Leading Libraries to Lead Education – Sara Furnival

We met Sara Furnival during the Upper Grand District School Board’s annual “Learning Fair”  in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada, in August 2019. We agreed at that time to invite her for an in-depth interview exploring the transformation of her school library from a traditional library setting to an exciting and dynamic “Library Learning Lab”.

Sara Furnival has been the Teacher Librarian at Westminster Woods Public School in Guelph, Ontario for the past 10 years since the school opened in 2010. 

In 2014, deeply inspired by the Canadian Library Association’s document, Leading Learning: Standards of Practice For School Library Learning Commons in Canada, Sara joined the school library revolution dedicated to  re-envisioning libraries as irreplaceable, future-ready, hubs of learning. 

In only six years, Sara has translated this new vision of the role of libraries in school into a series of concrete projects that make for an innovative pathway to 21st-century learning.

The podcast reviews the key steps that Sara has taken, often together with other Teacher Librarians, from her first reading of Leading Learning to the present. 

A new way to innovate

At the beginning of the interview, Sara reads an excerpt from Leading Learning that ignited her initiatives: “The library learning commons is the physical and virtual collaborative learning hub of the school. It is designed to engineer and drive future-oriented learning and teaching throughout the entire school. Inquiry, project/problem-based learning experiences are designed as catalysts for intellectual engagement with information, ideas, thinking, and dialogue. Reading thrives, learning literacies and technology competencies evolve, and critical thinking, creativity, innovation, and playing to learn are nourished. Everyone is a learner; everyone is a teacher working collaboratively toward excellence.”

Sara insists on the crucial role that this reading played at the beginning of her journey. It led her to reflect on how some of the principles within the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education could be applied in a school library context. Sara had become completely taken by the Reggio Emilia practices and principles during her graduate studies at York University years before. In particular, she was interested in how the Teacher Librarian could become a “provocateur” of learning experiences within the school and how the library environment itself could provoke a wide variety of diverse learning opportunities.

The interview also emphasizes that the Leading Learning framework was an open invitation to take action, as it was not designed as a series of imperative objectives. At every step of the process, Sara and her fellow Teacher Librarians felt that they were in the driver’s seat.

This freedom given to the actors of change can be considered an edupreneurial way to implement innovation in the education system.

The Spark Table

One of the first initiatives that Sara put into action in her new library learning commons was the introduction of the Spark Table, a concrete space within the environment dedicated to provoking curiosity and providing students with opportunities to engage with diverse materials.

Sara shares that the idea of the Spark Table came to her in a very particular context. She and her Teacher Librarian colleagues, along with their Supervisor of Library Services, were engaging in rich dialogue about ways to bring the Leading Learning vision to life. They discussed the potential of creating dedicated spaces within their libraries to provoke wonder and curiosity.

For Sara, she was again inspired by the practices of the Reggio Emilia educators and wondered how she could intentionally create invitations for her students to explore and learn. She imagined an irresistible space filled with natural materials that provoked questions and rich discussion. The Spark Table was born.

The library was still the same place, but it was not in the same world. 

She and her colleagues began designing spark tables, wonder stations and curiosity corners. This was only the beginning. 

From the landline to the mobile phone

While Sara and her colleagues were experimenting with the implementation of these intriguing spaces within their own school libraries, they began another initiative that was a catalyst for both a massive transformation of the libraries and the faster implementation of innovative learning methods.

Sara, along with five Teacher Librarian colleagues, began a collaborative project to design   and build an initial set of maker bins for their school board’s professional library. The goal was to provide all libraries within their school board access to materials that could be used for creating spark tables and makerspaces. The maker bins would make for the fluid sharing of materials required for specific learning activities. 

The Makerspace and Game Bins, as they are now called, carry both high-tech and low-tech content, from rocks and coral to magnetic sand, an animation station, several different robotics and, lately, VR devices. They are available for use by all staff in the Upper Grand District School Board, in libraries, classrooms and to enrich specialized programs such as English as a Second Language support.

The maker bins have received constant and lasting support. At the time the maker bins project was developed, the Terry James Resource Centre, which is the library of the board, was beginning its own transformation to becoming a very high-tech space. Sara and her fellow librarians were able to assist in bringing this vision to life by helping ensure equitable access to an ever-growing wealth of resources. 

For the maker bins, as for any project, long-term success is inherently related to the capacity to create value.

There are currently more than 100 maker bins available. They are very popular. The project has been presented on numerous occasions, and the Terry James Resource Centre maintains a constant dialogue with the teachers, to keep the content of the bins as relevant and cutting edge as possible.

The Terry James Resource Centre staff are highly committed to developing the bins with a view to what will prepare students best for their future. The complete list of the available resources can be found on the website of the project: https://sites.google.com/ugcloud.ca/makerspace-bins-terryjamesrc/home.

The success of the maker bins allowed Sara to feel comfortable moving to new initiatives such as creating unique recess programs for her students, such as the E-textiles Club.

A learning curve to the real world

The 2016 ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) Conference in Denver, Colorado led Sara to discover the world of e-textiles and soft circuits. In the podcast, she shares the memory of the very moment she was introduced to the concept of creating textile-based projects embedded with lights and electrical component. She was completely taken by how the integration of basic hand sewing techniques and electrical engineering was “both so simple and so complicated.” 

The 2016-2017 school year was used to develop creative confidence within her Gr. 5 – 8 students who first participated in the e-textiles club. Sara showed resilience as the creation of the e-textiles club proved more complicated than expected. 

A decisive shift happened during the 2017-2018 school year. The children wanted to make the next year an outreach year, and they had an objective to promote e-textiles to other students. To do so, the “Fireflies” as they had decided to call themselves needed more material. The students decided to design a few marketable products including sugar skulls, donuts and bracelets that they could sell to their peers at their school’s upcoming Open House. Their sale was a huge success with over 35 pre-orders sold. The reality of this success set in quickly as they began to work very hard to make, package and deliver the ordered pieces. Along the way, they had to “hire” more peers to help and actually finished their last order on the very last day of the school year. 

In doing so, the Fireflies became real entrepreneurs. Sara insists that this all happened very organically and was driven by the students themselves. 

2018-2019 proved the year of the outreach. The Fireflies diversified their activities by taking an active part in the communication of their project. From video conferencing to setting up and leading workshops, they had the opportunity to acquire a whole new range of competencies.

In 2019-2020, the children moved a step closer to the real world of entrepreneurship by selling  a new line of holiday products out of the school at a crafters’ market hosted by their local public library. 

Collaborative teaching

The whole school community has embraced the idea of the library as being the hub of 21st-century learning. Sara collaborates with the teachers of her school on a regular basis. 

She considers this cooperation as the best part of her job. In the spirit of Reggio Emilia, she is happy that her contribution adds to the possibilities given to the students to share their ideas in multiple ways. Green screens, stop motion animation, and podcasts are similar to additional languages.

Next time you visit a school, make sure to visit the library. Now that you are aware of the role libraries can play in leading innovation in education, you will know what to look for. Dusty shelves and outdated editions are not the distinctive features of libraries anymore.

The most impressive aspect of Sara’s achievements is the speed at which the changes could be conducted. It has only been six years since Leading Learning was published. In a system where reforms count in decades rather than months, a major educational transformation has been completed at a fantastic pace.

This is another sign that neutral, viral, entrepreneurial changes make a crucial difference in an era where significant changes have to happen quickly.

Many thanks to Sara for her time and enthusiasm.

We also want to express our gratitude to Brent McDonald, Superintendent at the Upper Grand District School Board, for having invited us to participate and to hold a workshop during the 2019 Learning Fair and for making all these inspiring exchanges possible!

Sara Furninval is on Twenty-One
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