HOW SCHOOL LIBRARIANS CAN MAKE THEMSELVES VISIBLE

In the darkened corner of a dreary, dusty library, an unlikely army is gathering. They’re shaking down their cardigans, firmly pressing their spectacles back to the bridge of their nose and stamping their sensibly shoed feet.

On closer inspection, many of these school librarians are much younger than you may think. Some have pink hair, tattoos, arrived on motorbikes, hold black belt karate certificates… goodness me, some aren’t even women! Hmmm, what happened to the stereotypical dusty old spinster who daren’t say boo to a goose? (Each librarian shudders a little at the over-used cliché.)

This clandestine army is marching on a secret. A secret that only a few privileged school leaders and many students know – the librarians hold the answers to the universe…

Ask a librarian any question, and they will show you how to find the answer. After all, as Albert Einstein said, “The only thing that you absolutely have to know is the location of the library.”

These quiet (well some of them), intelligent (all of them) creatures have guided young children from curious to studious and from darkness to light (and back again when they request it). The child who wanted to know how bones grow had their curiosity inflamed and has qualified as a doctor. The child who was fascinated with drawing manga has flourished into a book illustrator. The child who requested everything available on nuclear technology has developed into a respected peace campaigner.

More than that. These wise individuals have watched children’s eyes light up as they flew on broomsticks across the skies, spoke with animals and adventured across islands into the past.

Once it was enough for schools to know that this fact-finding, imagination-inspiring group were there. But the librarians have become so adept at fading into the peeling wallpaper, some staff are ignorant of their uses.

For the first time, the army needs to cast aside their invisibility cloak, march loudly forward and make their skills explicitly known. Below are twenty ideas on how to stride out of the darkness and into the brightness of the school hall:

  1. Non-fiction: It occurs to me that “non-fiction” is a terribly negative name for this important section in your library. It may be worth rebranding as “Facts and Information” or “Research Section”. Currently, many heads of department have no idea what non-fiction books you have available for their subject or why it is even relevant. After all, they’re going to teach what the children need from the class text books. Point out all the benefits of students carrying out research for homework. Not only does research enhance the students’ learning, but it is tapping into children’s natural curiosity. Wondering why and discovering the answers for themselves inflames a passion for the subject. Explain the pitfalls of Google research and suggest the homework is set whereby the students must reference one pre-approved website and one non-fiction book from where they found their information. Offer to stamp the planner or homework book of every child in their class who carries out their research in the non-fiction section of your library. Teachers sometimes run out of homework ideas which are both relevant and enhance their students’ learning, therefore, you’ve just helped the teacher out, enhanced the students’ learning experience and shown that you and your library are a valuable resource.
  2. Displays: Every department loves to have a great display which is the envy of all the other departments. They rarely have time to make one, so in you sweep, the hero of the hour. Of course, displays must have a purpose and attract attention to that purpose. Pick a relevant national date or an important topic for that department and offer to make a display for them based around it. Make sure the display is amazing (see my tips on displays here). Importantly, make sure you reference relevant fiction and non-fiction books in your library pointing the viewer of the display in that direction. You’ve helped the department and you’ve helped yourself.
  3. Events: This is where you get to be the conductor of your own success. Students love having an exciting event. SLT love having something exciting to show on their website and social media. It causes chatter based on that event so if the event is about books, guess what – the conversation is about books. The uptake of books after each author visit to our school is always astronomical. An author visit is perfect, IF you invite the right author. Don’t just pick anyone available, make sure you check out reviews and take recommendations. Yes, these events take a lot of planning and organising, but I can assure you they are worth it and you quickly become efficient at arranging them. (Information on how to organise a successful author visit can be found here.)
  4. Bulletin/Newsletter: Read the newsletter or school bulletin each week. Is there anything the library can be involved in? Is there a relevant notice you can put in there? Don’t let opportunities to market your service slide by. Being proactive is key.
  5. Wellbeing: The links between reading and mental health are well established and have been highlighted through the recent pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. Make sure staff know that they too can borrow books from the library (honestly, they think it’s only for students). Point out that you don’t have to be a child to read children’s fiction, some of the best books in the world were written for children and it’s relaxing to have an easier read from time to time. Make a shelf-help section of your library and ensure your SENCo, SLT and all staff know it is there.
  6. School council: Students love to have a voice, that’s why they’ve joined the school council and they’re always looking for something they can be involved in. Ask them to gather feedback about the library. Be brave, you might not like some feedback, but it immediately points out where you can improve your service and relevance to the school. Perhaps you could invite them to hold one of their meetings in the library and ask them what new books (fiction and non-fiction) they would like to see. Let them choose some books from a catalogue. Involve them as much as possible as they can become invaluable ambassadors.
  7. Positivity: the last thing we want is people to associate negativity with the library, but often the only times some students see us is when we turn up in their form room demanding the return of their lost library book. Look for opportunities for positivity. If you have a lot of overdue books, offer raffle tickets in return for the overdue books. At the end of the set time, one lucky winner will win a prize. Run fun competitions and visit the forms to tell the students about it. You will deliver it with far more passion and enthusiasm than the poor form tutor who is just trying to read through all the notices as quickly as possible.
  8. Parents evenings/open days: Create an informative and attractive mobile display about the library. Ask some student librarians to attend with you. Prospective parents love to see an active library. On open evenings, our library is open at my insistence. I have heard many a parent comment that our library has helped them decide to pick our school. Another tick for SLT – but make sure you tell them. Don’t keep it a secret. Just pop them an email the next day along the lines of, “I’m very pleased with the positive impact of having the library open on parents evening. The room was constantly packed, parents and children really enjoyed the activities I had put on and I heard comments such as…”
  9. Competitions: Who doesn’t love a good competition? There are all sorts of competitions you can run: design and decorate your own bookmark; Book Bingo; best book review; find out 10 interesting facts about… from a book; design a new book cover for…; short story writing; write a new ending for…; etcetera. Make sure the winner is announced with a fanfare. Don’t ask them to quietly collect their prize from the library – find out when the awards events are or enter their form room and encourage the whole tutor group to clap for the winner.
  10. School website/social media: Use these to your advantage. Every time you positively promote the library, you are positively promoting the school. It is a win-win situation. You don’t need to do anything amazing. Just photograph opportune moments, for example unboxing new books, latest book display, author visit, parents’ evening, competition winners, etcetera.
  11. Communication: you do all sorts of wonderful things in the library. You have all sorts of wonderful eureka moments with students, but nobody knows about them. Just drop an email to your line manager, the child’s tutor, or anyone else you think relevant and let them know. Go on – do it.
  12. Literacy coordinator: this person needs you more than they may realise. OFSTED are placing a lot of importance on literacy and reading and are keen to see librarians involved. Offer professional support from day one. You can offer all sorts of stats from your LMS and also from Accelerated Reader or similar reading programmes if you have them. (See my blog on Accelerated Reader here.) As well you know, literacy is important for all subjects, therefore the reading age of every child must be lifted to their personal best for them to be able to achieve in all subjects. You can help them in their job by involving them in a lot of what you do. Not giving them extra work, but including them in emails and keeping them in the loop about literacy events. Suggest ideas to them which you can help with, such as book of the week, World Book Day activities, staff recommendations, etcetera.
  13. Meetings: I have known librarians who turn up to meetings and are ignored. This can feel like a personal slight, but from the perspective of the other attendees, they probably have no idea why the librarian is there and are too focused on the million and one topics they have to discuss to pay any attention. Only invite yourself to a meeting if you have something of relevance or importance to discuss. If there is something I wish to discuss with a whole department, I usually contact the Head of Department and request 5 minutes at the beginning of their meeting. I thank them for their valuable time, deliver what I came to deliver, answer any questions and leave. There’s no point wasting your time or theirs. The short visit will make a greater impact than over-staying a welcome.
  14. English: This department should be your biggest ally. There can be a clash between the English teacher and the librarian both thinking they know which books are best for the students to read. A discussion is far more useful. Why do you think this book? What do you have against this book? Of course in busy schools there is rarely time for discussion. It may take a while and you may never win over some, but take one win at a time. Visit the English department with a selection of new books and explain why you chose them and who you would recommend reads them. Or find out which book the class is studying and offer ideas of similar books/authors the students might like to read independently. Some teachers won’t have time to read any other books around the one they’re teaching, therefore what you tell them about the books they will find useful to then pass on to the students. A nice touch is to wrap up one book for each member of the English department to take home over the school holiday, with a note inside saying you hope they’ll enjoy relaxing with a good book and please return to the library when you are finished so the book can be labelled and shelved for students on their return after the holiday. Hopefully, this will create some great book-based conversations on their return to school. You’ve done some nice team-building and library promotion in one.
  15. Other departments: The library can be completely invisible to some departments, many believe it is just a part of the English department. Here are some ways to involve staff from other departments: run a book themed cake decorating competition and ask the Food Tech staff to help judge it; ask Textiles if the children could make cushions for the library. Ask the art department if they have any student art work which you could display. Do the maths department know about the Murderous Maths series? Maybe you could set up a Forensics Who Dunnit evening with the science department. Can the school band have their music recorded and piped in the background at events or during evening homework club? Ask Modern Foreign Languages for book recommendations either set in the country of the language they are teaching or famous books from there translated into English. IT could help students create a podcast for the library. Advertise other after school clubs on your noticeboard. There will be a way to weave each department into the library.
  16. Qualifications: Offer your student librarians certification as librarians. This can be using the SLA, your local school librarian network or an in-house one you have created yourself. This helps students begin to develop their curriculum vitae when applying for work or further education. You could also offer to support EPQ qualifications for Sixth Form. Make sure that the certificates are awarded in front of the whole school at an awards evening or some other relevant event.
  17. Student librarians: Schools intend to develop the whole child, the experience is more than just academic. This is where libraries really stand out from the crowd. There are not many “jobs” a student can do in school which will give them the life skills they need as they develop into an adult. Being a student librarian is an excellent first foot on the career ladder, teaching them responsibility, reliability and leaderships skills. Make sure the Careers Advisor is aware of the student librarian role within school and additionally, offer work experience to non-student librarians during Work Experience week. They’re always looking for placements so you will make them happy and have extra help for a week too.
  18. Clubs: Extra curricular activities are a big deal in schools. The students love them, the parents love them, SLT love them and OFSTED love them. One hour a week after school is the norm. Some librarians like to run their clubs half termly and some termly. They can be as simple or as complicated as you like, from a simple Book Club to a huge inter-department Murder Mystery club. All the ones we run are free, but there are also some great resources you can buy in, such as the Creative Writing club through Authorfy.
  19. Pastoral: The library is a safe place for many students, whether they’re shy, anxious or have a special need. Liaise directly with pastoral staff and your SENCo to make sure they know that these students are welcome here. Depending on how and when students are able to access the library, you may want to make some special passes for the most vulnerable students to be able to enter the library immediately without needing to queue or wait for their allocated time.
  20. SMSC: Spiritual – students’ imagination is expanded through fiction; Moral – their ability to understand and appreciate other’s viewpoints by “walking a mile in their shoes” through reading biographies, true accounts and fictional situations; Social – participating in after school clubs, being part of the librarian team, being involved in conversations around books and authors; Cultural – experiencing other cultures through biographies and fiction as well as learning about other cultures through the non-fiction section of the library.

OFSTED are never far from any school’s door, nor from any SLT’s mind. They currently (and rightly) have a big focus on literacy and embrace the importance of an effective school librarian. All the above will be extremely helpful to your school in the event of an inspection.

Remember: not all heroes wear capes, or should that be, not all librarians wear cardigans!

How to Plan Your School Author Visit

As many of us have not had authors physically in our school buildings for a while, I thought now might be a good time to reblog this. I hope you find it helpful!

Rachel Coverdale

If you work in a school and intend to host an author visit, I recommend you read through this blog carefully. If you’re not, I recommend you don’t read it at all – this really is an example of writing to inform and not writing to entertain!

Every year I book three authors to visit our school. Our Patron of Reading always visits our Year 7s then I choose a different author each year to visit our Year 8s and finally we are “given” an author at discount price through the “Crossing the Tees Book Festival” for our Year 9s. I was pretty daunted the first time I had to organise a visit; worried sick I’d forget something important. Having done it several times, I thought I’d set out everything I do here so you can use it as a starting point for your author visits 😊 This list is…

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The Worry for Racists

Dear Racists,

I’m worried about you. Are you okay?

I know things can be confusing for you. One of your criteria is to bully minority races. When England was predominantly white British, a different skin colour made spotting the “other races” very easy for you. But confusion has set in for you now. Should you be racist against Polish people who are white but a different race? How do you know that a person is a different race from you if they’re just quietly walking by in the street minding their own business? If they speak, that could help you because they might have an accent, but can you tell a foreign accent from a regional accent? What if they don’t speak? Should a law be passed that white non-British must speak at all times? That will help you to identify them.

One of your favourite slogans is “Go back to your own country.” But there are people living here who go back many generations. I know it’s incredible to think that they can still look like their heritage and have lived here without losing their own skin tone, but it’s true. What probably frightens you more and you cannot really contemplate is that some people with darker skin than you may actually have been here longer than you. So when you’re shouting “Go back to your own country”, should you follow your own advice and also head back to which ever country your heritage originates from?

Then we get to mixed race. What a conundrum that is for you poor mixed-up racists. If a person is 50% black and 50% white, and you make the assumption that the black heritage is from another country, should you send half of the person “back” and keep the other half here? What if it’s not a mathematically easy 50/50 split? What if there is more bias towards the white heritage side or the black heritage side? What if the mix is from another heritage but not black? What if there is more than two heritages? What if the mix is two different black skinned races but neither originally from Britain but are about 10th generation? Oh dear, it get’s very complicated doesn’t it?

What will happen as more and more races are mixed? It will make it very hard for you to distinguish between the colours of people’s skin. Especially as a lot of you are addicted to sunbathing in the summer. If your skin goes darker than the mixed race person next to you, will your racist friends turn against you? Should you pick on yourselves? Is the colour of the skin the important factor here or the original race? If the colour of the skin doesn’t matter in summer, why does it matter in winter? Many of you like to holiday in Spain. When you’re out there, despite the illusion that it’s filled with white British, the white British are actually the minority. So, referring to the earlier rule of minority, do you then start picking on yourselves and leave the Spanish alone? Do you all chant “Go back to your own country” at yourselves?

The thing is, I don’t think you racists are very good at maths. You worry that “your” country will become too full, because although you can do basic level addition, it would appear you cannot subtract and so all the “white British” (who may or may not be white or British) who emigrate away from this country are not accounted for in your sums.

I’m sure you were very excited when Brexit happened, but now who is driving the lorries? We need more doctors, nurses and care staff. But they’re back in “their own countries”. Should we invite them to return or continue with dangerous shortages? It’s a big question isn’t it – let decent people work in the UK and have everything running smoothly, or claim we don’t want them and keep stumbling on through shortages? Hmmm…

Friendship

How many friends should we have to be truly happy?

One? Two? Ten? A hundred? On social media, it’s definitely the more the merrier. But are they friends? The number we should have, is constantly in dispute. And this is because the term “friend” has varied meanings.

The in-tune friend:
If we’re lucky, we have that one friend, who knows exactly what we’re thinking and we can finish each other’s sentences. Sometimes just a look is all we need to know and we fall about laughing. That’s a great friend to have. You feel in tune with that person and therefore have a sense of belonging which so many of us need. But not everyone has that friend. There are other types of friends.

The Forever Friend:
Then we might have that friend who we rarely see, perhaps once per year at most due to distance, family or just life. But when we meet up we feel we’ve never been apart. We have the same viewpoints and interests so we instantly reconnect.

The Effortless Friend:
Then there’s the friend who we can relax without the need for conversation. The friendship is peaceful. It’s effortless. We all need peace in our lives.

The Challenging Friend:
In contrast there’s the friend who we feel we should hate. Who argues with us and has totally different viewpoints. When you analyse your friendship you have no idea why you keep arranging to meet up all the time. But perhaps, unbeknown to you, you actually like the challenge of having to prove your viewpoint. The relationship is fiery but fun and keeps you feeling alive.

The Reliable Friend:
Then you might have that reliable friend. You know if you arrange an event, whether it’s a party or a sponsored run or a litter-pick, they will turn up. They will support you whatever you do, even if they don’t like what you’ve organised. You organised it, so they’ll show up. They’re solid.

The Party Friend:
If you organise a party they’ll be there and they’ll be the important life and soul of the party. But they’re unlikely to come to much else. They know what they like and they stick with that. And that’s fine – they don’t owe you anything.

The Friend of a Friend:
We don’t invite them out and they don’t invite us out, but whenever you bump into them, you get along. Probably because you have the same friends.

The Fantasy Friend:
Sometimes a celebrity or fictional character in a book can feel like a friend. We’re not daft, we know they don’t know us (perhaps don’t even exist), but it’s still a nice feeling – I have a lot of those!

The Phone Friend:
If you’re feeling down, you can pick up the phone and they’ll listen. They don’t interrupt, they don’t tell you what to do, they just listen.

The Social Media Friend:
They interact with lots of your posts. That brief moment of trepidation when you post something that you hope others like but maybe won’t is immediately alleviated by their reactive “love”. You might never even have met them, but you feel a bond with them which you reciprocate by liking and sharing their posts too. Often this can be a “business” rather than an individual person, yet you still feel that bond.

The Work Friend:
You get on like a house on fire at work. You really appreciate each other and have a good laugh. You only want to go to work dos if they’re going to be there. But you never meet up any other time.

The Family Friend:
It could be your spouse, sibling, parent or adult child. The friendship is different but so important. They know you so well, yet never hold that against you! They may be your only confident.

The Furry (or feathery or scaly) Friend:
It’s no joke – your pet can be that constant source of love and acceptance. You can tell them your deepest darkest secrets and they’ll never tell a soul.

The Manipulative Friend:
The one who sucks the life out of you, makes you feel angry, depressed, worthless and tells you that you owe them. They’re not a “friend”. They’re just a manipulative “person”.

The Self Friend:
This friend is the most over-looked friend – it is you! Are you kind to yourself? Do you allow yourself “me time” or are you harsh and judgemental? Friendship definitely starts with yourself because you’re with yourself 24/7.

Some of the above might be the same person. And we don’t need all of them. But what if you don’t have any friends? Not any true friends – just people who you associate with and think they’re your friends. Sometimes, friends are not the people you expect them to be…

In “The Boy Who Couldn’t”, I put Greg, a boy with a difficult family life and who was considered cool and tough, with two younger boys, one of whom, James, was very uncool and certainly not tough. It was like a little social experiment. Of course, none of them wanted to be friends, they never would have chosen each other in a million years, but circumstances placed them together.

As they were forced to spend time together, they saw past these external façades and began to get to know the real character inside. Greg began to admire James for his knowledge and passion for the countryside and in particular for badgers. James glimpsed a kinder side to Greg and a vulnerability as he saw him smile and laugh for the first time as he watched the badger cubs playing and came to the realisation that Greg must usually be very unhappy.

This tenuous friendship is soon tested when the boys have to rely on each other to save the badgers from dangerous baiters. Distrust and misunderstandings quickly cause problems.

The friendship that is perhaps more important than any other in this story is James’ father towards Greg. It’s the relationship he should have had with his own dad and it is the gentle glue that holds Greg together when his world is falling apart. It is initially James’ father’s idea for the boys to spend time together and it made me think about how often we can influence our children’s friendship choices.

Too many times I hear of children with autism, ADHD or some other difference, being excluded from parties. Recently, it was one of my own friends who poured her heart out; how upset her child was knowing he wouldn’t be invited to the “Freedom” parties during the summer holidays. We need to teach our children that everyone deserves a chance at friendship. Every child deserves forgiveness and second chances when they get things wrong. When you invite that troublesome or lost little soul to your child’s party, you won’t miraculously cure all their problems, but you can be one significant signal to that child that you think they’re worthy.

World Friendship Day this year is 30th July 2021, followed two days later by National Friendship Day UK on 1st August 2021. Wouldn’t it be great if every child and every adult picked up the phone, called round (if rules allow) or sent a message to a friend – whatever type of friend that might be. And if they reached out to someone who isn’t a friend yet, even better.

Friends make the world a better place. To quote Winnie the Pooh (well, A A Milne I guess), “A friend is someone who helps you when you’re down, and if they can’t, they lay beside you and listen.”

Let’s all try to be that friend and teach our children to be that friend too.

How Can I Get My Teenager to Read?

Teenagers… they’re a little more challenging than they were when they were in single figures!

We all try our best, but I frequently have frustrated, worn out parents of teens asking me for the magical cure to make their previously cheerful child recover from their current reading refusal.

At this point, I wouldn’t blame Primary school teachers for feeling a little smug – they did a fantastic job teaching the children to read, but now those same children are at Secondary, it’s all gone awry!

So, what’s changed and how can you fix it?

They are older. Okay, I know I’ve stated the obvious here, but think about it – have you actually made any adjustments for their age? Are you still trying the same author that your child liked five years ago? Or last year? Are you trying to protect your children from horrors and thrillers perceiving your child to still be too young and in need of protection? Pre-teens and teenagers love danger and taking risks – the safest way for them to experience danger and risk-taking is through a book so let them push their boundaries.

They think reading is so uncool! Well, if they’re still reading the same books they read at Primary school, yes it is uncool. If you’re still using their Primary teachers and (I’m sorry…) yourselves as role models, then yes – you are soooooo uncool, like OMG embarrassing! Change the role models, how about Marcus Rashford, Frank Lampard, Georgia Toffolo, Scarlett Curtis, Stacey Dooley, Stormzy, Oti Mabuse, Nish Kumar, Aleesha Dixon, Tom Hardy, Taylor Swift… If you haven’t heard of some of these, you prove the point! Look out for my next blog where I’m going to be looking at the reading habits of certain celebrities.

The books are too difficult/too big. If your child hasn’t reached the fluency stage yet (which happens at a reading-age of approximately 12/13 then they are still concentrating hard on the actual reading itself: decoding, sentence structure and punctuation. It’s only when they reach full fluency that reading becomes almost as subconscious as breathing and they feel like they’re watching a film rather than doing any work. Teenagers are old enough to have this explained to them. Tell them that just like anything, football, gaming, dancing, whatever – practice is the only way to improve. But be clear that the practice will pay off – once they reach fluency it really will be like sitting down and watching TV! Now what self-respecting teenager isn’t attracted to the idea of no work at all! Oh and contrary to popular belief, there are plenty of older children’s books which are nice and short! There are also “Hi-Lo” books which are written for higher aged students with lower reading ages, so if their reading age is younger than their actual age, they don’t have to read “babyish” books. Ask your school librarian for recommendations.

They don’t have as much time as they used to. They don’t have time or you don’t have time? Time management is one of the most useful skills you can teach your child. They have more homework now and they still want to attend their clubs, then there are their friends to play out with. There is time to read, but it needs to be scheduled into their daily plan. Make sure their reading time is also your reading time. If you sit down and read together it makes the calm, relaxed and focused time they need. If you’re zipping about doing the laundry or making dinner, they’ll be distracted and stop reading. This is the best excuse ever to stop the housework, sit down and relax with a good book – and you’re being a brilliant parent doing it. I’m handing it to you on a plate! Take it 😊

They just don’t want to. In order to make reading an attractive proposition, we need to enhance the experience. Make sure the room is clean, tidy, comfy and quiet. Get yourselves a hot chocolate or a cool lemonade, light a scented candle, put out a snack, snuggle up with your pet… anything that makes the time more attractive. Make sure they have plenty of choices of books. If they find a book boring, there needs to be another one to hand. Borrow lots for free from your school or public library. Your teenager doesn’t need to read for long. 10 minutes is enough to start with and then build them up to 20 minutes per day if you can.

They have a new hobby. Excellent! They can read lots of non-fiction books about their hobby to learn as much as possible about it. And I guarantee, no matter how weird their hobby is, there’ll be a fiction book out there with a main character who has the same hobby!

So there you have it. What has changed is your child! They don’t have the same mindset, tastes or attitudes they did last year. We have to let them grow up, no matter how much we want to press the pause button, but we can still guide them. And the fact you have just read this blog shows you want the best for them. You are fabulous and they will appreciate you … eventually.

Good luck! xx