Giving students voice and choice is one of the leading trends in education these days. While the focus for the movement is usually on traditional classrooms, it presents many benefits for the school library. This is the third year I’ve worked with a Student Library Advisory Team at my school, and each year the structure and purpose of the club has continued to evolve and grow. Our plans don’t always run smoothly, but our library is a much better place for everyone in the building because of their efforts.
Bottom line: No matter how cool I think I am, I don’t always know what’s going to appeal to a bunch of thirteen-year-olds. Of course I always want student input on new titles and technology, but after a few initial programming flops, I knew I needed some expert advice from the students. What would entice them into the library? What would get them excited? Having a group of students to brainstorm ideas and give me honest feedback makes a huge difference (just remember, honesty from a middle schooler can be a bit painful at times). Student ownership of what’s happening in the library creates a different type of buzz than typical posters and bulletin boards. The kids on the Student Library Advisory Team become walking, talking hype-machines for their own ideas and generate more interest in the library than I could ever hope to do on my own. Last year, the students wanted to do an egg hunt in the library for our 3rd quarter reading celebrations. I thought middle school students would think the idea was too babyish, but they loved it, just like the Student Library Advisory Team assured me they would!
In its first year, the Student Library Advisory Team met during club time at the start of the school day. I had a handful of students who genuinely wanted to help, but a lot more who just didn’t get their first club choice. Needless to say, this didn’t produce the most impressive results. The following year, I created an online application with a Google form. Initially, I had a small response, but ended up with a dedicated group of students. The applications reopened at the beginning of the second semester and the group doubled in size. This year, I actively recruited new members during library orientation visits, inundated our school announcements with reminders, and plastered the school with posters. It was hard to escape reminders of where the application was located and when it was due. Almost 70 students applied (double the two previous years combined), and after some tough narrowing, the group now has 38 members. Getting both avid library users and non-users was a goal this year. I personally approached some of my less-enthusiastic students and asked them to apply. Only a few actually did, but so far their voices are proving very valuable. The banter between the users and non-users is helping our team find ideas that appeal to different groups of students and changing the way we promote events. We are exploring using more video advertisements and emphasizing the social aspect of the library because of their discussions.
The toughest part of making the Student Library Advisory Team work isn’t getting students to make consensus agreements or talk to administrators for approval of their plans. It’s finding a time to meet, especially this year with almost 40 members. Over 90% of our students depend on the buses for transportation; so meeting before or after school isn’t a viable option. We no longer have club time built into our schedule either. My principal allowed the whole group to meet once, but missing instructional time isn’t going to happen in the future. We’re trying to meet during lunches and have divided into focus groups that can more easily find a common time. The students are excited about the focus groups, which they decided on by completing a Google form. Since our school is 1:1 and using GAFE, I also set up a Google Classroom where we’re sharing ideas, projects, and providing feedback. This is helping, but we’re still searching for a way to get more face-to-face meeting time.
Results and the Future
The past two years have seen student helpers join the library, an increase in participation with our reading challenge, our book fair grow with improved advertising and decorations, and changes in policies like students being able to check out additional books before holiday breaks and adding summer library hours. These are direct results of the Student Library Advisory Team’s efforts. This year, the students want to bring in more author visits and beef up student-created content on the library website. And, they want to come up with a catchier name than Student Library Advisory Team! Giving these kids voice and choice is helping our library better serve everyone—and definitely making my job as a teacher librarian better.
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Author: Christine James
I am the Library and Media Services Specialist for Charleston County School District in South Carolina. Previously, I was the teacher librarian at Northwoods Middle School in North Charleston, South Carolina. When I’m not working with our district’s teacher librarians and advocating for our school libraries, I like to read on the beach, play with my puppies, and try new restaurants with my husband.