Four summers ago I began a little project called “The Libratory.”
Let me back up.
Hello, my name is Miranda.
… and I’m a recovering workaholic. After almost a decade of teaching high school ELA/Journalism, I took off seven years to focus my energies on my young family instead of my job. I wasn’t sure if the Lord would ever give me the peace to go back to work because of my complicated relationship with my career/passion/hobby/job. But in 2017, He gave me new chance, and I landed into what looked like a low-key, part-time job at my son’s new school a year after we moved to Grand Junction, CO.
“Low-key.” Ha. I smile thinking back now.
When I took over being the school librarian (which is a paraprofessional position in this school district) I was tasked with adding a Makerspace element to the library experience. I had no idea what a “Makerspace” was at that time. All I knew after Googling, and Pinteresting the word Makerspace was that I wanted to try to mix books with building, and I had absolutely no budget to do it. (You know, typical public school problems.)
Neither my principal nor I knew what was waiting for us that fateful fall when I asked her if I could start calling our tiny, classroom-sized library “The Libratory.” (It’s not a library or a laboratory … it’s THE LIBRATORY!)
Fast forward four years, and here I am a now-certified elementary school teacher saturated in teaching little people, incorporating STEM/STEAM, Edtech, literacy/library skills lessons (and now Bitmoji-ing) for all grades K-5, And I just couldn’t be happier. Or busier. Or tired-er.
What a labor of love.
And I feel like I have to walk through how I got here. Bear with me.
Can I bribe you with some pics and video?
During the first year of rebranding our little library, I sought out other like-minded educators who were combining books with building. I quickly found Brooke Brown @ Think Outside the Box on Teachers Pay Teachers. She saved my life that year. I brought in wood blocks my dad had made for my mom’s classroom decades ago, and I got some lego donated, and acquired magnetic/velcro blocks, brought a marble run from home, collected recycled items (trash) for projects, and construction paper, markers, crayons, scissors, glue sticks, duct tape, and cups for tower building, popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners, Jenga blocks, spaghetti noodles and marshmallows for building, my husband’s Lite Brite from his childhood, and figured out how to tie them all to children’s literature. Each week I would read a text, maybe dress up with the book theme, and we would make projects connected to it. My “crown jewel” that year was making a bulletin board-sized Lego wall with adhesive lego plates.
Oh. And there was the learning to manage a school library thing.
There was that, too.
Voila! …a miniature Library/Makerspace was created.
The Libratory was born.
What a year.
I also survived my first time teaching K-5 elementary-level students that year. It was a bit of an educational culture shock. I traded in high school seniors falling asleep in class and breaking the dress code every dang day, for little learners who cried when they got frustrated with each other, and openly picked their noses and ate their boogers. It was a life change.
But I also learned that in spite of the vast developmental differences between kinders and high school seniors, one truth remained: I loved teaching and learning. It didn’t matter the age. It didn’t matter the subject matter. And the school I work at gave me a crash course in elementary school teaching … and really, teaching in general. I would just walk around and watch all these amazing veteran educators do their thing, and I learned something new every day. I was in teacher-heaven.
My second year, our amazing little public magnet STEAM school (We have 144 students, one class per grade) found out it was going to acquire a large area on our campus that was then being used/shared by a local children’s science museum. The museum moved out, and the entire school decided (and by “the entire school” I mean ALL OF THE KIDS came up with the idea during a school-wide Problem-Based Learning unit) to use the space for the new Libratory.
So yay! We got four times as much size for books and building!!!
But boo! There was absolutely no money available to renovate it.
So what do we teachers do when faced with overwhelming odds and a lack of funding?
We find a way to make it work.
And that’s what we did.
In the fall of 2018, I soon found myself co-chairing a community Gala event with the school nurse, regardless of the fact that I can barely throw a kid’s birthday party at my own house. Nonetheless, I took the leap into event planning, and that took on a life of its own.
Our “Destination Imagination” gala ended up generating around $40,000, allowing our school to get new furniture, paint and all the materials we would need for the new Libratory. We even had a two-story reading clubhouse built by Shaw Construction at the recommendation of the kids. And of course, it was the generosity of our school’s parents, alumni parents, and the Grand Junction community and businesses that made it all possible. (Oh! And Jesus. He’s always making magic happen for me.)
So we moved into the space without furniture, built our projects around boxes of books that took me months to unpack, and had a Gala as our Libratory space changed each and every month.
What a year.
Year three (last year) was my first real year with all the new furniture and STEAM supplies in place, and I began sailing unchartered library/Makerspace waters with the vision that ALL learners in grades K-5 would set their own learning goals, give and receive authentic feedback about their learning, and rotate through MANY new and student-chosen”STEAM Stations” These included, in no particular order: Lego, blocks, art, Play-doh, crafts up the wazoo, woodworking, robotics, 3D printing, knitting/sewing, origami, science kits/projects, a school store called “The Curiosity Shoppe” to sell items that were made in the Libratory. And of course, there were the BOOKS! (Herberger’s went out of business at our local mall the year before, and we landed all the beautiful, maple rolling shelves from their entire shoe department!) In fact, we bought all rolling furniture and have used it to change the space time and time again.
I continued to set up STEAM stations/centers weekly, often revolving them around seasonal themes and STEM/STEAM-related books, trying to use all of the materials just purchased. I found gracious grandparent volunteers to help with the woodworking and knitting because, well, the Lord knows I can’t do either of those!!! LOL.
Every other week, we focused on checking out library books and balancing our “library goals” with our “Makerspace goals.”
We had a green screen going — lots of tech was being incorporated along with the hands-on projects. Things were tricky, to be sure. I was definitely building the plane while flying it. But what a fantastically, fun plane to fly!
Managing a new large space with LOTS of varied materials that were chosen at the lead of my students, along with running the library … It was (and is) a constant balancing act. But by January of 2020, things were really clicking. We were finding our groove. We had just started building and pounding hammers in the wood shop area with Mr. Frazier, and knitting scarves with Ms. Joyce. We were using Flipgrid and Seesaw to document our learning, we were setting goals, focusing on giving feedback, and making things, reading things, building things, and creating things … until a little thing called Covid stopped us right in the middle of March Leprechaun traps, 3D printing/Tinkercad designs, and Flipgrid QR Code book reviews.
Alas — the pandemic put me and the Curiosity Shoppe out of business … or so I thought.
Remote Learning proved to be the trickiest trick of all. I love Edtech, and I jumped at the chance to figure out a way to continue the magical mystery ride happening in the Libratory, but now, in an online format. I had to rethink how to tie books and building in a digital way. It was equal parts exhilarating and terrifying. I had to learn SO MUCH, so quickly. My brain hurt. I tried everything I could to engage learners and provide them with some joy each week. It was tough.
Enter Bitmoji-ing and Digital/Virtual Makerspacing. That became my newfound passion those last seven weeks of school, as I tried to figure out how to engage little people without seeing them face-to-face, while managing my own two kids’ learning at home, and providing synchronous and asynchronous learning daily for my K-5 students. Talk about multi-tasking.
And now — here we are. I have arrived to year four in the Libratory as of August, 2020.
I was completely convinced we would have to go hybrid to some degree, since our Covid numbers in GJ are not particularly high, but exist, nonetheless. I planned all summer for how I would balance teaching both in-person and virtually. I stumbled across amazing resources every where I went online, and figured out “Blended Learning” or a “Flipped Classroom” model was the way to go, both for Covid-learning and beyond. I began planning for how I would quickly bond with my students and re-teach the growth mindset and social-emotional learning (SEL) skills they would need to handle a topsy-turvy Covid-era school year, while curating sites and resources for digital Makerspace projects.
Imagine my surprise when I found out I would be teaching fully face-to-face this fall, with no hybrid option in sight. However, I have charged ahead with creating a flipped classroom/blended learning Libratory model anyway.
But that was just the beginning. I ALSO had to redesign the physical layout of the Libratory space too, and I have spent every day of the last month examining and reexamining how to provide hands-on learning in a new-non-hands-on world.
So what does the Libratory look like now?
Every day I see my learners, three classes/grade levels a day. They come in with their own Chromebooks and supply boxes full of crayons, pencils, scissors, glue, etc. (Just getting wee ones to carry those two things and a water bottle is a victory in and of itself.) I have vinyl blue dots placed at tables to show kids how far apart to sit from one another now. There are blue dots on the floor 3 ft apart to socially distance them when they enter and exit.
When they come in, they look to the SmartBoard, where they see Bitmoji “Ms. Miranda” welcoming them in alongside the real me. I am purposefully teaching them how to access their learning from a digital format, creating visual familiarity, and using our face-to-face time for relationship building and hands-on builds in a socially-distanced, highly sanitized environment.
Ya, it’s weird, I know. But it’s strangely working.
We are learning about masked ninjas, grit and perseverance, and relearning how to login, how to use the Google Suite, how to check email, click on read aloud links, and how to check out books digitally. I will have my kindergarteners on their devices by Week 5. It will be the soonest that’s ever happened for me. And it has to be. We must prepare for the unknown.
I will begin actual book check-outs in two more weeks. That will look different too. I will personally escort each child to the book shelves and be their personal “book shopper” since they cannot touch or peruse the shelves on their own anymore. Those not walking the bookshelves with me will be accessing their learning independently via digital STEAM stations on Chromebooks. I have to shelf my goal of having the kids check out their own books. Maybe 2022.
Everything looks different this year.
We are all spread out all over the Libratory, instead of huddled cozily around our cool new “Friendship booth.” No more sitting on the rug or the couch. No more hanging close together on top of the Reading Clubhouse. No more working in teams in all corners of the Libratory. The Curiosity Shoppe is closed. As is the Lego Wall. We cannot share supplies, and at the same time, we were told manipulatives could be shared if hands were washed before and after, and as long as all said-manipulatives were sanitized after that. Wrap your brain around that gray area! There are so many gray areas this year … and not enough time to sanitize all the things … so we cannot USE all the things … we are instead making things more by ourselves at our seats or making digital avatars instead of block buildings. I’m slowly going to return to material builds … I think. I hope.
Sigh. Long gone are the days of “Go pick a STEAM station to work at.” Everything is very preordained, very methodical and purposefully planned to the detail.
There is still an over-abundance of plane building going on while I’m trying my hardest to keep flying … though I must say, there is very little room for “Type B” me to fly by the seat of my pants anymore. The art and science of teaching is very much science right now. Every minute is accounted for … transition time, cleaning time, pre-recorded read aloud time, book check-out time, bagging manipulatives, cleaning manipulatives, designing my Bitmoji digital libraries, making digital resources. I can’t seem to afford to leave anything to chance. More than any other year of my 20 years in education … there’s no room for error and time is an even more expensive commodity.
Speaking of time, I spend even more time now on the computer — as if I wasn’t before. I’m definitely using digital Makerspacing at the beginning of this year (especially thanks to all the free Makerspace Bitmoji classrooms from Casey Verdugo at First Grade Creative) to both allow me some time to figure out what we can do logistically, while at the same time getting the kids ready technologically for when our school must again go remote due to outbreaks.
I also have to think about where I can and will let students go in the space, based on what I’m capable of sanitizing before and after using it, with classes coming in back to back. In short, I have to rethink how I do everything in here. I’m starting all over again. It’s like Year ONE of teaching, except everyday.
I did venture out and let kinder do a partner lego build for the first time last week at the end of Week 3. It was also the first “Partner” building activity I had happen this year, period. It was both exciting and terrifying. Should we be sharing lego? But they just washed their hands and will again … so technically we can do this … but should we? How can we not?
Kids need to learn how to work together … but how do we do this all year socially distanced?
And most urgently, how long will it take me to clean 12 tubs of lego after school? LOL!
I’m going very, very slowly as I figure out what materials I can have cleaned and re-used for multiple classes a day. It looks like I’ll be using a lot of digital resources, lots of lego in Ziplock baggies and more paper and recycled materials for building. Things that can be easily cleaned or thrown away.
I spend around 60 minutes of my daily four-hour “part-time” job cleaning tables, devices, books and supplies. My hands are beginning to peel after three weeks. There’s no need for lipstick anymore. We all wear masks. My throat hurts often from talking so loudly. I’ve decided to break out a portable microphone next week. I need to order more masks for me and my kids this weekend. I need to wash the ones I use every weekend. The daily alarm for doing a “Covid Symptom Tracker” online for my own two children and me must happen everyday at 6:15am.
As I said, life is different. You already know that. Yours is too.
So much has changed and IS still changing. And it seems we’re all figuring things out, week by week, day by day. Learners and teachers alike.
But you know what?
Some things haven’t changed. I still love the kids. I still love teaching. I still love learning. Being in my classroom still feels like home away from home, even with a mask on all day. I still love sharing what I’m learning with others. I love my principal. I love our staff. I love our school. I still feel like I’m making a difference every dang day … and the Libratory is still a labor of love.
Pandemic and all.