New York High School Creates Model Library Learning Commons

In Syosset, NY, the new library area is four spaces in one, combining to create a center that meets different needs for students, models lifelong learning, and helps educators transition to new ways of teaching.

The Syosset (NY) High School Library Learning Commons offers windows (literally) for students to see peers at work, teachers still learning, the benefits of collaboration, and the possibilities within a library. The space, which opened this fall, has become a model not only for its district and surrounding areas but around the country, too.

“We’ve had visiting schools from across the nation come to see the space, and they cannot believe the energy,” says assistant principal David Steinberg. “That’s what we hear. They feel that excitement. They feel that energy.”

The high school's new Library Learning Commons.

The commons is the result of a supportive district and school administration; the research, foresight, and imagination of the school’s library media specialists; and Steinberg offering a “blank slate” on which to build.

“My first meeting with the library media specialists, I told them the goal for the year was to reimagine the work and reimagine the space,” says Steinberg, who took control of the library space (previously supervised by the English department) and oversaw the development of the new Library Learning Commons.

He trusted his team, including library media specialists Lynn Ortlieb and Sarah Wasser and the former library space was transformed into a new central hub for the school.

Math students work in pilot classroom.

“The LMSes worked tirelessly to research what these spaces needed to be,” Steinberg says.

It’s a place that now operates as the organizing center of many of the school’s programs and aims to meet the educational needs of the nearly 2,100 students, professional development wishes of the staff, and mission of the district.

Four sections 

The Syosset High School Library Learning Commons has four distinct spaces:

Main Library: With new varying seating arrangements and comfortable furniture, the library area has a space for everyone’s needs—whether for large or small group collaborative work, quiet reading, taking a nap, or downtime with a phone. Lowered bookshelves more effectively engage students in the collection.

Pilot Classroom: In this area with flexible seating and no designated front of the classroom, teachers are changing their process, incorporating technology to amplify instruction and giving kids more ownership of and input into lessons. There are two 75-inch interactive boards and five 40-inch monitors.

TAC Center: TAC is short for “Teachers Actively Collaborating,” and staff members meet here for unofficial discussions or workshops about whatever they need to address, from homework or stress and anxiety among students to how to use a specific type of technology. There is administrative support but no directives. The TAC program is in its fourth year at the school, and having the center in the learning commons allows students to see their teachers actively learning, just as they ask of the students.

Innovation Lab: New this year, the lab has an array of customizable tech, including green screens, Nearpod, and a document camera, and well as a bounty of STEM/maker supplies (crafts, recyclables, 3-D pens, Makey Makey, Microbit, LEGOs, K’Nex, and Turing Tumble and is run by Syosset’s new Ed Tech Specialist and SLJ’s 2015 Librarian of the Year, Kristina Holzweiss.

“I’ve never seen anything like it before,” says Holzweiss. “It’s a meeting place. It’s a place to think about new ideas…..While each space operates independently, they are all physically connected—you can walk through one into the other."

Educators collaborating and learning in the TAC Center.

Standing in any one section, a student or staff member can see what is happening in any of the other three, thanks to windows and see-through walls, creating a “culture of this open collegiality,” according to Holzweiss.

New space, new vision

Sometimes, a new environment can make all the difference, change the process, the way of thinking within the space, even when much of the core of what is happening in that environment hasn’t changed.

“Even though the library has always been doing great things—always been doing research, always connecting with colleagues all over the building—changing the physical space is not only exciting and inspiring for school community, it gives people an opportunity to see what’s possible and changes their vision,” says Ortlieb, who is in her 14th  year at the school. “Changing the layout and giving people new tools and techniques inspires people to change their technique and instruction.”

The new space has also changed aspects of Ortlieb and Wasser’s jobs. “We’ve kind of seen our work shift,” says Wasser. “We’ve always been there as a support and to break down barriers for teachers who might be hesitant to use different technologies but what we’ve found is we’ve taken on the role of instructional leader. Teachers are provided not only the space but the support to engage in that work so they feel comfortable.”

There is a lot of tech, but the books have benefitted as well. Through using the pilot classroom, teachers are giving students more ownership of the learning process, Wasser says. That has led them to give kids more ownership of what they read as well.

“We’re seeing many more students come in,” she says. “Since they are given that freedom to read what connects to them, asking for more books then they’re coming back. It really has done wonders for our circulation.”

Collaboration and possibility

As Ortlieb and Wasser work with the teachers, more and more teachers are working with each other. The fourth year of the TAC program is producing the kinds of cross-curricular collaborations Steinberg hoped for when he conceived it.

“In high schools, especially one that’s the size as ours, it’s very easy for people to become isolated in their departments,” he says. “This actually brings people together and connects them around their profession, connects them around what’s in the best interest of all students. You can walk in there any time for one of these TAC talks and see a teacher from science, English, music, art….They are focusing on these educational strategies and crossing over then from an academic standpoint.”

The innovation lab with green screen capabilities.

This year, the AP biology and AP drawing teachers collaborated after getting together in the TAC Center. The drawing class sat in on one of the biology classes' lessons on the muscular-skeletal system to gain a deeper understanding of the system in preparation for their pastel skeletal drawing where they pick a portion of the skeletal system and do a detailed rendering.

It was just another example for students of working together, something Ortlieb believes the learning commons is modeling for them, along with what a library can be.

“I think it can help them in the future using public libraries and college libraries,” says Ortlieb. “They will see the library is a safe place to be where they can meet people and work together.”

It all comes together to produce that “energy” visiting schools notice.

“I walk in there every morning as part of my morning walk around the school,” says Steinberg. “It’s the first place I go because I want to see the kids and I want to feel it and that lets me know, ‘Ok we’re learning. Let’s go, another day.’”

Christina Vercelletto contributed to this article.

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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