The Digital Promise maker learning team spent some time in Greer, South Carolina this winter observing and filming the Riverside Middle School Library Club students as they worked to design solutions to problems they identified in their community. We are excited to share their story as the second in our series of Maker Promise videos. We were also excited to share that video with Mark Ray, Director of Innovation and Library Services in Vancouver Public Schools and Future Ready Librarians Lead at the Alliance for Excellent Education, and to record his reactions in conversation with Gaelyn Jenkins, the school librarian featured in the video (and recently named South Carolina PTA Middle School Teacher of the Year). The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Mark: This is perfectly aligned with micro-credentials we are exploring to support our Future Ready Librarians framework. This is going to sound orchestrated, but it’s pure serendipity. So cool.

As a teacher librarian, what sparked your interest and willingness to bring making into your library?

Gaelyn: I heard about makerspaces three or four years ago and, like any good librarian, I started doing some research! I was also fortunate to find colleagues and peers who challenged me to try new things that, from the outside, had nothing to do with traditional librarianship or my background in English and history. If you had asked me early on if I was a “maker,” I would’ve said no, especially when I was a student in school. I’ve realized now that I make things all the time! I love to decorate cakes and make fun book displays, and I continue to grow as a learner through making – this isn’t just for kids. I have always tried to create a student-centered library, and this just seemed like the natural next step in providing opportunities for students, teachers, and the community to grow.

Mark: A lot of teachers and librarians are excited about making, but don’t know how to get started. What were your first steps?

Gaelyn: The true first steps aren’t physical, they’re mental. Someone who is going to open their classroom or library to making has to be willing to learn and take risks. I think something that holds a lot of teachers and librarians back is the belief that they have to know how to use every piece of tech and equipment and have scripted lesson plans incorporating everything before they can let students touch it. I bought a 3D printer without knowing how to use it. We got a sewing machine donated to the makerspace; do I sew? No. I learn right along with the students, and that empowers them in a way they don’t often get in schools, because teachers are usually the ones dispensing knowledge. It should be mentioned, not everything has to be high-tech – we have art supplies, paper, and cardboard everywhere!​

First action steps: build off your own skills! We’ve done a cookie decorating maker event, as well as knitting, calligraphy, jewelry-making, origami, duct tape wallets, 3D design, coding, and more, just based on what staff, parents, or students in our building knew how to do. Second: I stalked people who were maker librarians on Instagram and Twitter to see what they were using, did some research and shopping on my own, and started with materials that are interesting to my students.

Mark: Why is it important to cultivate students as creators?

Gaelyn: Here, in South Carolina, a coalition of business and education leaders came together and created the Profile of a South Carolina Graduate​, which includes “Life and Career Characteristics” like perseverance and self-direction, and “World-Class Skills” like “creativity and innovation,” “critical thinking and problem solving,” “communication,” “collaboration and teamwork,” and “knowing how to learn.” I appreciate that the higher education and business communities are defining why it’s so important to graduate students who are creators. Making connects the dots between a student’s knowledge, curiosity, and talent that allows creativity to flow.

Mark: In my TEDx talk, I also noted the shift from students as consumers to students creating information and ideas. I think it’s fascinating how libraries are iterating from merely being repositories of information to incubators of creativity and making. Is this is a necessary survival strategy for libraries (and librarians) when students increasingly carry the Internet around with them?

Gaelyn: I think your description of “iterating” is accurate, because we are making small changes all the time, and really always have been any time there was a change in technology. I hear people bemoaning the loss of the quiet, introspective library in this overstimulated world, and I hear others saying books and libraries are dead in the Internet age. I believe there needs to be space (or times) where the library is still relatively quiet (and of course, I strongly believe books and libraries are here to stay), but I’d like to reframe this less as survival strategy and more like a bridge. When we build a bridge, it’s to make it easier to get from one place to another. It doesn’t mean we destroy what is on one side to create something new; we just connect the two because it improves the current situation. It is important to remember who we serve to make sure we’re meeting their needs, not doing what we’ve always done because it is comfortable.

Mark: In our district, we are also looking at libraries as a testbed to bring makerspaces into the school. Why the library?

Gaelyn: So many reasons! First, equity of access has always been a central tenet to library missions, so if you want all students to have access to something, there’s no better place than the library.​ Our busiest times for the makerspace are before and after school, when students are using the space independently.

Second, standards for school libraries use terms like “innovative designer” and “creative communicator” and “think, create, share, grow”. Librarians are uniquely positioned to help teachers and students integrate making into the content and across curriculum; plus, we usually have the most flexible space in a school so teachers and students can spread out and work.

Third, our mission also includes helping students pursue their passions and explore career paths as they begin to make choices about who they want to be as a productive member of society.

Mark: This equity issue emerges again and again when I listen to librarians differentiate their library makerspaces from other making opportunities. Beyond the project in your video, how do you support student choice and allow students to ‘check out’ maker experiences based on their own interests?

Gaelyn: When we started the makerspace, one of the things I really wanted to do was provide opportunities for students to make fun stuff outside of the curriculum and using making to engage our larger school community. We have free Maker Events after school once or twice a month. I ask for suggestions from the students as to what they want to learn how to do, but so far most of them have been on things our volunteers know how to do, like jewelry-making (led by the PTSA President), duct tape wallets (led by a student), knitting (led by a math teacher), intro to Arduino/coding (led by the Art teacher), and cookie decorating (led by a parent who was a pastry chef).

Students sign up for the events they’re interested in and show up to learn a new skill, which we usually try to immediately apply to some kind of project that benefits the community. We worked on knitting hats for preemie babies, made cookie cakes for the teachers for Valentine’s Day, and when the students learned calligraphy they made holiday cards for cafeteria and custodial staff. Once students have learned the basics, they are welcome to use the materials to continue learning and making! All of the materials are always available in the library, and I allow students to take things home temporarily, if they want to work outside of school hours.

Mark: I’m really grooving on the new ISTE standards and love the descriptors for students. Our librarians are currently reviewing them as they relate to next gen library instruction. One of the questions we’re pondering is who does what; what should happen as part of library instruction and what should happen in the classroom or a specialized makerspace?

Gaelyn: The makerspace and the library are extensions of the other classrooms – a community space where students, teachers, and the librarian can collaborate to break down walls around the content and make connections. To me, library instruction is showing students tools that they can use in the context of what they’re studying. I do some direct teaching of skills at the beginning of units or projects, but I’m more often in a facilitation role when I’m collaborating because I act as an extra pair of hands, questioning and guiding students as they apply their new skills. I may teach the same concepts in multiple content areas over a year, so students see how it applies in the real world, and in any field.

The ISTE standards are awesome because they are not related to any particular content but apply to all. Any student in any field of study needs to have those skills and with teachers under increasingly tremendous pressure to deliver the content in time for the test, librarians need to be an instructional partner working with them to integrate those skills into students’ school experience.

Mark: One of the things that is so exciting about making is the genuine joy and engagement by students. Do you have any stories to share about kids for whom making and creation are making a difference?

Gaelyn: I’m definitely starting to see some “non-traditional” library regulars now that we have the makerspace, and I love that because it allows me to build connections with students who might have tuned me out in the past because I was the “library lady” who just talked about research or reading.

I’m also starting to see more students becoming confident in their ability to make a difference. We’re in the middle of a new challenge with the Library Club, the same kids who worked on the Global Goals challenge, called Play to Learn. We are taking part in the challenges as we participate in the Learning Studios program from Digital Promise Global, which has added an amazing sense of authenticity to students in sharing their ideas with other schools, and not just their own community. In this challenge they’re creating games that will teach the players something. This time they are inviting friends to join who weren’t part of the last challenge, growing our school’s maker culture and creating opportunities for the students to see themselves as leaders. And, they are coming up with some awesome games!

One really impressive game is called “The Struggles Are Real,” designed by a group of 8th grade girls to help people empathize with teenagers. They interviewed at least 50 of their peers about the pressures and struggles of being a teenager and integrated those into their game with good day/bad day cards, evoking emotional swings by gaining/losing mental health points, popularity cards, and 3D printed game pieces based on emojis. If that doesn’t sum up middle school, I don’t know what does.

It’s funny at times and they incorporated all the typical stuff – annoying parents, boy/girl issues, voice cracking, etc. – but it is also enlightening in ways I didn’t expect. Several students interviewed mentioned depression. Some said they were worried about standardized testing that will affect their lives forever, or that people think they aren’t trying, or that people underestimate them because they’re teens. I’m so proud that students are taking risks and being vulnerable, in an attempt to help others see that the struggles are, indeed, real.

Seeing students (especially some of the quiet or shy kids) take initiative, become leaders, and then empower others has been the most rewarding part of introducing making into the library and I think we’re all better off for it.

Chat with Gaelyn and learn more about her work during Maker Ed’s Ask a Maker Educator webinar on June 7 at 7pm ET / 4pm PT.


About Mark Ray

Mark Ray is Director of Innovation and Library Services in Vancouver Public Schools. He also serves as Future Ready Librarians Lead at the Alliance for Excellent Education. In addition to writing for professional journals, Mark currently blogs at Amalgamated Futures and muses randomly on Twitter @_teacherx.

About Gaelyn Jenkins

Gaelyn Jenkins is a middle school librarian at Riverside Middle School in Greer, SC and was recently named South Carolina PTA Middle School Teacher of the Year. Catch up with her on Twitter @GaelynJenkins or Instagram @riversidemslibrary.

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