The bell just rang for the start of school at Dartmouth (MA) Middle School, and I’m still taking off my coat. Fifty to 60 students are about to flood into the library to print schoolwork, look for books, hang out, and play computer games for 15 minutes before the Pledge of Allegiance signals the start of homeroom.
No worries. The lights and computers are on and the circulation desk computer is ready to go, thanks to the Leconte sisters, student volunteers who let themselves in each morning. Reilly, in eighth grade, and Reese, in sixth, check out books until they head off to their lockers. Then, eighth grader Normandy takes over while I circulate the library assisting students.
On an average day, at least ten students help me run the library. Altogether, over 40 seventh and eighth-grade students work there each year. I couldn’t do it without them.
Why have student library volunteers?
Having student library volunteers frees me up to do more collaboration with teachers, one-on-one instruction at students’ point of need, and reader’s advisory. Like many school librarians. I operate a busy program with no paid assistance. While parent volunteers have always been a part of it, I was excited to start the school’s first student volunteer initiative when I started here six years ago. Since I’ve given students the responsibility to help plan and create displays and programs, the initiative has taken off. It’s now a hotly demanded leadership position.
How it works
Seventh and eighth grade students are eligible to be library assistants, positions that I promote during my sixth grade Library Skills class. Promotion is really unnecessary, though, since I probably get asked five times a week how to become a library assistant! The most common suggestion on my Padlet wall this year was to let sixth graders help in the library. I have enough volunteers at the moment, and I love knowing all my volunteers from their year in my class.
My middle school students crave responsibility and love doing authentic work. Every class period is busy. When library assistants aren’t working the circulation desk, they’re straightening books, running errands, and doing special projects like helping me delete weeded books, relabel my reorganized biography section, or set up a book buffet for an incoming class.
Most students volunteer during free periods, but those with no room in their schedule volunteer before or after school. I treat the students like real employees and stress that this is a real job. I require that students be in good academic standing, and I check in with teachers at least twice a year. Occasionally, I’ve asked students to take a break until their grades have improved, and I’ve had to “fire” two students for various reasons. If I have a group of students in a class period, I often save big projects for them to complete together such as moving books, relabeling, or playing with new apps for the iPads.
Get administrator approval
I’m lucky to work in a place with lots of support from my building administrators. Still, launching my volunteer program was not without its challenges. Proposing a change in student scheduling, which I had to do that first year, can be a tough argument. Make your case to administrators and guidance counselors (often in charge of scheduling) that your initiative will benefit the whole community and provide a leadership and service opportunity for students. My assistant principal, Carl Robidoux, said, “When students can connect with their environment they take better care of it, plus the program gives the school library new ideas, immediate feedback and a fresh set of eyes.”
Requiring students to fill out an application ensures that they are interested in the position and not just in spending a free period in the library. The application I use is fairly simple, with an essay component (“Why do you want to be a library assistant?”), two teacher recommendations, and a parent signature. Most students who take the time to fill out the application are a good fit. Some may not yet be ready for the responsibility; don’t be afraid to take them aside and talk about what they need to do to become a library assistant the next year.
Getting students who truly want the responsibility is important. Look for enthusiasm and excitement on the student applications; those students will be your rock star volunteers. For instance: “It would be lots of fun and an honor to help out in one of my favorite places. Plus, library assistants get to hang out with Ms. G!”
Keep ‘em busy
Maintain an ongoing list of tasks that volunteers can do. Those of us who have run solo programs for years may have difficulty delegating, but prioritizing your time as a professional is important. When I see a low level task that needs doing I add it to my special project list for parent or student volunteers. I also have a standard list that students can reference that includes things like look for trash, straighten books, water plants, push in chairs, clean tables and empty recycling.
Make it special
For middle school students, learning how to use the circulation system is special; my students fight over who gets to check in the books! Give them other special privileges, such as delivering reserved books to students around the school during class time. Nametags are another way to make the job special. Creating them seems like a small thing, but I’ve found that most students are thrilled to decorate and wear them while working in the library.
Celebrate and appreciate
Find a small way to say thank you to your volunteers. A simple breakfast party at the end of the year and thanking them for all their hard work goes a long way. Say “thank you” on a daily basis, and take the time to let students know how much you appreciate their assistance. I also write letters of recommendations for eighth graders that can be used for future employment and have been used as job references.
Capitalize on their interests and talents
“I absolutely love to read…I could show younger kids and kids my age who I know and influence them to read. Since I know these people, they might take my advice and end up reading more than ever.” —From a volunteer application essay
Spending a little time to get to know student interests and talents is well worth the effort. I’m hopeless when it comes to bulletin boards and display ideas. Luckily, some of my student volunteers are always pros at this. One annual display they make shows their favorite books with notecards explaining their choices. We always have a huge jump in circulation when that’s up. I’ve also had students test out the new library website, iPad apps, ebooks, and green screens. Last year, they created book trailers using Animoto that were featured on our school website and on QR codes around the library. Some students have more outlying interests, such as eighth grader Kate, who enjoys reading the shelves in the nonfiction area and reordering books that are misplaced. She says that it’s relaxing to re-shelve books.
I say I understand…and that she’s in the right place.
Laura Gardner has been a school librarian for ten years and is a teacher librarian and National Junior Honor Society advisor at Dartmouth Middle School. A National Board Certified Teacher in Library Media, she serves on the board of the Massachusetts School Library Association. She and her husband live in Fairhaven, MA with their two young children.