Yes, He Can! Todd Burleson, SLJ’s 2016 School Librarian of the Year

“Please keep robots out of the sawdust” is the kind of phrase heard around the library at Hubbard Woods School in Winnetka, IL, where Todd Burleson can be found leading engineering challenges, inspiring student reporters, and constantly inventing.
Photo by Saverio Truglia

Photo by Saverio Truglia

Hubbard Woods School, Winnetka, IL

“Please keep robots out of the sawdust” is the kind of phrase heard around the library at Hubbard Woods School in Winnetka, IL, where media specialist and SLJ 2016 School Librarian of the Year Todd Burleson is director of the resource center, as the school calls the library. The “Willy Wonka of school librarians” is how Erin Donaldson, PTO communications director for the K–4 school, describes Burleson. And like the fictional candy maker, Burleson has an infectious energy and insatiable curiosity, which have transformed his library into a world of pure imagination. The “IDEA Lab” sign over the entrance to the maker space area gives people a hint of what’s in store. (IDEA stands for Innovation, Design, Engineering, and Art.)

In spring of 2015, Burleson presented a detailed proposal—down to an itemized list of furniture and technology needed—to turn the 5,000-square-foot traditional library into a space for project-based learning. “We loved the presentation just short of tears,” says Donaldson. In June 2015, the Hubbard Woods PTO unanimously approved the plan, allocating $50,000 to capital improvements for the project as the volunteer group’s gift for the school’s 100th anniversary. At the same time, the Winnetka Public School District was interested in expanding STEAM spaces and making Hubbard Woods a pilot program for its elementary campuses.

“I’m blessed that I work in such an amazing school district,” says Burleson, who, with parent volunteers, transformed the library over the summer. Stacks were put on wheels, heavy oak tables were replaced with flip-top models that can be hidden or brought out at a moment’s notice, and chairs swapped for stools, some allowing fidgety students to wobble as they sit.

A research center next to the library became the maker space. “[Todd] has been remarkably dedicated to this task and has a brilliant mind for knowing what will support our project-based, progressive philosophy in a manageable way,” says former Hubbard Woods principal Daniel Ryan. The IDEA Lab opened in fall 2015, complete with manipulatives (Rigamajig and LEGOs), robotics (Dash and Dot, Sphero, and Bloxels), and engineering toys (K’nex and SnapCircuits), along with iPads, two laptop carts, and sewing machines. Even leftover cardboard boxes from new equipment were saved. Inspired by the viral video Caine’s Arcade, students could tinker with the boxes, leading to the Cardboard Challenge, a family event held at the school last October.

Burleson reads a picture book to first graders. Courtesy of Todd Burleson/ Hubbard Woods School

Burleson reads a picture book to first graders.
Courtesy of Todd Burleson/ Hubbard Woods School

The former third and fourth grade classroom teacher says that it’s rewarding to see kids become empowered by tinkering. “That element of coding or programming is probably the most exciting thing I’ve seen from students,” says Burleson, describing that moment “when they realize they’re no longer just consumers—they can create programs or have a device do something they want it to.”

Other teachers at Hubbard Woods have witnessed changes, too. Math facilitator Judith Campbell noticed remarkable shifts in student confidence, problem-solving, and collaboration when they produced videos for Earth Week. “I watched in amazement at the independence and motivation these students had,” says Campbell. “This was a clear outcome of the work they had been doing all year in the IDEA Lab.”

It’s hard to find an aspect of the school that hasn’t been impacted by Burleson’s vision of marrying books and bytes. He has hosted children’s authors, including Wendy McClure, Bob Staake, John Klassen, and Tamera Will Wissinger. STEM projects are focused around ways to use tech to facilitate reading and writing. In one engineering challenge, students built a wagon to transport books to classrooms. Other students learned to publish their own ebooks using Book Creator software. Donaldson notes another memorable directive from Burleson: “Wear your smock to the library….we’re using the Sphero to make a Jackson Pollock painting today.”

For Hubbard Woods’s 100th-anniversary program, Burleson taught kids to create robot music videos that were screened as introductions to live performances of the same music by students. Music teacher Gary Wendt says, “I prepared the kids musically in the music room, and [Todd] worked with them on the technology and videoing in the resource center.” Burleson is a “global thinker,” Wendt adds. “It’s such a joy to work with someone who has no borders around the library and resource center environment.”

Courtesy of Todd Burleson/ Hubbard Woods School

Courtesy of Todd Burleson/ Hubbard Woods School

Burleson’s colleagues attest to his 24/7 enthusiasm. “There were many times I’d come in to work after the weekend and there would be some sort of new contraption in the middle of the IDEA Lab,” says Kristin Osborn, Hubbard Woods tech associate, who works closely with Burleson in the space. “Todd would get ideas in his head and then build things for a new lesson plan the following week.” In the spring of 2016, the students created a giant outdoor geometric sculpture; the group bought the $50 worth of supplies they needed at a hardware store.

The campus community has a strong interest in performing arts; for the past 15 years Hubbard Woods has run a TV station, WGST, which Burleson has headed for eight years. “When I started, we were using VHS tapes,” he says, noting that in 2015, a grant from the Winnetka Public Schools Foundation funded new cameras, lights, and production equipment. “Eventually, we transferred the whole thing to...computers and putting it on the Internet.” The library renovation also allowed the production studio to move out of the school’s basement and into the IDEA Lab, taking advantage of new technology.

The video production class is part of Hubbard Woods’s fourth grade curriculum, and while it’s optional to come in before school to tape a newscast, Burleson says that nearly all students participate. It’s a rite of passage for fourth graders to report while wearing the designated blue blazer stored in the studio. “At 7:30 a.m. one recent cold Midwestern morning, I visited Todd’s school,” says Gail Bush, director emeritus of the school library program at National Louis University, where Burleson earned an MLS in 2013. “It is remarkable to see these fourth graders apply themselves to their tasks…and then just as readily joyfully dance around the studio post-recording as any child would delight in a job well done.”

Burleson deflects praise like this, attributing much of his success to a well-endowed school district with supportive leadership and active parent volunteers. The school, which serves 243 students (only two percent English language learners and no low-income students) in grades K–4, has an $18,000 annual library budget. “I want teachers who may not be in a district with this much support to not lose heart, to not lose faith,” he says. “I try really hard to boil it down to the absolute bare bones. You don’t have to have the most fancy robot or piece of software. You can do just about anything with creativity and flexibility.” More than 200 educators and administrators have toured the IDEA Lab to get inspiration for maker spaces in their own communities.

Burleson shares ideas with the hope that school librarians can replicate them, even with a limited budget. The IDEA Lab genesis is chronicled on his blog, where he shares general tips, such as a holiday gift guide for STEAM toys. He also writes a monthly column for the PTO newsletter. “He’s super generous,” says Donaldson. “There’s no arrogance. There’s no ‘me’ in it at all.” People can follow along on the Hubbard Woods School IDEA Lab Facebook page, Twitter, or on SeeSaw, a cloud-based app that creates digital portfolios of student work. A frequent presenter at state and national conferences, Burleson, and a group of Winnetka Public School teachers and administrators, attended a two-day workshop around “Design Thinking in Makerspaces” at the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit this summer.

While some parents joke that he doesn’t sleep, the librarian has another insight. “My dad told me once that if you love what you do, you don’t work a day in your life,” he says. “I wake up every day so excited about what could happen that I can barely wait to get to school and get started.”

Lynch-Grace-Hwang-2016-TNGrace Hwang Lynch is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has written for PBS, PRI, Salon, and BlogHer. Follow her on Twitter @HapaMamaGrace.

About the Award

SLJ presents the third annual School Librarian of the Year Award in partnership with sponsor Scholastic Library Publishing. The award honors a K–12 library professional for outstanding achievement and the exemplary use of 21st-century tools and services to engage children and teens toward fostering multiple literacies.

This year’s award recognizes one winner and two finalists from a strong pool of 48 applicants. The winning school librarian receives a $2,500 cash award, plus $2,500 worth of print and digital materials from Scholastic Library Publishing. The two finalists each receive $500 in materials of their choice from Scholastic Library Publishing.

THE 2016 JUDGES:  Kristina Holzweiss, 2015 School Librarian of the Year and librarian and library media specialist at Bay Shore (NY) Middle School; Jodi Mahoney, principal, Greenbrook Elementary School, South Brunswick, NJ; and the editors of School Library Journal.

Read more about the award.

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Janet Thabit

Congratulations to Todd and Hubbard Woods! My only regret is that my kids have moved on to older grade schools!

Posted : Mar 23, 2017 08:31

Linda Diekman

Congratulations, Todd! You inspire all of us!

Posted : Aug 27, 2016 03:56

Liz Kunkle

Congratulations, Todd! You deserve it and we are lucky to have you!!

Posted : Aug 26, 2016 09:27

Kristina Holzweiss

Congratulations, friend, on this well-deserved award! So looking forward to transforming library education with you!

Posted : Aug 25, 2016 08:42

Kathy Halsey

Congratulations to my friend, blog buddy ,and writer, Librarian of the Year! Todd's mind has no limits and neither does the IDEA lab or the library with Todd at the helm! Todd shows by example the passion and desire we want life-long learners to have. Bravo, Todd.

Posted : Aug 25, 2016 07:37



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