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March 12, 2009

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After School in the Library Media Center

After School in the Library Media Center

For one afternoon every week our middle school library becomes a gamer’s paradise. Free snacks, loud music, Guitar Hero, and Dragonball Z: Budokai Tenkaichi.

We supply the snacks and the games, but the kids mostly run the program themselves, rotating players, switching games, settling their own disputes, even cleaning up after themselves. … OK, for the last part they need a little prodding from the grown-ups. They are, after all, middle schoolers.

But even though it’s very much about gaming and hanging out, there’s so much more to it than that. Gamers Club is one piece of a broad after-school program that helps us to serve our kids for more time and in more ways than the regular school day allows. It provides a space where we can meet kids in their own experience, on their own terms, and open up real conversations about what matters to all of us.

Our focus in the library is always on student success. Just recently I met with the school’s instructional coach to take a close look at some disaggregated data from last year’s standardized test results. She was able to show me specific curriculum objectives in targeted content areas where our students performed below district averages. With this information, we’re going to department chairs and individual teachers to discuss ways we can collaborate on lessons to address those specific shortfalls—and bring some AASL standards too.

But, as crucial as academics are, there are more facets to children’s lives. Children’s school experiences must include more than what can be done in the classroom. We want to be here for our kids whenever and in whatever way they need us. We can’t be with them at home; that’s not our place. But we use our website and our Blackboard site to make sure our services are available to them during the off hours. And the after-school program allows us to engage with them face-to-face for many additional hours each week.

Not only that, but our kids love it. Recently the head librarian from one of the high schools our students feed into told me some of our former students had been asking when they’re going to have after-school programs in their library because "we did in middle school."

A Fortunate Confluence of Forces

No doubt we are fortunate to be at the confluence of several forces.

Here in Fairfax county, nearly 70% of families have dual incomes or a single working parent. This holds true across demographic distinctions. A majority of our middle school children come home to empty houses at the end of the regular school day. These kids, roughly 11–15 years old, are hanging around with no grown-ups to keep an eye on them and—let’s face it—this is the age when they’re likely to start getting into real trouble.

So the county funds a program. It’s paid out separately from the school budget, a big part of which comes from the county too. But this is a grant that pays for each of the 26 middle schools in the county to have a full-time after-school program coordinator who runs academic, social, physical, and community programs for the kids. Our coordinator is Christine Lyons, a truly amazing veteran special ed math teacher who now administers more than 30 programs in addition to a slate of summer institutes that served more than 300 children last summer. The program also pays for late buses to take the children home. They provide snacks for the kids. They even pay participating teachers a stipend for our time.

It’s tough to make a direct correlation, but according to the county police, gang-related activity in Fairfax was down last year. In truth it was never very high to begin with—Fairfax is one of the most prosperous counties in the country—but it happens. And it doesn’t happen as much as it used to. The county credits the 3-year-old middle school program as a major factor.

So that’s the motivation behind funding the program. But we can do much better than to just keep kids distracted and under supervision for a couple of hours in the afternoon.

The Days of Our Week

Monday is meeting day for the staff—faculty meetings, department meetings, committee meetings, Leadership Council. Every Monday somebody is meeting. As a result, there are no late buses. We’re a suburban school located on a busy road in a commercial strip. Almost all of our children ride the bus. So even on the rare Monday when we don’t have a meeting, it’s just not practical to offer anything after school.

Tuesday is always academic day. That means anybody who stays after school, in the library or anywhere else, has to have something school-related to work on. If they’re struggling or behind in their work in a particular class, typically they’ll stay with a classroom teacher. For group work, projects, or research, or for kids who just want to get their homework out of the way, the library is the place to be. It’s quiet, spacious, and comfortable. There are plenty of computers and a friendly staff eager to help out.

Similarly, on alternate Fridays we host the Homework Party. In addition to Christine, there are outside tutors and a rotating cast of content area teachers who spend the afternoon with kids who are committed to putting in the extra time to catch up on their work. It’s not strictly a library function, but we’re happy that they meet here. They could just as well use the cafeteria or the multipurpose room. But the library is the place for collaboration and sharing, for open access to resources. It’s a neutral spot where everyone is welcome.

Wednesdays we give up most of our space to a tutoring program run in cooperation with Exxon Mobil, which sends a group, made up mostly of engineers from its local headquarters down the road, to work with 7th graders on math. We still have room for more kids beyond that and we let them do whatever they like, so long as they don’t disturb their classmates in the tutoring program. They work on homework, read, or sometimes just visit quietly with each other, huddled around a computer or sprawled out on the floor of the magazine section. They are tweens and young teens, after all. Socializing is OK sometimes.

It’s also an opportunity for students to put in community service hours required for their social studies classes. We have them reshelf books, clean whatever tables aren’t being used, straighten displays, and help prepare materials for bulletin boards.

But no doubt the centerpiece of the after-school program is the Thursday Gamers Club.

And Then There’s Thursday

On a typical Thursday, we have 35–40 kids, making it one of the most popular after-school activities. If we had more game systems and more grown-ups to supervise, we could have even more. There are about 100 kids who game with us over the course of the year. But not everybody can come every week. And we do try to keep part of the library open for reading and studying.

We set up two TVs with PlayStation 2s (PS2) and two more TVs with Wiis. We also set up one PS2 console on a data projector, displayed on a large wall screen with a booming PA, running either Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) or Guitar Hero II. This way even those kids who have the games at home get a better experience here, in addition to competing against school friends who might not be close enough to come by the house.

We’re up to about 15 games now and try to add a couple more each spring and fall. Next up will be Rock Band and Super Smash Bros. Brawl, both of which are great games for groups of kids to play with and against each other. I also let kids bring in their own games from home. I hesitated about it at first, thinking, "What if they bring a game that gets us into trouble?" But I figured one could scuttle any good idea with enough what-ifs. And if the point is engagement, why not let the kids participate in setting the agenda? Besides, there’s always going to be somebody who gets the coolest, newest game long before I will. And what do they want to do right away with it? Bring it in to show off to their friends.

I’ve never had to write anybody up. I’ve never asked someone to not come back. Every once in a while we have to ask them to stop chasing each other around, but that happens during the school day too. It just comes with the territory.

Another policy that keeps us focused is that kids can only come to Gamers Club if they have all A’s, B’s, and C’s on their most recent grade reports. We check them out in the student database just to make sure everybody’s being honest. Any D’s or F’s and we make them go to their core teachers and get signatures that it’s OK. Because Tuesday is academic day, everybody has a chance to work with a teacher. We’ve had a lot of kids whose grades occasionally flip-flop around the bubble, and they go to their teachers and work really hard to get their grades up so they can game.

I have mixed feelings about the policy. Some of the kids with the poorest grades are also the kids who would most benefit from having a supervised place to hang out in the afternoon.

Supporting the Mission

But we’re not doing social engineering, much as it might seem worthwhile. We’re doing learning. And if the administration comes to see that we’re not supporting that mission, they’re going to have a hard time standing up for us when the parents get antsy (which some of them do from time to time). As it is, our principal supports us, we have teachers who come by and play DDR or Wii Tennis with the kids, and our circulation numbers keep going up.

My next project is to analyze grades longitudinally—to look at kids who come to Gamers Club and how they do against the overall population. Who knows? It’ll be interesting to see. But I can say anecdotally that there have been many, many kids who have gone to work with teachers at lunchtime and after school to bring their grades up specifically because they couldn’t come back to Game Club until they did. With academic day on Tuesday, we can let kids know by that afternoon what they need to do if they want to game on Thursday. If somebody is really in a slump, we remind him or her that there’s always next week or the week after.

So now we have a new group of library kids. The library has become a place where more kids are comfortable hanging out. They see the librarians as genuine, warm people who express an interest in something they are passionate about, even if it isn’t necessarily books. Obviously there’s a big overlap between readers and gamers, but there are kids who come to the library now because they know it as a game hangout. And while they’re here, we’re talking with them about books and reading and grades.

According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 97% of boys aged 12–17 reported playing electronic games at least occasionally. For girls the number is 94%. Almost one-third of kids reported playing video games daily; 48% play games on their cell phones. This is a big part of our kids’ lives. Why would we tell them that their interests don’t matter to us? That’s just no way to build a constructive relationship.

The after-school program isn’t just about the library. At our schools, we’ve got indoor soccer, basketball, hip-hop dance, geography bee, theater, and Future Business Leaders of America, to name only a few. But by fully participating and grounding ourselves in the program, we make sure that we’re full partners in student success—and that we’ve got a little extra funding to help make it happen.

Bob Hassett is head librarian at Luther Jackson Middle School in Falls Church, Va. He can be reached at

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