A Frightening Conclusion
A long time ago, a parent gave me a copy of the quote above. His daughter was having some difficulties in my class. It was a simple but effective reminder that as an educator, my job is much more than to process the raw materials of students into the finished product of a capable test-taker. From that point forward, I have tried to keep each individual student at the forefront of whatever learning I was trying to guide. And I found that when I took the time to listen to my students, they blossomed.
As a librarian, my classroom is the entire school. And my class encompasses all of the students. So my ability to affect students’ education is vastly magnified. As is the importance of my efforts to give students the chance to be heard.
Make School a Destination, Not a Sentence
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of student voice in education. Supporting student voice bolsters students’ self-confidence. This is an important element in encouraging life-long learning. Supporting student voice also increases students’ engagement with school. When students feel like they are a part of their learning journey, rather than just audience members watching teachers, they are invested. They are part of the learning process, rather than visitors to the school building.
Imagine if every student wanted to come to school each day! Lots of educators would scoff at this notion. I actually lost a job when, during the interview with the building principal, I said I thought students can enjoy learning. But just picture what learning would look like if one of the measures of a successful school was how much students wanted to show up. I actually think we can achieve this goal. Doing so revolves around student voice. It has the added benefit of building students’ self-confidence.
Every educator should provide students with agency in their learning. But the school library is uniquely positioned within the school to offer students continuous opportunities to build student self-confidence and allow them to exercise their voice in a variety of ways. We should always recognize and encourage all students. In the current climate, it is more important than ever to remind marginalized students that they matter, and to build them up so others can’t tear them down.
Pleasure Reading = Student Voice
On the most basic level, letting students select the books they want to read is an exercise in student voice. They are able to find what works for them. They can put down a book they don’t like. Ideally, they have full agency in their library selections and reading journeys.
This is also a great way for students to build their self-confidence. Pleasure reading isn’t graded. Students can select the books that allow them to read successfully. When we can get out of their way and help prevent literacy shaming, this self-selected reading helps them identify themselves as readers. And while we know reading can improve empathy and moral development, it can also help them figure out their identity as humans. Reading can help students explore their areas of interest. So when we can support students’ whole selves by helping connect them with the reading they choose.
Being the Guide on the Side
Another great way for school librarians to help students exercise their voice is via their information search needs. By providing students with information literacy and digital citizenship skills, school librarians empower students to find the answers to the questions that matter to them.
Providing search instruction also boosts students’ self-confidence in the classroom. I have heard repeatedly from teachers across the curriculum how students’ faces light up when they are given a search task in class and the students are able to say, “Oh, I know exactly how to find that information! Let me show you how to use quotation marks to find just what you want!” Students love to be able to help their peers and teachers. We can provide them with the tools that can help bolster their skills, their knowledge, and their confidence.
Collection Development Assistants
I truly delight in getting purchase requests from students. If they’re asking for a book for the collection, they are saying they want to read. They are declaring their desire to utilize the library.
Is there a better way for students to exercise their voice than to help with the library’s collection development? Not only does this help ensure that the school library has materials students want to read; it also is incredibly empowering for students to be able to say, “That book is in the library because of me!”
The look of joy on a student’s face when they see that a book they requested is now part of the collection is priceless. Sure, they’re glad that there is a book they want to read now available to them. But even moreso, they are excited to know that their request was taken seriously.
On the occasions when I haven’t been able to add a requested title, I have a conversation with the student. I explain what the issue is that’s preventing me from adding the item. And I try to find some options for them that will fulfill their call for material. Sometimes that’s by finding them an alternate borrowing option, like letting them know our public library has that title. Other times it’s by finding them a different item that is similar to what they asked for.
But whether or not I am able to physically put the requested item in a student’s hands, I have always gotten a “thank you” from the students. They see that I am listening to them. They see that I’m working on their behalf. So they know I regard them as worth the time and effort it takes to track down answers for them.
“Out of the Mouths of Babes Oft Times Come Gems”
As the incredible young reader and activist Marley Diaz said, “”Kids should be able to be the main characters in their own lives. We want them to know that who they are matters.”
We often hear folks talking about how children are the future leaders of our world. But helping them build the confidence and understanding necessary for leadership should start with the adults in their lives recognizing that kids have a right to be listened to.
Educators often spend more time with students than even their own parents. So it is imperative that educators think carefully about how we can treat students as people who deserve to be heard. We can model how to give positive attention and how to truly listen and engage with others.
When we empower students by giving them the space and recognition they deserve, we help them grow. When we invite them to be an active participant in their education, we show them that they are valued, and that their ideas matter.
We can help students build self-confidence by listening to them. It’s that simple. And the school library may be the best place in school to offer students that open ear and ready support of whatever they choose to pursue.
Author: Steve Tetreault
After 24 years as a classroom English Language Arts teacher, Steve became a school librarian in January 2022. He has earned an M.Ed. (2006) and an Ed.D. (2014) in Educational Administration and Supervision, and completed an M.I. degree in Library and Information Science (2019). He is certified as a teacher, school library media specialist, supervisor, and administrator. He is an old dog constantly learning new tricks!