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A world of books just for kids: Perham elementary library takes hands-on education approach

Heart of the Lakes Elementary started to make changes to the way its library runs just two years ago. Now, the average student experience looks quite different.

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Teresa Anderson stands next to the baskets that now organize books for kids at the Heart of the Lakes Elementary School library.
Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus
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Penny Riedel stands with a student eating the wild rice she cooked for the elementary school.
Contributed / Teresa Anderson

PERHAM — Libraries are often thought of as still places of knowledge filled with endless opportunities for learning. While the Heart of the Lakes Elementary School library in Perham is certainly filled with education and intrigue, it's the furthest thing from "still." Students are often seen buzzing in and out of the space, tailored specifically for kids, and this is thanks to a few changes that have been made to the space by the Perham-Dent Public School District over the past two years.

"The principal wanted a teacher in the library," explained Teresa Anderson, the school's library media specialist. "So I could actually plan lessons and do more than just read books."

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Heart of the Lakes students inspect and discuss an indigenous artifact with one another in the school library.
Contributed / Teresa Anderson

Though Anderson has been teaching in the Perham area for over 20 years, she only just recently started as the library teacher. That doesn't mean that she didn't hop on the opportunity, however. Teaching ten classes a day, she's dedicated to making learning an immersive experience for the kids she educates as they grow. In fact, the library itself has had a physical transformation, becoming specifically tailored for the children who learn in it.

From the organizational methods and children's book illustrations painted on the walls, all the way to the lesson plans, everything is for the benefit of the children attending Heart of the Lakes Elementary. Recently, in recognition of National Native American Heritage Month this November, students participated in a hands-on lesson plan.

Penny Riedel, who works in the elementary kitchen and as the school's Native American educator, recently became a Heart of the Lakes superstar when she helped Anderson with the indigenous-based lessons.

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"Kids wrote questions for me on a piece of paper," Riedel explained. "I just answered the questions they wanted to know, like how many animals I had — cats or dogs." Riedel answered these questions in an interview with Anderson, who then showed the videos to her students.

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Teresa Anderson helps elementary students check out books that interested them at the Heart of the Lakes library.
Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus

The hands-on, student-led education doesn't stop there. Riedel cooked them wild rice to eat as they learned, so they'd have something physical to remember as Anderson taught them the history and importance of wild rice to different Native American cultures.

This has not only helped Riedel reconnect with her culture, but she also saw it impact Native American students. Some learned about their indigenous identity that they were previously unaware of, and it was nice for Riedel to see kids connect with something that they didn't know about themselves before.

Anderson also brought in several artifacts from different indigenous cultures, such as a dream catcher. As students inspected these objects, they were told to ask themselves questions, such as: "What could it be?" and, "What could it be used for?" This way, kids weren't just listening to a lecture or silently reading. They were active in their own library learning. They even learn to check out their own books as they grow older with Anderson's assistance.

"The (school district) is all about trying to help teachers who want to help kids," Anderson shared about the support the library and its changes have gotten. "They pretty much will say yes, as long as it helps kids in some way. It was really nice."

With lessons intellectually aimed toward children, the physical setup of the space also recently changed to better accommodate young minds. Anderson recently received a grant for a new way to display the books found all throughout the space: baskets.

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Elementary students smile together as they discuss what they think a specific indigenous artifact would be used for.
Contributed / Teresa Anderson

While everything is still organized by the Dewey Decimal System to allow students to learn it, books are now also placed into clear baskets dedicated to specific themes or topics. For example, if a kid wanted to read a book about cats, they would go to the cat basket. With the basket system, they're able to easily look at each and every book to figure out which they want to read.

"The big picture is, we want kids to find books they're excited about and interested in," Anderson explained. "It's a catch-all, having them sorted by topics or by themes, plus using the Dewey Decimal System. So they still learn that as well. It's a way to allow for both; it's a win-win. Kids are visual, and they look at covers to help them make their choices. I'm always trying to help kids find books that they're interested in, and that helps with the goal."

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Many different kids ran in and out of the library during the first grade book checkout time, several proclaiming how much easier it is for them to find books this year than in previous ones. The library is a space made for them to learn about the world in an active way. They keep journals, they read and they learn. According to Anderson, the library is never still. She finds that kids are always ready and willing to learn.

"(A fellow faculty member) always says she wishes she could be in the library," Anderson said. "She always said, 'I wish I could be in your class. My experience was like, 'Read a book' and then, 'Go check out books.'"

But that's no longer the case in Perham. The library is made by the district specifically for the kids.

For more information on Heart of the Lakes Elementary, go to perhamschools.org . The main office can be reached at 218-346-5437.

Elizabeth (she/her), 23, graduated with a degree in Journalism and Communications from the University of Wisconsin–Stout in 2020. Elizabeth has always had a passion for telling stories about people and specializes in community features, which she uses for her Perham-centered content.
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