Meeting Students Where They Are—to Transform their Perceptions

Samantha was disappointed with her students’ lack of engagement. So she decided to transform one of their main distractors—cell phones—into a learning tool and reinvent the role of the library in the process.

As a high school media specialist, the biggest struggle I face is the same as many teachers: How do I engage my students when their attention is pulled in so many directions? What can I do to meet my students where they are in order to better teach them the information literacy standards they need to be successful?

The answer to this challenge has been deceptively simple: Embrace the current world (which is so different from the one I grew up in) and look at these changes as opportunities to grow and learn! For me, these opportunities have come in three main forms: cell phones, social networking, and an outdated perception of the role of the school library. Here’s how I turned these challenges into leadership and learning opportunities in my school.

Cell Phones

In order to tackle the issue of students being connected to their phones 24/7, I stopped looking at it as a discipline problem and instead became one of my school’s technology leaders. I worked with administration to come up with a plan for students to be able to use their technology for positive academic purposes in classrooms and public spaces like the library.

I made sure my library website was optimized for viewing on cell phones and invested in more digital resources and eBooks so that students could have the library in their pocket at all times. I began promoting various apps with students and teachers that would allow them to use their devices to create. Finally, I created professional development to help my staff positively implement BYOT (Bring Your Own Technology) in their classrooms. I also made lessons to help students see that their devices don’t have to be distractors from learning—they can be used to increase learning!

Social Networking

Social networking doesn’t have to be something we fear as teachers.  Along with my library’s website, I created a Facebook page to promote my library program, and I am an active user of Twitter for professional development and to share information with teachers.  We have also embraced various social networking tools like Edmodo as a school learning platform.  I believe it is my role as the school media specialist to help my students navigate the often-treacherous waters of social media, so I am the person who teaches them how to cultivate a positive online presence and share their work. From blogging about service hours to creating websites for school clubs to tweeting about issues and ideas that interest them, I give my students examples of how to use web and social media tools in a positive, balanced way so that when teachers and future employees search for them online, students can feel proud of their work and online presence.

Outdated Perception of the School Library

Perhaps my biggest personal challenge when trying to engage students is their outdated perception of the role of the school library in their learning. It’s not enough for school librarians to focus on being the keeper of books—we have to reach deeper into our students’ lives and learning. We are teacher leaders who should be embedded in every area of education on campus!

A necessary part of that transition is the fact that the library itself cannot be a silent space; it must be an active and vibrant hub of learning. So I reinvented the media center to more closely resemble a busy bookstore.  No longer do students only access the library to look up reference materials for projects—they are just as likely to be using our 3D printer or creating something in our Makerspace. They may be working with peer tutors, receiving help from me on a project, working with a study group, or simply enjoying a cup of cocoa from Beans for Books, our coffee bar, while listening to a peer play the library piano. And, yes—there are still students checking out books and reading in some of our quiet areas. The first step I follow to engage my students is to get them inside the library and make it warm and welcoming. My library really is now the learning hub of the school.

We all live and teach in a world that can be fast paced and filled with distractions. In order to engage our students, we cannot fear change. The moment we find ourselves stuck on the idea that things used to be better before social media and cell phones is the moment that we lose our students. Instead, we must meet them where they are right now in order to prepare them for futures that will be even more unrecognizable from this moment.

Don’t fear change—lead the way in your school!

Samantha Murray (@SamanthaHMurray) is a passionate high school media specialist and teacher leader in Port Orange, FL. She is a self-proclaimed instructional technology geek and an avid reader of young adult literature. Her library motto is “In Medias Res,” which is a literary term that means to start the story in the middle of the action. She sees her role as a teacher librarian as being in the middle of everything all the time.