ON LIBRARIES: From Library to Learning Commons

learning commonsYou have heard the term Learning Commons.  You may have read an article or two about it and thought it sounded wonderful—in a distant way.  Your library can’t become a Learning Commons. Because:

  • It takes too much time.
  • It costs too much money.
  • The administration won’t go for it.

For the most part, all three reasons (and any more you can come up with) are true—and false. If you decide it can’t happen in your library, it won’t. But what if you could transform your library into a Learning Commons?  Would it be worth the time and the risk?  How would having a Learning Commons change the perception of your program in the eyes of students? Teachers? Administrators? Parents and the larger community?  It’s one more step, a big one but a step, in demonstrating your leadership.transformation2

Some Reasons to Consider

Let’s start with why you should want to make the transformation.  Years ago, school librarians added the word “media” to their title. The reason was to focus attention on how libraries had moved from just having print to incorporating technology into learning and research.  It was important to change perceptions to prevent libraries being regarded as dusty warehouses.

Once again it is time to change perceptions first and then change reality.  As with many businesses, the 21st century demands we reinvent ourselves.  Does your library look like one from the 1990’s?  Earlier?  The world has changed radically in the past quarter of a century, and it’s not just the technology.  It’s how our relationships, learning, and communications have been transformed by technology.

We are living in a participatory culture.  We rely on crowd-sourcing, curating, and 24/7 access to information—much of it from our smart phones.  Does your library reflect those changes?  If you were a students would you see the library as a place to learn, create, share, and grow? (Those are the shortcut phrases describing the four standards of the AASL Standards for the 21st-Century Learner.)

planCreating a Plan

As the great American philosopher Yogi Berra said, “If you don’t know where you are going, you will wind up someplace else.” Fortunately, you don’t need to do this on your own.  In a Knowledge Quest article Carole Koechlin and David V. Loerstcher explain the elements needed in a Learning Commons and how to plan for them.

While the article is an excellent start, you also need an incentive to keep you going. You are all highly capable researchers. Look for images of Learning Commons and more articles detailing how others have made the transformation.  Not only will this inspire you, it will be useful later when you present your plan. Limit your search by grade level.  While the concept stays the same, you may want to know what an elementary Learning Commons looks like.

Don’t be intimidated by the pictures.  Just look at the message the different spaces convey.  It’s all about participating, sharing, creating, doing. Where in the Learning Commons do these different activities happen?  You want to demonstrate the library is not just a place for finding things.  It’s a place for making things – and more.  It promotes inquiry learning just by the environment it creates.

The conversion to a Learning Commons does not have to be done in one year.  In fact, it might be better if it were stretched out to at least three years.  This way you can see what is working, what needs tweaking, and where you need to add or delete ideas you had for the next stage.

Finding the Moneyfind the money

Your space will need to change.  Fresh paint on walls, green screens, signs, and new furniture cost money. Most of you have been struggling with small or no budgets.  How can you pay for this?  Time to get creative.

What parts of the transformation are DIY – or DIY with volunteer help? What can be done cheaply? For example tables and chairs need to be moveable to allow maximum flexibility.  How much would it cost to put what you have on casters?  What outside sources of funds are available?  Most districts have a local education foundation that gives grants.  Are there other grants you could apply for?  Could the parent teacher organization help in any way?

talkConvincing the Administrators

Nothing is going to happen without the support of the administration.  Once you have you plan put together and have collected a file of pictures, prepare a pitch for your principal. Be sure to include pictures of libraries from the 1950s, the 1990 and your current library.

What is the key message you want to deliver?  If possible, tie it to your Vision and the Mission of the school. Keep it brief.  Show the work you have done and your cost analysis.

You may get shot down, but listen carefully to what you’re told.  I had a superintendent who told me she saved a lot of time by responding with a “no” to almost every suggestion.  Most people would just go away disappointed.  I would come back with an alternative.  And then another alternative.  By this time she knew I was serious and that I would work hard to see the project accomplished.

Are you up for the challenge?  Isn’t it worth it to try?


ON LIBRARIES: The Challenge of Collaboration – Part One

NOTE: This is the first of a several week series on collaboration

collaboration 2“School librarians transform student learning.”  Easy to say.  Important to do.  Accomplishing it… is more complicated.  While we can do much when dealing with students one-to-one, and certainly work toward that end when we have a scheduled class, the transformation is best achieved when working in collaboration with teachers. Some of you are doing so on a regular basis, but from my contacts with school librarians coping with day-to-day pressures, fixed schedules, and unwilling teachers, collaboration is at best a distant goal.

The first Guideline under “Teaching for Learning” in AASL’s Empowering Learners states:

The school library program promotes collaboration among members of the learning community and encourages learners to be independent, lifelong users and producers of ideas and information. (p. 20)

The actions supporting the Guideline expect the librarian to:

  • “collaborate with a core team of classroom teachers and specialists to design, implement, and evaluate inquiry lessons and units
  • collaborate with an extended team including parents, community members, … museums, academic and public libraries… to include their expertise and assistance in inquiry lessons and units
  • work with administrators to actively promote, support, and implement collaboration
  • seek input from students on the learning process.”

That’s a tall order and very few are doing all of this. The Guidelines offer no direction on how you are to develop this level of collaboration and instructional partnership.  Where do you start?Hello

You can’t focus on all four actions at once.  The last is the easiest to accomplish by way of formative assessments during a class and regular brief surveys or exit tickets at the end of a unit. The first action is your main target to implement the Guideline into your program.

At the middle and high school levels, you normally have a flex schedule which means some teachers bring their classes frequently, some do it rarely, and others you never see.  Work initially with those accustomed to using their library as part of their instruction.  At what point do you enter the process right now?  Is the teacher using only your facility but not your expertise or does h/she expect you to do an introduction to the resources to be used? You want to reach the stage where you are develop the unit together, each making a design contribution.

If the teacher is only using your facility, observe what students are working on.  Come up with one or two resources that would improve their results and share with the teacher.  If you are thanked, suggest the teacher give you a heads-up in the future so you can provide relevant sources.  If your recommendatiknockingon is ignored, repeat the process the next time.

In the case where you informed in advance what students will be doing and can offer recommended direction, add possibilities for making the project inquiry-based, one where the end product has meaning beyond the due date.  You want to create learning opportunities for students to be producers of information and not just regurgitating existing facts they collect and turn into a pretty presentation.

In all cases, follow up with a brief assessment with the teacher.  Did this help?  What would work better next time?  Frame your questions so teachers are willing to make negative comments. If you only hear positives you can’t improve what you are doing.

Elementary librarians who mostly have fixed schedules have a greater challenge. If you are in that situation, your first aim is to cooperate with teachers. To do that you need to find out what they are working on in class to give students a deeper connection with the topic by working with you when they come in at their scheduled time.collaborative learning

Start with the teachers with whom you have a good relationship.  When they give tell you what they are doing (or you have a curriculum map to guide you), let them know what you are doing with their students.  As with flex time librarians, follow up when the unit is complete to find out what the teacher thought. What if anything did he/she not like?  What worked? Was there anything you can do differently next time?

Next week, meeting the challenges of other Actions in the Guidline.





ON LIBRARIES: Quality Questions

essential questionI have blogged on the many aspects of this topic several times, but the subject is worth repeating. The questioning is only important when what is asked is worth answering.   Both your questions and students’ questions need to be significant.

Your questions should begin with the Essential Questions you focus on in framing a project.  My post on the topic in November 2014 noted that EQs can deal with concepts which are core to the discipline but not necessarily obvious to those not in it or look at broader ideas designed to open minds to the real-world implications of what they are studying.  Even understanding what they are, doesn’t make them easy to construct.

When I first wrote about EQs I suggested if you were faced with teaching the Dewey Decimal System (which you really shouldn’t ever do) an EQ might be, “How do libraries arrange material to help users find what they need?” After doing many of these, I don’t like that question because it only has one answer – by subject. Instead I would put piles of books on a table and ask them how they would group them so that others could quickly find what they are looking for? They might arrange alphabetically or color of covers. When they were finished, they would have to explain their thinking. Encourage the class to discuss how well that would work.  You could then guide them to recognize librarians had to deal with that problem and also came up with different solutions (Dewey, LOC, and now genre-based), but all these work because they have one thing in common – subject arrangement.  By having them work on developing an answer to the EQ they understand the how and why of classification rather than the specific answer.question sign

In an article in the September 2015 issue of Educational Leadership, Grant Wiggins suggests in studying the Vietnam War, a rather than, “Why did we fight the Vietnam War and was it worth it?, the EQs should be “Why have we gone to war? When was it wise, and when was it foolish?’ There are no right answers to those two questions, and answers will change over time and experience.  Of course, students would have to explain/justify their answers, and the second question cannot be Googled.

Beyond EQs are the questions you ask students.  They, too, need to be open-ended.  When I was an elementary librarian a long time ago, I foolishly asked such questions as “What do we call the person who writes a book?”  Not only was there only one right answer, but students were aware I knew that answer and their job was to find it.  This is not deep, critical thinking.

Ask a good question and then wait.  It’s really hard to do this but you want to encourage thinking time.  When you get a response wait again.  This lets the rest of the class reflect on what was said. For a follow up ask, “Why do you think that?” “Does anyone have any other ideas?”  Make sure your tone is one of interest nq marksot judgement. It must feel safe. The answers aren’t wrong, they represent one way of looking at the question.

Encourage students to question what you say. It’s all about not accepting facts being given to you, but about exploring deeper to find out what’s underneath.  With you as a model, students can learn to create their own Essential Questions and to learn to ask quality questions rather than focus on being able to provide the right answer.

Your guidance will re-connect with the curiosity that is innate in humans and the quality and depth of what they research will improve.  Thinking about a topic and developing questions about it is intrinsic to Inquiry-based learning and lifelong learning.  Creating a safe environment for questions provide the foundation that will help students in everything they do.edutopia

I once again recommend you check out Edutopia on 5 Ways to Help Your Students Become Better Questioners.




ON LIBRARIES – Sending Mixed Messages

mixed messagesAs librarians we try to create a warm, welcoming safe environment for our libraries. We also want our students to become lifelong readers and learners. But often there is a disconnect between these desires and what our students perceive. Most of us are so busy we end up on auto-pilot, doing things without thinking, not realizing our actions are sending a very different message.

Years ago, I was hired to consult for a district hoping to improve its library program (Unfortunately, we don’t see that anymore).  I walked into one elementary library with the intention of seeing how its arrangement helped or hindered creating an inviting atmosphere.  I didn’t have to look far.  On several walls, there were large posters proclaiming library rules.  No loud voices – speak in whispers.  Wash your hands before reading a book. Sit properly in your chair. Raise your hand before speaking. Only two books may be checked out.

I wanted to leave.  The library was neat and orderly and completely cold. It was about rules, not about reading, not about discovering exciting new things. I am sure the librarian never intended students to feel what I was feeling. She probably had her hands full many days with students who found the environment so repressive they acted out.  I hope she didn’t punish them by not letting them take out a book.Library rules

At a high school I visited, I was also struck by how a beautifully designed facility could be a turn-off. The rules weren’t posted in the same way, but there was no indication that this was a place for kids. The few posters were formal purchased ones.  The walls had no added color. There was no student art. No bulletin board showcased student accomplishment. The message was, “This is a place run by adults and you are not to disrupt it.” Not surprisingly there were almost no students working individually, and I discovered teachers rarely brought their classes in.

Numerous elementary librarians, intending to instill a sense of responsibility in students, have a strict overdue policy.  If they don’t return their books on time, they can’t take out any.  The message being is “returning books on time is more important that having something new to read.”  While overdues can problem since the books can go astray and parents are expected to pay for lost books, there are other ways to handle it. You can have slips ready to insert into a book pocket or even taped to the cover informing parents to please search for books not returned. If it’s the school that has set the rule, make sure students is directed to some books to read while their classmates are selecting theirs and checking them out.  Send home a note about the missing titles and allow the student to borrow books as soon as the overdue ones are returned even if it’s not the class’s day in the library. Make it about getting books to read in the hands of students.

empty libraryCreating lifelong readers is being hampered in many places by the emphasis on Lexile scores. It’s fine for instructional purposes but not for recreational reading.  The idea is to make reading fun not challenging, hard work. Leisure reading levels are usually below instructional levels.  This builds fluency and enjoyment which then allows students to take on more difficult texts in class. I dislike the “five finger” rule.  If I had to look up five words on every page of a book, I wouldn’t want to read it.  I prefer a “no-finger” rule. This would mean there might be a few words in the book which would be new, but mostly the students could zip along and enjoy the story.

Some students want to read a book that’s well above their Lexile level. Frequently it’s on a subject they are interested in, such as a sport.  Or it could be a popular title.  Even now, you might get a third grader who wants to read a Harry Potter story and is really not up to the task. The tendency is to not let the child borrow the book.  I would let it go out, suggest sharing the reading with a parent or older sibling, and recommend another easier book also be borrowed.  The stretch in trying to read the harder text will only improve the student’s reading skills.  This is different from forcing a child to read a harder book to match a Lexile level.  This is personal choice.

Do your policies and practices reinforce or conflict with the message you want to send?  Rethink now and plan to make changes when you get back from the holiday break.


ON LIBRARIES: It’s The Law(s)

RanganathanMost of you learned Ranganathan’s Five Laws of Library Science when you were in library school.  You discussed them and have probably since forgotten them.  Students in my online graduate course are discovering those laws this week, and as I reviewed them it struck me once again how incredibly relevant they still are and how brilliant and prescient Ranganathan was.

S. R.(Shiyali Ramamrit) Ranganathan and with Melvil Dewey, both born in the 1800’s, can be seen as the creators of librarianship. However, while even non-librarians are familiar with the greatest of Dewey’s contributions (others are the founding of the American Library Association and the originator of Library Journal­ – did you know Dewey did that?), it’s unlikely that many outside the profession have ever heard of him. In this age of always striving to move forward and be modern and/or relevant, there is something comforting about looking at our roots and discovering unchanging truths.

First LawBooks are for use in the stacks

This is a reminder that they are not to be hidden away.  It repudiates the concept of closed stacks, but for me it also is a caution about restricting students from reading books not on their Lexile level and it suggests that requiring a parental note before a student can borrow a book deemed too sophisticated or more specifically having content that might be challenged is not how librarians should be operating. For me, it’s also a message about weeding.  Those dusty titles sitting on your shelves are not being used.  Libraries are neither warehouses nor museums. Why are you keeping them?

Second Law – Every book its reader

Libraries need to have something for every user. It means if you have ELL students you need to be looking into getting books in their language.  Recognize visually challenged students should have access to books in large-type.  As you prepare your orders, do you think about who will be interested in this title?  You don’t purchase something merely because it has a good review. In whose hands do you see it? Does it connect to a curricular area?  Do you know one or more students who like this author or type of book? Ranganathan used “book” generically.  He also meant magazines. Today we should be thinking about e-resources and databases.  Who will be served by adding this to the collection?

every bookThird Law – Every reader his book

This may be my favorite of his laws.  I personally know someone who was a lifelong nonreader. Quite by accident, she decided to try one of those wildly popular titles everyone was reading and talking about and fell in love.  It was the first in a trilogy, so she read all three. And re-read them, and re-read them.  Finally she knew the text virtually by heart, and was ready to take a risk and read another in a similar vein.  Suddenly she is a voracious reader, proudly announcing to me she got a library card and has been shopping at Barnes and Noble. It is a complete reversal.  I travel everywhere with my e-reader and patiently read while waiting my turn to be helped (PERSONAL NOTE OF HORROR: My Nook broke this week – I had to replace it in under 24 hours or risk insanity).  Invariably someone tells me they love to read and often trace it back to the one book that got them started. And that is a special role and gift of our profession.  We know our users and we know our books. It is our delight and our mission to connect our users with the perfect book for them.

Fourth Law – Save the time of the reader

The purpose of library organization is to do just that – and the work of Ranganathan and Dewey made it possible.  However, as we have discussed, there are other thoughts today. The rationale for genre-fying the collection is to save readers’ time.  It also means you need to regularly look at you facility and procedures to see if you have any obstacles keeping readers from easy access to what they need and want.  School librarians need to remember this law when students ask for assistance.  Too many times, we want them to learn to do it for themselves and just give directions to be followed.  Yes, they need to learn, but sometimes the need is to get to the answer. You can impart the lesson by going with the student, explaining the steps as you do them.

Fifth Law – The library is a growing organism

Students work on an in-class assignment in an Electrical and Computer Engineering 230: Circuit Analysis course taught by faculty associate Michael Morrow on the fourth floor of Wendt Library at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW-Madison)

Ranganathan recognized that a static library is a dead one.  Even in today’s heavily technological world, bookshelves do get filled.  In the haste to add more space for computers and other devices, libraries are reducing shelving to a bare minimum.  These are crammed with what is being retained, but where will the new print acquisitions go? Certainly there won’t be as many as the past, but they are still being purchased.  On a larger level, this law speaks to the constant change libraries undergo as they transform themselves to meet the needs of users and reflect the technological and other changes of society.

I suggest it is time to bring Ranganathan and his five laws to the attention of our users. Print them out in a large, easily read format, frame and hang it in your main area. Put his name and 1931, the year they were published, at the bottom.  It is a great explanation of what your program does and why.

As I said, the Third Law is my favorite.  Which is yours? Or which challenges you?

ON LIBRARIES – Reach Out To Collaborate

collaborationCollaboration is an important word in librarianship.  We all accept that it’s vital in giving students the best possible learning opportunities.  Most often, the word is used when we talk about collaborating with teachers. It’s time to think past the school building when developing collaboration.

The easiest bridge to build is with your local public librarians.  Are you aware of what programs they are offering?  Do they know what you are doing?  Is there a way you can work together?  In many places the children’s librarian visits the public school to promote a summer reading program, but you can invite them to come in during September for Library Card Sign-up Month.  It’s sometimes surprising to discover how many students don’t go to the public library. Talk with the librarian about creating a joint program, possibly a Makerspace and alternate venues.  Have the librarian showcase some of your programs and events on their bulletin board and/or website and do the same in return.

If at all possible, try to schedule a field trip to the public library.  Even middle and some high school students might be interested to see the “back rooms” to find out how materials get processed and get a chance to speak with the different levels of librarians as well as the clerks.  Most public libraries now have a teen section and, of course, they circulate DVDs audio books, and video games. Since their collection is larger than yours, it is good for students to know what’s available.  Their online databases also tend to be more extensive and those with library cards can access them from home.  The more students become aware of the existence and value of all types of libraries, the more likely they are to become lifelong learners and library advocates.public library

You can also collaborate with other schools in your district. Some of you run district-wide Battle of the Books contests, but you can also do joint projects with your students working the students from another school using Skype, Google Docs, or other tech to connect.  Perhaps their final product can be displayed one night at the public library.

Visits by older students to lower grades can be beneficial to both groups.  On Read-Across-America Day, some high school students go to elementary schools to read books to younger ones. I once had a U.S. History project where students had to take a topic, such as the Great Depression, and create a picture book.  First we borrowed historical fiction picture books from an elementary school library and discussed how the authors made a complex idea comprehensible to young children.  What background knowledge would they lack and need to be informed about in order for the book to make sense? With that understanding, they went to work. They field tested their results by reading their creations to kids in the elementary school.

Consider collaborating with 2 and 4 year colleges in your area.  The latest issue of Knowledge Quest, the magazine from AASL has numerous articles dealing with different ways to do this.  Field trips, again, acquaint students of the huge jump from a high school to a college library including the size, number of databases, and Library of Congress replacing the familiar Dewey Decimal System.

A visit from a college librarian talking about research projects at the college level is an eye-opener for students.  Years ago, a colleague of mine, arranged with a college professor to grade research papers that had already been graded by their teacher.  They were stunned when the college grade was returned as it was a full grade lower on average. Check Knowledge Quest for more ideas.

build bridgesOnce you start thinking outside the box—and outside your school—look for ways to involve the community.  Is there a Historical Society in your town? Could you come up with a project to collaborate with them?  Check to see what is out there, reach out to their contact person (with the knowledge and approval of your administrator) and see what projects you can create together.

Go worldwide. A number of librarians are connecting their students with students in another country. In the August/ September 2014 issue of School Librarian’s Workshop Shannon McClintock Miller explained how she devised a project that had her students making Rainbow Looms and sharing them first with students in an orphanage in India. She found the location in India by tweeting about her project and posting it on her Facebook page.

She and her students created a Banding Together Facebook and Tumblr on the project called Banding.  You can find out more about it at Banding Together” project on her Smore

Besides your teachers, with whom can you collaborate?  Start thinking.



stereotypeThe classic stereotype of a librarian is a plain female with hair in a bun and wearing a dowdy dress who shushes anyone speaking above a whisper.  This dated view of librarians is still very much with us, to a great extent because, sadly, it still occurs in many places.  Should libraries be silent?  Do you like it quiet?  Do your students?  I associate a hushed library environment with those large libraries with vast expanses of books visible on multi-levels with aging researchers buried over huge tomes.  Certainly not the picture of a modern school (or public library).

A 21st century library is a bee-hive of collaborative activity, with students moving seamlessly from electronic to print resources using multiple devices to access them.  True, not every library approaches this level, but it should be what we are aiming to achieve.  Students are comfortable learning from each other and sharing what they know.  In fact – they love it. It’s how they develop skills in video games and discover new tricks and apps on their smartphones.what society thinks

They are accustomed to a world of continuous information feeds whether audio or text. We need to capitalize on that inclination to learn by teaching them how to become global citizens, creating content, and building knowledge which they share in a participatory culture.  And that means, silent libraries are part of the past (or exist only in research libraries).

I am not advocating for a loud, out-of-control environment.  You should be able to be heard if you raise your voice just above normal speaking level. That’s a safety issue.  I am also not talking about a library where kids are horsing around.  On the other hand, all talk does not need to be work-related. Some socialization is acceptable and even important if they are to move from casual conversation to exploring their ideas, interests, and academic pursuits.

My libraries, both elementary and high school, were always a hubbub of activity – and the busy sounds – and energy – it entails.  A visiting superintendent was so impressed to see how engaged students were and how crowded the library was.  This was during lunch period (we were on block scheduling and managed a one-hour lunch for all 1,500 students simultaneously).  It was not a quiet place.  But learning was happening everywhere.

busy library 3Many of you already have this level of activity – and “noise” in your library.  Kids love coming there.  You have made your library the warm, friendly, environment that encourages questions, accepts diverse ideas and opinions, and promotes the desire to learn.

Elementary librarians are more inclined to keep noise levels down.  I suspect it’s caused by the fear that students would quickly become unruly and hard to rein in.  The answer is to change the culture of the library with their cooperation.

Students need to be a part of setting the rules and guidelines.  Talk about the difference between noise in the classroom and noise in the library.  What is good noise?  When does it become too much? What needs to be done if students become too loud?  I have found it best to talk to those students individually or the small group causing the disturbance rather than loudly addressing everyone.

Consider couching these guidelines under the heading of Respect.  Respect for yourself, respect for others, and respect for the library.  If at all possible provide a quiet area (much like trains today with their quiet cars) for those who need more silence to get work done.  Most often it’s the teachers who need it.

What do you think is the optimum level of noise vs. silence?  Is your library too quiet?  Too noisy?  What do your students think?   What do you want to change?  And what help do you need to get to this new level?