Friday, February 18, 2011

books, books, boxes of books (long post for a car full of all those words)

Sunrise, 7:08, sunset 5:39.

It's Friday once again and what a great day. For one thing, it's not raining. There is light in the sky and it isn't freezing. The other good thing was getting up and delivering boxes and boxes of books to schools that REALLY need them. I am on the board of the Northwest Literacy Foundation and we have a program called Fill the Shelves. We delivered 20 or so boxes to 6 different schools, schools that have lost all or almost all of their funding for books and their libraries. We choose these schools based on the percentage of children who receive free or reduced lunches.

The look on the faces of the librarians and the kids when we rolled the handtruck into the libary was pretty amazing. Some cried, most laughed, the buzz in the libraries when we walked in was intense. We'd put the boxes on the counters and then let the kids open them up and look at what was inside. By the time the kids get back from their winter break, most of the books should be catalogued and ready to be checked out. The kids who helped with the book opening all got a post-it note and a pen and dibs on the book they most wanted to read first.

One of the classrooms was in the middle of the RIF book distribution, selecting a (free) book and
then putting their names inside. One little boy kept asking, with a very sweet emphasis on the word "book" (booook, pronounced like Luke), I can read this book every day? Every day I can get to read this book? and the librarian, Pat Bliquez of Roxhill Elementary, said, Yes, it's yours forever! You can read it forever! He really got the idea of forever and the joy flowing from his little first grade heart was palpable.

The single middle school we went to, Chinook Middle School in the Highline School District, was in the middle of class change, high movement, lots of noise, and Carolyn Rancour reminded us to stay alert in case we didn't get to the library before getting embroiled in the hallway world of middle school. Her library was filled with computers and books. The computers were lent her from other classrooms so the kids would be able to work together in labs or in groups. She found the space for them by searching through the stacks for old history, science, social studies books, books long out of print, now filled with misinformation. One book she told us about was published in 1962. We hadn't even made it to the moon. John F. Kennedy was still president. The Beatles hadn't yet come to America.

Her new books will be helpful in correcting some of that old information: there is no Soviet Union.

Concord International School in South Park is filled with different languages, many of which I couldn't recognize. The signs are in English, Spanish, Vietnamese...All the kids were in pajamas, obviously it was Pajama Day, the last day in school before Winter break. The first graders in Mindy Terr's library that day got to ride up in the elevator in shifts, each chaperoned by the adults, two of whom were our younger delivery people, Elizabeth and Riley. You forget how exciting riding in an elevator can be for little kids and how very open they are. John Odland and I learned that you should never get in an elevator with anything that could catch on fire because then you could have a fire in the elevator. Someone really learned her lesson about fire safety.

Mindy's students gathered around the books and each one found one they really wanted to read and headed to the little reading area, settling in and reading out loud to each other. I don't think ANY of them were listening to each other, they were just sharing everything, laughing, getting up and showing their friends what they were reading, and then going back to their chairs.

Our first delivery was quiet, school hadn't yet started but this school, Muir, is near Franklin High School, one of the schools that consistently comes in the top places in the Global Reading Challenge. Their librarian, Steve Marsh, is tireless in getting kids who may not speak English at home, literate and at or above grade level before they leave him.

(All the elementary schools are participating in the Global Reading Challenge. Briefly, it is a contest involving books and facts about each one. Each school's 4th and 5th graders will read ten books and then do a Quiz Bowl type trivia test. The school with the most points goes home with the trophy to compete against schools in British Columbia. Northwest Literacy is one of the groups that funds the program.)

Mary Manzin, at Emerson Elementary in Rainier Beach, had only a couple of kids in the room, one in a suit, ready to move on to perform in an assembly but books have an amazing lure for children at this age. Well, for kids of all ages, actually. Mary's assistant was like a bee in a flower bed, touching the boxes, walking around us, getting closer, moving away.

Marcia Kauzlarich at Madrona Elementary in Highline was in the middle of Free Day, the kids had had perfect behavior for 5 weeks (!) and got to choose what they wanted to do. They seriously gave up the games and puzzles they were involved in to be some of the first people in the school to handle books only a few people have touched before. BRAND NEW BOOKS! Again, each of those students immediately found at least one book they "Really have to have it NOW! Can we have this NOW?"

Yeah, I love this. Seeing the progression of literacy, from the tiniest first graders sounding out the words they don't know, the third graders secure enough now in their reading to choose something to read that they haven't had any contact with before, to the great, big middle schoolers who, because they got the right book in their hands, may go onto college or at least have a life filled with beauty and interest.

These librarians, too, are faced with huge obstacles in their schools. There are 80 different languages spoken in the schools in Rainier Beach. There are more than 240 dialects spoken in the Highline School District. They are poorer schools, mostly filled with kids from poorer families. They don't own many books, so the books they can borrow from the library not only change their lives, they change the whole family as they come home for a week or two. Kids read the books to their parents who may not speak any English, thus passing what they learn on to others.

And you know the librarians at EVERY school, not just these few, are dedicated to the kids in their schools and to their lives of literacy, all the forms of literacy. They work long hours, they know every child, every need, make decorations and run math labs. The excitement in each of these libraries was amazing. Every single one of these librarians seemed to be vibrating, their minds ahead of their bodies, they were answering questions and handing out pens, solving problems, catching someone's eyes, and still paying attention to the 4 people who came and interrupted the day.

Look at these classrooms, they are vibrant, bright, connected, filled with laughter and words. What wonderful places to be.

If you are ever looking to donate some money to a good group, think of The Northwest Literacy Foundation. 21 years in existence, it has given thousands and thousands of dollars worth of books to schools in need. It is completely run by volunteers, has no office space, every penny goes to buying books for schools, using a locally owned, independent bookstore for the sales. It is a truly worthy place to give money.


  1. Completely inspiring Rene! I'm happy to see where those books went after I was done stickering them. Those children and librarians look so happy! It brings joy to my heart.