Back to school at the library may draw to mind images of library orientation, especially at the secondary level, and following the guidance of educator Harry Wong at the elementary, first library classes of the year often incorporate the teaching of procedure, including how to come in the library and gather for class, how to use shelf markers, and what to know about routines for checking out and returning books. September means welcoming new students, starting new projects, and giving a first go at updated policies, shelving arrangements, or school schedules.
Although these processes are important in setting the stage for a productive learning environment for the students, it’s also helpful include students’ parents and families in these welcome efforts. We know that advocacy isn’t about us saying how great we are; it’s about getting others to notice and share this message. Christie Kaaland writes in “Developing a Culture of Advocacy” (in Activism and the School Librarian, full info below) about manageable strategies for building layers of advocacy for the school library program, and included among these are sound rationales for and ways to build support from parents and the community. The strength of a message of support for the library is deeper when coming from parents or students, writes Kaaland, especially when advocating to decision-makers like principals and legislators. Establishing omnipresence of the library is also necessary, through visibility in school functions of varying audiences and formats. A simple way to start is connecting with parents at back to school events.
Turning to my own experiences now, when I was a first grade teacher, we had two separate events for “open house” and an introduction to the first grade program, the latter known in some schools as “curriculum night.” The introduction to first grade was a structured presentation for parents, so when we hosted students and families for our less formal open house, I preferred to engage the kids and parents in some independent and interactive tasks, like a classroom scavenger hunt. They could find assigned places in the classroom, read and write in the students’ journals, and always, visit the “special teachers” around the school. The stop at the school library served a few purposes.
First, I think a sense of pride and student ownership in the library program is important, and I wanted for students to show parents “their” library. (Side note: this is a distinction I like to emphasize among librarians, too – when you can, shift away from calling it “my library” and instead, describe the space to students as “your library” or more generally, “the students’ library.”) Another key piece in this family visit was representing the library as integral to the school community and learning. Finally, the school library had (and still does have) a flourishing parent volunteer program, so stopping by also introduced this opportunity to moms and dads.
Now, to be honest, I’ll admit what clever readers have already noticed here – sending my students and families out of the classroom was also a way to manage the volume of people and chaos in the room – but I promise my motives were genuine! When I was a librarian at the middle school level, for our open house, parents followed their children’s daily schedule for a few minutes per class. I encouraged teachers to send families to me during students’ tutorial (study hall), and I was ready for them in the library with displays of new books and student work, how-to’s on using library databases, a looping slideshow of library services and resources with lots of photos of the students, and – this was my favorite part – sign-up forms for library cards, provided to us through a collaboration with the local county library association.
One year I had the student library helpers plaster the school with signs saying, “Come to the library for the smartest card!” (as part of Library Card Sign-Up Month)- and parents actually came in and used that phrase! Having a library card number was required for students to access databases from home, and kids needed a parent signature to get a library card. Through our agreement with the library association, I collected and sent in the registration forms, and students received their library cards at home in the mail, which I like to think was a treat for the kids. We typically signed up 30-40 students during open house, and I was so pleased that I had the chance to explain to parents the benefits of the card and the connection between school projects and helpful, reliable – and free – kid-appropriate resources through the state library database collection.
Open house and related back to school meetings are often contractual obligations for teachers and librarians, so it makes good sense to seize the day – or the night. Parent-teacher organization meetings, arts and science fairs – these are all possibilities to introduce families to the role of the library in their students’ education.
Kaaland, Christie. “Developing a Culture of Advocacy.” In, Levitov, Deborah D. (Ed.) Activism and the School Librarian: Tools for Advocacy and Survival. Denver: Libraries Unlimited (2012): 39-56.
Image: Welcome by Claudio Matsuoka, on Flickr. Used with a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License.