One of the first lessons I had as a pre-service teacher at UGA was the importance of having a student-centered classroom, of creating a space for students to explore their own expertise in matters. Instead of being the “sage on the stage,” we were to focus on becoming the “guide on the side.” The more I practiced this in my classroom, the better connected my students became to the material, and the more seriously they took assignments. My relationships with the kids became stronger because they knew I respected them and valued their ideas. Ultimately, however, the ownership was mine.
This philosophy initially transferred over into my librarianship. I would ask kids what books they wanted to read and asked their advice on some smaller pieces, but for the most part, I made the decisions about the programs and the collection. Working unilaterally was relatively successful, but lacked their buy-in. It could have been so much more.
It wasn’t until this year, at my new position, that I began intentionally diving in with students. What books do you want in the library? What clubs do you want to see? What programs appeal to you? In my new space, there’s always an iPad to scan a QR code that links to a Microsoft Form for kids to input their suggestions, recommendations, and feedback. When I place orders based on student recommendations, I always check the materials out to the student recommender FIRST, so they are aware of the impact their suggestions make. The smiles and book shimmies are priceless.
When the demand for manga hit a fever pitch, I took a cue from Andy Plemmons (Barrow Elementary, Athens, GA), and asked our Fandom Club (the result of another student recommendation) to gather feedback and submit an initial $600 middle-school appropriate manga order. They took the responsibility very seriously. They pored over the New York Public Library manga list recommendations for middle school as well as other resources to narrow an initial list down, then held fierce debate about whether to purchase an entire series or to purchase the first few volumes of several series. Once the books hit Destiny, the first checkouts will be held via a drawing, according to this group.
Many of my library advisory members are in the space every day, but I have a formal meeting with them the first Friday of each month to report how we’ve been taking action on the items they see as most important. I check in to see how else the library could be serving them better. When we noted a problem with some behaviors in the morning bustle, they came up with a solution that was amenable to both quieter kids as well as the more social patrons. When we needed promotional materials, they wrote, cast, costumed, and filmed announcements that were so much cooler than I could have created on my own.
Giving up the benevolent dictatorship wasn’t comfortable, but the relationships gained in collaborating with the students we serve allows for a greater outcome than I could have imagined. There’s a buzz in the library. Our students are energized, seeing their ideas come to fruition. This IS their library, and it shows.