Saturday, 4 May 2013

A Body in the Library – Literacy Across the Curriculum

Before people panic and think a murder is being announced, I am talking about the use of libraries in schools. So, thankfully, nobody has an appointment with death and Mrs McGinty isn’t dead. It just so happens that this week I decided to read some Agatha Christie short stories and I was inspired to make an allusion or two in the blog. Christie is my comfort reading. They are the books I devour in one go and the books I read when I have a lot on my plate – a bit like this week. Anyway, the library! The home of books. The nursery of learning. As part of my role of coordinating Literacy in a school, the library has played a small part in thinking, as my main concern was Literacy in the classroom. But, when you have a problem or you are trying to create a culture, you try to unpick things and discover that it is part of something much bigger. The library isn’t my nemesis.

I think I can safely say that we are in the Google era. Everything possible in existence is accessible through a search engine, it seems. How many times do we say or hear ‘just Google it’? Knowledge is now like entertainment. It is instantaneous. It has to be quick or people will switch off. The same applies with learning in lessons. It has to be quick, fast and done in seconds. Everything seems to be done by focusing on the clocks. The moving finger of Ofsted and leaders points to pace and making lessons have pace, but I will always argue that fast learning can be superficial learning. It may look good in appearance, but it doesn’t do the job. But, sadly, this fast approach is ingrained in our culture. It is everywhere. I often use Google to find things and sometimes it can be brilliant and at other times can be useless. Most teachers have spent time looking for resources on the Internet only to waste twenty minutes finding everything bar the one thing that they needed in the first place. Unfortunately, not many students have cottoned on to the fact that Google and the Internet is just one tool amongst many others. It isn’t the ‘go to’ or the ‘problem solver’ they think it is.   

And then there were none
I have spent hours, day and maybe weeks in libraries as a student. If I had time, I’d visit university libraries more often, as I find they have more relevant articles on the texts I teach than four months’ worth of searches on Google. But, how do we shift this attitude that is prevalent in society? The sad thing is that some schools have abandoned libraries completely. Teachers have stood by as a dumb witness to all this craziness. I know of one school that has replaced a library with another classroom, because they felt that everything now should be about e-books. Murder of libraries is easy, as the Government proves.  If we are going to improve the academic quality of teaching, then we need to go to the churches of academia: the libraries. In truth, I feel that in my school we had neglected the library. It had become a room for exams or meetings. However, this week I went a little crazy and I challenged attitudes in the school about libraries. I made it clear to staff and students that I wanted them to rename the library. I gave everyone a chance to have their say of which option they preferred of:

Learning Resources Centre
Knowledge Café
Research Hub
Learning Hub
Learning Laboratory
Ye Olde Google

It was as if I was the hound of death and I was personally responsible for the murder of Roger Ackroyd. I was the evil under the sun for suggesting such a change. The mirror had crack’d from side to side.  Most students preferred the name ‘library’. I was surprised how conservative our students were with the changes. I had certainly ruffled a few feathers and put the cat among the pigeons. They were adamant that it shouldn’t change, but if it doesn’t change, then their attitudes towards it will not change. Therefore, I am in the process of rebranding the library. Like the business world, it is about changing behaviour and attitudes, which will lead to more sales.  As of Tuesday, the library will be called the ‘Learning Resource Centre’. I am all for students taking ownership of things, but no student wanted to call it anything but the library, yet most have never used it.

The New Improved Library
People might read this and think how I might have a lot of work to do to create a reading culture in our school, but I don’t, because tirelessly for the past five years I have done the following things with help from my colleagues:

·         Ran a book club for teachers

·         Advertised to parents teacher’s favourite reads

·         Organised an annual readathon

·         Book talks

·         Carnegie Shadowing Groups

·         World Book Day celebrations

·         Recommended reads

·         Made a video persuading students to read over the summer holidays

There are many other things that we have done. The emphasis had been placed through the English Department and not through the library. Each thing may have got students in the library, but I don’t think they changed their attitude towards it, or reading. They made the readers read more. But, I don’t think they always made the non-readers read.  The activities certainly promoted reading, but did they really change attitudes? Maybe in time, some students will have been persuaded to read, but it isn’t enough for me. That certainly is one of the Labours of Hercules or one of the thirteen problems.   

The purpose of a library has been lost over time. Ingrained in the subconscious of most adults is the notion that the library is the source of lots of information. It has the answers to some of our problems. Students, however, don’t see that purpose to a library. They see it as a holder of old books that only boffins read. Therefore, over the next few months, with the help of the librarian (I mean, Learning Resource Manager – Partners in Crime) we are going to rebrand the name and the purpose of the library. We hope to put it at the centre of the learning in our school. We are going to sell our services to students and staff. There should be a few steps before they type a few key words into a search engine. One of the first steps should be visiting ‘Ye Olde Google’.

What can the library offer students?

·         Study guides and textbooks for revision

·         Direction and support with research

·         Example types of writing so they can see other how others write

·         Support with compiling and presenting work

·         Printing

·         A place to buy stationery

·         A place to revise or complete homework

·         A practice area for presentations

·         Books and magazines for entertainment

·         A place for getting unstuck

·         Knowledge and information  


What can the library offer teaching staff?

·         A recommended reading list to promote reading around a subject. If students study the Holocaust in History, the library can suggest some novels that students might like to read if they are interested in the topic.

·         Newspaper articles / extracts relating to ideas, topics or themes taught

·         Reading materials for lessons

·         Boxes of books for research

·         A place to send students if they need more direction on a topic  

·         Inspiration for lessons and learning

Cards on the table: the relationship between library, students and teachers in my school broke down through no particular reason. I think it was a sleeping murder. A slow murder caused by technology. Technology is so much more sexy than a book.  Hopefully, the emphasis on the library doing something for them will motivate students to use it more. If it is seen as service and not just a place, it will have a greater function in our school. It will not be the place where books hide from students. It will be the place where students go to find help and direction. We all want our students to be independent learners and the library is the key to this.  

The changes have already started as we have set particular days for revision purposes and quiet time. Students are able to revise in peace during the day. It has worked so far. The plan for the future is to hopefully integrate the library into the curriculum more and look at ways to refurbish it. Most schools have lessons that focus on particular aspects of the library, but they tend to be in isolation and not linked to the curriculum. They probably do it with mirrors too. Therefore, I want the skills to be based on a particular subject so the context is real. If it is a real problem, then students will see the benefits for them.  

Year 7 – Finding and researching in the library

Year 8 – Collating material from different sources

Year 9 - Citing sources and avoiding plagiarism

There are, of course, lots of other skills I could focus on, but these few would be a good starting point. The more I think about Literacy in schools, the more I realise that is the link between the small and big picture that is so important to making things work. A quick bolt-on technique will not work. The small things that we focus on must play a part in the big picture of things. If they work on research skills in Year 7, then they have the skills to build on and strengthen for preparation GCSE, university or life.  
Proof that Google doesn’t work
I was digging around and I discovered a way to find the Google searches that people have typed to get to my blog. Aside from the usual ones about English teaching, there was one particular set of words that amazed me.  The words ‘poems about stressed Pandas’ lead someone to this site. Surprisingly, my blog has no poetry. Even more surprising is that I have never mentioned stressed pandas. I feel sorry for the person who typed it, as they had a fruitless journey. Worryingly, why would anyone want to find a poem about stressed pandas? Were they hoping to read one out to a stressed panda? Were they teaching a lesson on how pandas easily get stressed? Now there is a conundrum that Google will never help me with. Maybe, I should visit ‘Ye Olde Google’ or the library or the Learning Resource Centre. I like to think of a zookeeper caring so much for a panda that he was hoping to read it a poem. Anyway, time for a cup of tea. Hang on – this tea tastes funny. It must be sparkling cyanide….

Thanks for reading,



  1. If the students wanted it to be called the "Library" then you should have left it as the Library ... they'll still call it that anyway and you'll forever be saying, "this is our Learning Resource Centre, what was the Library"! If you want to change their attitudes towards it then renaming it isn't going to make much difference. What you need to do is change their attitudes towards books and reading (in all its forms). That's the problem ... not what the room is called. You've admitted yourself that, even though you're the school's literacy co-ordinator, the library didn't focus high on your list - I can never understand why anybody who deals with literacy doesn't make the library the first point of reference and collaborate with their school librarian. It's good that you've recognised the benefits and services of the school library and have made a start in integrating it into the school but to create a whole-school reading ethos (which is what you're after) takes time - around 2 - 3 years according to the NLT - and needs to involve all the staff sending that important message to the students ... that reading is not only enjoyable but also necessary.

  2. Thank you for your comment. Truthfully, I did not reveal the whole picture and that plays a part in some of my decisions. The renaming isn't a large thing. It is trivial. But, it makes the students talk and re-evaluate their ideas of a library. I value libraries and know how important they are. For most people developing literacy in school the classroom is the priority. I am now focusing on putting books back in the classroom and evaluating our relationship with them and the library. They all should work together.


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