Student and parent vision transforms old library into vibrant learning commons

Alex Skene (left), grandson of G.W. Skene, for whom the school is named, is shown with Mayor Naheed Nenshi and Don Braun (right), school principal.

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The vision of a group of creative students, combined with the aspirations of their families, many who are new to Canada, transformed a dingy library into a vibrant learning commons at G.W. Skene School.

“Today, our learning commons vibrates with energy, excitement and, most all, engaged learning,” Brandy Yee, assistant principal at G.W. Skene says.

That was not the case a year ago, when the library at the 35-year-old school was showing its age.

The school turned to its Grade 5 class for inspiration. G.W. Skene had been working with a facilitator from the Galileo Education Network in a project to help students create authentic, inquiry-based learning experiences for students. As part of that in 2011-12, the Grade 5 team focused their inquiry project on the students’ interests in seeing the library transformed.

Teachers worked with the students across subject areas to come up with a vision for a new learning commons. This involved persuasive writing projects, mathematics, communications skills, as well as components of drafting and design.

At the same time, they spoke to parents. Many of the parents are new immigrants and they said they would love to see a space where they could learn alongside their children. They indicated that public libraries can be intimidating for adult English Language Learning. They said they would like to be able to come into a warm and welcoming place like their child’s school and have the opportunity to not only support their children’s learning but for their children to see them as learners as well.

With that input, a small grant from the CBE and much enthusiasm, the school went to work. Last summer, the ancient carpet was removed and the space thoroughly cleaned. When students returned to school at the start of the 2012-13 school year, they saw a library with a shiny new floor, clean surfaces, the old library office transformed into a media room, and the dark and musty conference room transformed into a quiet breakout space.

“I will forever remember the looks of pure joy (and disbelief) on the faces of the students,” says Yee.

Next, they worked with the students to decide what technology and furniture was needed.

“Students are never short of ideas and opinions,” says Yee. “After more discussion, we purchased technology that would not act as ‘cool gadgets,’ but that would support and enhance student learning and connect students with the world outside the walls of our building,” Yee says.

The new furniture creates a warm, welcoming and flexible learning space. “The furniture is not bolted to the ground, with the idea that as the needs of the students and teachers shift, the furniture can be moved into whatever configuration is needed to support their learning needs,” Yee says.

The final part of the transformation involved a philosophical shift of the space. Libraries are typically viewed as quiet spaces where students come to sign out books and read quietly.

“We wanted our learning commons to be a hub for students to gather and collaborate, and access information from the multitude of resources that exist outside the walls of our school,” Yee says. “We also wanted to honour the hopes of our parents in that they wished for a place where they could come and learn alongside their children.”

As a result, she says, the new learning commons is much more than just a cleaned-up old library. “It signals new opportunities for our students to access information and to showcase their learning,” Yee says. “It’s also an amazing opportunity for us to include our families in a very different way in the learning and growth of their children.”

At any given time, students from multiple grades are working in the learning commons, using the technology to access information and enrich their learning.

“Daily, we see students supporting the learning of one another, students learning from one another and students teaching each other (and sometimes their teachers too),” says school principal, Don Braun, .

“Our students are proud to go to G.W. Skene and our learning commons is helping them to feel smart—what a wonderful gift,” he says.

On June 7, Mayor Naheed Nenshi joined the school in the official opening of the learning commons.

In addition, Alex Skene, son of George Wilbert Skene, for whom the school is named, and three of his grandchildren attended the opening. G. W. Skene was a member of the CBE board from 1940-1944 and its chairman in 1944. He was solicitor for the board for 29 years. His family expressed great pleasure in seeing the new learning commons.

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Last Modified: June 27, 2013