Think literacy, not reading. Think content, not books.  Think relationship, not supervision.  Think participation, not outreach.  Think “culturally responsive, information-rich, and technologically advanced environment” and not “teen room.”  This is the paradigm-shift that is advocated in YALSA’s The Future of Library Services for and with Teens Report.  

Reading this report as a school librarian, I feel like many of us have already felt this mind-shift and participated in its momentum.  School librarians often work in “media centers” now, after all, not libraries.  We talk about the achievement gap at every staff development day and already discuss “literacies” plural when we are teaching and creating curriculum.  

But there is still a long way to go before all school libraries really become the ideal neutral, safe places where teens can grow intellectually, emotionally, and socially.  And I think this is especially true in the school libraries of our youngest teens: middle schoolers.

Middle school can be a rough time.  Navigating the transition from child to adolescent is tough, as we all remember.  New interests and identities emerge (sometimes painfully) as 6th, 7th, and 8th graders face new challenges, meet new people and engage with new ideas.  But middle schools also provide a chance for teen library staff to engage with teens right at the start of their teen years, forming relationships with them, helping them become critical thinkers and life-long learners, and supporting them as they become who they are.  Middle school library staff can accomplish this by re-imagining literacy, diversity and community in the middle school library.  

A large part of the point of middle school is to figure out how to manage one’s own learning, how to become a responsible and organized student that can cope in a variety of academic settings.  For middle school librarians and library workers, this means teaching the fundamentals of media literacy. The ability to construct meaning and think critically about where to find information and how to use it is vital for our students.  This doesn’t mean rigidly pulling the same five carts of books for the biography project year after year or stressing the formatting of an MLA ‘Works Cited.’  Instead it means learning alongside your students, creatively and explicitly coaching them to be media literate as effective and ethical information users.

Of the many media literacies, digital literacy is particularly important in middle school, not only for completing homework assignments but also for personal use and communicating with friends.  Many school districts (including mine) are exploring options to address this fundamental need by providing students with more access to digital resources and devices through initiatives like one-to-one programs (providing personal devices for every student to use at school and at home).  However, providing effective and equitable access to digital resources doesn’t end when all the students have a tablet.  The “digital divide” applies not only to devices, but also to the knowledge of how to use digital resources effectively.  Despite having heard the term all of their lives, many middle schoolers don’t know what a “wiki” actually is, or what kind of data Facebook collects about them, or even that there is a difference between Google and the Internet.  Young teens especially need to be the target of specific instruction and modeling about Internet use and need to be allowed to play and explore in both academic and non-academic settings.  For literacies resources, visit YALSA’s wiki.

Finally, celebrating diversity and building community are vital for providing top quality school library services for middle schoolers. Naturally, one element of celebrating diversity pertains to maintaining and promoting a diverse collection that appeals to and includes perspectives from a variety of ages, backgrounds, and identities.  But diversity also involves choice.  Do the students in your middle school have a “solid foundation of choice” in what they read, explore or participate in?  Can they hang out and geek out in their school library?  Enabling middle school students to explore their interests and the interests of others in a welcoming space helps them build their identities and fosters a love of learning.

Implementing these kinds of changes cannot be accomplished alone.  Rigid schedules or lack of support are restrictions on many school libraries. So team up!  Collaborate!  Middle schoolers do group projects all the time.  This is an excellent opportunity to model for them how effective it can be to collaborate with other teachers, with principals and administrators, with public librarians, or with community members. Maybe even collaborate with your middle schoolers!  Let them be creative, let them be leaders, let them be silly. Go crazy!

Because it’s not crazy.  Young teens shouldn’t have to wait until high school to have their opinions and interests validated.  They shouldn’t have to navigate the confusing and fast-paced digital world on their own. They shouldn’t have to do the same biography project using the same books that their parents used to research Abraham Lincoln.  That’s crazy.  And hopefully, by truly integrating this paradigm shift into our middle school libraries, by really engaging the youngest teens, we can create a new generation of thoughtful, engaged, and productive members of society.

About Lauren Millikan

Lauren Millikan is a middle school librarian in Apple Valley, Minnesota (a suburb of St. Paul). Aside from thinking about the best ways to meet the needs of young teens in both in and out of the school library, Lauren also likes to play pub trivia, nerd out over YA lit, and play the penny whistle. She earned her MLIS at the University of Pittsburgh and joined YALSA in 2012.

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