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A boat to read in, books in Braille and stuffed animals. Gaenslen School library is inviting and inclusive.

March 27, 2023
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Gaenslen School has always had a purpose.

The Milwaukee school opened in 1939 to serve children with polio. In 1988, the current school building at 1250 E. Burleigh St. was designed and constructed to be wheelchair-accessible. Today Gaenslen continues to serve students who have special health care needs, including those who have orthopedic impairments, visual or hearing impairments or are considered medically fragile. Nearly 40% of the school’s students are identified as having special needs.

Gaenslen’s principal Kirsten Brown said that although the building was redesigned with those needs in mind, there were still areas of the school that needed work to make them more accessible, and to make sure kids could independently use those spaces.

One area was the school library.

In 2016 the school won a grant from James Patterson School Library Grants to make its library more accessible. Over the next few years, Gaenslen secured additional funding from the MPS Foundation, the Greater Milwaukee Foundation and Bader Philanthropies, and the project grew into a total library renovation.

The newly accessible school library opened to Gaenslen students at the end of 2022.

“Whenever I was involved in meetings for this project, the staff was so attuned to all the details that would allow the kids to be able to use this as their own space,” said Kelly Rickman Bosh, the development and donor relations manager for the MPS Foundation. “They would point out unevenness in the old carpeting that made it difficult for wheelchair users or that the furniture was too heavy to move to make space for students to get around easily. They said their students with sensory sensitivities needed tactile things to touch and for the lighting to be calm. To see all the things the teachers are thinking about in addition to just teaching, it’s amazing.”

Highlights of Gaenslen School’s inclusive library

The new library includes many different areas for students to read, relax and learn.

  • The reading forestry area has a large model of a tree that students can go inside. The tree’s bark was designed to be touched by students and there is a bench in the reading area made out of a real tree. The reading tree was designed by a local artist, and students painted the leaves.
  • A storyteller circle in the middle of the library has benches arranged on a carpet meant to simulate grass. The whole area evokes storytelling under the stars, which is enhanced by a ceiling with a light feature that can be adjusted to look as if the sky is changing as the night goes on.
  • A lounge area features comfortable seating that can be reconfigured in different arrangements, as well as multiple stuffed animals to relax with as children read for their own enjoyment.
  • In the Great Lakes area, the textured carpet simulates water, there’s a tactile Great Lakes state map on the wall and, best of all, a boat, built by former eighth grade students, sits in the middle of the area, which students can go into.

Kay’Mia Franks, a first grader who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, said the “boat area” is her favorite part of the library. During a recent media tour, Franks explained that she’s able to get out of her wheelchair and crawl into the boat as she reads.

“I like to read in the boat area because they have books there. This one is my favorite,” she said, grabbing a book from a nearby shelf. “Oh, and this one is definitely my favorite,” she said as she grabbed a second book and then stopped talking as she settled in to read.

Gaenslen school librarian Susan Plewa said the reading circle is an important focal point of the library; it’s one of the first things people see as they walk in, and the open seating arrangement invites people to share their stories. “Then when people look at the ‘stars’ above them, it makes them feel like there’s no roof above them,” said Plewa. “It just gives this whole feeling like the world is open to us.”

The library was designed with kids’ desires in mind
According to Bosh, one thing that makes the teachers and staff at Gaenslen so special is their attention to the needs of their students. That included a willingness to be flexible and change their design as they realized students wanted something different than the adults had in mind.

“The staff has been so thoughtful about how students will engage in the space,” said Bosh. “They advocated for what the kids want as the design was finalized.”

A good example is the library’s lounge area. Brown said the original plan was to create a cafe-like setting. But that changed as school staff talked to students and observed how they liked to relax as they read.

“The kids said they like to lounge, that they wanted a space that felt like a living room with comfortable chairs and stuffed animals,” said Brown. “That’s when we realized that we had to rethink our adult preconceived notions and create a space the kids would want to use.”

Plewa said the library renovation gave her the opportunity to redesign book displays in a more accessible way. She said the new layout makes use of dynamic shelving, with the books displayed similar to how they are in bookstores, with displays around certain topics and attractive signage.

“With the books displayed this way, the children are seeing things they didn’t see before,” said Plewa. “And I see them collaborating with their friends, pointing out new books and deciding to read them together.”

Students with visual impairments have easier access to Braille books

According to Brown and Bosh, another step toward accessibility in the new library was to bring the Braille books out from a back room to easily accessible bookshelves in the main library.

The library’s extensive book collection for students who are visually impaired includes fiction and nonfiction books written in Braille, audio books and books with large print.

Plewa also said she’s been stocking the library with books that have traditional words and pictures, along with an audio device built in. Plewa said those types of books — as well as children’s picture books with Braille that allow parents, teachers or peers to read along with the blind student — help to make the library not just accessible, but also inclusive.

“With the Braille picture books and the large print books and the audio books, students who need them can read the same book right along with their peers so everyone feels included,” said Plewa.

Brown added that bringing the books out in the open where everybody can see them “allows all the students to see things from the point of view of those students with visual impairments.”

It’s helpful for the adults to see things from the students’ point of view as well.

JT Laura, a 14-year-old blind student, came into the library during the media tour to check out the new book area for people with visual impairments. Plewa greeted him and led him to the Braille books, choosing some for him to read. As Laura ran his fingers over the words, Plewa asked him which Braille styles he prefers, his advice on books to order and how to make changes to the layout of the section.

“Maybe sometime you can help me figure out this collection,” said Plewa.

“Yes,” said Laura as he read the library book. “Maybe sometime I’ll be able to help out.”

Book clubs and a new maker space allow kids to have fun as they learn

Plewa believes allowing kids to have fun in the library is another way to make learning accessible to them. That’s why she started book clubs. Plewa said she asked teachers to choose groups of eight to 10 students and that she would set up book clubs for them. Several groups join her in the library two to three times a week.

She makes sure the books she chooses for book club are fun and engaging.

“I intentionally avoid things like worksheets in book club,” said Plewa. “This is just about having fun, encouraging a love of reading and talking about the books. And it’s become like gold to the kids who come to it. They feel like they’re in a special group.”

Kids are also encouraged to have fun in the maker space that adjoins the library, a large room filled with cardboard and recycled materials to build with, a Lego wall and materials to teach students how to code.

Brown said the space is used for guided lessons as well as to allow kids to just do their own thing.

Brown visits the space often, much to students’ delight. She’s seen second graders constructing highways, sixth graders learning to code and students building roller coasters, houses and whole communities. Whenever she leaves a class, the kids ask if she’ll be coming back to watch their work.

She remembered observing a group of students who were learning to put motors on structures and then to code them to move in different directions.

“One kid asked me, ‘So If I code this and ask it who’s smarter, my friend or me, will it move toward me?'” Brown said, laughing. “I answered, ‘yes, if that’s the way you code it.’ These kids always surprise me.”