Walking into a library is one of my favorite experiences. I love the smell of the books, the rows and rows of colorful bindings, and the quiet that surrounds you as the words come to life in your head. A few weeks ago, I walked into a new library at Challenging Heights School. Their library was opened just this past April and it is stocked with over 7,000 books ranging from board books to novels to textbooks. The school staff and students hold so much reverence for their new library that they remove their shoes and wash their hands before entering.
One of my first thoughts in the door was, “This is beautiful!” I was overwhelmed by the large room of books, already imagining the students pouring over them and taking them home to read. Walking around the room and looking at the titles, I was thrilled to find some of my favorite books: Ella Enchanted by Gail Carlson Levien, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis, Harry Potter, by J.K. Rowling, and more. My initial reaction to the library was sheer thrill. I couldn’t be more excited for the students or more ready to read with them.
My role in the library is to be a reading tutor. When the term “reading tutor” is mentioned, I picture myself alongside one student, identifying their strengths and weaknesses, and then making a plan to further their reading ability. However, my initial thoughts and the reality of this term in the Challenging Heights library were completely different. The reality is that whole classes come into the library at once and the classes range from 20-60 students. I and 5 or 6 other GVSU students circulate around the room, trying to help as many students as possible. Sometimes this means sitting down with one particular student and reading to them and/or with them. Other times this means identifying words at rapid speed as student after student presents a word to you that they do not know.
The way these students devour book after book is inspiring to me. They don’t miss a beat between finishing a book and finding a new one. The way they ask me, “Madam, can you explain this?” warms my heart more than I can tell you. But alongside the beauty in these students’ zeal for reading comes the harsh reality that these books were not written for these kids. The vast majority of books in this library are written for a western audience and therefore are completely foreign to these kids. There is a single stand and one or two shelves in the library dedicated to Ghanaian, or African literature and history.
All of my favorite books are set in contexts that make little sense to these students. For example, I read the first 7 pages of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone with two teenage girls. I had to explain the context of the setting, the jokes based on the context, what an owl is, why cloaks would seem like a strange thing to see worn on the street, and various terms that are unique to British or Western society. Now, these students could phonetically read most of the words on the page, but the comprehension is not there when the reader has had no experience with the context of the story.
I find myself very excited every time a child comes up to me with a book that was printed in Ghana. I am relieved to know they will understand at least the names of the characters and the context of the story. The books I love so much and I consider a huge part of myself as a person are the same books that make me nervous to see in the hands of a Challenging Heights student. I know when I see Harry Potter now that I will have a lot of explaining to do and therefore less actual reading will happen.
So, is there any good coming out of this library? YES! These students who have never stepped foot into a library before now have a large range of books to read at their desire (and they have a very big desire). The school is encouraging a love for reading and a respect for literature that will certainly increase the students’ reading ability. The students are not deterred by the lack of contextual understanding; they will chug along word by word if they have to. That spirit is what is going to make this library successful. Weeding out the singularly western oriented books and replacing them with Ghanaian, or at least African, literature would really propel these kids forward in their reading.
Challenging Heights needed to have books donated in order to fill their shelves. While their vast number of books is something to celebrate, every donor needs to ask themselves – Am I sending books written in a context that will make sense to these kids? Or, am I just sending books that I would like to read?