doug — off the record

just a place to share some thoughts

An Interview with Carol Koechlin


Carol Koechlin describes herself as:

Supporting school library transformations to a Learning Commons approach of learning for the future, with a focus on collaborative knowledge building.”

Doug:  Thanks for agreeing to the interview, Carol.  Do you recall when our paths first crossed? Online or off – your choice or both.

Carol: Well Doug, I knew of your important work through participating in ECOO conferences over the years and of course through our mutual friend Anita Brooks Kirkland. The first time we really met though I believe was OLA SuperConference 2012 when we worked on a novel presentation initiative called the The Great Web 2.0 Face-Off! We had two teams facing off who had a few minutes to present a Web 2.0 tech tool they liked . You were captain of one of those teams. Really fun.

Doug:  That really was a great deal of fun, Carol.  I was flipping through that program just the other day.  Zoe Branigan-Pipe and I did a reprise at the ECOO Conference the year afterwards and a principal at my former board had us come and do the same thing for his staff.

I’ve long known you as a strong advocate for libraries and learning commons in the province.  Where and when did the notion of the change from library to Learning Commons get its roots?

Carol: As they say, it is a long story but I will keep it short and focus on Learning Commons in schools rather than the history and evolution of the term.  In 2007 my colleague Sandi Zwaan and I teamed up with Dr. David Loertscher a professor at San Jose University to study what we could do to help school libraries transition to address evolving shifts in learning and the role school libraries could play to advance and support new needs of both students and teachers. Both pedagogical shifts and advances in technologies were changing the way information was accessed and used in schools as well as the world in general. At that time many others were talking about the same question and everyone was coming to the same conclusion, school libraries could indeed help shape the new learning movements and needed to expand their focus. We looked to the way university libraries were moving in their efforts to become a common portal for information needs in their learning community. Some had already adopted the name ‘Learning Commons’. We were convinced that a name change was also critical for school libraries if they were to be accepted as more than a traditional library. The traditional role of a library was and is still very important but we envisioned the potential for so much more. Over time we consulted with teacher librarians who were doing exciting and courageous work already, explored innovative learning approaches and researched what was needed and where the gaps were. Eventually we met face to face here in Ontario to begin drafting our vision. As I said we knew that others around the world were working on transitioning of school libraries to learning spaces that kept pace with change so we felt confident that we were on the right track. The term Learning Commons (LC) was right for what we were aiming for – common spaces both physical and virtual designed to engage approaches to learning for today that best prepare learners for the future. Our first publication on this subject in 2008, The New Learning Commons: Where Learners Win started the ball rolling. Many more publications, workshops, articles, presentations, webinars and consultations later helping administrators, teacher-librarians and other school library professionals with the journey from library to learning commons has been most rewarding. The approach we envisioned has been widely accepted in many schools and districts and the best part is each school and district have put their own spin on it to create dynamic learning environments and innovative programs that best meet their needs .

In Canada, Ontario led the way provincially with the writing of Together for Learning: School Libraries and the Emergence of the Learning Commons in 2010. The Ontario Ministry originally requested that the OSLA writing team develop a vision for schools for learning for the future. The vision of this document is widely accepted in Ontario and across the country. Soon after that Alberta announced a policy document for School Library Learning Commons, BCTLA the British Columbia Teacher-Librarians Association published a formative documentation of their teacher inquiry From School Library to Library Learning Commons: A Pro-Active Model for Educational Change and just a few weeks ago another provincial curriculum support document was released in Newfoundland and Labrador, Extending the Classroom: the Library Learning Commons. With the development of Leading Learning: Standards of Practice for School Library Learning Commons in Canada now translated as L’apprentissage en tête: Principes relatifs à la transition de la bibliothèque scolaire vers le carrefour d’apprentissage au Canada, schools from coast to coast to coast have a support document to guide transitions and growth. We also have formed a national association (CSL) Canadian School Libraries with the mission “to assist schools in working toward excellence of school library learning commons teaching and learning approaches and facilities to prepare students in Canada with skills and opportunities for learning today and into the future.”

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Canadian School Libraries 2019

Doug:  Over your professional careers, you would have been in a number of library situations.  Can you describe for us, your very first one?

Carol:  My first experiences in a school library teaching position took place over a number of years supply teaching when my children were young. This is where I fell in love with the ‘idea’ of teacher-librarian however I did not act on it for some time because I couldn’t type and I rationalized that if I couldn’t create all those neat little cards so expertly filed in all those little drawers of the card catalogue then there was no way I could take on the role! (I hope we haven’t just lost half your readers now who have no idea what I am talking about.) I didn’t give up my dream though and as I was doing supply work I started to upgrade my skills and acquired additional qualifications in reading, next I took the very first computers in education course offered in Scarborough Board, dare I tell you that we learned to program on an application called, Turtle. That is probably even before your experiences Doug. Well I lost my fear of keyboards and gained another love, the potential of computers in education. Librarianship courses were next and when I was ready to go back to work permanently a half time library position became available in a large K – 8 school. The family of schools in this area were deeply immersed in both thinking skills and inquiry learning and I worked hard to support the work teachers were doing. It soon became apparent to the staff and administration that it was important for me to be working with them all day because in a school of 600 there just wasn’t enough time in half a day for me to support inquiry for all of them. So my position became full time and we were able to do some very exciting work together. About the same time “Partners in Action”, the Ontario Ministry of Ed document outlining collaborative programming for school libraries, was receiving attention. The Learning Resources department in Scarborough had word of the inquiry work we were doing at my school and we were selected as one of the schools to first implement Partners in Action. I was fortunate to work with amazing classroom teachers and administration to create some very cool learning experience for students. We were one of the first schools to have computers for student use and admin decided they should be in the library where everyone had access. We were also the first wave of libraries to be automated which really boosted my skills in a hurry. I was full time teacher-librarian in this school for over nine years thus I was able to see students grow over their entire elementary years. I can’t tell you how important that was in the formation of the design of learning approaches in the library. When I started to publish these approaches they were grounded in years of actual experiences and what one would now call teacher research. Over several summers I taught summer school in Secondary school libraries so that experience prepared me for working centrally to support school library programming in all schools in Scarborough and then after amalgamation TDSB. In my central role my professional learning skyrocketed, we were so fortunate in those years to be led by superintendents who believed in investing in support staff. I gave back all that knowledge and more by leading additional qualification courses for York and OISE UT for many years, sharing my ideas in numerous publications with my colleagues Sandi and David and leading professional learning for others nationally and internationally. Of course when you share you also get back so I kept pace with evolving ideas and approaches in education by surrounding myself with a great network. Happy to say that my appetite for learning and mentoring others has never left me.

Doug:  An integral part of any library or learning commons in 2019 is the connection to the digital resource world.  How important is it for the teacher-librarian to be fluent in the use of computers connected to the internet?

Carol: The expertise of teacher- librarians is needed more than ever today particularly because of the opportunities for learning that technology and the Internet bring as well as the challenges. Because they are teachers also, teacher-librarians can apply their specialized knowledge to curriculum and the design of best learning environments and teaching and learning experiences for all learners. Teacher-librarians must continually hone their digital fluency so they can successfully help lead their school(s) to working, researching, playing, creating, experimenting and communicating in a digital world. A few ways teacher-librarians make a difference:

  • Curators of best digital resources and this goes hand in hand with extension of the LC to a VLC open 24/7 for students and staff
  • Designing learning experiences to utilize best tech to do the job – databases,Google tools, social media, creation tools etc. and then coaching students and staff to use the tech effectively and in turn help each other – this is the culture of the LC
  • Teaching and leading information literacy (Internet in an era of misinformation and fake news elevates the need for this expertise).
  • Ensuring all learners know how to use information ethically and legally and taking a lead on digital citizenship.
  • Using best tech to make learning more collaborative and participatory – taking learning global
  • Encouraging experimentation – making –coding – STEM and STEAM – VR – Robotics

Doug:  The answer to that was probably very easy for you as an advocate.  But, how does someone get started in this area of literacy? How do they stay on top of the latest?

Carol: Teacher-librarians have always been keen adapters and promoters of information technology tools. I won’t take your readers way back to the days of filmstrips but every mode of information access and communication is important in the school library, the central place where all learners can work and learn with the best tools and resources. With regard to computers, automation of school libraries was the first driving force. School library professional had to become tech savvy very fast. Soon TLs found themselves with whole computer labs in the library space. Many took on the tech lead in schools, helping other teachers who had limited experience with technology especially when report cards also became automated. Today with the advent of wireless technologies and hand held devices you find that technologies in the learning commons are ubiquitous, just part of the learning environment. Teacher-librarian training programs today like most teacher training programs are virtual and infuse opportunities for teachers to utilize the best virtual resources and tools available so they may become excellent designers of learning experiences for their students. We are way beyond ‘using technology just because’ and now start with learning and find the best tech tool to achieve the desired results. Of course we all need to learn new tech tools and this is where the learning commons can again be a huge help in every school. Many teacher-librarians establish a club of sorts for students interested in trying out new apps and tools and then teaching applications to others. They often set up a ‘Help Station’ in the LC or send out students to classrooms sort of Geek Squad style. As for staying on top, school library professionals work in a world of fast paced information so they latch on to anything new pretty quickly and in Ontario we have ECOO right! 🙂

Doug:  Right, Absolutely!  A substantial number of attendees and presenters at the Bring IT, Together Conference are teacher-librarians.

In your work provincially, you will have seen and discussed various school districts implementations of the contemporary library.  Without naming names, what makes a school district rise to the top in your eyes? How?

Carol: As we have followed the growth of school libraries to learning commons in North America the districts that have been the most successful are those where there is excellent central support and leadership for school libraries and where very early on technology leaders formed partnerships with district school library consultant/coordinators to plan for transitions and training. Also at the highest levels there must be an understanding of the benefits of the learning commons to support many district and school goals and drive whole school improvement and of course there must be a commitment to reinvest in staffing, spaces and resources. Transition does not have to be a financial burden to the school or district because the early stages involve preparing flexible learning spaces in the library and building virtual spaces where students have access 24/7. The design of collaborative learning is easier after the spaces are deliberately prepared to support active participatory learning. I would like to link your readers to successful transition stories in process so they have a more concrete idea of the many ways districts can lead the way. This is a link to a section of Canadian School Libraries (CSL) website we have prepared to help school districts get started. Please check out Leading the Way with the Library Learning Commons  for a variety of starting approaches.

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Canadian School Libraries 2019

Doug:  Similarly, without naming names, you will be aware of school districts that are falling behind.  How does one know if they’re failing? How?

Carol: I am not a formal researcher but turning to those who are we can see that many schools in Ontario are disadvantaged because they have no teacher-librarian or other trained professional leading the school library program. See People for Education School Libraries 2017. This report reveals troubling regional disparities. Only 52 % of schools in Ontario have a full or part time TL – secondary are generally better staffed – 46 % of elementary school have library technicians. Volumes of Canadian and International research demonstrate the connection between school library programs and student success. See Why school librarians matter: What years of research tell us. Classroom teachers all work very hard but without the support of specialist teachers like teacher-librarians to help them design and implement the high level inquiry and discovery learning experiences demanded in today’s curriculum it will be very tough. Without excellent library collections both physical and virtual curated by information experts, students will also be severely disadvantaged. We know that independent reading and enjoying reading is key to long term success for students and the research tells us that in schools with teacher-librarians more students report that they enjoy reading. We know that only access to computers and the Internet does not transfer into learning, quite the opposite sometimes. We know that students and teachers face all kinds of information problems like validating information, ‘fake news’, social media misuse, cyberbullying, copyright and plagiarism. School library professionals and especially teacher-librarians are more needed than ever today.

Doug:  How can a teacher-librarian and a school convince their parents that their students need to have all that a well equipped library has?

Carol: It is firstly important for the TL and admin to be seen as a team working together to help all students be the best they can be. As a team they next need to share knowledge of how and why school libraries are evolving to better address the needs and interests of today’s learners and what is possible in a well-equipped learning commons. Link the work of the LC to school goals. Don’t be afraid to share key findings in the research and quotes by leading education leaders like the one from inquiry learning expert Trevor MacKenzie today on Twitter

Parents need to be aware that investment in resources, technologies and furnishings as well as staffing in the LC benefits everyone as the space is accessible to all. Best of all though is showing parents learning in action in the LC continuously all year. When I was a practising TL we prepared newsletters we sent home for each new unit of instruction, informing families of the learning process and also inviting them to participate in any culminating sharing of student work. I took lots of photos and video of students during work in the library and on parent interview nights and open house I always had a TV set up outside the library door with a continuous feed of learning in action. This made folks stop not just pass up the library and usually they came in to see what else was going on. Many TLs today create a Twitter account for the LC and post frequent updates complete with photos and video. Today with the availability of so many cool communication tools there are many ways to bridge the gap between home and school. Indeed many refer to the school LC as third space for kids, neither home nor school exactly but a special learning space where they can learn and network with each other but also relax, play, and pursue their own interests.

Doug:  If you were brought in to advise on the construction of a brand new library / learning commons / makerspace, what sorts of things would you recommend?

Carol: Wouldn’t that be fun! I have helped lots of school libraries plan for transitions but always in an existing library, usually crammed to the ceiling with stuff that no one in the school knew what to do with so the first step was a demolition job . Guiding questions for early transition: If it doesn’t move, does it belong? If we aren’t using it, do we need it?

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Canadian School Libraries 2019

Whether the library in question is fifty years old or a brand new construction the first thing I would recommend is that we develop a Learning Commons Leadership Team with representation from all stakeholders – administration, school library professionals, other teachers and specialists, students and parents. This team needs to do their homework and research what a LC is and how it benefits teaching and learning. Visit existing LCs in person and virtually and ask lots of questions. Call in a district architect if possible, they know what can and can’t happen structurally. Establish a vision that supports district and school learning goals, make a plan and just get started. Every school will have a different vision based on what they are trying to accomplish so no two LCs would every look the same however I suggest attention to the following features.

Necessary elements in the physical LC include but are not limited to:

  • Located in a central area of the school with attention to access for all.
  • Wide open spaces with good natural lighting and sight lines.
  • As much of the shelving on the walls as possible and not too high.
  • Flexible furnishings that can be configured in many ways.
  • A teaching area with appropriate presentation and teaching technologies and moveable chairs and tables that can be configured easily to suit the need.
  • An inviting area with comfortable seating for pleasure reading and study.
  • Robust internet to support wireless mobile devices, charging stations of course.
  • Carts to store mobile devices to borrow (laptops, chrome books, I pads etc.)
  • A dedicated area, for making and storing maker materials and equipment (with a sink).
  • Areas to display and celebrate student work and local art.
  • Computers and desk located close to the entrance, dedicated to library catalogue searches and circulation (Number of computers depends on the size of the school).
  • A glassed off workroom /office area with cupboards for library materials, a sink and shelving for professional resources. This room should be large enough for teacher team meetings.

Would be nice and certainly should be aimed for in a new build:

  • A glassed off room for quiet study and group collaborations.
  • A media production center (green screen, cameras, lighting, microphones etc.)
  • A large seminar room set up with whiteboards and interactive conferencing technologies for presentations with authors and other guests that could double as a professional learning/collaboration center.

The Virtual Learning Commons (VLC) is also critical and goes hand in hand with all work in the physical LC and the rest of the school community. The VLC is more than a website; it is also a collaborative space to work, play and learn and must be a component of the design of the LC.

Doug:  We know that the process will never be complete.  Gaze in your crystal ball and tell us three things that will be appearing in the well equipped library in the next five years.

Carol: That’s right Doug, the learning commons will always be in Beta; there is no destination point as such. A good LC is always responsive to change in learners and their needs, changes in curriculum and pedagogy and of course the ever evolving world of information and technologies.

A learning commons is not so much about the name of the spaces, the furnishings or technologies. It’s all about results. No cookie cutter plan – If things aren’t working we continuously rethink, rework, redesign until we find what works for our particular learning community. Every school will have a different set of needs and approaches to the Learning Commons. Perhaps the ‘common’ element should be everyone working together to be the best they can be. Having explained the notion of continuous change and growth my response to your question will have to be a combination of things and happenings I guess.

  1. I expect in five years’ time the school LC both elementary and secondary will still source and house the best print learning materials possible with an emphasis on inclusion for all.
  2. The VLC will be in every student’s pocket and become even more critical to all aspects of learning and sharing understanding and collaborative knowledge building.
  3. Both physical and virtual learning environments will continue to offer best technologies and resources for teaching and learning. Discovery learning and experimentation (makerspace, coding, robotics etc.) will continue to expand providing opportunities for all interests to flourish.

My crystal ball hopes for the future require adequate funding and deliberate reinvestment in school libraries as learning commons by those in charge of educational decisions. The vision for whole school improvement though learning commons approaches is established and pretty well every school in Ontario/Canada has a school library either well along on the journey just waiting to be transformed to support the vision.  

Doug:  How important is it for today’s teacher-librarian to be connected to colleagues outside of their building?  To that end, if I asked you to create a short list of ten Twitter using teacher-librarians, who would be on that list?

Carol: Too many districts are lacking central support and professional learning time dedicated to the specialized needs of school library professionals; this is a huge disadvantage for growth. For all teacher-librarians isolation is a problem as their challenges are a little different from other classroom teachers and specialists in the school. I encourage all school library professionals to reach out and create a Twitter account. Go slow but do try to get online for 5 minutes every day or 2 – 3 minutes twice a day at first so you get a feel for the potential. It is such a good time investment with regard to your own professional learning. You will find lots of inspiration through work shared and links to more, even if it is not specific to your district. Begin to follow those who inspire you the most and build a learning network of supportive folks who are doing great things around the country and the world. Contribute your successes and challenges, ask questions, respond to others and you will soon feel the joys of being part of an active learning community. Follow professional groups too like CSL @CdnSchoolLibrar  and Leading Learning @CSL_Learning to discover more connections to learning commons program and free resources and guides – CSL recently put up a new project,  Culturally Relevant and Responsive School Library Learning Commons with many tools to help schools build more inclusive collections and learning spaces. With all humility I hope they also follow Anita @AnitaBK  and me @infosmarts too 🙂

  • Now to get to the task you asked for Doug it is very tough and the only reason I was able to narrow down to ten was my confidence in the knowledge that as soon as your readers started following these 10 active Ontario teacher-librarians they would soon be linked to hundreds more talented educators, authors and illustrators, poets, publishers and organizations in Canada and beyond.
  • @banana29
  • @ the_mulc
  • @ JennMacBrown
  • @ mrfusco
  • @mrslyonslibrary
  • @TL_Kate
  • @Tina_Surdivall
  • @MzMollyTL
  • @joelkrentz
  • @Freibauer

Doug:  What issues surrounding copyright are important for every graduate of an Ontario school to completely understand?

Carol: It has always been important for students to know that it is their responsibility to acknowledge the work of others in their own research and creations. They need to understand that intellectual property is a legal issue and includes artistic works like videos, music and photographs as well as print texts. We teach students from a very early age that they need to document their sources and then as they move up the grades how to do proper referencing and citations when sharing their work. In this age of experimentation and innovation students are encouraged to create new works to express their learning through videos, mashups and other multimedia pieces. It is just as important now in this digital age of “cut and paste” for kids to acknowledge where the original works came from in their final sharing product. Visuals are particularly tricky and most often used with total disregard of copyright or acknowledgement. I know I will get some kickback on this but even though our copyright laws give licence to the use of short pieces from the works of others for educational purposes, I have always championed the idea that ethically we all should give credit where credit is due and in fact this is stated in educational copyright laws. Unfortunately using information ethically and legally gets a little blurred when we move from print to other forms of media. Teacher-librarians continuously work on all aspects of copyright and provide learners with help and guidance. They post this kind of help on school library webpages along with several sites that students can use to find free images and music for their products. Teacher-librarians show students how to use filters and preform searches to find digital images that can be used freely and even adapted, still we teach students to give credit because that is being a responsible user of information.

Information ethics is a component of digital citizenship. An excellent reference for teachers was developed by TALCO, the Association of Library Consultants and Coordinators of Ontario

Recommended also for teachers are Copyright Matters and Fair Dealing Decision Tool and Guidelines.

Doug:  Can a school library learning commons be effective when it’s staffed by someone without teacher-librarian qualifications?

Carol: Back to the research, we know that when teacher-librarians collaborate on designing learning with classroom teachers good things happen. A learning commons is much more than a ‘place’, it is all about creating excellent teaching and learning experiences within this learning environment deliberately designed to ignite participatory learning. Consequently this approach is most effective when staffed by a full time teacher-librarian who has open time in the schedule to work collaboratively with classroom teachers to design, teach and assess best learning experiences that make use of the rich differentiated resources, spaces and technologies available in the LC. A library technician assigned to work collaboratively with the teacher-librarian would be even better, allowing even more time dedicated to teaching, but funding is never available for that scenario any more.

Many schools in Ontario/Canada are staffed by professional library technicians or professional librarians who have latched on to the learning commons approach and are doing an excellent job of designing open flexible spaces in the library and maintaining print and digital resources for learning. In these schools both teachers and students benefit greatly by the new learning environment. The design of the learning experiences and utilizing technologies and resources in teaching and learning rests with each classroom teacher in these schools.

The bottom line is a school LC needs to be open, staffed by professionals and ready for business at all times. A facility that is closed to students and teachers because of no staffing is a sad waste of resources and a real handicap to learning. The Leading Learning writing team wrestled with the variety of staffing realities that exist across the country and prepared a list of creative scenarios to help all schools start working towards a learning commons approach no matter what their current staffing realities are. The LC movement is about designing the best learning environments and experiences for students in every school. Every child deserves no less.

Doug:  What professional organizations do you recommend today’s teacher-librarian join immediately if they’re not already a member?

Carol: As well as their own teaching organizations, almost every province and territory in Canada has a professional School Library Organization so that is a must. I am not sure if other districts have computer organizations like ECOO but that is also a must for Ontario TLs. I also recommend the provincial chapters of ASCD to keep on the cutting edge of pedagogical thinking. Then there are many other educational organizations like Media Smarts that TLs should be following and supporting, the important thing is to keep informed and share what you learn. And for everyone please join CSL, there is no fee or formal membership, just subscribe to the CSL newsletter and you are in.

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Canadian School Libraries 2019.

Doug:  On a personal level, what are your own personal priorities these days?

Carol: Well Doug like you, I have been very fortunate to have been able to continue to contribute to education in meaningful ways post official retirement. The collaborative writing of standards for school library learning commons in Canada and establishing a national organization with Anita and the CSL Board of Directors have been highlights for me. I plan to continue with this ‘work’ as long as I can because I believe we are making a positive contribution to school improvement and learning for the future. I invest a fair bit of time in trying to build capacity in our school library community and ‘twisting arms’ of teacher-librarians to document their work in the LC and share their successes. Being able to accomplish this in the comfort of our home is still a miracle for me, technology is so empowering to learning and collective knowledge building. Unlike my seven beautiful and clever grandchildren who have grown up with the world in the palm of their hand and consider technology as a natural. Investing our love and joy in these talented kids is the real priority for my husband and I, our gifts to the future.

Doug:  Thank you so much for your thoughts, Carol.  I’m sure that readers will have enjoyed them and may have just forwarded the interview as part of their own advocacy efforts!

Follow Carol on Social Media


Learning Commons Resource:

Canadian School Libraries: @CdnSchoolLibrar  and Leading Learning  @CSL_Learning



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