Monday, December 26, 2011

Making the Most of the Neglected Years

Occasionally an article appears in a newspaper or journal that appears to have little connection with libraries or education but which, on second thought, offers insights into children’s services. The NY Times published a piece this week about how scientists are turning their attention to changes in children during the middle childhood period of 5 or 6 to 10 or 11 years of age. These crucial years, before the turmoil of adolescence are a time when children’s brains are becoming more adult-like. Almost all societies offer special roles to children as they enter middle childhood and become capable of taking responsibility for adult-like tasks. In many pastoral societies, young girls are given the responsibility of caring for younger siblings, in some communities they learn to prepare family meals; boys learn to watch flocks and tend livestock or they learn the rudiments of hunting. In Western societies there is no comparable assigning of tasks. Few families expect 7 or 8-year-olds to babysit or help much in the house or garden. The acknowledgement of a child’s growing maturity at this time is marked by starting school and learning the developmental tasks of highly-developed societies—learning to read, to calculate, and to understand the tools we depend on in our daily life. All teachers, librarians, and parents acknowledge the importance of school in our culture and especially the importance of learning to read, but for the most part we don’t think about school as an introduction to adult work. All too often school is thought of as an interlude—a chance to get children cared for during the day and keeping them out of mischief. The tasks of school are often considered artificial lessons that must be mastered in order to pass tests and achieve recognition.

The scientists who study middle childhood have noted that these years are the time when children begin to be noticed and brought into society. In infancy and early childhood, in many cultural settings, babies and children are almost ignored. Sometimes they are not even given names until they reach the middle childhood years of becoming useful. No other creature has the long, extended growing-up period that human children have, and of course the period has become more prolonged as human work has become more complex. Perhaps it would be useful for more of us to think about the wonderful period of middle childhood when, with a brain grown to adult size, children are poised to learn more quickly and easily than they will during other periods of life. School age children are ready to be challenged with new tasks, new knowledge and new insight into other people. Most librarians have noticed that these middle-childhood years often coincide with a greater interest in reading than most people will have in later life. These are the years when we should offer children a rich and varied diet of books and other media that will stimulate their imagination and also give them a grounding in the realities of the world around them. All too often libraries become so fascinating by the joys of picture books and storytimes for toddlers that the slightly older school aged children are neglected. We are lucky that scientists are pointing out the importance of this life stage and as librarians and teachers we should take advantage of some of the new insights to offer the best we have to children starting their years of adult responsibility.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A man who understood children

Some books for children capture the spirit of childhood so memorably that they linger in the mind for years. How many adults are there who can still repeat lines from the Curious George books, or those of Dr. Seuss? This week the world lost another artist who captured children's hearts and minds in his series of Frances books--Russell Hoban. Starting with "Bedtime for Frances" in the late 1950s, Russell Hoban showed a child's life in the furry face of a badger. Frances went through many of the perils of young childhood. The story of "Bread and Jam for Frances", which describes how Frances clung to the security of bread and jam for a meal echoed a situation found in many households. The security of eating what you know you like and refusing to be tempted into trying something new like a squishy fried egg, is a sentiment that most of us can identify with. As Russell Hoban grew older, he turned to writing novels for adults. These were inventive and well-received and no doubt linger in many people's minds, but the books that will finally bring him immortality are probably the Frances books. Even after seventy years, the stories are as fresh and new as ever and as parents age into grandparents and great-grandparents they will no doubt continue to read them to eager children.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Should we hold classes in the library?

Keeping the distinction between the library and the classroom has been a theme in conferences and articles for years. Libraries provide materials--teachers teach students the ideas and concepts needed in classes. But does this distinction really hold any more? As the library, whether in a public library or a school, evolves into an information center providing access not just to print or AV materials but to streams of information, it becomes more like a classroom than ever. Indeed, what is a classroom these days when many students get their online or homeschooling courses at home? The family kitchen or a child's bedroom becomes a classroom and eventually children may complete their K-12 education without ever setting foot in what generations have called a school or classroom.

These thoughts are conjured up by two recent articles. One, in the NY Times tells of how the well-known Kahn Academy classes available on YouTube are being used as the bases for classes in some schools around the country. In the conventional classroom setting where every child has a laptop and a high-speed connection, the teacher can monitor the progress of individual students going through the math classes available through Kahn Academy videos. This combination of individualized online and face-to-face instruction may be a model for future learning.

The second article, also from the NY Times appeared this summer. It tells of an experiment by Stanford University to offer online courses free to anyone who signs up for them. More than 100,000 people did sign up and even though thousands of them dropped out after a short time, thousands others are still working their way through the courses and clearly learning from them.

What does this have to do with the role of libraries? Well, it's hard to believe that if these courses exist and are freely available to the public, a library could easily be a center for distributing them. Libraries can provide a quiet space and a fast Internet connection, advantages not available to many people living on the edges of poverty. Although most libraries, at their present level of funding, cannot provide individuals to help students and guide them through the process, they still could make the programs available to parents and young people. Most libraries have not considered offering a variety of online courses as part of their resource mix, but surely provision of these materials would increase the visibility of libraries in the community. Learning groups could be formed just like today's reading groups where like-minded individuals could meet together to engage with stimulating materials. It's a new twist to the library mix and one that should be considered as part of the move to make a library the center of the school or of the community in which it is located.