The Power of Libraries: Perspective From A CPS Librarian

Gundry Rowe is a librarian at Walt Disney Magnet Elementary School. This past year, CPS librarians were given the opportunity to apply for the Rochelle Lee Teacher Award Program (RLTA) for the first time. Gundry is a 2017-2018  individual awardee and is one of the first librarians to participate in the RLTA program. Below, Gundry shares her path into library science, delivering a powerful message of the importance of school and public libraries, continued professional development, and student choice. 

“I was pretty much allowed to read whatever I wanted to read.”

I was always a big reader. I was about to go into kindergarten, and my mom was teaching 1st or 2nd grade at the time at the same school. My mom really wanted my kindergarten teacher to be the one to teach me how to read. And I LOVED kindergarten. I still know my kindergarten teacher to this day. She taught me how to read, and I just adored her.

I read a lot as a kid. Both my parents were big readers, so there were just a ton of books in our house. It looked like a used bookstore. I was pretty much allowed to read whatever I wanted to read; there weren’t a lot of restrictions. My parents would send me and my brother outside, and we would take books with us and just sit outside and read.  My favorites growing up were fantasy books like Dealing with Dragons by Patricia Werde or Worry Week by Anne Lindbergh,  books where the kids are sort of left on their own to be independent. There are certainly kids at [Walt Disney] who are interested in those books as well. It’s a trope for a reason.

When I was 16 years old, I started working in a childrens’ bookstore.  All my co-workers were either current or retired teachers or librarians.  I was one of the only kids who worked there, but I really loved the books.  In college,  I majored in English at the University of North Carolina, intending to eventually work in publishing. However, I also worked at the rare book collection and and did acquisitions for the School of Information and Library Science , so I learned a lot about the library science program. I took a couple of classes just for fun about young adult literature and children’s literature, which ended up being some of my favorite classes in undergrad.

When I graduated, I decided to get my Masters in Library Science. I think I was the only one that was surprised. Everybody else I ever worked for, upon hearing the news of my career trajectory, just said “Of course”.

“A lot of kids come from tough situations, and they show up every day and they try. That’s amazing. So we’ve got to be there to meet them.”

People may not realize that a school librarian is an educator. They teach or interact with every student in the school. The kids are thirsty to learn, and they’re ready. A lot of kids come from tough situations, and they show up every day and they try. That’s amazing. So we’ve got to be there to meet them. Schools are closing their libraries, which is really short-sighted. Our students use school and public libraries like crazy. Our local public librarian comes to do presentations at the end of the school year, and the students know her by name. Students use the resources that are available to them. It’s a real detriment to everyone in society if kids are not learning these skills.

“We are providing access to books they want to read and not an experience of us telling them what they should read.”

Some kids talk about how they don’t have access to books at home, and a lot of them use public libraries pretty regularly. It’s really important that we are providing access to books they want to read and not an experience of us telling them what they should read. I always tell the students: “It’s not my job to teach you how to read, it’s my job to make you want to.” That’s sort of the driving force around a lot of what we do in the library.

Librarianship is certainly something that changes constantly.  If you don’t stay on top of professional development, then you can fall behind as to what you’re able to do for students. It’s really a quickly changing field, and it’s nice to have professional development like the Rochelle Lee Teacher Award program that focuses more on the reading part of the job. Everything is very tied together though. Research and information literacy skills are tied directly into literacy skills; the technology is infused in all of it.

“There are people asking –do kids lack background knowledge? And that’s just not the truth. They only lack the background knowledge of what’s being presented to them.”

I was super excited about the emphasis on book choice this summer in the Rochelle Lee Teacher Award program. I think that’s something that gets lost in the shuffle. Book choice is the biggest thing we’re doing here in the library.  If you want kids to want to read, you need to give them choice of what they’re reading.

The philosophy of the RLTA program was really aligned with how I think about books and reading.  One important discussion, facilitated by the organization Kids Like Us , focused on students’ access to books that serve as “mirrors and windows”. In a collection, children should be able to see themselves in books (the mirror) and also be able to learn about other people and the lives they have (the windows). The workshop was powerful, emphasizing the importance of having books from different cultural and racial backgrounds. You allow a student to come to the table with that background knowledge that reflects the experiences that they have. Sometimes people assert –do kids lack background knowledge? And that’s just not the truth. They have background knowledge. They only lack the background knowledge of what’s being presented to them.

“A library is a good space to find wherever they go, wherever they are.”

There’s a lot of research showing a tie between student success to a funded library with a qualified librarian. It’s really important to realize that a library isn’t just a place where people go and hear a story. There’s so much more going on.  In addition to finding materials and information they want to read, students are able to take the information and determine whether what they are reading is accurate. The students evaluate the sources that their information is coming from, which is extremely important right now, whether it’s information from books or from the internet.

It’s very important to us here that every student feels safe and welcome in the library. My dad taught middle school and he was always really concerned about the kids who were struggling with social/emotional needs, and that really influences my point of view. Even if they’re having a bad day  or they struggle with behavior in their classroom, it’s important that they get a fresh start when they walk in here [the library].

The library space can have different meanings for different kids. But no matter their differences, I want all students to walk out of Disney Magnet knowing that, wherever they are, they should seek out the library. Whether it’s their public library or high school library, I want them to know the library will always be a good place for them.