Building a Community of Learning Navigators in a Public Library
A guest blog article by Ed Latham
In the past I offered fee-based digital literacy classes in a local public library as part of an adult education organization. The classes were well received by the community but, due to a number of issues, the adult education organization I was working with has not been offering any digital literacy services in that library for almost a year. The local librarian, Amanda, shared with me that many members of the community are asking for help in learning about their computers, with their college courses, and for someone to just share questions that have been bugging them around home like, “How do I fix …?”
The Milbridge Public Library, like many public libraries, aims to support the community in as many ways as possible. Amanda has shared that she wants the library to become more of a community center so that “unserved” or “underserved” community residents come in and see all the wonderful resources and activities available to them. She proposed that I offer public tutoring in the library right before another community event I offer every Saturday in the library, now called “Milbridge Tabletop Gamers” (link to MTG blog article).
Many of my former students have told me that I was able to teach them how to learn and be more self sufficient in their learning. They may struggle to recall forgotten information or ideas from the academic topics they have studied, but the ability to take charge of their learning has stuck with them. As I thought about the new library learning project, I knew I wanted to build a community learning experience through which participants could trust each other, were able to communicate or advocate for their learning needs, and were able to collaboratively learn about any topic. If such a learning community were well-established, I thought, there would eventually be little need for a leader to catalyze learning.
Learners who asked for these support sessions, now known as the “Learners as Navigators” (LAN) project, were very eager to have someone to talk to about their studies. For example, two college students shared that although the college offers tutoring services, the help does not build independence or the student’s confidence in his or her ability to learn. Some said that tutors just showed them the finished work or simply derived the answers for them. Others said that the tutors’ judgemental language, or negative reactions to questions, discouraged them from fully sharing their learning needs. Those who came to the LAN sessions wanted a safe group that would allow for discussion, understanding, and a positive focus.
Amanda advertised the program using the title, “Ask Ed”, in posters on the library’s Facebook page. She called community members who had previously requested help to tell them the dates and times of our new learning sessions. We held our first one on January 14th, 2017 and had two learners. The second one, a week later, had the same two learners, but more community members stopped to ask questions about what we were doing, and inquired about how to get involved. By the third week we had four people working together on their learning.
Two participants are currently enrolled in college. Another, in his 50s, is enjoying being able to read and write for the first time. Another, now retired, wishes to become more competent with her computer. Although each person had specific individual questions and needs, they all found they had something to contribute to meeting the needs of others! When a learner was exploring the challenges of spelling some English sounds, others were able to offer personal experiences that helped. A Hispanic learner shared the difficulties of going from Spanish to English, and another learner shared similar experiences as she is trying to teach herself the Japanese language. Tips and challenges were shared. I could feel the trust building quickly!
The Learners as Navigators community learning service is offered free to anyone. I volunteer my services, and the library offers the space, heat, electric, bathrooms and access to Internet-capable computers, as needed, when learners don’t have their own devices. We have not yet needed materials and equipment like paper, writing supplies, hardware, software, or textbooks. The human capital at the table has been able to meet all of our needs so far. A member of the Friends of the Library learned about our efforts, and there is discussion about possibly creating a fund to support needs that might come up. However, I do not feel that funding is necessary for the project to be successful. Although I donate two hours a week of my time to build this community project, if the groundwork is properly laid for a strong community, members will support each other in time. One of our learners raises fowl, and it is egg-laying time. Her family brought in over ten dozen eggs to share with our learners. The family knew the value of paying it forward and had a resource in excess to share with others. Little episodes like this bolster my belief that people investing time in other people will reap rewards; financial support is not always needed.
One person cannot realistically meet every learner’s needs. I share that with everyone who comes to our sessions. Although the program does not charge fees, I do ask that all participants be open to helping others learn in our community. We all have experiences and skills to offer others. Our group constantly helps individuals identify those skills and experiences, and fosters the habits needed to share those skills with others. For example, I have shared with learners my advanced Google search skills to explore content that none of us were familiar with. Another example: a biology student needed to know more about the process of cellular respiration. The other learners, who were curious, joined us in our explorations. One of the college students who is studying biology got all of us exploring difficult science content. We were all discovering how we can learn this difficult vocabulary and put it in context, but this turned out to be difficult and we needed help. I called upon my social network get more clarity on the biological process of making and storing fat in the body. After a brief digital connection with a registered nurse in my social network, we were all saying, “Oh, that is all that technical stuff means? I now see what that term is referring to and what that process is doing …” Those who attend these sessions are learning the power of navigating and networking to meet their learning needs, drawing upon our own resources and sometimes the professionals and skilled tradespeople we know.
Our community of learning has started off strong, and appears to have potential to grow. I have been excited by how eager students are to share their needs and be involved in discussions that meet the needs of others. We are learning that we are all more alike than we thought, and that we all struggle to learn at times. More importantly, we all can figure out solutions to the our learning challenges when we meet in our weekly community library learning navigator community.
Ed Latham is a passionate educator with a masters degree in education and experience in K-12, community college, and adult education instruction. In addition to working as a technology support person in the local schools, he assists the state adult education team with College and Career Readiness Standards implementation, and works as a contractor to educationally support migrant families in his community. For a decade, he has been offering professional development to support teachers with technology integration and has mentored teachers to help expand learning options for all learners. Ed constantly brainstorms and discusses ways to offer positive, individualized learning experiences to all people in our communities. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org and he loves to communicate with others who wish to share ideas.