New York Times article on Reader’s Workshop … and what Joan poked me to say

Joan wrote to me yesterday suggesting that I take a special look at Matoko Rich’s front-page article, “A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like,” about the implementation of Nancie Atwell’s approach to reader’s workshop in a gifted classroom.  She threw down a gauntlet that I felt I had to take: point out the fact that nowhere in the article about choice were school libraries mentioned. 

Now, I didn’t really feel that the article captured the full story of reader’s workshop, and I do so grow weary of the extolling of $1000 classroom libraries (though I know how difficult it is for teachers to fork over that kind of money) when quarter of a million dollar collections are just down the hall.  For the record, I’m not opposed to classroom libraries per se but I do worry that they give an artificial sense of balance when they far-too-often over-feature the teacher’s preferences and/or fiction, which often isn’t what kids want.  It took Laura’s schoolwide classroom libraries experiment, in fact, to help me see this situation differently.  (Stay tuned – coming to the Nov/Dec issue of Knowledge Quest!)

Anyway, here’s what I submitted in the comments section of the article:

As a former English teacher turned school librarian and children’s literature adjunct lecturer, I read this story with interest and the comments with even more fascination. Those commenters who pointed out that reader’s workshop is a much more scaffolded experience than is described in the article are correct – THE DAILY FIVE (Boushey & Moser, 2006) is one example of how reader’s workshop can be a balance of mini-lessons, mini-conferencing with the teacher, assessment, independent reading at one’s own level (but with a wide range of genre/content choices within that level), conversing about literature, and more. Doubtless, Ms. McNeill has organized her reader’s workshop experience so it extends beyond book reviews.  As many of us know, it is difficult to synthesize the nuances of K-12 education in a short news article, and yet it is often in those nuances that the core ideas are found.

It takes effort for a teacher to set up a well-balanced reader’s workshop, and getting systems started and nurtured over time can tax even a master teacher.I would encourage teachers to consider bringing their school librarian (also known as teacher-librarian or school library media specialist) into the reader’s workshop process. 

First, we can help steer kids toward books that match their learning needs and their personal interests.  Even a $1000 classroom library (bought with precious personal money) cannot compete with the range of formats and genres available in a school library.  (As a comparison, my small school library has an estimated value of $225,000, with ongoing annual funding so that the collection is continually refreshed with new materials.) A certified school librarian has specialized training in reviewing children’s literature and developing a library collection that is responsive to the needs of its community.  This expertise can be put to use either by taking advantage of the school library’s collection or by partnering with the school librarian to develop a robust, well-rounded classroom library.

More importantly, a school librarian is an instructional partner.  Most school librarians possess dual certification as teachers and as librarians.  As certified teachers, quality school librarians can co-facilitate a reader’s workshop experience, conference with students, co-plan and co-teach mini-lessons, jointly assess student progress, and serve as a second teacher.  Imagine the powerful impact that can begin when we cut the student-to-teacher ratio in half.  (See for the American Association of School Librarians’ Position Statement on the Library Media Specialist’s Role in Reading.)

In tough economic times, school librarians and school library funding are in jeopardy.  If your school has both, are you taking advantage of what they have to offer? (And if they aren’t responsive to your needs, does your administrator know so corrective action can be taken?)

What do you think?

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