This month I wanted to highlight a public school Learning Commons in a district near and dear to my heart, San Francisco Unified. I was able to visit Allison Rothman in person in the midst of a renovation of her space at Hoover Middle School. She took time from preparing for a team of volunteers to come paint the walls to answer my questions about how her three-year vision for transforming the library into a Learning Commons is going.
When Allison started part-time at Hoover four years ago, there was not much of a library culture. She found an ally in her forward-thinking principal, gained traction by offering PD and attending meetings to build collaborations with new and willing teachers and is now full-time and keeping the place hopping. Being in the MLIS program at SJSU, she became aware of the trend toward rebranding school libraries as Learning Commons, and has shifted to the new nomenclature this year to show that her space is not about “the same old, same old,” but is drastically changing the perception of library spaces for her students and teachers.
The change hasn’t happened overnight. Allison conducted community surveys and analyses to assess needs, and brought in an outside consultant to facilitate a design-thinking ideation process with all of the key stakeholders represented. She said going through the process brought up things she wouldn’t have thought of on her own. For example, much of the space was taken by a 36-seat desktop computer lab in rows of six that was troublesome to navigate during class visits. To improve flow and increase space, the seating was broken up into v-shaped quadrants and downsized to 24 desktop workstations with an additional Chromebook cart so students could work spread out around the rest of the Learning Commons. She said this changed not only how class visits flowed, but how groups of students could collaborate easier at the desktops at break times as well. Solutions like these make the space more versatile and functional.
One of her main goals is also to make the Learning Commons as welcoming as possible to students for both work and play. Besides the new paint scheme, she updated the look with comfortable furniture that can be moved into flexible seating arrangements. Bean bags, round ottomans and Buoy chairs with rounded bases are especially appealing to active middle schoolers. Large high tables with tall modern stools in the center of the room as well as cafe tables around the edges help foster collaborative work and play cards and board games. And for those who still like to read in peace and quiet, an old office space was turned into a strictly enforced reading room with a puzzle board. Allison wants her students, many of them low-income students of color, to feel comfortable enough in this space that they make positive associations with using other libraries in the future.
Equity is of utmost importance to Allison, and bridging the technology gap for those who don’t have access at home is a real concern. She opens the library before and after school and at lunch, providing access to the desktops, laptops, a few iPads and the printer. A Kindle book club is held every week to promote independent pleasure reading and to teach students how to navigate library systems online. With classes she focuses on building information literacy skills by connecting them to real life social issues that are relevant to her students, like the one in which an English class reading The One and Only Ivan used the SIRS Issues Researcher database to learn more about topics like animal cruelty, and will later interview an animal conservationist at the local zoo. They’re so interested in the topics they don’t even notice that they’re learning how to create essential questions, evaluate sources, strategically refine keywords and write annotated citations. She believes that by fostering these skills in such an engaging way now, the students will be able to transfer them to any library they encounter.
Though the renovation of the space is still in process, Allison has clearly transformed the spirit of the library into a welcoming hub of learning. For anyone who needs an injection of inspiration for the importance of school librarians, I highly recommend taking the time to get out and visit a colleague. It was difficult to step away from my own bustling space, but meeting with Allison for just a brief time gave me many fresh ideas and a renewed sense of what a Learning Commons is all about.
Author: Cassy Lee
Cassy Lee is the Middle School Learning Center Coordinator at the Chinese American International School in San Francisco.