October 15, 2018

Reading for the Head and for the Heart

With Bookwood right around the corner, we sat down with our librarian at the Elementary Campus, Kat Svetlik, to ask her questions about the event, the library, and all things books and reading for kids.

If you haven’t already bought your ticket for Bookwood, which takes place on Saturday, October 20, 2018 from 11am–2pmclick here to go to the Bookwood site.

Q: With Bookwood coming up on October 20th, can you talk a little about the history and philosophy behind this event?

Kat: This is the sixth year that we have celebrated Bookwood as our library tribute. Prior to that, librarians from both campuses set out new books for parents to dedicate on behalf of their children. In collaboration with the Parent Org and the amazing parent volunteers, during my second year here at Oakwood we decided to change the venue to an on-campus event highlighting the elementary library collection.

Instead of an event only for adults, we wanted to have a party about books where the whole family could come and have fun. In particular, I wanted parents and their kids to talk about the books that are there; those parents could find out what the kids like to read, and the kids could find out what the parents like to read. So, it’s really more about having a conversation about books.

It also flipped the dedication process; instead of the parents filling out the dedication for their kids, it became more about students dedicating books to the library. Every year, we have wonderful authors and illustrators for children’s books share their talents and experiences with a multi-generational audience. We have crafts and we have food, and it’s just a real party. It’s a really fun day.

Q: What is planned for this year’s Bookwood?

Kat: Shawn Harris, who has illustrated two books with Dave Eggers, Her Right Foot and What Can a Citizen Do? is one of our guest speakers. His amazing illustrations bring to life some very interesting and important facts about the role of being a citizen in the United States.

Armand Baltazar, who wrote and illustrated Timeless: Diego and the Rangers of the Vastlantic, is also speaking.  Timeless is an adventure story told in both words and pictures about a world where timelines have converged and a young man who must help find this father.

This is a price-fixed ticket for as many people in your family as you want to bring. All food is included: hot dogs, tacos, a fruit cart, ice cream, popcorn, pastries, coffee. We have a photo booth. They make great little photo booth bookmarks, and there are crafts like bedazzling t-shirts… and it’s just a fun day for everyone!

Q: At Bookwood, the students and parents are there together, having these discussions about books. For those other times and places when the parents aren’t right there with their kids, can you give advice to parents who are trying to figure out what types of book to select for their students, or how to help their kids choose books?

Kat: I think that the most important thing about finding a book for your children is to start with a conversation about what kinds of books they like to read, and also the kinds of books you like to read and why. I very much want to encourage parents to use the library. We have family accounts and parents are allowed to take up to ten books at a time. That way, if a family wants to read a picture book or a chapter book together, the parents can check some out and the children can still check out their own books for class.

Also, on the subject of choosing books, I don’t feel like the most important level is their reading level. I think the most important level is their emotional level, and knowing where they are in that is really the most important thing. You can get a kid who’s a fluent reader, but they’re not ready for a story. I often tell the kids, “I don’t collect books about middle aged librarians because nobody here wants to read about that!” Well, maybe I do, but the kids need to have a story that resonates with their life. I always look for the emotional level of the book before I look for the reading level on a book. It’s an important distinction to make.

Q: Can you talk a little more about this idea of levels and how they play into the arrangement of things in the library and what books kids check out?

Primarily, books that work well for grades K, 1 and 2 are downstairs.  For example, we have a growing collection of ER or Early Reader books with a controlled vocabulary and lots of pictures to set context. We also have a graphic novel collection and juvenile level chapter books that fit between the early readers and the middle grade chapter books. We have non-fiction downstairs because K, 1 and 2 check out a lot of nonfiction; chapter-book fiction, primarily geared towards older kids, is upstairs.

We don’t prohibit kids from getting books based on their grade level, but it has to be a just-right book for them and their family. That means that if they can read it and understand it and it fits their emotional level, they can get it. The only books that we don’t allow everybody to check out are the ones in the parenting and professional area and the so-called YA (Young Adult) section which is emotionally right for people in sixth grade.  I don’t collect books that are recommended for any audience above the eighth-grade level, so they are technically not YA books.

…that’s what literature is. It is a truth that we learn through our emotions.

Kat Svetlik

So, it’s really more about the relationships we’ve built with the kids than it is about me saying, “You can only choose books from this section.” The reading level doesn’t tell us the whole story. There is a difference between being able to read the words, and the words meaning anything to you.

In library class we work with the students to make sure what they check out is a just-right book for them. When it’s the right time to read a level of book emotionally and in every way, then it will mean something to them. But when they try to read it too early, they’re not going to get the full beauty of the language or the full intent of the author; it’s not going to talk to their heart.  It’s talking through their brain and they feel like, “Yeah, I can read these words,” but they’re not getting the message from the heart, and that’s what literature is. It is a truth that we learn through our emotions. I just can’t stress that enough for people to understand, or hope to help people understand.

So, if a kindergartener wants to pick, for example, the dictionary—because it’s the biggest book in the library, and they all want big books—I’ll say, “But the dictionary is not really a story that you read from start to finish.” and “It doesn’t really have a lot of pictures in it. Are you sure this is just right for you right now?” and then we help them find something that’s a better fit. I will have students who, similarly, want to check-out a chapter book, and then I’ll sit down with them and ask them to read the first page with me, and we can see whether or not that is a just-right book for them, as far as their understanding of what’s happening on the page. And if it’s not, then the kids are very good about saying, “No, let’s get something that’s better for me.”  And if they truly want the dictionary or a big chapter book, and I can’t redirect them, I figure they will simply bring it back next week and find a better book then.

My other problem with labeling based on grade level is that a higher reader might be reading books that he’s not ready for. Then when he grows into the story, he’s likely to say, “I already read that book. Why would I ever pick it up again?”  That’s also why I don’t have any of the classics that have been abridged: it’s because there’s a time for you to read books when you have the life experience to appreciate the story.

Oh, and picture books have on their call number “E.” “E” is not for “easy”; it’s for “everybody”.  Picture books do not have a controlled vocabulary; some of them are very challenging, both emotionally and in the word choice. But I sincerely feel that everybody can benefit from reading the picture books; they’re so powerful and they’re so beautiful.

Q: Would you say that there is one genre that is most popular for elementary students? Fiction or non-fiction?

 Kat: It’s both. Especially when they’re able to take out more than one book at a time, it might be one of each. It might be that one week they get only non-fiction or they get only fiction. They just are looking for whatever is speaking to them at that time.

Here’s the thing I say to the students a lot: non-fiction, stories that are true, they talk to us through our heads, our brains, right? They’re teaching us something new: how to do something, how to make something, something about nature, history or otherwise. But a fiction story, a picture book, or juvenile fiction or a chapter book, is telling us something true but through our hearts. So, we have to recognize that there are two different ways to get information, and very different experiences as well.

Another popular option are the graphic novels, which parents often ask me about because they’re not stories that you read in the traditional way where you have words on the page and pictures. Rather, you have words and speech bubbles, and lots of pictures.  But I feel that the graphic novels, like traditional picture books, can help people become visually literate, a skill that is important in so many areas of our lives. For beginning readers they’re really good for setting context because the images are right there; having worked in animation for years, I still gravitate towards that myself. Sure, it can, in some ways, take away from the experience of kids creating the pictures in their heads from words on the page, but it’s a balance. It’s really a chance to find something that is entertaining and strikes them in a way that they can delve into, and a chance to see an artist’s rendering.

Besides, I don’t want to only read one genre of stories either. Sometimes I want something that gives me a few more pictures; maybe some other times I want to have something that gives me more words. I don’t want to always read a mystery. I don’t want to always read fantasy. I don’t want to always read non-fiction. Kids are the same.  And, sometimes those books are the hook to get a kid reading in the first place.

Q: Earlier, you touched on the idea of parents reading to and with their children. Can you say a little more on that topic?

Kat: My dad and mom read to my sister and I until we were well into high school. My mom loves picture books and even now we share our favorite new books with each other. I remember my dad reading The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings to us every year at Christmastime, and it’s a really important memory for me; listening to the sound of his voice, having an excuse to sit next to my dad, and taking that time reading together. The fact that I saw and heard my dad reading made me a better reader, and a lifelong reader, because it was important in our family. So, I would highly encourage the parents to come in and use our collection. Not just in the primary grades, but all the way through.

Reading together is an important bonding experience, and it can even create a shared set of inside jokes in the family. Outside of this crazy world that we’re always being bombarded with, there is this chance to formulate a little unit, almost, through the books that we read together.

And if your student is struggling, it’s also a good way to share the burden and say, “how about I read one page and you read one page,” or “I read one chapter.” Or, you can even check out some of our books that are character driven (like Frog and Toad Are Friends or Elephant and Piggie) where you can be one character, the child is the other character, and you’re acting like a play. Some of those books are great for sharing the reading experience, and also for encouraging the growth of a child’s ability to be a part of that story. They’re funny, too, and that always helps.

Reading together becomes a shared experience that both of you will start to long for. You’ll look forward to those moments, and they don’t have to be hours long. You can read thirty minutes and still have that chance to read a chapter. It’s not the burden of it; it’s really the opportunity of it. That translates to the kids, too. It’s a special time when you can make those moments happen.

And, it doesn’t have to end when they are reading themselves fluently. It doesn’t have to end when they are out of the primary grades. You can make a tradition of reading to each other, or reading together as a family all the way through. I mean my dad is gone now, but I still have that part of him. I can still feel his voice as I sat next to him.

Q: What would you say to a parent who worries that their kid doesn’t like to read or asks, “How can I turn my kid into a reader or a book-lover?”

Well, I don’t see a lot of kids in here that don’t want a book. They may have a challenge in reading, and they may feel like they’re not confident in it. Or, they may have a lot of other pressures in their lives, like sports teams or dance or music or something else, that also put time pressures on reading. So, I don’t think it’s so much that they don’t like to have time with a book as much as they don’t know how to make that balance.

The number one thing that will help a student read is to see their family reading. So, it’s not even so much about what book to take out, but it’s about what book are you reading as a parent. Do your kids see you sitting down to read a book, magazine or newspaper? Reading on your phone is tricky because your kids may not recognize it as reading time. You can read a book on the phone, I understand, but that takes more context. They have to hear you say, “I’m reading right now.”

But if the parents are taking time to read, then the students feel that is important in their family and they are more likely to take time to read also. Again, it’s a chance to read together; and even if you’re not reading out loud, setting a time where it becomes “family reading time,” maybe just before bed or right after dinner, is one important way to encourage your child to read.

Sometimes we need to schedule a time to be quiet.

Then, in finding a book, if you can talk to your kid and find out, “What is a book that you read recently that you really felt strongly about, that you liked it? What did you like?” Because from there, we can find other books for them. “All right, then. Well, this book has similar characters,” or it has a similar plot or genre. With books, you don’t know until you try. And if it doesn’t catch you, don’t suffer through it; you don’t have to read the whole book. That’s something that took me years to figure out! I don’t have to read the whole book. If it’s not for me, there’s a thousand other books, too. We have fifteen thousand books in this library. We can find something.

In library class we do something called, “Look, Sniff and Taste,” where we look at the cover, and then we read the summary, and then we do a little taste, and that is to read a chapter or two and see if it’s something that grabs you; but if it doesn’t, it’s not a problem.  This is a library. You didn’t buy it. Bring it back.

We’ll try the next one until we find a pathway; because once you find that pathway, then it’s easier. When you set up that expectation and that time for reading, then it becomes more of a habit. It doesn’t happen all at once. A kid who’s not used to having reading time might push against it for a little while; but then, as it becomes a habit, it will become something more that they gravitate towards.

 Q: How do you see the relationship of the library with the rest of the school, the curriculum, the teachers?

As a faculty we are finding ways of connecting with other specialist teachers—technology, art, music, science, and PE—to see if there are ways that we can develop more cross-curricular opportunities.  I take every opportunity I can to partner with classroom teachers. I see K, 1, 2 and 3 every week in half groups, so I get the chance to read to those students and teach them about the library and about literature. I often make connections to what they’re learning in their classroom. With 4, 5 and 6, I take them as often as I can get them. I’m trying to develop “Drop Everything and Read—DEAR” times, although I’d love to have a chance to read to them more often.  We are open every recess time and students from first thru sixth grades are welcome to come in and enjoy the Story Center.  In addition, research skills are an area I hope to further develop in the upper grades.

Building research skills is a very important part of libraries.  I want to help the students to become elegant researchers.  It’s important for them to learn that research is not having an opinion and then going out to the Internet to find out who agrees with you. Research is finding trustworthy information, including books, databases, encyclopedias, and at times the Web, to build up your knowledge of a subject using reliable resources. At this level developmentally, well-vetted encyclopedias are really good for research.

In terms of another important role the library plays, I really feel like the library is a bridge between the two campuses. We are in that same boat. We’re one school with two different campuses. And, our catalogue is online and available through the website. A secondary school student can have a book from the elementary library sent to them up there. We’re connected!