Leveling Up the Library: An Interview with Amy Garlitz

Leveling Up the Library: An Interview with Amy Garlitz

Amy Garlitz (@meems852) is the Media Specialist at Frederick High School in Frederick County, Maryland.  Formerly she gamified her history classes and is now working hard to ramp up her library, attempting to change the way students and teachers interact with the library.  In this conversation, Amy and I explore how to revitalize the library to make it an integral part of the school.

  1. Tell me about your education journey. How did you get to where you are today?  1:13

Amy and I share similar journeys in education.  She and I both graduated in 2009, a year when no one wanted to hire history teachers.  She has been teaching middle school history for five years and just switched over to the library at her local high school.  Her first year teaching was rough, as all first years are, so she looked to Twitter to improve her pedagogy.  She found Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess and Explore Like a Pirate by Michael Matera and she set out to make learning fun and engaging.  She eventually decided to turn her entire class into a yearlong game. 

  1. Do you worry that some of the fun and engagement from gamification could be manufactured? 8:53

This is a question that I have had in the back of my mind for a while now.  I always try to make my class as fun and engaging as possible because learning is supposed to be fun.  I was worried that kids would be having fun playing the game, but not really having fun learning the content. 

Her answer can really be summed up by the following quote: “If your focus is on the content, and really making the content come alive, then it really doesn’t become this manufactured, just for the points, type of result.”  While the kids are motivated by achieving and playing the game, there are also students who are going above and beyond the requirements, doing extra work just for the sake of the learning.  Amy used gamification to help the kids learn and have fun simultaneously.  Her goal at the end of the day is to create lifelong learners, and gamification is a way to encourage that.

  1. What was your favorite part about gamifying your classroom? 13:37

Amy shares a story here about giving her kids weekly challenges that were tied to the content.  The kids would know that at some point throughout the week, there would be some sort of competition.  On the day of the challenge, Amy would play the theme song from Pirates of the Caribbean, and her students would get insanely excited for these competitions, without even knowing what they were.  She said she did building challenges with Kapla blocks or Legos, rounds of Mystery Box (a review game where students answer questions then choose an available box for points), or her new favorite, the Amazing Race challenge.  The one she created was a week long, and it was a research project on U.S. Presidents.  Each student was an expert on one of the presidents they cover in the curriculum, and there were team challenges throughout the week.  She had her students tar and feather popsicle stick people, an obstacle course where they saved artifacts (vocabulary words) from the White House, and a Russian Egg Roulette challenge.  Basically, she created an atmosphere where she and her kids had a blast every day while covering the content.

  1. What was it like switching from a class where your students were very engaged to a library, where you don’t have as much control over student engagement? 23:50

Amy wanted to become a media specialist because she thought it would be a wonderful way to collaborate with students and teachers, while also spreading the awesome elements of gamification to multiple content areas around the school.  She made the change midyear, so most of 4th Quarter was spent adjusting to her new position.  Amy didn’t want to change too much, but she wanted to start making the library her own.

Her first change was a brain break table with a community puzzle.  She put up a sign that read, “All are welcome to work on this puzzle.”  Immediately students and some teachers began to come to the library to work on the puzzles that Amy put out.  She also put up a coloring station designed to give kids a reason to come to the library that was not necessarily reading-oriented.  Amy was amazed at how these additions made it easier for her to meet a lot of the students and teachers in the building.  She has started to build a community around her library while also increasing the impact that she has on her school. 

  1. What aspects of gamification are you planning on bringing to your library? 32:08

Next year will be Amy’s first full year gamifying her library.  Obviously, she will include reading challenges, but that’s not the only thing students will be able to experience.  Right now she wants students to flex their reading muscles and stretch their comfort zones.  She also wants part of her game to include STEM activities and lessons, while also helping students learn digital citizenship.  Amy has also added a media room with a green screen and professional lights that teachers and students can use at any time.  It sounds to me like her library will be centered on students obtaining and honing valuable skills that they need for the rest of their lives.  Other ideas she is looking forward to implementing include a book club, a book and movie club, and just being an extra level of support for students and teachers.

I asked Amy here if she was worried that as she creates a fun and engaging experience in the library, students might start leaving class to hang out at the library instead.  She said that there is a 40 minute block of time built into her school’s schedule, called Connect (basically a homeroom), that students can use to work on homework, get extra help, or go to the library.  Students can also come in during lunch, before or after school, and during class (if they’ve finished their work and the teacher allows it).  Frederick High School also conducts something called the Learning Lab after school, where teachers stay to tutor students after school.  Amy says that teachers have been accepting of the new additions she has made to the library and she thinks there is room to incorporate the Learning Lab into her game. 

  1. Do you have a plan to engage students that wouldn’t normally engage with the school library? 40:34

There is always a door students must go through to get into the library.  Some students love the library and pass through that door every day, but others, might never go into the library.  To fix this, Amy’s plan is to take the library to the students.  From the Techbrarians Podcast, Amy got the idea to set up the best aspects of her library in a high traffic area in the school.  Students could see a green screen, tech help area, books, games, and all the other cool stuff in librarians’ toolkits that they might miss out on because they don’t ever go to the library.  Amy also wants to put puzzles and clues around the school that might attract more students to come to the library. 

  1. What advice would you give to other librarians or media specialists looking to revamp their library? 44:31

Amy’s advice for other librarians looking to ramp their library is threefold.  The first part is to build relationships with the staff.  Amy wants to host staff events in the library like a luau party or a chili cook-off to build relationships with other adults in her building.  She believes that once she has a relationship with them, teachers will be more likely to send kids to her or use the library as a vital piece in the learning puzzle.   The second part of this is building relationships with students.  Amy wants to use her freedom and flexibility to get to know students and help them develop skills that will help them succeed.  The last piece of advice is to make the library a welcoming place.  “No one wants to come to the library if it’s a scary, cold atmosphere where they’re afraid to touch anything.”  For more on this, check out my conversation with Dr. Robert Dillon here.

  1. What is one thing I can do as a classroom teacher to interact more effectively with my library or to help my students interact more effectively with their library? 50:17

Amy believes that there are a lot of teachers who are don’t want to ask for help.  They think that they can handle everything themselves and there is no need to ask for help from others in the building.  The reality is that we are all in this together.  Librarians and media specialists have tremendous skills that can be used to aid students’ learning and to lessen the burden of teachers.  Some of Amy’s best experiences as an educator take place when she collaborates with other professionals.  If you can’t tell, Amy has a lot of crazy ideas (her words, not mine) and she relied heavily on her media specialist while she was a teacher to implement them.  The result was a better learning experience for her students and additional resources that she and her students can use.   She does suggest that you give your media specialist a little notice before you ask them to do something, because the more time they have to complete a task, the more likely it is to be awesome.

  1. What is your number one tip for shawesome educators? 54:48

Amy’s number one tip is to take risks.  We all want our students to take risks, but we set a poor example for them if we aren’t doing the same.  So don’t be afraid!  Even if you fail, you’ll learn from the experience and be better the next time.

My Top Takeaways

  1. Dare to be great

What I love about what Amy is doing is that she is taking a leap to make a big impact on students.  She could have gotten her new job, used all of the same stuff and done all the same stuff from the librarian before her, but that wasn’t good enough for her.  Amy decided right away that she was going to help students in any way she could.  And the great thing is, anyone can do what she is doing!  I’m sure she would agree that she is not any different from anyone else, she just decided to take her own advice, take a risk, and make a huge impact on her students.  The only thing that is different about Amy is that she was willing to put in the work to be great at her job.

  1. Use your resources

Teaching is hard.  There is not one great teacher who was inherently born with the ability to be an amazing teacher.  The reality is that we are so much better together.  When teachers bounce ideas off each other, collaborate on projects and lessons together, and use any of the infinite resources available to them, we create richer, more engaging learning experiences for our students that they will remember for years to come.  I am definitely guilty of simply relying on myself and my own brainpower to come up with solution to my classroom problems.  This is a mentality that we must break as educators.  Start using the people around you, ask for help when you need it, and be ready to help when you’re needed.  Teaching won’t ever be easy.  But we can make it easier on each other when we work together.

What do you think?  What ideas do you have to use your library more effectively?  What ideas can you incorporate into your own classroom?  Let me know in the comments below!


Amy’s Twitter: @meems852

Techbrarians Podcast: https://anchor.fm/the-techbrarians

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