Researchers as Artists, Artists as Researchers: Tinkering, Messiness, and Meaning Making in Libraries as Learning Studios


Last week, I sent out a needs assessment to our faculty.  Initially, I was concerned it was too lengthy, but as a new media specialist here at Chattahoochee High, I feel a sense of urgency to get some idea of what teachers have done in the past, what they are interested in now, and their points of need.  In spite of some lingering reservations, I shared the assessment with our faulty via email.  The next morning, AP Studio Art teacher Dorsey Sammataro came by to see me because she was intrigued by information literacy concepts embedded in the survey.  Long story short, the survey opened a really exciting conversation between us about certain concepts and skills she saw on the survey and how it dovetailed with the needs for a new unit she is piloting related to 2D Design Service Learning and Natural and Human-Made Environments.  Students have started thinking about topics of importance to them but need help growing strategies for search, developing search vocabulary, and becoming more comfortable with web-based resources as well as databases that students can mine to find inspiration for ideas and issues that can then inspire their art.  Ms. Sammataro identified this working list of issues and topics of importance to her students in the course:

  • Issues of socioeconomic equity (rich, poor, middle class)
  • GMOs/Food
  • Education and Equity
  • Human trafficking
  • Environment
  • Cultural appropriation: identifying its effects in everyday life and raising awareness of it
  • Assimilating into a culture:  how, why, impact on those assimilate—what is gained, what is lost
  • Adolescent mental health issues
  • Body image
  • Emotional health
  • A sense of unity and connection to peoples and cultures in other parts of the world
  • Stereotypes and assumptions people make about specific ethnicities
  • Bullying
  • Abandonment of self because of depression/mental illness as well as abandoned communities and/or groups of people

When she said they would be having a group debrief about the first work of art they had created that had come out of their initial pass at these topics, I asked if I could come listen in, and she enthusiastically said yes!  I was able to join them and listen to most of the 50 minute small group discussion as they talked about:

  • expanded insights about their topic ideas—this aspect of the discussion was quite meaty/weighty as students drew from personal experiences.
  • what they had learned about their idea through their initial research and first efforts at crafting 2D art around it.
  • what community resources (people, groups) might be resources for our work and ideas.
  • how and why one might abandon a topic and how the process of making art around a topic may help you realize that topic is not your true passion.
  • one student shared she had discovered she needs a strong intention for figurative pieces, so the idea/topic of interest is particularly crucial for art making.
  • an extended conversation about the importance of time, space, and ownership of experimentation for both literal and experimental/abstract pieces (echoes of Nancie Atwell’s concept of what writers need); the importance of trying new things, art forms.  In the words of one student, “Don’t be afraid to stray from the path of success.”
  • some students discovered they liked new art forms they didn’t think they would like.
  • one student shared how she was excited about the idea that inspired her art but when it came to do the printing process it was very humbling because it was more difficult than she imagined and the piece didn’t turn out quite as she envisioned, yet this trial and error process was important and valuable to her.
  • some discovered it was more difficult than they anticipated to turn an idea/topic/issue into an art piece.
  • one student shared how important it is to find out what you really are passionate about and then wondered how to better go about mining it to yield more strategic ideas/subtopics or focal points for expression of that through art.

I was struck by how deeply invested the students were in these topics and the group discussion; I was also appreciative of their honesty and openness, something that is not easy to do among peers or with a new adult on the staff who is listening to what they have to say.    Their perspectives on these topics as well as their insights on art making processes had a depth I had not anticipated; it also got me thinking about the parallels between making meaning from art and making meaning from working with information (and some form of research whether formal, informal, or some hybrid).   A few wonderings I’m now contemplating:

  • How do the two (research and art) inform each other, and how might looking at art-making processes foreground our conceptualization of “research”?  I can’t help but wonder if some of the precepts of Dennis Sumara’s work with “literary anthropology” in studying reading literacies might be applied when we think of art, the learning environment of a studio, and research intersect as a site of “information literacy interpretation.”
  • How might a library function as a studio where meaning making is elevated across multiple forms of literacy, particularly information literacy processes?  How is research art?  How might research and the cultivation of information literacy skills in art students impact their art-making processes?  What insights from an art studio might we draw upon in designing a library as a learning studio, and what does research look like in this environment?  How will it translate to learning spaces then outside the library and impact a larger learning community and culture where research seems increasingly marginalized in K-12 public schools by the impact of standardized testing?  What tools, resources, experiences, and learning design drivers do artists and learners need in a research/library learning studio as well as an art studio?
  • How is the act of crafting art like acts of crafting research processes and products?
  • Research and art can both be organic, recursive, and frequently non-linear (even though there are those who would like to prescribe models that are contradictory in nature).    Many K-12 teachers, professors, and yes, even some librarians tend to emphasize the consumption aspect of research rather than frontloading the grittier messy work of mucking about in information; students often miss the experience of wrestling with the friction of ideas that comes when one goes beyond regurgitating facts and engages in higher level thinking; it is often the final product, a paper, that gets the most emphasis.  Yet this creative process is viewed positively when it comes to crafting art—-how might it be viewed if we embrace meaning making as the core of research as it is in art?

Building on the extensive work and efforts Jennifer Lund and I invested in developing the concept of library as learning studio at Norcross High (see any of my posts from the last two years), this budding collaborative partnership with the AP Studio Art students and Ms. Sammataro (and my larger/big picture efforts to now develop the library as learning studio concept at Chattahoochee High) may offer opportunities for us to explore these wonderings together by working from an inquiry stance.   I hope to dwell in these ideas and look forward to see how my thinking is shaped by my experiences with Ms. Sammataro and her students.

NHS Students Reflect on Learning Spaces and Design, Libraries, and Academic Capital

Today three of our TOK students stopped by to chat with me about their reflections on last week’s discussion activity anchored by written conversations around our dry erase/markerboard surface tables.  In this thirteen and half minute video interview, they share their thoughts on the ways the markerboard surfaces elevated and created a  more participatory medium for learning that they felt would probably  have not happened in a traditional classroom or library setting.  In the first third of the interview,  they discuss the ways the dry erase/markerboard tables helped them to focus their thoughts so that they could then develop deeper oral discussions with the group; embedded in their reflections is the notion of writing as a process that helps stimulate their cognition.  They also touch on the ways that the dry erase surfaces helped them to build conversations and thinking that were organic, sustained, and more nuanced.   I’m fascinated to further explore the ways these kinds of surfaces might help students grow their ability to contribute to their learning community through discussion, an important form of academic capital.   They also share their insights on library and learning space design, low tech vs. high tech learning experiences, and the importance of choices/”structured openness” in learning experiences.    I hope you will take time to listen to their thoughtful and insightful ideas!  Many thanks to these three students for so generously sharing their thinking with us and giving us permission to share it with all of you.

IB Teacher Dan Byrne Discusses Growing a Culture to Support Academic Literacies

In yesterday’s post, I wrote about our most recent collaboration with Dan Byrne and James Glenn and on a larger scale, the possibilities for libraries as  places and catalysts for growing academic literacies.  Dan was gracious enough to stop by for a few minutes this morning to share some quick but poignant reflections on growing a culture of learning with students that supports academic literacies.

Markerboard Surfaces, Collaborative Conversations, Academic Literacies, and Libraries

Yesterday I blogged about the use of our new markerboard surface tables as a way for students to collaborate and capture their group thinking.   I’d like to briefly share another use of these dry erase surfaces in our library learning studio from last week with our Theory of Knowledge (TOK) students.   This was an activity that came together very quickly Thursday morning and while not tied to a formal research project, threads of inquiry were essential to the learning experience.  The group came to the studio to watch a short clip of a PBS video related to their content/unit of study.  Dr. Glenn and Mr. Byrne developed discussion questions around this segment and composed them on our dry erase surfaces.


After watching a short segment of the video, students had approximately 10-12 minutes to visit each table; students were encouraged to discuss their thoughts and reflections with their peers and then jot down their responses.    We also observed students continuing the conversations around the written responses as they engaged in some truly meaningful and deep dialogue with each other.

tok2 tok3 tok4


Students were able to jump into the activity quickly and confidently and participate in richer, more nuanced conversations (both written and oral) because Dr. Glenn and Mr. Byrne consistently integrate learning/thinking structures as a regular part of classroom life.  As I watched these students immerse themselves into the learning activity with depth and intensity, I could not help but think of the huge participation gap that Jennifer and I have observed the last two years.  We have seen a wide range of academic and social skill sets across multiple content area classes, course levels, and grades; I feel I have struggled to articulate what I’m observing and to contextualize it although the recent readings are helping me to take first steps in doing so.   The academic discourse and social behaviors of the TOK students were reflective of the academic literacy framework I referenced in yesterday’s post; in particular, these students were demonstrating:

1.  Disciplinary literacy: “…the join understanding of discipline-specific literacy features through which knowledge is created and practices are shared” (Kiili, Mäkinen, and Coiro 225).

2  Argumentative literacies:  “As students work to establish themselves as contributing members of a domain-specific discourse community, argumentative literacy practices enable them to consider alternative perspectives, broaden and deepen their knowledge, and make judgement to inform their decision making.  As a result, students are able to identify, evaluated, and produce arguments within a wide range of individual and social literacy events…students are able to effectively composed, evaluate, and learn from arguments by adopting the social practices of the target discipline” (Kiili, Mäkinen, and Coiro 225).

3.  Collaborative literacies:  “…those literacy practices in which two or more person engaged in reading and/or writing together are equally responsible for negotiating meaning through talk.  The goal of collaborative literacy practices is to produce a joint interpretation of a text” (Kiili, Mäkinen, and Coiro 225).  In this case, our texts were previous knowledge and the PBS video segment.

Like many other activities we’ve helped design and/or facilitate this academic year, common threads are woven into learning activities:

  • Writing as a medium for thinking and sharing
  • Collaborative conversations
  • Individual work, small group discussion, and large group share

We then moved to a large group discussion facilitated by Dr. Glenn; students from each table had the opportunity to share their thoughts about the question posed at their table.




Because we ran out of time, the activity was continued into the next day.  Many students captured the ideas on each table with their cell phones as they prepared to leave for lunch.

Reflections:  The Library as Learning Studio and Site of Literacy Practices

While not a formal research type of activity or project, we love working with teachers and students to provide them space and assistance for these kinds of learning opportunities.   So often we call the library the “biggest classroom” in a school, yet learning experiences are often limited to formal research projects and/or storytime.  In many schools, it’s a challenge for teachers and administrators to see the library as an additional learning space that can accommodate many kinds of experiences because the quiet, book-centric model and/or prior experiences dominate their perceptions.  In other school libraries, limited budgets and restrictive physical space hinder the efforts of librarians to sell the library as a studio and alternate kind of classroom.  When our spaces are designed with flexible areas that can be repurposed quickly, mobile furniture, and technologies for multiple modes of learning (low tech and high tech), the library can support a more diverse range of learning experiences and be better positioned to support the growth of academic literacies for all students throughout the school year, not just when it is time for formal or informal research projects.  These learning space design drivers  expand the possibilities of libraries as sites of practice for multiple literacies and can potentially position the library as a “commonplace for interpretation” in exploring, expanding, and theorizing the literacy practices within its learning community (Sumara), hence shifting and expanding the role of the librarian as a sponsor of literacy (Brandt).


Brandt, Deborah. Literacy in American Lives. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. Print.

Kiili, Carita, Marita Mäkinen, and Julie Coiro. “Rethinking Academic Literacies.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 57.3 (2013): 223-32. Professional Development Collection [EBSCO]. Web. 25 Apr. 2015.

Sumara, Dennis J. Why Reading Literature in School Still Matters: Imagination, Interpretation, Insight. Mahwah, NJ: L. Erlbaum, 2002. Print.
Note:  If you are interested in the “Rethinking Academic Literacies” article, you may also enjoy teacher Gary Johnston’s series of blog posts on this article.

Formulating Research Questions with Birds of Feather Collaboration and Writable Surfaces


We’ve been partnering with Language Arts teacher Sean O’Connor the last few weeks as his students have been engaged in presearch around topics that students identified and developed around motifs and themes of To Kill a Mockingbird.  After participating in the reading frenzy activity, students left with a topic of interest that they wanted to explore further and refine through presearch.  After several days of gathering information and sources to build background knowledge, the students were ready to think about focusing their topics even more by developing a refining research question.    After some conversation, Sean and I thought it would be meaningful for students to collaborate and use the question lenses activity that my friend Heather Hersey shared with me last fall and that I piloted with Sarah Rust’s students.   We felt the question lenses would give our students a way of looking at their presearch information with fresh eyes and alternate perspectives.  Inspired by both Heather and Sarah Ludwig’s adaptation of the activity, Sean and I decided to do our own variation on Sarah’s version of writing around question lenses using our new dry erase tables (we purchased the Expanse and Nebula tables with dry erase surfaces).

We began by introducing the question lenses and activity procedures to Sean’s students:

After showing and discussing the five question lenses and examples [see slides above], we asked students to form “birds of feather” groups around like or similar topics at the dry erase tables. Once students had formed their groups, we asked them to write their topic(s) on the table and to get a variety of dry erase markers we had available.  We gave them about 10-12 minutes to talk and draft at least two questions per question lens for a minimum of ten.   We encouraged them to keep a tally on their pink sheets (every student received one to have as a guide and to record questions they liked for personal keeping) as their groups composed their questions.










Some groups were initially a little quiet and needed some encouragement/nudging from us to help them get their conversations and group thinking going.  Sean is especially gifted at helping students communicate and helping students tap into their cognitive processes as he circulates about and engages in discussions with the students without giving them answers or leading them to a response.

After the question incubation period, we asked each group to look at their questions and come to a consensus about which question they felt was the best one and to be able to articulate why it was the best question.  They then composed their top question on one of our Verb whiteboards.  Next, we did a large group share out of questions and rationales.   As each group finished their brief presentation, they placed their Verb Steelcase whiteboard onto the Verb easel.





Students then had an opportunity to vote for best question of the period by placing a checkmark on the easel with their favorite question.  As we voted, students also finished recording favorite questions on their pink sheets; other students also used this time to photograph their group table.   We asked students to reflect on the questions they had seen both in their groups and from the other groups as we thought about what makes a good research question; this activity was our springboard for helping students either draft their own question or to use one of the questions from their birds of feather topic group  that resonated with them as their focus question for moving further into search. They are now doing additional search and are starting to think about multigenre element products they’ll craft to represent their key understandings and insights.

Two aspects of this activity that we loved are reflected in many of the inquiry driven activities we’ve done this year in helping students move begin or move through presearch:

1.  Writing is a medium for processing ideas and thinking in a visible way.

2.  We move through a continuum of individual, pair/small group, and large group work that ultimately helps students experience learning in a social and collaborative way and that will inform their individual work.

We are always happy to provide students these kinds of learning opportunities for our students, especially for those who may not have had many of these learning experiences prior to high school and/or during their previous high school research/inquiry experiences.  If you don’t have access to dry erase surfaces, you can easily adapt this activity with butcher/bulletin board paper or oversized sticky notes.  While I know there are virtual mediums for doing this activity, I increasingly feel that being “unplugged” and having students do this work in a tactile and physically present way makes the thinking more concrete and gives students chances to interact socially in an academic context that would not happen through a virtual tool.   This face to face modeling and opportunity to practice these skills and grow these cultural, social, and cognitive dimensions of academic literacy is especially important for students whose opportunities to do so have previously been limited (Kiili, Mäkinen, and Coiro).

We’d love to hear from others how you are either helping students develop and refine research questions, using writable surfaces for thinking and learning, or other collaborative work during presearch.  For more photos of the activity with our two classes, please visit the photoset.


Kiili, Carita, Marita Mäkinen, and Julie Coiro. “Rethinking Academic Literacies.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 57.3 (2013): 223- 32. Professional Development Collection [EBSCO]. Web. 25 Apr. 2015.