Oh T——, I’m happy for you that you found something conducive to caring for your mom in the afternoons, and I’m sure you’ll be great at it. Kids love you; you are pretty and you don’t yell and yet you don’t suffer fools. It’ll be fine. And yes, I do like it on the whole. I am happy with my books, and while left to my own devices I would rather read The Pilot’s Wife than Dinosaur Battle!, I just like being around books and reading about them, organizing them, etc. But, um, yes. There are some hard things, some weird things. You asked, so here:
When I took the job, In envisioned myself surrounded by dark wood, the smell of books and furniture polish and cinnamon (?). I thought I might get an attractive chain for my glasses and wear them around my neck just to look the part, and in my free periods I’d read and listen to Chopin. I thought I might even play Chopin in the classroom, while the students sat (with good posture) at their tables and read quietly, leaving me free to answer their well thought-out questions like Mrs. Johnson, do you feel that the sisters in The Penderwicks may have been created with Jane Austin or Louisa May Alcott characters in mind? And Mrs. Johnson, if I want to read an adventure book with a male protagonist, do you recommend My Side of the Mountain or Crash? Or even Do you think the sequels to The Indian in the Cupboard are as good as the first one? Sadly, the main question I get asked is, Do you have Diary of a Wimpy Kid? I am astonished at the kids’ lethargy about reading. The little ones loves stories, and there is a small window from about 2nd grade to 4th where they seem a little excited about reading because chapter books are still a novelty, but all they can handle at this age is Magic Treehouse books and Lord, don’t get me started on those. But just when the books get harder and really good, the kids don’t want to read anything unless it’s a graphic novel, involves underwear or farts or possibly bullying. Bullying still holds some fascination. So the theatrical lengths I have to go to to talk up the books enough to get the kids to want to read them is astonishing. I had to buy tap shoes and a baton.
Also: I may have been a little bit in denial about the fact that I’d also have to teach kids. Like, I had to learn 250 names. (When they come up to check out a book, you can only fake it for so many weeks, saying things like do you remember your number? They see right through that crap, and they know you don’t know their name, and there is something demoralizing about a teacher not knowing your name so you gotta learn it even if means studying last year’s yearbook three nights in a row instead of watching Poldark). And I may have sort of not realized that teaching the entire school meant lesson plans and classroom discipline etc. etc. and frankly I hate that stuff. I love children’s books and I think I got the job because the principal that year liked my knowledge of everything from Lily and her plastic purse to Lily’s Crossing, from Percy the creepy Brittish steam engine to Percy Jackson. It’s mostly just from having kids of my own, but I know a lot. But my job also seems to entail keeping a Kindergartener named O— from putting his hands down his pants while I read (it’s distracting to the others…), and this little gaggle of second grade girls to not use library time for talking smack about each other, and trying to inspire jaded sixth graders to read anything. Anything at all that we actually have in the library, but of course all they want is John Green, and we can’t have The Fault in Our Stars in my library, what with the sex-scene and all. More on that later. The little kids are hardest: I have no aid and no parent-helpers in here; sometimes just me and 24 first graders who can’t read well yet, can’t alphabetize, can’t even sit still, etc. There are forty-five minutes in a class and I’m supposed to help each one find a book to check out, actually get it checked out, and do a lesson or “book talk.” When I help one student, two others start fighting about the Batman book, two need to pee and three decide to pretend to need to pee, and one wants to tell me for no reason about his dog, Pickles, who may or may not be dying. Jeesh.
Here are the things that went well and the things that “Present Challenges.” (Did you like my positive language?)
Stuff that Went Well:
1.) I play this game with the older kids I call Take it or Trade It! where I get out as many books as there are kids in that class and lay them face down on the circulation desk. When class starts, I have one student time me and I give a summary of every book in under 25 seconds per book–a really fast summary–and then lay it face down again. They are to listen and decide which one(s) sounds like they might want to read it. Then I put a sticky note on each book with a number on it, one through whatever, written small so the kids can’t see the numbers from their seats. I call on each kid and he/she says a number between one and whatever, and I hand them that book. Of course sometimes they are psyched (“That’s one of the ones I wanted!”) and sometimes they are bummed, but they have the option to “Take it or Trade it.” The next person picks a number and gets their book, but then they can ask to trade with a previous students, who has the option to say no. If I really talked up Save Me a Seat in the summaries, they might all be trying to get that one, and it becomes sort of a white elephant thing that gets them excited about reading.
2.) With fifth grade–better with comprehension than 4th and better behaved than 6th–I read aloud The Miraculous Journey of Edward Toulane. Ten to fifteen minutes every class, and they loved it. If you haven’t read this one, I think it is a classic on a par with The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, but simpler and more conducive to reading out loud. A protagonist who has to learn humility, Christian imagery, minor characters you can’t forget–this book astonishes me. We talked about each chapter–Edward’s growth and the Christian life– and it was actually rewarding the way that teaching was once in a very rare while back when I taught English. Highlight of their year, some of them said. (In the two weeks preceding Christmas, we sucked on butterscotch and peppermint and brought pillows, which made it more fun.)
3.) I had 3rd and 4th grade design their own book cover for their favorite book. It was a good way to talk about book covers and illustrations, the publishing industry, and get them re-excited about their favorite book. Unfortunately many of them picked Diary of a Wimpy Kid and The Dork Diaries, which we don’t even have in the library. But whatever. They were briefly inspired about books.
4. Sometimes I took out books based on a theme, like time-travel or adventure, and talked up several books at once that way. I find with a “book talk” (I’m not sure other schools call it this but our last principal liked this phrase) on one book, the downside is you probably only have one copy, so it’s like saying Hey, this book is wonderful! But many students might want it when I’m done talking, so you can’t have it right now or possibly ever! But with time travel, for example, you get out Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix, A Wrinkle in Time, Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park (it’s Australian and kind of weird but kind of great), and Both Sides of Time by Caroline Cooney (there are probably more) and you do a little discussion of what makes time travel plots so fascinating. When I tried this with 7th we wound up talking about Captain America, and how the second movie is so cool when he wakes up 70 years after being frozen and he’s in the 21st century, how weird that would be, etc. Briefly, they were all excited about time travel novels. Like, for maybe fifteen minutes. But that’s pretty good for middle school. That’s epic, really.
5. Some books I bought with my little PTO “gift-a-book” money that were big hits: Mandy by Julie Andrews Edwards, Wonder, The Unicorn’s Secret series by Kathleen Duey (AWESOME series for 3-5th if they like fantasy: a young girl in a vaguely medieval time rescues a mare who turns out to be a unicorn with a broken horn, and–spoiler alert–at the end of the series it turns out THE GIRL HERSELF IS A UNICORN but had a spell on her. Totally fascinating. Also with my kids who actually like reading The School for the Insanely Gifted was big, and The Seventh Wish by Kate Messner and No Talking by Andrew Clements. In fact, a general rule of thumb for 4th-6th grade when they ask you to recommend a book (because someone forced them to), if you can’t think of anything, just give them an Andrew Clements book. In non-fiction, I bought more of those Who’s Who books with those terrible huge heads, and I kind of hate those because they imprint an image on the kids’ brains forever and the end up picturing Theodore Roosevelt and Helen Keller looking like a SpongeBob character. But the kids like them. Also: a got a great biography of Louis Braille, a darling picture book about Carol Wojtyla that made me want to cry, and several David Macaulay books with cool pictures for the boys.
I can’t think of anything else that worked well so here is
Stuff That Didn’t Work Well
1. Organization of library: There will be a section for fiction and a section for junior fiction and a section for “Easy” (or whatever your library calls it.) Sometimes a book could go in more than one section, and even if it says Fiction on the spine, you might think it should be in junior fic. It’s obvious with the Ramona Quimby books (junior) but why is The Indian in the Cupboard in junior, but The Middle Moffatt in regular Fiction? Honestly why bother? Why not just have an Easy Fiction section for the little kids and then “All Other fiction” for everyone else? Writers like Patricia Reilly Giff could go in either. Has something to do with reading level, the vocab words contained therein, blah blah, but I swear half the time I don’t really see what makes it go in one section or the other. Sometimes it’s content: Number the Stars has to do with a young jewish girl during WWII and it’s a bit heavy and sad, so regular fiction, but the actual words aren’t any more difficult than The Great Gilly Hopkins (same author) which is in junior fiction and has to do with the foster care system and being an orphan, which is not exactly light either. And speaking of books about foster care, Pictures of Hollis Woods is a totally different reading level and section than Gilly Hopkins, but very similar in my mind, just not funny. I guess humor means it gets to be junior fiction.
To complicate matters, your new library might have something like a colored dot on the spine of the books to indicate what level it is. Color is dictated by Title Wave website and, I dunno, librarian’s discretion. Green is easiest, orange and blue follow, (Kinder books) and eventually there are books with a BLACK sticker indicating only appropriate for 7th or 8th. But oh my goodness, the arbitrary-ness (is that a word?) of this drives me nutz. For example, The Girl Who Drank the Moon gets a black sticker, I guess because it involves a fantasy universe with a “witch”. The witch is actually benevolent, nobody gets hurt, and there are baby dragons and super-powers obtained by drinking moonlight, so it’s a fairly benign fantasy story, but the witchcraft thing made it get a black sticker. BUT Holes, for example, by Louis Sachar (and that’s the first one that comes to mind–I could have used any number of other books as an example), gets a white sticker, less mature audience, can be checked out by 5th-6th grade, and Holes is about a summer camp where the directors are literally abusing children. The story involves deadly snake bites and homelessness and weight-shaming and all sorts of things that a modern audience would see as “bad,” but Holes gets the white sticker and the fantasy story about drinking moonlight gets the black, and the reading levels are comparable. Both won a Newberry Award, but Sachar also wrote the beloved Wayside School books so maybe somebody just thought Holes was a sweet story for kids and didn’t see it as the dark, troubling story I did. But whatever. Another example: From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler gets a white sticker, but Konisburg’s other book, The View From Saturday, has five uses of the word “ass” and two of “bitch,” but gets the more inclusive purple sticker.
2. This goes with number one, but the stickers in the “Easy” section for young kids are based on reading level as well as (and perhaps more so than) content, meaning two Curious George books might have different color sticker (because one included the word “necessary” or something) and be in different sections of “Easy.” Two Madeline books might have different colors, and don’t even get me started on books about Arthur the Aardvark, of which there are a million, some of which are picture books and some chapter books and some I Can Read! books, putting them in various places all over the library. So when some sweet first grade boy asks where to find a book about Arthur, and I’m standing there with a check-out line of fifteen and three kids who are waiting for help and one with his finger stuck in his zipper, I feel like saying “All over the damn place, kid. Just start walking around.” If you get to organize your library yourself, you might want to have sections of popular books, regardless of reading level. Arthur here, Curious George here, Amelia Bedelia here. Etc. Keep the colored dot or whatever, but put them in one place. I might do that if it wouldn’t take about a million hours I don’t have.
(As a side note, Mo Willems, the author of Knuffle Bunny, which I love, I mean who doesn’t, wrote these Elephant and Piggy books for very early readers with titles like I Broke My Trunk and There is a Bird On Your Head. Kids love these books. I hate these books. They make me want to kill myself. You know that scene in Despicable Me where Gru tries to read the kitten book and says “You call this literature? This is garbage!” That is how I feel about them. And I get kids who like them so much in first grade that in fourth they are still trying to check them out and I want to burn them. But my real point is that the Elephant and Piggy books sometimes have different colored stickers indicating different reading levels. Do not even get me started. Oh wait it’s too late.)
3. Classroom management: I’ll try to make this brief. Be strict at first. Oldest advice in the book for teachers, I know, but I somehow thought since I was the librarian, I’d be this benevolent character who just talked (in whispers) about the wonders of literature; the story lady; their book friend. Oh. My. Gosh. They are barbarians. They think “specials” are the place they can go nuts. Break time. Recess. You have to have very strict rules about noise and then you’ better enforce them, and when I started I really didn’t know what my options were. Like, after two warnings can I just send them out in the hallway until class is over? No, because we live in such a legalistic society that apparently being alone in the hallway of a really small school with locked front doors is on a par with, say, walking alone at night through the Southside of Chicago. The school could get sued if the kid sneezed and bonked his head on the edge of a display of somebody’s diorama of the rainforest. So KNOW YOUR OPTIONS when kids are loud or disrespectful. Have a system. You can do clips on a chart, marbles in a jar or whatever, but honestly I don’t have much patience for those things; bribing the kids to be good and punishing them with the loss of a marble or notch down on the chart if they’re bad. Sometimes it’s more fun to talk and play than it is painful to lose a marble. Plus with those systems, the teacher has to keep track of it all. I just can’t. Too much to keep track of already. But have some kind of system–names on the board and emails home or whatever. Personally, I’d like to hire a Marine Corps drill instructor with a scary name like Sergeant Steele to just stand in the back and look mean, preferably an African American dude with several tats, but they tell me we don’t have the budget for this.
Hope that helps. Jeez I went on forever. Maybe I should publish it.