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By Kelly Johnson (she/her), teacher-librarian, traditional and unceded territories of the Musqueam Nation

After 23 years as a classroom teacher, I completed my library training and became a teacher-librarian at the very same elementary school where I had spent my teaching career. This is my dream job. I was overjoyed to be in this role and eager to create a space that would engage the hearts and minds of our school’s 325 students.

Our library, built in 1948, was already well-loved by staff and students, but it had not had any significant updates. The space had obvious and exciting potential. It was a large rectangle with plenty of square footage, and its location in the very centre of our school made it a natural hub for student activity.

“If you have a garden in your library, everything will be complete.” – Cicero
In my first year, I experimented with ways to make the most of the existing space. The courtyard was our first school-wide library project. Funded by an innovation grant and in collaboration with every classroom at our school, we created a garden from a space previously used as a storage area. Students carried in yards of soil, and then river stones in small buckets. They dug and planted, raked, and weeded. Together, we planted indigenous-to-BC ferns and flowers, built pebble walkways, added picnic tables, weatherproof cushions, and even made a miniature Zen sand garden. This space became a natural extension of the library and a favourite place for students to read, work, and garden.

Inside the library, the rigid furniture layout was affecting our ability to move toward a true library learning commons (LLC). The oversized circulation desk and student computer workstations were occupying a sizable percentage of the library’s space and offered no flexibility, as they were permanently secured in place. The fixed furniture meant that I was not able to reconfigure the space to support the kinds of activities that our library program was developing. Our new 3D printer had no permanent space, the students’ worktables were heavy and impossible to move by myself, the 30 chairs were weighty and cumbersome to stack each day, and they were also taking up more than their fair share of space.

Our students deserved a space that would be able to transform quickly and efficiently into the learning environments they wanted and needed. I wanted to be able to go from a yoga session with the Grade 1 students to a 3D printing workshop with the flexibility to rearrange the space single-handedly.

A collaborative process for a collaborative space
After my initial positive experience with an innovation grant in the courtyard, I was excited at the possibility of turning our attention to changing the structure of the library. With support from our district library co-ordinator, I applied for a significant learning environments grant. In our district, innovative direction is grounded in a cycle of inquiry that starts with the question, “What is going on for our learners?” As such, the first step of our innovation journey was to collect student input on what they wanted their LLC to look like. They provided the many ideas and suggestions that eventually became the heart of our design blueprint. They asked for specific things, such as comfortable seating, cozy reading nooks, clean and uncluttered spaces, new books, and more technology that they could use. Really, they were asking for choice.

It was important that both the creation process and final product of our LLC mirrored these values by hearing and honouring students’ voices. Many more brains were united in consultation: our district carpenters and mill-working folks, our district library co-ordinator Rebeca Rubio, administrators at the school, the staff, and of course—the students. This was a collaborative project on all levels. All voices were heard, and ideas were added.

Begin with the end in mind
Drawing from the data I had gathered using the spirals of inquiry, and armed with copies of Leading Learning: Standards of Practice for School Library Learning Commons in Canada and From School Library to Library Learning Commons: A Pro-Active Model for Educational Change, I created lists of everything the new space would need room for:

•    quiet work and reading

•    students working with technology, and the infrastructure to support the kinds of technology we envisioned

•    story-making and storytelling with loose parts

•    large groups and presentations

•    displays (both student work and books)

•    flexibility so the space can transform quickly and easily.

As this list of needs grew, it became apparent that the entire footprint of the library would need to change to accommodate our vision. Now, if you have ever undertaken a large-scale renovation, then you know that every reno has a few surprises! We realized that the carpeting would need to be replaced because it is exceedingly difficult to roll bookshelves on a carpeted surface. The carpenters explained that the bracket shelving no longer met the standards for earthquake proofing and the wiring would need to be updated to support the mounted projector and Apple TV. The scope of the project grew as these practical and necessary upgrades needed to be included.

Ground breaking—Breaking ground!
The time leading up to the start of construction felt long, but there was a lot to do to get ready. The first step was a major project to declutter the space so there would be room for the new equipment and new uses of space. For example, the design required a 16-foot span to be cleared from the non-fiction area of our library to make space for the mounted projector and whiteboard. This meant weeding, weeding, and more weeding! I wanted every item that would be coming back into the library to be included very intentionally.

In April 2021 we moved back into our brand-new, beautiful space. The planning and consultations had paid off with rich dividends. The space was infinitely flexible in its design. By myself I could move and rearrange the wheeled bookshelves and tables. The stools we had opted for to reduce their square-foot storage footprint were a huge hit with the students. All our technology had a permanent home at our Genius Bar. The kids were ecstatic! Their ideas had come to life in the new space. It was more than I had dared to hope for. When I went back to review the list of wants and needs that we had developed in our planning stages, I could see that our library really had made the journey to a proper LLC.

Spacious, filled with light, infinitely reconfigurable, our LLC is a hub of student learning. And it’s not just the students who love it—district workshops and meetings are now a regular occurrence! This is a truly flexible space for all the diverse kinds of activities that today’s LLCs facilitate. After a year of use, the space has proven to be an environment that is truly welcoming to learners, engages hearts and minds, and supports the design objectives of a library learning commons.

Follow our LLC journey and adventures on Twitter and Instagram: @teacherkjohnson

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Category/Topic: Teacher Magazine