The last conference I attended had a wonderful session entitled ‘Radical Hospitality in the School Library Media Center.’ And I’m not just saying that because it was a friend and colleague who was presenting. It was really wonderful. I’ve strived since my first library to find ways to make the students feel welcome and wanted in the library. Some students will always feel welcome – the library is their home! There is no place in the school these students would rather be than amongst their best friends, the books. Other students are seemingly comfortable everywhere, it would take several uncomfortable or confrontational experiences in the same place for these students not to feel welcome. These are the lucky few. Many others are either apprehensive or plainly uncomfortable in the library, and you will probably never know why. These are the students whom I am targeting.
Over the years I’ve developed several techniques beyond the obvious (friendly demeanor, seeking to meet the students’ needs, extended conversations about whatever the student cares about most that day.) The first thing I realized when was that some of my students are lacking in the basic necessities of personal care and comfort. A readily accessible supply of tissues, hand sanitizer, bandaids, and hand lotion can be a powerful draw to these students. The very fact that I keep these supplies stocked and in a ‘student supply’ area for free use has contributed greatly to the impact I’ve been able to have in their lives. They gradually begin to see the library as a place where they can get their physical needs met.
In this same ‘student supply’ area I provide (without judgement) pencils and paper, glue sticks and scissors, colored pencils and a number of handheld sharpeners, an electric pencil sharpener, a hole punch, and a stapler. Because even more of the students need these. It’s not necessarily because they do not have them, but middle schoolers are notorious for losing things for a good reason. If they’ve come to the library to work on a project and forgotten their supplies, the last thing I want them to do is waste time going back to their classroom or locker to get them.
I’ve arranged the library facility for easy use, made sure we are meeting any needs of our students with different abilities, but there was one thing I’d never thought about doing that was mentioned in the presentation. Most school libraries have very heavy, weighted, self closing doors. Some of them are even solid metal or wood with no windows – ours luckily are the kind with windows. I could get some doorstops and prop these doors open. It was like the clouds parted, a rainbow appeared, and birds began to sing. I could prop open the doors.
I can already hear some of you wondering, “Isn’t it loud in the hallway?” Sometimes. But realistically, having the doors closed doesn’t do a lot to block that noise. It muffles it slightly, but not enough to make a real difference. And also realistically, how much more likely are the students to realize that they are being supervised if the doors are open? Are they more or less likely to make inappropriate noise in the hallway? “But won’t you get students sneaking into the library when they aren’t supposed to be there?” Maybe. Is that necessarily a bad thing? It’s not like they’re unsupervised and I can quickly send them on their way (or recommend a book they might enjoy, or give them that pencil/bandaid/friendly smile they need.)
So I did it – I propped open the library doors. The students didn’t seem to notice, or maybe it’s just that they didn’t say anything. But last week, my assistant principal came in the library and said, “I just dropped in to say hello, because I felt so welcome with the doors open.”