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Originally published at Megan Frazer Blakemore. You can comment here or there.

This summer I took an experimental course at Simmons SLIS: LTK: Library Test Kitchen. This class has been offered at the Harvard School of Design, but in this iteration, instead of getting design students to think about libraries, the course got library students to think about design. I took the class because of our work in South Portland to integrate the design process into our curriculum. I hoped I would get a better sense of how I could teach my students about design thinking, and I did. But, rather than learning from theory or a pedagogical perspective, I learned by taking part in the mode of learning in which I want my students to participate. This class was a game changer for me in many ways, and I wanted to share some of the take aways I learned by being a student.

  1. Scaffolding is Key: Our final class outcome was a prototype for a library solution, but along the way we learned about design through smaller exercises. Some were meant to teach a tool or approach. For example, for one assignment we were asked to propose a use of a LibraryBox, and include a comic showing how it would be used in the wild. Others were more about going through the design process, so an early assignment was to go to a place other than a library where people read, observe their behavior, and think of how it could be applied to the library setting, as well as the potential problems of that approach. These activities broke the design process down into smaller, manageable pieces. There was no requirement that ideas generated in this exercise would lead to the final project (though in some cases they did). Instead, we got practice in problem scoping, observation, and sharing our ideas.
Painting of beach.
At the beach, visitors participate in different activities in different zones. This segmentation happens naturally.
Re-worked painting to be a model of the library.
What if we let patron usage determine the layout of the library?
A problematic map of the library.
The potential difficulty is that conflicting uses might want to be in the same or adjacent areas.

2. Authentic Feedback Not Tied to Assessment: As we worked on our projects, our instructors Jessica Yorkofsky, Jeff Goldenson, and Matthew Battles asked questions and made suggestions based on their own areas of expertise. They served as mentors who were helping us to reach our goals rather than instructors with a set idea of outcomes. Feedback was constant while assessment was absent, creating an atmosphere of experimentation and risk. There was also a sense that assignments were meant to help us grow, not to prove mastery. After the first couple of assignments I realized I was not going to be judged based on my artistic ability whether it was those paintings, my comic, or anything else. That was immensely liberating for me. As teachers, I’d like to see a focus on increasing the amount of work we give to help kids grow rather than as a means for us to assess them.

3. Class as Community: We quickly grew together as a community of creators. Our own strengths came to the forefront and we learned who we could go to in the class to get help with or feedback on a certain aspect of our work. Work was shared in a Google folder that all students could access, and as we began working on our final projects, we offered each other suggestions and feedback in this shared area. This opened up the creative process so it was not a back and forth between teacher and student but a work group approach. I’m thinking about ways to open up the creative process with my students, including using the shared Google folder idea.

4. Ideas in Action: Part way through the class we took a field trip to the library at Olin College of Engineering, where our instructor Jeff Goldenson is the library director. There we were able to see how he was putting his ideas into action with the help of his students. In a course that focused on ideas without limits, seeing how these plans could come down to the ground was really useful. It was clear that library staff and students embraced an approach of experimentation and iteration. Something that was stressed through-out the tour: make changes that can  be undone. That lessens the risk and frees up your imagination. Finding opportunities to showcase real-life examples of designers, engineers, and others doing the same work as your students will help them to see their work in a larger context.

Staff members at Olin Library.
Unique Displays, here showing staff members.
Student looks at tools in tool area.
The tool area. These tools can be borrowed.
Library written with plants on sign.
Living Library welcome sign.

5. From Practical to Pie in the Sky: We closed our class with an exhibition of all our projects. Some of the projects were ready to be implemented in libraries tomorrow. Some are so ambitious and oversized that they probably never will. Both approaches to design are essential, and, perhaps not surprisingly, are approaches that I have seen in my own students. The challenge as teachers is to value both the practical and the dreamy, to push the practical thinkers to the extreme of their ideas, and to ask the big dreamers how to scale their ideas to reality.

A view of just a few of the class projects.
A view of just a few of the class projects. At left, a temporary “igloo” as a Library Special Place. In the foreground, a place for patrons to write and draw their ideas in an ever-evolving visual meal. The green boxes near the pole show uses of library beacons in information literacy instruction and way-finding. The photo on the window in back is part of a project offering new ways to interact with archives.


I feel fortunate to have been part of this class this summer, and know I will bring the ideas highlighted here into the new school year with my students.

On Circ Stats and Collection Development

Originally published at Megan Frazer Blakemore. You can comment here or there.

I am taking an amazing course this summer at Simmons SLIS called Library Test Kitchen. It’s a version of a course that has been offered at the Harvard Design School. I am working on a project that I’ll be excited to share later this year, but today I want to talk about another course topic: the story of statistics. Librarians keep all sorts of statistics. We’re good at it. And we use those statistics to demonstrate our worth, to track our growth, create programs, and to influence our purchasing decisions. The problem, especially with those last two, is that, without understanding the story behind the statistics, we might make mistakes in our decisions. For example, if you are a public librarian who offers an Anime club and it’s your most popular program, you might think your collection and your programming should include more anime. But what if the most popular program for your community is actually one you are not offering?

In terms of circulation statistics, it’s always interesting to take a look at the top circulating items. I worked at two schools this year. Minecraft ruled at both of them. In one, Diary of a Wimpy Kid books took 5 of the remaining top ten slots, while Mo Willems had a similar monopoly at the other school. It would be really easy for me to read these statistics and say, “More funny, more comics-style, and forget the rest.” But if I did that, I would be missing a big part of the story. I was curious if Diary of a Wimpy Kid was really the most popular. That is, did those check outs cover the majority of my total check outs. The answer was no. I decided to look at one school’s fiction circulations. I added up the total number of books that circulated just once or two times, the total number of Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Big Nate circulations, and then subtracted the total of these to get the number of circs that fell somewhere in between. Graphed as percentages, it looks like this:

Circulation by number of circs as percentage
2015-2016 Fiction Circulation

Books in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series made up ten percent of my total circulations. That’s a lot! But see what’s more: the total of individual titles that each circulated only one time (22%). Essentially, for every circulation of a Wimpy Kid book, two other books also circulated. That’s two other readers reached. If I said, “My kids like funny books with simple comic drawings,” then that would be true, but it would also be missing everything else that they like. And if I ignore that in my purchasing decisions, then I am missing those readers.

Librarians have a responsibility to buy what is popular, but we also have a responsibility to purchase books that will connect with a smaller number of readers. The story of the numbers is that those books, grouped together, actually reach more readers. It always makes me sad to see books dismissed because “Kids don’t like XYZ,” or “Boys won’t read books like that.” That’s reading the story of the data without any nuance or details. It’s the sound bite or headline, not the whole story. Worst of all, it’s dismissive of kids, whose tastes are varied and wide and who are capable of liking all sorts of books as long as those books are offered to them.

Originally published at Megan Frazer Blakemore. You can comment here or there.

Going Places by Peter & Paul Reynolds is just about the perfect book for making. The story of a Go-Kart building competition in which one friend encourages another to work together and create something totally new from their Go-Kart kits hits the big themes of making: collaboration, innovation, creativity, and thinking ahead. When our Learning Works program leader, Victoria Morrill, told me she had extra kits from Home Depot, I had an idea. But, in the spirit of making, when I went and saw what Jennifer Stanbro, the head of the South Portland School Libraries, was doing with the book, I revised and improved my idea.

My first thought was that I would give each kid a kit with instructions to pair up and make something other than what the kit dictated. But, when I was at Jen’s school, I saw her doing a project in which each student was given materials to make a car and then offered the choice to follow the directions, innovate, or collaborate. When I gave my fourth grade students their kits, I offered them the same choice: build, innovate, or collaborate.

GoingPlacesCreations GoingPlacesTank

About a third of the kids followed the directions, a third innovated, and a third collaborated. The choice element is a key one. A foundation of maker education is that it is student driven. Students get to decide what they want to make. Moreover, kids are at different skill levels with whatever tool or materials they are using, or with the very idea of making. I really like the uTEC Maker Model developed by Bill Derry, David V. Loertscher, and Leslie Preddy.

uTEC Maker Model

Makers move through the different levels, starting with using. Kids who chose to simply make the project are at the using level, gaining experience with the materials and tools. Using is essential and foundational for moving to the next levels. Kids who chose to innovate and/or collaborate were moving into Tinkering. Some were even Experimenting, trying out one design to see how it works before redesigning.

This was a simple, fun, and largely successful project that got kids thinking.

Entering a Story through Character Empathy

Originally published at Megan Frazer Blakemore. You can comment here or there.

This past summer I was luck to go to the International Literacy Association meeting in St. Louis and speak on a panel with Sharon M. Draper. Out of My Mind is one of my all time favorite books because Melody is such a relatable, compelling character. Melody is a brilliant girl trapped inside a body that doesn’t allow her to communicate easily. She cannot speak and has trouble controlling her limbs. Ms. Draper shared an activity she has done with students. She asks them to write down all of the words they would need to get through the day onto a word board, which is something Melody used through part of the book.

Fifth Grade Word Boards

Earlier this week, I put my 5th grade students into pairs and asked them to create word boards. Then I asked them questions about a recent field trip they took. Pretty quickly they realized how frustrating this was. Some had letters they could use to spell out their answers — that took a long time. Others edited their responses to fit the words they had, so they weren’t able to say what they really needed to say.

Next I gave them the challenge of creating a solution for Melody. We talked about what her limitations were and what she needed. Each group came up with several creative ideas, then focused in on one. They sketched and added details. Some even started anticipating problems and solving them. For example, one group came up with the idea of a device that could read her mind and speak her thoughts. But, they realized, she wouldn’t want all of her thoughts out in the open, so they included a “pause” button.


If I were a classroom teacher, I would make this a longer term project where, as we read the book, they were designing and building a prototype of their designs. Of course, we aren’t ready to build mind reading machines in 5th grade (yet!), but this would be a limitation that they would need to work around. In this case, making served as an entry point for students and got them excited to read the book.


Ask the Expert: Julie Falatko

Originally published at Megan Frazer Blakemore. You can comment here or there.

My third grade students are currently in the middle of an arts and literacy collaboration to design, create, and write about children’s book characters. To give them a sense of how a professional children’s book author approaches the act of creation, I invited all-star author Julie Falatko to come and talk to the students.


Julie began by reading her new book, Snappsy the Alligator (Did Not Ask to be in this Book!) to the group. It was so much fun to watch them as they began to understand that the narrator was a character in the story.

Then Julie talked to the kids about her writing process, including sharing drafts. They couldn’t believe how many years and how many drafts it took to get to a finished book. She also talked about her collaboration with illustrator Tim Miller. Often in picture books, authors don’t get a chance to talk to the illustrators or even see the artwork until it was finished. Julie was able to see the artwork along the way which helped to inspire some changes in the text. She then answered questions from the kids, and even read a short story she wrote when she was eight.

In terms of our character project, one of the most valuable pieces Julie shared was that some ideas — like Snappsy — come to her in a flash. Others take a lot more time to solidify. In either case, revision is key. No book is ever the same from first draft to final draft, but again, some books take fewer rounds of revision than others. As a teacher, I am working to maintain that authenticity. A project like this more or less demands that the muse arrive. For most kids, it is working out okay, but others are struggling to clarify and firm up their ideas. It’s great to be able to say, “Remember when Julie was here? Remember how she talked about how she completely rewrote her second book with a whole new story line? Sometimes ideas take a while, and it’s okay if your ideas do, too.”


Yes, Judge a Character by His Design!

Originally published at Megan Frazer Blakemore. You can comment here or there.

Collaboration: it’s not just for the kids! Art teacher Margaret Burman and I are in the middle of a collaborative arts and literacy project in which third grade students are designing, creating, and writing about their own children’s book characters.

Part of learning to be designers, inventors, and innovators is looking at the designs, inventions, and innovations that are already out in the world. Studying the work of others can better inform our own. With that in mind, when it was time to embark on this character design project, we started by looking that the designs of well-known character. In particular, we looked at Mo Willem’s Pigeon.

After we read Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, the kids told me what they noticed about the Pigeon.

Students shared what they noticed about the Pigeon.
Students shared what they noticed about the Pigeon.

The next step was for students to draw the pigeon themselves. This forced them to think more about Mo Willems’ design.

A student draws the Pigeon.
A student draws the Pigeon.

Then, using the elements of art terms the kids learn in art, they were able to focus their noticings:

We also used the terms students learn in art class to focus our noticings.
We also used the terms students learn in art class to focus our noticings.

Using guided questions, I drew out some connections between the design of the character and the character’s personality. For example, the students had noted how some of the lines didn’t match up and the circles were imperfect. “Does it look like he is taking his time? Who else is a little impatient?” “The Pigeon!” Next students had a chance to draw some other favorite characters and think about those designs.

The next week we moved on to a new character — a brand new character! Snappsy from Julie Falatko and Tim Miller’s Snappsy the Alligator (Did Not Ask to be in this Book!) This time, they had to draw some conclusions about the character without having read the story first.

Look at all that they noticed!
Look at all that they noticed!

All of these activities ask students to use and develop their visual literacy skills, which is a great tie between arts and literacy.

Up next: A visit from an expert!

Originally published at Megan Frazer Blakemore. You can comment here or there.

In May, my fourth middle grade novel, The Firefly Code will be released. The book is set in a utopia built by artists and scientists — STEAM people, if you will. Genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and more STEM related topics all play a part, and I hope it will raise questions in young readers minds about the challenges and opportunities we face. Coupled with my work bringing the maker movement to my libraries and connecting it with literacy, I have STEAM books on the brain. So, I went out looking for new and upcoming STEAM related books for 2016. I am sure there are many more, so please add your own in the comments!

Collage of STEAM book covers

Picture Books:

Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty (September): The latest from Beaty and illustrator David Roberts follows a curious, scientifically-minded girl named Ada Twist. 

Big Friends by Linda Sara, illustrated by Benji Davies (January): This book celebrates friendship — and the infinite possibilities of a cardboard box.

More-igami by Dori Kieber, illustrated by G. Brian Karas (May): The starred Kirkus review says it all: the story “encourages patience, practice, and sharing creativity, and finishes with a simple origami lesson for readers to try. A gem.”

Middle Grade / Chapter Books:

Cleo Edison Oliver, Playground Millionaire by Sundee T. Frazier (January): This book includes entrepreneurship plus a model of a classroom “Passion Project”.

Alien in My Pocket Number 7: Telescope Troubles (January) and Number 8: Space Invaders (May): The latest adventures of Zack and his friend, Amp, a mini alien.

Spaced Out by Stuart Gibbs (April): The second book in the Moon Based Alpha series has 12-year-old detective Dashiell Gibson solving a mystery on the first moon base.

The Wild Robot by Peter Brown (April): What happens when a robot is stranded on a deserted island?


Awesome Minds: The Inventors of LEGO Toys by Erin Hagar, illustrated by Paige Garrison (April): Who better to inspire young inventors than the people who invented one of their favorite toys?

Ada’s Violin: The Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay (May): The true story of Ada Rios, an aspiring violin player without the money for an instrument, music teacher Favio Chávez, and an orchestra playing instruments made from recycled materials from the landfill.


If I Built A Car

Originally published at Megan Frazer Blakemore. You can comment here or there.

Chris Van Dusen’s books are fun. Fun words, fun pictures, and, when it comes to If I Built a Car and If I Built a House, fun inspiration for young inventors. I read the former to third graders and then gave them some activities to get their gears turning (get it?) as they designed their own cars.

Pre-Reading: What is STEM? What is STEAM?

I realized I had been doing these making activities with kids, but hadn’t been talking about why. So, I asked my Kaler 3rd graders if they had heard the term STEM before. We have an awesome after school program that highlights STEAM skills, so some of them were able to recall what each letter stood for. Together we got them all (Science Technology Engineering Math), and then added the “A” for Arts. I told them that part of my job was to teach them the tools and skills that go along with STEAM education.

First reading:

Guided Questions: As I read, I asked the students questions that focused on the design process. This starts where Jack lies on his bedroom floor to plan his car. He studies, draws and re-draws, and looks at examples such as the Weinermobile (a word that is funny to third graders even if they aren’t familiar with the Oscar Mayer Weinermobile).

Jack Examines the WeinermobileThen, with each new addition to the car design, I asked students why they thought Jack included it. For example, there is the polymer gel that absorbs crashes; the kids realized he was thinking about safety.

Connections: In one scene, Jack takes his car to the beach where, my students noticed, Mr. Magee was fishing in a little boat. Mr. Magee stars in some of Van Dusen’s other books, and is a big hit with these kids. We talked about other authors, such as Mo Willems, who include characters from one series in another book.

Vocabulary: There’s lots of good vocabulary in this book, such as “submerge” and the aforementioned “polymer.” Kids can typically figure these out from the context.

Station Activities:

After reading, I referred back to our STEAM discussion and told them that the tools we would be working on were coding/programming, design-build, and typing. Okay, so typing is a bit of a stretch, but it’s something these guys really need to work on and so I included it at as a station telling my students, “You need to learn to race your fingers over the keys!”

The second station was a Scratch Jr. activity using cars (Challenge: Drive Your Car Across the City). These students had all participated in Code.org’s Hour of Code activities, and I wanted to re-inforce those skills while showing them a different interface. Not surprisingly, the kids made a discovery that I hadn’t anticipated: they could design their own cars as part of the character design.

The final station was LEGO bricks. I’ve received donations from friends and from my principal and now we have a pretty good stash, so the kids were asked to design a car/vehicle using the LEGO pieces and then take a picture of it. The hardest part here was that once they had built a car, they didn’t want to part with it.

Second Reading:

In the first week, we got through two stations. When they came back the following week, we jumped right into the third station. Then, I re-read the book. It was a quicker read this time, but there was some time for questions and discussion.

Final Activity:

The final activity was a design piece. Each student completed the following slip:

If I Built a Car

by Chris Van Dusen AND __________________________________

My car __________________________________________________________________



__________________________________________If I built a car, that’s just what I’d do!

Before starting, I asked them to reflect on what they had done with the LEGO bricks and Scratch Jr. We also talked about how Jack let his imagination run wild, and they should, too. Some kids echoed what Jack built: cars with pools, cars that flew. Others went in bold new directions, imagining animal cars that let you adopt a new animal each time you went into it or books with libraries (yay!) and maids/tutors who cleaned up after you and taught you so you didn’t have to go to school. Cars with beautiful decorations and room for friends. Cars with places to sleep and cars with turrets like tanks. It was really exciting to see their visions.


Making Community Part 2: Reflection

Originally published at Megan Frazer Blakemore. You can comment here or there.

My third grade students finished their projects to design a new space for their community a couple of weeks ago and I have been reflecting on the process ever since. I asked students to do a self-evaluation, too, and their feedback has helped to fuel this reflection.

Some things that went well:

  • The projects were connected to both the classroom curriculum and the literature I shared in our time together.
  • Students were engaged with the project and enjoyed the process.
  • Students felt empowered by the choice that they were allowed.
Some things to improve upon:
  • Focus on the design process: In my last post, I talked a lot about studying the design process with fourth graders. I feel l didn’t stress this enough in this third grade project. We brainstormed and designed, but I think it felt more haphazard to them.
  • Rework feedback options. I need to find a way to really incorporate more constructive criticism into these design projects.
  • Group work: some groups worked well together while others had more of a challenge. Perhaps group work itself is something I need to better teach and facilitate.
  • Timing: this project took over four weeks. Meeting students once a week means I might need to focus on projects that can be completed more quickly unless they are done in conjunction with a classroom teacher.

(Originally published on my Make Literacy Blog.)

Lost on a Playground in Maine

Originally published at Megan Frazer Blakemore. You can comment here or there.

At Dyer, we are building a maker space. The fifth graders completed a PBL to design it, and last week we had our fourth graders come complete a challenge in the space. Scanning through the PBS Design Squad Educator’s Guide, one challenge jumped out: The Speedy Shelter. Fourth grade students have read or are reading Donn Fendler‘s tale of being lost on Mt. Katahdin either in it’s original form, or in the new graphic novel version by Fendler, Lynne Plourde, and Ben Bishop. As such, they have already been thinking about what they would do should they find themselves lost in the wilderness. Here was a chance for them to practice the skills we want them to learn in the Fab Lab in a way that connected to their study of literature.

Students create a strong joint to provide support to their shelter.

Principal Elizabeth Fowler pulled out the page from the Design Squad Educator’s Guide on the Design Process and did a weekly shared reading with it as part of the project. Weekly Shared Reading is a new-to-me teaching technique and I have been really impressed. On the first day, students preview the text and share what they noticed. On the next day, the teacher reads the text aloud and the students make note of their questions. Day three we read the text again and asked students to visualize what they saw in their mind’s eyes. On the fourth day, after re-reading the text, students dug deeper to try to determine the purpose of the text. And finally, on the fifth day, we read the text a final time and the students synthesized the big picture of what they had learned. This process models and breaks apart what good readers do. For more information on this technique, read Text Savvy by Sarah Daunis and Maria Cassiani Iams. Heinemann has even provided a free sample chapter.

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