It Takes a Whole School: School Librarians’ Roles in The Whole Child
Post submitted on behalf of whole child partner American Association of School Librarians by Marcia A. Mardis, assistant professor with the School of Library and Information Science and associate director of the Partnerships Advancing Library Media Center at the iSchool at Florida State University.
"It takes a whole village to raise a child," goes the African proverb in the focus of Jane Cowen-Fletcher's 1994 children's book1. I'd like to build on this wisdom to propose that it takes a whole school to educate the whole child. All of us, policymakers; communities; families; administrators; staff; teachers; and, importantly, school librarians, must work in concert to ensure that children are healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. School librarians have a special contribution to creating an environment that welcomes all forms of expression; creativity; and active, interdisciplinary learning.
For the past decade, I have had the distinct pleasure to work with up-and-coming school librarians in their coursework and internships. Many of these preservice students are transitioning from classroom teaching, some come from public librarianship, and a few are from the corporate world. I even have students who come straight to their school librarian preparation from their undergraduate experience. In working with each of them to define their professional visions for school librarianship, I can see so many ways that their plans for the four main roles of a school librarian (teacher, instructional partner, information specialist, and program leader) are key to a school community that supports the whole child. But don’t take it from me—here are their views in their own words.2
The Teacher Role: Innovatively Learning with and About Information
In the teacher role, the school librarian works directly with students and teachers to impart skills relating to information seeking, selection, use, and creation as well as technology. Some librarians use defined curricula and professional development events to guide their teaching, and other librarians take a just-in-time approach. This teaching tends to occur in the context of a particular curriculum area, but often school librarians teach the crosscutting topics that don't fit neatly into English language arts, science, mathematics, or social studies.
But it is important to remember that the school library is not a classroom, so the learning experiences will reflect its space and surroundings. For Kellie M. in 2012, the school library can be a place to learn creatively:
I really connected with the section in the whole child website on arts integration. The school librarian can encourage students to express themselves by teaching them to explore poetry, plays, and the creative writing process. They can use these arts activities to support larger ideas the school librarian is there to teach, like the realities of cyberbullying.
The infusion of technology into learning has also expanded the school librarian's teaching role to include basic skills like editing video or scanning, resizing a photo, and searching a periodical database, but also to teaching the application of these skills to personal expressions through blogs and social media as well as to class assignments. Having a good teacher makes children feel supported, but mastering a range of media helps them feel engaged and challenged.
The Instructional Partner: Expanding Opportunities for Engagement
As instructional partners, school librarians co-plan, co-instruct, and co-assess in collaboration with teachers. Collaborative relationships take a range of forms, but reflect the fusion of teacher and school librarian skills to enhance learning experiences. A pair of instructors serves the whole child in basic ways, as Alexandra P. pointed out in 2010:
Students should never feel lost or frustrated to the point of giving up when they are in the library working on an assignment. Librarians are there to give them strategies for completing assignments that their teacher may not have thought of. Students come to the library for assigned research and projects, so it is really important that we have materials that fit not just their information needs, but also their learning styles. It helps them feel safe that we present ourselves as helpers and encouragers who foster anxiety-free library visits.
By sharing the instructional duties, all children have twice as much opportunity to gain guidance from a knowledgeable adult; working in tandem, teachers and school librarians can blend their strengths in content, learning resources, and pedagogical strategies to increase students' opportunities to engage in learning.
The Information Specialist: Providing Windows and Mirrors for Learning
In the information specialist role, the school librarian builds, maintains, and promotes the school's resource base for learning and personal development. One student, Maris D., thought of the information children find in the library, both literature and nonfiction, as both "windows and mirrors," as she pointed out in 2011:
It is absolutely necessary that both are present—windows on the wide world through which to explore, and mirrors that reflect back one's own experience, helping one see, understand, and appreciate one's self. Every child should be able see her- or himself reflected in the school library collection. Students should have input regarding the existing collection as well as into new acquisitions.
This role is a growing one for school librarians as the amount and formats continue to expand and change. The role also has a public face and a technical side—not only must school librarians create a collection that is relevant, up-to-date, and attractive to users, but they must also organize and describe these resources in ways that users can find them. To reach teachers, resources must be linked to relevant curriculum standards and assessments; to reach students, search interfaces must be easy to understand and use independently. Whether it is through the library catalog, a database, or a web service, school librarians must be fluent in the promotional and technical skills necessary to keep these windows and doors functioning for everyone in the school community.
The Program Leader Role: Engaging the Whole Community
Program leadership is one of the most important roles of an effective school librarian. Not all members of the school community have the time, proximity, or access to find out about the programs and services the school librarian has to offer students, teachers, and families. Through outreach and advocacy, the school librarian can raise awareness of the power of the school program among many stakeholders, including administrators, community members, and parents. Sending the message that the school library is a community space is important to helping children attain a sense of connectedness and consistency, as Lisa R. said in 2011:
Children want and need structure. They want to be held accountable, because that means that someone is acknowledging their existence. School librarians should include opportunities for parents to become a part of the school library experience along with their child. This is yet another chance to reach the child or make a difference in their life, by getting the parent to care or share interests with the child.
Of course, advocacy also includes celebrating accomplishments in newsletters, websites, and presentations to community groups; creating activities like book clubs and after-school programs in which students can find a voice and a place; and furthering the important home-school connection by working with public librarians. Taking the initiative to reach these additional groups embodies the leadership role of the school librarian.
I could not have articulated the roles of school librarians in educating the whole child better than Daphne S. did in 2010:
My definition of a library is one in which a child feels comfortable and relaxed, stimulated and challenged, joyful and creative. It contains a variety of activities and visual aids to engage students while educating them. In this library there are plenty of nooks and crannies for children to cuddle up in with a book, worry free, to allow their imaginations to soar. There are plenty of warm and friendly librarians [who] students trust and feel comfortable in asking any question that they might possibly have. A library is a space where students do not have to fret over the prospect of not being able to find what they need or do what they need to do (get a book, read, learn, do homework, use the Internet, attend a program) because of proximity, bullies, an unhelpful staff, a lacking collection, or a cold and uninviting atmosphere.
The ideas I included here are certainly not exhaustive of the many ways school librarians support the whole child, but they are part of the school librarians' professional commitments reflected in the American Association of School Librarians' Empowering Learners professional guidelines and Standards for the 21st-Century Learner. Both documents are informed by the Whole Child Initiative's values and beliefs, and given that my students are just becoming school librarians, their comments demonstrate the extent to which the beliefs underpinning the whole child have pervaded education and librarianship.
It takes all of us—a whole school community with its librarians, a village—to nurture children who are healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. I, for one, am comforted to know that a generation of new school librarians is prepared to continue the integrative and important work of fostering the whole child.
- Cowen-Fletcher, J. (1994). It takes a village. New York, NY: Scholastic.
- These are actual quotes from my past students, but all names have been changed.