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The School Library Should Be Your Laboratory

In recent years, the school library seems to have diminished in importance, but shelf books are an essential aspect of the social studies. As a hands-on resource, there is still something special about a book that cannot be substituted by a computer. A book is intimate; it is a private world that, for a time, exists between the reader and the author. Some books are more intimate than are some others, and readers quickly recognize when an author is speaking to them about something that they both care about. A book is a retreat from the chaos and the confusion of the activities that go on constantly all around us. For children, young and old, a book is the looking glass into an entirely new world that they have never experienced before.

Because the social studies owns the curricular area of human affairs, the library is an especially important resource for students. Human affairs include both historical and contemporary topics that most students have little or no experience with. Historical studies, in particular, are capable of carrying students into the past to worlds that once existed in a form that no longer exits as it once did. Most libraries are organized according to a structure, which divides it into sections according to topics and sequences. Historical materials, say in American history, are divided by general and special periods. This division is sequential according to the chronology of American history. American government books are similarly organized, but tend to be more topical.

Reading in the social studies is habit forming, and reading skills are acquired through use, or practice. In recent years, news articles have carried stories about home-schooled students who have achieved greater merit, in some cases, than do students in the public schools. Investigations into these results suggest that the difference is that home-schooled students spend more time in actually reading books than do students in public school classrooms. This condition suggests that instructional time in the classroom is occupied by more non-reading activities: activities, such as listening, watching, talking, and activities associated with project work. While these are all worthy social studies activities, many do not contribute to the development of good reading habits. This begs the question: “What skills make a greater difference in the development of the minds of children - activities that are spent in instructional time or activities aimed at the acquisition of knowledge?” Of course, today, we must acknowledge that teachers are no longer free to make many of the same choices that they could make in the past, or for that matter, choices allowed to parents/instructors in a home schooling setting. Teachers in the public school setting now often are preoccupied with preparing their students to meet state mandates.

But should these demands excuse the social studies teachers from their responsibilities connected with reading and research activities? Years ago, a book in education came onto the education scene entitled: “Teaching As A Subversive Activity.” One of the themes of this notorious book was titled: "Crap Detecting." Its thesis was that, in spite of all the bureaucratic demands, teachers are still able to set the tone of classroom instruction. In other words, the teachers are told to stop making excuses for not being able to do what they want to do, as they can find various ways to satisfy "school demands" and still meet their own desires to shape their students for a higher level of development.

Earlier, I described my work at Evergreen High School with a group of near illiterate seniors. I spent half the year getting these students to read aloud, and the second half of the year I spent time with these students in the school library. When we appeared at the door of the library, the librarians were surprised, to say the least, as they had never seen these students before (As a footnote I would like to report that many contemporary college students claim that they have never been in a library; they reported that the library was often used as a punishment for misbehavior in the classroom). I assigned my Evergreen students the task of reading about the areas of the world that they had been assigned and to fill out a certain number of index cards on some topic that they had not read in the newspaper, our classroom textbook. Later, we assembled these cards for the purpose of essay writing for their scrapbooks. By this method, these students were reading and writing, perhaps for the first time in their entire twelve years of schooling.

This is not a revolutionary idea, but is purely practical. At the end of the year, my seniors were reading and writing, something that, for them, that was revolutionary. Now, my thesis in this article is that books are still important for social studies instruction; they are unique to the learning environment. It is a mistake to push books aside or to claim that they are passé. In this dissertation, I have asserted that reading is of key importance in the social studies and that books have an important edge over the computer in this regard. Finally, I am asserting that the library and its books should serve as a laboratory for the social studies, a sacred place where young minds are opened to new world of human experience.

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