Tag Archives: learning commons

Dang! I’m Inspired Again

September is so busy. I shouldn’t have taken the day off of work to attend Yellowhead Regional Library’s annual conference.

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I shouldn’t have had a peaceful night in a lovely hotel – where the people-watching game was very satisfying.

I shouldn’t have listened to so many intelligent people, making so much sense…making me admit that I’ve had enough time to assess my project and now it’s time to begin to take it to the next level. Just when I was trying to convince myself that I might be able to coast a little, get that teacher resource room cleaned up, maybe repair some books…

Then along comes Lynn Shabada and Lori Bell, the administrators of Onoway Elementary School and then Twyla Lesko, Onoway’s Librarian, Karen Mason, from Centennial Elementary School in Wetaskiwin and Stacy Howse, from Westlock Elementary School. These amazing people are transforming their libraries into Learning Commons. The upshot of this combination of presentations was to remind me that my library, although open, welcoming, somewhat comfortable and as accommodating as I have been able to make it, it is still not the hub of the school.

Sessions: The importance of school libraries: an administrative perspective, and Transforming your library: inspiring the Library Learning Commons

Onoway’s ‘Dream Team’ of principal, associate principal and library manager share a vision of transforming the space, the service and the culture of the library to “Open it Up” and remove a miscellanea of subtle and not-so-subtle barriers to reading: rules and procedures that stand in the way of students’ natural curiosity and adventurous spirit.

Twyla’s advice: “Say Yes! Think We”

Twyla’s advice: “Say Yes! Think We”

Karen’s vision is to “To Bring Technology, Community and Learning Together in one Memorable Place!” Newly placed into the library from her position as a learning assistant, Karen immediately saw a crowded, dated and unwelcoming space and transformed it into a well-appreciated hub that supports her students culturally, emotionally and academically.

Karen's welcoming reading corner at Centennial Elementary.

Karen’s welcoming reading corner at Centennial Elementary.

Stacy’s project began with a tree. When a well-known member of the community and school board chair passed away, his family wished that a fitting memorial be placed in the school library. The upshot of collective brainstorming was a tree house where children could climb to reading nooks. The coming construction seemed to Stacy to be the perfect time to begin a transformation that she had had percolating in her mind since she started in the position over a year ago.

Westlock Elementary

Stacy’s journey has just begun with the reclassification of her collection but is fully envisioned. Her goals: successful browsing, improved curriculum support and increased visual appeal.

And that was all before lunch…

After a wonderful lunch of Shepard’s Pie and Peach Cobbler, (where I won a door prize of two novels on CDs), and visited the vendors’ booths, I attended another two great sessions. Mary Medinsky from Red Deer College gave an lively presentation on Teen Tech Trends and Jamie Davis, the coordinator of Learn Alberta’s Online Reference Centre showed us some of the exciting new resources in that collection.

Between all these fabulous presentations and chatting with lots of people, (like Janet from Warburg, another K-12 school), the result of all this darn inspiration is a 25 point to-do list that I now will have to follow up on because I couldn’t hold my head up if, after all this work, my library is still not what it could be.

by Tom Fleming

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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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Valuable Professional Development

A couple of times each year on our district professional development days, the library staff from most of the 13 schools in my district get together. For the last two years, we have been meeting at each others’ libraries, a practice that we have found to be invaluable. I’ve decided to share our day here to summarize for my group as well as to suggest to others that if you are not already (1) getting together with other library people and (2) taking advantage of professional services available to you (in our case through our regional library), then you really ought to consider both. My only regret is that I didn’t take pictures to share. Next time I will.

On Friday, we spent the morning at Fort Assiniboine School library, which is a combined school and public library serving the K-9 school, the village and much of the very large Woodlands County. The partnership works very well, with the county providing such faithful support that the school benefits from a very attractive, well-stocked library with a full-time manager and part time clerk. A large-screen TV sits above a Wii station in a comfy den-style alcove. (Unfortunately, if you weren’t there, you’ll have to use your imagination since I didn’t take pictures.)

After a good chat with everyone as they arrived, we enjoyed a tour of the school, discovering a gorgeous hand-crafted tree-house reading-loft in the Kindergarten room (how I wish I had brought a camera) among the always unique and inspiring classrooms and common areas. (It was especially fun to see the graduation photo of one of our group members who attended the school a few years ago).

(Because I couldn't go any farther without a picture.)

Returning to the library, we then settled in to talk about e-readers and the learning commons concept with Yellowhead Regional Library consultant, Jocie Wilson. Before we got started Elaine Dickie from Barrhead Elementary, brought up the possibility of sharing subscriptions for journals like School Librarian and School Library Journal. The discussion led to the idea of asking YRL, through Jocie, to put together a package of journals including the above plus Quill & Quire, Resource Links and others, that could rotate through our schools by inter-school courier before being sent back. Elaine will compile a routing list.

Library manager, Louise Davison had closed the library for the day, but while we were there she admitted several patrons to browse while we continued on with our meeting in the middle of the library. Her words on my query about being closed were: “They have driven 20 kilometres to get here. We’re open.” That’s library service.

Jocie showed us some images of school libraries he had recently toured in Edmonton, that in many ways exemplified learning commons. We saw libraries that were the centre of their schools and were open, accessible, flexible and indispensable to students and teachers. I was surprised to learn that teacher-librarians managed these libraries, two of only six in the Edmonton public school system. One, however, was only half-time in the library, with no assistance, and the other was seldom in the library at all, doing team-teaching for research projects with mobile laptop labs in classrooms, while a library technician managed the library.

Jocie brought some e-readers to look at and we discussed the dismal progress of affordable solutions for schools in purchasing multiple copies of eBooks or utilizing Overdrive. Jocie described cloud solutions coming online recently, where a fixed number of e-books could be purchased and downloaded on any number of devices. Because of the inflexibility of titles available in any given ‘cloud’, (no access to new or otherwise requested books), this would only be worthwhile, in my opinion, if the cloud contained all titles commonly accessed for novel studies in all grades in Alberta.

We had a wonderful lunch provided by the Fort Assiniboine Public Library Board after which we reassembled at Barrhead Composite High School library, which serves Grades 7 to 12. We all stopped at the ‘Great Books’ display, where Library manager, Hilda Froese deceives trendy teens by displaying hidden gems among new books, ensuring their discovery and inevitable check-out.

With shelving angled in a pleasing design for maximum line-of-sign at the edges of this large and cheerful space, there is plenty of room in the centre of Hilda’s library for tables, where we participated in a 10-minute-read exercise with numerous graphic novels that Jocie had brought to show us. She gave us a book-talk guide and instructed us to examine the front and back covers, any summaries or blurbs we could find, then read the first chapter or 10-20 pages, a small section in the middle and at least a few pages at end.

This was a challenge for me. I chose Black Butler by Yana Toboso, a black-and-white manga, which happened to be #5 and chapters 20-23 of the series. Now, I can negotiate an Archie comic with the best of them, but I have to admit that I have completely neglected my manga-reading skills. I gathered that it was set in India during British colonialism and was about a cooking contest. Somebody got tied up in the middle of the book, but must have been freed because the good-guys won. I couldn’t think of any of my students who might be interested in it.

After we had all given our brief book talks, Jocie commented that although she had had a similar reaction to Black Butler, she had recently encountered a group of students who informed her that it was the best series ever! Just goes to show that hockey players shouldn’t try to choose toe-shoes for ballerinas. Listen to your students!

Below are some of the other books reviewed and recommended. Click on any image for the GoodReads page with reader reviews.

     

All in all, it was a productive, rejuvenating and affirming day. Being isolated, as we nearly all are in one-person libraries, we all get feeling that no-one knows what we do. There is no one with whom to discuss our successes and challenges. When we get together like this, we find others who can relate, who can admire and commiserate. We learn so much from each other and appreciate our YRL consultant lending her expertise to keep us on track and motivated.

But next time, I’m going to bring a camera. Oh, right. Next time is to be in my library.

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