Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Urban School Library

One thing that school librarians understand, or quickly figure out upon their first year working in a school library, is that we all serve a diverse group of students and teachers, each with their own personalities, interests, and individual needs. No matter how we try to classify them, Exceptional-Ed, English Language Learner, Gifted, Low-Performing, Economically Disadvantaged (the list of labels could go on and on), each student is different. With that being said, there are some commonalities we face when working with specific populations, and in particular, students from what is referred to as the “Urban School.” When my colleague, Shetika Coleman, and I set out to begin our research on working with this unique population, we were initially stumped on trying to find an accurate definition of an “urban school.” We couldn’t find a definition that we felt truly defined the group of students that we both feel so passionately about. However, we both agreed that the urban populations we serve are disproportionately economically disadvantaged and made up of a majority of what would otherwise be considered a minority group. We decided to move past the definition and start talking about the issues faced when working in an urban school. These are the issues we feel are most prevalent: behavior problems, low-academic performance, disengaged parents, large exceptional education populations, unstable home environments, lack of exposure, lack of diversity, and student mobility. To be fair, most of these are issues that all of us face, no matter the neighborhood where our school resides. However, we felt that these issues are present in a large portion of the students we serve, not just a few students here and there. For the purpose of this blog, I have decided to edit some of the issues, and discuss my top two:

Student Behavior. 

We face a lot of behavior problems in the urban setting. A lot. We both agreed that sometimes behavior can be even more of a challenge for the librarian because we do not see the same class of students every day, so it takes longer to build vital relationships with kids. One way to deal with behavior problems in the library is to give students particular jobs or responsibilities. We often seek out the well-behaved student to help in the library, but many times if you give specific jobs to the chronically disruptive student, you will find he/she may be less disruptive. We also want to make sure we are designing engaging lessons and activities to combat behavior problems. Make sure students are not sitting for too long, incorporate technology, relevant video clips, etc. As for building those relationships, try to ask students questions about their lives. Talk to them about their favorite sports team; ask their opinions on things going on in the world. Just like all of us, they want to feel listened to and valued. (It also helps us learn what their interests are so that we can continue our never-ending quest of finding the perfect book for each of our students).

Low Academic Performance. 

In this day and age of data and testing, this one is huge. It is huge because for many of us in urban schools, we are faced with a majority of our students performing below grade level. In doing research, we stumbled on some staggering statistics (according to 2009 NAEP data) that are too shocking to ignore: 
  • Fewer than half of African American males receive their high school diploma
  • African American men make up less than 5% of the U.S. college population
  • African American men make up only 14% of the national population, but over 40% of the prison population
  • Unemployment rate is twice that of white males
  • African American adolescents and young males are eight times more likely to be the victim of homicide than whites in the same age group
If you take a look at data for schools working with a high number of economically disadvantaged students, you will see that we are dealing with a very high number of students performing low academically. This affects us in the library because we constantly combat disengaged students who say they “don’t like to read” (often times they can’t read). We serve a wide variety of reading levels. Many are reading more than one grade level below their own. Librarians also are viewed as innovative in our ability to incorporate new technology into lessons. However, in an urban school setting, we also face a huge digital divide. Many of our students have not grown up with practice using and manipulating a computer or computer programs. Sure, they can text, Snapchat, Kik, and Instagram all day long, but when it comes to using a word processing program, or creating an interactive presentation, it is difficult for them, and they often want to give up. There is a constant struggle to provide in-depth, higher order lessons, while still trying to catch students up on the basic skill gaps they have. Some suggestions for us as librarians:

  • Provide quality and relevant text that reflect our students own personal experiences
  • Maintain high expectations for students (teach them it is okay to struggle)
  • Emphasize collaboration through PBL, as well as with community members and mentors
  • Utilize resources that can help students, such as read-aloud options on databases, playaways with a book, etc.

Regardless of what “population” you serve, we can all agree that our work begins by building a culture of acceptance in our libraries. My biggest issue when researching “the urban school” is that I felt like a walking contradiction. I feel like the very nature of presenting information about any particular group may come across as though I am stereotyping. If I have learned anything in my 8 years working in a school library, it is that each and every individual that walks through the door should be treated as such. We must leave our preconceived notions at the door. Yes, we are operating in a data driven time, but we should see the student first, before we see the label assigned to them from a standardized test. We must meet our students where they are, but not waiver in what we expect of them, because we know they are capable of rising to the occasion. 

We teach, we listen, we counsel, we advocate. We are librarians.

Blogger-
A.Tucker-Dye
MNPS Librarian

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