Today let’s talk about how and why I started a low-tech makerspace at our high school library!
When I started at this library 5 years ago it was completely different than it is now. Circulation was extremely low and students were not encouraged to “hang out” at the library but rather to use it solely for book checkout & research needs. I knew that was not the best way for a 21st century school library to meet the needs of its students, so I knew that those things would need to change. The library can’t easily impact student’s lives for the better if student’s don’t have regular access to the library itself, nor if the library doesn’t provide the resources or experiences students actually need from it, after all.
When I did my initial needs assessments to survey students, admin, and teachers, to check what they thought the library needed to change, the most common response was that students needed the library to be a place they could congregate, socialize, relax, and of course access books and resources to assist them with their academic, personal, and professional goals and growth.
To encourage greater levels of accessibility we opened the library to be used for social congregation in addition to academic needs, and this resulted in the library being visited and used far more often than it had in previous years. Which was GREAT! An empty library is a sad library.
There was one negative consequence, and that was some significant behavior issues that arose. Certainly not all students, but many would make choices and take actions that served to disrupt or destruct the library space, and during my first year I became concerned at the amount of issues we were seeing. Sometimes it was simply rowdiness and over-loudness or running around, tossing things to each other, leaving messes, etc. Sometimes it escalated into other things that were more in the nature of graffiti or light vandalism (throwing food around and leaving it all over the floor, drawing things on surfaces, messing with the books, and more).
I was, of course, frustrated by this and worried that my vision of a dynamic and bustling, but courteously behaved, library space wasn’t going to be possible.
Since I am, by nature, a highly reflective person, I spent some time pondering this and trying to come up with solutions. I asked myself why we might be having these issues. What would cause teenagers to behave in the ways I was seeing them behave. Some possible answers I thought of included:
- Transition of a new librarian leading them to challenge and push to find the boundaries
- Transition of space from quiet & often closed, to open & available to them leading to lack of certainty as to which behaviors were allowed
None of those options seemed to be quite the right fit, though I’m certain they were contributing factors. As I started to brainstorm possible solutions I had a lightbulb moment where I realized maybe the students were simply bored, and their behavior was a result of them finding (undesirable) outlets for their boredom. The library at this point, after all, only offered comfortable chairs and books. Meaning the only option students had to pass the time was to read, look at their phones, or do homework. And, well, sometimes we need to do things other than read or more schoolwork during our down time, right? And it turns out that even teens don’t actually want to only look at their phones 24/7.
Brainstorming for Solutions
So I brainstormed for a bit to think of what kind of goals and outcomes I hoped for our library to meet for its students. My primary library philosophy is:
- The school library provides resources students need to achieve academic, personal, and professional success.
So I began to think about what that might comprise. Obviously we serve academic and personal reading needs by providing a great book collection, but our students certainly need more than books from us. I started thinking about the other things students need to achieve academic, personal, and professional success. They need their mental health to be cared for, they need their social health to be provided for too.
I have also always believed that the library should strive to fill the gaps already present in the school community. In other words, libraries won’t and shouldn’t all be identical, we should flex and evolve to meet our individual student community’s needs, especially the needs that are not being met in other areas of the school or their home lives. I started looking for those gaps as they would provide me an opportunity to evolve the library into directions the students actually needed, to fill needs that were otherwise going unmet. And here are some of the unmet/not fully met needs my students had that I noticed or realized;
- lack of opportunities for low stakes & unstructured social connection/collaboration
- lack of outlets for spontaneous creative expression
- lack of brain breaks throughout the day
Our school community is high pressure in that it is a college prep program within a community that largely expects high academic achievement. Most of our students go on to college, and we have about 40% of our students enrolled in AP classes, sometimes as many as six AP classes simultaneously. There is significant pressure also to have “impressive” college applications which leads students, in addition to often being overloaded on academics, to also overload on extracurriculars such as sports, clubs, community service, musical training, and more. We also have students who, in addition to all of this, work after school jobs too. This high pressure environment meant that most of my students’ purely academic needs were already being met in other areas of school or home, and they didn’t really need the library to be a purely academic minded space because they already have access to many spaces to serve those needs.
Brain Breaks Are Good for Mental Health
I began to learn that my students actually were in more need of a social, creative, and relaxing space. They were more in need of a space that encouraged slowing down, relaxing, taking a breath, connecting and socializing with each other, and exploring their creativity. As a 1:1 ipad school, they even needed a space to encourage occasional unplugged breaks form technology. Those were the needs that were not being as abundantly met in other areas of their lives, and I was happy to realize that the library could serve to provide for those needs for them. Especially since we know that brain breaks and positive social interaction are both critical for positive mental health care. I think every educator can attest to the fact that our youth are facing more stress and anxiety than any generation before them did at their age, and I think we are all seeing the mental health crisis continue to impact our students health and safety. I knew that building the library into a place that made intentional space for students to care for their mental health through creative, low stress, empowering activities and low stakes social connectivity, that would be a way for the library to truly make a difference in their lives.
I began to ask myself, how can we encourage students to see the library as a place that encourages them to put their textbooks and schoolwork down sometimes, to put their phones away for a bit, and to connect with their fellow humans in face-to-face, social-collaborative interactions. I began to try to figure out what I needed to add to, or change about, the library to create this kind of environment which would prioritize student’s mental and social wellness.
Starting with Games
During this time of reflection and brainstorming, I attended an educational library conference, and one of the sessions was about “games in the library.” I attended it, and that’s where I got my first ideas for activities to add to the library. The presenter talked about how board and card games can encourage collaboration and positive social interaction. What a wonderful idea, I realized.
I went home from that conference and immediately started applying for grants to add games and similar activities to the library. I won a $1000 grant and was able to buy the following activities for the library:
- jigsaw puzzles
- various board games, both competitive and collaborative
- giant chess
- giant connect four
- giant playing cards
- connect four
- ticket to ride
- pandemic (the irony has not escaped me)
- playing cards and uno cards
I put the games out in the library on an unused bookshelf so students can use them whenever they like, they do not need to be checked out if they are played in the library. I did catalog them and barcode them in the event that students ever wanted to check them out of the library for any reason, but if they play them in the library they dont need to ask me for them or check them out or anything. I’m a big proponent of limiting barriers of access and I think keeping things behind the circulation desk serves to add more barriers of access. That’s why I don’t have the games tucked away somewhere that students would need to ask me for them or anything like that.
So, we put the games out and……
And they were a HUGE hit.
Impact on Discipline Issues
And guess what?
Our discipline and behavior issues dropped dramatically. Because, as it turns out, if you are meeting your students actual needs, instead of the needs you think they should have, they tend to demonstrate better behavior in the space. It really can be that simple sometimes.
After 2 years of seeing the the drastic improvement that came after we introduced the board games, I added some very simple creative activity options too such as coloring sheets and giant community coloring sheets. Those were also absurdly popular, even though it was just simple coloring!
When I saw how much hunger there was for creative outlets in the library, I began to think it was time to take it further. I was sort of interested in exploring a makerspace addition to the library, and I intended to apply for another grant, but I was not entirely sure what kind of items to request. If you’re familiar with the makerspace movement you may know that they can vary pretty significantly, ranging from Lego, to cardboard creations, to circuits, to gears, to robotics, and on and on. It can be hard to know where to start, and I was struggling to decide on a direction.
So of course I decided to do another needs assessment with my students, to see what they thought and what they most wanted/needed to be added to their library experience. Below is a screenshot of the simple survey I sent out to students via their email and via our social media platforms.
My Needs Assessment Makerspace Survey
After the Survey
I was so interested to see what they would respond with, and I was not disappointed! While I got a good variety of responses, the overwhelming majority of responses indicated that my students most wanted low-tech maker activities added to the library. Basically they wanted simple, easy to use crafts that would allow them to both connect and collaborate with each other while also providing a creative outlet that was not stressful. They asked for things like origami, friendship bracelet making, etc. Very few students voted for a high-tech makerspace, and I later realized that was likely because they already had access to such resources elsewhere in the school community thanks to our robotics clubs and similar. Therefore that was not what they needed in the library. This is why needs assessments are so critical, we don’t want to waste our time trying to get the library to provide resources and experiences that are already being provided elsewhere in the school community.
I applied for a $3,000 grant from our awesome Education Foundation, and I was awarded the grant which enabled me to officially add our “Makerspace Stations” to the library.
I tried to buy a good variety of activities, and to buy both consumables and non-consumables so that at least some of the things could be reused over the years. Our makerstations have been exceedingly successful and beloved by the students. They have allowed students to take brain breaks from their academics, connect with each other in collaborative creative efforts, and even to learn new skills (we have quite a lot of students teach themselves how to knit or embroider now!).
Oh, and since we added these stations, we’ve essentially gotten rid of all behavior issues we had previously contended with. Its shocking how significant the impact of these stations has been. Now that students have so many good activities to choose from they have rarely resorted to those undesirable disruptive or destructive behaviors we used to see frequently. I went from having daily discipline issue to having MAYBE 1-2 issues per semester. I’m not saying this will work for every community and every library, but I can say that providing positive alternatives to negative behaviors and activities has worked wonders for our library and has allowed us to build a wonderful, relaxing, collaborative community space for students to enjoy and benefit from.
How it Works
**Please note that I do not put all of these activities out at once. Instead I set up various “maker stations” throughout the library space, and usually rotate them out each month. Typically I have at least one activity from each of the categories out at once. For instance in September we had LEGO, knitting/crochet, friendship bracelet making, button maker, buddha boards, and bookmark making out.**
As for “when can students access the makerspace,” well the answer is “whenever they have free time OR a teacher books a whole class visit to the library.” So they can come before and during homeroom, during their study hall periods, or after school (the library is open for 45 minutes after the student’s school day ends.) They can also come if their classroom teacher books a whole class visit to the library, or if their classroom teacher is providing them with a “flex” day where they don’t have to work on class work during that period (doesn’t happen often, but occasionally.) The maker stations for the month are just out in the library where anyone in the space can engage with them, so students needn’t do anything special to get access to the maker stations.
What activities make up our maker stations?
Below I will list the makerspace activities I have in our library, and include some pictures. In upcoming posts I’ll go a little more in depth on some of the more popular activities and explain how I set them up and manage them. But for now I’ll provide a simple list which may help provide you with ideas of things you may consider adding to your library.
- Engineering Activities
- Keva planks
- 3d puzzles
- Traditional Crafts
- Basket weaving
- how to draw books
- coloring sheets
- Nostalgic Crafts
- Friendship bracelet making
- rainbow loom
- perler beads/fuse beads
- gimp/plastic lace
- Creative Writing Maker Stations
- Blackout Poetry
- Magnetic Word Poetry
- Book Spine Poetry
- Button maker
- Buddha Boards (google them, they are AWESOME!)
- Stick Together Mosaics
- Giant Coloring Sheets (read more here)
- Bookmark making
- Duct Tape art