On Spring Cleaning & Evidence of Learning

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“Perfectionism means that you try not to leave so much mess to clean up. But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived.” —Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

As the mother of a toddler, I deeply appreciate these words. In our house, a fresh array of sippy cups, cereal, books, socks, cars, and blankies adorns the living room before 7 AM.

In the spirit of developmentally appropriate exploration, and to preserve my sanity, I tend not to pick up the mess as it happens. Instead, I try to delight in my daughter’s energy and curiosity, and do my best to avoid panic if she finds and eats a forgotten Cheerio. I straighten and clean when possible, and often, it’s not perfect before bedtime. If Anne Lamott says there is proof of a rich and full life in this pleasant chaos, then so it shall be. Some might call this patience, others sloppiness. Either way, I’ve found this approach to be a critical skill for getting through the day. I didn’t learn this secret as a new mom, though. I learned it as a school librarian.

Rummaged fiction shelves, open magazines on tables, pushed out chairs, scattered stacks of papers and folders and laptops—this is the stuff of a lively school library. Like the “loved” appearance of the Velveteen Rabbit, the “loved” library shows it wear. There’s no prize for the best-kept shelf (that I’m aware of), but librarians know well the rewards in nurturing children’s processes of finding knowledge and comfort in the library.

There’s a place, of course, for impressing responsibility and care in students’ use of materials and spaces. In the moments when concluding a class or wrapping up the week, many hands make light the work of keeping walkways clear, surfaces uncluttered, and resources ready for the next students.

But there is also good reason to let inquiry and literacy and socializing unfold, and not get too hung up over every misplaced chair or pencil. Take a glance around your library the next time a group of students exits. Besides the outcomes that you set out to teach today, what evidence of learning did they leave for you? Are there certain shelves that got lots of “love” today? Did the students make a new cluster of chairs or beanbags? What supplies did they ask you to help find, or leave strewn on a table? Like the trail my toddler leaves, the undoing of order may aggravate. Try not to let it. Instead, aim to notice interests, needs, and opportunities.

What does the “mess” tell you about what your students are doing, asking, and thinking? Maybe you can incorporate prominent topics into displays, booktalks, or just conversation. Address needs if you can, like providing more seating adjacent to periodicals, or pulling books from a section that’s continuously disheveled and placing them on spinners. I’ve even seen library photos of “rummage tables” of recently returned, new, or less frequently circulated titles for kids to paw through. Consider gathering popular supplies to make a few little stations like they have at copy stores. (I love those. So handy!) And what you don’t have time or funds to address (and doesn’t pose a safety concern)—leave be.

The point is, don’t let the first rays of spring sunshine draw your attention to the dust. Attend to, but don’t agonize over a space that feels less than perfect when the dismissal bell rings. To humbly expand on the words of the wonderful Anne Lamott, clutter and mess show us that life is being lived in our school libraries.


Rebecca J. Morris, MLIS, PhD, earned her master’s degree and doctorate at the University of Pittsburgh and her undergraduate degree in elementary education at Pennsylvania State University. Rebecca teaches graduate courses in school librarianship and youth library services. Rebecca has published articles in journals including Knowledge Quest, School Libraries Worldwide, and Teacher Librarian. She is the author of School Libraries and Student Learning: A Guide for School Leaders (Harvard Education Publishing Group, 2015). Rebecca is a former elementary classroom teacher and middle school librarian.

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