Venn Librarian

Reflections about the intersection of schools, libraries and technology.

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Valuing my independence

Posted by lpearle on 8 September 2008

Along with some of the changes we’ve made over the summer, we’re creating a new K-9 skills curriculum. For grades 5-9, these skills will be intertwined with their classes (in fact, the new 9th grade history curriculum deliberately includes projects designed to train the students in doing research and will bring the classes to the library for instruction and finding resources 6 days in a 14-day period). Particularly for grades 6-9 the challenges of finding age appropriate materials in such topics as the role of women in Buddhism (and comparing that to the role of women in another religion), arguing the Constitution and Bill of Rights from the standpoint of a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, and looking at the areas of politics/economics/religion/science/industry/arts in various countries and cultures during 1350 (well, from 1325-1400).

At the same time, I’m dealing with the end of the insurance issues raised by the fire. It’s understandable that the insurance company hired a consulting firm to opine on our valuation of the print collection (they want to pay out less, we want them to pay out more – a classic insurance confrontation). What’s less understandable is why they chose a firm with so little understanding of our mission and collection needs as an independent school. In fact, they kept referring to us as having an “atypical” collection, “higher end” than is found in the usual public high school. To which I say a resounding DUH.

Their report repeatedly suggested that we use the opening day collections created by the various book jobbers with whom most school libraries do business. Our problem? Those collections are based on canned, state standards-driven curricula, not on what we (and most independent schools) create for our students. If we went with one, we’d be neglecting many important areas and doing our students and teachers a disservice.

A college friend was schooled in England, coming to the US for college. He grew up in a culture of O Levels and A Levels, which is, in a way, a nationally standardized curriculum. He often rails against our piecemeal approach to education, leaving funding, textbooks, standards and curricula to the tender mercies of local or state boards. My argument is that we, to some extent, do have that in the form of SATII (or what we called Achievements) and APs. They don’t require a lockstep approach to curriculum, but they do require a certain level of knowledge and the ability to test well.

My friend K. knows first hand how divergent our schools are: she teaches 1st grade near Houston, and after Katrina her school took in many refugees. Their level of preparation was below that of the other students. When I was looking for a house, the quality of the school district was supposed to be a consideration (assuming I wanted to “flip” the house).

People pay five figures to send their children to independent schools. Part of their reasoning is that they’ll get a non-standard curriculum, taught by impassioned teachers and at a level above that of public schools. Our students certainly get that at MPOW.

I’m not saying that all public schools are horrible, or that you can’t get a good, interesting education if you attend one. Far from it. There are some wonderful districts out there that provide an educational opportunity akin to the one we give (or higher). But for a consultant to suggest that we have a library that caters to the “normal” school curriculum, with a collection recommended by people without experience in our environment?

I look at the topics I’ll be asked to support this year, and topics I’ve supported in the past (the Treaty of Versailles project, where students read books published during the Great War to better understand the positions of the various participants and learn how the Treaty sets up the rest of the 20th century; looking at Wharton or Cather’s use of place as a character in their novels and translating that to other authors). I hear the stories about how NCLB is killing creativity and hamstringing teachers, how librarians are told that their classes are not needed because of the testing the students need to take, and I think how lucky I am to be independent.

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