A New Cultural Environment
My friend Mike and I were discussing our nephews’ social skills – or rather, their absence. Mike shared that when his nephew sat down at a table with another kid his age, the two of them stared at their phones. When prompted by the adults to talk to each other, they had trouble making eye contact, and couldn’t find a topic to discuss. When I reflected after our chat, I realized that school libraries are particularly well placed to help expand students’ social skills by pushing back on siloed culture.
As we continued our conversation, Mike and I concluded that we were actually the beneficiaries of a particular type of cultural environment that is rapidly disappearing. This social media post that Brandy Zadrozny shared sums up the basics of that “old” system of social culture:
“Just explained to my kid how we used to just go to the movie theater and often the movie we wanted was sold out so we’d have to see something we really didn’t care about and he was so shaken.”
The Social Benefits of a Lack of Choices
As Mikey and I talked, we realized that our lack of entertainment choices when we were younger was actually a blessing for our social skills. It provided us with a cache of topics to talk about that you were pretty much guaranteed to have in common with anyone in the area.
At 12 years old, Mikey and I could sit down for the first time, never having met. He could be into sports, while I was into books. But within a few minutes, we’d be discussing GI Joe, ALF, Dragon Lance, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and Lionel Richie. Whether you loved them or hated them, you knew them – because those were pretty much the only culture available.
Even back in the 80s and 90s, teens were beginning to silo themselves into different musical camps. I remember being so unenlightened as to think that the kids who listened to rap and the kids who listened to metal were so weird – what could I possibly have in common with them? But despite these “massive” differences, we’d always have movies and television to discuss.
Now, though, kids are siloing to an extent not previously possible. They can immerse themselves 24/7 in media and information about the most niche topics.
Why does that matter? Because having unlimited access to that one specific set of entertainment is removing their shared culture.
We wonder why kids don’t want to put down their devices, why they’re bad at talking to people “IRL” – it’s in part because it’s much, much harder to find people who know what they’re talking about!
Restoring A Shared Culture
School libraries are uniquely positioned to provide students with interesting, engaging topics that they can have in common with their peers. There are several avenues that school libraries can offer students to help build shared culture.
Clubs may not completely break down silos, but they at least invite others in. Whether they’re book clubs, anime clubs, maker clubs, or some other gathering, school libraries can offer students a focus for in-person connection.
Having clubs that meet in the semi-public space of the school library invites in the interested but unsure, while also giving those with a passion the chance to connect. Students can form very strong friendships when they meet regularly with peers sharing a common goal or passion. And those bonds can be self-reinforcing – students are more likely to interact with those peers outside of a club, reinforcing and deepening friendship bonds.
Book Talks & Displays
School librarians “sell” books to groups regularly. This can create a shared culture and interest group. More than once, I’ve book talked a title to a class, then had multiple students talk to each other about how they want to check that book out. That’s forming a connection they could later build on.
Book displays have the potential to do the same, in a more passive manner. Because book displays are set up in public-facing spaces, they provide the potential for discussion by passers-by. Displays that garner interest and get students talking can give them those conversational “ins” that might otherwise be difficult to find during the school day.
Read-alouds are another potential conversation starter that school librarians can offer. Whether it’s a First Chapter Friday or another form of reading to a group, read-alouds give students a shared moment that they can build on. A One School, One Book, One Read event can be a way for every student and teacher to participate in a book. But any collective sharing could help students build social bridges. Reading a chapter to a single class still gives the students in that class a common experience they can build on.
Passive programming offers yet another way to give students a shared experience. For a very low level of investment, the school librarian can set up games, puzzles, drawing stations. These invite students to take part as they can, perhaps while passing by, perhaps with friends during a study break. The existence of the passive programming opportunity offers students a point of discussion – “Hey, did you see that puzzle in the library?” But it also offers the potential for shared experience, working next to or in concert with others.
Last year, I had a puzzle out that a particular group of students flocked to during lunch each day. A friend of theirs would sit nearby, doing origami. They would talk about all sorts of things as they puzzled and folded. When the puzzle was completed, they still gathered; I heard them talking together about the experience of spending those periods together.
Building Shared Interests
These are just a few of the ways that school libraries can offer students some shared cultural touch points. While school gives students shared classes, those are not often the subject of interest and engagement, topics bandied about and built on. This is, in large part, because they are mandatory, not chosen.
School libraries, however, give students choice and voice. They help students find their interests. And by helping students connect over those interests, school libraries can provide students with the chance to practice and build on their social skills.
We may not be able to completely destroy their silos, but we can help them expand their interests. And we can provide them with the space to engage locally with others who share their interests, in ways that help them learn to connect with others.
Author: Steve Tetreault
After 24 years as a classroom English Language Arts teacher, Steve became a school librarian in January 2022. He has earned an M.Ed. (2006) and an Ed.D. (2014) in Educational Administration and Supervision, and completed an M.I. degree in Library and Information Science (2019). He is certified as a teacher, school library media specialist, supervisor, and administrator. He is an old dog constantly learning new tricks!