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Student-centered learning lessons from the Future Ready Library Summit

As students return to the classroom, school librarians understand the importance of student-centered learning and social-emotional support
By Britten Follett
September 14th, 2021

As students return to the classroom, school librarians understand the importance of student-centered learning and social-emotional support

As students across the country began heading back to classrooms, a couple hundred library leaders participated in one of this summer’s Future Ready Library Summits. The guiding principle driving the agenda of this professional development opportunity for librarians was simple: students–or rather, student-centered learning. 

During the Summit, we reflected on the fact that in some cases, the students who will be returning to the classroom haven’t been in a formal school setting in a year and a half.  They are returning to the classroom, changed in many ways.  First graders may be walking into school having spent kindergarten on Zoom.  Freshmen may be entering high school after spending eighth grade being home schooled by a parent. 

As every librarian in the virtual audience was challenged to be empathetic to the challenges the return to school may bring for some students, each was also encouraged to acknowledge the progress the pandemic forced upon us. Today, students readily access digital resources. They understand the norms associated with virtual group discussion. Teachers are more comfortable delivering differentiated instruction through multiple channels.  After a year and a half of turmoil, we’ve made progress that should be celebrated.

After the Summit, I spoke with two education thought leaders and library advocates, Mark Ray, previously of Vancouver Public Schools, and Shannon McClintock Miller of Van Meter Community School in Iowa. Ray and Miller hosted and participated in the Summit, so I asked them to share their thoughts and takeaways, knowing that educators everywhere could benefit from the adult and student speakers as well as the group discussions.

Both Ray and Miller agreed the pandemic has created a unique opportunity to further empower students as creators. Ray, a staunch advocate of giving students a voice, said, Since the idea of students as creators is already part of the Future Ready Librarians Framework, it validated both the framework itself and confirmed that student creation and creativity are key to a student-centered learning environment.”

Miller agreed. “One of the biggest things I took away from the Summit – and throughout these past 18 months – is how very essential relationships, compassion, and empathy are to the success of our roles as librarians and educators,” she said. “It’s core to everything we do. And to truly hear the voices of our students, we need to put ourselves in their shoes every single day.

We need to find ways to engage with our students and engage with our families to make sure we are supporting their needs, too. As Future Ready Librarians, we have so many opportunities to engage with our students throughout the school community, making our role important and essential. The relationships we have with our students can make such a difference in their lives.”

Both were asked to share ways educators can examine the diverse needs and hopes of students as they look forward to the school year. Miller and Ray had great suggestions and strategies that reflected discussions at the Summit.

“There was an acknowledgment that ‘business as usual’ might not look the same,” Ray said. “We posed this question to our breakout room and heard words such as ‘stability,’ ‘quiet,’ and ‘structure.’ I mused that for those like me who enjoy busy, active, and bustling library spaces, we may need to accommodate those learners who look forward to something more stable and orderly than the learning environments in their homes.”

Miller reiterated the importance of relationships in everything educators do this fall. “This gets back to knowing your students and their families. Listen, ask questions, look for the ‘little things’ they need. Find opportunities to get to know them even better, such as:

  • collaborating and co-teaching with classroom teachers;
  • offering before and after time in the library;
  • hosting a variety of different book clubs and listening to the needs and wants of students;
  • getting them involved in collection development and the physical space within the library; and
  • offering clubs such as Girls Who Code and game, LEGO, science/STEAM club, knitting club, and RC car clubs.”

McClintock went on to share some specifics on how she works on relationship building at her school. “I do an annual interest survey to all her K-12 students when school starts to get them involved in our library and the programming from the very start,” she said. “I ask them about what books they want, what types of clubs or events they want, the hours (before and after school), what technology and STEAM materials they want to see in the library, and even things like virtual events. I ask about who and places they might want to have visit and I get answers such as national parks, authors and illustrators, and musicians. I also do this with our teachers because I want them to be heard within the library.

Bottom line, the motto of our library is ‘The Library Voice’–a place to be heard through creating, technology, connecting, reading, collaborating, and noise.”

The importance of social-emotional learning was also discussed at the Summit. “Along these lines, that another key idea that emerged was the need for safe and trusted adults in students’ lives,” said Ray. “During the pandemic, students were disconnected from friends, adults, and programs they rely on. Many students look forward to getting back those supports far more than they look forward to cracking the textbooks again.”

One of the key topics of discussion was educators’ top concerns as school resumes. When I asked Ray and Miller about this topic, the discussion once again turned to SEL.

Social and emotional learning remains top of mind for educators, and rightfully so,” Ray said.   “If there is one silver lining to the school closures last year, it was a long-overdue recognition that SEL has been and will continue to be mission-critical for schools and educators. I’m optimistic that lessons have been learned about understanding and addressing student needs in this area and that for librarians and other educators, the social and emotional side of learning will be recognized as essential enabling conditions for student academic and social growth.”

Miller shared the same sentiment, and said, “I think the main thing teachers want as school resumes is the feeling of normalcy and routine. They want to make sure their students are okay and have what they need, and for them to know they are safe.”

While this information is useful, what’s the the bottom line about making sure student voices are acknowledged? What is essential, I asked our thought leaders? They both had applicable points from which every educator can benefit.

“I can’t say it often enough: Find out what students are passionate about and how you can turn that into ways to engage them and inspire them to find their voice,” Miller said. “Trust me, they all have that within, just waiting to be heard.” Miller is hosting a webinar on this topic in September, called “Giving Students Voice and Choice with Collections, Choice Boards, and More” during which she will share strategies and resources educators can use. Registration is now open.

Ray pointed out that sometimes getting at the true student voice might not be simple, but it takes a bit of reaching beyond the obvious. “In our breakout sessions, there was an important reminder that student voice is not always heard out loud,” Ray said. “As we reach out and listen to students, there needs to be different modes and channels. All students can give adults feedback and input, but not all students will share those ideas out loud or when they are asked directly. Offering a variety of avenues for students to share and communicate their interests, needs, and desires helps ensure that all voices have an opportunity to be heard.”

A highlight of the day was the discussion from two young students, Olivia and Charlotte. As Ray shared, these girls reminded Summit attendees of what all students need, not just the confident ones who already use their voices creatively.

“The students modeled creativity and confidence,” Ray said. “These are learned and practiced skills and habits of mind. It is not enough for educators to simply say ‘go be creative,’ particularly in schools where creativity has been stifled. Building confidence and fostering creativity should be a daily part of the learning day, not just something that students do for a final project or during art class. Olivia and Charlotte are wonderful young people who have enjoyed support and opportunities that have enabled their voice and agency to flourish.

The challenge now is … how can we offer those opportunities to all students?”

About the Author:

Britten Follett

A fifth-generation family member, Britten Follett is Executive Vice President of Follett School Solutions, which has long been the No. 1 provider of content and technology solutions to school libraries at more than 70,000 schools and school districts. She has led Follett’s PreK-12 business since September 2019 and is responsible for providing leadership, strategic direction, and business development. In September 2020, Publishers Weekly named her a “PW Star Watch” honoree, one of 40 professionals singled out from the North American publishing industry.