Finding Friends, Learning Leadership

In this junior high library, everyone is accepted

October 18, 2017

Students gather in the library at Highland Junior High School in Mesa, Arizona. Librarian April Lesher’s efforts to create a bullying-free zone have helped students feel accepted in a safe learning environment.
Students gather in the library at Highland Junior High School in Mesa, Arizona. Librarian April Lesher’s efforts to create a bullying-free zone have helped students feel accepted in a safe learning environment.Photo: April Lesher

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 if 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. 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. It was great for the kids to see that student and know that he exists on campus because I think a lot of the self-contained kids are left out or just not seen.”

For that reason, the Friendship Project also encompasses a club called Best Buddies, which pairs together students who have a wide range of abilities. Once a month, participants meet for activities such as playing board games or creating holiday decorations. “It is staff-run, but we kind of step back and let the kids take the lead,” Lesher says. “Sometimes adults are timid about doing that, but if you allow the kids to lead, they will. They feel responsibility for one another in the same way that we feel responsible for students, and friendships organically grow out of that.”

Another group, Code Club, lets students create coding projects at a self-guided pace. Built into the process is the requirement to help others along the way. “We have showcases where the students give each other constructive feedback, so it becomes a think tank,” Lesher says. “They’ll point out glitches; they’ll be beta testers. The feeling isn’t, ‘I’m not going to create the best game.’ It’s ‘We’re all going to create really awesome games.’”

All of these initiatives have helped students like Caleb not only make connections of their own but also develop into people who actively help others connect. Lesher remembers that when she first noticed Caleb in the library, “he would come in with his headphones on and just kind of walk around and leave. You could tell he was looking for a place to fit, but he didn’t quite know how to do that. Pretty soon the library became his place, and he would always find a friend there.”

Then, she says, something even better happened: “There was this other student who would come in, and he wouldn’t even speak to me. I’d see him sitting in a corner; he just didn’t want to be at school at all. He spoke to no one. But Caleb would sit next to him, and then I’d see him laugh. I think that made my year.”