Public Libraries Can Improve Remote Learning. Here’s How.

Aug 18, 2020

At the moment, school districts across the country are grappling with the decision of whether to return to face-to-face instruction. No doubt it’s a difficult one, and I am truly grateful that I am not the one making it.

One of the many facets that makes the decision challenging is that many students don’t find as much success in an online environment as they do in a traditional classroom. (Of course, it is worth mentioning that the reverse is also true).

It is important to note that teachers and schools offered from March through May was, in most cases, not best practice online learning. It was emergency do-the-best-we-can-with-no-notice learning.

As we head into this next school year, teachers, administrators, and districts have brought their best game plan—solid online curriculum, resources to support that learning, training for teachers in online platforms and plenty of out-of-the-box thinking about meeting families’ needs as we power on through a pandemic.

In our district, plans have been made to make sure kids have the right materials at home: math manipulatives, art supplies, simple science experiment components. Staff has analyzed the curriculum and adjusted plans to account for what may have been missed last spring. Administration has been hard at work restructuring budgets to make sure that the right tools are available.

What we should expect to see as we resume school in September should be a comparable, equitable version of the same instruction offered in classrooms.

With that being said, it is also worth noting that there is still one more amazing resource that families should tap to make the most of any online learning experience—the local public library. Public libraries offer an incredible array of tools, supports, and resources—far beyond (but also including) the books.

Online tutoring

Our local public library has a free online tutoring service that not only offers tutoring in every subject a student might ever need.

  • Math (everything from elementary school arithmetic to calculus and statistics)
  • English (writing support, literature analysis coaching, vocabulary, and more)
  • Science (Even physics! Where was this when I was in high school?)
  • Social Studies
  • Spanish
  • AP class support

When I mention the tutoring service to friends and colleagues, their first reaction is that there is no way that someone can guide the learning of a struggling student without knowing them (and through a screen no less). But I have experienced it firsthand, and let me tell you, I was impressed.

When my youngest was in third grade, we used the tutoring service to help him understand the workings of a food chain. For the life of me I could not get him to grasp the concept. He kept just trying to use the teacher’s original example without expanding his understanding to other organisms. I was (admittedly) a little exasperated, but then remembered a quick inservice I had attended where they mentioned this new service. I figured that we had nothing to lose. We logged on with our library card, waited a few minutes, and the next thing I know, there’s someone typing in a chat box and drawing on a white board. Fifteen minutes later, my son had the proverbial lightbulb all aglow above his head.

With my other son, the tutors helped us get through algebra his freshman year and geometry as a sophomore. It’s a golden ticket for help when as a parent we don’t know how to explain something to our child.

I was particularly impressed with the way the tutor scaffolded the learning. They didn’t just do the work for my kids. They asked probing questions, figured out where the misunderstanding was, did a little reteaching, and then stayed in the session to make sure my sons understood before wrapping up the chat.

Books, Books, and More Books

Another struggle when kids are not in school is getting their hands on choice reading material. Our school district offers ebooks and audiobooks, but we are incredibly fortunate that the public library uses the same book platform (Sora by Overdrive). When our students add the public library to our ebook interface, the number of titles they have at their fingertips jumps significantly.

There has been some debate about ebooks versus print materials for young readers, and I have weighed in on the issue in the past. My bottom line is that I believe in balance between the two but that the ultimate power is in the paper page. However, an ebook is better than no book at all, in my opinion, and the public library’s offerings typically far exceed the school district’s (it is a function of budget in most cases).

The public library offerings also often include audiobook materials, online magazines, and online graphic novels. Each of these is another opportunity to hook a young reader. In addition to all of the electronic resources offered our local public library is also offering curbside pickup of print materials.

Puzzles, Games, Music, & Languages

Our local public library has dozens of resources for kids—online encyclopedias that, in addition to the plethora of articles on everything from Aardvarks to Zygotes offer crossword puzzles, digital jigsaw puzzles, science projects and craft ideas.

Top all of that off with a couple of foreign language learning apps designed for children, options for math games, a collection of kid friendly videos and an incredibly diverse digital music subscription, and it is clear that the public library can be a true partner in making online learning successful for families.

It may be months (or longer) before we even turn the corner on the pandemic, and I find it hard to believe that things will ever go back to what we once called normal, so I am going all in on making the most of the opportunities ahead. I’ll lean heavily on the public library to do so.

Care to join me in making the best of a bad situation? Dig out your library card (or renew or request one—no judgement here!) and I’ll meet you (online) at the library.


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