Mini Theme: Greening of the Library. Role of the Library Media Specialist in Greening the Curriculum: A Community-Based Approach to Teaching 21st Century Skills Outside of the School Library through the Practice of Urban Agriculture

What is the role of the library media specialist in a 21st century school library? Who defines that role? And, how does that role change to meet the needs of a green community?

Some of my most valuable experiences as a library media specialist (LMS) were not in a school library. Rather, they were on the streets of Chicago, in community gardens, and on the rooftops of buildings in Humboldt Park, where I was hired by the University of Illinois Community Informatics Initiative as a graduate assistant and LMS in training to work with Pedro Albizu Campos High School (PACHS), an alternative high school on Chicago’s west side.

Community informatics is the study and practice (within the field of library and information science) of working within communities to identify community-based information and technology solutions. The type of information and technology a community informatics project focuses on is identified by the community and based on local needs. Meeting local needs might, for example, require setting up a cataloging system that uses culturally relevant subject headings, installing a bilingual PC network, providing students with tools they need to study urban agriculture, or providing teachers with the critical resources they need to develop a green curriculum.

The Urban Agriculture Initiative at PACHS grew out of a community-based response to two major issues faced by Puerto Rican residents of the greater Humboldt Park neighborhood: (1) the alienation of Puerto Rican youth from their culture and community, compounded by a growing disconnect between what was taught in local schools and the actual life experiences of the students (Antrop-Gonzalez), and (2) the community’s designation as a food desert (Gallagher)—a factor that has contributed to critical levels of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity among the Puerto Rican population living in the community (Ableman, Shahm and Whitman).

A typical day for me as an LMS included assisting students of the Urban Agriculture Initiative at PACHS with tasks such as nurturing seedlings, watering tomato and aji dulce (a Puerto Rican pepper) plants, and weeding vegetable beds. Back in the classroom these same students were learning math and science within the context of urban agriculture, food security, community-based health and nutrition, and social justice. I worked closely with teachers to identify activities and resources that would support the curriculum from these perspectives.


The response was, in part, to design a curriculum that would reconnect youth to their community through the processes of inquiry and problem solving—so that their learning was contextual and authentic and so that their knowledge could be applied in meaningful and impactful ways. The program was also designed to increase the students’ understanding of how their individual actions impact local environments, including learning about ethical farming and green cities, and how to grow and distribute nutritious fruits and vegetables locally to residents who have little or no access to the foods that they need to stay healthy. In the end, the program would seek to empower youth to create sustainable and meaningful change in their lives and in their community.

What makes this experience so unique for me as an LMS was the chance to be involved in a community-wide, collaborative approach to mapping out an integrated, standards-based green curriculum that would invite students to engage in community building as agents of change. They would learn mathematics through the design of urban landscapes, science through the study of local ecology, and reading and communication skills through critical research and proposal writing. At the same time, students were building important 21st century skills such as innovation, critical thinking, problem solving, communication and collaboration (“Framework for 21st Century Learning”).

Opportunities for collaboration in the planning and implementation of this project were bountiful. On any given day, I worked with students in the gardens, collaborated with staff in preparing lessons and hands-on activities, and supported the larger community by researching grants and developing a vision statement for the project.

While working outside of a large school system lends itself to this type of grass-roots work, it is possible to perform in a similar capacity within the formal framework of a K-12 library media center program. Defining the role of an LMS in a similar community-based learning initiative within a school library might include:

  • Identifying Critical Resources
  • Engaging Disconnected Youth through Community-Based Learning
  • Designing Opportunities for Inquiry-Based Learning
  • Teaching 21st Century Skills
  • Developing Opportunities for Authentic Assessment


The LMS works with the school and wider community to identify resources that connect to the goals of the project and the curriculum. It’s important to remember that while resources are often found in print or electronic format they can also be in the form of human capital, relationship building, and public engagement. Working closely with teachers and students to understand their needs and ensuring that resources are culturally relevant—including identifying resources that present history and knowledge from a youth perspective—is central to this role.


The LMS works with teachers and students to identify opportunities for youth to get involved in projects where they are learning within real world contexts—thus making learning relevant and participatory. Urban agriculture is a community-based practice of growing fresh fruits and vegetables in and around cities for consumption by the local population. It is participatory, democratic and just, because community members work together in providing equal access to fresh quality foods that are the right of every man, women, and child. So as we taught students about growing food, we also made important connections between culture and food, social justice and food, and health and food. By engaging students in the solution we sent a message that we value their input and we believe in them as future leaders of the community and of society.


Inquiry-based learning allows students to take responsibility for their own learning and develop skills of critical thinking and lifelong learning— skills that they can use as students and over a lifetime. Inquiry-based projects, however, require careful planning and are often avoided in schools because even the best teachers simply do not have the time to prepare for them. Assessment is time intensive, as it requires feedback that takes careful consideration of individual learning goals. The LMS can be a valuable resource by assisting teachers in lesson planning, materials preparation, and assessment.

For example, the LMS might coordinate a multidisciplinary project that is designed to integrate science and language arts through the process of community inquiry. Students might ask, “Is there a link between our community’s access to fresh, affordable fruits and vegetables and the overall health of residents?” The LMS then might help students compile data collected during a community-wide investigation and assist students in creating a presentation that engages their community in a discussion. Finally, the LMS might assist teachers and students in the processes of reflection and assessment that lead to additional questions and inquiry.


When we integrate 21st century skills into the curriculum, we are often challenged to find authentic, real world applications that our students can experience in the classroom. Urban agriculture offers students the opportunity to participate in community-building initiatives that meet the needs of the community as a whole. At the same time, students are building skills that they can use over a lifetime. Students at PACHS learned how to identify problems related to food production within their community, survey their community’s needs, and develop an integrated approach to addressing the issues that were identified. Moreover, they learned how to interact with the larger community, synthesize information, and share new knowledge in productive ways.


Assessment in community-based projects often allows for community input and feedback. Students can present their work in an open forum and invite the community to provide feedback on their projects. Technology can be integrated through the use of wilds and blogs that invite community collaboration and feedback. Authentic assessment allows students to experience what it is like to create and share knowledge in real world contexts. Students at PACHS experienced the excitement and nervousness associated with presentations, were challenged to defend their research, and participated in a peer review process that required them to continue to improve their work. The LMS can play a very important role in coordinating the project, planning community involvement, documenting student work, and publishing materials within the community.


Plan programs around issues that inspire passion in students.

Students are most engaged in projects that are meaningful to them. Talk to students about issues that matter to them most. Are there particular environmental issues that concern them? What do they notice about their community’s environmental health? For example, is a local green space that kids use to play baseball being converted into a condo complex? Is a local stream being polluted by chemical runoff from a nearby farm? What is the social climate like in their school or larger community? How do we make learning relevant? Involve students in the process.

Encourage student leadership and collaboration.

Allow students to take on leadership roles in planning the project and encourage collaboration. Start the process by providing lessons on defining roles within groups, developing rules of engagement, and documenting research. However, allow students to use the methods of collaboration with which they are most comfortable. Focus on the process of collaboration rather than procedure.


Meet with teachers and share your students’ ideas. Are there ways that this project could be integrated into the curriculum? Offer to assist in lesson planning and connecting the project and state standards. Start a blog or wiki about the issue and share your project ideas with teachers. Invite teachers to be involved with the project at any level. Identify partnerships with teachers that integrate multiple subjects and that encourage discussions that focus on the relationships between the two subjects and how the relationships between schools of thought create or solve issues in real world contexts.

If you are a teacher and would like to start a program like this at your school, ask your LMS if he or she has any ideas on what type of community-based initiative would work best at your school. The LMS is a great resource in identifying issues in which students are interested because they often see students in informal learning situations and talk with students about issues that matter to them most. The LMS is also aware of issues that impact the larger youth population through his or her regular review of library resources and literature and may be able to suggest non-traditional textbooks that you could use in your classroom to engage students in a conversation about current issues.


I am fortunate to have the experience where I was exposed to a new way of thinking about school libraries and the role that the LMS plays in creating opportunities for students to learn 21st century skills. During this time, I did not work in a traditional library in that my students were not learning how to look up books using an online catalog system. I was helping students identify critical resources—resources that would empower them to make meaningful, sustainable change in their lives. I was assisting teachers in creating lessons where students would learn mathematics and science through the study of real world issues—issues that affected their own health and well being. And, I integrated the teaching of these skills in ways that would allow them to create and share new knowledge—knowledge that was meaningful, culturally relevant, and ultimately life changing. All of which are the ultimate goals of education, are they not?


Antrop-Gonzalez, René. “’This School is My Sanctuary The Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos Alternative High School,” JSRI Working Paper #57, The Julian Samora Research Institute, Michigan State University, 2003. Print.

“Framework for 21st Century Learning.” Overview. Partnership for 21st Century Skills ©, 2004. Web. 9 Aug. 2009.

Gallagher, Mari. Examining the Impact of Food Deserts on Public Health in Chicago. Chicago, IL: Mari Gallagher Research & Consulting Group, Jul. 2006. Web. 9 Aug. 2009.

Shah, Ami M. and Steven Whitman. Sinai Health Systems Improving Community Health Survey: Report 2. Chicago, IL: Sinai Health System, Sep. 2005. Web. 9 Aug. 2009.

Michelle L. Torrise

MLA Citation Torrise, Michelle L. "Mini Theme: Greening of the Library. Role of the Library Media Specialist in Greening the Curriculum: A Community-Based Approach to Teaching 21st Century Skills Outside of the School Library through the Practice of Urban Agriculture." Library Media Connection, 28, no. 4, January 2010. School Library Connection,

View all citation styles

Entry ID: 2147752

Back to Top