School resources are absolutely essential for student collaboration and research. I teach in a low-income, urban high school, where close to 80 percent of the students receive free or reduced lunch. Our students needed a place where they could meet, use technology, collaborate, create, and research. In addition, they needed research projects that helped them demonstrate independence and explore new interests. A few years ago, we transformed our school library into a learning commons to help meet these goals.
A New Space to Learn
Our school librarian wanted to design an innovative, vibrant, flexible space to support anywhere-anytime learning, information technology, tutoring, collaboration, content creation, meetings, reading, and study. Our library got a huge makeover. We added comfy, overstuffed chairs and booths, cozy reading nooks, and breakout rooms, as well as more computers, a distance learning lab, and smartboards! We even built a media center and a television studio for creating films and multimedia productions. The new space became the heart of our school—a place where students could now come together to work and to learn. Open from 6 a.m. until 5 p.m, it's one of the most vital school resources for low-income students who don't have access to technology at home.
Since our school administration believes strongly that students should have easy access to information and learning materials, we have subscriptions to Axis 360, which provides students with access to thousands of e-books, audiobooks, test prep resources, and BiblioBoard, which includes a repository of curated primary sources for historical and educational purposes. Our students also have access to The Virtual High School (VHS), a catalog of full-semester courses in arts, foreign language, life skills, math, science, social studies, and technology. VHS offers students opportunities to gain proficiency in online collaboration and accessing and processing data in an online environment.
Introducing the Writing Center
Over the years, our learning commons changed even more to feature a genius bar and a writing center with a full-time teacher, as well as college and high school volunteer tutors. The writing center's mission is to support students with the writing process. Whether a student requires assistance composing a written response to a book or simply seeks the feedback of a supportive second set of eyes, the writing center offers support. Whenever I see the high school writing center tutors working diligently with one of my struggling students, my heart swells! The writing center has been a transformative experience for both the writing tutors and the students they assist, and it's one of our most powerful school resources.
Research with Autonomy
In order for students to become more independent, they should have some autonomy in the selection of topics for research papers. For example, when I taught freshmen, I gave them a quote from the T. S. Eliot poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" to guide them: "Do I dare disturb the universe?" Students had to choose someone, or multiple people, who "disturbed the universe" and explain that disturbance and its impact. Being able to choose the subject of their paper makes students part of the decision-making process and gives them freedom over their work. Since the assignment is individualized, it also cuts down on plagiarism issues because students aren't likely to find a similar essay online.
I mirror this autonomy in my senior advanced placement literature and composition course. Students can explore whatever author, novel, poem, or literary movement they're interested in. In the past, student topics have included "The Anti-War Theme Present in the Writings of Kurt Vonnegut," "Bram Stoker's Dracula: The Guidebook to Sex in 19th Century Europe," "Gender-Based Miscommunication in Contemporary Novels," and "Move Over Guys: A Look at the Women in Isabel Allende's Diez Cuentos De Eva Luna." Students enjoy becoming experts in their field, and many former students have said that handing in their completed research paper was a defining moment in their high school career.
I also try to provide opportunities for students to learn about topics that are important to them. Students in my classes do feminist criticisms of movies and videos, and Neo-Aristotelian criticisms of speeches. This type of research paper helps students understand the rhetoric that routinely targets them as a demographic.
The (Re)Source of College Success
When I meet college professors, I often ask them what skills students lack when they begin college, and they've told me these incoming freshmen need better digital media skills. Most freshmen, they say, don't know how to move beyond "Googling" a subject; they need to be able to effectively evaluate sources, assess their authenticity and credibility, and determine the best source of information. This is an area high schools can improve upon, and one our school librarian and our teachers continually address.
Professors also told me plagiarism is still an issue. Students still need to understand the difference between research and merely copying, and they need to know how to correctly cite sources. In the classroom and in our learning commons, teachers and librarian provide students with many examples of what plagiarism is and isn't so students have a clear understanding.
It's clear that school resources are absolutely essential to academic success, and I often worry budget cuts and moratoriums on education spending will mean low-income students will fall behind, increasing the gap between wealthy students and their less-advantaged peers. If we want educational equity and access in schools across the nation, school resources need to be equal and available to all students.