Early this month, I was part of a group that visited school libraries in Frankfurt, with the aim of sharing, learning and observing practices that make school libraries in Germany to be voted among the most efficient. The group included librarians from schools and universities and the Nairobi County government, headteachers from around the country and officials from the education and culture ministries. My colleague and I represented All For Books in the tour organized by Goethe Institut Nairobi, as our work involves nurturing a love for reading through book donations and other activities.
Our visit took us to 5 school libraries (both kindergarten and primary) and the Central Youth Library of the City of Frankfurt, which serve children aged 2 – 16 years. The Goethe Coordinator, Elizabeh Wichenje, summarizes our initial shock: “We thought we were coming to a place where they have no challenges, to learn from them. Only to realize you have similar challenges (like us) but you are doing something good despite that.”
Budgetary constraints, lack of enough manpower to run the libraries and a general dis-interest in reading for pleasure among school going children are not just local but international! We were surprised that the schools have populations of upto 1500.
Here are 10 lessons I took with me. Though not entirely new, they are practical. And they can be customized for your school or public libraries working with children, and your home library as well.
- It is not about the books. It is about the environment you create around them.
Our first visit was at the Friedrich Frobel School. The moment you enter the room, your eyes wonder, your mouth salivates and your fingers get itchy. The deco and ambiance in the room is inviting from the floor to the walls. Being
a kindergarten, the books are arranged within easy reach, with a sofa-cum-bookshelf with comfy cushions. The room has wobbling chairs in which you can rock only when reading!
As we chat with the team, a little girl walks around, browsing the library. She re-arranges some bookmarks and picks a book, plants herself on the sofa and reads away as if we do not exist in her world. You can clearly see this is one of her favourite spaces.
“It is better to have a slightly mishandled book than have books that are not being read,” Claudia from the City School Library Department tells us.
The resource materials in the library include games like chess and scrabble, card games, audio books and movies. The spaces, though small, are not cramped and allow for reading individually and collectively.
2. Parents MUST be involved.
I always challenge parents that if your children never see you reading, you should not expect them read themselves. In addition to supporting reading at home, parents here are greatly encouraged to take part in different library activities – there is a once-a-year sleepover for parents and children at the library organized by the librarian.
Parents can come in and do an activity during a 40-minute break – either with their child’s class or any other. Activities include reading, painting, drawing, photography or any other skill within their ability. They also serve as part of the jury during library related activities.
“Volunteering here allows me to spend time with and observe my children away from the home environment. I also get to know their friends who I might not get to meet otherwise,” one of the parent volunteers says.
3. Invoking the spirit of volunteerism
“I don’t work on Mondays so I dedicate the day to volunteering as a librarian here,” says another parent.
Out of the 111 schools in Frankfurt that have a library program, only 30 have a qualified librarian under the city’s payroll. The remaining 81 schools solely rely on volunteers who commit to opening the library every day. Volunteers design and adapt different activities to their site-specific needs. The city department in charge of these libraries offers some guidelines and sample activities but gives the librarians a free hand to implement what works for them.
The volunteer pool largely consists of parents, grandparents and former parents in the school. In one school, 3 of the volunteers are parents of teachers who work there. Most of the volunteers come in once a week.
“It is so much fun to work with the children,” another volunteer says. “Sometimes, a child paints or creates something and gifts it to me. These kinds of interactions make me feel very special.”
Is this something to engage even our retired teachers and librarians as they pass down skills and experiences?
4. Introducing books early
At the Central Youth Library, we find a section that has parents and toddlers only. Books are arranged on minute shelves on a carpeted floor. What charmed me most was seeing the young ones enjoying the feel of books, touching them, turning the pages, tracing the illustrations and giggling at the pictures inside. You are not just spending time with that child and keeping them occupied, but conditioning a trigger in them that equates books with good memories – and creates a desire for them to learn how to read for themselves!
5. Engage the little helpers too!
At the Liebig School, we encounter a group of 9/10 year olds. They have just joined primary school barely two weeks previously and this is their first library visit. Sitting in a group, the librarian engages the group of about 30 in a conversation. How many of them have visited the public library in town? A few hands shoot up. What did they see?
They share their experiences. How many of them have visited the national library? One hand goes up. The librarian then explains the differences between the three levels – I learn that the national library mainly serves as an archive, documenting and preserving German history and culture. Then he quickly runs them through the basics in terms of book classifications and placement. Later, the children engage in practical activities around this by themselves – identifying which sections of the library they would find books on particular subjects, themes and topics. With practice, this makes them quite independent in navigating their way around the library.
Older children serve as part time librarians and this earns them points. You are also teaching them skills for their lifetime – to research, to commit, to take responsibility and to give.
6. Listen to the children
On one board, we see a conversation between a library user and a librarian. The conversation is in the structure of a feedback form. The young one is enquiring about a particular book and the librarian responds, “Sorry, that is an ‘on demand’ book and therefore we do not have it.” She then signs the date of the response.
The children can suggest the themes and topics they have an interest in. They can also recommend specific authors and titles for the books and other resources. If the books are not part of the City’s e-catalogue, the school sometimes asks parents to buy and donate those books to the school.
Children can also grade themselves therefore choosing the level of text they want to read. So what if I am older and like to read picture books? Stop judging!
7. Ensure relevance
In one school, the English section has barely 50 titles. This is supplemented by some audiobooks and movies. Given that the school has a population of more than 1000 children and teaches English as one of the subjects, I am a bit disturbed. Should they not have more books so that more children can read them in the language?
“Of what use is loads of books that are not being read nor relevant to the children?” the librarian smiles as he responds to my query. “They might be a few, but they have a high rate of circulation.”
On a closer look, I realize that indeed, the resources reflect interests for that age group including Harry Potter, Hannah Montana and Twilight.
The library also reflects attention to emerging issues. There is a title about fake news. A quick scan shows that it deals with matters such as how to distinguish truth and hearsay, outdated information, credibility of the informant, context and counterchecking among different sources. I bite my tongue. It is basically teaching citation which I only learnt as an adult at university.
Every two years or so, the library does some book weeding. This involves removing books that have aged not so gracefully, are outdated, and sometimes, versions that are older. If a book is not borrowed over a certain time frame, it is weeded out too.
8. There will never be enough money!
Creativity is key. The school libraries get around 700 Euros per year – specifically for buying books. Every other resource is either fundraised for or donated. Parents and friends of the school and book lovers volunteer their time and items during the library flea markets to raise resources for any other activity – including tables, seating areas, awards and any other materials that the libraries feel are important but may not be in the city’s e-catalogue.
Once books are weeded out, a flea market is organized and the materials are sold at low prices. Children are given first priority to buy their favourite books from the pile. Sometimes, the children book them in advance. This money is invested back into library activities.
9. Reel in the ‘non-readers’
At Carl-von-Weinberg school, castles made of tissue rolls and boxes draw you to one of the shelves. On another, you find a 3-D replica of a whale and an architectural piece on yet another table. All these pieces are made by students at the school courtesy of a partnership with a local organization that sponsors an artist-in-residence once a year. The best of the projects are displayed at the library, like some badge of honor with bragging rights. There are wall hangings of framed illustrations and paintings of various book covers all done by students and volunteers from other schools.
The librarians led us in playing various games such as matching titles with (real or designed from content) book covers which was so much fun. Which book has x number of pages? Which book has this particular illustration on page x? Activities like these draw in even those who do not have a natural affinity to books (ha!). Some of the libraries also have ‘original book’ and ‘easy reads’ of the same title.
10. Be active!
Let the library be a space where things happen, not a place to pass time or hide away when things happen elsewhere. Create bubble and fun.
At the Ernst-Reuter School, the librarians conduct one-on-one and group reading support sessions with children. They also create an environment where children who may not have a good environment in their home – or simply prefer to work in the space – can finish their homework and team projects together before the day ends. This endears them to the children who are in return willing to help when need arises.
Invite authors, storytellers, poets and other resource persons from time to time to spice it up. Have conversations around books. Invite different classes to work together in the library – the older ones can teach or read to the younger ones or simply pair them up as reading buddies to read silently together. One library issues a Reading Passport, complete with ‘visa’ stamps for every book read. The children also write how long it took them to read the book and what they liked or did not like about it. They can also indicate how many pages they read if they did not finish reading the text.
Parents ask me, how do I get my boys to read? Yes, it seems to be universally easier for girls to develop a love for reading compared to boys as the librarians here concur. They gave the same answer – books on technology, architecture, sports and comics are quite popular with boys across the ages.
Did I mention that, unlike the situation here in Kenya, the schools in Frankfurt do NOT have a library lesson as part of the curriculum? This means that the children decide whether or not to go and visit the library. Schools also decide whether they want to have a library within their premises or not. Therefore, most of their activities are conducted within the breaks, or after regular hours. To make this work, librarians liaise with teachers to incorporate library time into their lesson plans.
Do you have other tips on how to encourage children in your life – at home, school or library to read more and enjoy? Share!