A Visit to Discovery High School: Rethinking Learning Spaces and Learner Experiences

We are preparing for a redesign of our media center learning space at Chattahoochee High School.  Having gone through this process with my friend and colleague Jennifer Lund the last year and a half at Norcross High, I knew that a visit to her new school, Discovery High, in Gwinnett County, was a “must do” when looking for inspiration.  This brand new school that spans 640,000 square feet and just opened in August features a focus on project-based learning with four different learning academies within the school.  The academies include:

  • Business and Entrepreneurship program
  • Health and Human Services
  • Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM)
  • Fines Arts

I was especially interested in the media center space Jennifer envisioned and designed with Holly Frilot, formerly an Instructional Coach in Media Services for Gwinnett County and now Supervisor of Library Media Education in Cobb County Schools.  Jennifer drew upon many of the design elements we had crafted for Norcross High, but she was also able to incorporate some other interesting elements.  The majority of her furniture is designed for active and collaborative learning with small and large groups, but it is also flexible for individual or quiet kinds of learning activities.   The primary vendors for her furniture include Steelcase, Turnstone (A Steelcase company), Hon, and Artcobell.   Because we had field tested many of these furniture pieces at Norcross, we knew they were a good fit for the collaborative kinds of work (see previous posts from 2014-15) we did with teachers and supported the principles of active learning.   Discovery High is a BYOD school, and in the media center, they use laptops rather than desktops for instructional activities.  Here are a few glimpses of her library learning studio:

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Another highlight of the visit was touring the Clyde L. Strickland Entrepreneurship Center, a space for students who want to learn how to start their own businesses.  Lindsey Brouillard, Language Arts teacher within the Entreprenuership and Business academy, along with program head Scott Allen, are working with students in a visionary learning space that features:

  • Pull-down garage doors separate the spaces classroom learning spaces (or they  can be left open to combine for larger common learning spaces)
  • “Restaurant” booths for  brainstorming and collaborative work
  • Individual makerspace areas within the larger makerspace featuring 3-D printers, an embroidery machine, banner and poster printers, and separate suites for creating their products
  • Mobile furniture that can easily be reconfigured
  • Natural materials combined with sleek, modern elements
  • Glass dry erase boards
  • Studio work rooms for small group work in different areas of entrepreneurship

Source: CBS 46 Atlanta

I saw students working individually and collaboratively; the common thread was a positive energy in which students were engaging in project based learning.  Other classes were using the learning space for virtual school courses facilitated by a content area teacher.  You can check out some of the rather cutting edge design of the learning space, inspired by the Georgia Tech Innovation Center and Chick Fil-A’s “The Hatch”, below:

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I apologize that some of my photos are a little bleary—I took over 200 photographs, and my battery was dying!  As you can see from both the media center and the entrepreneurship learning spaces, there was so much to take in and design elements to contemplate.  I definitely plan on incorporating many of these as we begin to work on our learning space taxonomy, sketch our initial ideas for floor plans, and continue developing our wish list for furniture that will support the kinds of learning activities we have started doing in the media center this fall and that we envision for the future.

Last but not least, I was very fortunate to get a special tour from Laura French of the Junior Achievement Biz Town and Finance Park.  I honestly don’t have the words to say how incredibly thoughtful this space is along with the partnership between Gwinnett County Schools and Junior Achievement.  I hope more schools will form these kinds of partnerships that can translate into truly meaningful experiences for young people!  You can read more about the partnership here.

A heartfelt thank you to Jen, Lindsey, and Laura for their exceptional hospitality!!!!  Their work has given me new ideas and inspiration for our media center learning studio redesign here at Chattahoochee.  If you are interested to know more, our good friend Steve Thomas of Circulating Ideas will be doing an interview with Jen and Lindsey for the show.  Stay tuned to his website for the interview/podcast!

Formative Assessments: Our Compass for Understanding Affective, Cognitive, and Physical Aspects of Information Search Processes

Original photo by Buffy Hamilton

Original photo by Buffy Hamilton

I’m currently working with a section of American Literature/Composition students who have been asked to look at a historical or current event that embodies a degree of hysteria or abuse of power and compare that to the hysteria or abuse of power in the play The Crucible.   This research task is a fairly typical high school assignment for this text and course.  Initially, the teacher wanted me to cover five major areas of research in one class period in lecture format with no hands-on learning activities because she initially thought they had a greater degree of prior knowledge.   However, after a series of email conversations, we worked out a series of learning experiences to implement this week to address student learning needs in a richer and more meaningful way for students.   As many of you know, these collaborative conversations are sometimes really difficult and uncomfortable to broach, especially when you are new to a school or don’t know a teacher very well as you want to be respectful yet honest when you realize a particular request for instruction might not be realistic or effective for students.    I also try to remember that many teachers have never had the experience of working with a school librarian who is genuinely interested in being a co-teacher and instructional designer, so they might not want to ask much of you simply because they’ve never had that kind of expectation or instructional services.

We began our efforts earlier this week by introducing the students to specific databases and search tools in GALILEO through our project LibGuide.  We also talked briefly about some basic search features and tips for each of the databases.  I also showed students how to sign up for our EasyBib account and how to export potential sources to their EasyBib project bibliography.  In an ideal world, I would not attempt to cover so much territory in one session, especially with students who have little experience using databases, but when forging new collaborative partnerships with faculty, it often takes time to establish the trust and rapport needed to jointly fine-tune project pacing and the instructional design process.  It is also a regular challenge many school librarians face as we try to balance our desire to go deep with hands-on learning activities and time to engage in inquiry while respecting the pressures and time constraints classroom teachers face with pacing calendars, common assessments, and other aspects of modern classroom life.

Yesterday we formed “Birds of Feather” groups by research interest.   Topic areas/groups included McCarthyism, post 9/11 racial profiling, Japanese Internment Camps, and then “undecided” for students who were still exploring.   I created topic placeholders for each table to make it easier for students to self-form groups because I wanted them to work together to talk about search terms and databases they were trying so that they could hopefully tap into the power of collaborative thinking.   My plan was for them to collaborate as searchers, to work on their search maps, and then complete a group debrief/”ticket out the door” assessment we’d do with big sticky pads (see below).


Teens being teens, though, some decided to sit with friends rather than by topic; as a result, we lost a little instructional time because the teacher wanted to get them in the “like” groups at the beginning of the period before we proceeded any further.   Once everyone was settled in, though, we jumped into the day’s agenda:  I reminded them how to get back to the LibGuide (and they also had a set of notes/graphic organizer I had provided the day earlier to help them as well) and did a brief introduction to search mapping.    I did not take as much time as I normally would because:

1.  We had already lost about 10 minutes of class.
2.  I originally thought this might be an optional activity,  but after observing their initial seach efforts on Tuesday, I realized they needed this form of scaffolding to help them navigate the databases with some deliberation and intention.

I told the students I would collect their maps and whatever progress they had made as their ticket out the door and provide feedback the next day.  They then set about searching the databases and beginning their search maps; the teacher and I walked about providing feedback and answering questions with individual students and small groups. This was also a great opportunity to just observe and see what students were doing and how they might be thinking. Toward the end of the class period, I asked students to flip their maps over and complete the simple and fast self-assessment below:


I collected their maps at the end of class; this morning, I read through their work as well as their self-assessment reflections for about 90 minutes taking time to provide brief written comments and making notes about points of confusion and questions.  By looking at this simple self-assessment, I was able to see patterns of misunderstanding or difficulty while noting specific questions to address/answer.   In particular, I could see that students were struggling with:

  1.  Slowing down the process and doing pre-search with more intention as they worked with the search mapping process (new for all students).  This “slowing down” process  also included reading beyond skimming and scanning.   I call this “doing the work”; I recommend this brief but terrific post by Pegasus Librarian on this challenge of reading and search; also see her brilliant post Information Literacy in a Utopian High School.
  2.  Working through informational text—-some were having difficulty pulling out the big ideas, so I pulled together some resources from Cris Tovani and Stephanie Harvey on text annotation (this is not new or unfamiliar territory!).  I also decided to create a template for a Venn diagram to help students visualize their big ideas since the teacher had suggested that to some students yesterday, and it seemed to help them make sense of the research task (another area that I soon realized later in the day was a clear area of misunderstanding for some)
  3. How to deal with dead-ends with search terms and understanding that one database would not be enough for this research task as well as additional strategies for search terms specific to databases.

By looking at the students’ work, I could provide some specific written feedback and help resources (either in print format that I attached to their maps and/or as resources I added to the LibGuide this morning).

When students arrived today, we returned their maps.  I then shared how I had looked at their work and the three big areas of concern/patterns of response; I also showed them resources added to the LibGuide (handouts, graphic organizers, how to videos, website links) to help them negotiate those challenges.

I also tried to allay their uncertainty and discomfort by talking about the fact that search is often just difficult and takes a great deal of reading, browsing, and persistence in trying different strategies.   We also talked about “digging in”, making sure our conversation with peers was constructive, and advocating for ourselves by asking questions and choosing a different seat if the current workspace was too distracting.  Last but not least, we celebrated the exemplary search maps from Day 1, and I showed them where they could download or print a copy of these model search maps (which of course are still in progress) on the LibGuide.

The class was then given the rest of the period to continue their presearch/search mapping , and they were encouraged to seek help from both me and the teacher.  She circulated about and answered content related questions for the research task while I set up an area where students could come and do 1:1 or small group conferencing with me, an activity that was very insightful for me as well as the students.    These mini-conference/conversations were very revealing and helped me see that some students just needed verbal reinforcement of what to do while others clearly didn’t understand the research task at all.  Other students needed a visual graphic organizer to unpack the research task (see this simple Venn diagram I was inspired to create for the students after hearing Ms. Sidell, their teacher, suggest it to a student yesterday).

Sidell Venn Diagram

It was also a great opportunity to ask students about what they had learned in their initial reading yesterday, and that opened up honest yet encouraging conversations with individual students about taking time to actually read the texts and the importance of reading in developing search vocabulary and ideas for interpretation and discussion in their papers.

These two methods of formative assessment in 24 hours reminded me to look to the work of Carol Kuhlthau to help me contextualize much of what I was seeing and  hearing from the students.    Her Information Search Process model underscores the affective aspect of information seeking behaviors and reminds us that we need to help students acknowledge, honor, and own the feelings of confusion, doubt, and frustration that can come with the messiness of Initiation and Exploration.  Teachers, students, and librarians can embrace the discomfort and leverage these teachable moments as opportunities to help students hone and grow their strategy toolkit that will ultimately help them develop persistence and resilience in the face of challenging information seeking tasks.  I highly recommend you read these three posts from my colleagues and fellow practitioners Heather Hersey, Marci Zane, Meg Donhauser, and Cathy Stutzman:

As many of you know, working through these rough patches is often a healthy mix of tough love and patient TLC with a generous helping of practical strategies for learners.  By engaging in formative assessment in various formats early in the inquiry process, I stay grounded and can better understand the stumbling blocks for the students.   It also helps me to unpack what might initially be seen as negative behavior such as resistance or even hostility when in reality, that behavior is camouflaging sincere student distress and fear, especially if they have little experience in negotiating challenging or difficult academic endeavors.  Consequently, I’m then better positioned to offer practical coaching and help rather than getting stuck in the weeds of frustration that can spring up as quickly for us as it does the students.    These formative assessments also give us evidence and guideposts for adjusting instruction, something that is particularly important when we are helping the classroom teacher think through the kinds of learning activities students need and how to appropriately pace them by being responsive to student needs.

How are you engaging in formative assessment?  Where does this intersect with Kuhlthau’s ISP for you, and how do you help students and teachers work through the messy and uncomfortable chaos that is in inherent in search and information seeking tasks?  How do you help frame the feelings of uncertainty and confusion in a constructive and positive light?

SWON Webinar: Written Conversations and Academic Literacies in Libraries

Thank you SWON Libraries for the opportunity to share the possibilities for learning through written conversation strategies!


Write-Around + See-Think-Wonder + Gallery Walk-Big Group Share=Art Students’ Awesomeness


I’m continuing to collaborate with amazing art teacher Dorsey Sammataro in AP Studio Art and now with her extended period Introduction to Art class along with her fellow Fine Arts teacher Donna Jones.  Dorsey and I began this mini-collaboration last week with a brief conversation and meeting about the new unit on graffiti and public art that is culminating in the students participating in a Free Art Friday drop in October at Atlanta’s Beltline.  She then shared the unit planning guide (a Google Document) with me; we did a great deal of virtual collaboration at the end of the week and over the weekend using the commenting feature as well as the chat tool—it was wonderful to be able to brainstorm and have conversations about the content and plan the write-around using Google Docs.  I love the ease of sharing and collaborating in Google Docs plus the fact you can export the file with the comments in an easily readable format if you are like me and sometimes need a hard copy in front of you (see below).DSCN1892

To build prior knowledge, the students have watched some videos, read a few articles, (see this page in LibGuides for the background “texts“) and engaged in class discussion around these “texts” with Ms. Sammataro and Ms. Jones; I also did the readings and viewings over the weekend to be up to speed on the content.   I then attended the mini-lecture/conversation about the history of graffiti with both classes yesterday (they meet for a 90 minute block daily); this terrific presentation provided students to come up to the board and interact with the slides as well as opportunities to participate in class discussion.  Not only did I learn many new and interesting facts about graffiti, but I also live Tweeted the session with the hashtag #hoochart and then pulled them together into a Storify story (also embedded in the LibGuide).   Dorsey and I then finalized the write-around questions and discussion prompts; we also incorporated two great prompts suggested by my Norcross High colleague Dan Byrne, who once taught Art History courses!  The prompts included:

Today both classes arrived at the beginning of 4th period; our library assistants helped me set up the tables, butcher paper with prompts, and Sharpies needed for the activity.  Once students were seated, I then reviewed the protocols for our write-around:

As always, we encouraged followed these basic protocols:

  • Move about organically during the first pass at each table and prompt
  • Write quietly and channel their conversation energy onto the paper
  • Respond with text, graphics, sketches, and hashtags
  • Use the second and third passes around each table to respond to their peers
  • Visit each table as long as needed; we did not specify a required time or order to move about
  • Students could choose to initial their work or not
  • For this particular activity, we encouraged students to use their sketchbooks if needed (many had taken notes in these)

Students composed for roughly 30 minutes; the trajectory of the conversation was consistent with what I’ve seen for nearly two years now in doing the written conversations with a build-up of energy.  I was very impressed by how quickly these students, mostly 9th graders, jumped into the activity.  Several visitors, including one of our assistant principals, our visiting instructional technology coach, and a parent volunteer were impressed that every student was participating and engaged.

Vine Video:  Writing Around in Action




We then asked students to self-organized into small groups of 4, and I reviewed the See-Think-Wonder structure for the groups to process their thinking and responses to the ideas and thinking of the write-around as well as the content of the last few days.  For roughly 15 minutes, groups used large post-it notes to record their small group collaboration:

Vine Video: See-Think-Wonder in action:



Dorsey then added a really fabulous twist to our large group share since we had over 40 students participating and about 10 small groups.  Students hung their post-it note responses on the wall, and we then groups could either volunteer to come up to the gallery and present their ideas or we nudged groups to volunteer.  Some groups had a spokesperson come up to the gallery and be the spokesperson; other groups came up together as a team and shared.  Students were very supportive of each other during these mini-presentations and shared some incredibly thoughtful observations, insights/understandings, and wonderings/questions:

Vine Video:  Gallery Walk Share in Action

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You can see the depth  of their thinking in the slideshow below with the photos of their work.  They now are moving onto developing their ideas for an original piece of art they will create for the Free Art Friday field trip drop in a few weeks in October.  I’ll be participating in this great day of authentic learning and fun, so look for a future post live from “in the wild” as we move forward with the unit!

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Artists and Their Work as Touchstone “Texts”: Unpacking Craft with Write-Around Conversation Strategies


Our AP Studio Art class and teacher Dorsey Sammataro continue to move forward with their current explorations on what inspires art and action and how art can be a catalyst for service and social change.  After watching a video on the Genesis photography project by artist Sebastiao Salgado and reading this NY Times article about him and his work, Ms. Sammataro designed 5 reflection questions for us to use in our “write-around” questions activity.  As I always do with write-arounds, I first gave students a quick primer on what the written conversation strategy is and the guidelines for participating.   This is the first time I have done this activity with an art class or a class so small (there are about a dozen students enrolled), so I wondered if we would have any difficulties building the conversations and sustaining the energy of them, but the students exceeded my expectations writing and responding to the questions and each other for a whopping 35 minutes!   It seemed their energy and investment in the written conversations picked up the longer they composed and responded.

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The following day, a few of the students were gone with Ms. Sammataro on a field trip to the University of Georgia, but the rest of the class met with me in the library.  I wanted them to have time to process the written conversations, especially since there so many interesting reflections and responses in written format as well as artistic renderings, including sketches and graphic representations.  I encouraged students to walk around for about 10-12 minutes and review the written conversations.  Students then formed small groups of 2-3 and processed their thinking using the See, Think, Wonder strategy.   Students were asked to share their observations:  big ideas, patterns of responses or themes, and big takeaways; they were also asked to think about and share their insights and new perspectives. Finally, they were asked to share their wonderings and questions they had, including two complex (how, why) questions.   They worked for about 12-15 minutes developing their responses on large sheets of paper.




We then met in a large circle and each group had an opportunity to share out their findings and their peers could then comment and respond to the small group’s thinking.  The substitute teacher who was with us helped video the discussion so that Ms. Sammataro could hear what students had to say, and I shared that video to a shared Google Drive folder with her.






I think the activity helped students bring together their reactions to the written conversations and make connections to the videos and article they watched/read about the art of Sebastião Salgado. While the activity took two days, it gave students an opportunity to “slow down” their thinking and dwell in it, something that might not have happened to the extent it did if students had answered the reflections in a more traditional setting such as a homework assignment (paper or through a virtual classroom platform) and/or in a traditional group discussion without the written conversation, small group debrief, and big group share pieces.

Next Steps

Students will now be working the next two weeks to create new pieces.  They can look to the work of Sebastião Salgado for inspiration or if there is another “touchstone” artist on their radar, they can pursue the work of that artist.  The wellspring for the subject matter continues to be the issues they are exploring.   We will wait until they have created some new works before we move forward with deeper and more intentional research on our issues and topics, but for the next two weeks, students can work with me individually in a research conference or consultation to find more information as needed to fuel their current works in progress.  While I’m on standby for “research conference/help” on demand as needed, I’m also spending time in the art studio with the class observing their processes and practices.  Today was my first observation, which was a rich experience for me,  and I already have much to reflect upon! I’ll be writing more soon about what I observe and how they approach their craft can inspire how we might re-conceptualize and re-imagine “research”.  I am deeply appreciative of the class being willing to share their work and thinking not only with me, but with all of you, a global audience that I know will find inspiration from their work; if you are on Instagram, you can follow their work here.