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District Profile

Librarians Who Lead

New Canaan (Conn.) Public Schools award-winning library media center models an affordable vision for 21st Century collaborative teaching
Michelle Luhtala and Christina Russo in the New Canaan High School library.

Having loved libraries since she was a child, Deputy Superintendent Mary Kolek of New Canaan (Conn.) Public Schools was truly happy when the staff of the New Canaan High School Library Media Center won the 2010 National School Library Program of the Year Award, presented by the American Association of School Librarians. "Everything that our library media center is producing," she says, "is reflective of what we're trying to do as a district: create critical thinkers, problem solvers, creative collaborators."

New Canaan, tucked into the southwestern corner of the state and Connecticut's highest achieving district, is one of the most affluent communities in the country. "There is a presumption about our technological access—that we have more or better computers—but we're not fancy," says New Canaan High School library department chair Michelle Luhtala. Instead of investing in scads of state-of-the-art computers and expensive commercially produced courseware, she says, the school district has made a remarkable investment in the high school's human resources.

A Dream Team

"For a student body of 1,350 kids, Luhtala explains, "the high school has two full-time certified librarians and two full-time certified technology integration teachers who are here to make sure that 21st-century learning is embedded across the disciplines." Together with librarian Christina Russo, Luhtala and other members of the high school's Information and Communication Technology team have woven Moodle, the free, open-source, online course management software, into the curriculum.

"We have complete instructional partnership with our faculty, offering students a hybrid format—online and face-to-face," Luhtala says. "There is a courseware-based portal for all of the instructions presented in class. And that includes 250 projects that we work on throughout the year with all the disciplines."

Chris Russo describes one comprehensive "assured experience" designed by Luhtala and herself in partnership with high school faculty—a benchmark assessment project that has provided extensive data on student research skills: "My Personal Wellness is a 9th-grade collaboration among health teachers, special education teachers, the librarians and the technology integration teacher," Russo explains."It's a 23-session project that integrates health issues, research components, how to create a Web site, how to do Excel. We have six years' worth of analysis of annotated bibliographies, which we consider the hallmark of higher-order thinking—evaluation of reading, as opposed to regurgitation. Between 2005 and 2010, the percentage of students receiving maximum points on an annotated bibliography grew from 9 to 80," Russo says. "And for every year they improved, there was an improvement on the annual Connecticut Academic Performance Test."

"We do evidence-based practice," Luhtala adds. "We work with a fair amount of data to measure student learning in information and communication technology. We also rely on emerging technology to communicate and collaborate with students and teachers."

Where Everything Clicks

The library media center's home page entices students, teachers and parents to click on a colorful lineup of icons familiar to everyone who enjoys connecting via social media: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google, and VoiceThread, which the library has been using to promote book chats and reading for pleasure. Luhtala also regularly posts instructional videos on the Web for students and teachers.

"A librarian today is a facilitator and a leader for the teachers, for curricular learning, for interdisciplinary instruction, and is also a professional development person," Luhtala says. "But we're still school-based teachers. And it's actually kind of beautiful. We like it just that way."

Mary Johnson Patt is a freelance writer in northern California.