Exploring children’s agency in the library

JoAnne Saldanha

When, in my role as a Story Educator at Abacus Montessori School, Chennai, I was requested to look over the library collection, together with parent volunteers, I curated and arranged the randomly shelved collection and made a few changes to make the library look more attractive. These small changes changed the students interaction with books and the library.

I was enthused, curious and hopeful about the possibilities the library could offer.

In a Montessori environment, the culture is one of trust and respect, where children have the freedom to direct their own learning, undertake responsibilities and work together as a group.

This, however, wasn’t the case in the school library. I wondered about ways to involve the children in what we were trying to do in the library, drawing on ideas from Montessori philosophy.

I joined the Library Educators Course (LEC) in 2017, eager to learn all that I could about creating a vibrant, democratic library space. The LEC brought together my scattered ideas, giving me direction and a sense of purpose.

I chose to undertake my field project which seeks to answer the question:
Can students collaborate with the library educator to create a dynamic, vibrant library?

“This idea was drawn from Sujata Noronha’s paper, “Why a library program in Schools and Community” (2014), “The Library Educator…must recognize that the success of the library program rests on the energy of its users” and from Usha Mukunda’s Manual for Open School Libraries where she mentions, “An open library does not mean that there is no care or concern for the place and collection…The rules and conventions evolve out of a sense of cooperation, consideration and collective awareness.”

Through the course,we were asked to consider that a school library reflects the active presence of children. I wanted this for my school.

A ‘Library Club’ was offered to secondary students who were interested in developing the library.

The 15 students who signed up were inspired by a reading of the book ‘Miss Moore Thought Otherwise’. Although they were familiar with the library, they did not ‘know’ their library. Inspired by the fun, interactive library games experienced during the LEC, I planned a range of activities which we played together and our eyes opened to the possibilities of the school library.

During discussions around the best ways we could understand student preferences, the students came up with the suggestion of a survey. I was struck by their interest, enthusiasm,and willingness to work on bettering their library. This was the core of my shift from librarian centeredness to student centeredness.

The survey was owned by the students from the very idea, to question design, implementation, collation and sharing the information. My observations of Library Club members guiding the older elementary children (grades 5-6) in filling the form, who in turn helped the younger children (grades 2-4) in their mixed-age group class, helped convince me that students are well able to take on responsibilities.

Changes in the library

The survey results helped bring about an extension of the library period for elementary students from 40 minutes to one hour and was also made accessible during lunch break and after school.

The need for structure and variety enabled me to design and plan a session that included activities like a Read Aloud or Oral Story time, time to respond to the story, time to borrow, quiet reading time/read to one another or do an activity or just dream.

Changes in students

The interaction between the club children and the elementary children during the survey, seemed to have a ripple effect. It resulted in older students being more open to helping their younger classmates, older students voluntarily reading aloud to younger classmates and a sense of being a library community irrespective of their age or grade in school.

Peer interaction over books was deepened with the introduction of Book Talks. Children value the freedom to share their opinions in a non-judgmental space which was made possible because of the fresh relationships they all shared.

With secondary children, it was the personal interactions that have been invaluable. Due to the range and freedom of access of Bookworm’s collection during LEC, I drew insight into how I could offer personal recommendations and have quiet conversations with my students. Reading books, knowing the books in my library, knowing my students and their interests has become a core area of my practice. “It is manifest as never before, that librarians and teachers must know and share the interests of the age in which they are doing this work.” (Annie Carroll Moore)

The library collection is curated keeping in mind the student population, their needs and requests. Diversity, inclusion and awareness have been the key words as we add to the collection. Books that trigger conversations and reflection are often chosen to read aloud. ‘Sion’s Misfortune’ and ‘The World made a Rainbow’ have helped children grumbling about the recent lockdown, reflect on the ‘rainbow’ that inevitably partners with a ‘storm’.The story ‘Bag for Life’ from The Book of Hope, nudged the children to not just reflect on the plight of our migrant workers but also connect the story to Stone Soup, making connections not just between texts, but also between text and current events.

Our current reads… Swati Raje’s ‘The Rain’ and Zai Whitaker’s short story from ‘Sorry, Best Friend’ have added to our exploration of the terms of the Preamble to the Constitution.

Children have animatedly debated about book challenges and whether it is appropriate for adults to police what is being read. Uma Krishnaswami’s ‘Book Uncle and Me’ and Alan Gratz’s ‘Ban this Book’ have helped them understand that they have the agency to raise questions and make choices.

Challenges about the library rules, led to a discussion and framing of ‘fair and unfair’ library rules. Wherever possible changes and amendments were made. Children tidy up the library in preparation for the next class, sort the books, and guide their younger classmates, ensuring that the books are arranged in the right shelf and have become an invaluable support in the library. I believe that it is this scope to share in a non-judgmental environment that led the children to take ownership for the library.

Changes in Teachers

“In a school, the users are primarily the teachers, either directly or indirectly, because through them, the students are initiated into becoming lifetime users. Naturally, it is very important that teachers must read too.” (Usha Mukunda)

The students often take their library interactions back to their teachers, who reach out to the library educator to discuss ways in which they could together enthuse individual children about reading clueing in the library educator about a child’s interests. I rely on these inputs from the teachers to help me understand the children. Teachers are encouraged to explore the books in the library to enhance their own reading journeys and lesson plans. Book Tasting sessions help teachers familiarize themselves with books available in the library. A recent celebration of Mother Tongue Day in the library saw teachers enthusiastically volunteering to tell stories in Tamil and Hindi during Library sessions, using puppets, patta-chitra, song and poetry. The teachers appreciated this opportunity to interact with children of different grades, and I found that by seeking their contribution, the library has become an integral part of the school community.

The library now

While all clubs were discontinued the following year due to the restructuring of the academic program for the grades involved, the effect of the work started by the Library Club continues, shaping the identity of the library. Parents voluntarily contribute books and share thoughts about the library enabling the library educator to reinforce the joy of reading at home.

Just prior to the lockdown of March 2020, discussions were held with the school counsellors about how the library could help support the school’s counselling program. Familiarity with the range of books available in the library could help the counsellors suggest books to support the students emotional growth or healing. The counsellors work closely with students, teachers and parents and I am confident that the library can be the link that completes this circle.

The library, brought alive by the children’s agency, has showed us how collaborations across the school community is not just possible, but also enhances the library program.

References

  1. “Why a library program in Schools and Community” by Sujata Noronha (2014).
  2. The Manual for Open School Libraries by Usha Mukunda.
  3. Children, Libraries and the Love of Reading by Annie Carroll Moore.
  4. Inculcating and enhancing the Reading Habit by Usha Mukunda (2008).

The author works as a Library Educator at Abacus Montessori School, Chennai and Story Educator at Redwood Montessori, Chennai. She writes about her work on a Facebook page called Myth Aunty. She can be reached at

[email protected].

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