Libraries as learning centers: changing the culture of your library

 //  Jan 8, 2018

Libraries as learning centers: changing the culture of your library

Alisha Wilson of Booker T. Washington High School in Pensacola, Florida was named Maker Hero by School Library Journal and Scholastic in the 2017 School Librarian of the Year Awards. Below, she shares how she changed the culture of her library.

“But I thought you loved teaching,” whined Macy.

“I do,” I said.

“Then why are you not going to do it anymore? I wanted to be a teacher because of you.”

“Librarians are lame, Mrs. Wilson,” another student added.

The responses of my students on the day I announced that next year I would take over our school library really stung! They stung because as someone who spent her entire life wanting to be a teacher—an English teacher at that— I was conflicted. But the truth is that teaching isn’t what I really love. It’s learning. I love watching learning occur, seeing my students be creative and discover something new. I love watching students devour information, ask questions, come up with new ideas, think about the tough questions, and fall in love with a character in a book.

It was this realization of the importance of establishing a love for learning that prompted me to strive for a culture of creative inquiry in my library, and to use my students’ comments as catalysts for change when I became the school librarian in 2015. The changes we made increased our student visits from 9,000 to almost 24,000 in the first year. We started a Spark Lab, Creation Station, and a Writing Lab. We also began offering regular activities and events throughout the year. It definitely did not happen overnight, and required not only my own hard work, but also that of my army of students who agreed to help me make our library less “lame.” 

Gaining teacher and student buy-in

Having your student body and teachers on board with the changes to your library is crucial to running a successful program and changing the dynamic of your space. Below are a few things I did that helped me get started in meeting the needs of my students and teachers. 

Assess your school's needs

Take a poll. Ask your students and teachers what they would change, or what services would be helpful to have available. For me, this assessment was easy because I had been a teacher in my school for four years before becoming the librarian, so I simply had to brainstorm what resources would have helped me as a classroom teacher and what resources would help my students.

For example, I once had a student ask to borrow scissors and paper to take home after I assigned a creative Greek mythology project. This experience was eye-opening because I discovered that many of the students in my school do not have the resources they need at home. This realization prompted me to start a Spark Lab in my library, a resource room full of supplies donated from the community that students could use for projects. This initiative has since expanded to include circuity, robotics, 3D printing, and more, but it began as a room full of yarn, glue, googly eyes, stamps, paper, a sewing machine, and so forth. 

Libraries as learning centers

A great way to get your students and teachers excited about your space is to host learning events that correspond with what students are learning in their classrooms. For example, if all of your English teachers teach Shakespeare the last nine weeks, recruit your library assistants to help you host a Shakespeare Festival with a plethora of crafts, games, activities, and demos for students to participate in, and invite the English classes to come. Even better, have a few English classes come up with stations and run them for students in lower grade levels. My assistants and I collaborated most recently with our AP English teachers to host an event for the national #whyiwrite day with this exact format, and quickly decided it will be an annual event in our library because of the enthusiasm for learning it generated.

If students are studying roller coaster physics in science, have students build roller coasters using foam and marbles on your book shelves, or set out a K’Nex roller coaster kit, or host an hour of code event and invite teachers to bring their classes. You will never see more engagement in your library than when you make learning opportunities available that are engaging and exciting for students and teachers.

Even though hosting an event may sound like a daunting task and a lot of work, remember a few things:

  1. Start with your strengths. There is a reason I first hosted a Shakespeare Festival instead of a Pi Day event because English is my background and definitely my comfort zone. I was also most comfortable talking to the English teachers, so it made it a great first event to try. 

  2. Form connections with teachers in other departments. Send out slips or a survey and ask them to list upcoming units. 

  3. Give students ownership of the event. Have them brainstorm the activities and run the stations.

My students’ negative attitude toward our school library let me know a culture shift was a necessity for our school. I couldn’t shake the feeling that if this next generation views a place full of resources, books, and incredible stories as “lame” then we have to make some changes that get students to take charge of their learning. What better place to start this change than the library! 

Photo via Alisha Wilson