Authentic learning, learning that impacts and interacts with the world outside of the school, is a powerful way for students to give purpose to their learning and make it meaningful. When students in my school first embarked on such a project, I was worried: is there still a significant role for elementary library, so often the hub of learning in other instances? I was extremely pleased to discover that yes, in fact, the library can continue to be a central element of support for students in an authentic learning environment.
As elementary students begin to reach out to a community institution, business, or individual, they will need to discover how they can help. That conversation is most effective if led by students, but preparing them for those interactions can be a role that the school librarian takes on in collaboration with classroom teachers.
For instance, making eye contact, shaking hands, and introducing oneself may all be skills unfamiliar to an elementary student. Short books or videos along with modeling and practice can give students the confidence to make contacts and ask questions in the community as they begin their learning.
Elementary librarians can also approach the task of leading students in developing questions. By developing their own questions, students become more invested in the process, stay engaged in the learning, and focus more on the answers. Connecting students with frameworks they've used in the past to develop questions for research or for an author skype can facilitate this process and reinforce the learning they've already done in the library.
As students prepare to interact with the community outside of the school, they will want information to prepare themselves for the experience. The elementary librarian can continue to lead in this role, building upon students' prior experiences with gathering and making sense of information. The focus of the authentic learning project will dictate what sources students need. Typical resources such as databases and books may be appropriate. Access to current news resources that are child friendly such as Newsela or Listenwise may give students insight on larger topics that they may be hoping to address locally. Other times, local resources may be needed, perhaps in the form of visits from community experts. As students continue to grow in their understanding of local needs, more questions may arise. The librarian can continue to help model and guide students through this recursive process.
This was a role I played this year as students prepared for an authentic learning project involving an organization that provided animal training in our area. Students came to the library to look for information about dog care and training. Books and databases could answer general questions but students wanted more specific information as well. We found that the organization's website had a wealth of information about its work in a variety of formats. Students read text, viewed images, and watched video testimonials to come to a better understanding of the work that this group was doing.
Authentic learning can be especially exciting because it provides opportunities to practice thinking skills in context. As students gather information in authentic learning experiences, librarians can help students separate factual information from opinions. Using something like the Circle of Viewpoints routine from Harvard's Project Zero (http://www.pz.harvard.edu/resources/circle-of-viewpoints-vt) can help students recognize that there are multiple perspectives to an issue, making it easier to see different perspectives in informational resources.
As students begin to create authentic products related to their learning, the library space itself can play a critical role as a collaborative work space. Most elementary libraries have spaces where students meet as a class. During the recent redesign of our elementary library learning spaces, a group of staff and students discussed how we wanted the space to be used. Collaborative learning and creating came up again and again.
Spaces where students can create collaboratively may be in short supply in your school. Classrooms are not often physically laid out for ongoing creation projects. Libraries, especially ones that already have materials related to makerspaces, are a logical option. Gina Seymour's book Makers with a Cause: Creative Service Projects for Library Youth provides examples where the library space becomes a central element when creating authentic learning products.
Librarians and libraries may not need to fill all of these roles at once when elementary students participate in authentic learning projects, but being involved with the planning and implementation of authentic learning can position a librarian to advocate for her or his roles to support and lead in meaningful and memorable learning for students.