Going beyond the Dewey Decimal System: Service with a smile at Cranston East’s library

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Education is constantly evolving, as are school libraries. This is the second in a three-part series exploring the changing roles, joys and demands of running a school library program at the elementary, middle and high school levels in the Cranston Public Schools.

With a population of approximately 1,600 students at Cranston High School East, school librarian Heidi Blais has a jam-packed schedule from the minute she walks through the door until the minute she leaves at the end of the day, with the exception of her 18-minute lunch break.

And yet, on any given day, each student or teacher who enters the library is greeted, usually by name, and given a smile as Blais asks what their needs are.

In the fall, Blais was named Cranston’s Teacher of the Year, and currently she is a finalist for the Rhode Island Teacher of the Year award as well. Watching her work, it’s clear why she’s worthy of both titles. She works tirelessly to assist her students and her staff in any and every way possible, in every subject area she can.

“Everything I do here is collaborative,” she said. “Teachers come in often, looking for assistance finding resources for their students to use in their projects. The students need help using, gathering and assimilating sources for their final products. I do a lot of lessons on plagiarism. It’s such an important topic to teach the students because there is so much information at their fingertips and different ways to plagiarize that they might not even realize they’re doing it.”

Susan Rose, school librarian at Chester Barrows Elementary and program supervisor for the district’s library program, agrees that at the secondary level collaboration is very necessary, and emphasizes the expanded use of technology and social media that takes place at this level.

“It’s very important at this level to work collaboratively, it’s the very nature of the work in the secondary schools,” she said. “The librarians at the secondary level are also really modeling the responsible use of social media for their students, setting up Facebook and Twitter pages and blogs for use by their staff, students and families.”

The library at Cranston High School East is set up in a way that speaks to both quiet work settings, classroom teaching settings and comfortable reading spots. The selection of books and materials is huge, and currently being revamped and updated, with new materials being rotated in and placed in eye-catching, easy-to-locate spots.

“We’re creating kids who are readers for life, not just readers for school,” Blais said. “I have created a book review blog for students to post their reviews of the books they’ve read, having first taught them how to write the review. There are hundreds of reviews on the blog now.”

Recently, Blais was able to collaborate with an English class on a topic that was near and dear to her heart and the hearts of her family.

“The English class was learning about the heart and the pioneers of surgery in children’s heart defects. That is something my family has experienced and I was able to share our personal experiences with them. I found videos for the students about heart defects and shared my children’s stories with them,” Blais said. “Through this I was able to show them the real-life applications for the information they were learning in school, and let them know that this really happens to people that they know.”

Whenever possible, Blais likes to say “yes” to any requests and try to make them happen.

“If someone comes in with an idea for fostering collaboration, I like to make it work. I tell them to bring their students in, I work to enrich their learning experiences and make the information come alive for them,” she said, citing a recent request from a Family and Consumer Sciences teacher for help with a project centered around foods from around the world, which had Blais researching cookbooks and recipes as resources for the students. “I try to find videos, pictures, any resources I can bring into it for them.”

As Blais works with teachers on the resources for upcoming projects, she organizes the information by department on her Cranston High School East library webpage, http://guides.rilinkschools.org/thunderbolts, currently listed as the top visited school library in the state, with 55,540 views this year as of May 19.

On her site she also includes information for parents, information about eBooks, library resources, upcoming library events and a running ticker of tweets she’s posted on Twitter as she engages with her students.

“The library provides me with useful tools to help me do my everyday work,” reads one such tweet.

“My library website really extends student learning beyond the school day,” Blais said. “The students can go home and use it at any time. Some of them are on it in the middle of the night. They’re accessing high quality information, not just Googling. I also created a feedback page that they can submit to me if they need help at any time.”

Rose agrees with Blais about the ideal library websites being key in extending student learning.

“Having the library website engages the whole family,” she said. “It motivates kids and gets them excited and weaves technology into assignments.”

With the increase in technological access to reading materials, one would expect circulation of actual books to decline, but according to Blais, that trend hasn’t occurred here.

“In the 19 years I’ve been in Cranston, I haven’t yet seen a decline. I find my library to be busier and busier each year, with more and more demand,” she said. “This is my fourth year at East, and it was busy from day one, but it’s now even busier as word spreads and gets out, people hear what you can do at the library. At this level, most have their own devices, and although we do offer eBooks, I do still see that most students like to hold a book in their hands. Overall, I find that non-fiction eBooks get more use than fiction eBooks. My fiction circulation numbers show about 2,000 fiction items are circulated a month. I get inter-library loan deliveries three times a week from any one of the 150 school libraries in the system. If I know a teacher is teaching a particular book, I can get 30 or 40 copies of it for them to use. If the school libraries don’t have them, I can branch out to the public libraries.”

With budget cuts having resulted in the loss of the library secretary position that existed previously, Blais relies on student volunteers to help her do what she does so well.

“I have a good group of about 15 library volunteers, students who help me with shelving books, straightening up and doing the things the secretaries used to do. Their help allows me to do a lot of the other things that I do,” she said.

In order to acclimate new students to the library, Blais created a Powtoon, an animated orientation video that provides a multimedia presentation for students about all that they can do at the library.

“I didn’t expect that to be such a big hit, but it was, and I had a great deal of teacher interest as well as the students’ interest. I was able to collaborate with teachers so that they, too, could use this type of program in their teaching,” she said. “I’ve also worked with Anamoto and Prezi. These programs let students take their research skills one step further and create something with them. In this day and age, with these types of programs, school libraries have really changed, grown and developed to help kids.”

Rose believes that weaving technology into library skills helps all types of learning styles.

“Technology helps us to differentiate our instruction. We can help reluctant readers, we can work with the students who are highly motivated and finish ahead,” she said. “And these electronic platforms are helpful for all of us to share with each other.”

Blais has another technology tool that draws students to the library – her “Raspberry Pi,” which is a device that’s hooked up to a big-screen TV just outside the library entrance.

“I program it to show pictures of things taking place or upcoming events, and students like to see what’s new, what we have and what we’re doing, and to see if they see themselves on it,” she said.

“At the time it was offered to me, I had no idea what it was, or how to us it, but I always say ‘yes’ to new things because that’s how you grow and expand,” she continued. “I have worked really hard to expand our technology and our computers. We have gained 32 computers over the past four years.”

Blais truly loves her job, and it shows, as her library is welcoming and user-friendly.

“I try to give everyone what they need. I give every kid who comes in a smile and make them feel welcome,” she said. “I’m kind and accommodating and I try to say ‘yes’ much more than I say ‘no.’”

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