El corazón de la escuela/The Heart of the School

The importance of bilingual school libraries

By Rachel Cloues

Illustrator: Simone Shin

Simone Shin

A 30-foot-long grey whale skeleton visited my school library for a week last spring. The whale arrived in many parts—giant vertebrae piled up in bins and boxes; long, curved ribs carefully carried up the stairs and down the hallway; the enormous and beautiful white skull pushed slowly on a wheeled cart from Mission Science Workshop, based in the neighborhood a few blocks away. As the teacher-librarian at a bilingual elementary school in San Francisco, I worked on coordinating Whale Week for more than a year. Now it was upon us, and I was grinning from ear to ear as I watched the children’s mouths drop open at the sight of the huge collection of bones moving into our library.

Our students spent a month studying grey whales, which migrate each year along the California coast between Alaska and Mexico. It was an engaging schoolwide topic, especially because most of the children’s families themselves migrated from Mexico and Central America. During Whale Week, each class spent an hour in our school library learning from the Mission Science Workshop staff, in English and Spanish, about whales. Each class worked together to assemble (and then disassemble) the grey whale skeleton, piece by piece, nestling numbered vertebrae together like a giant puzzle and tying ribs taller than 5th graders to a specially constructed wooden frame. Flippers—with finger bones clearly visible—fanned out from the whale’s giant shoulder blades. The fully assembled skeleton spanned the entire length of our library.

Throughout the week, parents and community members stopped in to help with the bones and marvel. Several classes of 6th, 7th, and 8th graders from the middle school next door also visited. They helped our preschool and kinder students lift and place pieces of the skeleton. On display around the library were myriad books about whales and other ocean animals. The whale website I created with photos and digital resources was up on the computer screens. Recordings of whale sounds emanated from computer speakers while the children worked to match together almost 200 sun-bleached bones.

This powerful, bilingual, integrated learning experience in our school library was a collaboration between many players: a community organization dedicated to bringing hands-on science to low-income Spanish-speaking youth in the Mission District, our school’s science resource teacher, our gardening intern, classroom teachers, and me—the teacher-librarian. Funded through a modest library budget, our school’s Whale Week is an example of the kind of creative, literacy-rich, and intercurricular learning opportunities possible with a robust school library program. It is one of many reasons we need our school libraries and teacher-librarian positions to be adequately funded.

In recent years and across the nation, school library programming has gone the way of art, music, PE, and other “supplemental” or “special” programs in public schools. Nowhere has this reduced funding for libraries had a more devastating impact than in California, where we currently have one credentialed school librarian for every 7,187 students, according to the state’s department of education. The California School Librarian Association (CSLA) drives home this shameful fact by pointing out that Texas—the state with the next largest population of students—has approximately one teacher-librarian for every 1,080 students; Mississippi can boast roughly a 1:575 ratio. California is at the very bottom of this absurd range of statistics. Each time I attend the annual CSLA conference, it is noticeably and sadly under-attended.

The non-prioritization of school libraries and librarians has a great impact on all students and teachers, of course, but bilingual schools are disproportionately affected. Many public school children, like those I teach, come from low-income communities and/or homes where English is not the primary language. Often there are not many books at home.

Stephen Krashen, the linguist, educational researcher, and longtime advocate for both bilingual education and school libraries, has repeatedly written about the strong correlation between children’s access to books and their reading ability. “Bilingual education has done well,” Krashen writes, “but it can do much better. The biggest problem, in my view, is the absence of books, in both the first and second language, in the lives of students in these programs.” Bilingual schools need top-notch school libraries and credentialed teacher-librarians. When these programs are lacking or severely underfunded, the enormous potential schools have to contribute to building a peaceful, functional multilingual society is curtailed.

More than a Room Full of Books

There are many reasons why funding for school libraries plays such a pivotal role in the creation of strong bilingual programs, other than simply ensuring access to more books. A full-time teacher-librarian on staff who manages the library and teaches is a key player in the school faculty, especially if they are bilingual. We provide specialized, expert literacy support to classroom teachers and their students, along with an intimate knowledge of a far greater quantity and variety of up-to-date print and digital resources than any single classroom can support. A teacher-librarian may be one of the best-positioned people to connect content areas across the curriculum and grade levels, cultivating an interdisciplinary environment that can also nurture individual interests. Libraries provide safe spaces in schools, both physically and emotionally, for children to grow and learn. Students regularly tell me how much they love being in the library and, for many, the library space is preferred over the schoolyard during recess. For students who don’t feel safe on the playground, the library is a critical refuge.

My teacher-librarian colleagues and I teach information literacy in a more in-depth way than most classroom teachers have the time to do. This includes working with students to practice research skills, learn source evaluation, locate and cite credible information, use an anti-bias lens, and try different presentation formats—all using multiple print and digital sources. These are skills all students need in a world so heavily impacted by the internet, but especially the children who may not have access to computers at home or families who can help them navigate an online environment with a critical eye. Digital citizenship, or how to use online tools appropriately, is another field in which teacher-librarians usually have a lot of training.

Library Closed for Testing

Like our bilingual classroom teacher counterparts, teacher-librarians in bilingual libraries face some extra challenges. It is not easy to purchase library books or subscribe to databases in languages other than English, as the selection is much more limited. Frequently only paperbacks are available instead of library-bound hardback books and, too often, publishers and library vendors run out of stock. Bilingual library collections require a larger budget for purchasing new books in both languages.

But the most painful challenge facing many teacher-librarians these days—bilingual or not—is the impact of high-stakes standardized testing on library programs and schedules. Computer-based testing requires many computers. Until school technology budgets catch up with the testing mandates (or the “stop high-stakes testing” movement wins the day) libraries are where the computers are, at least in underfunded, urban school districts like mine. Our library is also used for practice tests and to test groups of students with special needs.

This use of the library for testing is especially problematic in bilingual schools where children may take tests in two languages—the testing takes twice as long, while the library is closed to all other students and teachers. This happened the first spring my school shifted to computer-based testing at the exact same time as a schoolwide research project. Classes had no access to library books or digital resources for an entire month, since every computer was used for testing.

With a set of new laptops and some creative scheduling, my school managed to get through testing this year without closing the library. But many other school libraries in our district, especially at the elementary level, were not so fortunate. Teacher-librarian colleagues were asked to push books around to classrooms on a cart, or to spend most of their time proctoring exams in the library or computer lab. One colleague’s library was closed for six weeks of testing last spring. Although I understand the need for compromise in certain situations, I am deeply concerned about the message we’re sending students regarding the importance of their library program. Our district mandates standardized testing during the same window of time in which the entire district, K-12, is engaged in a Common Core research theme. Libraries should not only be open during a focus on research, they should be central to it.

The Library as a Learning Commons

Despite the reputation of libraries in the past, today’s model school libraries are not places where students must be silent. Instead, children are encouraged to speak up, work together, and share ideas and opinions while they develop their oral language abilities and critical thinking skills. Hosting the build-it-yourself whale skeleton in our library provided just such an opportunity for students to collaborate physically and verbally. Throughout the year, I strive to plan with classroom and specialist teachers as much as possible to co-teach lessons, provide curricular support, and share the responsibility of covering content standards.

Of course, like all librarians, I try to generate a love of reading for pleasure, too. The library, which I think of as the heart of the school, should be filled with exciting, diverse, recently published, award-winning literature that motivates students to learn to read, to read for pleasure and interest, and to develop reading skills in a new language.

A bilingual library reflects and validates students’ home languages and cultures, and should be welcoming to all families. I have organized bilingual family library nights, poetry “coffeehouses” and other family-oriented events with the express purpose of inviting students’ families into the library. In other school libraries I have visited, teacher-librarians are setting up “maker spaces” for creative projects, hosting book clubs for parents and children, facilitating bookmaking, and offering adult education classes. Opportunities for turning the library into a dynamic, inclusive learning commons are endless.

For many children, the school library provides their first experience of a lending library, and paves the way for them to become lifelong library users. The library stands as one of the few truly public spaces, a participatory commons that offers every person in the community the opportunity to grow and benefit. Our public library system in the United States is a physical expression of our First Amendment rights. And teacher-librarians serve as a solid bridge between schools and public libraries for students and families, especially those who are new to this country.


Krashen, Stephen. 1995. School Libraries, Public Libraries, and the NAEP Reading Scores. ala.org/aasl/sites/ala.org.aasl/files/content/ aaslpubsandjournals/slr/edchoice/SLMQ_ SchoolLibraries_InfoPower.pdf.

Krashen, Stephen. 2000. Bilingual Education, the Acquisition of English, and the Retention and Loss of Spanish. languagepolicy.net/archives/Krashen7.htm.

Sagan, Carl. 1980. Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.

For more research on the relevance of school libraries visit the American Association of School Librarians website: ala.org/aasl/research.

Rachel Cloues currently works as a public middle school teacher-librarian in San Francisco.