When the notion of a school library comes to mind, many children picture a boring, stuffy space filled with old books, cramped tables and generic “Read” posters featuring national celebrities facing the camera holding their favorite book.
However, thanks to the creative and enthusiastic mind of Hubbard Woods School teacher Todd Burleson, students now have a library and learning space they may never want to leave — even for recess.
This summer, Burleson was the recipient of School Library Journal’s third annual School Librarian of the Year Award for outstanding achievement and commendable implementation of 21st century educational tools to engage students towards furthering themselves across multiple learning platforms.
Burleson, an educator for 24 years and faculty member at Hubbard Woods since 1998, can credit winning the award for both his unconventional approach to teaching and creating the school’s IDEA (innovation, design, engineering and art) Lab, a library, technology center and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) space.
While Burleson’s title of “resource center director” allowed him to get creative in his approach toward overseeing the school’s library and other media studies, he decided to see if he could recreate a space with a clear vision of making an ultra-modern learning facility that was both kid-friendly and progressively educational.
“[My title is] a bit of a throwback name because it encompasses all the library skills and resources, as well as all the technology in the building,” Burleson said. “That has obviously become a much more significant part of the job, as technology has become an ever-increasingly important part of education.”
In early 2015, Burleson, who prefers calling himself a “teacher-maker-librarian,” gave a presentation to the school and community of parents to transform the existing 5,000-square-foot ordinary library into a space geared toward project-based learning. Burleson outlined the specific technology, furniture and curriculum he would need to turn the space into something magical.
In June of that year, the Hubbard Woods PTO unanimously approved Burleson’s plan, providing him $50,000 to be used for capital improvements for the project as a gift to coincide with the school’s 100th birthday. Additionally, Winnetka Public School District 36 was willing to make the Hubbard Woods project serve as a pilot of sorts for evolving STEAM spaces across the district.
After work during the summer of 2015, last fall, the IDEA Lab was opened, complete with engineering toys like Snap Circuits and Rigamajig, a 3-D printer, a sandbox and overhead projector that mimics a live topography map, new iPads, two laptop carts, sewing machines, an updated student TV studio, fresh paint and even a functional wall made of Lego panelling.
To allow students to best use the space, Burleson created daily time schedules allowing students to come into the lab to experiment with hands-on learning along with integrating the functions of the space into weekly learning lessons in homerooms for students in kindergarten through fourth grade.
While Burleson is the brainchild behind the IDEA Lab, he emphasizes the fact that the Hubbard Woods community is what made the project possible.
“First and foremost, it is a collaboration with the teachers, parents and district,” he said. “This was a pilot space. We tried an awful lot of new things last year. Many of them worked [and] some didn’t. Most importantly, we explored and ideated a lot. That has helped our whole district move forward.”
After being nominated for the SLJ award by several parents in the district, Burleson and his project were critiqued by a panel of educational professionals, including the 2015 School Librarian of the year, under criteria including exemplary service to fulfill the needs of students and the school community, creativity in programming and use of content, collaboration with teacher peers, staff and administrators, demonstrated student engagement and exemplary use of technology tools.
When Burleson heard about the win, he was at a loss for words.
“[I was in] absolute shock,” he said. “I had actually forgotten about it.”
In a press release to the district, Superintendent Trisha Kocanda gave her praises to Burleson and the space for positively putting Winnetka Public Schools on the local and national radar.
“The Distrct is proud of Burleson’s leadership and values his innovative contributions to 21st century teaching and learning, both in Winnetka and beyond,” she said.
Hubbard Woods School Principal Beth Carmody echoed similar sentiments of praise.
“The Hubbard Woods School community has benefitted tremendously from Burleson’s ingenuity and dedication to transforming our library into an interactive experiential learning environment,” she said.
While Burleson is very proud of the reception the space has had, he hopes both the space and the national attention through SLJ publicity will inspire other school districts nation-wide push for unique library and elementary education spaces and curriculums.
“I see it as an opportunity to champion both progressive educational practices, which are ideal for all students, and the incredible value of librarians and libraries for all students,” Burleson said.
Originally from Ohio, Burleson received his bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Ohio University and his master’s degree at National Louis University. He currently resides in Kenosha, Wis., with his wife and two children.