Becoming a Leader through Action Research: Building Open Education Practice in the School Library

A Tale of Two Libraries. Where is the Evidence for Change?

Library A
Library A

Library A is the traditional “warehouse” model of a school library as a repository for library reading materials. The librarian, Miss McNeil, strictly enforces the rule that limits the number of books each student can check out to two. The children come to the library once a week for 30 minutes. There is no time for information literacy instruction. In fact, for contractual reason teachers do not accompany their classes to the library because it is their preparation time to work on their lessons. This kind of “fixed schedule” makes it impossible for the children to learn information and inquiry skills. Miss McNeil also strictly enforces silence in the library and the children use this time to read the books they want to check out. Miss McNeil does not have an aide or assistant, but she does have a parent volunteer every day for at least three hours. The parents check out and shelve books. 

Emma, who is in 3rd grade, reads with her mom almost every night, so she is looking for the second Harry Potter to bring home for their nightly reading. Miss McNeil, however, has dutifully “leveled” and color-coded all her books so that the children can easily be monitored and encouraged to read books written on their grade level. Needless to say Emma was not successful in checking out her Harry Potter book. “This book is much too difficult for you,” chided Miss McNeil as Emma returned the book to its place on the shelf.

There was a time, many years ago, when Miss McNeil read aloud to the children in the library. She took her role in developing literacy in young children very seriously in those days and often displayed puppets and stuffed animals and other artifacts from her favorite books. She likes to model questioning the author, or predicting events in the story to capture the children’s attention. However, the principal was not too happy to see the professional librarian reading to children. “Can’t you get a volunteer to do that?” he said to Miss McNeil during her performance evaluation. 

Needless to say, the school library budget is very small and the collection is very old. This library does not have a web page, nor do the children have remote access at home to electronic materials. There is a technology lab in the school for the older children and the technology staff works independently of the library. In fact, Miss McNeil doesn’t even know the names of the technology teacher, or the reading specialists for that matter since they never visit the library.

Library Z
Library Z

Library Z is a multimedia model of a school library and children are encouraged to explore digital devices and tools. The librarian, Miss Martinez, encourages the children to collaborate on the information tasks she assigns every week. Like Miss McNeil’s library there is a fixed schedule.  There are not many rules in this library; students can check out as many books as they want, including e-books. The children come to the library once a week for 30 minutes but many also come to the library on their own when they work on their projects. Miss Martinez works with them in small groups to integrate the teaching of information and digital literacy instruction. Often the teachers come to the library to o their lesson preparation and often stay to have lunch with Miss Martinez. This gives them an opportunity to informally plan how to get around the “fixed schedule” to make it possible for children to do sustained inquiry over the course of the school year. children to learn information and inquiry skills.

Miss Martinez’s library emits a buzz as they work together to explore the internet and library collection. They use their time to pursue their own reading interests as well as work on their projects. Miss Martinez does not have an aide or assistant, but she does have several parent parent volunteer every day of the week. She has trained them to help students to find materials in the library or to search electronically. Some parents prefer to check out and shelve books and Miss Martinez has added a small group of fifth graders who help in the library during their lunch breaks and occasionally before or after school.  Zoe, who is in 3rd grade, also reads with her mom almost every night and Miss Martinez often recommends reading materials she knows Zoe will like. There is no leveling of books in this library, although Miss Martinez had an uphill battle convincing the administration and some teachers that when children read in a sustained and interested manner, they improve their comprehension according to the reading research. Needless to say Zoe takes about at least 6 books every week and has read almost every book on insects and birds. “Take as many books as you like, Zoe, “ quipped Miss Martinez as she stuffed Zoe’s book bag with a couple of graphic novels she thought she would like.

Miss Martinez see her role in literacy going across the disciplines. She is working on STEM programming to bring science teachers from the high school to talk with her upper elementary grade students. She often visits the public library in town, where she has learned about STEM resources from the librarian there who received a STEM grant. Miss Martinez is planning to apply for some grants this year to supplement her allocated budget. She works closely with technology staff and has proposed integrating the library with the technology department. She also knows that there is always funding for technology from federal funding and was able to work with Verizon to get free internet access in the school. Her work with the community has brought donations and support to the school program. The principal appreciates the value the school librarian has added to his instructional program and to their new school mission to incorporate 21st century skills in across the disciplines. The principal also values the professional development work that Miss Martinez does at the point of need every day with staff. He is happy to fund her attendance at conferences because she shares what she has learned with her colleagues and keeps them up-to-date with cutting edge resources.

The principal is supportive of Miss Martinez and has increased the library budget by 50% in the last three years, despite tight budgets across the district. He realizes that she is an asset to the school because she contributes unique skills in information, technology, and literacy.