Opening Minds in Library Centers

Hi friends!

I’ve just finished reading a book that I think you’ll like. It’s called Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives, by Peter Johnston. I couldn’t find it in the San Antonio Public Library system, so I bought it from Amazon.

The main idea of the book is that the words we use in our classroom/library profoundly affect the way a student thinks about himself and his potential.

As I read this book, I reflected on ways that learning centers in our libraries help to open minds in a positive, engaging way.

1.  “Learning is planned opportunism.” This is one of my favorite quotes from the book.  We plan our library centers, so that they provide us with opportunities to engage our students in a learning dialogue. We don’t know in advance what they will ask. But, let’s face it–we are in the library, after all. It is almost always better to model finding the answer than to tell a student the answer. Right?

So, when I had a live snake in the library, I surrounded his tank with snake books. And when a student asked a question about a snake, we picked up a book and  used non-fiction text features (index, glossary, photo captions) to find the answer. Right then and there, driven by student curiosity, rather than an assignment.

2. “Show students our own comfort with uncertainty.” This is a paraphrase from the book. Not every question has one single right answer. I like to create open-ended library centers, where students can share their thoughts. For example, last time I had the spider center, I asked students to write from the spider’s point of view. It was so much fun to share their thoughts on a spider’s perspective, rather than asking how many legs or body parts it has.

3. “Thinking together with books.” Books open a door to so many learning conversations, don’t they? Whenever I set up a library center, I display related books on the table.

My corn growing center had corn books. My worm center had worm books. And so on. I think that we need to provide connections to books whenever we can, to engage students in reading. A learning center can be just the hook a student needs to get interested in a book. If we have a variety of centers, we increase our chances of finding a book that matches student interests!

4. “A dialogic classroom is one in which there are lots of open questions and extended exchanges among students…[with] multiple interpretations and perspectives.” We all have time limitations that hinder our ability to encourage the exchange of ideas among students. We can accomplish this at library centers with a poster board, sheet of butcher paper, or sticky notes that allow students to express their own ideas, and to read and respond to the ideas of others. I know, sometimes the conversations can be silly rather than elevated. But I think it’s important to provide this opportunity for students to express themselves in a way that doesn’t involve filling in a bubble.

5. “By not judging, the teacher …positions herself beside rather than above the student….” I’m not saying we should not be in control of our library and keep students safe. What the author is saying (and I agree) is that the students should not be performing to try and please us. If we want to raise lifelong learners, we need to show our students what one looks like, rather than pretending we have all the answers. With hands-on activities at learning centers, I find myself and classroom teachers jumping in to participate along with the students.

Reading this book confirmed my belief in the power of library centers. It would make an excellent book to read with a group of teachers. What do you think?

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    1. I have Choosing Words … but I’ve never finished it. Do that a lot with professional books … get started and then because they take longer to read and absorb I get distracted and abandon them. Nice points, though. Make me more frustrated that I’ve never been able to get centers going right in our space. Nowhere to leave things up and taking down, putting away, putting back out every time just never seems to happen consistently. And when I say frustrated I don’t mean mad. IT’S SPRING BREAK!!! I’m about to go visit nieces! 🙂

      1. I’ll have to come visit you after your book fair is over so we can brainstorm about it. I hate for you to miss out on library centers because of your crazy library space!

      2. Some days Skype works on our network awesomely. Other days … less well. And thank you. Our space is going to change a lot in April. Losing three big tables … but gaining a bunch of new computers. So that’s good. 😉

    2. I am just starting to use the centers ideas (I’m new this year) and am trying them at lunch since this is the time everyone wants to come “help” me. 🙂 I only have 25 min. with each class each week, but I can see this will be a big help! I am hoping to also be able to use centers to help the kids improve library skills. I bought your book and am very much enjoying it! I haven’t picked up this book yet, but maybe over the summer. Thank you for your wonderful web site!

      1. Kathryn, thanks so much for your encouraging words! I’m so glad you’ve started with library centers. I think you and your students will love them. Please let me know if I can help in any way!

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