School librarians reinforce lessons

Evolution: Media centers are more commonly being seen as places to help children develop reading and critical-thinking skills.

October 07, 2001|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

For children at Magnolia Elementary School in Harford County, a visit with Joanne Slagle is like a session with a reading coach, curriculum expert and testing tutor, disguised as a trip to the school library.

In less than an hour, the veteran librarian can turn a read-aloud activity into an exercise in critical thinking. She'll link the story with the children's classroom goals and perhaps give them a chance to practice skills that could prove useful on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests.

And the kids think they're just visiting to pick out a few books.

"I think the library's a place where you don't have to worry about making mistakes," Slagle says, adding that the warmth of a library can make children feel comfortable with material that might be tough to grasp in the classroom. "There's no question that kids do better on testing and are more prepared for life because of what they learn in the library."

Gone are the days of library visits spent simply browsing the shelves and reading. Now, librarians and teachers try to forge a close link between what happens in the classroom and the library.

"Every educator in a school has to be working together and focused on student achievement," says Julie Walker, executive director of the American Association of School Librarians in Chicago.

Instead of teaching research skills in isolation, Walker says, librarians work with teachers to make reading and other lessons relevant to students. For example, a librarian can easily expand on class studies about the Great Pyramids by teaching students how to use indexes and encyclopedias to find more information.

"I'm putting it down to its simplest levels, but it's coordinating skills and knowledge," she said. "Anyone learns something best when it's not in isolation."

Several state studies show that good library programs increase student achievement. Texas, for example, found that on the reading portion of the state's basic skills test, about 89 percent of students in schools with librarians passed, compared with about 78 percent in schools without librarians. Colorado, Alaska, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts have found a similar positive correlation between libraries and test scores.

Maryland has not studied the relationship between MSPAP scores and school library programs.

But Gail Bailey, branch chief of school library media services for the Maryland State Department of Education, says state standards require librarians to "establish partnerships with teachers to provide ... meaningful learning experiences."

"The goal is to make things fun," Bailey says, "and help kids connect with the real world."

In Cecil, Washington and Baltimore counties, library media centers are creating assessments for students to track their mastery of research skills.

"It's very MSPAP, it truly is," says Patricia Stafford, program facilitator for media for Cecil County public schools.

The goal, she says, is a higher level of thinking. Library media specialists create projects that help students in each grade meet research goals: They learn to take a broad topic and narrow it to critical questions and keywords; evaluate references; search a range of materials, from print resources to databases; and synthesize their findings into a presentation.

Kindergartners' research might start with a simple idea such as wanting to learn about animals. The librarian writes down their questions, and they read about animals together. Then they return to the questions to see how many answers they've found.

"By listening to the text -- the precursor to reading -- [students learn] you can pull facts and organize them," Stafford said.

By fifth grade, students are ready to research broad assignments, she says, such as taking a stand on immigration policy and supporting the argument.

At Magnolia Elementary School, Slagle crafts lessons that include discussions, experiments and games that weave together classroom lessons and research skills.

In a third-grade unit about differentiating between fiction and nonfiction, for example, Slagle reads a factual book and then a "make-believe" story about sponges. Students compare and contrast the two using Venn diagrams -- something they will use again on MSPAP.

"They're learning," Slagle says with a smile, "and they don't even know it."

Connecting with the real world takes on particular importance at Magnolia, a Title I school where students have limited experiences and often arrive at school without knowing the letters of the alphabet.

"I think the biggest role we play ... is to give background information through literature," Slagle says.

For example, some students mistake the Bush River for the ocean because they've never been to the shore, she said. When they are asked questions in class or on the MSPAP about the ocean, they are stymied. "If you're never been there, how can you extend your knowledge?" she asks.

"Living it is best, but the next best thing might be reading a book," she says.

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