Creating a space that is judgment-free has always been high on my list of ways to make a library welcoming, comfortable, and safe. When I was a child, I visited the public library daily after school and inhaled the smells, the silence, and all that was represented in the space—knowledge, freedom, and predictability. I knew I wanted this at my high school library as well. Social emotional learning (SEL) and the five core competencies are vital to the environment I strive for.
My approach to SEL teaching was initially inspired by Parker Palmer, author of The Courage to Teach (Jossey-Bass, 1998) and founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal, where I took several courses. The center’s founding mission is to help teachers connect “soul to role” and kindle the passion to teach the whole child. I’ve also followed the work of educator and author Rachael Kessler, who focuses on SEL, cultural responsiveness, and inclusiveness while teaching. Social psychologist Daniel Goleman’s concept of emotional intelligence and a caring classroom has also shaped my thinking, as have educator/authors Brené Brown and Angela Maiers.
Addressing mental health
My educational goal for student learning is to explore empathy and how it relates to mental health stigma, interwoven with art therapy research. Using a grant from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners LSTA (Library Services and Technology Act) for 2015–16, I collaborated with the Westborough Public Library and the Westborough Youth and Family Services to create programs promoting social-emotional wellness. We created curricula for a ninth grade health class and the senior Psychology in Literature class. A collaboration with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) resulted in a whole-school program focused on developing empathy for people with mental health conditions, and NAMI representatives visited the Psychology in Literature group. Other programming included Yoga, Mindfulness, and a Poets-in-Residence program.
I’ve also completed NAMI Basics, a six-week course on the challenges of children or adolescents with mental health conditions, and received certification in Youth Mental Health First Aid after participating in an eight-hour course that provided a five-step action plan for helping youth in crisis and noncrisis situations. In the library, I use this knowledge to be alert to students who may need support from our guidance department. (I’ll co-present on how libraries can help improve students’ mental health at our state school and public library conferences in May).
This year, we piloted a strong bibliotherapy program with school behavior health professionals. Our program is a therapeutic approach to using literature to support mental health. We include the adjustment counselor, the behavior health counselors, and the psychologists. We currently have two approaches. In the first, the colleague working with the student will inform me of the student and the issue, and I will suggest a relevant book. The student reads independently and checks in with either the counselor or myself. In the second, I suggest books, and students make an appointment to meet with me, allowing them to build a relationship with the library and librarian. The administration supports my vision of the library as a space for wellness and safety given my training in mental health.
We’ve noticed several outcomes since starting bibliotherapy.
• Students are open to bibliotherapy as a way to engage with their emotions.
• They talk to the librarian about how these books help them.
• They look forward to the meetings with the librarian as a way to find a moment of quiet reflection and to create a personal connection with a trusted adult in a safe space.
• Students say that they view the library as a peaceful, fun, healthy place that is focused on their needs.
Six Ways To Try SEL at
• Create material displays that demonstrate awareness, cultural diversity, and student voice (materials developed by students and/or with student input).
• Facilitate school-wide events that promote: literacy through diversity, breaking stigma, and student voice.
• Write grants to bring in SEL-related programs: yoga, reflective writing, slam poetry, community art, and forums.
• Collaborate with community organizations including the public library, mental health providers, and family-service organizations.
• Collaborate with the school’s counseling department and others to design programming with SEL elements.
• Partner with the special education department on individualized and differentiated instruction, assistive technology, and literacy.
More SEL library programs
Our Teen Advisory Board, a joint club with the public library, is planning a prom dress drive to help provide an outfit to every girl in the community who wants to attend the prom but may not have the financial means. The group is also working on a photojournalism project to spread kindness and awareness about community residents.
We run book clubs with the GSA (Gender Sexuality Alliance)/LGBTQ, grief counseling, divorce, and new student groups.
v With other educators in my school, I participate in training sessions and a book discussion on DBT Skills (Dialectical Behavior Therapy), including strategies for mindfulness and distress tolerance (coping skills for long- or short-term pain, in this case emotional).
Last year I purchased an oversized coloring sheet for a de-stressing library coloring project during finals. It’s now on display, and I also always have additional coloring projects out for students and teachers.
I collaborate with teachers using Guided Inquiry Design, a framework for inquiry-based learning that allows space for students to reflect on their learning habits and attitudes.
SLJ 2016 School Librarian of the Year finalist Anita Cellucci is a library teacher at Westborough (MA) High School.