Sans Livres

Shortly after school ended in June, the custodial staff descended on the high school media center. They removed all of the books and bookshelves.

This2015-07-20 11.26.42 move had been coming for a while. Book circulation has been remarkably low for years. This year, the number of books checked out was smaller than the number of students in the school, averaging fewer than eight books per school day. Earlier in the spring, the media specialist had identified all of the books that had not been checked out since the library switched to an automated circulation system in the late 90s. She also weeded out all of the outdated books (we stopped updating the print encyclopedias in the early 2000s). To this, she added materials that had been purchased for specific projects or to meet individual requests for teachers’ units that are no longer used. When she was done weeding, she realized that all of the books that were left would fit in the space formerly used to store magazines. So the books were moved to the magazine room.

Before you start with the technology-bashing, nostalgic ranting about card catalogs, the necessity of the Dewey Decimal System, and Google’s systematic deconstruction of modern civilization, let me also point out that at the same time, the custodial crews also removed the 34 computers, as well as the islands they were on. Those islands were using about 40% of the space in the room.  While some of those computers will come back, they won’t be front-and-center anymore. As part of our ongoing “places to people” initiative, most of our students are using mobile technologies more and more, and the need for desktop computers tied to a specific location is waning. The computers that remain will be off in the corners of the room where the bookshelves used to be.

The reality is that the media center is the largest instructional space in the school. It’s the only room that will fit 100 people in a collaborative academic setting. Our students need to work together on projects. They need to have access to creative tools, but those tools don’t need to dominate their learning spaces. They need to make connections to other people, both within and beyond the school. They need to hone their communication skills, through writing, peer editing, presentations, multimedia, and other forms that I don’t really understand. They need a space to innovate.

Most of all, the school needs a space that is flexible. It has to allow for individual study as well as collaborative work. It needs comfortable spaces and task-oriented places designed for productivity. It needs to allow for conversations but still be quiet enough for people to get their work done.  The high school has spent a lot of time trying to get that right, and I’m anxious to see how it turns out.

And, while we mourn the loss of printed books, what do the students think of all this?

Sad, yes. They enjoy reading. And they like reading from actual books. But the use of books as information resources is largely outdated now. The books we read now are pleasure books. So instead of a high school (or university) library model, which features a lot of nonfiction and a small fiction section, maybe we need to go back to the public library (or elementary school library) model, where most of the collection is pleasure reading. My guess is that most of the books that are left after the great purge of 2015 are just that: books our students enjoy for their own sake.

And those books aren’t going anywhere.


I was in the superintendent’s office last week refining a plan for technology and media in our schools. We had a complicated diagram with circles and arrows and boxes all over it. It started with the district’s strategic vision, and specifically the goals of promoting next generation skills, integrating state of the art technology, and offering quality program options that include STEM. It included the technology plan, which is focused on technology infrastructure, ubiquitous access to technology for students and teachers, and appropriate levels of support for both the operational and instructional needs of the district. It addressed student technology needs (both resources and instruction) at various levels, and the plans for meeting those needs. It tied in our teacher leaders, media specialists, and other professional staff who are responsible for various aspects of the plan.

4603106405_0d83269a23_zAfter working through the diagram for about half an hour, the superintendent took the paper. At the bottom of the diagram, in large block letters, he wrote this:


We need technology to do more than test kids. Sure, testing is important. For all of the resources that we devote to public education, for the millions upon millions of dollars spent in schools all across the country, year after year, we should be able to prove that we’re not wasting everyone’s time and money. We should be able to articulate what the learning outcomes should be in each subject at each grade level, and we should be able to demonstrate our effectiveness at getting students to reach those outcomes. Technology plays an important role in the management, instruction, intervention, and assessment of that system.

But it has to go beyond that. Students need to know much more about the technology landscape than their parents do. They have to understand what information literacy looks like in an age of information abundance. It’s not about finding the information anymore. It’s about filtering and evaluating and selecting from multiple sources. It’s about evaluating credibility and giving credit to those whose work you’re building on. Not only are those complicated skills, they’re skills that our students need to be learning in elementary school.

As they learn to navigate in a connected world, our students must embrace the powerful resources of communication and collaboration that have permeated all aspects of their culture. Publication — the sharing of ideas and work with a global audience — is as easy now as consumption. Our students can share their ideas with the world just as easily as they find the ideas of others. They can work together on documents and projects, participate in conversations with full audio and video, and publish their work online in less time than it takes to draw a timeline on poster board.

America’s history is one of innovation. It was our rejection of the rules of war (along with some dumb luck and help from the French) that won our independence. In the 20th century, we innovated our way to victory through the use of air power in the first world war, and the use of nuclear weapons in the second war. The industrial revolution made the American dream a reality for millions of our families. Post-war advances in chemistry, medicine, and technology ensured our status as the last standing superpower for the remainder of the century. As other countries caught up in manufacturing and industry, we innovated by moving to service and technology sectors.

We are facing huge challenges in the decades to come. In many respects, we have been over-spending our resources to maintain our standard of living for quite a while now, and the short-sighted economic decisions of our parents are coming back to haunt us. At the same time, the aging boomers’ need for health care and the rising costs of that care are unprecedented. In the last years of her life, my grandmother paid more per month for her assisted living than she paid for her house. Climate change is very real, and the shortcuts we’ve taken in the name of progress are starting to have disastrous and irreversible impacts on the global environment. Job prospects for today’s youth are unclear, as many of the jobs of my parents’ generation have been eliminated by automation and cheaper labor forces overseas.

Our kids have a lot of work to do. They need to leave school prepared to meet these challenges. And the challenges are much more complicated than answering multiple choice questions that measure their ability to recall information. Education isn’t just about knowing anymore. It’s about applying the “know” to challenges in the “now.”


Photo credit: Veerle Pieters, photo by Marc Thiele on Flickr.