When $50 million in budget cuts over three years forced her school district to cut librarians’ schedules from full to part time, Julie A. Bowline knew the loss of services for students would be difficult to bear.
But instead of lamenting the circumstances, Ms. Bowline, the 56-year-old director of instructional technology and library services for the 43,000-student Adams 12 Five Star district north of Denver, chose to reimagine what librarians in her district could be—and think about how to leverage the little time they had to get the greatest impact on student learning.
Drawing on her background in instructional technology, Ms. Bowline and district library-services coordinator Kimberly Ackerman (who has since retired), came up with an entirely new position to best draw on the skills of the teacher-librarians: digital-literacy teachers for the elementary and middle schools.
Principals had expressed a strong interest in incorporating more technology into the classroom, said Ms. Bowline, so “it seemed in our mind that the person most ready to take on that responsibility was the teacher-librarian.” The newly deployed digital-literacy teachers work alongside regular classroom teachers to help students develop technology and research skills, while media clerks check out books to students and keep the library doors open.
“I’m side-by side with the teachers, and it’s really nice because I’m also not only working with the kids, but I’m bringing up the teacher’s awareness of these different digital products,” said Molly Gibney, a district librarian who made the transition to digital-literacy teacher.
Into the Classroom
Ms. Bowline became an instructional technology coordinator in the district in 2006 after moving to Colorado and transitioned into her role as director of the department in 2009. Before that, she had spent 11 years teaching elementary and middle school in Wisconsin.
Her educational background—she received her master’s degree in computer education—primed her to embrace technology as a vehicle for change.
Knowing the change would be a controversial one—some of the teacher-librarians did not embrace technology as wholeheartedly as others—Ms. Bowline decided to allow each principal to choose whether he or she wanted to retain the traditional teacher-librarian role or pilot the new digital-literacy-teacher role, a move she said has been crucial to the experiment’s success.
The digital-literacy-teacher idea was piloted with six teachers in nine schools during the 2012-13 school year and yielded positive results. All but two schools decided to continue with the digital-literacy-teacher position, and classroom teachers reported higher levels of collaboration and support as a result of the pilot.
The move has been crucial to the success of one middle school’s bring-your-own-device initiative, in which students are allowed to bring their personal laptops, iPads, and other technologies to school, said Ms. Bowline.
Four new schools signed on to try the digital-literacy-teacher model in the 2013-14 school year.
Ms. Gibney, who has been a librarian in the district for 10 years, was one of the original digital-literacy teachers who participated in the pilot at the 650-student Mountain View Elementary School.
She said the transition from teacher-librarian to digital-literacy teacher was “a natural fit” since she had already been incorporating digital-literacy skills into her lessons as a librarian.
In creating the new role, Ms. Bowline “was looking at not just the librarian, but the way the whole school interacted with the library,” Ms. Gibney said.
Now, she said, in the Adams 12 Five Star district, the digital-literacy teacher aims to work directly with classroom teachers to co-teach lessons that focus on digital citizenship, information literacy, and digital literacy. Ms. Gibney, for example, has introduced different presentation technologies to classrooms in order to complete projects, taught lessons about how to find credible information online, and instructed classes on how to come up with effective search terms to find the information they need.
Sabrina Jankowski is a 5th grade classroom teacher at Mountain View Elementary who worked with Ms. Gibney both when Ms. Gibney was a teacher-librarian and in her role as a digital-literacy teacher.
“It’s hard because I would have originally said that I didn’t want the digital-literacy coach [as much as the teacher-librarian],” she said, but after working with Ms. Gibney in her new role for two years, Ms. Jankowski said Ms. Gibney is able to be much more deeply involved in classroom projects.
“I definitely would not have been able to put as much technology into my classroom if it wasn’t for her,” she said.
Having Ms. Gibney there to co-teach lessons has made Ms. Jankowski and her fellow teachers much more likely to try new technologies they otherwise would be intimidated by, Ms. Jankowski said.
In order to help support the digital-literacy teachers in their first pilot year, Ms. Bowline brought them together in monthly meetings to discuss their progress. This year, she has included teacher-librarians in that monthly meeting as well, so that both groups of educators can share best practices and learn from each other.
Collection development—deciding which books to buy for the library and which to retire—has been more problematic, acknowledges Ms. Bowline. In some schools, it is being handled by the English department, while others created a school committee to maintain the collection, and still others rely on district-level support.
Gail Dickinson, the president of the American Association of School Libraries, a national group based in Chicago, said the district’s move to a digital-literacy teacher highlights the shifting role of the 21st-century school librarian.
In fact, she said, the school library should be the hub of technology for the rest of the school. “Technology trends tend to come through the school library,” she said. “Today’s school librarian is a teacher of digital-literacy and information-literacy skills.”
Unfortunately, the deep budget cuts that have forced the changes in the Adams 12 Five Star schools are representative of the challenges faced by school libraries around the country, Ms. Dickinson said.
“We are very concerned as a profession on how budget cuts have taken the digital divide and made it into a Grand Canyon,” she said. “We will always have students who do not have the personal wealth at home to have computers and iPads and Internet. And now, we’re exacerbating the situation by closing the [school] libraries.”
Perhaps for that reason, it is imperative for school librarians to embrace technology, Ms. Dickinson said.
“The needs are too great to be the backroom librarian with the glasses down on the nose,” she said. “They need to be out in the library and classroom modeling and demonstrating how to survive and take advantage of this information world.”
Getting the teacher-librarian’s skills out of the library and into the classroom was one of the top motivations behind creating the digital-literacy-teacher position, Ms. Bowline said.
“The key is that they can plan with teachers and be part of the instruction,” she said. “As we try and get teachers to integrate technology more, an extra pair of hands and somebody to model the lesson is important.”
That move also aims to highlight the importance of the role, said Ms. Ackerman, the former library-services coordinator.
“Julie’s a good listener, and she realized there were schools saying, ‘We don’t value the teacher-librarian position,’ ” Ms. Ackerman said. “She’s always looking to be more responsive to what schools, principals, and students need.”
That commitment to finding the best way to serve students helped guide Ms. Bowline, even when she received backlash from teacher-librarians unhappy about the change, Ms Ackerman said.
“She was willing to propose this, knowing that we were going to get some unhappy people,” she said. “But she was willing to go with it because it seemed like the best thing to do for the kids.”