Monticello High School's Learning Commons

Monticello High School’s library is called the “Learning Commons,” but its name isn’t the only nontraditional aspect of the space.

More unique than the inclusive title is that, under the guidance of librarians Joan Ackroyd and Ida Mae Craddock, rethinking the library’s role is changing education at the Albemarle school.

“Teachers come down to the Learning Commons and ask ‘What would happen if we did this?’” Ackroyd said. “It makes instruction that teachers want to do possible.” 

Last week the Virginia School Boards Association recognized Monticello’s Learning Commons in its “Showcases for Success” for enabling “a dramatic shift in instruction for both teachers and students.”

And a dramatic shift in student engagement is what Ackroyd and Craddock have seen in the four years since Monticello began transforming its library space, which has already seen 20,000 student visits outside of class this year.

Teachers, too, are reserving time to hold classes in instructional spaces of the library.

“Usually four or five classes are in the library at a given time,” Craddock said. “In the past, having more than two at a time would have been a conflict with noise and space.”   

The Learning Commons makeover started when Ackroyd arrived at Monticello from a position at an elementary school, where she was accustomed to the library functioning as a creative and active space for students.

“When I arrived [at Monticello] it was a very traditional library, quiet and reserved,” Ackroyd said. “Students could come in and study, check out books, read, but that was it.”

“I really quickly opened up the library to students,” Ackroyd added. “We wanted students to use the library socially and academically.”

Ackroyd and her previous partner in the library first turned storage rooms into instructional spaces, and then turned offices into studios and collaborative spaces. Monticello’s principal at that time, Catherine Worley, took initiative to allocate some school resources towards the project.

The first hint that their efforts were actually changing students’ perception of the library was when Ackroyd heard about other county students wanting to come to Monticello to use their music studio housed in an old office room.

“They wanted to come use the music room and make beats,” Ackroyd said. “They couldn’t do it anywhere else.” 

In alignment with the County’s “maker curriculum” philosophy, Ackroyd and Craddock’s focus has been on making library spaces more flexible to facilitate active instruction and learning that isn’t possible in a traditional classroom.

“It used to be you go to the library and check out a book on how to sew things,” Craddock said. “Now you will get the book, and sit down at the sewing machine in the library and make something. It’s knowledge that doesn’t sit still, but creates.”

Today, the Learning Commons features a long list of flexible spaces that include  reading lounges, two digital studios, and instructional/collaborative spaces, amongst other features. 

Ackroyd and Craddock have also been actively adding resources.

“We find resources in the school wherever we can,” Ackroyd said. “Leftover supplies, laptops that are destined for auction, we put together everything we can for the benefit of students and teachers.”

The librarians are excited to see the effect of the changes in the enthusiasm of teachers and students.

“Teachers find students are doing more work in this setting because they are comfortable and social,” Ackroyd said.

In addition, they feel that working in this space prepares students for the reality of modern work spaces, where employees are expected to think critically and collaborate with diverse groups.

“Industry has set the model here, and we are following their model,” Craddock said. “We want our kids to work in these environments, so we mimic those environments here for kids to learn.” 

“Traditionally there was not any diversity in the library, now every student is represented here all day long,” Craddock added.

A current project happening in the Commons is an English classes’ creation of a “Rube Goldberg machine” to simulate the hero’s epic journey.

Students create machines in which a marble metaphorically undergoes the stages of the archetypal hero’s journey, including the call to adventure, trials and tribulations, and a safe return home. 

“This kind of project is definitely activating all types of learners,” Ackroyd said.

The librarian pair is looking for the next step in even further transforming the library space: to make it more suitable for hosting big events.

To achieve this, Ackroyd said, they need rolling bookshelves.

Last month, author Kwame Alexander spoke to MHS students during the Virginia Festival of the Book and the library could only seat a limited number of students.

“If we had our shelves on wheels we could have hosted a lot more,” Ackroyd said.

In addition to the Learning Commons at MHS, the VSBA also featured two other programs in Albemarle and three in Charlottesville. In Albemarle, the CoderDojo Academy and the M-Cubed (men, math, mission) program; and in the City, the AVID college preparatory program, the Commonwealth Engineering Design Academy, and CHS’ Modernization through Mobilization program.