Middle School Learning Lab Director mixes old-school teaching with digital media literacy

  • Sarah Rafalowitz, is the Director of the Learning Lab at Carl Sandburg Middle School in Mundelein. School District 75 photo

    Sarah Rafalowitz, is the Director of the Learning Lab at Carl Sandburg Middle School in Mundelein. School District 75 photo

 
 
Updated 3/15/2022 10:54 AM

In a world dominated by laptops, kindles and cell phones, how can old-fashioned paper books ever capture the attention of middle school students?

Easy. Just put Sarah Rafalowitz in charge of the school library, or Learning Lab as it's called at Carl Sandburg Middle School.

 

A former language arts teacher, Sarah was named director of the Learning Lab last fall. Under former director Jessica Rebella, it had become a space where students could explore their creativity and curiosity. Sarah took it to the next level by successfully merging digital learning with old-school methods.

She introduced an interactive bulletin board and enhanced the Learning Lab's digital library webpage by integrating a CSMS Wakelet, allowing students to organize topics that inspire them and save them into folders. She also encourages kids to use the Dewey Decimal System to locate books and gives them prizes when they find definitions by thumbing through a full-size dictionary.

Her focus on digital media literacy developed from her previous post as a classroom teacher. She's proven adept at helping students think critically about the media they consume everyday. And she has the certification to back it up.

In December Sarah earned both the PBS Digital Citizenship Certification and the Newsela Certification (bridging English/Language Arts with current events). It was a big accomplishment, according to District 75 Teaching and Learning Coordinator Jill Unger.

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"Media literacy is so important these days. Sarah's role is so vital," Unger said.

Sarah is also a strong advocate of the District 75 philosophy of engagement in reading and has helped develop students' love for good old-fashioned books.

Book shelves dominate the Learning Lab, with sports and World War II books as the most popular. She's researched the best and most popular books and has built a diversity of book characters for kids to read about. Each month, Sarah highlights certain books under Fiction and Non-Fiction in her Reading Spotlight. Her excitement in the books is contagious.

"When I make reading suggestions, the books will fly out of my hands," Sarah said.

Her digital library webpage enhances everything going on in the Learning Lab. It offers current events, recommended books to read by categories, links to books, and more. She's hoping more students will start using the website to find books and learn about the world around them.

Sarah has spent hours researching the best and most popular books and has built a collection which includes a diversity of book characters for kids to read. Her book talks are geared towards a selected topic each month. And she combines creative ideas in the arts and crafts "makerspace" to highlight topics from Native American Heritage Month, Women's History and International Creativity. They created butterflies out of coffee filters as they learned about Mexico butterfly migrations while loom weaving was created when Central America was featured in Hispanic Heritage Month. In this way, students learn about these topics not only in books, but by creating

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"It's all about promoting the love of reading and literacy," Unger said. "Sarah's role is key to supporting that."

One month she had a display of Banned Books. Students had to scan a QR code and find out why a particular book was banned. In October, students competed by writing a two-sentence horror story and posting it on the board. Kids voted for the best stories and winners were given candy. During Halloween, students had to identify popular villains from literature.

She has created a world where students not only understand what they're reading, but have fun learning. In fact, there are times when she has had to turn kids away "until next time" because the Learning Lab gets too crowded.

"This is a break from the classroom," Sarah said. "It's not just about finding a book to read - it's more of a social, interactive space. It's no longer just for book checkout and research. It's a pretty popular place."

Whether they're researching online or flipping through the pages of their favorite paperback, CSMS students have discovered something very important about themselves - they love to read. And that has made Sarah's efforts all worthwhile.

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