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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Are School Librarians Part of Your PBL Dream Team?

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate

Visit schools where project-based learning (PBL) is taking hold and you are almost certain to see teachers collaborating. They may be meeting face-to-face to plan projects, using critical-friend protocols to improve projects, looking at student work together, or even teaming up virtually with project partners in other time zones.

A key player to invite into these collaborative conversations is the school librarian or library media specialist. Their understanding of information literacy and digital citizenship can make a difference across the arc of projects. What's more, librarians may know about students' out-of-class interests through their reading choices or online interests. Take advantage of their insights to plan more engaging projects.

How and when might school librarians contribute to PBL? I had a chance to talk about these opportunities recently at the Oregon Association of School Libraries conference. Here are a few ideas that emerged from our conversations.

At the project planning stage: At the design stage, ask librarians for specific feedback on project plans. Does the driving question sound engaging, based on what they know about students' interests? (Do they have alternatives to suggest?) Are there literature connections or digital media resources a teacher may not have considered?

Creating anticipation: If librarians know about upcoming projects, they can help to spark curiosity even before launch day. One school library displays a "curiosity cabinet" of artifacts that relate to upcoming projects. Library book displays or book clubs can help whet students' appetite for upcoming topics, too.

Guiding research: Because inquiry is at the heart of PBL, student questions guide the learning process. Students need to know how to ask good questions and also how to research effectively. Librarians are in a key role to help students build and apply these information literacy skills. Mini-lessons on smarter searching will help students go deeper than with simple Google searches. Critical-thinking prompts will help students consider the accuracy and reliability of sources. Workshops about fair use and copyright will help students cite sources appropriately. (Read more about online research in the recent Edudemic post, "Critical Search Skills Students Should Know.")

Elementary teacher Heidi Hutchison (@heidihutchison) teams up with her school librarian, John Scott (@jscottlibrarian), to design inquiry projects that engage students around the globe. Here's a current project about animal rights, using the children's book The One and Only Ivan as the launching point.

Hutchison counts on her library colleague to help students locate information that will answer their need-to-know questions. "These are great opportunities to teach information literacy," she says. For example, the librarian might prompt students to consider, "How do we take a question and pick out key words to locate resources?"

Connecting with experts: Projects often require students to go beyond the school walls to connect with content-area experts. Here, too, librarians can help guide the search for experts. If they have access to tools like Skype in the Classroom or Google Hangout, they can help students arrange video conferences with the experts they want to consult.

Encouraging teamwork and creativity: PBL intentionally puts students into situations where they work in teams. With practice, students get better at working with peers and also managing their own learning. School libraries offer environments for teams to work semi-autonomously on projects.

Some school libraries are going farther, becoming laboratories for connected learning. They may provide students with access to recording gear, 3D printers, or makerspaces for building and testing prototypes. Learn more about the thinking behind Connected Learning here.

Displaying "beautiful work": At the conclusion of projects, students typically apply what they have learned to create something new. Many schools hold project culminating events in the school library, inviting audiences to provide feedback on what students have accomplished. Longer term, the school library offers a public place to display and curate the "beautiful work" that results from high-quality PBL (to borrow a phrase from PBL expert Ron Berger.

Build Your Connections

With Connected Educator Month heading into the final week, this is a good time to ask yourself: Which connections are missing from my PBL dream team? How might I connect with school librarians who share a vision of PBL as a strategy for deeper learning?

If your school does not have a school librarian or information specialist on staff, connect with library experts via Twitter (such as @ccassinelli, @joycevalenza, @cybraryman1, @peggysheehy). Search #libchat on Twitter for more ideas.

To learn more about the ideas that are transforming libraries around the world, listen to sessions from this month's Library 2.0 conference.

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