Magazine article American Libraries

Finding Friends, Learning Leadership: In This Junior High Library, Everyone Is Accepted

Magazine article American Libraries

Finding Friends, Learning Leadership: In This Junior High Library, Everyone Is Accepted

Article excerpt

Junior high school can be a socially rough time for students. New hormones, new social mores, and a new academic environment-it's a lot to navigate. That's why April Lesher, librarian at Mesa, Arizona's Highland Junior High School, has worked hard to make the school library not just a bullying-free zone but a place where every student can form friendships. Now her efforts have been recognized by Follett with a $30,000 prize. The money will ensure that every economically disadvantaged student in the district, plus those in one school from a neighboring district, will receive a new book to keep.

As the librarian at Highland Junior High School, April Lesher is used to encountering students who don't quite fit in. "Kids are coming from elementary school, they're often nervous and scared, and they don't know how to make friends at first or [whether] they'll see their old friends," she says. Of course, new 7th graders are unlikely to announce their anxiety: "Kids aren't going to come up to the librarian and say, 'I'm lonely.'"

That's why Lesher founded the Friendship Project, a multifaceted program designed to give students a safe, fun place to learn from and connect with one another. Recently awarded a $30,000 semifinalist prize in the 2017 Follett Challenge, the project has helped Highland students make friends, acquire new abilities, practice leadership skills, and feel more confident.

As one student participant, Caleb, says, "Before, I'd eat alone, play alone, walk alone, and talk alone. I didn't like that. When I went into the library, someone always said hi to me, and I said hi back, and now I have friends, and we can just talk and eat and stuff. It just makes my day."

One facet of the program consists of student-led lunchtime classes, a concept that came about after students in the library kept coming up to Lesher to show her items they'd made, such as Lego puzzle boxes or pieces of origami.

"Anytime the kids would come to me and say, 'Hey, do you want to see this really cool thing I'm working on?' I would say, 'Yes! Would you like to teach other kids how to do this?'" she says. "I really want these classes to be student-driven, because I found that's most successful. They know what's trending, like puzzle boxes or what have you, but they also speak to each other in a language we cannot."

These classes led not only to lively gatherings and new friendships but also to connections with the school's special-needs students. For example, Lesher explains that students with severe autism are in a self-contained classroom, so "the Lego class was a perfect way for one of those students [who loves Legos] to be included in a mainstream class. …

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