How to turn a library into a collaborative learning center

Librarians still check out books, but they also offer advice on instruction in a range of hands-on activities
By: | Issue: November/December, 2019
November 5, 2019
making a makerspace—In addition to traditional learning resources, the library of Kilmer Middle School in Fairfax County, Virginia, includes a makerspace that allows students to explore and create with tools such as electronics kits.

On a weekday morning in Illinois, Learning Commons Director Josh Stumpenhorst conducts research with a school’s science club. During lunch, he challenges students to build towers that they will knock over when the activity ends.

In a nearby makerspace, students build homemade arcade controllers and small engines. And a group of girls are taking a “field trip” to Stumpenhorst’s space to design a robot.

The “learning commons” in which all of these activities take place used to be called the library. Four years ago, Naperville Community Unit School District 203 in Illinois invested thousands of dollars to add tech tools, update the furniture, and replace walls with glass-enclosed workspaces.


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Librarians are now called media and resource specialists. They still check out books, but they also offer teachers advice on instruction as they support a range of active, hands-on learning initiatives.

“I love what I do because I don’t know what I’m doing when I come into work some days, and it’s the best feeling ever,” says Stumpenhorst, who will present on social-emotional learning in the library at DA’s 2020 Future of Education Technology Conference.®

Card catalog now charges robots

Today’s librarians have become connectors—people who hear a principal’s vision and see it through by providing instructional support to teachers, says Priscille Dando, the coordinator of library information services for Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia.

FETC offers new library and media specialist track

A new library media specialist track will be featured at the 40th annual Future of Education Technology Conference, to be held this January in Miami.

On January 14, FETC and Future Ready School will host a special event designed to help librarians learn the tools and strategies for collaborating with the entire school community and employing technology.

The Future of Ed Tech Library Media Specialist track also features talks such as “Using Technology and Social Media to Brand Your Library/Yourself.” Other discussions cover 3D printing, filmmaking, makerspaces and learning space design.

“The library is the gatekeeper to social and emotional learning,” says Josh Stumpenhorst, the learning commons director for Naperville Community Unit School District 203 in Illinois and an upcoming FETC speaker. “I describe my library as a refuge—a place where kids feel safe.”

The most effective librarians drive academic change by asking teachers about their needs and by building supplementary programs for students that reinforce, and go beyond, what’s happening in the classroom.

Librarians also partner with IT specialists, special education instructors, and ELA and ESL teachers to plan fun, project-based learning activities that complement classroom instruction, she says.

Librarians and media specialists can also serve as resources for educators, who face information overload, by vetting and curating apps, games and other digital tools, says Rosalyn Washington, the digital learning specialist for literacy at Atlanta Public Schools.

How students and teachers congregate in libraries also looks different. Flexible seating and mobile tables and chairs have replaced static furniture arrangements. Round tables (instead of square) encourage students to share ideas and research.

All of these changes were meant to enhance the perception of the library. Few teachers beyond those in the English department saw it as a place of value or where they could find useful resources. Now they do, Stumpenhorst says.

“When I took over, it was very much your grandma’s library; everything was brown and smelled like old books,” Stumpenhorst says. “We gutted a ton, and repurposed old stuff.”

For instance, his school’s card catalog cabinet was stripped down, painted and hardwired to serve as a robot charging station, he says.

How to 3D-print bobbleheads

Stumpenhorst’s learning commons features a woodshop, digital fabrication lab, video production and green screen room, and an arcade. He combined district funds and grants to equip the spaces with 3D printers, laser cutters, computer numerical control milling machines, and a vinyl cutter and heat press to make custom T-shirts.

Students and math and science teachers guided Stumpenhorst in acquiring most of the equipment. With it, students have created homemade controllers and programmed Raspberry Pi computers with retro games like Donkey Kong and Pac-Man, he says. Meanwhile, eighth-graders in the school’s esports program compete using Xbox consoles.

Students at Hayfield Secondary School, part of Fairfax County Public Schools, create all sorts of unique objects during a Frankentoy maker activity.

Students at Hayfield Secondary School, part of Fairfax County Public Schools, create all sorts of unique objects during a Frankentoy maker activity.

Stumpenhorst says he hasn’t had formal training on using these tools. For instance, when a group of eighth-grade boys wanted to design bobbleheads using the 3D-printing machine, Stumpenhorst turned to YouTube for instruction. He learned how to use Kinect for Xbox 360 to scan an image of a bobblehead and fabricate several using a 3D printer.


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And when Stumpenhorst received a grant to buy the vinyl cutter and heat press, he spent the night watching how-to videos of Etsy store owners creating T-shirts using those tools. “I sent the link to students, and they figured it out,” he says. “That’s how we roll.”

He also introduced math teachers to Sphero robots and showed classes how to program the devices. Students conducted experiments on time, speed and distance for a lesson on linear equations and coding.

“There are kids who hate math, but they’re coming in and doing advanced vector math in a digital fabrication environment,” Stumpenhorst says. “They’re just trying to design something until they realize they’re doing some pretty sophisticated math.”

Safe spaces for ‘paper therapy’

In Fairfax County schools, administrators also use libraries as spaces to tend to students’ social-emotional needs, Dando says. Some librarians are trained in trauma-informed teaching to recognize signs that a student is troubled, she says.

Providing a creative refuge

Learning Commons Director Josh Stumpenhorst is always ready to try something new. When students approach him with an idea, he’ll figure out a way to make it fun and engaging while tying it to instruction.

For one initiative, he encourages students to use wood and recyclable materials to build cars, and then he borrows oversize fans from custodial staff. Students see how fast and how far the cars will travel when powered by wind.

In a creative use of space, he strings a cord down the middle of the learning commons to make a zip line that students use to calculate the speed of a flying Lego figurine.

“School does not work for a lot of kids, so the library serves as their refuge,” Stumpenhorst says. “Our space is a place for those kids to find a home, whether it’s in a makerspace or a good book or somewhere in between.”

“The library is a no-judgment zone,” Dando says. “While our primary objective is learning, we also act as a safe space.”

A few Fairfax County librarians have created spaces for students to calm themselves. The librarians provide puzzles and board games for students to use during their lunch or study hall periods or other downtime. They also put scraps of paper with origami instructions on a table, which has become a gathering place where students practice “paper therapy.”

“It’s a stress reliever for them because it gives them a break from the usual school day and instruction,” Dando says. “Making isn’t just an instructional activity; it’s something that supports our students’ wellness.”

Also, many libraries no longer prohibit noise and food, says Lynn M. Reynolds, executive director of library media services for Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky.

In one section of some of her district’s libraries, students can meet at café-style tables and bring in food and beverages. Librarians sometimes provide healthier snacks, such as carrots.

Leaders of Onondaga-Cortland-Madison BOCES in New York are working to change perceptions of school libraries by calling them “centers of engagement,” says Doreen Bergman, director of educational programs.


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Libraries are where the entire learning community can discuss day-to-day matters as well as hot-topic issues such as politics and activism, she says.

School librarians are certified teachers, sometimes called “teacher librarians,” and contribute to curriculum and instruction decisions.

“Our librarians are true education partners and leaders in their districts,” Bergman says. “They are the ones who are saying, ‘Let’s not be afraid to fail.’”

Emily Ann Brown is associate editor.


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