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April is School Library Month! Celebrate MPS places and people helping students learn and create

Many of the standout features of Gaenslen Library are due to school librarian Susan Plewa.Picture a school library. Today, that means picturing a hub of curiosity, creativity, and learning, a place that reinforces classroom lessons.  

At Frederick J. Gaenslen School, for example, students might be participating in research projects, listening to read alouds, meeting for a book club, having a discussion in the storyteller's circle, or heading to the library’s MakerSpace for STEM activities before checking out books.     

Gaenslen, a school for K4 through 8th-grade students at 1250 E. Burleigh St., is mere yards from the wooded west bank of the Milwaukee River. A major revamping of the library, completed in late 2022, reflects the natural world near the school and around the state. 

Many of the ideas for the upgraded library came from Susan Plewa, Gaenslen’s library media specialist. That’s why Principal Richard Walker says as he gestures around the library, “As you look around, this is her.”    

The Gaenslen Library is a vivid example of the impact a school library media specialist, or school librarian, can have.  

“It’s always been a nice, big space, so it was just wonderful to have the opportunity to do this,” Plewa said.  

“Our librarians are fantastic!” said Renée Laird-Adelon, the MPS District Library Media Specialist. “MPS libraries provide sanctuaries where all students are welcome to learn about themselves and the world around them. Our librarians showcase the latest books, provide opportunities for students to create makerspace activities, and collaborate with teachers to enhance classroom lessons. School libraries matter!”   

A grant from bestselling author James Patterson plus funding from the MPS Foundation, Bader Philanthropies, and the Greater Milwaukee Foundation made the extensive renovation possible. Federal funds, intended in part to help students catch up on learning after pandemic quarantine, sealed the project.  

Although some might think a school library mainly is for extra enrichment or entertainment, it’s more an extension of the classroom. “It really supports every content area in the school’s curriculum,” Plewa said.  

Her goals for the renovated library were for it to be instructional, engaging, and accessible to all students. (More than half of Gaenslen’s 700 students have special needs. The original school was established in 1939 to serve students recovering from polio and other illnesses, such as rheumatic fever. Now, some students navigate the school with walkers or wheelchairs, have developmental disabilities or visual or hearing impairments, or are medically fragile.) The library is spacious so that wheelchairs can move about easily. 

A huge replica of a hollow tree in the library, designed by local artist Marina Lee, is a cozy place for children to read. Other architectural elements also reflect nature. (Support pillars in the room are covered in real tree bark — a carpenter scored the backs of the bark to make it flexible enough to wrap around the pillars.)  Gaenslen Principal Richard Walker, school library media specialist Susan Plewa, and Instructional Leadership Director Felice Beal at the library's reading nook.

The design of the room also acknowledges Wisconsin's Indigenous peoples, building instructional opportunities around importance of our natural resources and how all people are stewards of fresh water, Plewa said.  

In past years, the All Hands Boatworks organization visited Gaenslen to build a boat with 8th graders, Plewa recalled. One boat now sits at the back of the library, on carpet that mimics water. Students love to read while sitting in the boat.  

It’s near a map of the Great Lakes area in raised relief that Plewa bought at the former Milwaukee Map Store. The map’s bumpy texture is appealing, especially for students who benefit from a more tactile experience, Plewa said. MPS carpenters built a frame with display cases for the map. Next to the map, the school district’s land acknowledgement is displayed.  

Toward the room’s center is the storyteller's circle. A Riverwest woodworking company, Urban Craftsman, used wooden slabs from felled city trees to make the benches for the circle.  

In the MakerSpace (a former computer lab), students work together at tables to learn coding, how to make electrical circuits, develop engineering skills, and more.  

“Problem solving and teamwork — that’s what the world is going to be for them,” Plewa said. 

“I think that has brought a different life to the school libraries,” she said of makerspaces. “As students engage in making, they see applications to the real world and careers.” 

School libraries are more than books, but books remain a draw for students. 

Plewa noticed that children often ask for books by topic — about naturalists and environmentalists like John Muir and Gaylord Nelson around Earth Day in April, for instance, or scary stories or historical fiction.  

A raised-relief map of the Great Lakes and land acknowledgement are near a boat where children like to read at Gaenslen School.“Like many others in the school library profession, I genrefied the fiction and the biographies,” Plewa said, to make it easier for students to find what interests them. (Nonfiction remains filed by Dewey Decimal Classification.)  

Schools and their libraries have ample technology for students, but there’s value just in being able to browse bookshelves (which at Gaenslen are at eye level or lower for the benefit of all, including those who use wheelchairs). 

“If you have a question, or a specific need in mind, you might find that with technology. But you typically don’t go to technology to browse and find things you don’t even know you’re interested in,” Plewa said. In a library, your eye might catch something you hadn’t seen before, or something that raises a question. 

“Your mind doesn’t have all the perspectives that come from being able to browse in a museum or a library or a bookstore,” she added. Plus, a student visiting a library can hear conversations or see other children building things, for instance.  

“It’s the whole social-engagement piece of it all,” Plewa said. 

She’s building a collection of biographies about disability rights activists and champions and is updating the collection of books in Braille with the help of a paraprofessional who uses Braille. 

Books with audio built in, so that students can follow along as they listen to a story, are popular with all students. Those books, at roughly $60 each, would be unattainable if not for Wisconsin’s Common School Fund, Plewa said.  

The state fund, established by Wisconsin’s Constitution in 1848, is the main source of funding for public schools’ library books and other instructional library materials, such as the STEM items in the makerspace. The constitutional provision is unique among states and a huge help for public school libraries. 

Plewa officially joined MPS in 1997, starting at Riley School. Many school librarians like Plewa later circulated among two, three, or more school libraries because of funding cuts. She joined Gaenslen full time about 12 years ago. In 2020, voters approved a referendum question that provided more funding for school librarians and libraries. 

Plewa found staff members at Gaenslen to learn from when she first arrived, as she acclimated to serving a large special-needs population. “The staff is so amazing,” she said. 

The learning never ends — district library staff gather monthly to meet and plan. “It’s just inspiring to learn from other people,” Plewa said. “You never not learn something from a colleague.” Gaenslen Library's MakerSpace enhances STEM learning for students.

She noted that school libraries often have a staff of one, which makes it especially beneficial for librarians to gather to share ideas and experiences. “It’s good to connect with your colleagues in other schools,” she said. 

Like other MPS library media specialists, Plewa is certified both as a librarian and as a teacher. In all, MPS has 41 library media specialists and 15 library paraprofessionals, and the school district is seeking to hire more. 

Being a school library media specialist is a career she recommends. “It’s been ideal; I really enjoy it,” Plewa said, pausing to say goodbye to children as they left the library. “No day is the same — every day is different.” 

One recent morning, Plewa met a woman who was in the Gaenslen library to help her nephew with a project on tsunamis. During the pandemic lockdown, in a virtual session, a student’s mother was so proud to show Plewa her new house, using her daughter’s Chromebook camera.  

“The connections you can make with the whole school community is of value,” Plewa said. “Those moments are just priceless.” 

She organizes several Family Library Safaris each year that bring students and their families to the library after school. Most recently, the McNamara McCarthy Irish dancers performed for an event celebrating Irish culture. Previously, jazz musician Adekola Adedapo shared African storytelling. The Optimist Club of Milwaukee has supported many events, and a Safari celebrating children’s author and illustrator Tomie dePaola included Plewa’s son and daughter-in-law demonstrating pasta making. Each Family Library Safari is unique.“That’s one of the joys — you can make connections with families,” Plewa said. 

 Even though the revamped Gaenslen library has been in heavy use for a year, it still looks brand new. 

“I think when you have a beautiful environment, children respond to it,” Plewa said.   


Stephen Davis, Media Relations Manager
(414) 475-8675
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