Where Do The Teens Go?

Where do the teens go? (saxophone solo) Where do the teens go?

I’ve long had a belief that service and programs in the public library, especially Youth Services (if you define Youth Services as 0-18), is a conveyor belt of sorts. We start with children in lapsit storytime, and our ultimate goal should be to create life-long library users who stay with us well into young adulthood.

I think that most public libraries do a pretty good job of getting kids from storytime to elementary programming, but start to lose those same kids during middle school. In my experience, middle school is rarely anyone’s favorite group or specialty. They’re hard to work with. They’re like toddlers, but bigger, and with more hormones. They’re trying on different personalities from day to day, and again, like toddlers, like to say no and push boundaries.

But you don’t have to (just) take my word for it!

The emergence of the middle school movement in the 1960s represented a milestone in the history of Human Development Discourse. This movement recognized that young adolescents are not simply older elementary school students nor younger high school students, but that there are dramatic changes that occur during this time of life requiring a radically different and unique approach to education. Middle school educators understood that the biological event of puberty fundamentally disrupts the relatively smooth development of the elementary school years and has a profound impact upon the cognitive, social, and emotional lives of young teens. In line with this important insight, they saw the need for the provision of special instructional, curricular, and administrative changes in the way that education takes place for kids in early adolescence. Among those changes were the establishment of a mentor relationship between teacher and student, the creation of small communities of learners, and the implementation of a flexible interdisciplinary curriculum that encourages active and personalized learning. (emphasis added)

I argue that middle school students require a unique approach to library programs, spaces, and services. Librarians for the middle school set can, and do, apply these same principles–a mentor relationship, small communities of learners, programming to appeal to interdisciplinary interests and encourage personalized learning.

Yet many libraries consider “Teen Services” 6th-12th grade, which is (in my opinion) a ridiculous age spread. A sixth grader has as much in common with a 12th grader as a baby does with a 5th grader. But so many libraries wonder why they are grappling with the question, “Where are the teens?” Can you imagine anyone being happy with your programs if you had lapsit lego time, or booktalked board books to a fourth grader? No! Then why do we do this disservice to our varied teen audiences?

But this approach doesn’t work for older teens who are in high school, which is where the 6th-12th “teen” melting pot really becomes sticky. 9th-12th graders are more firmly aware of who they are and what they want, and they have an increasing amount of autonomy.

By high school, youth are largely independent, making their own decisions about how to spend their time and exercising their increasing freedom. They are starting to think about what will come next for them postgraduation, and many have developed interests that they can pursue in youth programs. As a result, high school programs’ efforts to retain youth are different from those of middle school programs, as a provider acknowledged:

‘I think the high school programs are easy to run. I think a lot of times you have kids in a middle school program who may not want to be there, but it’s used as a form of afterschool day care by the parents who are working. I think once you get to the high school level, most of the participants really are motivated to be there, and they’re doing it because they want to—not because they have to.’ (emphasis added)

While librarian positions for early childhood have become more targeted–many libraries have a staff person in charge of early literacy programming, which is sometimes held by someone with a master’s in early childhood rather than an MLIS–and programs and materials for the elementary set have never been lacking, the expectation that one (or no!) teen librarian or a youth librarian who is interested in teens can adequately serve the entire population of sixth to twelfth graders in any one community is a bar set impossibly high.

(A lengthy aside, that perhaps deserves its own post: Serving audiences by age groupings is a popular model in libraries, and while it is a fine model, we must never forget that within any age group–from middle schoolers to senior citizens–there is a diverse range of interests and abilities, and when we program and develop collections, we need to hone in even further– twenty-something tech geeks are not interested in the same programs and resources as twenty-something organic backyard farmers. While age groupings can be a starting point, don’t forget to dig deeper.)

This also ties in to the discussion about where the Teen Librarian/staff should exist within the library ecosystem. In my experience, staff for teens are either part of Adult Services or Youth Services. (Although, sadly, sometimes there is no staff at all explicitly devoted to teen services, but just a children’s librarian or adult librarian with an interest in programming and/or literature for teens.) Both placement options have benefits and drawbacks.

I think in terms of collections, having teen books–and in this article, teen books are aimed at 9th grade and older–closer to the adult collection makes more sense. No self-respecting 16 year old wants to have to go into a children’s section for their reading material.

However, when it comes to programming, I believe that teen staff are better served by the programming know-how and collaborative nature of a youth department.

In my ideal and imaginary library, there would be the following full time positions, in terms of teams:

Middle School Team

  • Middle School Librarian (5th or 6th-8th, depending on where local middle schools put 5th grade; partners with Elementary staff for 5th grade)
  • Middle school outreach librarian (5th or 6th-8th grade, partners with Elementary staff for 5th grade)

High School Team

  • High School Librarian (9th-12th, but collaborates with Middle School staff for 7th/8th grades)
  • High School outreach librarian (9th to 12th, but again collaborates with Middle School Staff for 7th/8th grades)

Early Literacy Team

  • Early literacy librarian (0-3rd grade, partners with Elementary staff for 3rd grade, and with High School staff to provide services to teen moms/parents)
  • Early literacy outreach (0-3rd grade,partners with Elementary staff for 3rd grade, and with High School staff to provide services to teen moms/parents)

Elementary Team

  • Elementary librarian (3rd-5th, partners with both Early Literacy librarians for 3rd grade programming, and Elementary outreach librarian for 4th/5th)
  • Elementary outreach librarian (3rd-5th, again partners with both Early Literacy librarians for 3rd grade, and Elementary librarian for 4th/5th)

Further, the Adult Department would have a Young Adult librarian for 12th grade to early post college, and they’d collaborate with the High School Team.

Why does the Early Literacy team go up to third grade? Because early childhood is defined as such; when you are certified to teach Early Childhood, it goes up to 3rd grade/eight years old. Further, 3rd grade is typically a fraught time for emerging readers, and they can often use the support and skills provided by targeted early literacy programming.

I’ve lovingly collected several articles and posts for you about this very subject. Go forth, read, and learn.

3rd grade reading success matters

Grade level reading- 3rd grade

Early Warning: Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters

Early Warning Confirmed 

Middle School Students and Their Developmental Needs

Can’t Stop Talking Social Needs of Students in the Middle

Middle Schools Need to Focus on Caring and Connections

Developmentally Responsive Middle Grades Practices

Characteristics of Middle Grade Students

Developmental Differences Between Middle School and High School Programs – Engaging Older Youth: Program and City-Level Strategies

Are Middle School and High School Students Really That Different? Observations and Advice From MS/HS Teachers

Working with Middle and High School Friends: What Are the Developmental Differences?

Middle Schools: Social, Emotional, and Metacognitive Growth

CONNECT, CREATE, COLLABORATE: TEEN LIBRARIANS UNITE! THROW AWAY YOUR PICTURE BOOKS.

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2 thoughts on “Where Do The Teens Go?

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