Donde esta Alanna King? At the Jornada de Bibliotecas Escolares

[This article was originally published in December 2019 edition of the Ontario School Library Association’s Teaching Librarian magazine]

I am sitting in an auditorium in Buenos Aires, Argentina wearing headphones and a team of translators are converting every Spanish word spoken on stage for my benefit. As exciting as the journey itself has been, to be confirmed by UNESCO and IFLA that they would like me to keynote just two weeks before my departure, the real privilege is to be a part of this event.  I am surrounded by murmurs and each participant has a glimmer of excitement in their eyes as they scramble to record notes to take back to their own school library contexts. This is the first ever Jornada de Bibliotecas Escolares (Day of School Libraries) where library stakeholders from primary to post-secondary are here to share their successes, talk about overcoming challenges and learn from each other.  

The event was initiated by the Buenos Aires Ministry of Education and Innovation who reached out to UNESCO in Montevideo, Uruguay and the International Federation of Libraries Association (IFLA) for help to find international presenters. UNESCO represents the areas of science, education and culture for the United Nations.  Working on the key tenets in education and technology for their global Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, this event aimed to show how developing school libraries as the conduit for these goals could have real impact on global literacy and digital fluency. That’s where I come in. Through my volunteer work in school libraries, I met Joanne Plante, who is the Canadian representative on the IFLA school libraries committee.  Joanne first contacted me in August to see if I’d be interested in going with my background in school libraries and educational technology. I was immediately speaking with Stephen Weber of IFLA in Paris, and then the Urugayan branch of UNESCO to make this quickly come together. The audience is filled with stakeholders from school libraries, faculties of education, all levels of government, and university experts in library, literacy, education and digital technology.  

The day ran from 8:30 to 4:30 with intense presentations, and only one formal break for lunch.  Other than my two presentations, I spent the rest of the day in silence, listening intently to what others were presenting.  I was trying to both understand the context that I had landed in, as well as gather the provocations that each speaker was putting forward.  Buenos Aires, the largest city in Argentina, is governed as if it is itself a state. School librarians at the elementary level are teachers, but school librarians at the secondary level are library science graduates.  My task was to bring a dynamic presentation in 30 minutes speaking to four pieces of the challenge of improving digital fluency in schools: the emergence of digital media, the physical changes needed to allow for new learning models, the infrastructure that has allowed for change, and how to create this change over time. I was also given 10 additional minutes to speak on the role of the school librarian as pedagogical agent as part of a four-person panel.  

It would be difficult to spend any time in Buenos Aires without having some understanding of the history that has kept this country from moving into the world ranks of economic stability.  I did a quick 3 hour tour on the day I arrived to try to get a feel for the place. Spain first made contact with this part of the continent in the early 1500s, and the evidence of Spanish colonialism is everywhere, making Buenos Aires feel like a European country.  The architecture is ornate and regal, an Italian loaf of bread is served at every meal, and the wine is decadent. There is an ostentatious edification of government buildings that is a stark contrast to the amount of homelessness in the city. Giant gates surround each historic building and armed guards are everywhere. Currently there are many people from Venezuela, Bolivia and Chile who are seeking a better life in Buenos Aires.  The Argentinian people are passionate, in fact, I joked that my cheeks were worn out from all the kisses. Their presentations were passionate too. The audience really responded when Walquiria Salinas (her name translates to Valkyrie as her father was a huge fan of Wagner), the director of school libraries, spoke passionately about the need for change and also the need for fresh resources and infrastructure. When she finished the audience stood and shouted their appreciation for her fiery speech.  

I was the only native English speaker and with my dismal attempts at speaking Spanish, I soon had someone with me at all times to help translate.  In the auditorium of over 700 participants, every one of them was offered headphones for translation while I was speaking. There were other foreign presenters as well from Spain, Columbia, Uruguay and Mexico and we formed a little group getting to know each other better at each meal. But we quickly moved through small talk as we all realized the precious gift we were given to be sitting together, as experts in our fields, from all these different perspectives.  From my presentation, what really resonated were two things: the cycle of design thinking and the triangulation of assessment to include observation and conversation.  

I tried to summarize the ideas of design thinking by handing each participant a simple piece of colourful paper and asking them to use empathy to relate to the needs of a book user.  In other words, we were going to make the ultimate bookmark. Through this simple idea, we tackled the ideas of individualization (adding your own initial), safety and security (rounding the corners to avoid paper cuts), and innovation to take the bookmark to the next level of functionality (adding a tassel).  I explained that through this simple task as part of our high school orientation, we invite students into the design thinking mindset and show them the different tools at our makerspace, greenscreen, digital library that will allow them to work through each of their school inquiry projects. Soon our students aren’t just designing bookmarks, they’re problem-solving global issues like fair voting, cleaning up oil spills, and preparing for natural disasters.  In each case we use the same design-thinking cycle. Despite our language and cultural differences, I could see lightbulbs going off as the theory of design-thinking percolated. 

Secondly, the ideas in the pedagogical strategy known as Triangulation of Assessment resonated with this audience.  I recalled for them how as a teacher, my thinking shifted when I started to see that I couldn’t always see my students be successful in their final products, even though I knew I they were capable, and I had seen them demonstrate my expectations in class.  I began to use the Triangulation of Assessment capturing and valuing my observations and conversations during the process, and treating them as valuable as the final product. As a teacher-librarian this strategy allows me to help assess the students through conversations and observations by having a predetermined set of criteria that I have constructed in collaboration with the teacher.  Being an enthusiastic participant in assessment, and having a bank of ideas about capturing criteria for assessment, has made me very popular for collaboration. Having real tools that the library staff could take away for observation and conversation, appealed greatly to this audience of school library stakeholders.

After 30 hours of travel, and barely 4 days in Buenos Aires, I’m no expert at the issues they’re faced with or the barriers they need to overcome to make change possible.  But the cultural opportunities for sharing ideas were so rich, and I couldn’t get enough. If I could work like this every day in this environment, I would never retire. So I’m going to try to make myself even more valuable to the UNESCO and IFLA.  I’ve signed up for a Spanish class starting next week.

Design thinking through a bookmark


  • cardstock (plain and patterned) cut into 2”x6” strips
  • Hole punch
  • Various stickers
  • Alphabet stickers
  • Corner rounder
  • Ribbons, embroidery floss, yarn, beads, charms, etc.
  1. Empathy: In design thinking, we always start with empathy for the user/client first.  Think of someone who needs a bookmark. What do they like? What kind of reader are they?  What are their interests? Use your answers to make each choice.
  2. Define: Discuss the function of a bookmark and how many different bookmarks people have seen.    
  3. Prototype: Select two pieces of cardstock – one printed, and one plain.  Stick these together so that the desired faces are facing out. 
  4.  Ideate: Next, how can this bookmark be further improved for the User Experience?  Perhaps the corners are sharp, and can be rounded.    
  5. Prototype: Perhaps, the bookmark will fall into the pages so add a tassle or ribbon to help mark the place of the user’s reading place.
  6. Prototype: Individualize the bookmark with initials, stickers, etc. to set their bookmark off from others in a personal way.
  7. Test:  Give the bookmark to the user you intended it for and get their feedback.

For more information:

IFLA’s school library committee:

UNESCO’s work in Sustainable Development Goals:

UNESCO’s media about the event:

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