Learning to Read

by Jessica Kahn, Ph.D.

Over the past eight years, as a retired, reading education college professor, I have worked with Philadelphia public and charter schools to get books into the hands of children. I collect books from wealthy neighborhoods and books that children no longer want and take them to inner-city schools. In five of those schools, I have also created or re-created libraries, cataloging the books and arranging the library, in the hopes that someday a school librarian will be hired to run the library and teach students. I have literally cataloged thousands of books for these libraries.

One of these libraries is fully functional today in a charter school. It has a certified school librarian and an aide. In another school, a chronically understaffed public school, where I have set up a library collection, there is a crew of dedicated volunteers and middle school students who circulate 1400 books a month, to as many as four classes a day. Volunteers at this public school also read to children on a regular basis, using the library to meet with students and encourage reading.

I am currently organizing a library in another Philadelphia charter school where the principal assures me that a bilingual media specialist will be hired to oversee the library. I hope this happens. For my part, in addition to supplying an initial book collection, I will train parent volunteers and middle schoolers to help maintain the library.

As I organize the spaces and prepare the books for circulation, I am aware that what I do may be completely futile if a school librarian is not hired once it is established. This has been the case in several other public schools where I tried to create libraries.

When I tell people what I am doing, they have one of two reactions. Some of them wonder why libraries are necessary since children can read books on Kindles. These people need a reality check! Other people are appropriately horrified to find that schools don’t have libraries. They assume that the library experiences they had as children still exist in lower-income neighborhoods in Philadelphia. When I tell them the appalling statistics about libraries in Philadelphia public schools, they are surprised. Twenty-five of 150 public elementary schools in Philadelphia subscribe to the Follett cataloging system (16%), but there are only six or seven actual librarians in the Philadelphia School District–two of them are in high schools. And of those 25 schools, one wonders how many have functioning libraries, where books actually circulate. Less than 25, surely.

We wring our hands about the reading scores of children in lower-income neighborhoods. We pay for testing, and we pay for expensive reading programs, but we do not provide opportunities for children to choose books they want to read so they can develop the habit of reading. Children learn to read by reading. They become readers by reading lots of books they can read easily, reading books that they want to read, reading in their leisure time.  However, lower-income children in Philadelphia don’t have access to books. Public libraries are closing or limiting their hours and public school libraries are non-existent or non-functional.

The irony is that schools in wealthy neighborhoods have libraries. Wealthy children have books in their homes. Schools in poor neighborhoods don’t have libraries, and poor children don’t have books in their homes. Children are eager to check books out of their school libraries. Too many children cannot do that. If we care about improving children’s reading scores, and their reading habits, libraries staffed by trained school librarians are an essential element of reading instruction, especially in lower-income neighborhoods.

Jessica Kahn, Ph. D. – Jessica taught in the Philadelphia school system from 1967-1972. She earned her doctoral degree in Educational Leadership/Computers in Curriculum at the Graduate School of Education of the University of Pennsylvania in 1988. From 1992-2014 she taught at Chestnut Hill College, Philadelphia, where she was Chair of the undergraduate Education Department, Institutional Review Board Chairperson, and Blackboard system administrator. She is the co-author of Learning to Write Differently, which won the Meade Award of the National Council of Teachers of English, and the author of Ideas and Strategies for the One-Computer Classroom. Since leaving Chestnut Hill College, she has been committed to organizing libraries for public and charter schools.

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