Two decades ago, schools were making a big effort to construct computer labs in their libraries. Now, as schools attempt to keep up with a rapidly changing world, those computer labs are out of date.
The need to keep up and evolve is why a group of 15 library media specialists from the School District of Janesville drove up to Luther Elementary School in Fort Atkinson Friday.
At Luther, the specialists heard from representatives from Nasco, a supplier of educational resources in Fort Atkinson, on ways to improve and transform the district’s libraries into “discovery spaces with books,” according to Shelley Gard, director of the library program.
They visited Luther so the educators could see the possibilities in an “authentic setting.”
Gard’s full title is “21st century learning program support teacher,” which might be a mouthful, but really means she’s the liaison between the district’s IT services and its curriculum to its libraries.
Gard said it is her job — and the job of her staff — to always be one step ahead of current trends because teachers have too much on their plates to know about the newest technology or innovation that can help students.
An English teacher is an expert in diagramming sentences and understanding Shakespeare and a math teacher is an expert in trigonometry and the Pythagorean theorem, while Gard and her staff need to be experts in the most up-to-date technologies so students are best prepared to enter a modern world.
“It’s always pushing beyond tradition. When new stuff comes up, how can we use it to help?” Gard said. “How can you help people without blame for not knowing? Teachers are content experts; it takes a partnership to bridge that gap.”
The library staff members benefit from not being in charge of a classroom all day, every day, Gard said. Because they don’t need substitutes to miss a half-day of work, it’s easier for them to come to Fort Atkinson to see something new.
At the meeting Friday, Nasco CEO Nedra Sadorf kicked things off by saying she hoped the library staffers were able to learn how they can best improve their students’ lives, while the Nasco employees can hear about what schools need right now.
“The quid pro quo is you guys will play and learn, but we’ll also get to learn,” Sadorf said. “This is a wonderful opportunity for us to better understand your evolving needs.”
Sadorf asked the staff a series of open-ended questions about what they want out of their spaces: What do students need the opportunities to do? What would you do if you had a million dollars ... a magic wand? What input would you hope to get from this project?
The answers ranged from the obvious to the abstract. Time, space, money and staffing were answers Sadorf said she always gets, but she said this group really was attuned to the needs of teachers.
“Some problems we can’t solve, like time, money and staffing. People always say that,” Sadorf said. “This group, they’re much more attentive to teacher needs. Administrators focus on test scores and graduation rates; for this group, it’s about a feeling they’re trying to create.”
The “feeling” the librarians were trying to create focused on creativity and innovation.
One said she wants her students to have the opportunity to “create, make and innovate,” while another hoped to spark inspiration in the teachers.
The consensus among the visitors was it is important to allow students to learn independently and creatively, what Sadorf called switching from being “a sage on the stage, to a guide on the side.”
That independent creativity manifests itself in lessons and tools that fit a modern school, Sadorf pointed out. They’re mobile, they can be done in a classroom or the library. They aren’t fixed; there are 10 different ways to solve the problem or create different outcomes the students can discover themselves.
While all the feedback and discussion does help Nasco develop its products, “understanding their challenges helps us,” Sadorf said, the goal of the day was not specifically to sell anything to the Janesville staff.
Nasco science sales manager Jordan Nelson said the real goal was to give the staff a “jumping-off point” they can take back to their schools.
“It’s giving them ideas and abilities to take back, to implement solutions and collaborate with each other,” Nelson said. “We’re not trying to sell anything; it’s more of a brainstorm.”
Nelson, who demonstrated to the librarians the benefits of keeping insects, worms and tadpoles in aquarium-type containers in their libraries, said he wanted to show the staff the importance of experiences.
“Not every teacher is going to reach every student,” Nelson said. “But an experience can last a lifetime.”
Along with Nelson’s bugs, the librarians learned about two tools to demonstrate agricultural science: kits to build hydroponic or aquaponic gardens indoors and how to teach coding through Legos and circuit building.
Gard said she hugely was encouraged by what her staff took from the demonstrations, not only the specific tools and kits, but the broader themes.
“It gives us ideas, affordable ideas that we can definitely do,” Gard said. “Not pie in the sky; it’s little things to change the culture.”