In this installment of the TeachOntario Talks, we are profiling and celebrating the work of teacher-librarian Kate Johnson-McGregor from Brantford Collegiate Institute & Vocational School in the Grand Erie District School Board. Johnson-McGregor has implemented a successful and vibrant Library Learning Commons in her school.
Today’s schools are in a state of transformation. It is important for students to acquire global competencies, including: critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, entrepreneurship, self-directed learning, collaboration and communication. The perfect place to do that is the school library.
The library has always been at the centre of learning in most schools. In an age of collaboration and authentic learning, teacher-librarians have embraced and driven change to make libraries the 21st Century learning hubs of their schools.
One of those teacher-librarians is Kate Johnson-McGregor. After teaching English and Drama for 12 years, Johnson-McGregor wanted to do something that would impact not only her students, but the whole school. She was teaching at Brantford Collegiate Institute & Vocational School in the Grand Erie DSB. In 2011, Johnson-McGregor left the classroom and became the new teacher-librarian at the school. She never looked back.
In 2010, the Ontario School Library Association (OSLA) created a document that outlined a vision for the future of school libraries, called Together for Learning: School Libraries and the Emergence of the Learning Commons, and later the Canadian Library Association released, Leading Learning: Standards of Practice for School Library Learning Commons in Canada. Johnson-McGregor thought a Library Learning Commons was the perfect way to bring excitement for learning into the library.
What is a Library Learning Commons?
The OSLA defines a Learning Commons as “a vibrant, whole-school approach, presenting exciting opportunities for collaboration among teachers, teacher-librarians and students. Within a Learning Commons, new relationships are formed between learners, new technologies are realized and utilized, and both students and educators prepare for the future as they learn new ways to learn.”
The Library Learning Commons at Brantford Collegiate has very little in common with the school libraries of the past. It is not a place where the only noises heard are the gentle rustling of turning pages, furtive whispering and the occasional cough. Books are still very important there, but what is essential to the space is the learning, in whichever form it takes.
It starts with a commitment to flexibility. All the furniture is movable and can be rearranged to suit different learning designs. It can accommodate multiple groups and classes. It is high-tech with 30 computers, and areas for students to work on their own devices. There is a spot for quiet reading, complete with leather couches, a coffee table and a fireplace, however, jokes Johnson-McGregor: “we discourage napping, canoodling and tussling.”
There is no need to whisper because conversation, collaboration and curiosity are celebrated. “It's about building more of a collaborative culture in the school,” says Johnson-McGregor. “We're all on a learning journey and there's always a new way to think about something; there's always the possibility for solutions and creative ideas.”
That collaboration can occur in person and online. The Library Learning Commons has an active presence on Twitter, Tumblr and many other social media platforms. It tries to serve all of its stakeholders—students, staff and parents—equally.
What does the Library Learning Commons Offer Students?
Brantford Collegiate has 1,350 students and over 90 teachers. Students come to the library with any number of projects to work on, and although the online world provides a wealth of information, researching online is a skill that must be learned. Johnson-McGregor spends a great deal of time helping students with their research skills and ensures all online databases are used effectively.
Grade 12 student Chayce Perkins visits the library at least four days a week to work. “Having a librarian like Ms. Johnson-McGregor, who puts emphasis on relevant databases is something that I am extremely grateful for,” says Perkins. “Being in my last year of high school, I feel confident in my online research skills. I am thankful to have a librarian who is able to keep up with these trends and is always trying to remain on par with the best ways that current students can learn.”
In addition to helping with projects, the library always has something going on that encourages reading. The library has initiatives like “Speed Dating Books,” where 15 books are lined up on 6 tables and students rotate through getting 4 minutes per table to look at the books. At the end, they have a list of books to take out of the library. It’s a great way to expose students to different types of literature.
The Library Learning Commons is also meant to be an equalizer, and that means ensuring that all resources are accessible to all. “A tech revolution isn't a revolution if it's only for some kids, so we want to make sure that everyone can come in and use whatever we've got—and they do,” asserts Johnson-McGregor. “We have online books and resources, but also the physical resources that they can take out.”
Johnson-McGregor is always looking for partnerships with outside organizations to use the library in ways that are beneficial to everyone and to provide authentic learning opportunities for students. For instance, when the Brant County Six Nations councillor asked to use the library’s little seminar room for some local Haudensaunee women to make Two Row wampum belts, Johnson-McGregor insisted the group do the beading out in the open using the tables in the middle of the library.
The group came with giant looms to make big belts and smaller looms that students could use to make individual belts. Students would come up, ask questions and start making their own belts. “Just by chance, I had a history class booked in to be on the computers and they ended up not doing their research,” describes Johnson-McGregor. “They came and sat on the floor and listened to the story of the belts and the history of the Haudenosaunee people. It was such authentic, awesome learning and it was exactly what the whole premise of the Learning Commons is.”
She also brings in experts, like the Historical Society, and the Public Library, as well as artists and a variety of guest speakers. “I am an extra pair of hands, eyes, ears and I'm always willing to try new things and revisit and rework existing ideas to make them better,” says Johnson-McGregor.
Another goal for Johnson-McGregor is to transform part of the library into a makerspace. A makerspace is a student-centred area where students can create, invent and learn using electronics, software, crafts and hardware supplies.
Along that vein, the Ontario Library and Information Technology Association (OLITA) has a technology lending library that is open to Ontario Library Association members. Johnson-McGregor uses that resource to try out new technologies in her library. For instance, she borrowed Squishy Circuit kits to incorporate into the Grade 9 electricity unit in Science. Soon students will be using Makey Makey kits to make anything from a keyboard out of bananas to a video game joystick out of their artwork.
The Library Learning Commons is an incredible place that supports academics and encourages inquiry. It also offers a variety of other activities. “With such a vast diversity within our school population, students are always in search of a place they can feel comfortable and the Library Learning Commons offers that location,” says Geography teacher Toni MacNeil. “Students are able to express their creativity and relieve stress through makerspace activities as well as the Lego wall.”
For Johnson-McGregor, there are endless possibilities for what can be offered for students at the library, but the most important aspect of the Library Learning Commons is the collaboration with the staff.
How to Build a Collaborative Culture
It is all about building trusting relationships with the teachers. Some tactics Johnson-McGregor uses to build those relationships include: connecting with all new teachers and helping them navigate the building, running professional learning sessions, connecting with departments that wouldn’t regularly visit the library, and when all else fails, offering free food. “Always have candy on your desk,” she says.
In this high school with so many students and over 90 teachers, it can be difficult to make yourself known. Teachers tend to stay in their own departments and are often unaware of how the library can help. So in order to spread the word, Johnson-McGregor will go to them “because I’m portable,” she jokes.
In addition to co-constructing and collaborating on the creation of inquiry projects, assignments and assessment, she gathers relevant resources for teachers and students, whether they are virtual or physical, to support teaching and learning.
“The BCI Library Learning Commons is a fantastic place of support, providing all staff with a place to pitch new ideas and questions about developing engaging projects for students at all levels,” says Toni MacNeil. “Our Teacher-Librarian is always excited for the opportunity to collaborate and team teach lessons, giving new and experienced teachers the chance to try new things and allowing students to benefit from their combined expertise.”
Johnson-McGregor credits her library technician, Sara Haddow, who manages the library collection and the space, and without whom, Johnson-McGregor would not have the time to do all that she does.
Recently, Johnson-McGregor became the incoming president of the Ontario School Library Association, and in that role she will continue to showcase how the Library Learning Commons can play an active and important role in the success of Ontario’s students.
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