Before I started library school, I spent six years teaching English at a small private academy on the island of Guam. Because of the small student body, my teaching schedule changed every year, but for the most part I taught 7th grade English, usually three sections of 7th grade English every day. After six years and well over one thousand students passing through my classroom doors, I learned a few things about middle school students:
- They are very creative. My students were old enough to have a wide variety of interests, and they loved to incorporate those interests into the assignments I gave them. For example, I had one seventh grade student complete his poetry notebook exclusively with poems about surfing.
- They have a lot of energy. My students had just transitioned from elementary school, where they had regular recess and bathroom breaks, to junior high, where they were shuttled from one class to another and required to sit still for forty-five minutes at a time. Many of my students suffered from Recess Deficit Disorder. They were perfectly capable of focusing in class and working, but they had too much energy trapped inside to do that unless they had some time to run and play.
- They aren't sure who they are. I had students come in one day acting very mature, only to come in the next day whining like a toddler. Some students went through phases where they asked to be called by a particular nickname, only to drop it the next week when it was no longer wanted. These kids are trapped between being children and being teenagers, and oftentimes they will act like both in the span of fifteen minutes. I taught one class where one student lost a tooth and another student started her first period in the same hour.
- They love their electronic devices, but they love them for the connection they provide. My students relished the days I let them play board games in class, not just because it was a break from grammar and literature, but because they got to spend time with their friends. Many of my students didn't have the opportunity to interact with each other outside of school, so they were glad for any time they had during the school day to chat with their friends. Even now, I more often see students gathered around a single screen rather than sitting next to each other texting back and forth.
As a teacher, I decided early on that it was more important for my students to leave my class knowing that English is interesting and doable than being able to recite the fourteen uses of the comma or being able to differentiate between transitive and intransitive verbs. I wanted them to be able to enter another English classroom the next year with confidence, a positive attitude, and a willingness to do their best on any assignment, no matter how difficult it may seem. I wanted English accessible to all of my students.
Now that I am a librarian, I have taken a similar approach to my library. If my students leave this school after 8th grade knowing that the library is a place they can go to find information, and if they have begun to develop a love of reading, whether it be sports biographies, manga, or 500+ page fantasy novels, then I have done my job. I want my students to know that librarians are there to help them and that they are not scary cardigan-wearing shushers of humanity.
That means I spend a lot of time around what I call "loosely controlled chaos." I do not insist that students be silent in the library, because that would turn me into a silence enforcer instead of a purveyor of information and provider of great books. I do encourage students to come to the library often to play board games, to research on the computer, to work together on Minecraft projects, to gawk at the displays I put up, to learn how to fly paper airplanes, to build with LEGOs, and, yes, to check out books.
|Students attempting to lodge a paper airplane in the ceiling tiles.|
For example, last week there were some students flying paper airplanes in the library. Rather than tell them to stop or sending them out, I pulled out our paper airplanes books and set them a challenge: build a plane that will get stuck in the ceiling tiles. Anyone who can throw a plane up to the ceiling and get it lodged there will earn a free book at the book fair. The students had a designated area for throwing, and although they were not (yet) successful, they left the library talking about trying new designs over the weekend. What started out as a mostly harmless pursuit turned into a research project.
The week before I had a student walking around the library holding a water bottle and the largest atlas in our collection. He used his "holy book" and "holy water" to cast the demons out of the library. Was it weird? Yes. Was it bothering anyone else? No. Instead of telling him to sit down and be quiet, I thanked him for exorcising the library demons. Now that student (and anyone who witnessed him) knows that it's okay to be a little bit weird in the library. Next week he'll probably be done with his exorcisms, but he won't be done using the library.
Come to my library during a typical lunch hour and you will see a room that barely resembles a library. I have had students create elaborate LEGO structures and use LEGO catapults to bombard them. I have had students spend their entire lunch break looking at books about One Direction and singing their songs together. I have a group of students who regularly come to the library and play Sorry! or Connect Four. It's not obscenely loud, but neither is it completely silent. The library has become a place where students can learn, can try new things, and can connect with each other. For an hour before school and two thirty-minute lunch periods during the day, I quiet my inner shusher and let the students explore. Instead of being a bastion of silence, the library is a bastion of exploration, connection, research, discussion, and relaxation.