Ellen Hao

When people read stories, the first inclination is to find yourself on the shelf – things that reflect you, what your current knowledge and current experiences are,” says Tamela Chambers, the school librarian at Chicago Vocational Career Academy in Avalon Park. But are CPS kids on the South Side reading the age-old standards like Hamlet, flashy titles like Divergent, or something else altogether? In short, are students reading books they can find themselves in?

The answer, it turns out, varies considerably across schools and even between classrooms. Aaron Talley, a language arts teacher at Lindblom Math and Science Academy in West Englewood who has contributed an op-ed to the Weekly, explains that teachers and principals consult CPS reading lists to varying degrees. Some base their curriculum off the books recommended on the lists, whereas others create independent reading groups that give students considerable leeway in what they read.

CPS reading lists themselves are also a bit of a puzzle, owing to their varied usage and sourcing. In a statement to the Weekly, Dorsey Chambers, the CPS Library Coordinator, explained that the basic Recommended Reading List “features recommended newer books, with copyright dates in the past several years, which are quality, critically reviewed literature.” The Recommended Reading List is updated every other year and accompanies the Spanish Acclaimed Literature Summary for All (SALSA) and the Diversity Recommended Reading List. The Department of Literacy also releases specialized reading lists and resources, such as the Social Science Print and Digital Resource Library, which teachers adapt to changing state Social Science standards. Another example is the Power of Peace Reading List, which covers all grade levels and was created by the Department of Literacy and CPS librarians to highlight books that emphasize tolerance and conflict resolution.

The three biennial reading lists are created by a team of librarians drawn from a larger pool of applicants every other October. They work together to determine the evaluation criteria, rubrics, priorities, and documentation for the reading lists in question. After reviewing five to ten books each month, the team reconvenes in the spring to select the titles to be placed on that reading list. The lists are then distributed to schools by librarians and the Department of Literacy, and presented to the Illinois School Library Media Association, a statewide consortium of school media specialists that develops best-practice guidelines and other professional development resources for school librarians.

Despite the heavy involvement of librarians in the creation of reading lists, however, the lists are hardly the primary tool school librarians use. Tamela Chambers, for one, envisions herself as a sort of literary matchmaker. “We are champions of reading for pleasure, so generally when I interact with the kids, we chat about the things they like. My goal is the match them with the perfect book based on what they tell me.” Recommendations are highly individualized, and can be based on anything from past books a student has liked to their popular culture interests. For example, Tamela Chambers says, kids who like dramas and reality television are often recommended realistic fiction, which mimics the forms of structured plot and interpersonal conflict. The last book she had recommended was Maya’s Choice, by Earl Sewell, an author well-received by her students.

Talley, at Lindblom, agrees that student choice is a very important part of reading. Librarians play a key role in teaching students how to choose books, but that all the students in his class still read the same texts in class. “It helps build shared experience. The kids can all go see Gatsby together,” he said. For Talley, like Tamela Chambers, the heart of the reading curriculum is student interest. “I’m driven by what’s culturally relevant to my students; that’s the biggest thing, and reading levels and challenging their skills is very important, but secondary.”

In practice, however, reading levels are important determinants of what students read. Teachers sometimes use these structures to have students pick books from their assigned reading level shelf. As Talley explains, “Best practice says these aren’t to dictate what students should or shouldn’t be reading, but should instead help teachers attend to students’ needs.” Used properly, reading levels allow teachers to personalize each student’s reading assignments according to their skill level. Another tool teachers can use is Accelerated Reader. Students decide which books they want to read from the online database, and can take the online reading comprehension tests to get points, creating an incentive for independent reading. For librarians, reading levels are generally not prescriptive. As Tamela Chambers explains, “If the students are using books for research, you don’t want to give them something that’s too difficult, but when it comes to reading for pleasure, it’s for that kid’s comfort level.” Tools like Acelerated Reader often end up filling in the gaps at schools without a school librarian, in which students don’t have the same resources for learning how to choose books.

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Marie Szyman, a school librarian at Nathaniel Greene Elementary in McKinley Park, explains that school librarians play a critical role in connecting students with new books, in part because of the extensive time and resources that a well-staffed school library has for students. Her favorite books have been ones that she’s found serendipitously in a large library, and for her students she values the experiences of “walking in a grabbing a book that a teacher would never have handed you, and going ‘Woah!’,” she said. “[In a classroom library] the teacher has chosen ten books, and that’s your library. One below, one above, and the rest are right on your level…That is not a library! They can call it a library, but classroom libraries are not libraries.”

Partnerships between classrooms and school libraries, however, are very fruitful. Charles Gunn, former president of the Chicago Teacher-Librarians Association, explains,  “The teachers come with kids, and we can co-teach, and you’re kind of the resource person, the technical advisor, making sure that the kids find what they want – but the teachers are making sure that the lesson itself is done completely.”

School librarians also flesh out students’ exposure to cultural ideas. Gunn addresses holidays such as Halloween by including fifteen or twenty books that provide students with multiple perspectives on the holiday. A classroom teacher, Gunn notes, would be lucky to have even a couple of relevant books. For a sense of scale, Gunn explains that a large classroom library will maybe have 500 books, whereas a school library will have 10,000. It’s school libraries that expand student exposure to books beyond the prescribed reading lists, and really encourage kids to read on their own.

In spite of their importance, however, school librarians are a vanishing breed in Chicago. Only a quarter of schools have a school librarian this school year, and, as of 2015, among high schools that are at least ninety percent Black, there are only two school librarians remaining. Szyman adds, “A lot of schools have dismantled their libraries, they’ve put the books in classrooms, given them to parents, given them to other schools…we’ve got boxes of books from other schools in the back of our library.” The Department of Literacy, too, is seeing cuts. “It’s no longer a department,” she said. “It used to be twelve, fifteen people. It was wonderful. We used to have quarterly meetings, and we would share ideas.” The reading lists are still being created, but level of robust resources is not the same.

For all the effort put into creating CPS-wide reading lists to determine classroom curriculums, standardized testing often becomes the determinant of what students read. The tests are very important in determining student, teacher, and school outcomes. Neighborhood schools are evaluated based on their test scores and can be shut down if they don’t perform well enough by city standards, with the students being scattered to other schools. There is hence a lot of pressure to teach to the test, including in English classrooms. Class reading material is dictated by the testing metrics. For Talley, “even though I really value kids getting a strong cultural background and reading what they connect to, a lot of what’s on these tests is Shakespeare and Shelley, so a lot of white authors. Even though I’d like to see kids read more actual novels. I think people would be surprised at how much testing dictates what students know.”

Talley also notes that he has more freedom to build a reading curriculum that goes beyond the Western canon at Lindblom, a magnet school, than he did at the neighborhood school where he previously taught. Librarian Tamela Chambers and CPS Library Coordinator Dorsey Chambers both recognize the presence of standardized testing in classrooms, and independently note that reading lists are designed to support Common Core standards, while also aiming for diversity and quality.

Testing also impacts school libraries in the schools lucky enough to have them. With CPS so pressed for money, individual schools face tight financial constraints, and testing cuts further into library budgets. Szyman recalls an episode a few years ago when the principal informed her that he had bought her a cart of iPads to use with the students. Szyman was very excited to incorporate the new resource into her lessons with students, but was never able to use the apps she had downloaded for them that summer because the iPads were constantly being used for round after round of standardized tests. Worse, she wasn’t able to buy as many books that year. “My library budget had gone to the iPads, which went to teachers for testing,” she said.

Within this context, however, reading lists can still help teachers diversify what students read. As Dorsey Chambers notes, “Our Spanish reading list is particularly popular with teachers who don’t speak Spanish and want to provide access to outstanding Spanish literature for their Spanish-speaking students.” Teachers may also send the lists to parents seeking book recommendations for their children, while others look to the lists for ideas on what to stock in their classroom or school libraries. The large number of books reviewed for the reading lists, as well as the large number of books featured between the three biennial lists, provides teachers with a wide array of current authors. Dorsey Chambers adds, “For our featured book lists, we’re especially interested in books that reflect the diversity of CPS students and families.”

Diversity and representation mean many things when it comes to stories. Tamela Chambers says that she hasn’t noticed any changes in themes over the years, regardless of testing or Common Core content, because young adults haven’t really changed. “Whether it’s coming to grips with something, coming of age, working with issues of popularity, or depression – maybe the characters look different, but there are something things that are universal across YA fiction.” That being said, “Literature is just like all art, it reflects life – a wide range of experiences across a wide range of reading material.” The same is true for Talley. “Social media is fast, and algorithms are set up for you to react rather than meditate. In a good literacy classroom, students are reading books that are reflective of who they are, that teach them to be politically motivated, and that challenge their ideas and cause them to pause. Reading, as an experience, allows them to dialogue with each other.”

Join the Conversation


  1. As a former CPS area library coordinator, and retired teacher librarian and teacher, I wholeheartedly agree with the librarians regarding the significant impact good school libraries and librarians have on student achievement and fulfillment. It’s such a pity we are no longer valued accordingly.

  2. Sadly, the schools where children have the least access to books in their homes/communities are also the schools with the fewest libraries. 90% of those kids interacting with the juvenile justice system are functionally illiterate. The average middle class child has 30 books, in low income communities there is one book per 300 kids (not a typo.) In January, 2014, several Northside moms banded together to create BooksFirst! (http://www.booksfirstchicago.org), which operates with no funding to collect and deliver gently loved kids’ books to Chicago’s most underserved schools. Thus far, we have delivered over 60,000 books to 35 schools. We are challenging kids to meet standards without supplying them with the basics…books as gateways to literacy and learning.

  3. I have a book I wrote and published. It is a book about my life’s experience in the city of Chicago. It is a very profound book. It was written while I was in prison. The book is named Redeemed and it is about exactly that. From gangs and prison to overcoming. I believe this book would be a great read for students and an inspiring life lesson. Please contact me I would love to discuss it with u.

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