Every Thursday, at patio time, the Clot del Moro public high school reading club meets in Sagunt, Valencia. “It’s great to encourage students who don’t read much to get hooked. We read a chapter every week and discuss it,” says Marta, 15, in the center’s school library. And for those who, like her, already liked to read, it helps them get to know “new works and authors, genres that in many cases they already consume in the movies and in video games and that we teach them are also in books,” they comment. Ismael Murria and Alicia Salinas, Spanish language and literature teachers and club managers. Marta, who is studying in the third year of ESO, has known this year the novels of Stephen King, the king of terror, and mausArt Spielgelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel, which he found to be a different and effective way of showing teenagers what the Holocaust was.
The book club is just one of the many formulas that thousands of teachers use to encourage their students to read. And one of the many faces of school libraries, an instrument that is in recession despite its educational potential. According to official statistics, between the 2015-2016 and 2019-2020 academic years (with data from before the pandemic) the percentage of centers that kept their libraries open fell five points, to 81.8%. And according to the experts interviewed for this article, the percentage of schools and institutes with school libraries that work really well is much lower, due to a lack of resources. The results of the PIRLS international assessment of reading comprehension of primary school students, published in May, have issued a warning on the issue, showing a general decline in reading ability, largely attributable to the covid, which has reached seven points in Spain, 10 in Madrid and 17 in Catalonia. This last territory is also the one that has lost the most school libraries in operation in recent years, down to 56.8% of the centres.
There are good school libraries throughout Spain, but the best networks are to be found in the north, in communities such as Asturias and Galicia, which are also among those with the best level of reading comprehension. PIRLS has placed Asturian children above the Finns. And in PISA, another international test, which is carried out at the end of ESO, both Asturias and Galicia exceed the average for the European Union and the OECD, when Spain is below.
The library of the public school Veneranda Manzano in Oviedo is “the engine from which all the activities of the center come out,” says its director, Noelia Granda. One of these functions is to encourage reading through, for example, declamation. “Children choose a book of children’s and young people’s literature, prepare a fragment and read it in front of the others, who give their opinion and make constructive criticism. We work on reading comprehension, oral expression, intonation, postural control, and at the same time other issues, such as self-esteem or emotions. And those who listen also work, because they are learning to listen. And when the teacher later speaks to them in class, they pay attention, here we have very few coexistence problems, because they know what it means to talk and not listen to you”.
At the Oviedo school, the library fulfills a key mission of supporting learning in all courses. “It is our resource center, both digital and in paper format. It nourishes the classrooms with everything they need to carry out the projects”, whether they are about noise pollution, health or the Camino de Santiago, says the director. And it is the tool to achieve the so-called “media and information literacy” of the students. A concept explained by Rosa Piquín, founder of the Veneranda Manzano library, a retired primary and university teacher, and one of the main scholars of school libraries in Spain: “It is about training children to be critical of the information in whatever support. That they pay attention to reliability and authorship, know the sources well and know how to cite them correctly, the same when handling YouTube, an encyclopedia, or, of course, the press”. Piquín regrets that the education law, which establishes that all centers must have a school library, is not being complied with, and urges the Ministry of Education to promote a national plan for this.
When thinking of a library, one usually visualizes a room with books and tables in which silence reigns. But many school libraries in Asturias, Galicia and, less systematically, in other parts of Spain, are very different. “Our library is a learning environment where you can talk and interact”, explain Beverly Ramos and Paula Otero, from the Cervo public school in Lugo. “It is for looking for information and reading, but also for researching, building, or playing board games. We have many books (about 8,000, in a center with 125 students), but also an area with tablets, one for sewing, another for robotics, the center’s radio, a 3D printer… It is a multidisciplinary and pleasant space where children can move , or sitting on a stool, on a chair, on a fitball…”.
Also in Corvo, the school library constitutes “the heart of the school”, which, in addition to promoting reading, provides the classes with the necessary resources to carry out their projects, supports the learning of content and the acquisition of skills, especially communication and social skills. To maintain it there is a permanent team of eight teachers, but all the teachers of the center and volunteer students from the upper courses participate, in charge, under supervision, during recesses, of the loans and returns of titles, of cataloging the acquisitions, placing the books or explain to other children the rules of board games. It is open throughout the school day and two more hours, in the afternoon, for use by children and their families. It organizes, among other activities, reading clubs for students and, from 7:30 to 8:30 pm, in online format, also for parents.
Forging a good network of school libraries requires, believes Cristina Novoa, who was responsible for the one that exists in Galicia, economic resources and coordination on the part of the educational authorities. “We need programs designed and put into practice by teams of people who know how school libraries work and who coordinate with other services, such as teacher training or Culture libraries.”
There are important initiatives in this area in other communities, such as Extremadura and Andalusia. And, at the other extreme, school libraries have suffered strong setbacks in recent years in the Balearic Islands (where the lack of space, due to the increase in students, has forced many of them to be converted into classrooms, to the point of limiting the percentage of centers that keep them open at 54.8%) and Catalonia. Júlia Baena, a school librarian and university professor, mentions several factors to explain what has happened in the Catalan case, including the fact that in many centers the center library has been replaced by the class library. “Because it is much cheaper to maintain four books in a classroom, without cataloging, than to maintain a central library. It is a question of investing money and time, and the teachers have had neither money nor time”, says Baena, who is confident, however, that the new plan for school libraries that the Generalitat is preparing will improve things.
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