"If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales." Albert Einstein

28 March 2014

Shh! Or how I stopped enforcing quiet in my library

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. 


LisaRose said...

I would love to lead my library like this, but I have run into some issues with this. There is a classroom on each side of my library (one of them is the computer lab and instead of a full wall there are windows into it), and every time the kids get excited and a little loud the computer teacher comes in and shushes them. I also have students that are sent in to take tests who need the room to be quiet. , but I would like to know if you had any issues like this? What did you do about them or what would you suggest?

Jenni Frencham said...

I have told the teachers to call before sending students to make up tests, especially during the class periods that coincide with lunch. Most teachers are good about calling and will arrange for kids to make up their tests after school or in the detention room, etc., if they need to do so.

I haven't had a problem with teachers sushing my kids during the day, but there is a teacher who oversees tutoring in the library after school and frequently shushes the kids who come in to use the library itself, even when they are just talking quietly. In that case, I'm waiting until the end of the year, and then I'm going to suggest that her tutoring move to another room during next year so that more people can use the library after school.

Anonymous said...

Love this! Is your administration supportive of this? I tried this once at a previous school, but the administration shut me down pretty quick.

Jenni Frencham said...

The admin is pretty hands-off as far as what I do in the library is concerned; they're just glad that the library is a welcoming place and that kids are reading more than they ever were before. Only one time did I have anyone complain, and that's when a game of catch with a Koosh ball turned into "hurl the Koosh ball as hard as you can at other people." I was about to stop that one, too, so I was okay with the admin stepping in. [It was a rainy day, and I had 70+ kids in the library, so there was about double the usual level of chaos.]

Alpha Selene DeLap said...

Love this philosophy and this post!

PV_LMT said...

I love this idea, but I have to say, it can really create problems later. I struggle for students to have a place in high school to work and they WANT some quiet spot on campus so they can study and think, but there is no place, so they complain when it gets too loud. Is there someplace available for those students on your campus? In an ideal world, I'd have 2 rooms so one is the quiet area, and one is for more social/collaborative work.

Anonymous said...

While I'm glad this works in your library, I have the opposite problem. My administration would like for us to have a non-shushing library and we did try that last year. However, I work in a high school with a lot of behavioral issues and the kids took our non-shushing as an excuse to scream, play tag throughout the library, makeout, etc. The students that would come into the library trying to do some work would complain about the noise. We did go back to the shushing but b/c we have such an incredibly large space (plus three classrooms, a hallway, and a tech center inside the library), it certainly isn't completely silent in here. We've tried to find a good balance by having a silent work/reading area in the back and allowing conversations and collaboration at the tables at computers near the front of the library. I really wish we could have all the activities going on that you mention but even games at our school got abused last year. Chess led to theft and fights and then became poker which turned into gambling.

Jenni Frencham said...

Obviously, it would be wonderful to have multiple areas, or to be able to rearrange the furniture to create quiet areas. As it is, one half of my library is the side where the quieter kids congregate, and the other half is where the chatting / game playing / computer using children congregate. I didn't set it up that way, but that's how it has worked out. The library is pin-drop silent throughout the rest of the day, but I still believe that lunch time and right before school need to be times when the library is open and welcoming. I have yet to have any students or teachers complain about the noise or ask for a quiet area for kids to do homework.

Jenni Frencham said...

Anonymous, I can understand how that could be a problem, and I bet it was really frustrating. When my students abuse the space, I send them out of the library for the day. If the computers or games become a problem, the next day they are off-limits. I've only had to do that maybe three times this entire year. Each time, I explained to the students why these items were off-limits for the day (the games are kept in a lockable cabinet, which made it easy to get them out of the way). I have had students playing poker, but our space is so small that they can't really get away with gambling or making out. I've had kids try to sneak in food, and I've had students use their cell phones, but nothing so bad that I had to enforce silence again.

Kim Smith said...

Jenni, I love the message you are giving students. At the high school where I am the librarian attendance in the library during PowerBlock (a 40 min block) has progressively skyrocketed in the past 3 years. Some of the reasons why are that I do not close the library during my scheduled lunch time, I allow students to eat lunch in here (they are good about cleaning up after themselves), and I tolerate way more noise than the former librarian. Cell phone use is officially not allowed in the building during the school day but I don't make students put phones away unless they are creating a disturbance or are actually using it to call someone. Basically I am trying to create a culture where all students feel welcome and make them realize that the world is not completely filled with shushing librarians. Also, at my desk I have a "Please Interrupt Me" sign because high schoolers sometimes think that they are disturbing me if they see me working at my computer. Some teachers are mortified by why they perceive as chaos but the Superintendent holds biweekly meetings with students in the space during PowerBlock and has commented on how nice it is to see so many students in the library!

Jenni Frencham said...

That's awesome, Kim! I don't enforce the cell phone rule in the library, either. Many of the students are using their phones to access the internet and research, which is fine by me, or to play games, which is basically the same thing kids are doing on the computers. I have probably a dozen or so students that like to hang out at my desk and chat with me, so I don't really ever get a "lunch break" either, but it's worth it to see them use the library as much as they are now.