On my quest for successful learning commons examples, I came across an article detailing how Jason Stone and Chad Stevenson developed the middle school learning commons program at at the San Francisco Friends School (Stephenson & Stone, 2014). I was able to catch up with Stone this summer to see how the learning commons is coming along now that it is about to start its third year. Hearing his successes as well as his frustrations provided two important lessons to bear in mind when developing a space that helps students and staff meet the learning goals of the school.
1. Design and perceptions of a space will determine its use.
This may seem obvious, but during the design phase you really must think through the purpose of the space and what you want it to be used for. The SF Friends Learning Commons is a beautiful, open space with high ceilings in a central location on the school campus. By design, most of the middle school students must pass through it at some point in their day to get to their classes. According to Stone, it has become the “living room” of the middle schoolers. They flock to the soft furniture and move it around to their liking, flopping down in groups or alone with the laptops they are provided in the school’s 1:1 program. He has created a self-checkout station and an online calendar to book the space, which has given students and staff such ownership of the space that he feels comfortable leaving to go collaborate in the classrooms at the teacher’s request.
While all of this was the goal when designing the learning commons, in some ways it has also caused some teachers to choose not to use it. It was intended to be an extension of the classroom, allowing teachers to use it for lessons that required a larger space, but some don’t like it because it is too loud. The open stairwell and the walkway students pass through mean there is often distracting noise which is difficult for the teacher to compete with. While the classrooms have been outfitted with the Front Row sound field system to ensure all students can hear the teacher, the learning commons does not have this feature. Though the space is still used by many teachers, it is most suitable for lessons in which students don’t need much direct instruction and can work independently or in groups. Many school libraries are moving to this multi-use, flexible format, but in doing so, often lose the perception that the space is a quiet place to learn, so think through the intentions of the space and how it will be managed.
Stone had big plans for the learning commons, but as we all do, has encountered challenges that have made them go slower than he’d like and he has had to adapt. One of the main goals Stone has is to collaborate with the librarian, director of technology, technology integrator, and academic dean to create and implement a three-tiered learning commons program focusing on information and media, technology, and innovation and creativity. A large room built to the side of the open space was intended to become a makerspace, but has been adopted instead as a conference room because it was a more immediate need for the school. Another room across the school from the learning commons is in the works to become the school’s official makerspace, but in the meantime Stone has outfitted a rolling cart with bins of parts and tools that has become his movable makerspace.
The learning commons program development has also been slowed by unexpected turnover in the collaboration team over the past couple years. Though he’d hoped to have a much more cohesive program in place, the integration of information literacy instruction into the curriculum still feels a bit piecemeal. Unforeseen challenges like these feel like setbacks when you have a vision for what the space could be. However, remaining flexible and positive, and focusing on what is within your control as Stone has done can ensure you program stays on track to achieve its goals.
STEPHENSON, C., & STONE, J. (2014). Why a Middle School Learning Commons?. Teacher Librarian, 41(5), 45-49.
Author: Cassy Lee
Cassy Lee is a middle school Teacher Librarian focused on education equity, empathy, and empowerment. She is the recipient of the 2020 AASL Roald Dahl’s Miss Honey Social Justice Award and the 2018 SLJ Champion of Student Voice. She lives in San Francisco with her husband, son, and a steady stream of foster dogs. You can find her on Twitter at @MrsLibrarianLee and at CSLA in February!