“Your ideas matter here.”
“Some of the best parts of this library are because of your great ideas, so please share them.” This is part of the library orientation that all new 9th graders receive when they come to the library for the first time with their English classes. When they sit down in front of me, in chairs I have arranged in a semi-circle, I am struck by how small they look. Over the year and the summer, I have forgotten how these new students are still more like middle school students than high school students. But in this moment, when I have each group in front of me, I never forget that my first impression on them matters very much. I need to convey so much more than just the rules about where you can and can’t eat in our library, or where the board games are located. If they remember nothing else, I want our new students to leave the library and remember a welcoming, smiling face.
“What’s a Student-Centered Library?”
Student-voice advocate and educational consultant John McCarthy says that student-centered learning (SCL) is when we encourage students “to share in decisions, believing in their capacity to lead, and remembering how it feels to learn.” As I reflect on my own teaching, the lens of SCL has pushed me to think about the active engagement of learners, to consider ways that I can release the control of my lessons into the hands, minds, and hearts of the learners.
A student-centered library is a way to scale this concept up and is also about putting the customer first. I came from a public library background, and this idea was what drove our model of service: we wanted you to find a place for yourself in the library; we wanted the public library to feel like your place. We wanted to have something for everyone. In our school, it’s your choice to come to the library, during a study hall, break, or lunch. And when you arrive, you also get to choose how to spend your time. This idea of freedom appeals to me — especially because young people so desperately crave choices and their lives often have few opportunities to practice skills of self-regulation. So if you come to the library, you’ll see students studying, alone, near a friend, or in a small group. Sometimes a few students are working on a lab report or project together. Someone is probably curled up in a beanbag with a book in their hands, while another person is at one of our desktop computers, putting the finishing touches on their works cited page.
But you’ll also see students who have chosen to take a moment to relax and reset during their busy school day. Two young men are playing chess. A young woman is knitting one of our “library hats” that we knit communally and donate to a homeless shelter. Someone comes to grab the colored pencils and helps herself to a mandala coloring page. Three friends are working on a jigsaw puzzle. A few guys are on the computers, each one working through the Crossword of the Day from the New York Times; they are each hoping to be the “winner” who completes the puzzle first. Two young women are sharing headphones, giggling over something, while eating their lunches.
When a student asked whether she could hang some signs around the library as part of a call-to-action project, I said “absolutely!” and invited her to have an even larger impact by decorating our library whiteboard. This whiteboard was not often used, but it had not occurred to me to repurpose it as a showcase for student work until this exchange. After that project, another student came to ask whether they could display the results of our school climate survey on the whiteboard, and then a few weeks later there was a promotion for our voter registration drive. We closed the year with a promotional display of our new student newspaper, both to raise awareness about the existence of the newspaper and an invitation for more students to contribute. This is what a student-centered library looks like: a library where student voices are amplified.
Now, as I plan the orientation of the class of 2022, I’ll be inviting them to use the whiteboard as a platform for engagement. As the steward of our library, I create the conditions for engagement to occur. The library is a dynamic, living space, a space that the community co-constructs together, and a space that responds to the needs of the community. How do you invite your community’s participation in your library? How do you create the conditions for active engagement to occur?
Author: Iris Eichenlaub
Iris Eichenlaub is the Librarian/Technology Integrator at Camden Hills Regional High School in Rockport, Maine. She is the 2017 Knox County Teacher of the Year, and was named an Inspiring Educator in 2017 by the Maine Education Association. Iris serves on the board of the Maine Association of School Libraries as the chair of professional development. Follow the story of the Edna St. Vincent Millay Library via Facebook (@ESVMLibrary or https://www.facebook.com/ESVMLibrary) or Instagram (@ESVM_Library or https://www.instagram.com/esvm_library).