No time for science; no money for books.

This morning I got an email from an old student of mine whom I call "Lynn" here. I taught her when she was five and six years old. She is now a third-grade teacher outside Chelsea, Massachusetts. We are in touch because her mom and I bumped into each other at a cafe and her mom mentioned that Lynn was always on the lookout for books, because the school where she teaches can't really afford to buy them. Lynn, like many teachers, uses her own pocket money to buy supplies and materials and books. I offered that we sometimes get free review copies sent to us unsolicited from publishers, and that we could pack up some picture books and send them her way. So Lynn and I have reconnected briefly through coordinating emails. This one description from her email sticks out for me, as if lit up by neon:

Unfortunately our science curriculum has been slighted due to the pressures of state tests, etc.  The kids have science as a “special” – they go to a science classroom (and meet with a all-grade science teacher) once every four days.  It’s definitely NOT enough! 

No time for science, no budget for books or librarians. Is it any wonder that, as the AP reported on January 26th, 2011, “Less than half of students proficient in science in U.S.”? A good teacher can work with virtually nothing yet manage to instill a love of learning and sense of wonder in the world. But it is so much easier, so much more fulfilling, for student and teacher when the right materials are at hand and resources are available for further explorations.

I wondered about the phenomenon of a lack of books. Just how many schools have a shortage? I Googled, “Elementary school library needs books,” and found about 9,300,000 results, with stories of many library closings and requests for donations in the form of books or money. Then I Googled, “How many school libraries closed 2010?” and found lots of stories across the nation of closings, protests, budget cuts, and community action to provide students what was lacking with no library on site.

An interesting circumstance exists in New York State, where schools are required by law to have libraries, but not librarians. From Brooklyn Ink :

Out of 880 elementary schools in New York City, 519 had a library and no librarian last year. That’s more than a 300 percent increase in elementary school libraries without librarians over the previous year, after remaining relatively flat over the previous three years.

So what is to be done? Well, yes, we can make donations in the form of money and books, but I think it is also of vital importance to check in with policy makers, for they are the ones who make the tough decisions about how the few funds schools have get spent. And it is a good idea to check in with the bigger policy makers, the ones who decide how much money schools get to begin with. Write to your local school board, write to the decision-making body of your district, and remember to write to your federal representatives and senators, too. Also, last but not least, let Arne Duncan and President Obama know that you think science is important enough to give more than an hour or two to a week (especially if we are ever going to achieve the goals for STEM education they have outlined), and that libraries and books offer teachers much needed material and support in what is already an enormously demanding job. This may seem like a ridiculously small gesture but it is truly important.

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