by Jas Faulkner
Theresa* is a middle school librarian in Tennessee.** When budget cutbacks hit her county, she didn’t mind taking on the additional hat of media specialist. Doing so meant that she wouldn’t have to do circuit administration, meaning that she would be responsible for only one school. She understood that all of that was part of working in public education. And like many educators, she found that in the past five years, her job has turned into a constant battle and it has nothing to do with scrabbling for her share of the shrinking budget. Her biggest opponent is not student apathy or parental antipathy, but the ubiquity of handheld gadgets.
At the end of the 2011/2012 school year, she took stock of the ways she had been effective and where she was letting the children of her school down. She wrote a long, reasoned letter to the superintendent of schools and her administrator spelling out what she wanted to see happen in August of 2012.
“I signed both letters, hit the send button, and then took a long walk and just paid attention to my breath and my steps and tried not to think about how they were reacting to that letter.”
Theresa laughed quietly as she recounted the summer morning she made what some have seen as an outrageous step back from the hyper-wired reality that nearly everyone moves through.
“I went back home an hour later, expecting no answer or a terse ‘no’ from one or both recipients.”
What she saw in her inbox was a cautiously supportive note from the superintendent who said he would leave the decision to the head administrator of her school and a short note from her administrator: “Oh hell yes we will do this.”
In the month and a half that followed, Theresa oversaw an overhaul of her library that included moving the student computers back into a lab that was in a completely separate room from the stacks. The concept of the library as cinema was abolished. The projection screen was removed from the main reading room and teachers would have to show films and videos in their classrooms. Among the list of changes she and the principal spelled out in their letter to the faculty were some other things that ruffled a few letters.
“We got a little silly and a little bitchy.”
After the list of physical changes to the library came what might be considered an opening volley, a declaration of independence from babysitting instead of being a librarian.
Number seven on the list says:
“The library is not a study hall.
The library is not a study hall.
The library is not a study hall.”
And then number eight:
“Have I mentioned that the library is not to be used as a study hall?”
The list, which Theresa emailed to me prior to our phone conversation, included a number of items that put responsibility for computer use and book choices squarely back into the hands of the students and teachers. In fact, computers were locked down until both parties signed off on that.
The real kicker that got to everyone, students, teachers, and eventually parents was the final item.
“The Malphus Adderall Middle School Library is a place for research and enrichment through reading books. Because of this, as of the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year, it will be a handheld electronic gadget-free zones. No telephones, tablets, electronic readers or media players of any kind will be allowed past the front doors of the library. Any student or teacher caught with any of the above will find their gadget will be confiscated and remanded to the head administrator, Dr. Daisy Elaine Moffatt. Dr. Moffatt will determine the disciplinary action required and the item will have to be retrieved from her by a responsible adult. ”
The last item was added to the school’s code of conduct that was sent home to be signed by both parents and their offspring.
Was there any reaction?
“Oh yeah. And it proved that people, at least most of our parents read the handouts we send home.
Some parents were actually happy. They loved the idea of their kids getting unhooked from Facebook and Twitter and getting back into reading. Others? Not so much. I was accused of everything from being jealous of families who could afford nice tablets to being some sort of Luddite.”
Was she okay with it?
Theresa laughed. “Bring it, baby! You come in my library to look at books. If you have better things to do, you go do it elsewhere. It’s not about discouraging kids from coming into the library. It’s about encouraging them to read.”
She paused for a moment. Then she asked, “When was the last time you read a book just you wanted to?”
I told her I had two books going right now.
“That’s good,” she said, “I’m amazed by who doesn’t read. Before I wrote that letter this summer, the one asking to change the rules, I saw a statistic that really made me think. For almost a third of people who go through school in Tennessee, the last time they’ll check out a book or buy a book to read for fun is usually sometime in middle school. We lose another thirty-five percent after high school graduation.
I can’t change the whole state, but I can make a difference here. It’s not going to happen to the students in my school and it’s not going to happen while I’m a librarian. They walk in the door, they get my undivided attention and they leave with a book in their hands that they want to read.”
In at least one school, the electronic babysitter has been fired.
*Not her real name. Deal with it.
** You don’t need to know where she works, either.