A year in the life of a student-centered library

eSchoolsNews | January 10, 2018 

By: John Milburn and Kimberly Defusco 

The supervisors of Hillsborough County Public Schools’ media services reflect on what they learned in 2017—and predict changes to come in 2018.

There’s no “typical” day for a library media specialist. In one school day, we can teach a class about fake news, help one student find the perfect resource for his research project, and guide another toward a “just-right” book series that appeals to her personal interests. For 21st-century media specialists, the idea of the library as a quiet space is out and creating new opportunities for deeper learning with students is in.

Our district, Hillsborough County Public Schools (HCPS) is the eighth-largest school district in the nation. We provide a wealth of educational opportunities for students and families that range from Head Start to adult-education programs within our 227 traditional public and magnet schools. We are a melting pot of urban, rural, and suburban areas. The word “diverse” doesn’t begin to describe our wide array of students and schools. It’s our job to make sure that at every school, every student has equitable access to high-quality reading, learning, and technological resources.

As we look back on 2017, we’d like to share the best practices that have worked for us, as well as a few predictions about what 2018 will look like for media specialists.

Best Practice 1: Become a leader in literacy innovation.

We often get inquiries about our district’s overall vision for our libraries. The truth is, libraries in our schools are far from cookie-cutter, and that’s what makes us successful. One of the reasons we feel our libraries are so effective is because each school is equipped with a full-time certified library media specialist. Additionally, each library’s resources are curated and customized for each school to meet the needs of its diverse student population. It sounds like a big task, but it’s what our students need, so the effort is worth it.

When students enter the real world, they’ll be exposed to a variety of print and digital text, and libraries are great equalizers for different forms of media. Our media specialists are experts in collaborating with teachers, knowing their student population, identifying the right mix of print and digital resources, and detecting student preferences. For example, some schools’ young students engage in a lot of computer-based testing, which may make them associate screens and testing. We see that as a contributing factor in students’ desire to read more print when reading for fun or for school. On the other hand, we have many students who prefer the freedom of reading digital books and news articles on myON. The literacy environment allows students to read on and offline using their device, and recommends titles based on their individual reading level and interests. Providing a plethora of print and digital titles gives our libraries the latitude to personalize learning and make a positive impact on our students’ learning experience.

Best Practice 2: Take risks, and don’t let the fear of failure hold you back.

Every year, we encourage our students to read from the Florida state-award-nominated book lists. In 2017, to further engage students, we revamped the program into the Student Literacy and Media Showcase (SLAM Showcase). As students read books from the lists, they responded to the literature creatively by employing their artistic and digital skills. Students had the year to work on their projects, and in the spring we hosted our first showcase event, which highlighted the work of more than 700 students from all grades K-12. We invited four authors to speak at the event and sign copies of their books for students. There was an art and film festival showcasing the students’ works. The event was a new, fresh, and inclusive approach to reading and literacy, which is one of the reasons it was a success.

We couldn’t have hosted the SLAM showcase without the help of our partners. Through our Community of Readers Project, we have a strong network of partners who share our goal of helping students succeed. For example, we partnered with the Arts Council of Hillsborough County for our SLAM event. They’ve helped us organize a number of workshops, poetry events, and more.

Predictions for 2018

We predict 2018 will be a year of innovation in a number of areas.

Physical space: Libraries have always been a place to learn, explore, and connect. The way we do those activities today is different from the past, so we predict the physical space of the library will continue to evolve. We challenge media specialists to embrace the flexible seating and makerspace movement, and to think outside the box about how your space could be used to best meet the needs of your students.

Personalized learning: Schools are just starting to see the power of personalized learning to increase student achievement. In 2018, we see more schools adopting resources that allow students to use their creative-thinking and problem-solving skills to demonstrate knowledge and understanding on a deeper level than they can on a standardized test.

Diversity in literature: Our diverse students are attracted to materials that reflect their own lives and the world around them. In 2018, we see students continuing to want to read literature from authors writing in their own voice and sharing experiences students can relate to. We plan to continue seeking publishers who celebrate diversity of voice and perspective.

Overall, 2017 was a year of change. We hosted a new event and had no idea what the outcome would be, but we took a risk and it paid off. Our biggest lesson learned from this year is that students are powerful, and when we put them at the center of our mission, collaboration comes naturally.

Yes, we need to make sure we have sufficient staff and that we provide just-right resources for our students. Hillsborough libraries should also be places where students go to discover their individual passions, interests, and creativity. To our fellow media specialists, we say: In 2018, don’t let fear of making a mistake hinder your innovative spirit. When students are at the center of your work, you can only learn from your mistakes and move forward.

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