Student Choice & Voice
Fostering the Power of Choice and Voice
by Barbara K. Stripling
Young people who engage with the world from an "inquiry stance" are motivated to ask questions and make choices based on their own sense of wonder and their own interests, personal identities, and strengths. Librarians have the honor (and responsibility) of empowering students to adopt an inquiry stance. We tantalize them with possibilities; we honor their choices; we teach them the enabling skills and attitudes of inquiry; and we provide opportunities for them to find their voice and use it.
Perhaps the first step in helping students develop an inquiry stance is to provoke their thinking about who they are and what they like. Even the youngest students enjoy creating self-portraits that include the many facets of their identities (e.g., hobbies, family traditions, favorite books). Older students learn a lot about themselves by reflecting on their life as a reader—"What three books have meant the most to you and why?" I remember how enlightening it was for me as an adult to identify the three books that had had the most impact on my life. I realized that a book I had read as a high school senior had propelled me into a lifetime of learning about the Holocaust and World War II.
Enabling Student Choices: Choice Boards
Students make choices about what they want to read and do based on their own identities and interests. An effective strategy for presenting students with choices in their learning is creating a choice board. A choice board is essentially a grid of curated resources and activities organized around a theme or topic. The boxes usually have embedded links to take students to the actual resources and activities. Students are invited to make choices among tantalizing options that they would not have discovered on their own. Joyce Valenza, in her Neverending Search column for School Library Journal on January 16, 2021, captured the power of choice boards: "In a world where they may feel powerless, choice boards allow learners agency, voice and a degree of autonomy" (https://blogs.slj.com/neverendingsearch/2021/01/16/choosing-choice-boards/).
I would agree with Joyce's assessment that the "queen of school library choice boards" is Shannon Miller. Shannon regularly creates choice boards to motivate and engage her students in learning opportunities, either for their schoolwork or their own interests. She generously shares and invites her colleagues to use or adapt her work for their own schools through her Choice Board Gallery at https://padlet.com/shannonmmiller/choiceboards.
Enabling Student Choices: Readers' Advisory
Young people who have adopted an inquiry stance are motivated to read on their own, but they want to be able to choose what they read. Librarians play a major role in bringing out the reader in every child by establishing a culture where students' choices for reading are valued. Every time a child walks into a library and says, "I'm a 'G.' Can you find me a 'G' book to read?" or "I am not allowed to count graphic novels toward my reading goals because my teacher says that's not really reading," the motivation to read is dented, if not destroyed. English teacher Steve Tetreault, in his article, "End Literacy Shaming," puts his finger on the unconscious tendency of many educators, including librarians, to value some types of reading over others and to communicate those values to students. Personally, I know it took me many years to get over feeling guilty for gorging on mysteries and refusing to read science fiction. I have also had to wrestle with my own prejudice against comic books in order to recognize and celebrate the value of graphic novels.
One strategy for helping students choose just-right books is a reading interest survey. In her article, "Book Match: Matching Books to Students through a Reading Interest Survey," Jennifer Bromann-Bender suggests using such a survey to match students with books that align with their interests. Although very time-consuming on the part of the librarian, the matching process personalizes the reading experience for her students and motivates them to think about their own interests and preferences when choosing books to read. Less personalized, but more efficient, methods of enabling students to make wise choices about their independent reading are to curate resources around themes, genres, topics, or special events and provide access through both physical and virtual venues (from library displays and book bins to LibGuides and online booklists). Curated collections around themes and topics are especially important for connecting students to eBooks they might enjoy (one commercial example is Sora Sweet Reads from OverDrive). Librarians can teach students to search valuable tools like NoveList and TeachingBooks.net to find their own matches.
Enabling Student Choices: Guiding Explorations
With the emphasis on technology during the pandemic, families and educators alike have grown increasingly comfortable with using technology to learn. Although everyone is probably burned out on structured teaching and learning through Zoom, Schoology, or Google Classroom, the freedom to explore the world through technology is still intriguing and highly motivating. Librarians can provide portals to these discovery experiences, even virtual summer camps offered by museums and other nonprofit organizations or by corporations like Google. I have provided a starter list for you here, although—fair warning!—one list leads to another and it is hard to stop diving into them. After perusing the lists, librarians can make final selections and feature those explorations that would be most appealing to their specific community.
One effective approach to enabling students to explore is creating a HyperDoc. The concept of HyperDocs was created a few years ago by three educators—Lisa Highfill, Kelly Hilton, and Sarah Landis—who wanted a way to engage students in the process of learning and discovery. HyperDocs are interactive lesson plans that lead students through activities and resources (with embedded links) that will enable them to control (and enjoy) their own process of learning. The HyperDocs site (https://www.hyperdocs.co/) provides a five-step process for designing a HyperDoc and dozens of lessons for elementary through high school, freely available for use or adaptation. Some librarians are using HyperDocs to guide students through inquiry projects in all content areas. I propose that librarians also consider creating HyperDocs in areas outside of the established curriculum and school day, a great way to enable students to explore on their own.
Enabling Student Voice: Fostering Independent Reading, Writing, and Creating
Just as enabling students to make choices is a building block of an inquiry stance, so is enabling young people to find and use their voices to express their new ideas and insights. Helping students share their voices gives them self-confidence that what they say matters; it motivates them to continue learning.
The array of opportunities for young people to publish their work has multiplied almost exponentially in recent years. The New York Times Learning Network has curated a list of "70-Plus Places to Publish Teenage Writing and Art" that librarians can use to begin investigating the venues that teachers can consider for their classes and those that students can pursue on their own (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/15/learning/out-of-the-classroom-and-into-the-world-70-plus-places-to-publish-teenage-writing-and-art.html). The New York Times Learning Network is further igniting independent reading and writing through its "12th Annual Summer Reading Contest," a contest (running from June 11-August 19, 2021 at https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/15/learning/our-12th-annual-summer-reading-contest.html) that invites middle and high school students to write about what they are reading in the Times and why they chose it. By guiding students to credible sites for their creative work, librarians motivate students to recognize the value of their own thinking and creativity and seek opportunities to be published.
Digital media present further possibilities for students to express themselves. Students can write and create videos both within and outside of the school environment. Ron Peck offers tips for three types of videos that are fairly easy to teach students (Animoto, Common Craft, Choose Your Own Adventure) in his Edutopia article "Lights, Camera…Engagement!" (https://www.edutopia.org/blog/using-video-in-classroom-ron-peck). By teaching students how to create high-quality videos, librarians and teachers can perhaps counter the social pressure that teens and pre-teens may feel to put all their energy into making mindless TikTok videos. Podcasts provide another format for student voice that can be used effectively across the grade levels.
Enabling Student Voice: Guiding Students to Take Actions that Make a Difference
Perhaps the pinnacle of student voice is when students have engaged in inquiry about an issue, committed to sharing their insights with others, and developed the agency and self-confidence to take action in order to make a difference at the local, regional, or even national/international level. Librarians have a responsibility to teach students how to connect to the world around them, gather and consider credible evidence surrounding authentic situations, and form opinions and make decisions about how to address those situations.
Ideally, librarians empower students to move to the next step—taking action themselves to make a difference for others. Student activism can take many forms, from simply making presentations to increase awareness about an issue to actively advocating for changes in society. Kristina Holzweiss and Gina Seymour provide both the rationale and an effective approach for librarians to build on the library's making culture and prepare students to assume an activist role in their communities and beyond in their article "Community Action and the Student Maker."
Increasingly, national and international organizations are responding to young people's desires to get involved in their communities. UNICEF has created a digital community, Voices of Youth, to help young people get inspired, share, act, and react on important societal issues (https://www.voicesofyouth.org/). The U.S. government-sponsored Youth Engaged 4 Change has a stated mission of "empowering you to improve your life and the world around you" and takes on important issues like mental health, homelessness, education, and juvenile justice (https://engage.youth.gov/). For those librarians whose students are highly engaged in the societal issues of discrimination, bias, racism, and injustice, the Anti-Defamation League offers "10 Ways Youth Can Engage in Activism," which range from educating others and writing letters to more actively engaging in community service and participating in protests (https://www.adl.org/education/resources/tools-and-strategies/10-ways-youth-can-engage-in-activism).
In all areas of student activism, librarians must be guided by the principles of our profession—to provide access to high-quality information appropriate for the community being served. In the student activism realm, perhaps more than in any other aspect of library services, the librarian must provide access to authoritative information from multiple perspectives without biasing the selection with personal passions and motivations.
Fostering the Power of Choice and Voice
From my first moment as an educator, I have thought about the power of choice and voice in establishing a culture of learning that is student-centered and focused on building independent learners and inquirers. Librarians can tap into these two concepts to design a library program that leads young people to adopting an inquiry stance on the world and taking action to make the world better.