She stood there alone, unable to choose a book.
At first I thought she was overwhelmed. It's happened a couple of times in the library; students so overwhelmed by the size of our collection that they become paralyzed. I can relate--I feel like that in grocery stores occasionally.
However, this student literally could not make a decision, because she did not feel capable or entitled to do so. The rest of her class was gleefully wielding their shelf markers and choosing books to take home as she stood there, struggling. Her teacher finally picked a book by the color of the cover.
I didn't realize how much having choices had been a part of my life until, as a new teacher, I was discussing behavior management with my mother. As educators, we are taught that giving students choices--lunch, seats, methods of production--helps them feel empowered in their learning and lays the foundation for making bigger decisions later. My mother told me that when I was little, she would take me to the fabric store and let me choose which fabric I wanted for the dresses she made me. My grandmother chastised her for giving me "too much power" in the process, but my mother held her ground. She knew that by letting me make "little" choices, it would help me develop decision-making skills. She was right--and probably avoided unnecessary tantrums by doing so.
Choosing books should not be anxiety-provoking. We reduce the overwhelming feeling that some young children have by limiting the shelves from which they check out, and monitoring how they look for books, for a couple of weeks. We stress choosing books they will enjoy, either by themselves or with an older reader. Most children quickly learn their likes and dislikes, and are excited to share their finds with classmates. It's even more heartwarming when they go beyond their wants and needs and choose books to share with younger siblings or parents, based on the family member's preferences. Those are decisions I couldn't begin to make for them.
When children are young, adulthood seems so very far away. Those of us with adult children know, however, that childhood goes by so fast. Growing up doesn't happen automatically when children turn eighteen; it is a process that develops over years, skills learned and practiced over and over again in the safety of home and school, so that when adulthood arrives, they are ready.
Choosing books may seem insignificant, but developing decision-making abilities is no trivial matter. What better way to practice than in the library, with no wrong answers and no consequences. Book choice allows them to use literacy skills they learn in the classroom, discover their likes and dislikes as readers, expand their horizons of learning by pursuing personal interests.
Librarians and teachers do the hard part by building collections with age-appropriate, interesting literature in a wide variety of genres and topics. Let's help make book choice enjoyable and empower our students' independence--and decision-making skills-- in doing so. My little student may need some prodding, but it is my hope that she will be gleefully wielding her own shelf marker and connecting with a book on her own terms by year's end.