New Canaan High School Leading the Way for Library Advocacy with Michelle Luhtala

I had a chance to speak with Michelle Luhtala, department chair of New Canaan (CT) High School Library, late last year about her students winning the American Library Association’s teen video Contest, “Why I NEED My Library!” in 2011. After learning that the American Library Association was sponsoring the teen video contest, “Why I NEED My Library!” , Michelle Luhtala, school librarian at New Canaan High School (CT) sent the information to a group of students interested in videography.  She let the students ponder the idea of the contest and they did the rest… ultimately winning the top prize of $3,000.00 cash.  The focus of the video was the library and the services offered.  Michele said the $3,000.00 cash prize was a huge incentive for the students.

Even thought they did not get to keep the money for themselves, the students did get to decide how to spend the money for the benefit of the school library, a way to leave their legacy.  Ultimately, 5 iPads were purchased for the school.  Each iPad is individually engraved with the student’s name and has its own cover which represents each of the award winning students.  Since receiving the iPads, Michelle said that many students come to the desk requesting to check out “The TIM” or “The Nick” iPad.

Michelle is really pleased how the students celebrated the library in the winning video.  She said she can see the pride the student body takes in the library now.  The four students helped refocus the school’s attention to the library and to its cool factor, especially for the younger students.   The biggest change after winning the contest at New Canaan High School Media Center were the resources generated.  It also helped to create a wonderful school culture with gracious students.  The video was a collaborative effort that validated the library.  Watch the video here.

To Michelle, advocacy means having a really good program and talking about it, especially the successes.  She thinks that it is important to show growth of the program when engaging in advocacy.  She feels there is always a starting place which creates a baseline and allows librarians to set goals to improve and then publish the goals.

Michelle was quick to point out that publishing does not necessarily mean written in a journal but could mean sharing success stories on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, newspapers, and through word of mouth. Think Inspiration Media (TIM), run by Nick Howard and Nicola Scandiffio, created the video, while the song and lyrics were composed by two fellow high school seniors, Nick Zanca and Stewart Taylor.  The video was 100% student generated.

I caught up with Michelle this past year to learn more about her advocacy efforts.  She once again spoke about how important the role of social media is and about letting not only the student body but also parents, faculty and the community know what is happening in the library media center.  She was adamant that everyone must have easy access to instructional pieces.  She promotes availability though social media outlets, the library blog and “The Annex.”  Michelle also uses social media for events, announcements and conversations, from printer updates to learning in action. Social media is learning 24/7!

Michelle feels that advocacy means becoming more visible.  Since the school moved from a closed portal to a blog with a live news feed, Michelle has noticed the difference.  When conducting instruction online she takes pictures of the students working and tweets them as the class progresses.  The tweets appear in the live feed alongside the lesson.  Students are excited to see which friend or picture will appear in the feed next.  Michelle says the social media tools have made her lessons very public and that there is a “real-time” quality to the social media, helping bring the kids back to the resources available.  This helps the program become more transparent.

Along with working with the students and faculty of New Canaan High School, Michelle also presents parent workshops featuring the library’s services.  She feels this is important because helping parents in turn helps the students.    The role of the library media specialist has changed with the introduction of technology.  Michelle has surveyed the students and learned that students do have deficiencies in technology and it is her job to help fill the gaps.  That may mean helping them download an app or just being available for questions about the newest technologies for their handheld devices.  Librarians are leading the way; she now conducts research and evaluation lessons using the full class period where before she was given just a few minutes.  Michelle says the introduction of the Common Core standards has helped this transition.

Before ending our conversation Michelle brought up the 40 devices that their library media has secured not through school district money but purely through grants and awards. For example, they recently took the Follett digital test drive and won five new iPad 2s!  When Michelle conducts lessons she asks students to take out their hand held devices.  Not every student in class has one.  She takes a few of the library’s devices, with her hands them out in class and then proceeds to teach the whole class the lesson; not just the ones with their own devices.  Even though filling out forms for grants may be time consuming Michelle suggests to push through as the benefits are huge!

You can check out Michelle on line at, http://bibliotech.me/.

Department chair of New Canaan (CT) High School Library

Michelle Luhtala

To learn more about the efforts of New Canaan High School Library Media Center check out their site, nchslibrary.info or follow them on Twitter, @NCHS Library.

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