Instructional Collaboration: Best Practices for School Librarians

"When you live what you value each day, you know you can make a difference. If you believe that teachers should learn what you know, then you will learn from them. If you believe that students should love to read, then you will read voraciously. If you believe that you are essential to student learning, then you will spend more time on teaching and curriculum development than on processing and shelving books."

(Debbie Abilock, "Ten Attributes of Collaborative Leaders," Knowledge Quest 31, no. 2 (Nov/Dec 2002): 8-10)

| Introduction to Instructional Collaboration | Why Collaborate? | How to Collaborate | Challenges | Ideas and Guides for the First-Time Collaborator | More Recommended Sources | Works Cited

Introduction to Instructional Collaboration

Instructional collaboration is a topic on the minds of librarians. Yet it also remains daunting for many. Collaboration presents serious challenges, but it can benefit the entire school, from students to administration.

What does collaboration mean? It has been defined in a variety of ways, but the essential definition of it is a process: a joint effort between teacher and LMS to plan, implement, instruct and assess a unit or project. The important difference between collaboration and a less formal sort of engagement is that in collaboration the LMS is involved in all stages of the process, from planning to assessment. The teacher and the LMS are involved in an interdependent relationship, with shared goals, defined roles, and a comprehensive plan (Buzzeo, 30).

What does collaboration look like and how does it fit into instruction?

As a library media specialist (LMS) you know you must strive to ensure that your library, and you yourself, remains valued and viable in today's world. One strategy to do so is instructional collaboration, a more engaged means of reaching and impacting students. In The Collaboration Handbook (Linworth Publishing, 2008), veteran LMS and collaboration advocate Toni Buzzeo places instructional collaboration on a “Continuum of Instructional Partnership” which ranges from cooperation on the low end, to what she calls data-driven collaboration on the high end. Each element of the continuum is an important way for the LMS to engage with students and teachers: no one strategy is more important or worthwhile than another. Basically, you cannot collaborate unless you can also cooperate and coordinate! Instead, collaboration means the LMS has a deeper relationship with and integration within the school environment, and the teachers and administration have this deeper, more collegial relationship with the library and librarian (3-4).

Another helpful way of envisioning collaboration is through David V. Loertscher’s Library Media Specialist’s Taxonomy (originally published in 1982; released as revised edition in 2000). Buzzeo introduces the Taxonomy in the Collaboration Handbook, as a means for understanding of how to reach higher levels of instructional involvement. There are 10 levels, and Buzzeo situates instructional collaboration as coming in at levels eight through 10:

8. Implementation of the four major programmatic elements of the LMC program
The four LMC program elements—
collaboration, reading literacy, enhancing learning through technology, and information literacy
are operational in the school. The LMC is on its way to achieving its goal of contributing to academic achievement.
9. The mature LMC program
The LMC program reaches the needs of every student and teacher who will accept is offerings in each of the four programmatic elements.
10. Curriculum development
Along with other educators, the library media specialist contributes to the planning and organization of what will actually be taught in the school or district.
(Buzzeo, 5; taken from Taxonomies of the School Library Media Program 2nd edition, 2000, David V. Loertscher)

The earlier levels on the taxonomy include reference, gathering sources, outreach and advocacy. Again, every step of the taxonomy is important and usually ongoing (with the exception, perhaps, of Level 1: No involvement).

Patricia Montiel-Overall in “A Model of Teacher and Librarian Collaboration” (Collaboration, ed. Patricia Montiel-Overall and Donald C. Aldcock, AASL 2007) also uses Loertscher’s Taxonomy, along with other models, to describe collaboration using four facets (Montiel-Overall, 3-4):

Facet A: Coordination
Facet B: Cooperation
Facet C: Integrated Instruction
Facet D: Integrated Curriculum

Montiel-Overall’s model is quite similar to Buzzeo’s, and clearly pulls Facet D directly from level 10 of Loertscher’s Taxonomy. Like Buzzeo and Loertscher, Montiel-Overall stresses that each facet is interrelated, especially at the higher end of collaborative work, Integrated Curriculum. However, Montiel-Overall does not distinguish quite so clearly between collaboration and the other facets of coordination and cooperation: each facet is instead a type of collaboration.

These models each offer you a different way to conceive of the place of instructional collaboration in your mission as a library media specialist. Before you implement collaboration in your school, you may want to become familiar with and situate yourself within these models to assess whether or not collaboration is the best next step for you. If you are a new LMS and are just beginning to coordinate with instructors, you may find that you want to develop this coordination further and build trusting, solid relationships before attempting the more challenging, time-consuming, but ultimately very rewarding, collaboration.

Meeting Standards

Librarians are not just keepers of the books, or teachers of bibliographic basics, but are experts in research, resources, and the learning styles of the students they work with. Instructional collaboration can be a way for you to share this expertise, by uniting with teachers to create a dynamic working relationship resulting in a more holistic learning experience for students. Instructional collaboration is also demanded of you in meeting the guidelines set out by the American Association of School Librarians. The AASL "Standards for the 21st-century Learner" (2007) state, “School librarians collaborate with others to provide instruction, learning strategies, and practice in using the essential learning skills needed in the 21st century.”

Why Collaborate?

You can already see from reading the introduction to collaboration that it is or should be an essential part of your job as a library media specialist, not only in order to deepen your relationships with colleagues, use your instructional muscles, and ensure the place of the library media center in your school, but also to meet the AASL standards. But most importantly, collaboration is key in a student-centered school that puts development and learning first.

Collaboration Benefits Students

Collaboration creates a more enriching learning environment and helps students to achieve. Studies demonstrate that a high level of collaboration amongst LMSs and classroom teachers results in higher student achievement. The following statistics were compiled in "School Libraries Work, 2008 Edition" (PDF).
  • In Illinois high schools, 11th grade ACT scores are highest when there is a high degree of true collaboration between library media specialists and classroom teachers in a wide spectrum of activities (10).
  • Elementary school students with the most collaborative teacher-librarians scored 21% higher on Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) reading scores than students with the least collaborative teacher-librarians (11).
  • At the elementary level, Indiana schools averaged better test results where teachers initiated collaboration with the library media specialist and believed they were better teachers when engaged in such collaboration (12).

The teachers and Library Media Specialists who participated in the ILILE study (Todd) approached collaboration with a fundamental disconnect in their intentions. While, Todd writes, some of the LMSs felt that their primary motivation was to advertise the LMC and increase their own status within the school, the teachers felt that collaboration was a tool for socialization and developing networks. Todd argues instead that "the primary motivation and intention of collaboration must focus on student achievement and instructional collaboration as a key pedagogical mechanism for providing the best learning opportunities for students...Instructional collaborations first and foremost are about learning and student achievement, not about boosting the role of the library media specialist" (58).

How to Collaborate

Collaboration Step-by-Step

This step-by-step guide was developed using Toni Buzzeo’s Collaboration Handbook and “Collaboration: From Myth to Reality: Let’s Get Down to Business. Just Do It!” by Ross Todd (School Library Media Activities Monthly, Vol. 24, No. 7, March 2008). Todd’s article distills the findings of a research study (conducted by the Center for International Scholarship in School Libraries, 2006-2007) involving the participants of the IMLS-Kent State University’s Institute for Library and Information Literacy Education (ILILE) program (2002-2005).

  1. Develop a collaborative planning form: A collaborative planning form allows you to record the important information about your collaboration such as goals, decisions, resources, responsibilities, and standards to be met, and guides you in completing the tasks. Ultimately this form increases the effectiveness and efficiency of your collaboration.
  2. Identify partners: Is there a new teacher on the block who could benefit from your experience? What about a teacher who you know to be particularly open and interested in new and creative ideas? Many librarians suggest getting involved in curriculum committees and other groups in order to better network with teachers.
  3. Initiate a planning session: Invite your collaborator(s) to meet with you. Communicate via the channels you feel are most used in your school or by the particular teacher you want to work with: some people are quick to respond to emails, and some prefer talking face-to-face. However you initiate the planning session, the session itself should be in person whenever possible.
  4. Document everything: Record the minutes of your planning session(s), keep your collaborative planning form in multiple formats, keep track of changes made and challenges encountered. Replicability is key, as is learning from your mistakes and triumphs.
  5. Complete the collaborative planning form: This can be done either in person or via a Wiki or Google Docs as you develop and hone the project to be collaborated on. As you do this, identify the expertise that all partners bring to the work.
  6. Make time: This might mean you have to rearrange schedules, and even meet outside of school time, to truly plan and work together effectively to meet goals.
  7. Collaborate! Collaboration is only effective when all partners involved meet the expectations. Work together. Be flexible, understanding, reflective, and convinced of the efficacy of collaboration. The process should be fun and rewarding as you see your planning work come to life and your students get truly excited about the work they are doing.
  8. Confront challenges with conviction: Rather than giving up or giving in when confronted with problems, see them as challenges with solutions. The ILILE participants felt that “the strong belief in the importance of collaboration provided the momentum to find solutions to the challenges, rather than give up” (Todd, 57).
  9. Assess: The literature on collaboration emphasizes the importance of your (the LMSs) involvement in assessment. It is one of the most challenging and vital elements of collaboration: assessment is the only way to discover if your teaching was effective. Be sure to include time and space for formative assessment during the course of the assignment or project, as it may be less time-consuming than summative assessment. You can be involved in assessment through providing immediate feedback as students work on projects.

Handy 5 Model

For the first time collaborator, the “Handy 5 Model” will be useful for initiating and planning collaboration. The model was developed by the Kansas Association of School Librarians Research Committee in conjunction with library media specialists who piloted a collaboration program in the 1996-97 school year. It was developed in an effort to surmount challenges faced by K-12 librarians by creating “a common language for discussing and planning instruction with teachers from various subject areas” (Kansas Association of School Librarians Research Committee, 26). The model is as follows:

  1. Assignment
  2. Plan of action
  3. Doing the job
  4. Product evaluation
  5. Process evaluation
(Kansas Association of School Librarians Research Committee, 25)

The assignment is the guiding force for the collaboration. A strong assignment is based both on school/district curricular learning outcomes and discipline/grade level competencies. The plan of action is the strategy/-ies to be used by the student in completing the assignment successfully, as determined by the teacher and LMS. Doing the job simply means getting the assignment done, following the plan of action. In the product evaluation, the LMS evaluates the completed assignment. Finally, the process evaluation involves the teacher, LMS, and student in an evaluation of how successfully the student navigated and understood the problem-solving process involved in completing the assignment (KASL, 25-26). As tested by the KASL research committee, this model is relevant for all disciplines, and most grade levels. The Handy 5 model is a straightforward plan to guide collaboration, and could be used as the basis for your collaborative planning form (step 1 above).


The four main challenges facing the LMS who wishes to engage in instructional collaboration are:

  1. Lack of time for planning: Fixed scheduling is a huge challenge for the LMS is an elementary school. The LMC schedule in a secondary school may be as restrictive. Divisional or grade meetings may fall at a time when you have to staff the media center, and you may have classes visiting the library at the time when teachers have a planning period which you could otherwise use to meet with them.

    How to overcome this: Time is hard to come by as you can't make it where it doesn't exist. You may need to put in some extra hours—by coming in early and staying late. Toni Buzzeo notes that you should be prepared to “don [your] track-and-field shoes and leap the obstacles” of lack of time (“Collaborating to Meet Standards”). Join any committees in charge of scheduling. Keep an eye out for time and start small: try to implement one flexible day per week for planning, or, if on a fixed schedule, two flexible months per school year (Collaboration Handbook).

  2. Lack of administrative support: administrators do not understand the place of the LMS, or LMC, and thus do not advocate for you, and may cut your staff and hours. They do not set requirements for teachers to collaborate, or even work, with you. The administrator does not offer you flexibility or allow you to be innovative.

    How to overcome this: Be an active member of the school team. Join curriculum development committees and be involved in other planning activities. Plan to meet with your school and district administration often to tell them what the library is up to (Collaboration Handbook). Document how the efforts of the LMC staff make collaboration possible, and record student achievement in collaborative projects (Collaboration Handbook).

  3. Problematic school culture: teachers who are resistant to change, including new ideas like collaboration, may be the biggest challenge.

    How to overcome this: Trusting, collegial relationships take time to build; work on building them (Abilock). Some teachers may never come around, but as you build relationships you will learn who is receptive to collaboration. Many LMSs note that teachers may be wary of collaboration because they think it implies specialized instruction for every student, and thus a great deal of time. You can change their minds by being on top of the literature and research, and using a simplified collaboration plan (Bush; KASL).

  4. Federal/state testing mandates: Teachers feel trapped by the need to teach their students the standards dictated by testing. In some cases, they must follow pacing guides and any flexibility in how they use time, and what they teach, is lost (Collaboration Handbook).

    How to overcome this: Toni Buzzeo's theory of data-driven collaboration is one means by which to overcome the challenge of a school swamped by testing mandates. In data-driven collaboration, the LMS and teacher use the results of testing that identifies deficits to create a comprehensive plan based on how to address the knowledge and skills that students in their school appear to be lacking (Collaboration Handbook). Be involved in data analysis meetings, and be aware of test-deficit areas.

Ideas and Guides for the First-Time Collaborator

You can find tried and tested ideas for collaboration in reading the usual professional development literature such as School Library Journal. There are also several recommended guides to collaboration, which include lesson plans, assignment worksheets, and assessment tools which you can adapt and use to guide you and the teacher(s) you collaborate with.
  • Collaborating to Meet Standards: Teacher/Librarian Partnerships for K-6 by Toni Buzzeo (Linworth, 2002) - In this book, Buzzeo provides a nice overview to what collaboration entails, including the benefits and the roadblocks. The central purpose of the book, is to be used as a guide to collaborating. To this end, she puts together a collection of 19 collaborative units provided by elementary library media specialists around the country. Each unit includes the intended grade level, an overview of the focus and areas of study, a time frame for completion, the content area standards it meets (from local, state or national guidelines), a cooperative teaching plan,a list of resources, and assessment tools. In pulling together and structuring the collaborative units, Buzzeo asked library media specialists to test them for usefulness and strongly feels that each is, as she puts it, "comprehensive and user-friendly."
  • The 21st Century Elementary Library Media Program by Carl A. Harvey (2010) - Presents ideas for the LMS in an elementary school, including great recommendations for how to initiate collaborations, and how to make it last. Includes sample planning logs, ideas for assessment in terms of standards, and ideas for collaborating and deepening the LMC's relationship to special education and ELL instruction.
  • The Standards-Based Integrated Library, 2nd ed. by Donna Miller (2004) - Focused on K-8, with sample units across the disciplines. Emphasis in this book is on school-wide integration of the LMC and library skills, which goes somewhat beyond teacher-LMS collaborations, but does involve a collaborative, team-based approach to instruction.
  • Toward a 21st Century School Library Media Program edited by Esther Rosenfeld and David V. Loertscher (2007) - A collection of articles from Teacher Librarian and VOYA, with a section devoted to those about collaboration. Other sections focused on topics such as curriculum design and assessment, technology integration, and partnerships, give a holistic view of what is involved for the LMS meeting AASL standards.
  • Helping Teachers Teach by Turner and Riedling - A great guide for the LMS working towards becoming an integral member of the instructional team through instructional design consultation in which the LMS moves through levels of involvement. The "in-depth" level identified by Turner and Riedling most closely resembles collaboration, but each level is an essential step along the path of building strong relationships and moving towards full collaboration.
  • Collaborative Library Lessons for the Primary Grades by Copeland and Messner - A collection of 45 minute class units organized around library research skill units, ranging from using encyclopedias to using the internet, situated in disciplinary topics. Each unit includes classroom and LMC time. Units can be used verbatim, but should be adapted for suitability.
  • Information Skills Toolkit by Logan (2000) - Collaborative, integrated skills lesson plans for middle grades. Lots of lessons, assessment rubrics and tools, and more which can all be adapted and made use of especially by the first-time collaborator.

More Recommended Sources

"Coteaching Published Lesson Plans: A Recipe for Success?" by Judi Moreillon - From School Library Media Activities Monthly, January 2009, an article on how to adapt and use published lesson plans as a strategy for saving time and simplifying the important collaboration process to make it more feasible.

AIME Indiana Study Information - Specifically, the results of "How Students, Teachers, and Principals Benefit from Strong School Libraries: The Indiana Study - 2007," conducted by RSL Research: Keith Curry Lance, Marcia J. Rodney, and Becky Russell.

School Librarians Continue to Help Students Achieve Standards: The Third Colorado Study- This study examines the positive impact of school libraries and librarians on academic achievement. Well-staffed and well-equipped libraries were linked to higher reading levels and test scores. Published in 2010 by Keith Curry Lance, Briana Hovendick Francis, and Zeth Lietzau.

Library Research Service - A website that compiles research findings, including the above results of the third Colorado study, about libraries of all kinds.

The Teacher’s Take, Part 2: The Instructional Role of the School Librarian- Interview of four middle school teachers about their experiences of
instructional collaboration school librarians

Works Cited

American Association of School Librarians. Standards for the 21st Century Learner. Chicago: American Library Association, 2007.

Abilock, Debbie. "Ten Attributes of Collaborative Leaders." Collaboration, ed. Patricia Montiel-Overall and Donald C. Aldcock. Chicago: American Association of School Librarians, 2007. 9-11. (Originally published in Knowledge Quest 31, no. 2 (Nov/Dec 2002): 8-10)

Buzzeo, Toni. "Collaborating to Meet Standards: Teacher/Librarian Partnerships K-12." Collaboration, ed. Patricia Montiel-Overall and Donald C. Aldcock. Chicago: American Association of School Librarians, 2007. 17-18. (Originally publisher in Knowledge Quest 32, no. 1 (Sept/Oct 2003): 29-30)

Buzzeo, Toni. The Collaboration Handbook. Columbus, OH: Linworth Publishing, 2008.

Kansas Association of School Librarians Research Committee (Bob Grover). "Planning and Assessing Learning Across the Curriculum." Collaboration, ed. Patricia Montiel-Overall and Donald C. Aldcock. Chicago: American Association of School Librarians, 2007. 25-30. (Originally published in Knowledge Quest 28, no. 1 (Sept/Oct 1999): 10-16)

Montiel-Overall, Patricia. "A Model of Teacher and Librarian Collaboration." Collaboration, ed. Patricia Montiel-Overall and Donald C. Aldcock. Chicago: American Association of School Librarians, 2007. 3-5.

Scholastic Research and Results. “School Libraries Work! 2008 Edition” Scholastic Library Publishing. PDF file.

Todd, Ross. "Collaboration: From Myth to Reality: Let's Get Down to Business. Just Do It!" School Library Media Activities Monthly 24, no. 7 (March 2008): 54-58.

Curated by Emily Passey with additional contributions by Kerry Devitt and Laurel Halfar.November 2011