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Practically Paradise
Inside Practically Paradise

Alternative Ed Needs Librarians

Have you forgotten a student population in your district? Look at the alternative education programs that keep expanding throughout the country. Should you be reaching out to them, why, and how?

I interviewed Alan Chiupka, alt. ed. Teacher at M.A.P. Academy in Lebanon, TN about the special library needs his students have. Alan indicated that many regular (home) school teachers mistakenly believe the alt. ed. programs use the same type of teaching, and have the same access to all the materials of the home school. Alan currently has 12 students with 4 classes each on a block schedule. Some classes are duplicates but he still prepares for 36 courses each day including pacing, grading, and re-teaching. This is beyond the discipline needs that arise daily that take him away from teaching. Students sit in carrels working on their daily assignments.

Diane: Tell me about their reading habits.

Alan: Some kids read, but most kids don't read willingly when they first enter. Their reading ability is often low and has impacted behavior in previous schools. When they had difficulty with individual reading assignments, they looked for ways to amuse themselves and made poor choices which may have contributed to their coming to an alternative situation. Students skim textbooks individually for their lessons in their carrels. They are assigned passages to read, but in my opinion they are just skimming.

I encourage individualized free reading whenever possible. I think the most recent brain research has indicated that the first 20 minutes in an hour of study are when learning occurs. Students are with me 7 hours a day. I think it’s unrealistic to expect them to be fully engaged in the curriculum for all of those hours. A little bit of light reading each hour after a strenuous assignment allows their brain time to recover before going on to the next assignment. This helps to consolidate what they have learned, improves their reading ability, and forms a habit they will continue all their life.

Diane: Tell me about your library, research and free reading resources.

Alan: Students are always encouraged to bring in their own books. We won’t let you bring in a magazine. We don’t have a library, but my principal has taken a leadership role in attempting to increase access to books for students. We receive donations and cast-offs from other schools and public libraries. Every teacher comes to the school with their own resources and small classroom collection. We share freely with each other.

Students are horribly handicapped by their inability to do research. There are no resources other than low level encyclopedias and these aren't appropriate at the high school level. Students are not allowed to freely access the internet.

There is no access to a librarian on-site. The teacher often has to do the research for the student. When I suspect that what they need is available on the internet, I work with the student individually. I am the gatekeeper to the internet. I do the search, pick out the relevant material for them, and present it to them. They learn research in my classroom not by being able to do it for themselves, which may lead to frustration and poor research anyway, but by watching an experienced researcher do it for them and explain the steps while doing it.

Diane: Do students use the state databases through the Tennessee Electronic Library?

Alan: Perhaps we would do so if we had someone more experienced with that aspect of research. Not being a librarian, I may not have the full bag of tricks a librarian has at their disposal. I think wikipedia is getting some bad press from people who may have an axe to grind, when it’s actually a great starting resource particularly for math. I wouldn’t want to quote it, but I’d want to know what it says.

If I had a librarian, we would have more resources in the classroom. I'd find a lesson plan online and the librarian would help me find the resources indicated. Collaborative efforts are not possible because there is no librarian to collaborate with. However it's my experience when working in the regular schools, in two of the three schools where I was teaching, the librarian didn't want to collaborate with me in lessons anyway. This was sad for the librarians, too, because they were losing out on my subject expertise for lessons that they had to teach."

Diane: Why not take field trips to the public library?

Alan: My principal has suggested this and it may be on the horizon. Right now it’s a matter of logistics. Seventy-five students making a weekly trek to the public library would tax their resources as well as ours.

Diane: Isn't it true that your principal banned graphic novels because a student brought in a sexually explicit novel?

Alan: At that time no staff members were familiar with the rating system for graphic novels and the student tried to take advantage of their ignorance. The principal banned them which I thought was appropriate based upon our available knowledge. A librarian in the building would have nipped that in the bud. Now that we know about the rating system, I anticipate the ban will be relaxed. When you place yourself in an alt. ed. school, you limit some of your options.

Diane: How can we help?

Alan: I’m sure that librarians can think of ways to help that have never occurred to me because of their familiarity with their jobs. Be free with your ideas and don’t be afraid to present them to the alternative school principals. Don’t be discouraged when a good idea is rejected because of the special needs required by the alt. ed. population.


  1. Elaine Snow says:

    At Homewood High School in Birmingham, AL we are beginning to attempt to assertively support our alternative students. Our alt school is located inside the main building, so that is an advantage. I am doing a “reading program” with some students three days a week, and will come down to assist with online research as students have research papers and projects. Alabama has a wonderful virtual library, so I will be teaching students to use those resources as well as bringing print sources with me. We have two professional librarians as well as a professional aide, so that also helps us. Perhaps Alan could contact his state library services and ask for someone to come train the instructors in their electronic library so that very flexible resource would always be available….