School Librarian of the Year Award 2016: Honour List Profile
Southbrook School, Exeter (www.southbrook.devon.sch.uk)
As librarian at Southbrook School, a special school for 120 children aged 11 to 16 with complex difficulties, Sophie Chalmers "has changed hearts and minds," and is often rewarded with news that pupils at her school "have bought books with their pocket money or asked for books for birthdays and Christmas." This is no doubt due to the fact that great positivity and a strong sense of fun inform Sophie's approach to her work, whether it's through pretend play or personalised book suggestions.
Sophie's library is somewhat unusual: a double-decker bus parked in a sensory garden. This special space, highly decorated and with a comfy beanbag chill-out reading area in addition to more recognisable banded library shelving and seating, plays a key role in Sophie's continual championing of the library as an exciting location within the school. She has created a place that really belongs to the children, where there are lots of engaging things to do in addition to reading and discovering books. One example of this is that many children like to pretend they are a bus driver and Sophie is their customer. A bus timetable and ticket prices are displayed and surreptitiously through role-play, Sophie is able to introduce reading activities which have been particularly successful with her male reluctant readers. Similar playfulness is exhibited through the existence of the "Library Jail". If a child forgets their book or loses it they can get upset and Library Jail is used as "a fun way to cheer them up and have a joke with them".
Sophie's approach to work has a powerful child-centred focus. She has a real passion for getting to know each different child so that book suggestions and activities can be tailored to their particular needs and interests, including curating named boxes of books for individuals. Children at Southbrook school play a pivotal role in the library's continual development. All pupils are encouraged to make suggestions about changes and additions they'd like to see, and a Library Panel made up a small group of children representing the whole school, both pupils who use the library frequently and those who are more reluctant readers, regularly meet to provide feedback to Sophie. This helps to ensure the issues and interests that really matter to her pupils (which she as an adult may not always be aware of) drive library development. Students recommend their favourite books to others through shelf tags and enthusiastic pupil librarians are put forward for the Devon SLS qualification.
All children have at least one library lesson a week and Sophie teaches information skills as appropriate to the individual when the need arises. With much valued support from teaching staff, Sophie has used book banding to successfully develop a positive sense of competition and also pride in the children's developing reading levels. She's created an environment and school-wide positive attitude so that no child feels they are low ability. Instead, there's an enthusiasm for improvement with students keen to tell their friends what colour band they are on and an eagerness to improve.
Sophie's personalised approach extends to staff too, with library training every year and tailored booklists to support their teaching as well as help enabling teaching staff to create their own book corners in their classrooms. Further embedding of books and reading across the school is evidenced by a recent development which has seen the tuck shop given a makeover so that it now contains a library section to enable and encourage children to access books during their break times. The library is widely promoted across the school through posters and school assemblies, and Sophie also regularly talks to parents about the school library and how parents can support its activities and their children's developing reading skills and interests.
Sophie works hard to nurture relationships between her library and the community, linking with the local mainstream secondary school and the city library through various reading challenges. She also facilitates a reading buddy scheme, connecting Year 7 students from Southbrook School with the local mainstream secondary school. Keen to highlight to her pupils how everyone reads, Sophie is currently working on a special event for September with prominent members of the local community (as well as a listening dog!) reading with and to her students.
The library bus plays an important role in transition activities from local primary schools. In Sophie's experience many children join Southbrook School with a very negative attitude towards reading, and it's a matter of great personal pride that she creates an atmosphere which shows them how the library is an welcoming and interesting place to spend time. Before long she sees the new children approach reading with renewed confidence and enthusiasm. So what is the key to making this happen? She sees it as a multi-pronged approach which includes her maintaining a well-rounded knowledge of children's books and authors (and what crazes her students are currently going mad for), creativity in using the library space in all sorts of different ways, "a memory that can store each child's reading interests and reading level" and embracing "having fun" with the children. "Most importantly, time. Just sitting with them and listening" makes all the difference.
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