Make, Write, Excel: Alisha Wilson, 2017 Maker Hero

2017 School Librarian of the Year Finalist Alisha Wilson’s library “Spark Lab” has all the supplies kids need—including a writing lab for one-on-one help.

Basic materials make a difference at Booker T. Washington High School’s Innovation Center. Teacher-turned-librarian Alisha Wilson has provided 3-D printers, tablets, robots, flat-screen TVs, and video-editing software. Most of this tech is in the center’s hub, the Spark Lab. Some of the most popular items, however, are supplies such as tape and glue guns. At this Title I school in Pensacola, FL, the basics are vital. “A lot of students are living in poverty and not reading on grade level,” says Wilson, who first observed the need for school supplies as an English teacher there. When she assigned a creative project about Greek mythology, “one student asked if he could borrow scissors to take home. It was eye-opening.”

In 2015, after four years of teaching language arts, Wilson thought about applying for the librarian position and floated the idea by one of her classes. “One girl said, ‘Librarians are so lame!’” Then and there, Wilson decided to go for it—and set about transforming the library, painting the space with her students over the summer and renaming it the Innovation Center in the fall.

Now, Wilson encourages kids to use library equipment for interdisciplinary projects. Students might make a video of a Shakespeare play, programming robots to play the characters and designing costumes. “All the supplies you need are in the Spark Lab,” says English and TV Production teacher Heatherann Bozeman, “from construction paper and glue guns to fabric, pipe cleaners, jugs, jars, and cardboard boxes.”

As a teacher, Wilson saw that students often needed individual help with papers, and the school’s pass rate for the Florida Standards Assessment reading and writing scores is 43 percent. “We needed one-on-one time,” she says.

She turned to the University of Western Florida (UWF), where she earned her BA in 2009. English professor Mamie Hixon, founder of the UWF Writing Lab, helped Wilson start the first high school writing lab in a former book storage nook. Title I funds hired “labbies” to tutor teens three days a week. All UWF students, the labbies help with structure, content, and more. Last year, the number of students using the labbies tripled.

Wilson with student lead innovators, who helped plan a Shakespeare festival at the school

Meanwhile, a “creation station” at the Innovation Center offers rotating activities named Cat Packs, after the school’s wildcat mascot. Projects have included a catapult and a flight activity with a runway and model airplanes. Thirty-five “lead innovators,” student volunteers, help in the library throughout the day.

Students also formed a reading club called Lit Rich. Members volunteer at the library during lunch and for special events, such as Coding for a Cookie—a full day of programming and robotics activities during Computer Science Week. Other events include an African American heritage celebration, a Shakespeare festival, and the Global Cardboard Challenge.

Wilson has won $2,000 from area businesses and $3,000 from the Panhandle Library Access Network to pay for tech like Ozobots and an HP Sprout. Earlier this year, the Innovation Center received $30,000 as the high school semifinalist in the Follett Challenge. So far, Wilson has used it for equipment such as Cubelets, littleBits, and K’nex, a Hue Animation Studio, and Dremel tools, supplementing a $6,000 annual district budget for books, matched by the school’s principal.

Wilson “cares so much about each individual,” says Maddie Mae Sasse, a recent graduate. “No student is too much, too shy, or too unmotivated for her. She has open arms for any student who ever needs her, period.”

About the Award

SLJ presents the fourth annual School Librarian of the Year Award in partnership with sponsor Scholastic Library Publishing. The award honors a K–12 library professional for outstanding achievement and the exemplary use of 21st-century tools and services to engage children and teens toward fostering multiple literacies.

This year’s award recognizes one winner and four finalists honored as Heroes from a strong pool of 42 applicants. The winner receives a $2,500 cash award, plus $2,500 worth of print and digital materials from Scholastic Library Publishing. The Heroes each receive $500 in materials of their choice from Scholastic Library Publishing.

Maker Hero: A standout creative individual leading the way in promoting hands-on learning with entrepreneurial and innovative programming in the maker tradition.

Hero of Equitable Access: A champion who promotes equal access to information, library services, and technology in his/her library and school, with particular attention to reaching the underserved.

Hero of Family Outreach: This model of engagement connects with families, helping meet the unique needs of the community and helping promote a home/school connection through the library.

Hero of Collaboration: An exemplar who demonstrates great collaboration skills, teaming with a teacher, staff, administrators, or community members at the local or district level—all toward benefiting students.

The 2017 Judges

Todd Burleson, 2016 School Librarian of the Year; Glenn Robbins, superintendent, Tabernacle (NJ) Schools; and the editors of School Library Journal.

Read more about the award.

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