It’s a Brave New World for Teachers and Librarians

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This content was originally published by on 31 March 2017 | 4:00 am.
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The political tensions of the 2016 presidential campaign have not abated since the election in November. A steady stream of falsehoods, rumors, and so-called fake news is complicating journalists’ efforts to chronicle the often-unprecedented actions of the new administration. In light of this complex situation and its effects on young people’s ability to decipher current events, we asked teachers and librarians to weigh in on the following questions: How are you using books to explain what is going on in the world right now? What kinds of queries have you been receiving from students this school year regarding current events, and how are you addressing them with books and other resources? What have been your best practices and strategies?

Allison Tran

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Senior librarian for children’s services

Mission Viejo Library

Mission Viejo, Calif.

I haven’t had many specific queries about current events from my library patrons, which is surprising to me—but I’m working to anticipate the need for information by putting books on display that relate to topics in the news, such as climate change, women’s rights, LGBT rights, and how our government works. I’m also being more intentional than ever about displaying books featuring people of color, or people from a variety of cultures. Because some of these topics are now politically charged, I wonder if patrons may shy away from asking direct questions about them—so I’m trying to answer the unasked questions, or perhaps spark inquiry and encourage deeper learning on these topics.

I’m also highlighting information-literacy concepts more often these days, both in one-on-one interactions on the reference desk and when we have school tours. I’ve always been passionate about empowering students to become savvy researchers, and with the rise of fake news, it’s even more important to make sure even very young elementary school students are introduced to the basic concepts of evaluating authorship, timeliness, and bias.

Joanna Schofield

Youth programming coordinator

Cuyahoga County Public Library

Cuyahoga County, Ohio

This past January, the Association for Library Services to Children hosted a mini-institute before ALA Midwinter. At this mini-institute, librarians, authors, illustrators, and other individuals passionate about library service to children discussed our current political climate and strategized ways to best support youth during this time. The most important idea I took away from this event is the desperate need to provide all library customers with literary windows and mirrors.

People of all ages need to not only be able to find characters who look, think, feel, or act like them in books, but all people should be exposed to high-quality literature filled with cultures and ideas different from their own. I have shared a wide range of diverse titles and tried to focus on many different types of diversity—racial, economic, cultural, gender, and others—including titles such as Flying Lessons and Other Stories edited by Ellen Oh, Ed Young’s The Cat from Hunger Mountain, Jason Reynolds’s Ghost, F. Isabel Campoy’s Make Something Beautiful: How Art Transformed a Neighborhood, and Becky Albertalli’s Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda.

Since I began working with youth more than 10 years ago, I have found that all children are looking for their voice and for opportunities to express themselves. In our current political environment, it is so important for all educators, librarians, and other youth-focused professionals to provide opportunities for children and young adults to form and express their ideas.

I have engaged in numerous conversations with youth of all ages in the last six months, in which the students have expressed unease or fear and have shared with me incorrect facts or ideas that they have heard from someone else. Children as young as kindergarten have asked about President Trump’s wall and if they will be able to go to the doctor, because their families do not have enough money to pay the doctor. As a librarian, it is my responsibility to listen to these ideas and help young people find correct and balanced information so they can form their own opinions and beliefs. Through information-literacy education, marketing a balanced and diverse collection, active listening, and striving to always provide a welcoming and safe physical space, libraries and librarians can support all customers in today’s world.

Cindy Dobrez

Librarian

Harbor Lights and Macatawa Bay Middle Schools

Holland, Mich.

The day after the November election my schedule included historical fiction book talks for eighth-grade students in my very diverse middle school. Our county votes strongly Republican but also includes a large migrant-worker population, due to our agriculture industry, and many immigrants from Mexico, Vietnam, Laos, and other countries. The hallways that morning were full of emotion. Chants of “Trump Train” contrasted with students crying in small huddled groups. Eight years earlier, there were very diverse reactions to the election as well.

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As a librarian, the ALA Bill of Rights requires me to provide some comfort to those who were frightened or sad while others celebrated. Historical fiction provided a perfect vehicle. I highlighted the strengths of the genre, that our country’s history and the history of other countries is full of sad, scary, and difficult times but that many of these stories also show how people, especially children and teens, coped with or worked to change what they didn’t like. The power of story can be a great comfort.

Lorena Germán

High school English teacher

Headwaters School

Austin, Tex.

My students—at a predominantly white institution—have been feeling overwhelmed about what they see and hear in the news and around us in Texas. As a result, many conversations have been going on in my classrooms. Instead of ignoring these and keeping politics out, I’ve embraced these questions and conversations because otherwise there will be more misinformation.

So, the texts we have been reading are all connected to the issues we are discussing. For example, in our freshman course we are currently reading Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese. We are using this text to study all of the basic literary devices, and we are learning about the Asian-American experience in the U.S., stereotypes, microaggressions, the model-minority myth, and more. It is my job to go beyond literary and academic preparation and equip my students to be loving, intelligent, critical thinkers in our world.

I’ve allowed my students the space to discuss, explore, and learn about what’s going on. If there is no space in my classroom, they probably won’t have another space to really understand current events. I intentionally create a diverse curriculum both in the form of the texts we consume and the work the students produce. This ensures that all students’ strengths will be welcomed and celebrated. I take the time to listen to students and show them how to deal with conflicts. If I need to end class five minutes early in order to sit two students down and hash out tension, then that is what I’ll do. It communicates to the larger class that I’m aware of the tension and in tune with their concerns.

I stay active in my professional development by listening to speakers, reading books on methods of teaching that are culturally sustaining, and staying connected to other teachers that invigorate and challenge me. All of this produces the confidence and patience that I need, because I’m paying attention to the forest and not just the trees.

Andy Plemmons

School library specialist

David C. Barrow Elementary School

Athens, Ga.

As I’m working with kids in grades pre-K to five, I think it is important to continue to highlight how we are stronger by recognizing the diversity in the world, and how even though we may be different in many ways, we are also connected to one another as humans. As I’m purchasing books, I’m considering the current topics of debate and finding books that speak to those topics. For example, as immigration bans are being considered, I’m adding books of immigrant stories so that students can better understand the immigrant and refugee experience. Some of these include I’m New Here by Anne Sibley O’Brien, The Journey by Francesca Sanna, and Their Great Gift by John Coy.

I think that kids need to know that even at the youngest of ages, they matter in the world and can make a difference, so I’ve tried to highlight books about activism and being a change maker, such as It’s Your World by Chelsea Clinton, Be a Changemaker by Laurie Ann Thompson, A Is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara, and Can We Help? by George Ancona.

During Black History Month, we featured a variety of African-American biographies as well as authors and illustrators on our morning broadcast. During Women’s History Month, we were doing the same and also hosting a reading challenge for students to read three biographies about women, two books by women, and two books illustrated by women.

In April, we will take the Reading Without Walls challenge created by National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Gene Luen Yang. In this challenge, readers read one book about a character who doesn’t look like them or live like them, one book about a topic they don’t know much about, and one book in a format they don’t normally read.

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As a librarian, I’m always working to show students, teachers, and families how to use reliable sources, but lately, I’ve been stressing that we have to be extra critical when reading online today. It has been interesting to see so many students beginning to understand this idea in the current times. We’ve been referring them to our many databases for information rather than relying on Google searches. However, everyone googles, and we need to constantly consider and question our sources beginning in the earliest grades.

I’m currently planning a collaborative project with our art teacher, where we will take pictures of the diverse families within our schools, have a common set of interview questions to gather oral histories, and create an art installation that physically shows how even in our diverse representation of beliefs, ethnicities, and interests, we have many connections.

Anna Nielsen

Youth services librarian

Wellfleet Public Library

Wellfleet, Mass.

How am I using books? The simple answer is that I use them as I try to always do: by collecting the best-quality books I can find, with particular attention to local interests, the books that are getting the best reviews, international translated texts, diversity, and (it bears repeating) quality. The goal is to provide patrons with a chance to learn and grow, to be curious, to wonder, and to, as the saying goes, broaden horizons, about ourselves and people like us and different from us, locally and across the globe. The goal is to do nothing less than provide the world and all it is and all it can be, good and bad, through books, through the library.

In the current climate, it means I’ve increased nonfiction books about government and how it works, environmental issues and climate change, women’s rights, immigration and refugees, world politics and issues, economics and class, sciences, diversity, LGBQT issues, and history. There’s nothing like learning from history.

Since I am in a small coastal town in New England, I also collect heavily on areas concerning the local economy: the environment and climate change, especially the ocean, marine life, and aquaculture. I continue collecting the best and broadest picture books and fiction books I can find, the kind that represent the world and stand against hate.

I work for a public library, and as such I am devoted to the public project of social democracy. The library is a place where everyone, regardless of class, gender, color, or creed, is welcome. Rich or poor, everyone has the same access to information. I love this about my job. I love that I get to help people learn. I love that I’m meant to be an agent for providing information, not opinion.

But in this current climate, how can I not have an opinion? How can I not be agitated by a person who voted for someone who thinks his or her neighbor doesn’t deserve health insurance? And how can I run a story time for them both? So a question arises of how I balance this complicated current climate with professionalism.

I do the best I can. I collect books and collaborate on community programs. I do themed book displays and reading lists, with reviews. I do personalized reader’s advisory. I work on information literacy. I avoid political conversations and make sure all conversations that do occur in the children’s and teen rooms are civilized. I maintain both rooms as safe spaces for all.

My major premises are care, collection, community, and collaboration. I’m lucky enough to work in a great library with a great director in a great town. I’m a librarian on purpose, and I believe in what libraries do for the ideals of social democracy. I believe in books. I believe in knowledge. I believe in compassion. I believe in caring for our neighbors and acting like it. I believe in community. I believe in being the best we can be in the world. I believe in making the world a better place. I believe in being as a much of a light as possible, especially when darkness threatens. I believe libraries are an excellent place to start.

A version of this article appeared in the 04/03/2017 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: Brave New World

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