The library in our school is an amazing place. It has huge windows from floor to ceiling, welcoming light and space for classes to spread out and read. There is a study corner with computers; another corner with study booths. Our previous librarian had huge bean bags for readers to sit on. There are glass cases with class work, a selection of magazines and you can browse the yearbooks of former year groups. It is a wonderful space and so much different than the rest of the school. But still it is a terrifying prospect for some of our younger kids.
I’ve written about Tom before and I want to return to him again, three years later. He’s that young lad who arrives at secondary school and finds himself locked outside the world of the reader. He browses the shelves aimlessly, completely in the dark about where to start. And while it easy to feel sympathy for Tom, how much empathy do we have as teachers? Rather than merely suggest books for Tom to read, in what sense can we put ourselves in his wee shoes? You see, giving him what we think is appropriate reading makes us feel good, but he still lacks the history required to understand why it is important.
We’ve had two visits to the library already this term. I try to ensure that we go at least once a week. I have two S1 classes (12 year olds) this year – sixty kids – and I insist that they all read for ten minutes at the beginning of every lesson. So, they need a book. Many of them come to school with one every day anyway. They don’t need the library but instinctively know what to do when they get there. Library rules are second nature to them. But some have literally never been to a library, beyond the small class collections which may have been in their primary school rooms.
I had already recognised the four or five ‘Toms’ in the class, not all of them boys. Arriving in the library was like throwing them into a swimming pool when they couldn’t swim, except natural instinct wasn’t going to help them. One picked up a 700 page novel, the others picked up books without even looking at what they were. This is why the teacher talking about books, every day, whenever possible, is so vital for these guys. They need to hear what books can do, recognise what they can find in there, talk about what they discover. They need to see us reading, picking up a book, carrying one around, being readers. There is nothing more important to me.
As Scout says in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, when Miss Caroline forbids her from reading: “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.’
So discussion of books becomes the key as I model the life of a reader. I tell them about my reading: what confuses me, what entertains me, makes me laugh. And I ask the same of them. Telling others of what they’ve read becomes part of my classroom. Recommendations fly around the room. Those who know me will know all about book speed dating, where students try to convince others that their book is the one to read next. When teaching language points I reach for my current novel and discuss a particular image or use of contrast or an effective use of the colon. Then, Tom starts to see that his reading is useful to him. He begins to enjoy his ten minutes at the beginning of every lesson. Sometimes he’ll even read ten minutes at night and come in and talk about it.
As the year progresses, the library becomes his space too. He is included. And isn’t that what school is for?