Families Can Find the Key to a Great School Year at Their Local Library

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine

By Kristin Guay

Public libraries sport a wealth of resources for public, private, or home-schooled students of all ages, as well as those simply seeking enrichment activities to their regular academic program. The key is finding what your local library offers and taking advantage of the services.

Yes, libraries offer books, but they also provide so much more. Many have enrichment materials that can support comprehension of a topic or simply provide a broader scope. Libraries have books on tape, book packets that include a book and a corresponding audio version, music CDs, videos, magazines, newspapers, reference materials, study guides, and travel guides. Many libraries now loan out materials such as games, stacking blocks, stuffed animals, puppets, dolls, instruments, telescopes, flash cards, sensory balls, magic kits, sports equipment, cooking kits, art sets, and other enrichment items. Check with your local library to see what “non-book” items are available on loan.

One of the many wonderful aspects about a library is that there is a variety of materials on one subject. For example, let’s look at the topic of trees or the forest. Maybe a family is planning a New England drive to view fall foliage and wants a few books to plan for the trip. There are plenty of non-fiction books on different kinds of trees and tree identification based on leaf shape and bark. There are also books on the logging and paper industry that explain the use of wood, and conservation books explaining the need to protect and preserve forests around the world. A picture book, The Lorax, outlines the importance of conservation. There are even arts and crafts books that show how to make interesting items using materials found in nature (leaf rubbings, fairy houses, leaf people) and musical CDs that feature the sounds of nature, such as trees rustling in the wind, birds chirping, or a babbling stream. DVDs provide a glimpse of amazing nature areas around the world. Some libraries also offer telescopes or magnifying glasses to borrow. So, for just one subject of “trees and nature,” you can find a variety of materials to explore the topic further.

Reference materials

Reference materials can be used to gain quick information about a subject that can help guide further research. Students can easily utilize library materials such as newspapers, magazines, maps, travel guides, almanacs, atlases, dictionaries, directories, thesaurus, and handbooks. Reference materials are a perfect start to a project and help guide further research and investigation. Even though a wealth of information is available on the Internet, many students are still required by teachers to find paper resources, too.

Try audiobooks for comprehension and enjoyment

Listening is a key component of literacy, and this skill can be honed through listening to books on tape. For younger children, many libraries have sets that contain a picture book and the audio version. For more advanced readers, libraries offer audio versions of chapters books such as the Harry Potter series, and many of the Roald Dahl and Rick Riordan books. Audiobooks allow children to hear expressive interpretations of the material and develop the important literacy skill of critical listening. They are a wonderful alternative to TV or video games when a child simply needs a little time alone to unwind, plus they are great during a car ride. High school students might benefit from some of the many classic novels available on audiobooks. The high school curriculum includes the writings of John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, Langston Hughes, and William Shakespeare, and all could be better enjoyed or understood while listening to an audiobook version.

Educational games and activities

Many libraries offer a variety of educational games — both electronic and board games. You can usually find a good supply of games, such as chess, checkers, Scrabble, Bananagrams, or Mancala, along with puzzles of all kinds. Several libraries offer family game nights or sponsor chess clubs to encourage patrons to participate. Many online educational sites, such as National Geographic Kids, JigZone, Chess KIDS Academy, FunBrain, and ABC Mouse, can be found on library computers. These games offer students a fun, unique way to learn important skills. Younger kids can find games on learning colors, shapes, letters, or sequencing. Older children can find anything from math games to activities that help them learn about countries around the world.

Alternative place to study

Libraries are the perfect environment to encourage quiet homework time or gather with others to work on group projects. Many libraries offer extended hours during the work week as a convenience to working parents and older students. This might be a good time to swing by the library for an alternative place to do homework, meet with other students to work on projects, or use library resources to help with school work. Children are no different than adults, and sometimes a change of scenery can make all the difference.

Check into special services offered

Check your local library to see what services are offered to the community. Many have volunteers that offer their time for tutoring, computer assistance, English language instruction, standardized test preparation, and career counseling.

Boston Public Library branches offer homework help to students in Grades 1 through 8 by using a teen mentor program, according to Farouqua Abuzeit, BPL youth services manager. Mentors are in Grades 10-12, must have a 3.0 GPA, receive training through the SmartTalk program, and many are bilingual.

Depending on the need and resources of each branch, tutoring is offered about four days a week. These mentors not only work with the younger students, but they can also communicate information to non-English-speaking parents. Some of the newer branches offer quiet study rooms for students to work individually or in small groups.

Many libraries offer online programs to assist older students in learning another language or preparation for standardized tests such as the SAT, GED, and TOEFL. Some libraries offer college planning centers that assist students in selecting the right college, navigating the enrollment process, and finding financial aid or scholarships.

Many libraries also offer use of computer and Internet access, printing, 3D printing, copying, scanning, fax machines, delivery for homebound patrons, exam proctoring, interlibrary loans, and meeting rooms. These services can be invaluable for many patrons.

“Students come in for homework related reasons, including use of our computers. There are many people in Lowell who cannot afford computers and printers, so students will often come here to do online research and assignments, as well as printing out homework and reports,” said Molly Hancock, coordinator of youth services at Lowell’s Pollard Memorial Library.

Explore the ways libraries target specific age groups

Mark Malcolm, Maynard Public Library children’s librarian, created two programs specifically for the middle school population.

“Around three years ago, I noticed that [the school] did not have a newspaper,” he said. “With that in mind, we began a newspaper club that enlisted [Grade 4-7] students to meet every other week at the library throughout the school year. Each session, we covered a different type of newspaper-related writing [editorials, interviews, articles, etc.], and I encouraged the members to submit material for the paper.”

He also launched a photography club that meets once a month and takes pictures around the community. The results are displayed in an exhibit at the end of the year.

Malcolm said it’s important to have a welcoming area for teens through teen-friendly furniture or by creating teen advisory boards where teens can offer guidance and suggestions.

“I believe that a vital way that students can use the library is just for them to come in and socialize throughout the school year,” he said. “This way, they can work together on projects, do homework, or just collaborate with one another about the many activities they do.”

In addition to programs, libraries will also develop collections of materials geared toward the needs of specific student populations. Maynard Public Library has made additions to their collections to encourage younger patrons to visit the library: The graphic novel section has been developed, along with the addition of more Spanish books to help support the elementary schools’ Spanish immersion classes.

Learn a new skill or explore a favorite hobby

Babysitting, salsa dancing, computer coding, learning a language, gardening, STEM projects, knitting, learning a musical instrument, improving writing skills, sewing, financial planning, tech support, quit making, and yoga are all courses that may be offered at a public library.

Many libraries also support a variety of clubs for hobbies, such as drawing, Pokemon, chess, photography, Mahjong, Anime, video gaming, book clubs, Legos, and selected films. Check the events calendar of a few of your local libraries to see if something would interest your child. Also, feel free to suggest a club to the librarian. Many times patrons may have expressed an interest, and the library might decide to start a new program or club.

Take advantage of enrichment programs

Libraries offer many programs for free or at a reduced cost. Common programs include author talks, storytimes, craft activities, musical performances, art exhibits, puppet shows, historical presentations, science experiments, dance and movement, English language classes, reading to a therapy dog, and magic shows. Some are tailored to the needs of special age groups, such as lap programs for infants, drop-in storytime for preschool children, and books clubs for teens. Libraries also provide passes to many local museums and attractions, such as the Boston Children’s Museum, Museum of Fine Arts, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum, the Museum of Science, Mystic Aquarium, and Plimoth Plantation. The value of these passes can range from free to reduced admission.

Librarian knowledge

Librarians not only know about the books they have read, but also the books patrons have read. Librarians constantly get feedback on books, authors, and illustrators, and this information can be shared with other patrons. For example, a librarian might not be familiar with graphic novels for middle school students, but they can at least provide some guidance based on what other kids have said about the books.

Student and family support

Many may not realize all the free resources and support that libraries have to offer the public. “One of the interesting things about Lowell is that we are an immigrant city. We have new residents every day that arrive from all over the world. It is not unusual for families to come from a place where there are no free libraries,” said Pollard Memorial Library’s Hancock. “I always love it when I conduct a tour or make a school visit, and later that day one of the children that came for a tour or that I visited, brings her family to the library. The most important thing I want students and families to know is that we are here and what we offer — all for free.”