March 18, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Educators Share Maker, STEM, and Digital Literacy Tools

A panel of educators tore through a recent afternoon, presenting online tools for maker spaces, STEM lessons, and digital literacy during School Library Journal’s webcast, “60 Tools in 60 Minutes.”

Moderated by SLJ’s executive editor Kathy Ishizuka, four guests brought coding tools, literacy apps, and toy suggestions meant to enliven and stretch school librarians eager to breathe some digital know-how into their classrooms and schools.

Monica Cabarcas

Monica Cabarcas started off the event explaining her passion for Sphero and Ollie, robots that are controlled through Bluetooth via apps. The librarian at Albemarle High School in Charlottesville, VA. recently played host to a Spheropalooza, where students designed driving courses for the robotic toys, using painters tape, ramps, and, of course, their coding skills.

Cabarcas believes students need to get their hands on tech tools as part of their education. And as they create and build, she often encourages high schoolers to license their work on Creative Commons so they can not only share their work but control how it’s shared. The service now supports multiple search engine extensions, including Chrome, making the entire process that much more accessible.

“I’m all for anything that encourages students to take an extra step in licensing their work,” she says.

Coding comes alive

Heidi Williams, head of school at Jefferson Lighthouse Elementary in Racine, WI is a fierce proponent of bringing digital literacy lessons into the classroom. As the author of the upcoming book, No Fear Coding: Computational Thinking Across the K–5 Curriculum (International Society for Technology in Education, 2017), Williams believes the Internet is a powerful tool for 21st Century skills.

Favorite tools of her include and its Hour of Code, which aligns coding lessons—even those for non-readers—to math and literacy standards. Scratch, too, is one she turns to regularly with students, a coding program developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which lets children produce their own games.

Williams also mentioned ARIS, an open sourced augmented reality app that lets students create augmented maps and help them think “computationally,” she said.

Maker movement

Kristina Holzweiss. Photo by Jesse Dittmar

Kristina Holzweiss is certainly a proponent of letting children building something from scratch. But the school library media specialist at Bay Shore (NY) Middle School and SLJ’s 2015 Librarian of the Year likes to see children using yogurt containers, chip bags, and cardboard as well as computers.

Maker spaces are a favorite of hers, although Holzweiss believes librarians should think of them not as a place but as “an environment that nurtures the culture of making,” she says.

For educators who have very little in the way of a budget, Holzweiss thinks that shouldn’t stop their endeavor. She points to recyclable materials as wonderful tools, including one of her favorite freebies: paint chips from Lowe’s and the Home Depot.

For those with budgets a bit deeper, she encourages forays to dollar stores for items such as paint, glue guns, pool noodles, and battery-operated toothbrushes. Her students used the latter two, taped them together, and created a robot that could draw on its own.


Daryl Grabarek, SLJ’s senior editor, rounded out the hour-long webcast with a treasure trove of apps. She encouraged educators to learn how to use apps to build on a child’s interest and view them as “opportunities for learning,” particularly with pre-readers and visual and English language learners, says Grabarek, also the editor of SLJ’s monthly newsletter, Curriculum Connections, and its online column Touch and Go.

Daryl Grabarek

Grabarek, also a practicing school librarian, offered some tips on how to evaluate apps, from story line to narration. Then she unveiled some of her favorite productions for students across the curriculum and learning spectrum.

Key apps she listed for elementary school-aged children included Nosy Crow’s fairy tale apps, including its latest, The Complete Fairytale Theater, and the “LumiKids” series, which she highlighted for its multi-layered  approach to math concepts.

Grabarek also noted short fictional apps with potential for classroom use, such as Slap Happy Larry’s The Artifacts, which follows a 13-year-old boy who loves to collect things, and when deprived of them, moves on to collecting words and facts. Readers explore along with the protagonist by tapping and shaking their devices to engage with the app.

For older students, Grabarek mentioned Theodore Gray’s Molecules and Coffee Stain Studio’s The Westport Independent, which she highlighted for its ability to discuss censorship with students. For Grabarek, apps are a ticket to learning opportunities some students may normally never have a chance to experience.

“Apps can also bring us to places we wouldn’t normally go,” she noted.


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Lauren Barack About Lauren Barack

School Library Journal contributing editor Lauren Barack writes about the connection between media and education, business, and technology. A recipient of the Loeb Award for online journalism, she can be found at

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