Sunday, May 13, 2012

Cockroaches in the Library Are Good: And Other Lessons I Learned In Vermont

Last week I had the opportunity to share and learn alongside a wonderful group of educators at Dynamic Landscapes – a joint technology educators and school librarian conference in Vermont. What an amazing experience! I quickly learned that spring in Vermont is a little slice of heaven and that Vermonters are fun, smart and incredibly welcoming. Plus, with Burlington (and Champlain College where the conference was held) overlooking Lake Champlain, the view’s not bad either.
Paradise (AKA Burlington) Vermont

As is so often the case when I am invited to share something about my own journey with other educators, I left Vermont feeling as though I had learned just as much (if not more) than I was able to share myself.    

First off, I went to what was, without a doubt, the most successful presentation on Twitter that I have ever been to.  Vermont librarian, Beth Redford, put together a great presentation on why educators should join Twitter that hit its target dead center.  We're talking a complete bullseye!

Now... I am a HUGE fan of Twitter.  I often say that Twitter has changed my professional life, and it has.  Truly.  But as much as I love Twitter, I am also a HUGE failure when it comes to bringing new folks to the Twitterverse.  I talk about Twitter all of the time and no matter how much I gush over its wonders, I have NEVER been successful in making it stick for newbies.  But now, thanks to Beth, I've seen a model that works!

img src:
What I love about Beth's presentation is that it started with a real example of how Twitter changed her practice.  She provided a visual map illustrating how changing the reading lives of Beth's students and community was but ONE STOP along the journey of a single tweet that began with a librarian that lives hundreds of miles away from Vermont.   Then, once she had her audience hooked (I mean who WOULDN'T want to be a part of something like that?) she showed them how to sign up, to add an image to their account, how to follow a few choice people and how to sort those folks into lists. She focused entirely on showing her audience how to consume information from Twitter.  She didn't worry about making them contributors - rather, she provided a taste of a one way Twitter relationship, recognizing that connecting and contributing are later steps that may or many not happen for everyone. The rest of the time, she answered questions and scurried about her huge audience (the room was jam packed full of folks!) guiding and encouraging her new Tweeters onto sweet tweet success.  

And that's the genius of her presentation: a) she kept it incredibly simple and b) she helped her audience gain immediate gratification.  By the end, we all felt like we'd accomplished something AND that Twitter was a manageable resource that we could navigate successfully. (And let me just say, given how immense the flow of information is on Twitter, that's nothing short of amazing!)  I realize this may not seem like rocket science, but I've failed at this over and over again.  Now, thanks to Beth, I can see that I've not only tried to cram way too much into these initial conversations about Twitter but that I've also taken for granted that my audience will just go forth and tweet!  Silly me.  Anyway, you can find Beth's presentation on her blog, The Connected Librarian

The other learning highlight of this trip came from a visit to the Orchard Elementary School library in South Burlington, Vermont.  Orchard Elementary is an absolutely darling school nestled between, you guessed it, fruit orchards and student tended gardens.  From the moment we drove up, I was in love!  But, the real gem of this sweet little school is its library - an amazing space that was designed and is lovingly cared for by Vermont librarian Donna MacDonald.

As a middle school librarian, I love visiting elementary school libraries.  With their story-time corners and puppet theaters, there's just something wondrous and gentle about these special spaces.  But what struck me about Donna's library is how it is has been skillfully crafted into what can only be described as a laboratory for learning.  Sharing space with all the books and comfy reading nooks, Donna designed a "library classroom" for whole group instruction and a creation station (complete with a sink!) for when learning gets messy.  

These spaces, which are a prominent part of the total area, let every visitor know that the library is not JUST about reading. Rather, it is a space of learning, sharing and creating.  But what really struck me about Donna's library was how she'd created a space that made it almost impossible for her students NOT to be able to find the information they need.  

Need a book on the human body??  Just look under the skeleton.

Looking for a book on cockroaches??  Well, how about right next to the LIVE COCKROACHES?

Tortoises more your speed?  Let Max the Russian Tortoise show you the way.

How about a Tarantula?  You guessed it! 

There were similar displays for books on history, sports, you name it!  Donna has created a space in which library books, and the content they contain, are indelibly connected to the living world.  One of the things I've been thinking about a lot lately is how Dewey (and other ways that we organize books to help librarians instead of kids) put up roadblocks between our students and the information they need.  That said, no such barriers exist in the Orchard Elementary School library- and if they once did, Donna has completely destroyed them.  Not only is finding information easy in Donna's library, but its a magical journey of inquiry and discovery.

I realize, of course, that we can't all put creepy crawlies in our library to help our students see the connection between information and the natural world, but the creatures are NOT the story here.  The story is how Donna created a map for her students to access and interact with information.  Instead of spending their library time trying to decode the decimal system, her students explore real questions and create real solutions with information that is both easy and fun for them to find.  I mean, who couldn't figure out where the books about oceans and sea creatures are in Donna's library?

Plus, given the emphasis on non-fiction texts in the Common Core, this seems like both really good and really timely practice! Truly, I wanted to stay there forever.  What's more, as a middle school librarian, I cannot wait to shamelessly steal many of her ideas.

I am truly grateful for the time I was able to spend learning and sharing in Vermont.  Thanks to everyone who made my trip so memorable - but especially to Beth and Donna who sent me home with lessons that will continue to inform my practice for years to come.


  1. Fabulous post, Jennifer. I am so lucky to have Beth & Donna as colleagues in Vermont. Their work and ideas are creative, productive, and snappy.

    Come back soon!

  2. How gracious you are, Jennifer, in your appreciation of our state and our great librarians. Y'all come back anytime!