Bell serves as librarian at PORTA Elementary, Central, and High School, which means she has the opportunity to meet students when they come into pre-K and say good-bye when they leave as graduates. Seeing the span of the students’ lives is only one of the perks in what Bell calls “the best job in the world.”
Before coming to PORTA, Bell worked overseas, with the Department of Defense (DoD), when she was directed to pursue a Master’s in Library and Information Science (LIS), a field in which the DoD needed personnel. She took a sabbatical from her work and pursued her education, only to find she would be writing the program for the degree. University of Illinois professor Dr. Christine Jenkins recalls, “I was an LIS professor who was making what seemed to be a last-ditch effort to get the program off the ground” having been given the task of creating a K-12 library certification path for people who were not already certified teachers. When Bell (then Dee) came to the program, Jenkins leapt at the opportunity to work with her, and they “produced a 100+ page proposal [for the program]. In April 2001, after decades of frustration, our program was approved by the Illinois State Board of Education.” So, not only do PORTA schools enjoy the services of a top-notch librarian, they have the privilege of having employed one who literally “wrote the book” on being a high school librarian.
Fostering a love of reading at home is a critical first step for students. Bell advised reading at home, but in a variety of ways. She suggested modeling reading as an adult, so children see their parents/guardians engaged with text; taking turns reading; reading often, in short bursts as younger children may not be able to sit for longer stories; and reading the favorites, again and again and again. Bell underscored the importance of helping children see that reading is “what people do” regularly.
Being a librarian for so many different age levels requires tailoring the library experience for each age group. At PORTA Elementary, Bell focuses on finding books that fit a students’ skill set. Often, the students may want to walk around with a book such as one of the Harry Potter series, but “not every student is ready to read at that level,” Bell explained. “My job is helping students find books they love and can read. When a student finds that book that is just the perfect fit, it makes my heart sing.”
At PORTA Central, Bell has no shortage of students wanting to read regularly and even maintains a “go-to” yellow tablet on which she writes students’ reading requests. “Kids tell me what they want,” she stated, “and I always have a lengthy wish list of books.” Community members and organizations are more than welcome to donate books or money for books. Bell tapped graphic novels as one of the most innovative ways of combining text and images in a way that engages young people and reinforces their desire to read.
PORTA often uses interlibrary loan, especially at the high school, where Bell noted the physical demands of being a librarian. “It’s not unusual for me to load of seventy-five pounds of books to deliver to the high school when research projects are in progress.” Even without the impetus of research projects, high school students check out a lot of books, “one hundred in just the first week of school,” Bell said with satisfaction. “Reading is vibrantly alive.”