything You Wish You'd Said
I got an email the other day from an excellent New York public high school librarian asking me if I'd read Sam Wineburg's essay on Howard Zinn. I hadn't, but boy was I glad she directed me to it. (Here is an article about the article, with a link that will take you directly to it: Wineburg is a paragon of fairness -- granting Zinn not only his popularity, but the moral fervor behind his work and the importance of some of his historical claims. But then, in the most careful use of primary sources and secondary scholarship he shows the flaws in Zinn -- the sense in which, under the cover of writing a new form of history, he is writing his own ideological textbook which omits what it does not want to consider, chooses not to shade what it prefers to make black and white, and rest strong claims on thin sources. Zinn, one clearly sees, offers to those on the left the same assurance that the kinds of "patriotic" textbooks they detest give to those on the right -- in both cases a familiar and appealing stance allows the author to ride roughshod over the complexity of real history. Hurray for our side (whichever side that may be), says the book, and that comforts those who feel it important to tell that particular appealing story to children.
    Because Zinn is juxtaposed against older more conservative textbooks, he feels -- to some -- like a relief, a healthy corrective. And that is precisely how I would suggest using him -- pair Zinn and an anti-Zinn book, let students see the differing points of view, and compare them. But the key is comparison.We should no more treat Zinn as finally true than we should a 1950s All white America First textbook. This is the key to nonfiction as it should be, especially in the age of the Common Core. We are teaching students to be critical readers of all nonfiction -- whether we agree with it or not. That is why we must tell them where we get not only our quotations but our ideas -- what secondary sources do we use, and how reliable are they? Having Zinn to juxtapose against older textbooks is good. But encouraging students to compare both and question their sources is even better. Now that I think about it, teachers who use Zinn shouldn't stop, they should just hand out Wineburg's article to their students. Welcome to the world of real history, that would say, where we all take our shots at getting it right. Wineburg's article is called "Undue Certainty" and that perfect -- we know the past in fractions, and need to be honest with students about the gaps.
Marc Aronson

Friday, January 4, 2013

SLJ Author Panel Webinar

If you are a teacher or librarian looking to learn more about nonfiction picture books and chapter books, and how these books can be used to achieve the goals of the Common Core State Standards, sign up for the free webinar I'll be moderating for School Library Journal on January 17th.

This webinar is the third of a three-part series that Marc and Sue kicked off back in October. November's webinar featured Olga Nessi, of the New York City DOE Department of Library Services. 

You can register for the archived versions of these webinars and sign up for the upcoming January 17th webinar at:

Participating award-winning authors include: Deborah Hopkinson, Barbara Kerley, Sally Walker, and Steve Sheinkin.