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Reflections on Reading: How to Create an Inviting Library--and Eager Readers

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By Lynn Silbernagel

From the Fall 2010 Caller
The reading of all good books is indeed like a conversation with the noblest men of past centuries who were the authors of them, nay a carefully studied conversation, in which they reveal to us none but the best of their thoughts.” —René Descartes
“I cannot live without books.” —Thomas Jefferson
“My library was dukedom large enough.” —William Shakespeare
Together these quotes speak to some of the values I find in reading: it is a way to connect with and understand other people, past and present; it is something I, too, cannot imagine living without; and ultimately, it is a solitary intellectual experience.
The last point seems at odds with life in Catlin Gabel’s middle school library, where we are surrounded with the energies of nearly 200 people, oversee a collection of 10,000 items, and work with 6th through 8th graders to foster reading. This hardly makes reading seem a solitary endeavor. Yet one of the main goals I bring to the school is to help students become strong independent readers—to really get them engaged with reading as an enjoyable practice and to encourage them to grapple in their own ways with the ideas presented.
In order to encourage students to become readers, a number of strategies have been proven helpful. Overall, my aim is to make reading, and the library in general, inviting, accessible, convenient, non-judgmental, and non-restrictive. Here are some specific things I do to foster this type of environment.
* The library has comfortable spaces for both groups and individuals to read and explore library materials.
* I purchase a variety of materials in a broad range of genres, and change displays of material frequently.
* I rely on students and teachers to recommend and review books. (Nothing encourages students to read more than a recommendation from a peer!) This often results in our generating waitlists of people who want the recommended titles when they come in.
* Teachers and I are committed to students making independent reading choices each month. For example, 7th grade students spin the “Genre Wheel” then choose any book they’d like from that genre.
* We do not limit the number of items students may check out, how long they may have them, or what types of material they may check out.
* The library has invested in a number of audio titles so students who are auditory learners can read more easily.
* We also have newer types of material (graphic novels, for example) that allow reluctant readers, or those who are more oriented toward visuals, to become engaged and successful at reading.
* We recommend books when students ask for ideas, but allow them free access to the materials to explore if they prefer.
* We encourage adults in the community to model reading as a valuable, pleasurable activity.
Reading is a joy for me, as it is for so many people. I am particularly fortunate to be in a profession that allows me to share that joy with others, and help engage them in a conversation that can span generations.
Lynn Silbernagel has been Catlin Gabel’s Middle School librarian for 16 years. As a fused glass artisan, she has also taught several Catlin Gabel summer programs and Breakaway experiences.  

Has Technology Changed How We Read?

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By Paul Andrichuk

From the Fall 2010 Caller
The scene repeats itself at coffee shops all over Portland; people staring at their computer screens as they move from site to site, document to document. It’s worse if you are a parent, watching your child avoid eye contact or other social cues as they “study, read, or research” (even as the music plays). We react as the cranky adults we swore we would never be.
That’s the emotional, personal reaction, but in the back of our minds we wonder if people are really reading and learning. Has Google made us stupid, as the Nicholas Carr article in the Atlantic suggested? He seems to come down on the side of believing the internet has rewired his brain, affecting his attention and ability to sustain reading:
“Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, and begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”
You may be nodding to yourself in agreement, even as you curse technological breakdowns that suddenly make your life more difficult. You hate our reliance on technology and pine for the good old days without it, but it sure is great to find a restaurant when you are lost or Skype with your sister in Florida.
Here are my three basic thoughts regarding reading in a technological age.
* Books and computers are here to stay (short term), and young people will be reading from both.
* The brain is constantly evolving, including rewiring itself. Indeed, Maryanne Wolf, author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, argues that we are not born to read. The brain will continue to change in response to new symbols, the speed with which information comes at us, and the myriad forms it will take.
* Critical thinking skills transcend how and where reading is done.
The evolution of the brain
The brain has been changing and adapting since the invention of language. That’s reading the symbols, but more importantly it’s about how the brain connects the meaning of words to the experiences and imagination of the reader. If our brains were able to begin this evolution with the advent of written language 6,000 years ago, surely it can adapt to the speed and scope of information, especially language, available on the internet.
Reading begins at infancy
One of the best indicators of reading is how much time children spend listening to adults who read to them. The gobbledygook on the page are words, and words will make up your son’s or daughter’s universe.
This point has little to do with computers and reading, but it’s an important one to make for three reasons. Books are not going away. Reading is a great family activity. Students often say they have always remembered their parents reading.
Finally (and it is a related point), always remember that you are your child’s first and most important teacher!
Reading means independence
Socrates feared that reading would make people too autonomous and, worse, would retard the brain’s capacity to infer, analyze, and think critically. He was mistaken. Images of the brain during fluent reading light up areas that indicate all of these things are happening.
If Socrates was incorrect about literacy, then perhaps we are mistaken in our assumptions about reading and technology. Young people understand that there are different types of reading, depending on its purpose.
Questions for Catlin Gabel
Schools like Catlin Gabel can be explicit in how they teach reading and use technology. Computers are here, they are not going away, and they are great educational tools. So what does this mean for the young people in our charge? What does it mean for parents?
Critical thinking makes stronger readers
Catlin Gabel students are critical and independent thinkers. It’s an aspect of the school culture that is celebrated, but more importantly, it allows students to be careful consumers of all information. Reading skills are guided, modeled, and practiced, regardless of whether the information is on the screen or in a first-edition novel.
I connect critical thinking to reading, but it’s equally important to connect critical thinking to a careful assessment of the source, especially internet sites. After all, if what you’re reading is inaccurate or false, it tends to affect the educational process.
The value of time and reflection
Getting lost in a book is a luxury, so is getting lost after you’re done with it. Just as Goodnight Moon allows you to see the connection of words to a child’s world, so does connecting ideas in a book to our notion of possibilities in the world.
Youth should be “multitextual”
Students are naturally making judgments about how to read based on the purpose of their task. A general survey of the news on the front page of the Oregonian, reading four pages of a biology text, and reading an online editorial in the New York Times require different levels of attention.
I’ve meandered a bit through this discussion of reading in the digital age. I was prepared to subscribe to Nicholas Carr’s viewpoint, but I simply cannot. Computers and technology are no longer luxuries but necessities, both in terms of our quality of life and our education. In addition, books and computers can coexist— and we will read from both. Those who worry that the internet may be rewiring our brains are correct, and the evolution of this vital organ continues, just as it has responded to every other substantial change in human history. What remains at the core of reading—from books and computers—is that we continue to value and teach the thinking skills beyond the symbols.
Paul Andrichuk is the head of Catlin Gabel’s middle school.

The Unlimited World of Readers

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By Lark P. Palma, PhD, Head of School

From the Autumn 2010 Caller

When I hear teachers talk about the breakthroughs—the aha! moments—when a child makes the leap to linking the sound and letter of a word to its meaning, I am a bit envious. When I worked as a middle and upper school teacher, my job was to solidify and enhance what my students had learned, helping them become more sophisticated readers. What I learned about secondary reading is sound advice: spend almost as much time preparing the student for reading as for the reading itself. My work seeking the hooks on which to hang the reading, finding the deeper meanings and leading my students to discover those meanings for themselves, helped them become analytical readers who came to comprehend texts with depth and insight.
However great that was, I never had the opportunity to teach a young child to read. Despite all the methods, the science, and the research, the moment when a child recognizes a word and its meaning still seems magical to me. Recently I discovered a picture of my 5-year-old self in footie pajamas reading the comics. It brought back memories of figuring out from the illustrations what Brenda Starr or Prince Valiant was saying. Eventually, I could pair the repeated words with what I thought was going on. But although I don’t remember much about the moment I learned to read, I was fortunate that someone took an interest in me as a young reader and put wonderful books in my hands.
Dick and Jane, Tag, and Through the Garden Gate—the books we were all supposed to read—bored me beyond words. We lived on a tiny coastal island, and the library was the size of a small living room. But the unforgettable Miss Chastain was there, and she kept handing me books to read that she knew would spark my interest: The Five Little Peppers, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, The Secret Garden, Misty of Chincoteague, The Arabian Nights, Treasure Island, and many others. Her gesture implied “You will love this.” When no one else was there (which was often), she would let me read adult fiction. I gulped down great historical novels by Anya Seton and others, with their thrilling battles and momentous events. I felt like I was right there in the throes of the Puritan Revolution, the Great Plague, the building of cathedrals, and the Viking invasion of Britain. (The truly transformative books came later: the existentialists, Richard Brautigan, John Barth, Walker Percy, John Fowles, Kurt Vonnegut, D. H. Lawrence, and Virginia Woolf.)
Just as I had passed my books on to my brothers, so did I dole out the special books to my cousins and friends. The tradition continues today through two more generations. If you have someone in your life who sets the table and joyously offers you a smorgasbord of books, you will partake with gusto and pleasure.
I am so proud to be part of a school whose teachers make the world of reading come alive for their students. They place the right books in their hands, just as Miss Chastain did for me. Our teachers understand how to reach readers of all types of learning styles, so that they too can take part in absorbing and thrilling experiences with just the turns of a few pages. This issue of the Caller is full of stories of the transformative acts of both reading and writing, another area that we teach extraordinarily well. Please enjoy these stories, and don’t hesitate to share a much-loved book with me.



Reader's Paradise

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How the Upper School library contributes to a great education
From the Fall 2009 Caller

By Sue Phillips

Before school on a foggy fall morning several students enter the library and gather quietly at their favorite table. Others are tucked away at study carrels near the windows, reviewing their notes for a quiz, or reading a chapter before the busy day begins. By 10 a.m. the room has long been humming with activity as waves of students enter and exit, use the copy machine, track down a short story, or ask the librarians for help in citing a source for their essay draft. A shy freshman approaches to ask whether the library has any good books set in the Middle Ages, and while the librarian helps her with some recommendations, teachers trickle in to find a quiet place to scan the New York Times or write comments on students’ recent in-class writing assignment.
Librarians are collaborators who know that the key to success is rooted in a thorough understanding of the academic life of the school. We must be curious and persistent to seek out the information that we need to reflect and enhance Catlin Gabel’s intellectual climate. The process begins with a solid knowledge of the curriculum, and we engage in regular conversations with colleagues and departments to establish a firm understanding of what the faculty is teaching, and how their assignments change from year to year.
New programs provide opportunities to enhance the collection. When Peter Shulman and Dan Griffiths began teaching their interdisciplinary environmental studies class, we added a substantial number of titles to our collection on topics such as recycling, alternative fuels and energy, habitat preservation, and environmental ethics. Sometimes new areas of knowledge emerge in a discipline and receive thought-provoking attention in the classroom. Students learn about nanotechnology, for instance, and come to the library for help finding a book or an article to feed their interest. The arrival of the outdoor program several years ago led to a surge of interest in books on outdoor survival and adventure, and we make certain that these books are prominently on display at least twice a year. When the new Chinese language program begun, the library began purchasing classics in translation as well as a good range of bilingual titles on Chinese art, social issues, and culture.
Sometimes an assignment presents a perfect opportunity to collaborate. The English department has worked closely with the Upper School library for years to enhance student learning. When the English faculty introduces their students to the poetry of William Butler Yeats, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, or the British Romantic poets, they inform the library, and we place a selected group of books on reserve for the students to consult. Gradually, as students become more sophisticated and independent learners, we offer them more complex and powerful tools. Students in senior electives in English work with their English teachers and a librarian as we show them how to use academic databases such as JSTOR to find journal articles on a closely defined topic. While the initial classroom visit is a small group experience, many of the students later visit the library to consult one-on-one with the librarian, and to obtain feedback on their search strategies. This spring, many of Patrick Walsh’s students in the U.S. Constitution course sat down with a librarian to locate electronic and print information on case law for a classroom debate. Many of these students had already had exposure to database searching through their fall English electives, and they were able to rapidly translate those skills to another discipline. The goal of this teaching is to give students the confidence and specific skills they need to locate reliable information on any subject of interest to them.
Librarians firmly believe in the importance of independent reading for information and pleasure as part of the private intellectual life of a student. We know that during the academic year it can be difficult to make time to read for pleasure, so we create busy and varied book displays throughout the year, with particular emphasis before the school holidays and summer break. Our summer borrowing program, introduced several years ago, helped get books and magazines off the shelves and into circulation over the summer for students, faculty, and staff to enjoy. This June, hundreds of titles were checked out, and we spent a considerable amount of time consulting with students and adults to fill their arms with summer reading. To our delight, the staff of the school are regular and energetic participants, making summer borrowing a truly schoolwide program enjoyed by students, parents, bus drivers, development staffers, faculty, and many others.
Everyone knows that Catlin Gabel students are intellectual and inquisitive. Over the years, as we welcome students daily in the library, we begin to gain their trust, and they tell us more and more about their interests. A few years ago, one student expressed an interest in game theory, and we bought several books on the topic that have checked out regularly ever since. Several students have acquired an interest in classic British mysteries, so our collection is growing. Students can and do request specific titles and authors, and smile with delight when they see that we are listening, and that we frequently make purchases on their behalf. The Karl Jonske ’99 endowed fund, established in memory of a Catlin Gabel alumnus who was a prodigious reader, permits us to purchase more than a hundred new titles each year that are chosen specifically to enhance the library’s selection of books for independent reading pleasure.
By the time our current students graduate from college and begin their professional lives, the specific search tools they are now using will change, and new technologies will alter the appearance and function of traditional sources of information. Books in print are very likely to be around for a long time, but we will continue to see developments in ebooks, the electronic dissemination of news, and the digitization of millions of pages of print materials available through searchable databases. New ways of packaging information, electronically and otherwise, are not values-neutral. Fortunately, Catlin Gabel students are well prepared for these challenges. They have learned how to evaluate online sources for commercial advertising and bias, and have the skills to think critically, define their questions, and make competent and ethical choices. It all begins with a shy freshman visitor who thinks the library is just a good place to read, and culminates in an assertive, thoughtful, sophisticated senior who knows how to research a topic, defend an assertion, cite a source, and recommend a favorite book to others. This makes being a librarian a great and interdisciplinary joy.
Sue Phillips has been Upper School librarian since 2004.