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Hilary Cantwell

Hilary Cantwell
St Paul’s Community College, Waterford, Republic of Ireland        

Hilary CantwellA chess game and a darts match co-existing in the same space, with spectators and players moving seamlessly between the two, is just one of the unique happenings in Hilary Cantwell’s library. Ireland’s under-18 darts champion is a pupil, and Hilary displayed her usual gift for playing to  individuals’ strengths to boost reading when she bought a biography of darts legend Phil Taylor for the library.

“I made sure our darts boy was the first to read it. We have another student who is a very talented craftsperson but not interested in fiction and he gets the new woodwork books first. We had some girls obsessed with One Direction last year: I ordered a book for them and they carried it around as if it was a trophy. These are all pupils who would say they don’t read. In fact they are reading all the time online or on their phones.
“We have fewer than 500 students so I’ve no excuse for not knowing all their names and making each one feel special. You get to know when they’re taking their driver theory test or President’s Award [similar to the UK’s Duke of Edinburgh Award] and point them to the right resources. With some students, you give them a job. You say, ‘I hear you’re brilliant at this, can you help me?’. No one can resist that. Everyone loves attention.”

The glass-walled library is at the centre of the school in every sense. “I see everyone who walks past. The students have to be very slick to avoid an interaction with me. They might come in to see if the printer is working or to borrow a bit of Blu-Tac because their earring’s falling out.  Then your relationship changes over time and they’ll be coming to you with help researching their senior history essay.

“As librarian I have a bird’s-eye-view of the curriculum too and facilitate connections between departments. We only have short staff meetings and the teachers can’t always keep up with what other departments are doing. If a colleague says to a teacher, ‘I hear you’re doing X’, it’s likely they’ll have heard it from me.”

The lunchtime darts and chess clubs have wider purposes connected to Hilary’s passion for making connections. “They are both run by male teachers, bringing good role models into the library, and they teach social skills. Every game starts with a handshake. The timing means we have two very different social groups in the library at the same time and it really works. Also, Ireland is in a recession so a lot of our students will emigrate, and darts and chess are good ice-breakers all over the world.”

Hilary was an economic migrant herself, recruited by the US indexing service H W Wilson in New York, straight after graduation from University College Dublin with an English and Economics degree and a librarianship qualification. “Indexing was a good training in cataloguing and focus but it was a solitary activity and I was glad to move into education.”

Posts followed at a charter school on the Upper West Side (“no walls, classes intermingled, bright children full of opinions”) and a private school on the Upper East Side (“We had six-year-olds who were stressed out because their parents only wanted them to read the classics and would get upset if they brought home any books with slang in them”). Hilary views her training in storytelling while working in children’s services at the New York Public Library as a professional rite of passage.

“We sat in a candlelit room and told stories we had learned by heart to each other, just the adults, to celebrate St Lucia’s Day [a Swedish midwinter festival]. I had never thought of myself as a performer and it gave me the confidence to have a public face.”

The launch of the Irish government’s Junior Certificate School Programme Demonstration Library Project prompted Hilary to return to Ireland in 2002 to take up the post at St Paul’s, where one of the first 11 state secondary school libraries in Ireland was opened. There are now 30, but Co Waterford still has only two as does the neighbouring county, Wexford, so Hilary’s expertise is in demand. “Schools all around us are interested in creating libraries and we take a lot of phone calls, especially from primary schools. We also work closely with the public library which we’re lucky to have near the school gate.”

St Paul’s is also one of 195 secondary schools in the Irish schools inclusion programme for disadvantaged communities, Delivering Equality of Opportunity (DEIS).

While broadening her rural students’ horizons with theatre trips to Dublin (“It’s two hours by train but that’s a big leap for some of our students”) and scriptwriting and storyboarding workshops run by a film-maker and ex-student, Hilary is working on her own professional development with a weekly Chinese class in Dublin. The students are all educationists, in anticipation of the new Junior Certificate curriculum, in which St Paul’s will introduce Chinese as an option.

As a result, Hilary has just returned from a research trip to China with a linguist colleague. “I find the learning process quite hard but it’s making me more patient and empathetic with learners and is rewarding professional and personally.”

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