Whenever you are creating beauty around you, you are restoring your own soul.
– Alice Walker
It was a steamy day in August when a colleague and I stopped to chat in the parking lot. As we exchanged our sentiments about our school readiness, I confessed I felt oddly energized. A second-career educator, I had just concluded my fifth summer as a teacher-librarian, during which I had spent hundreds of hours working in our library.
My summer preparations this year were far different from the usual; they entailed a complete redesign of a space at least ten times the size of a traditional classroom, that would serve over 1,000 students in 6th-8th grades. My summer to-do list to transform our school’s library into a more flexible, interactive, and inviting learning space was nearly complete. The good news was that I was not only still standing, I was excited. I couldn’t wait to open the doors, welcome back the students and staff, and showcase the new space.
My first career as a book buyer for an independent bookstore involved an office cubicle that was just large enough for myself, one other book aficionado, and the baby crib that held my napping daughters as infants. Needless to say, the first few years after my career change, when my “office” became the gigantic Library Media Center, I struggled with the scale of my new environs. More often than not, I felt like a stunned goldfish on view for everyone passing by than the passionate teacher-librarian I had envisioned.
My first five years as a new teacher-librarian presented other challenges. While my new colleagues went out of their way to make me feel welcome, I struggled daily with trying to reach the same level of comfort I had with my bookstore colleagues. We had been a family; on several occasions I shed tears over the loss of the supportive network I had left behind. I couldn’t help but feel like I was not only working in a middle school, but that I had returned to being a middle schooler. I don’t need to say how painful that was. Who wants to repeat their adolescence?
What I didn’t understand at the time was that I was experiencing many of the classic feelings that most introverts feel when entering a new social situation. I craved deeper conversations—which are tough to begin with new colleagues. I felt self-conscious about every little thing I did, and I beat myself up for not being outgoing enough.
I started questioning why I’d ever changed careers, but every time I’d falter, I’d receive some reminder of my love of sharing good research strategies with our students. Sharing these strategies kept me going; I enjoyed not only the book-centric variety of research techniques, but also the kind that digs deeply into electronic databases and credible web sites. To that end, almost half the space in the library was devoted to rows of forty desktop computers. I hated the arrangement of these desktops into straight rows. To me, this represented the delivery mode of an outdated, industrial-age educational system. With many tools and resources for learning, creating, and sharing shifting from being device-specific to being at students’ fingertips on their personal devices, the days for these dinosaurs were limited.
Then, it was announced that our middle school students would each receive a Chromebook at the beginning of the 2016-17 school year. The convergence of this implementation with the enthusiastic support of our administration, the availability of funds, and the need for more flexible space for our students and staff turned out to be the opportunity I had been hoping for. I completely left my comfort zone as I found myself in the role of “space designer” for our library.
I started visiting showrooms and my friend’s school where she had recently completed a similar transformation. I also collated input; for five years, I had been informally asking students and staff what they liked and didn’t like, what they’d like to change, what ideas they had for a better library. As an introvert, my skills at observing how learners operated in various environments proved valuable, even in all the details of furniture arrangements, books and shelves,collaborative spaces, quieter areas, and our makerspace materials.
Our newly designed space includes areas for collaboration and quiet contemplation, complete with a restorative niche area with art supplies and coloring pages. Our variety of furnishings includes learning bars with bar-height chairs, rolling whiteboard tables andchairs, soft lounge seating, and traditional “study” tables/chairs. We have a new Book Club section featuring books in multiple quantities, along with a our expanded Fiction and Nonfiction sections. Built into our fiction section, we now have interactive dry erase boards where students can “rent a space” and share their visual creations to express their love of reading. Our library also includes a presentation station with a monitor to enable students to project from their Chromebook, and a green screen video/podcast production room. Through a collaboration with our school’s STEM teacher, we’ve sponsored an after school club called STEAM Team. With the new design, we are able to make available an array of STEAM-themed tools we’ve been building for over three years including Raspberry Pi stations, a 3D printer, Spheros, littleBits, art and writing crafts, coloring sheets, and other creative supplies.
Remember that colleague and our parking lot chat? A couple of days after our conversation, she brought me a Weekly Newspaper Ad from a national home center store that features an inspiring quote at the bottom of every ad. I guess Alice Walker’s wisdom helps explain why I feel energized after such a long, and at times difficult, journey to create a beautiful space for our school community to gather and read, create and share.