February 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Meet the Recipients of the Build Something Bold Library Design Award

Walnut Grove Photos by Bob Gathany.

Photos of the Walnut Grove Elementary School library by Bob Gathany.


Walnut Grove Elementary School, New Market, AL

A High-Tech Digital Diner

A diner-themed design brings new technology to rural students

Madison County, AL, has a split personality. Since the space race of the 1950s, its county seat, Huntsville, has been a research and development center for the aerospace industry. But just a few miles away from this thriving tech hub, rural Madison County remains anchored to cotton and corn farming and high rates of poverty.

The key to bridging the two sides of Madison County could lie in a school library in New Market, 20 miles outside of downtown Huntsville. There, children from this community are getting their first hands-on exposure to technology. At Walnut Grove Elementary School, the winner of the inaugural Build Something Bold award, sponsored by School Library Journal and LEGO Education, kids as young as kindergarten age are changing the paradigm.

Walnut Grove Elementary School librarian Holly Whitt

Walnut Grove Elementary School librarian Holly Whitt.

Four years ago, Holly Whitt took over as school librarian at Walnut Grove, a tiny, rural campus of 250 students. The school had iPads and laptops in the classroom, but they were not integrated into the library curriculum.

Walnut Grove has operated in this corner of Madison County for nearly 100 years, and some students’ grandparents and great-grandparents also attended the school. Over the years, the campus has been threatened with closure due to its low enrollment. Today, it is a Title I school, with a student body that is 82 percent white. Sixty percent qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Despite having the highest poverty rates in the school district, Walnut Grove students have consistently scored in the top 10 percent in the county on state standardized tests, something Whitt attributes to the small class sizes and additional aides hired with Title I funds. However, “they stay in poverty for generations,” Whitt says. “It’s just 20 miles away to these very lucrative careers, [but] they’re not breaking that cycle.”

Booths and jukeboxes

Whitt believes that teaching young students real-life applications for their academic learning is the start to bridging that achievement gap.

She knows the local culture well. A native of the region, she graduated from the University of Alabama, Huntsville, with a bachelor’s degree in political science, and went on to earn a master’s of library and information studies from the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. She began her career as a research librarian in the Washington, DC, area, working for the Library of Congress, the Institute for Defense Analyses, and National Public Radio.

Seven years ago, when Whitt began thinking about starting her own family, she headed back to sweet home Alabama. “I’m living on my family farm,” she says. “I’m part of the farming community.” Soon after, she began volunteering at the local public school library. When the previous librarian retired at age 70, Whitt was hired to fill her shoes.

The annual library budget is $1,900 to $2,900, but grants and fundraising have brought it closer to $10,000 for the past two years, according to Whitt. Through Title I and 21st Century Community Learning Center federal grants, as well as other funding, Whitt expanded the school library to become a multimedia resource center.

An unused corner of the 2,500 square foot facility was converted into a “Digital Diner” with a $3,240 grant from Lowe’s Toolbox for Education. Two 1950s-style blue booths outfitted with jukeboxes provide an inviting space for celebrations—such as end-of-year parties—and for kids to collaborate on digital projects, as well as more traditional library activities such as book clubs. With its vinyl and chrome, the ambiance hearkens back to the 1950s, but the tools are all new millennium. Library iPads can be inserted into the tabletop jukeboxes, and students can use them to share videos and ebooks they have created.

WG_Quadrant_webA high-level curriculum

Currently, students have 1:1 access to iPads and laptops and work in small groups on projects such as robotics, coding, and filmmaking. While many incoming kids begin at a remedial level of tech proficiency, their young minds take to it quickly. “Our kids are very eager to take on my work and responsibility if they can see it in a real-world project—such as making a green-screen movie or designing a video game—rather than do a report about Abraham Lincoln and make a Power Point,” explains Whitt.

All students participated in the global Hour of Code event, and 18 of them completed a 20-hour introduction to computer science course, earning the library a $1,000 grant from code.org. Fourth and fifth graders recently showed off their coding skills at a regional event. “High school teachers were asking [them] how they did it!” says Pat Campbell, a fourth grade teacher at Walnut Grove. “They remarked that it was a college freshman-level venture.”

The library curriculum, offered to all Walnut Grove students, is often compared by other local educators to gifted and talented programs, or higher level curricula. Tools include LEGO Robotics, CAD software, video game design, and green-screen videography. On a typical school day, a group of girls might be working together to create a video of the inside of the human body, while a cluster of boys designs a video game. Students often come to the Digital Diner during their lunch breaks or after school.

The tech tools are also integrated into lessons of reading and writing. Instructional partner Yolanda Wright, who works with students needing extra help learning to read, uses iPads for students to record book trailers.

“It helps them understand why becoming fluent readers and precise problem solvers is [personally] important, not just something the teacher, librarian, or instructional partner wants them to do,” says Wright. “Our goal is to allow students to combine technology with their classroom learning—to think like engineers and create masterpieces.”

A community learning center

The real proof of a school library’s success is how well it is received by the students. “I can’t wait to begin learning in our library this year. I have butterflies just thinking about it!” a fourth grade boy said, according to Campbell.

Whitt develops stand-alone library and technology curriculum, but classroom teachers and other staff also benefit from the tools she has brought in. Wright works with the library to moderate a summer reading program using the educational collaborative tool Edmodo. “Research, sharing ideas, and collaborating online in a supervised setting will prepare students for future project-based learning and careers,” Wright says.

Walnut Grove principal Elisabeth Smith notes that it’s important for kids to be exposed to high-tech jobs from a young age. “We’re hoping that we can be a source of inspiration for these kids who may not have [tech] in their homes—that we can give them the awareness of the opportunities.”

With the $5,000 Build Something Bold award prize, Whitt hopes to expand the library even more, creating a makerspace, where the school can expand its 3-D printing projects and possibly turn an old phone booth into a recording studio.

Currently, every Walnut Grove class has library instruction time for 45 minutes each week. The Digital Diner is also open in the afternoons and one evening each month, so that parents and community members can learn about technology and get tips on how to help their students. The parents are extremely supportive and excited about what their children are learning, Whitt says. “Everyone wants them to break out of the pattern.” The Digital Diner may just provide the tools to do that.



Nimitz High School, Irving, TX

Photos courtesy of Nimitz High School Library.

Photo courtesy of the Nimitz High School library.

Bold Progress

A student-engineered space with tech tools, snacks, and a “Java Jungle”

If you want to build the library of the future, why not turn to tomorrow’s engineers? That’s what administrators did at the 2,400-student Nimitz High School in the Dallas suburb of Irving, TX. During the summer of 2011, Nimitz High’s library media specialist, Natalie Sunde, was looking for a way to make the 3,000 square foot space more functional. Sunde—along with an advisory committee made up of students, teachers, and administrators—turned to sophomores in the school’s “Intro to Engineering” course, who threw out many of the traditional library tenets.

“All the feedback [revolved] around the need for these multi-use spaces where people could come together and work on collaborative projects,” says Nimitz library media specialist Sherece Johnson.

“Sometimes the old ways of measuring library success, such as book circulation, did not show bold progress,” says Lea Bailey, former director of libraries for the Irving Independent School District.

The students researched the needs of 21st-century learners and used software such as AutoCAD and Autodesk Inventor to render 3-D models of the new library. In the fall of 2012, the re-branded Project Center and Library opened its doors. Freestanding shelves were moved to one end, creating a multipurpose area for project-based learning. Now, about three-quarters of the library is open space where students can meet in groups. Other areas accommodate multimedia presentations, computer use, and quiet reading.

To serve Nimitz’s ethnically and socioeconomically diverse student body, the Project Center and Library now provides free access to high-tech tools, such as iPads, headphones, microphones, and video cameras. Kids use these tools to create interactive graphics, videos, and mobile apps. Videos with school announcements, tutorials for library skills, and book trailers created by students are posted on the Nimitz library YouTube channel. Seventy-two percent of Nimitz students are economically disadvantaged and can’t afford basic supplies. The library, with an annual book budget of about $13,000, plus around $2,500 for supplies, provides markers, tape, and staplers, as well as a die-cut machine, paper, and a printer.

Gone are the old rules of no eating or drinking in the library. They have been replaced by the “Java Jungle” snack room, equipped with a Keurig coffeemaker and a vending machine selling healthy snacks. In addition to school meetings, including those for the Academic Decathalon, PTA, and booster clubs, the library is available to the community for events such as the student council’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program and computer classes for parents.

Because building renovations were not required, the redesign came at minimal cost.



Kaechele Elementary School, Glen Allen, VA

Photos courtesy of Kaechele Elementary School Library.

Photos courtesy of the Kaechele Elementary School library.

Fitness Forward

A new elementary school library combines fitness, fun, and learning

Flexibility is the theme of the new Kaechele Elementary School in Glen Allen, VA. The 400-student campus opened its doors in the fall of 2013 to alleviate overcrowding at three other district schools in this upper middle class Richmond suburb, and the staff had the privilege of building the library from the ground up. The result? A Library Learning Commons with many fun and movable features that might look more at home in a gym or ultra-modern office than a traditional school.

Students can sit on six-inch-tall multi-colored cushions they call “dots,” purchased from the library furnishing supplier Melos, Inc., in Hampton Roads, VA, or chartreuse foam spheres affectionately referred to as “library minions,” created by Safco furniture and bought from Ball Office Products in Richmond, VA. Movable ottomans provide space for silent reading. Wood tables sit on casters and have features on each side that allow them to snap together to form various configurations. They can then be rolled on their sides and stacked, taking up very little space. More than half of the bookshelves are also on wheels.

SLJ141101_FT_BSB_Kaechele2“Everything has been purchased or brought into this space intentionally knowing that it could change at any time, depending on the needs of our school community,” says the school librarian and information specialist, Shannon Hyman. Within 10 minutes, the library can go from being a place for a kindergarten storytime to one accommodating a class learning Skype in order to chat with students in another state.

Physical fitness was also a big consideration as Hyman planned the library. With two child-size cross-training gliders, kids can get aerobic exercise while reading books or doing work. Even the backless “dots” and “library minions” are designed to help children use their core muscles while sitting.

The campus was laid out with the library at the school’s entrance, across from the main office, making it a hub for the student body, which spans Pre-K to fifth grade. The prominent placement of the library is designed to inspire kids to become lifelong readers. Kaechele is by definition a place for collaborative learning and experimenting. In the makerspace, kids can create jewelry, duct-tape crafts, or build a marble run out of recycled toilet paper tubes and tape.

What inspired such out-of-the-box thinking? “I like to see what works well, what is good design,” answers Hyman, a self-described hacker. “How can that benefit a school?”



Adlai E. Stevenson High School, Lincolnshire, IL

Photo courtesy of Adlai E. Stevenson High School Library.

Photo courtesy of the Adlai E. Stevenson High School library.

Stairway to Learning

Student-centered features define this reinvented library

In 2009, Adlai E. Stevenson High School in suburban Lincolnshire, IL, faced a decision: renovate the 25-year-old existing library or create an entirely new concept. After studying many other high school, university, and public libraries in the Chicago area, the school decided to re-invent the space. Stevenson is a large public high school in an upper middle class Chicago suburb, with a student body of 3,800 and ample facilities and resources to match.

In fall 2011, the $2.7-million project, funded by the school’s regular budget, culminated in the opening of a 24,000 square foot Information and Learning Center that combined the existing library and tutoring center. The endeavor was led by Stevenson librarians Lisa Dettling and Toni Gorman. To make more room for seating and collaborative work spaces, the library disposed of one-third of its 45,000 books and increased its collection of electronic media.

“Spending priorities have evolved so [the school] now devotes $97,000 of [its] yearly budget to purchasing digital resources,” says head librarian Dettling. “[This allows it] to create a library available to students and teachers 24 hours a day, seven days a week, all year long.”

Online resources include reference ebooks and several digital platforms that also provide a large collection of ebooks and audiobooks. Dettling and Gorman use social media, including Facebook, Twitter, and Haiku, to communicate with students and teachers and to sponsor online reading contests and raffles.

During the renovation, a narrow, old staircase was replaced with a new, wider one that also serves as amphitheater-style seating for class presentations or casual gatherings. Two official classroom spaces within the library are equipped with projection screens and movable chairs, promoting a student-centered environment. “Teachers don’t stand in front of the classroom and drone on anymore,” says Dettling. “It’s more exploratory.”

Other spaces are outfitted with new, mobile furniture, such as couches and café tables, which appeal to students, including the 300 to 400 who gather at the library after school.

Using recycled materials and skylights, Stevenson is reducing its environmental impact and electric usage, becoming the first public high school in the country to achieve gold-level Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification for its green building practices.

Grace Hwang LynchGrace Hwang Lynch (@HapaMamaGrace) is a freelance writer, editor, and photographer in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work has also been published on PBS Parents, Salon, BlogHer, and xoJane.


About the Award

SLJ’s inaugural Build Something Bold award,
in partnership with LEGO Education
, recognizes the best in school library design. The winner received $5,000 and a LEGO Education StoryStarter Classroom set with software and curriculum. The first runner-up was awarded $1,500, and the second runner-up and editor’s choice selection received $500 each. The judges were:


Chad Sansing, middle school language arts teacher, Staunton, VA
Kathy Ishizuka, executive editor, School Library Journal
Amy Koester, youth and family program coordinator, Skokie (IL) Public Library
Rebecca T. Miller, editor-in-chief, School Library Journal

Please see slj.com/buildsomethingbold for more information.


This article was published in School Library Journal's November 2014 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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  1. Susan Milaeger says:

    Is your green screen always set up in the library. If so, how much area does it take?