As librarians and educators we focus on ensuring our students get the information literacy skills and love of reading which will make them lifelong learners. We work with teachers to cover Common Core requirements and deal with Lexile scores, complex texts, and the six shifts on a daily basis. While these have a high priority, we cannot lose sight of the value of the library as a safe place for students both cognitively, emotionally, and personally.
From a cognitive standpoint, there is a reason educators talk about safe schools. Learning cannot take place when students feel threatened. Safety is next to the bottom level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Once basic physiological requirements such as food and shelter are taken care of, safety is next, and one doesn’t rise on the hierarchy until the lower level is attained. When we feel threatened our adrenal system – the fight or flight mechanism – takes over, and blood is sent there, cutting off the cerebral cortex, the thinking part of our brain. From a survival standpoint this makes sense. If you are driving down an icy mountain road and your car goes into a spin, you don’t have time to think about which way you should be turning the wheel or why putting on your brakes is a bad idea. You react, going on instincts.
In a classroom, if a teacher criticizes a student for some failure to produce the right answer, most often the child is no longer capable of going through the thinking process needed to figure out where he or she went off track. The cerebral cortex has shut down. How often have you seen that “deer in the headlights” stare when a kid is drawing a complete blank? In that moment, the adrenal system is in control and critical thinking has gone out the window.
By making the library a safe place, true learning can occur. Many adults report memories of being bullied and harassed when in school but finding safety in the library. It’s more than just a welcoming environment we create. It’s a nurturing one. Within the walls of the library, countless students have found the space to pursue interests and explore ideas without worrying about being ridiculed. How many Steve Job’s, Joss Wedon’s, and Neil Gaiman’s have we inspired? It’s one of the great gifts we give students.
I have been in many great libraries. Some high tech and some barely tech. Some are gorgeous and others haven’t had a face lift in years. What the great ones have in common is they all feel like home, where you are accepted for who your are. To paraphrase an iconic film, “There’s no place like the library.”