Elevating Student Voice in the School Library Program
Elevating student voice in a school library may seem unusual to anyone who imagines a library only as a quiet sanctuary.
Today’s school libraries bustle with activity and are the hub and heart of the school community. A professionally staffed and funded school library has a direct impact on student academic performance and social and emotional growth.
A visit to the school library provides students with one of their first opportunities to independently structure their time by exploring what makes them curious. Whether browsing the stacks for a book, taking on the responsibility of checking out and bringing a book home, choosing a topic for a research project, or participating in a library program, students who have access to a library at school can explore their interests and develop skills that create a passion for lifelong learning.
School libraries that incorporate Responsive Classroom methods into the library program provide ample opportunities to cultivate and elevate student voice at school.
Promoting the Joy of Reading
Schools with strong library programs provide a multitude of options for choice, allowing students to choose from fiction and nonfiction books, graphic novels, magazines, and other reading materials of interest to students. Self-selection and choice are key elements of a student’s library visit, and access to quality books can create a lifelong passion for libraries and reading. A well-stocked school library provides age-appropriate books at all reading levels in a variety of formats and subject areas.
With guidance from school library professionals, students are invited to explore curated books on a theme or to browse the library collection. Librarians carefully choose books that will capture student engagement, and students have the option to explore what truly sparks their interest.
This guidance might include instruction about navigating the library space and discovering different types of literature and reading genres, and typically provides an opportunity to freely browse through the library’s bookshelves. Students often have highly impacted schedules both at school and at home, and library visits can include time to engage in silent sustained reading. Allowing children to independently read without distraction gives them the time and space to engage in deep reading.
Some ideas for elevating student voice and choice in the library’s reading program include the following:
Engage primary school students in library lessons by inviting them to participate in story selection. Each week invite a new student to reach into the “story bag” filled with small objects such as a plane, a dog, or a bear (novelty erasers work well for this). The librarian will then choose a story for their next library visit based on the item the student has pulled out. Students look forward to having their chance to choose, and they will eagerly anticipate the new book and lesson.
Summer Reading Bingo
Create a Summer Reading Bingo. Ask students to pick a topic that they would like to read about and add to their personal bingo card, such as a book that teaches you something or a book about a famous person. Students will be enthusiastic about having a say on the card’s contents, which can encourage higher completion rates as students try to fill in their card. These cards can also spark conversation, as the young readers compare what they chose for their squares and discuss a wide variety of books. A modification of this program could include inviting students to vote on the content of the bingo card squares each year.
Middle School Book Club
In Viewpoint School’s middle school, our librarians have experimented with a variety of ways to engage students, including book clubs, reading incentive programs, author visits, and contests. The library has had several successful book club meetings this school year by offering students the option to vote on the genre they would like to read. Using Google Forms, the librarians ask students for their input on what genre they are interested in reading and gather RSVPs from them to set up meetings. These events are calendared, leaving plenty of reading time to help increase attendance and engagement.
Developing the Library’s Collection
Equitable access to reading material is a key component of a successful school library program. Librarians can elevate student voices by seeking student input to ensure that the collection is lively, inclusive, and visible.
Many school libraries have shifted from arranging fiction by author’s last name to genre with the intent of sparking student reading interest. With this in mind, librarians may want to consider inviting students to provide their feedback on which genre sections they prefer in the library’s collection. By offering students the chance to vote on their favorite sections, the library will best represent what students want to see, access, and read.
At Viewpoint School, we use Google Forms to gather feedback about our book and magazine collections in our middle and upper school libraries. This year, we surveyed students about their favorite genres to better inform our book selection and collection growth areas, and asked students to vote on their magazine choices to ensure that these offerings are student centered.
Many school libraries offer physical space to display books and other items, which helps to pique student choice and discovery. To help elevate the voices of upper school students, consider asking them to participate in curating or helping set up library displays around a theme. Another option to consider is giving student collectors the opportunity to showcase a special personal collection of items or to help create displays that reflect their family heritage and cultural background.
Academic Choice and Classroom-Library Collaborations
Academic Choice, a key Responsive Classroom concept, allows students to plan, choose, and navigate their learning path. Students who have a choice in their learning engage more deeply in their work and are excited to share what they have discovered.
Academic Choice and library-classroom collaborations are natural partners. A well-designed project includes teaching students how to structure their research path through topic choice, lessons on finding resources to support their research, and instruction on synthesizing their findings into a final product or presentation. Presenting projects allows students to elevate their voice by sharing their process and teaching their peers.
At Viewpoint School, our lower and middle school students are provided with several key opportunities for choice and voice in their learning. Here are three examples:
Science and Engineering Expo
Viewpoint School’s Fourth Grade Science Expo is the culmination of an extensive unit on designing engineering projects to solve real-world problems. Students dream up an invention, bring in materials, and build their invention in the science classroom. In language arts, the students write about the process of developing their invention, using the library’s book collection on engineering, crafting, gardening, and building to support their research. The library also provides online resources on inventors and inventions.
Fifth Grade Business Sale
Viewpoint School’s Fifth Grade Business Sale introduces students to the concept that they can be creative entrepreneurs and contribute to the community. Students are invited to design and create their own products, such as toys, keychains, jewelry, or baked goods. They then sell these items at a festive event held over several days that is open to the whole school community. The library’s collection includes many craft and activity books to inspire the students, and the librarians assist the students in finding resources to support their creations. The sale culminates with students choosing a charity that will receive the sale’s proceeds.
Eighth Grade Mini-Documentary Project
Eighth grade English students at Viewpoint develop and present documentary films intended to create meaningful change within the middle school. Students pitch topics, research using the library’s online resources, conduct interviews, study persuasion techniques, write scripts, gather footage, and then create and edit their documentaries. The films are then shown to their classmates with the goal of convincing them to change the way they think or act about a topic. Examples of topics include the impact of social media on teens, healthy eating, and the importance of reducing waste through recycling programs.
Elevating Student Voice: Gathering Student Feedback
To best discover what it is like to be a student in our libraries and classrooms, we can elevate student voice by asking for their feedback. When we seek feedback and implement student suggestions, we demonstrate that we value their insight, and they in turn feel pride and ownership in the classroom and the school’s communal spaces.
Librarians can assess the effectiveness of their library program and instruction throughout the school year. Using feedback forms after major research projects, book fairs, and other programs gives library patrons an opportunity to reflect on their experience and to provide valuable suggestions for the future. At Viewpoint School, we have asked for student feedback on our busy free periods, gathering votes from our middle and upper school students on whether they prefer quiet study or if they would like the library to allow for quiet talking and group study. Colleagues at other schools have asked students to help make decisions about renovating and furnishing a new library space. Students were given choices of different chairs and stools and were invited to a “sit test,” and a form with images of furniture choices was created to gather student feedback. Getting students’ feedback on the renovation also provided an opportunity to chat with the students about library usage in general.
Creating student library advisory boards and student volunteer programs can be productive and positive ways to increase student voice and engagement with the library. Asking students to design and support library services can ensure that the spaces, programs, and policies are student centered.
Creating Community by Elevating Student Voice
Building a positive community, one of the four domains of Responsive Classroom, includes providing a “safe, predictable, joyful, and inclusive environment where all students have a sense of belonging and significance.” School libraries serve as incubators for students who are developing their voices on campus. Through the provision of academic and recreational resources and collaborative and instructional programming, librarians elevate student voices by inviting students to fully participate in creating a true communal space that they can call their own.
Sarah Davis, MLS, is the director of libraries at Viewpoint School, an independent school in Calabasas, California. She has worked in independent school libraries for over twenty-five years, and she currently serves on the board of the Southern California Librarians of Independent Schools (SoCaLIS). She is also a member at large on the board of the Association of Independent School Librarians.