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IDEA WATCH: School Libraries, Librarians, and Project-Based Learning–“Flexing” Library Spaces for Learning

By Carolyn Foote - Posted Jan 1, 2017
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Last spring, our AP environmental science class teacher gave her students an assignment: Find something environmental about our school and community that they wanted to change, form a class community, and propose solutions to the problem. Each class brainstormed and voted on a problem they wanted to address, and then formed subcommittees for publicity, finances, etc.

So how did the library fit into this venture? For one thing, the classes used me as the research expert, calling me in for advice on where to find information, who to contact, and who the experts were in the field. A Texas colleague of mine, White Oak Middle School librarian Michelle Cooper—whose school focuses on project-based learning (PBL) experiences for students—also sees an important role for libraries and librarians in PBL: “In my experience, libraries play a vital role in supporting project-based learning. At the White Oak Middle School Media Center, one of the critical pieces is collaboration among teachers, students, and the librarian. The librarian has a key role in helping provide resources for students and teachers to have a successful PBL project. Students come to the library with a big idea to creatively solve their problem. The exciting part is helping them find the research and tools to help their big idea become a reality.”

Equally important to our students’ process was having a space to work in that supported their collaboration. The class came to the library throughout their project to use our brainstorming lab because of our whiteboard tables, flexible furniture with wheels, and open areas where they could gather and meet. The design of our library supported their project-based learning goals.

David Jakes, who presented “Toward the Design of Contemporary Library Spaces” in the Internet@Schools track at the 2016 Internet Librarian conference in Monterey, Calif., speaks about how spaces create invitations for experiences. He often speaks about how the threshold or entry to the space invites users to see it in a certain way. Jakes suggests: “Spaces where inquiry occurs offer an invitation to question, and provide access to the resources necessary for that. Flexible furniture, whiteboard space, ubiquitous access to technology, and ubiquitous access to a wide range of information, including databases but also social media … Such a space is designed for discussion and conversation, interpretation, more questions, and ways to share ideas.”

For example, our own brainstorming lab where the environmental science teacher conducted class for her project was once a computer lab with stationary tables and fixed computers. We remade the space to inspire teachers and students to use the library for creative and collaborative work. We removed stationary computers from the lab and replaced them with laptops in a cart, bought additional power cords so laptops were truly portable, and asked our parent-teacher organization to purchase whiteboard flip tables on wheels for ultimate flexibility. We added glass whiteboards on the walls, as well. The space already had glass walls, so it’s easy for passers-by to see the collaborative and creative work happening inside. The goal was to invite teachers to use the room as a collaborative group brainstorming and thinking space, rather than just a computer lab.

As curricula and technologies change, libraries must be in beta mode, re-examining and transforming spaces to support student and teacher needs. At Windsor Mill Middle School (Baltimore County, Md.), Tatanisha Love’s library has created learning stations to invite different sorts of interactions: “By having Pods of Learning (POL), students can have the chance to use areas for group or individual work. I have several POLs in the library. One area for class instruction, a group work area, and areas for paired activities and/or individual zones.”

So what is required for a space that supports the authentic and engaging experiences that we want PBL to be? According to the Buck Institute for Education (BIE), PBL “is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge” ( bie?.org/about/what_pbl ). PBL includes these features, according to BIE:

• Challenging question and meaningful problem

• An extended period of inquiry

• Authentic real-world tasks and impact

• Student voice and choice

• Self-reflection and evaluation

• A published product

The work is driven by student inquiry, brainstorming, data collection, interactions with experts, and discovery of resources that are needed. Students work independently to select their goals and create the products that make sense for their challenge. The teacher and librarian exist as resources to help frame a successful PBL project and to guide students about experts in the field, good sources for information, and next steps to take. Librarians might help students build websites of sources or offer advice on how to use appropriate databases, contact local experts, or collaborate with other students (or, as in our project, campus and district personnel). But all of this is enabled and supported by physical and online spaces that support and invite these characteristics.

Physical Spaces ?That Support Inquiry

If we intend to design a space that supports inquiry, what do we have to consider? Since we do not know the specific projects students will be working on, how do we translate that idea of inquiry into an actual space? Inquiry is a flexible and ongoing process. It requires questioning, and brainstorming and is best done collaboratively. White Oak Middle School’s Cooper points out: “A learning environment where everyone’s ideas are valued and appreciated is paramount to creating a space conducive to PBL. Students will share their ideas when they feel safe and valued.” What can that physical space look like?

The space can provide the following:

• Access to technology

• Access to brainstorming tools such as personal whiteboards, giant sticky notes, glass wall whiteboards, whiteboard tables

• Furniture that rolls: chairs and tables on wheels allowing easy reconfiguration of the space

• Portable stools: stools or soft seating so that students can pull up to a table or can sit together or in groups for maximum flexibility

• Student-centered spaces: less focus on teacher space and more on ways students and teachers can interact; a rolling teacher podium that lowers to student height

• Publishing spaces: media wall, media desks where students can hook up devices to display work to other students

• Audience spaces: spaces where students can gather to listen to other students’ projects and solutions

Online Spaces That ?Support Authentic Inquiry

If we have the intent to support authentic learning and inquiry, what do we need to provide in terms of online spaces for students? Jakes points out that these spaces should “connect users in multiple ways and not just school to student.” Collaborative and student-centered online spaces provide students with more real-world learning experiences, and offer them ways to put projects online if appropriate. To support PBL, are there filtering issues for which we need to work with our district? Are there valid tools students might need to use (like some social media tools) to make their work more authentic? Are there tools for creating? Jakes recommends: “Currently, digital spaces are for access to information resources; they need to be places that provide creative capacity as well.” The types of sites that might be helpful to students include the following:

• Blogs: Students can share their work, process, and progress openly on a blog site such as Edublogs or Weebly. Blogs also invite collaboration with other teams, outside experts, etc., because of their ability to make comments. Because blogs can have moderated comments, this can be done safely, as well.

• Learning management system (LMS) platforms such as Google Classroom would allow teachers to share resources or materials easily with students; other options like eBackpack, Showbie, or Edmodo could be used as well.

• Project management tools such as Asana or Trello can be useful.

• G Suite: Collaborative tools from Google, such as Google Docs, Forms, Sheets, and Slides, create easy-to-use collaborative locations for student work. Students can use these tools for brainstorming, building a plan of action, conducting surveys, compiling data, and creating their final presentations.

• Database access: Providing access to serious research sites and instructions on how to use them effectively allows students to locate expert input and statistics, and assess the pros and cons of their ideas. A robust set of databases is a key component for thoughtful questioning and research.

In the book The Passionate Learner (Beacon Press, 2001), Robert L. Fried speaks to the need for authentic learning experiences that engage students. “When we view curriculum as a function of relationships, we bring it to our classrooms … we allow ourselves and our students to make it belong to us, to adjust it, to restyle it, to enliven it, to infuse it with meaning. Such ownership increases the likelihood that young people will approach the knowledge and skills to be learned as active, critical, thoughtful investigators, rather than as passive receptors (or rejectors).” When we design online spaces and physical spaces that invite and support authentic and collaborative learning, we send the invitation that Jakes spoke about­—that learning is intended here, and that collaboration and student ownership are valued

Contact Carolyn at technolibrary@gmail?.com.

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