Tag Archives: Inquiry-based learning

Born to Learn, Hard-Wired to Take the Risks that Ensure our Survival as a Species

Years ago, when my sons were teenagers, a teacher quipped (with, I thought at the time, his tongue firmly planted in his cheek) that Grade 7 kids should be sent off to an isolated island together to work through their hormonal issues, and then brought back for Grade 10, when you might actually be able to teach them something. This video might explain our shared frustration.

Born to Learn from Born to Learn on Vimeo.

“We shouldn’t belittle adolescence, we should be honouring it for what it really is: the defining struggle; the moment when the next generation challenges the status quo and pioneers new ways of thinking and being that ensure our survival. Now just imagine if we actually gave adolescents the freedom to undertake that struggle.”

I will be on that bandwagon that figures out how to re-invent our education system to accomplish that goal. The teacher I mentioned above may have been being less facetious than I thought. Perhaps many of them should quit school (and have a very wise grandfather) since, “We just don’t learn something unless we’re emotionally engaged with it”.

In defense of the teachers I know, I believe they are quite aware and make valiant attempts to teach by doing, but their success with adolescents is still being stymied by our ‘system’. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen the magic transformation theory that can gather immensely diverse teens together in a classroom or school with standardized legislated curriculum and assessment that pleases parents and government overseers. Have you?

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A School Library Transformed – Part 3: What do I need to do and know before I pop the question?

As I’ve mentioned before I am describing my experience because I wish I had had a guide to follow when I started this project. Although I can tell you about my plan and steps taken to accomplish it, keep in mind that this must be a custom design to meet the particular needs of your students & staff.

Know What You Want to Do and What You Need to Do It

For most, if not all of us, the approval of administration is necessary before you can begin to make radical changes. You will also want to ensure that you have buy-in from teachers. In order to be successful in your proposal, you will want to have in place a solid concept, so there are a lot of things to think about before you ‘come out’ with your plan to do away with your traditional library arrangement.

When I first took my school administrators on a tour of the library, describing what I wanted to do, I showed them a hand-drawn layout and walked them around to help them visualize it. I was able to describe how it would support the curriculum and the school’s vision. I not only needed approval of the concept, I needed them to agree to extend my pay over the two-month summer break since I could not imagine accomplishing the change while continuing to run the library. It was important that I was very clear in describing what I wanted to do, how it would benefit teachers and students, and what would be required to do it.

(Since I did not completely finish re-classifying the collection in the six week period and have had to continue working on it while the school was open, I can now see that it would be possible to convert the system if plans were very solid and schedules would allow some dedicated time or assistance. It would take longer, of course, but it is possible.)

Gather Ideas and Information

To get to the point where I was ready to ‘pop the question’ with my administration, I needed to have a plan in place. I began to pay extra attention to specific and especially common inquiries that I was receiving. I made notes of past and current interests and curriculum request that had me traveling to different parts of the library to satisfy a single inquiry. I tried to ‘connect the dots’ to begin to plan how I might organize the library to keep related resources on popular topics together.

Brainstorming connections

I confided in our regional library consultant, who suggested a tour of the Spruce Grove Public Library, which had just completed their ‘Neighbourhoods’ project. It was very inspiring to see for myself this custom applicaton of the bookstore concept in a library. The staff there were very friendly and helpful, then and later when I contacted them for extra advice. I browsed through as many different library websites as I could find, and a few books as well on the bookstore model and general library arrangements, until ideas for what would work in my library began to sift through.

Make a Plan

I made mind-maps, playing around with curriculum and popular subject connections. What subjects were broad enough to incorporate enough sub-topics (departments) to make it practical? Which topics were important enough to require their own departments?

K-2 Social & Science Curriculum Connections

How could I physically divide my library into visually separate thematic areas? How many areas did I have room for, given that the concept required each area to be as separately defined as possible? Would I be able to arrange the space to shorten and separate the ranges into smaller, less intimidating sections? Would I be able to incorporate a table or other workspace into each Island?

Eventually, I decided on seven broad areas with varying numbers of departments within them. I needed to be able to physically divide the library into ten sections: seven Islands, plus YA, primary and central desk areas. To this end, I initially tried to find some layout software, but ended up measuring and cutting pieces to move around on graph paper.

Not exactly the way it turned out, but pretty close.

The Islands stayed the same from here on, but the departments were not determined until I handled the books themselves. I thought a lot about whether I wanted to incorporate fiction into the departments themselves, as a separate ‘Department’ in each ‘Island’, or maintain a traditionally separate fiction section.

I knew I would have the luxury of literally sorting the books themselves at a later stage, so did not have to make these decisions on a purely conceptual basis. I also thought about the potential for incorporating realia (models and other objects) and technology (DVDs, eReaders, tablets, computers, smart board, etc.).

Getting Approval

Soon after my administration’s enthusiastic approval as described above, I presented my concept at a staff meeting, showing slides of some of my mind-maps and the layout, and talking about specific scenarios of frustrated students and time-consuming searches. I briefly described the learning commons concept that the SLSI was recommending and how I felt my plan would support teachers and students in implementing the inquiry method of learning embedded in the curriculum.

I was certainly hoping to having everyone on-side but was looking forward to some debate, if only to make sure that I had thought it all through thoroughly. However, the teachers were not at all attached to traditional library arrangements and also gave their unanimous and equally enthusiastic approval.

Preparation

The project approved, including summer work, it was now time to get things in place. With the shelving configuration determined, I found a supplier and ordered the new shelving, agonizing over colour and compromising a little to meet the budget limit.

Now I had to determine the signage size, type and style, how I would hang them (think safety) and where I would get them. Large signage for the ‘Islands’ is a very important part of this concept. My initial idea, which would have featured photos of Grad students, turned out to be too complex and expensive. My principal proposed the signs we eventually bought and although unsure before I saw (and spray-painted) them, I now really like their clean look.

Brushed aluminium spray painted silver

I also had to order supplies that would be needed to re-label all the books. I ordered tape, spine label sheets and genre stickers. I underestimated, but as delivery from Brodart is usually very quick, I managed to keep up without delaying the work over the summer.

Expect the Unexpected

A project is never as streamlined as initially planned and before school was out and the work really begun, I realized that if I was going to be emptying the library it might be a good time to replace the 20+ years-old carpets and paint the equally neglected walls. Thankfully, our maintenance department agreed (and even let me choose new paint and carpet colours) but now what began as a re-arrangement became a total renovation.  Painting meant that the eight existing bulletin boards could come down and I easily decided that only two would be put back up. (I do not miss the continual frustration of trying and failing to keep so many bulletin boards looking spiffy.)

Caught Reading Bulletin Board – Great idea but hard to keep updated. (I thought the kids might miss it, but no one has said a word.)

The plan was in place and as I waffled between the melancholy thought of loosing my carefree summer and the excitement of anticipating my new library, school ended for the year and the ‘real’ work began. I’ll rest up now, and get into that tomorrow.

Before I put my feet up, though, I will remind you that as I can only talk about my own experience, and all such projects will differ, I sincerely hope that others who have either embarked on a similar change, or anticipate such, will contribute to a dialogue in the comments section so we can all learn from each other. I would also love to hear from those who favour the traditional library arrangement. Maybe you will convince me I will have to ‘get the mess cleaned up’ before I retire after all.

Part 4: Getting It Done

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A School Library Transformed – Part 2: Why Would I Do Such a Thing?

Yesterday I told you about my ‘new’ library, which is arranged on a modified bookstore model. In this segment I will describe the circumstances that led up to my breaking with tradition and redesigning my library from a functioning repository for books to what is quickly becoming a vibrant learning commons.

Nudge #1: Unsuccessful Browsing

See anything you like?

My initial motivation was prompted by a combination of many factors. As the sole person in the library, I deal with the everyday challenges of such a position, the most frustrating of which is the knowledge that a student has gone away unsatisfied. I can’t always help each student in a class, either because there are too many students in line ahead of them, or because they didn’t try to ask.

Students don’t always know what they want. Often they have a vague interest in mind: possibly a book they’ve read previously and enjoyed, or a hobby they would like to know more about. I could see them in the stacks wandering up and down, or fooling around with each other because, despite my attempts to leave a book face-out on the crowded shelf-ends, nothing was catching their eye. Busy helping other students navigate the online catalog, locate books or check them out, I was often unable to spend the time chatting with these wanderers to help them find something that interested them. I started to realize that my library was just not very user-friendly.

 Nudge #2: No More Library Skills Instruction

Adding to the problem was the growing lack of understanding about common library arrangements. Nowhere in our curriculum does it specifically state that children must learn the skills required to access material in a traditional library. For several years after I first took over from the last teacher-librarian in our district, I tried to carry on her (increasingly infrequent, because of changing assignments) attempts to instill this knowledge in our students. I failed. I am not a teacher and was not able to provide adequate activities to instill any real understanding of the Dewey Decimal System in the elementary classes, which still visit on a weekly basis. The students understand that books are arranged, but never really understood how. It didn’t help that I often could not answer questions like, “Why are knights and castles in different aisles?” to their satisfaction.

 Nudge #3: Repetitive Labour

Then there was the repeated assembling of books pulled from various parts of the library for annually required book displays and curriculum support materials. I began to threaten (myself) that I was going to just keep these themes permanently assembled on shelves of their own so I didn’t have to continually feel like I was living the year-long version of Groundhog Day. I was always looking for ways to promote books that were unjustifiably underused because they were hidden within others that were basically unrelated just because Dewey (and his successors) put them there. If you only have a couple of books about money for elementary students, they can be completely lost within high school level books on politics and government.

 Nudge #4: Changing Needs

The last factor had to do with the changing of the times that all libraries have had to adjust to. I could no longer consider most of my collection relevant. With much more current and varied resources online, it was a waste of money and time to attempt to support much of the curriculum from Grades 6 and up with print materials.  If I was going to keep the library relevant, I needed to build a collection that appealed to an increasingly visual, highly trend conscious student population, and arrange it appealingly.

 The Stars Begin to Align

A general frustration was setting in. I had spent twelve years sneakily re-classifying books so they would suddenly appear in popular sections where I knew they would go out;  giving up on the always faint hope that before I retired, a professional librarian would be hired whom I could assist rather than trying to figure it all out for myself. Suddenly, I realized that I knew my students and I knew my library. The two were drifting further and further apart and I was the only one would could or would do anything about it before it became completely obsolete.

The old library looking very dated

There were four other elements that came together around this time that prompted me to begin to completely re-think the whole set up of my library. First, our Parent Action Committee completed their fundraising project for new library shelving. I had been looking forward to this new shelving and until now had assumed I would simply replace the rickety nonfiction ranges in their existing configuration.

Secondly, I had been following the progress of Alberta Education’s School Library Services Initiative that was looking at school libraries in the province for the first time since 1985. Their findings had been postponed several times, but what I came to understand was that whatever the final report was going to say, the shift was not going to be towards reinstating teacher-librarians as I had hoped. A new buzzword was going to be an important part of it. School libraries or Media Centres were going to be asked to transform into something called the Learning Commons.

I felt that my library could do more to support Alberta Education’s inquiry method of learning embedded in the curriculum in 2004 and described in the Focus on Inquiry document. This method encourages an “integrated, cross-disciplinary approach” to learning and “capitalizes on student curiosity”. The document also prescribes students taking ownership of their learning and describes how learning should involve the unexpected. A reorganization of the library along broad themes and a move toward the learning commons model seemed to be a step in the right direction.

As I was trying to wrap myself around what this new breed of library would look like, I ran across some articles on the Internet about some radical public libraries that were doing away with Dewey and adopting the bookstore model to increase patron satisfaction. And it seemed that it was working.

Jumping in With Both Feet

I tried, but couldn’t find any school libraries that had gone this way or at least any that had described the project. I was beginning to warm to what I understood about the Learning Commons concept and felt that the book store model could help this kind of atmosphere evolve. By nature, I am a (sometimes regrettably) impulsive person and as all this came together I made the decision. If my principal would continue my pay over the summer and allow me to hire an assistant I would transform my library to be one that students would want to be in and once there would find all kinds of inspiration, challenge and motivation to read and discover.

I tried to stop myself. Did I really want to give up my summer? And truly, what right did I have to mess with a time-honoured system when I’m not really qualified? Never mind, (I told myself), I still have more than ten years to retirement  – ample time to clean up any mess I create.

Enthusiastic Support Where it Mattered

Photo by Agnieszka Bernacka

I was lucky.  My principal went for it whole-heartedly. He is a modern thinker and loved the idea that his school would model a whole new concept in libraries. I regretted the use of the word bookstore, however, since his first thought was of a cappuccino machine…

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before I approached my administration team and the staff, I had to have a very clear idea of what I wanted to do and how I was going to do it. I’ll cover those many initial considerations in Part 3 tomorrow. I welcome your thoughts and experience to the comments section below so that the dialogue can be relevant to anyone thinking about changing arrangements in their school library.

Part 3: What do I need to do and know before I pop the question?

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A School Library Transformed – Part 1: What Have I Done to My Library?

At the end of the 2010-2011 school year I began a complete transformation of my K-12 school library. I started this blog specifically to track the project, but mostly got sidetracked. My collection is now arranged on the bookstore model with modifications. Six months into it, I can begin to evaluate the project and put together a comprehensive series explaining what I did, why and how I did it. I’ll do that over the next week starting today with a general description of the project and the results so far.

Islands of Knowledge?

The project title, Islands of Knowledge came about when I was asked to do a conference presentation about it in September, and had to come up with a session name. As I cast around, I tried to find the words to describe the potential total immersion scenario I envisioned: a student surrounded by books, a laptop or tablet nearby; he is holding an artifact and at hand are all the resources he might need to allow his mind to delve deeply into the thing has piqued his curiosity. I thought of that feeling of delicious isolation I feel when I am absorbed in a quest, each revelation leading to questions, then answers, then more questions…A cave came to mind at first, lined with ancient-and-wisdom-filled tomes, a deep comfortable chair and large, paper-strewn table in the centre. Then I saw an island to explore, where discoveries could be made, and that is the image that stuck. Pretentious, perhaps, but I’m stuck with it now.

A Compromise

My Islands did not turn out to be as isolated from each other as I had originally conceived, but they are clearly defined. Gone are the long rows of spines that you have to crook your neck to read. The plan is open, with no tall shelves dividing up the space and a central circulation desk. Old and outdated books have been removed from the collection and many books are displayed face-out on the less crowded shelves.

The books have been completely rearranged somewhat in the manner of a bookstore. When you first walk into the library you can see seven large signs hovering over the Islands. Students usually have a pretty good idea if they are interested in Canada & the World, Science & Technology, Nature, Fantasy & the Supernatural, Modern Life, Arts & Entertainment or The Art & Science of Language.

 The Sub-Divisions or Departments

Within each Island are smaller divisions such as the popular Domestic Animals department in Nature, and the Body & Health departmentin Modern Life. First Nations in Canada & the World combines books about aboriginal spirituality, arts, modern issues and history, which were previously in separate areas of the library.  A local history section is in the planning stages; I have requested loans and donations from the community.

The process and arrangement have uncovered hidden gems like books on space travel, that used to be on a bottom shelf stacks away from the astronomy books and were seldom taken out. Now that the Space & Space Travel department in Science & Technology holds both genres, students who are interested in space and may previously have assumed that everything on that topic was together, have discovered these related books. Science Fiction books are nearby to further satisfy the science-and-technology-inclined student.

Did I Kill Dewey?

This is a custom plan, designed with the needs of my school community in mind. The departments can be compared to permanent displays and I saw no reason to eliminate the Dewey Decimal System altogether. The books are still classified as they were, but often pulled together from different areas. They are still shelved in numerical order, but as the departments are small, it is not as much of a crisis if they get out of order. The plan is flexible and I can change a book’s department if I see a better place for it. A tweak to the online catalog and a new label is all that is required to change a book’s location.

A Whole New Look

New paint, carpeting, and an open floor plan have modernized and made the library more welcoming. Visually pleasing and simplified navigation increases students’ success in finding materials they want or require. Teachers have commented on their class’ improved focus in the library. Students love it. The plan is meant to satisfy the needs of all learning styles. Increasingly, there will be technology available for the auditory learner and more realia – models and other objects – for those who prefer a more tactile experience.

Besides the seven “Islands”, there is a Young Adult section for books reserved for junior high and senior high students, who will have a say in the potential of dividing their fiction into genres like mystery, fantasy, and horror. “Easy Street” is dedicated to primary students with bright and cheerful colours, and a collection that is also being rearranged to stimulate the students’ literary taste buds as well as to make it easier for teachers to identify books that will meet curricular needs.

Enthusiastic Reactions

The feedback has been tremendously positive: the students love it, circulation is way up and they are finding any excuse to hang out in the library. Teachers and parents have been very supportive, commenting on the bright, open and inviting feel. Teachers have observed that their students are calmer and more focused in the library, having been drawn to an attractive Island and finding much to satisfy them there, supporting the ‘dynamic process’ of inquiry-based learning.

The community has assisted the school with financial help from the Parent Action Committee for the new shelving, as well as a donation from a local business for the Easy Street carpet. Many volunteers helped with packing and moving boxes of books and shelving, as well as the assembly of the new shelving.

Back to the Beginning – Tomorrow

Tomorrow, in Part 2 of this series, I will explain what led me to make this radical change. What was wrong with the way things were? In Part 3, I will cover  some of the things you need to have in place before going ahead.

Since I can only speak about the details of my project, I hope that readers will contribute their comments and questions. I’m writing about my experience because I wish I had had some sort of guide to follow (or to reject!) when I embarked on my project. I hope we can all learn from a dialogue that will begin to consider issues that I have not had to think about.

Part 2: Why Would I Do Such a Thing?

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Islands of Knowledge will Transform Learning: the Plan Begins to Come Together

Acitrezza Faraglioni Moon Rise Sicilia Italy Italia by gnuckx

In earlier posts I have discussed my dissatisfaction with current library organization and my thoughts on how the improvement of successful library use is essential. In these days of almost all public school libraries in Alberta being staffed by heavily burdened, non-professional assistants, it is even more essential that students and teachers can successfully find what they require and desire with minimal assistance.

Working through the possibilities and researching the projects undertaken by public libraries who have embraced the bookstore model like the Spruce Grove Public Library’s Neighbourhoods and Anythink’s innovations, I have designed a plan to transform my collection into the possibly pretentious sounding “Islands of Knowledge”.

From supporting the inquiry-based learning philosophy of Alberta Education to improving the success of the browse for reluctant readers, the Islands concept will transform the way the library is used by students and teachers alike.

Instead of being scattered throughout the library, general topic areas for Grades 3 through 12 will be grouped in u-shaped Islands and will include all media that pertains to that theme including guided access to virtual resources and related fiction. There would be seating and table space within each island and realia decorating the shelves.

By mind mapping the Dewey Decimal System and its uses in my library both for curriculum-specific topics and general interest use by students, I was able to connect disparate areas that are commonly used together. I am still working through the fine-tuning, but my current plan consists of nine Islands with the following working titles: Arts & Entertainment, The Art & Science of Language, Mental Health & Relationships, Fantasy & the Supernatural, Body & Health, Daily Life, Science & Technology, Nature & the Environment, Global Society. The ninth Island, Global Society is far too large and will likely be further divided. As I work out the physical configuration these will all evolve.

Current draft of Islands project - Click to enlarge

This is a custom-fit plan. Each library would be different, based on the needs and interests of their patrons.

Despite my initial thoughts, the Dewey Decimal System will not be eliminated. Rather, it will be preceded in the call number by an abbreviation of the Island’s name and subtopic, and shelved accordingly within the Island. There will be further customization as time reveals the need, but the quick location of specific items by call number is still essential and shelving by author or title is not a useful option.

I have placed almost equal emphasis on curriculum and general interest needs because I believe students learn best when they are following a personal path of inquiry. There is significant learning value in a student successfully discovering and enthusiastically perusing a range of resources to support his or her current fascination with snowmobiles or hamsters.

Easy Street, the fiction and nonfiction section in my library for Kindergarten through Grade 2 will be a large, inviting Island of its own. I am considering the possibility of highlighting some specific genres within these primary books as well: interfiling fiction and nonfiction relating to Dinosaurs and Animals for example. Many books at this level cross the fiction-nonfiction boundaries. I feel it would be a valuable exercise in critical thinking for children to personally and instinctually work out truth from fiction among and within the material they read, a life skill that most are in the process of developing in their daily lives.

A presentation to administration, teachers and program assistants with discussion and feedback and a specific appeal for any potential negative impacts on teaching and learning outcomes yielded only positive, enthusiastic responses.

There are many challenges ahead not the least of which is designing the physical layout and finding the shelving that will work with the plan and within the budget. The nine Islands need fine-tuning for some kind of consistency in size and scope and many areas have been identified for serious collection development.

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