June 18, 2018

Liesl Toates | Movers & Shakers 2018 – Educators

Liesl Toates


Media Specialist, Monroe #1 Boces School Library System, Rochester, NY


MLS, SUNY Buffalo, 2009


@LieslToates on Twitter

Photo by Mark D’Annunzio


Escape-Room Engineer

Long before Liesl Toates moved to her new job at the Monroe #1 BOCES School Library System in September 2017, she had made a mark on education in western New York at the Genesee Valley School Library System (GVSLS), where she worked for eight years.

There she collaborated with Brian Mayer (a 2015 Mover & Shaker [M&S]) to establish Genesee Valley as a national leader in educational escape rooms, in which players are locked in a room that’s themed—an art curator with stolen art, or Sherlock Holmes’s library—and need to get out. Players get a list of rules, a time limit, and a set number of clues.

“We took a deep dive into what the students were learning and aligned our narratives and puzzles to match,” explains Toates. “In many cases we were able to tie two subjects together. For instance, the story line is women’s suffrage, but the puzzle mechanisms tie in skills [the youngsters] are learning in math or science.”

Toates prepared documentation linking the themes and mechanisms of these “standards-based escape rooms” to specific curricular concepts. “Educators have to be accountable for so much that many feel they don’t have time for frivolous things,” she says. “The documentation allows [them to do] something fun with students because it shows that the activity is not frivolous.”

Another example of Toates’s leadership is the Digies, a festival that began at GVSLS to showcase and judge student excellence in various digital media. “When Liesl took over the festival…it was struggling,” says Christopher Harris, her former boss at GVSLS (and a 2008 M&S). Moving physical media around for judging and showing in the rural Genesee Valley was a challenge. Toates transitioned the Digies to a fully digital festival, with submissions showcased and judged online. That allowed the festival’s scope to expand to all of western and central New York, including submissions from public libraries.

Toates also created a model of professional development around the festival: the Digies Conference Day. The registration fee for the workshop includes hardware so participants leave with all they need to implement the project.

Toates is never out of new ideas or the urge to share her passion. “There are so many fantastic things librarians are doing,” she says. “Many of them need someone to help flesh [them] out.” That’s where she comes in.

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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