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A new Follett Challenge & a couple of inspiring stories

I’ve come to the conclusion that there are probably a thousand different ways to do library great.

Sure there are handbooks on how to put together a traditional library program–how to create a budget, weed a collection, host an author event, collaborate with teachers.

But no textbook shows you what it looks like when the magic really happens–what innovation looks like when all the pieces come together–when you truly pay attention to the needs of your learning community and make the important connections. When technology and inquiry intersect with mission and vision. When participatory culture takes off across grades and disciplines.

Just when you think you are doing library well, new ideas and strategies poke your box and inspire you to do it better, to reimagine what library can be for all your stakeholders.

For three years now, the folks at Follett have offered us a lens to examine inspiration, innovation, creativity, collaboration and community, through the very generous Follett Challenge.

This year, the program expanded beyond the library as a separate platform to whole-school programs.  Entries were encouraged to tell their stories using social media campaigns that generated nearly half a million votes.

The 2013 winners, announced back in April from among 115 entries, were awarded more than $200,000 in Follett products and services.

Grand Prize #1: $60,000 Henry M. Gunn High School/Palo Alto Unified School District, Palo Alto, CA
Grand Prize #2: $60,000 Maplewood Richmond Heights School District, St. Louis, MO
Winner #3: $35,000 Berwick Academy, South Berwick, ME
Winner #4: $25,000 Goochland High School, Goochland, VA
Winner #5: $15,000 Seneca High School/Lenape Regional High School District, Tabernacle, NJ
Video Winner #6: $5,000 Mary E. Griswold Elementary, Kensington, CT

Consider sharing the stories of the winning programs described below, as well as selected others from the Challenge video gallery, with your own community.

Also consider sharing your own innovations in the third 2013/2014 Follett Challenge, scheduled to launch on October 1st.

Click to see video


Case Study #1: The Henry M. Gunn High School Library, in Palo Alto, CA. is the story of a transformation of library to multimedia learning center, or Idea Lab, a space designed to foster creativity, critical thinking and collaboration.

In three short years, the Henry M. Gunn High School library transformed from a sparsely visited space where students consumed information, to a swarming center of ideas and action.

“At Gunn Library, we set aside any preconceived ideas about what we should have and instead listened to our community and thought about how we could use what we have to offer exceptional services beyond what we could have imagined.”

The whole transformation started with conversations,” shared Meg Omainsky, Gunn’s teacher librarian, who talked with students, conducted online surveys, and established both student and parent advisory groups.

The members of the student advisory group became Meg’s information gatherers.  She met with them monthly to discuss what Gunn students wanted in their library.

Her goal was to move beyond a model of quiet consumption toward a focus on customer service, creation and collaboration.

Transformation for traditional library to Idea Lab involved a complete collection assessment and flip.  Meg barcoded the laptops and let students take them out of the library. “That really started to bring students in and we were on the path of changing the model to service, creation and collaboration.”

Next, to open the space for creation, came a gradual relocation of the print nonfiction section to retractable shelving in the back staff area.

Realizing the school needed additional resources to help the students work more creatively, Meg enter educational contests and applied for grants to help outfit the space more appropriately. “When we won the Idea Paint Dream Make Over award, we were able to buy the floor-to ceiling whiteboards and flex furnishings to set the vision in motion. We are modeling our space after the at neighboring Stanford University School of Design.”

The latest addition to the Gunn Library is the Green Zone, a conference room converted into a makeshift green screen production space.  A 15-foot whiteboard dominates the space and extends the entire length of the lab allowing students and teachers write and create freely throughout the day.

Today, the Idea Lab gears students (and teachers) with the tools needed to investigate, create and share new knowledge. Students arrange the space to meet their production needs and “reset the space” when finished.

So, what happens at the new Idea Lab?

Gunn’s TEDx offers a way to connect the Idea Lab with the community. The day-long event, now in its third year, is a speaker series of innovative thinkers from the local community.   Led by students, who manage everything from the research of speakers, web and print marketing, stage production, grant writing, communications, and whatever else they decide to tackle the event attracts more the 600 attendees each year.  Speakers have included local professors, CEOs, computer scientists and designers, and social entrepreneurs.

The Gunn Library STEMSlam contest asks students who work in the lab and around town to create videos depicting how they use STEM skills in their daily lives. The contest culminates when the videos “slam-off” in public voting sessions on the STEM Slam YouTube Channel.

Additionally, the library hosts a professional development blog and partners with teachers across all disciplines to help infuse new technologies into their classes.

Today, it’s the place kids want to be, a learning space where kids choose to be during free periods, after school, and to work on projects of all kinds. The number of daily visits has skyrocketed to nearly 700, an increase of more than 400 percent.

Meg plans to use the Follett grant to increase access for ELL students, to build her audiobook collection, to build a digital collection to support Common Core learning, and to encourage recreational reading.

Case Study #2: Maplewood Richmond Heights School District

Click to see video

Ten years ago, Maplewood Richmond Heights High School ranked among the St. Louis area’s lowest performing schools. With a 59% poverty demographic, the school had serious challenges and the low ranking only proved what administrators already knew—a dramatic shift was needed to turn things around.

Just last year, the school was named an International Center for Leadership in Education Model School and an Apple Distinguished School.

The small high school now offers a one-to-one laptop program, a student-mentored technology integration program, and a service-learning emphasis that reflects the district’s cutting-edge practices and innovative landscape.

Opportunities for service learning are built into the district’s curriculum and culture.  These opportunities include: three gardens tended to and harvested by students in the Seed to Table program, a student-run food pantry, an after-school cooking class for student moms, and opportunities for students to raise chickens, raise bees and sell bee products, and raise fish in an aquaculture program.

“We had progressive ideas across the district,” said Patrice Bryan, who teaches English and social justice courses. “But the way we operated in the library didn’t reflect our educational landscape anymore. So we decided to align the two.”

Together, the administration and staff imagined a new Research & Design Center model in which the library became the vortex of learning and collaboration.

The four Cornerstones–leadership, scholarship, stewardship, and citizenship–the soul of the district, guided the conversion of the library to R&D Center.

“We imagined a place where students and teachers can go take a mini-lesson on editing video, talk about new ideas, work together on projects, have a cup of coffee in the café and read, checkout a Flip Cam, or get help from a specialist,” explained Bryan. “These things were happening all over campus, in small groups or classes, but we wanted a hub—a center for kids and teachers to find everything and do everything together, at once.”

The transformation began with a mental mind shift from resource distribution and collection to a 21st- century collaboration and design model. “We all had to acquire a new understanding: the old library as resource capital was gone; we are now focused on human capital,” said Bryan.

Bryan also pointed out that the new R&D space encourages real collaboration among teachers and students, distributing the learning load across content areas, and focusing on guided inquiry design and practices of a participatory learning culture. “We focused on learning to share experiences and that leads to active info-apprenticeships within our schools, between schools, and between our schools and the community.”

The revitalization process has tripled foot traffic and the Maplewood Richmond Heights’ R&D Center is now the hip, vibrant hub of the district, with students defining the new use of the space.

Maplewood Richmond Heights will use it Challenge award to focus on building literacy in the R&D Center and to acquire new resources that “more accurately reflect what we do.”  Bryan shared: “We are not a rich district; we are high poverty. [We are] helping kids prepare for  dynamic lives beyond this school.  The Follett Challenge is the reward and the recognition that we’re on the right path.”

The 2013/2014 Follett Challenge launches on October 1 and it can support and recognize your own right path.

If you are innovating and leading learning in your school and your library, submit a short video.

Show us what it looks like.

Inspire us.

Joyce Valenza About Joyce Valenza

Joyce is an Assistant Professor of Teaching at Rutgers University School of Information and Communication, a technology writer, speaker, blogger and learner. Follow her on Twitter: @joycevalenza


  1. […] Joyce Valenza, the popular blogger for School Library Journal, posted a great story on the Follett Challenge. Her Never Ending Search blog gets more viewers than any other page on SLJ’s site.  Here’s a link to her blog:… […]

  2. […] Challenge opens November 1, 2013 and closes February 28, 2014. Be sure to check out the rules and fill out an […]

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