Libraries as Spaces for Positive Identity and Social Transformation

Part of my teaching practice includes consistently collecting data from my student population in order to better learn what they need. Some questions I have asked are:

  • How do you feel about reading?
  • Why do you think you feel the way you do?
  • Do you think reading for pleasure will be important for your life after middle/high school?
  • Do you think reading academically will be important for your life after middle/high school?
  • Would you call yourself "a reader"?
  • What are some of your favorite types of reading to do?
  • What is the best book you've ever read?

As practitioners, we owe it to ourselves and our students to understand how we often get in our own way, despite having the best intentions. Perhaps one of the most personally powerful and impactful changes over my teaching career has been the shift to culturally responsive teaching and librarianship. Given the fact that a key element of cultural responsiveness is one's ability to know and respond to the needs of students who share a lived reality different from the educator charged with teaching them, it makes sense that gathering qualitative and quantitative data about their experience would be a key first step.

In several surveys I've conducted over the last year, I've learned a lot about my students. Most consistently, over 70% of the students in my building do not see themselves as readers—even though they understand and believe reading is important for success during and after their secondary school experience. At first, I was shocked with this result and the fact that no matter what time of year I surveyed them, or what kind of library programming I developed, they still felt this way. When students have gone a long time without consistent library circulation support and programming, several steps need to be taken to get them to change their perception of themselves and their reading identities.

  1. Students need to confront the negativity bias within them that has them feeling bad about themselves and their abilities as readers. This often has roots in leveling and classification systems teachers use to measure reading growth and progress.
  2. Students need support in the form of open and frequent access to audiobooks, eBooks, physical books, and texts of all levels, regardless of what reading "level" a computer assigns to them.
  3. Students need to feel empowered to advocate for what they want by being included in the process of collection curation and circulation as much as possible.
  4. Students need to feel that the library is a partner with other community organizations that support them so they do not see it as an extension of the oppressive system that aims to suppress their will, rather than liberate it.

So what does it look like to confront a negativity bias head on? When students experience a classroom environment rife with stress as the result of being placed in a competitive framework, it is very difficult for them to build confidence in their own abilities enough to rise up and take risks necessary for growth and change. A study from the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child states that, "healthy development can be derailed by excessive or prolonged activation of stress response systems in the body and the brain." This is not to be confused with positive stress, "moderate, short-lived stress responses," or tolerable stress, which is generally for a short period of time, and can be overcome through, "the presence of supportive adults who create safe environments that help children learn to cope with and recover from major adverse experiences." Toxic stress is an ongoing proximity to conditions that actually change the architecture of the brain. (2014). In my experience, one environment in which many students experience toxic stress is school.

How can we recognize and repair the status quo that maintains environments of toxic stress? The work has to be done collaboratively with our students. Many educators, administrators, and school systems rely on reading levels produced by computerized systems to guide readers along the path to more fluent and complex reading ability. But, anyone who regularly works with children as humans knows that there is more to reading than the skill or ability. Students can support one another and advocate for library access through providing micro affirmations, "small acts that foster inclusion, listening, comfort, and support for people who may feel isolated or invisible in an environment" (Rowe 2008). Though teachers most often feel it is their job to provide affirmations for student behavior, education for liberation places the tools of empowerment in the hands of the oppressed. Students can and will support one another when given the language and systemic supports to do so. There are varying beliefs about language stems and sentence starters, because they can, in actuality, limit students with regard to their expression. However, I've found a few phrases like these to be helpful: "I see you reading…what is the best part about it so far?" "I would love to see you review what you just read, good or bad," "Honesty about what we read is so important," "I would love to see/hear about where you see yourself in this book," "Let's all name one part of what we just read that was uncomfortable, or challenging," "What's a moment during reading where you felt bored and wanted to stop, but kept reading anyway?" "What made you keep going?"

In my library, students have certain hours when they run the circulation desk. Older students are in charge of read-alouds and planning awards ceremonies that recognize our most frequent library patrons. Within our library cataloging software, there is a way for students to recommend books for one another so that gradually, the community comes together around books and a textual lineage develops. It is possible, and probable, that when students provide the affirmation for reading to one another on a regular basis, the negativity bias put in place through an oppressive school system will diminish. The hoped for result will be a reduction in toxic stress that has students connecting the act of reading with frustration, inadequacy, and insecurity.

Teachers never intend to foster feelings of insecurity in the hearts and minds of our learners, but I have seen how the way we justify text selection can be an extremely disempowering process. What do young people in Montbello like to read? This is a question the students should know the answer to. Librarians and language arts teachers often post pictures of book covers they believe students should like all over walls and other school spaces. But, how do we ensure student reading collections are accurate depictions of their reading lives and identities? We have to do the work of examining our own internal limitations and biases when it comes to lived experiences. We also have to do the work of exploring and learning about how to recognize authorial authenticity rather than leaving the heavy lifting solely to researchers and scholars from outside our school environments who do not have direct experience with our students.

Given that we live in a digital world, we are encountering text all day in a variety of ways. Our students do too. When I surveyed my student population, they told me they like to read manga and graphic novels more than any other genre. At the moment, there is a surge in the popularity of audiobooks as well. I see my job as an educator primarily as that of facilitator, and as one who subscribes to education as a practice of liberation I want to free myself and my students from a belief that reading is not "real" if it doesn't look like a "traditional" book.

Seeking out title, author, and genre suggestions from my students is one of the most interesting ways to co-curate a collection responsive to what students want and need. My primary goal is getting them to read and learning to love reading because I know that their ability to do so is the bridge to full participatory citizenship and a more fulfilled life. I have to set aside my beliefs about texts they "must" read. On our campus, students submit title requests directly to me, or via a Google form posted on the library website. Requests are based on a variety of factors but topical selection and forming an attachment to an author is one of the primary methods. I can't always purchase what students want, because I have to select books that will be read widely by the student population.

Additional support comes from our community members and stakeholders. They often ask for ways to help, so I involve them are to having them financially support author visits, donate books, run book club meetings, and advocate for murals, displays, or other artwork that makes the space come alive. A key aspect of education for liberation is the idea that education is a community affair. It cannot happen in isolation and won't be accomplished by individual teachers. Our community partners come to back-to-school night, spoken word poetry showcases, awards ceremonies to commemorate all types of readers, and any number of other events, each designed so that students know what it means to be a part of a community that reads. Reading role models aren't always adults or authors, but they are the very students within our community, working in partnership with educators and administrators to advocate for their needs. It is important to listen to our students when they tell us what they need to feel empowered. When students are involved in every aspect of library programming, circulation, collection curation, and classroom text selection, there is greater chance that they will experience that freedom that comes from being true partners in the development of their literary lives.

Anaïs Nin says, "some people read to confirm their own hopelessness. Others read to be rescued from it." As a community of education practitioners, we know that our students are best supported when we develop systems and structures that help them support themselves. We cannot confront the hopelessness too many of our most reluctant readers feel until we confront the negativity biases they hold toward the act of reading and the conditions we have created that do not mitigate it. It is hard work to step into the realization that we have created school environments of toxic stress that disempower learners, and that we have not managed to create or maintain systems that support students looking to liberate themselves. In order to do so, we must work toward a future where young people and the adults that serve them work in partnership to co-create collections and programming that foster independence rather than dependence; curiosity rather than conformity. The mindset that reading has to be quantified as part of the development of children's reading identities has harmful consequences. It will take a community of adults working together with students to re-imagine our educational landscape and re-commit to shaping learning environments that heal, rather than harm, through dedicated, persistent, consistent commitment to education as a practice of liberation.

Works Cited

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brain.Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, 2014.

Nin, Anaïs. In Favour of the Sensitive Man and Other Essays. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976.

Rowe, M. "Micro-Affirmations and Micro-Inequities." Journal of the International Ombudsman Association 1, no 1 (2008): 45-48.

About the Author

Julia E. Torres is a veteran language arts teacher librarian in Denver, Colorado. Julia facilitates teacher development workshops rooted in the areas of anti-racist education, equity and access in literacy and librarianship, and education as a practice of liberation. Julia also works with students locally and around the country with the goal of empowering them to use literacy to fuel resistance and positive social transformation. She is the current NCTE Secondary Representative-at-large, a 2018-2020 Heinemann Publications Heinemann Fellow and Educator Collaborative Book Ambassador. Connect with Julia on Twitter @juliaerin80

MLA Citation Torres, Julia. "Libraries as Spaces for Positive Identity and Social Transformation." School Library Connection, February 2020,

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Entry ID: 2212469

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