College Learning Lab Director Blends Old-School Teaching With Digital Media Education

In a world dominated by laptops, Kindles, and cell phones, how can old-school paper books capture the attention of college kids?

Easy. Just put Sarah Rafalowitz in charge of the school library, or Learning Lab as it’s called at Carl Sandburg Middle School.

A former language arts teacher, Sarah was appointed director of the Learning Lab last fall. Under former principal Jessica Rebella, it had become a space where students could explore their creativity and curiosity. Sarah has taken it to the next level by successfully merging digital learning with old school methods.

She introduced an interactive bulletin board and improved the Learning Lab’s digital library webpage by integrating a CSMS Wakelet, allowing students to organize topics that inspire them and save them into folders. She also encourages children to use the Dewey Decimal System to locate books and gives them prizes when they find definitions by flipping through a full-size dictionary.

Her interest in digital media education grew from her previous position as a teacher. She has proven adept at helping students think critically about the media they use every day. And she has the certification to back it up.

In December, Sarah obtained both the PBS Digital Citizenship Certification and the Newsela Certification (Bridging English/Language Arts with News). It was a huge success, according to District 75 Teaching and Learning Coordinator Jill Unger.


“Media literacy is so important these days. Sarah’s role is so vital,” Unger said.

Sarah is also a strong advocate for District 75’s Reading Engagement philosophy and has helped develop students’ love of good old-fashioned books.

Bookshelves dominate the Learning Lab, with sports and World War II books being the most popular. She researched the best and most popular books and created a variety of book characters for children. Each month, Sarah highlights certain books under Fiction and Non-Fiction in her Reading Spotlight. Her enthusiasm for books is contagious.

“When I make reading suggestions, the books fly out of my hands,” Sarah said.

Its digital library web page enhances everything in the Learning Lab. It offers current events, recommended books to read by categories, links to books, and more. She hopes more students will start using the website to find books and learn more about the world around them.

Sarah has spent hours researching the best and most popular books and has built a collection that includes a diversity of book characters for children to read. Her book talks are geared towards a selected topic each month. And she combines creative ideas in the arts and crafts “makerspace” to highlight Month topics of Native American heritage, women’s history and international creativity. They created butterflies from coffee filters learning about butterfly migrations in Mexico while loom weaving was created when Central America was featured in Hispanic Heritage Month. In this way, students learn about these subjects not only in books, but by creating

“It’s about promoting a love of reading and literacy,” Unger said. “Sarah’s role is key in supporting this.”

One month she had an exhibition of banned books. Students had to scan a QR code and find out why a particular book was banned. In October, students competed by writing a two-sentence horror story and posting it on the board. The children voted for the best stories and the winners received candies. During Halloween, students had to identify popular villains from literature.

She has created a world where students not only understand what they read, but have fun learning. In fact, there are times when she’s had to turn kids away “until next time” because the Learning Lab is too crowded.

“It’s a break from the classroom,” Sarah said. “It’s not just about finding a book to read – it’s more of a social and interactive space. It’s not just for book checking and research anymore. It’s quite a popular place.”

Whether they’re researching online or flipping through the pages of their favorite paperback, CSMS students have discovered something very important about themselves: they love to read. And it was worth Sarah’s efforts.