A place to call our own
Updated: Oct 12, 2020
Popular culture often paints a rosy picture of the school library as a safe haven for those who don’t fit – the weird, the wonderful, the quirky and the quiet. There is a very good reason for this, because school libraries should be exactly that, and much, much more. For those who find the playground overwhelming or unwelcoming, the library can be the place to go when you have nowhere else to go. But once inside, this is where the true magic of a good teacher-librarian begins.
Teacher-librarians make a difference in so many ways. It is we who create the climate in the library: from the way we develop our collections, the way we furnish and decorate our library, the activities we celebrate or prohibit, the way we interact with students and the wider community. Band (2017) notes that “At a time when a young person is transitioning from child to adult, when they have a need to be accepted and find their place within the world, the school environment can feel very hostile.”
Gifted students, who can often hyper-focus or overthink, can find the classroom exhausting. The library can provide a shelter from the storm of bells, intensity of lessons and study, and constantly monitoring the reaction of others to ensure fitting into social norms. The library can be a place to take a breath, restock energy levels, and just be (Child, 2018).
When I started working as a teacher-librarian, I quickly realised that I was seen as a safe person, someone who had time for a friendly conversation, who could be an impartial sounding board, who would appreciate sharing ‘nerdy conversations and interests’ and who often could connect like-minded souls without the barriers of year levels. My current role supporting and mentoring gifted kids continues and even magnifies this role. Gifted kids are still kids, and can come from a range of ethnicities, cultures, religions, and sexualities. They can also have disabilities (gifted and with a disability is known as “twice exceptional”).
Libraries really can be the heart and soul of a school – if the library celebrates diversity and models inclusivity, the school population is much more likely to do the same. The school I work at has a proud history of inclusivity – students from over one hundred ethnicities are enrolled and their culture and history are celebrated. It also has a reputation as being a safe space for students who are gender diverse or transitioning. There has been much discussion in recent years of ways in which schools and libraries can celebrate diversity and model inclusiveness of people of colour and people who are LGBTIQ+ (Grassi, 2018, Slesaransky-Poe, 2013 ); however, we have far to go, and not just in collection development.
But diversity isn’t just race or ethnicity. Libraries can also be a quiet refuge for the neurodiverse, the anxious, or those who don’t quite fit the social norms. This description can particularly describe gifted kids who experience ‘asynchronous development’ – where their intellectual development has outpaced their social-emotional or physical development, putting them out of step with chronological peers (Pfeiffer and Stocking, 1999) . Pop culture often stereotypes gifted children as weird or misunderstood loners, or nerds (Cox, 2000) – think Big Bang Theory, The Good Doctor or Sherlock (Duan, Pozios and Kambam, 2018), and to be honest, stereotypes are constructed based on some modicum of reality, some gifted students do struggle with fitting in, especially if they are gifted and neurodiverse.
So, what can we do to make our libraries and our schools more welcoming for gifted kids? Collection development is part of it – “representation normalises and humanises” (Jayswal, 2018). But there must be more.
Popular culture may be the vehicle that we can use to provide a vibrant and welcoming environment for gifted students, and provide opportunities for interactions with intellectual rather than age peers. Working with students to develop Gaming, Coding or Robotics clubs could ensure that the clubs meet the needs of the students who would be involved, and further guarantee their success. Encouraging fandoms such as Dungeons and Dragons, manga, or certain book series may provide the impetus for students to begin to share or create their own fan fictions.
Opportunities for formalised lunchtime and after-school clubs is one option, but providing stimulus areas where students can meet and develop their own ideas is important too (and to be honest, less onerous on my own time). Areas where students can record podcasts, construct in makerspaces, produce art, play with Lego, read quietly or simply chat are all important.