Thursday, September 13, 2012

Meet Heather: Literacy and Child Services


I work in a social services facility. Our agency helps children and their families who have been affected by poverty, mental illnesses, behavioral problems, family conflict, abuse, assault, prostitution, drug abuse, ect, ect. We have many different programs for a variety of issues, some are residential, some are community-based. I work on campus, so most of the kids I see are residential.  I love my job, and hope soon to volunteer in some of the programs to get a better look at how the agency works.
The Library
On Monday, I had the opportunity to tour through the library on campus. It’s within our little school, where most of our residential children go. It was fascinating to sit down and talk to our librarian, Heather, who was kind enough to answer all my questions about literacy within our programs, as well as books and writing.
I wish I could’ve snapped a picture of the library for you guys. It’s beautiful, with art of creatures from Where the Wild Things Are (love that book!), as well as lots of comfy places for kids to sit down with a good book. My first impression was amazement. My high school library looked like crap compared to this one! And it made me really happy, too, because Heather is clearly a dedicated librarian, and is always searching for new ways to get the kids reading.

Literacy in the School
Many of the children who wind up in our school/programs come from homes where there are no books, where their parents do not read, and often times, they have not gone to enough school to properly learn to read. For many students, the library offers a one-to-one literacy program, in which the student sits down with one of the library staff to get some stress-free tutoring for reading. Many children in our programs (though not all!) have a below average reading level. Heather told me the main priority for these kids is to either a) get them up to their reading level, or, if this is not possible (many teenagers who have been out of school for so long simply can’t catch up) b) get them up to a passable reading level (grades 4-5.)
Every day, before lunch, the school has a 20 minute NATURE session. That stands for Need At least Twenty minutes of Uninterrupted Reading Every day. What I especially love about this, is ALL STAFF must be reading as well. It doesn’t matter if it’s a comic book, magazine, novel—so long as the adults are reading. It’s great for the kids, because it gives them a positive reading role model. As Heather put it, “If the kids see a staff they admire reading, they’re more likely to get excited about it.”
Every day after lunch, for 40 minutes, each class participates in a literacy block. This is where, like most classrooms, kids join together for different literacy exercises, depending on their ability level. Some classrooms read through smaller chapter books and answer questions in a booklet. More advanced classes (not necessarily older kids) do things such as novel studies.
For children who do well in NATURE and their literacy block, the school offers them a chance to purchase books for the library. Each year, one student from every class is chosen. They select five books, four of which will be placed in the library with a bookplate in the front cover, stating “so-and-so selected this book for the library.” As well, they are allowed to purchase one book for themselves. I absolutely adore this system. What better way to encourage kids than rewarding them with BOOKS?

Where does Heather find her books?
Most of the library’s funding comes from the Board of Education, but Heather also purchases books through Chapters/Indigo, Amazon, and United Library Services. Her library is filled with new books, which made me happy to see. I spotted the Mortal Instruments series, Divergent (which she mentioned she and the kids loved!) as well as things like Speak, Go Ask Alice, and the House of the Scorpion. Heather is a librarian that does her research. She knows exactly which books she’s ordering. She finds most of her books through reviews, suggestions from students and teachers, as well as what reflects the curriculum.
Hear that, reviewers? Your job is SO IMPORTANT for helping librarians like Heather find books for their students.
Big Hits
The books that struck big, according to Heather, are horror. (Hm, wonder why that is?) Darren Shan books are popular, as well as graphic novels, Amulet (Heather spoke highly of this one), Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Conspiracy 365, and the Simpsons comics. (She rolled her eyes when she told me this. Hee!)
For girls, issue books are a big hit. Anything by Ellen Thompson, books on cutting, books on runaways and the like. The girls (and boys) in our programs can really relate to these books, because at times, it feels like these issues are the only things in their lives that make sense. 

Issue Books and Triggering
Heather’s take on issue books really intrigued me. I’m a writer who loves to tackle the dirty and controversial subjects, and although Heather had a bit of hesitation about them, she is a full supporter of issue books. According to her, these books are very important for making the kids feel as though they’re not alone with the problems they face. (Abuse, poverty, cutting, suicide, ect.) For Heather, the issue books have never been a problem, because YA doesn’t glorify these subjects. Though sometimes they can get graphic, in the end, usually the characters have found a way to solve or deal with their problems, which shows these kids that there is an end to the darkness they face.
Issue books are a bit of a touchy subject with some of the clinicians and counselors, because they can trigger the kids. Books that deal with self-harm can act as triggers, and the last thing anyone wants to do is deal with an escalation. At first, Heather told me that the clinicians asked to have the books removed, but after persuading some of them to read a few, apparently they’ve seen the light. There are still some books that need to be approved through clinicians before the kids can sign them out, but most of the time, it’s not an issue. 

A Happy Ending
One of the last questions I asked Heather was if she’d ever had any issues with kids holding onto books longer than necessary. She laughed and said, “I have many stories like that.” She told me about one boy who was a voracious reader, and had been hoarding library books in his room at his program. They found a stack hidden under his bed. He’d ripped out all the sign-out cards, scratched out the agency’s name and wrote his own in the cover. After the books were returned, Heather sat down with him and talked about how they could arrange for him to get some books of his own. Needless to say, the kid was certainly excited about that idea.
So there you have it! My trip to the school library. I may snap some pictures of it sooner or later, because it is a beautiful library. Heather is the kind of librarian that makes me proud to be a children’s writer.

Would you like to donate a book?
If anyone would like to donate to the school’s library, or to Heather, PLEASE, don’t hesitate to shoot me an email at katiecarson at Hotmail dot com. When I mentioned I might be able to get some people to donate her books, Heather got really excited. Any old books kicking around that you don’t want? I know some kids would really love a chance to read them. 

Thanks for reading!


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