Anita Cellucci of Westborough High School in Westborough, MA was named a School Library Journal School Librarian of the Year Award finalist in August 2016. Be sure to also read The Super Social Library from Finalist Laura Gardner.
Creating a library that is a safe space for students has always been important to me. Over the years I have observed that many students have needed the solace and protection of the library throughout the day. Allowing the library to be many things to many students is challenging but ultimately offers social and emotional support. Although there are many ways that my library has become a safe space, it is thanks to daily interactions with students that I continuously shift my understanding of how the library can remain dynamic and relevant, and offer what they truly need from it.
The role of the library in school
Our school libraries support students in many ways. The library space itself is often a refuge for students, a safe space where students are comfortable and free to be themselves. The American Association of School Librarians (AASL) defines an effective school library program for the purpose of the federal legislation Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA): “An effective school library program has a certified school librarian at the helm, provides personalized learning environments, and offers equitable access to resources to ensure a well-rounded education for every student.”
At the heart of an effective school library program is the importance of individual understanding of each child. In recent years, the rates of students dealing with mental health issues have risen, boundaries between real and virtual lives have blurred, and technology has begun to be introduced in student lives much earlier. This alone offers reason enough to think about how our libraries are meeting the need for a comfortable, welcoming, personalized learning environment that takes the whole child into consideration.
The library as a safe space
I feel strongly about making the school library an available space to students during lunch—a time when vulnerable students especially need a refuge. I have often found creative ways to include these students in mentoring younger students through book selection, read alouds and other library activities, as well as to offer social interaction at the high school level. I believe that a way to help to create a safe space for students is to make them part of the process so that they not only have ownership and autonomy, but also feel part of a community.
Last year, I began hosting “Listening Lunches” which are one component of a Library Learning Commons. Simply stated, a Library Learning Commons is a redesigned library space that is meant to enhance social interaction and learning outside of the classroom. It is the center for learning, collaboration, and creating—for students, staff, and the school community as a whole.
These events allow students to showcase their talents (such as song, music, and poetry slam) in a less formal way, while their peers, classmates, teachers, and community share lunch in the library. It is truly amazing to watch this philosophy begin to gather momentum in the library and in our school. Teachers come to see their students perform and the performing students have been helping to get the word out to the rest of the school community.
The library as a model
This is one small way of how I am providing the path for students to constructively deal with the issues of isolation that often arise from the environment of a school lunchroom. It is also a way to use the space as an example of positive community interaction. Creating a space of positive community interaction leads to a safe space for all. Allowing students to contribute to the definition of the library as safe space makes the library relevant to the school community. I continue to work hard to see, hear and value my students and to create ways for the library to be a judgment free, accepting space for the entire community every day.