Great Teaching Transcends Economic Hurdles
Post submitted on behalf of whole child partner American Association of School Librarians by Patty Saidenberg, librarian, George Jackson Academy, New York, N.Y.
I work as a librarian at George Jackson Academy (GJA) in New York, N.Y. Founded in 2002, GJA is an independent, nonsectarian upper elementary and middle school for academically capable boys from low-income and underserved families. Classes are small, teachers are passionate, and money is tight. That said, our graduates have attended some of the best high schools and private day schools in the nation. GJA graduates attend Columbia University, Princeton, NYU, and Wesleyan.
Homeless shelters and welfare programs are not just subjects in the news for GJA students—they're what they live. Almost half of our students are from single parent families below the poverty level and are first generation immigrants. Oftentimes these young shoulders are weighed down by the hope of the family's future.
The boys that attend GJA enter into a world where everyone wants them to succeed. The world is their oyster; they just need to buy in and take advantage of what we offer.
Teaching in an economically disadvantaged environment poses many challenges—from making sure students' primary needs are met to helping them grow intellectually. Funds are almost nonexistent, and looking for free resources is time-consuming. Once resources are found, they become stale quickly. This is both the best and worst of times, to borrow a phrase from Charles Dickens.
The world is smaller, we communicate in a blink of an eye, and we, as a global society, are more aware of the gifts that each culture contributes to the planet. Unfortunately, the flip side is we communicate in a blink of an eye, and the world is awake and functioning 24/7/365. The financial cost of resources is colossal in the world of libraries and education. What do we, as librarians and educators, do? How can we offer these children the tools they need to compete in this new world when we don't have the funds to give them appropriate tools?
As staff, we count our pennies and try to find ways to get resources for the curriculum to be innovative, engaging, and compelling. We rarely receive new textbooks, and when we do, they're hand-me-downs from area schools that our headmaster knows. In the library, we buy fewer than 50 new titles a year. To expand our collection we use paperback swaps and have acquired more than 75 credits in almost two years. The collection is current, thanks to the generosity of many, and the boys borrow on average more than 30 titles a year. The collection holds fewer than 3,500 volumes, and as of this academic year, we have circulated more than 2,500 books to our 117 students.
Furthermore, the library is located in the middle of a small, old building. The boys drop by to say hi, look in the return box to see if anything good has come back, and talk.
Working in this environment only motivates me. How can I help them? How can I increase their competitive edge? How can I help them compete with those with all the advantages that wealth brings? It's not easy, but we try to make this happen.
As the school's librarian, I tap every resource I can locate. Because we're in New York City, I take full advantage of all it offers, and I'm constantly touting new opportunities I’ve uncovered. Teachers can reserve class sets of books from the New York Public Library (NYPL). This allows more options in the class and in the curriculum. Each student has an NYPL card, which gives him access to all NYPL databases. Many databases are accessible from home, but students can also go to a branch and reserve a computer (for free) and access additional databases there.
Like many schools, free online resources allow us to create e-mails, documents, and blogs. These resources enhance the intellectual power of our student body. In addition, the American Association of School Librarians' Best Websites for Teaching and Learning list is replete with free online resources, and I spend time teaching the boys how to use them.
For students to be successful they need to feel safe, both physically and emotionally, and all the bells and whistles won't help students if they can't relax enough to learn. Great teaching transcends economic hurdles—and that's what we're here to do: teach. Discovering resources is the science of teaching; implementing them is the art. It's challenging, and one that I try to meet each day.
Patty Saidenberg, school librarian at George Jackson Academy in New York, N.Y., has been an American Association of School Librarians member for more than eight years and has served on numerous committees, including the organization's Essential Links editorial board. Saidenberg was named California's Teacher of the Year in 1999.