The Magic of Library Programming



A few years ago we started running “big bookish events” here at Mercersburg.  They offer us the opportunity to step out of our research shoes and into our fandom shoes. Our events have been a huge hit with our community and after holding our third annual event, I wanted to share a few tips and tricks I’ve gathered along the way.

  1. Know your why. We love hosting big events on campus because it is an excellent marketing vehicle. Students who aren’t motivated to sign up for book club are much more likely to attend “An Evening at Hogwarts.” These same students see their friendly librarians having fun and are now less afraid to come ask us questions.
  2. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. The first big bookish event was just a Harry Potter themed dinner with a few short student-run skits. The next year we upped the ante by adding a dance to the dinner and did a Gatsby themed “Flappers and Fitzgerald.” This year we built on our Harry Potter event, expanding it to include classes. Students came in, were sorted, ate dinner in the “Great Hall” and then attended Potions, History of Magic, and Divination. Had we tried to do classes the first year, without trying dinner and an all-in-one activity first, we wouldn’t have succeeded. Building on the event each time, rather than trying to do everything the first time, makes it much more manageable.
  3. Leverage your faculty. Putting on an event for 140+ students takes a lot of man-power. Find the faculty who love the book/fandom as much as you do and put them to work! We had the theater department hang the floating candles, members of the history and math departments teaching History of Magic (trivia) and Potions (slime making).
  4. Listen to your students. After every event, I survey the students about what worked, what didn’t, and what they’d like for next time. While it can be hard to hear that they didn’t enjoy the Photo Booth that took hours to set up or wanted even more interactive activities, it helps inform events going forward.

Have you hosted a big bookish event? If you haven’t, what theme would you choose?

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Serving International Students

This year I’ve been looking at a couple of “big picture” issues at our library, squeezing in my investigations around the edges of everyday library life: user experience, especially of our online presence, and examining those new AASL standards with an eye toward linking them with other school priorities, including cross-walking with other sets of standards (a whole other post!). Among other things, these projects are leading me to another big question that I have begun to think about in a new way; how best to serve our international students and English Language Learners (ELLs). In my consideration of these students and their needs, I have tended to focus on the second part of this description – service to ELLs. In collection development, class visits, one-on-one instruction and summer reading selections, I have tried to accommodate and learn how to provide accessible, interesting, and useful materials and information. However, I have felt slightly at sea when trying to learn more about school library service to ELLs – much of what I find, rightfully and crucially so, addresses the multifaceted and diverse needs of young students from immigrant or refugee families or those growing up in the U.S. who speak a language other than English in the home. For the most part, these just aren’t my students – our ELLs are international boarding school students in middle and upper school enrolled here in order to learn and build on English skills, and usually to prepare for the TOEFL and study in an American college or university. These students and the way to approach serving them, I have recently realized, may have more in common with international student experiences in academic libraries. While I have found almost nothing specifically about serving international students in independent K-12 school libraries, plenty of academic librarians have researched, written about, and created resources to support international students coming to their institutions.

This now seems so obvious, but my focus on the age group we serve in K-12 schools has often kept me out of diving very deep into practices common to academic librarians. Well, no longer. While my students needs and backgrounds are also diverse and multifaceted, perhaps I should begin to balance my investigation of library services to younger ELLs with strategies tested by our colleagues in higher education to support international students as readers and researchers.

In chapters he wrote for two books: International Students and Academic Libraries: Initiatives for Success (ACRL, 2011) and Practical Pedagogy for Library Instructors: 17 Innovative Strategies to Improve Student Learning (ACRL, 2008), John Hickok relays the importance of understanding students’ prior experiences of libraries in their home countries and previous schools. He then recommends incorporating comparisons into library orientation sessions for international students, so that students may understand that notions they may have about libraries and librarians do not necessarily match what is offered in their school. This matches what I have gleaned from interactions with students over the years, but reading this in such plain terms was kind of revelatory. Based on Hickock’s strategies, I am eager to try a few new ideas to engage and support our students:

  1. Interview faculty members who are from or who have lived overseas, especially those countries from which our students are coming.
  2. Have casual conversations with international students to get a sense of what their perceptions are about the library and the role of the librarian.
  3. Connect with young alumni who have matriculated at institutions whose libraries have made specific efforts to reach out or offer special programs to international students.
  4. Collaborate with ESL faculty members to include more hands-on library time at the beginning of the year, introducing myself and the physical and virtual spaces, and ideally embedding library instruction into summer camp or new student orientation.

I’m not sure whether creating a resource guide specifically geared toward international students is the way to go, though many college and university libraries have done so. (A search for LibGuides for international students retrieved pages of results from universities; none from a school in the first four pages of Google results, anyway.) However, I am awakened to the need to learn from the powerful wisdom of my ESL teacher colleagues and academic librarians in not only collection development and appropriate information literacy scaffolding, but also user experience. A lot more articles just got added to my professional reading list!

If you have discovered useful resources, UX design ideas, or effective ways of providing library services including information literacy instruction to international and ESL students in middle and high school, please comment!


Hickock, J. (2008). Bringing them into the community: Innovative library instructional strategies for international and ESL students. In D. Cook & R. L. Sittler (Eds.), Practical pedagogy for library instructors: 17 innovative strategies to improve student learning (pp. 159-167).

Hickock, J. (2011). Knowing their background first: Understanding prior library experiences of international students. In P. A. Jackson & P. Sullivan (Eds.), International students and academic libraries: Initiatives for success (pp. 1-17). Chicago, Ill.: Association of College and Research Libraries.





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Strategic Searching

Each year I partner with our phenomenal 7th grade history teacher to do a lesson on Strategic Searching and ProQuest.

The students are tasked with finding information about an issue in Latin America; however, if they put Issue in Latin America in a search in ProQuest they will get tens of thousands of results. So, before we look at ProQuest, the students practice some keyword searching to identify good keywords to use and help narrow their search results.

For the first activity students play a keyword game. For differentiation, I have three game options ranging in degree of difficulty from easiest to hardest.

Google a Day is definitely a challenge but so, so fun! We all do Google a Day at the end and then use the archived Google a Days for more practice! I read the question and then the students race to be the first one to find the answer. The better your keywords the more quickly you find the answer! The students get better as they attempt more Google a Days and they learn about history at the same time! Additionally, we make each student share which keywords he or she used when he or she is the first to answer the Google a Day. The best part is that the students actually have FUN with the librarian and the lesson! 🙂

Next, we go to ProQuest and talk about using good keywords to narrow our search. The students are then tasked with selecting keywords to find an appropriate article to use for their assignment.

I am always looking for interactive ways to make students better digital resource users. If you have any sites or ideas that have been helpful please do share! Thank you!

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Inquiry through Interview: What is the news supposed to do?


Guest post by Chris Young. A version of this post originally appeared in January on my blog, The Cardigan Papers.

Photo by Branden Harvey on Unsplash.

I often wonder if middle and high school students are as concerned about the integrity of the news media as we adults are. Do young people know why the grown-ups (or school librarians, at least) have recently become so bent out of shape about fake news, media bias, filter bubbles, and viral rumors? Do our students spend much time thinking about the fourth estate’s role in our democracy? Some certainly do, but I know I didn’t at their age. If students don’t appreciate what the real news is supposed to do, do they see any reason to worry about fake news?

I thought it would be interesting if the seventh grade students in my semester-long library class had a conversation about the news with their parents. Maybe a conversation with a trusted role model at home would help put future news literacy lessons into context for students. I also like any kind of assignment that gets kids interacting with family members. So I asked my students to record an interview with a parent or older family member asking their opinions about the news media.

This was an optional homework assignment for my students, our first involving audio, so I tried to keep it as simple as possible. I took about three minutes of class time to show students how to record an interview using the voice memo app on their phones. WNYC’s Radio Rookies has an excellent video tutorial along with tips for conducting a good interview. I asked my students to use the following prompts:

  1. What is the news supposed to do? What should an audience expect from a news source?
  2. At its best, the news media can . . .
  3. At its worst, the news media can . . .

I emailed parents to explain the purpose of the assignment and let them know that participation was voluntary. After the interview was recorded, parents were asked to email the audio file to my work address, noting whether or not I had permission to share their recording with the class.

The individual interviews were fantastic. Students did a great job with mic placement and recording and it was wonderful to hear parents give such thoughtful, measured responses about a contentious topic. I was so pleased with the interviews that I decided to take the project a step further and weave the responses together into a short podcast à la This American Life or StoryCorps.


Ocenaudio makes audio editing easy for beginners.

This next step was only going to work if I could find a free audio editing app that was easy to use. After researching options, I downloaded Ocenaudio and studied John Keisker’s five minute YouTube tutorial to learn the basics. I found free, quirky background music at the YouTube Audio Library. After some basic editing and mixing, the following montage was born. I share it here with permission from everyone involved in the recording:

How cute is that?

I like the idea that students and parents dedicated a few minutes to having this conversation about the news media’s role in our democracy. I also like that students are taking steps toward being journalists themselves. How much more fun would it be to get students to write their own interview questions and edit their own audio? The tools are simple and readily available and my students will figure out how to use them faster than I can. They will, however, still need guidance in setting standards for ethical journalism and responsible media production. I love imagining what producing authentic, quality news pieces could teach students about consuming news.

More than anything, this assignment was super fun. The class got a kick out of hearing the montage whether or not they submitted audio. I loved playing around with tools and a form that were new to me. And the positive PR generated for the library program by sharing the final podcast was, as we say in New Orleans, lagniappe.

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Magical Portals for Research

“A straight line is not the shortest distance between two points.”
Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time (from

Searching a special collections archive can at times feel as mind-boggling as finding the wrinkles that lead you to another time dimension. How do you find those “magical portals,” entry points to archives, and simplify daunting site navigation? Though the role of librarians has evolved from that of “gatekeeper,” “gatekeeper” does have a metaphysical ring to it–conjuring up a scene from Monty Python in which you must correctly answer the riddle posed by the bridge keeper or risk being hurtled into the abyss. The challenge for librarians is to identify entry points and model search strategies, thereby minimizing frustration and building students’ skills as independent researchers.

Here are a few favorite “magical portals” and search strategies that our students have been using to enrich their research with primary sources and scholarly articles:

Science Research: Engines of Our Ingenuity and Topics in Chronicling America
Fifth graders have been exploring the lives of scientists and inventors and applying design thinking to their research. Challenged to find examples of how society reacted to the science discoveries, students used the podcast articles from Engines of Our Ingenuity, written and hosted by Dr. John Lienhard in association with the University of Houston and Houston Public Media. One student unearthed a gem in the article “Darwin Boards the Beagle.” Darwin was close friends with the captain of the Beagle at the beginning of the journey, but as the captain learned more about Darwin’s evolving theories, they collided with the captain’s own beliefs in the Bible and he become an enemy, participating in debates in Oxford to discredit Darwin. This article provided the student with an example of how society’s beliefs conflicted with Darwin’s discoveries.

Search strategy: Rather than using the Engines of Our Ingenuity search box, an Advanced Google search provided more specific results.
(Bound phrase search) “engines of our ingenuity” Darwin

Topics in Chronicling America links historic newspapers themed to topics such as famous persons and events in Science and Technology. This is a much easier way for young researchers to navigate the Chronicling America archived newspapers through the Library of Congress.

Search strategy: Select a topic, such as Invention of the Telephone, and click on newspaper article “A Wonderful Invention.” Scan the paper for red highlighted word and use the box finder tool to zoom in and read this article about how Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated his telephone to an enthusiastic audience.

History Research: JSTOR Daily
Seventh graders researched social reformers of the 1800s and were challenged to connect these reform movements to modern reform initiatives. In searching for articles on Laura Bridgman, the first blind and deaf girl to learn how to read and write, we discovered JSTOR Daily, an online publication that puts contemporary issues in historic context using research from the journals archived in JSTOR. The Laura Bridgman article, for example, explored the changing views towards special education.

Search Strategy: A bonus to these JSTOR Daily articles is that they link to JSTOR journal articles. For instance, the Laura Bridgman article linked to a JSTOR journal article about Dr. Howe’s educational methods in teaching Laura to read and write.

Language Arts: Constitution Daily, Circulation Now, and New York Times Archives
Eighth grade Language Arts students incorporated primary sources as they researched US History topics. Several museums and newspaper archives have online articles to highlight their collections and provide easier access to the content. Below are just a few examples:

Constitution Daily blog showcases content from the National Constitution Center. The Scopes Trial article provides historic context to the trial as well as links to a Tennessee House Bill on Teaching Science (2011).

Search strategy: Rather than using the Constitution Daily search box, an Advanced Google search provided more specific results.
(Bound phrase search) “scopes trial”

Circulation Now blog links historic items from the US National Library of Medicine (NIH).  The “Heart Surgery on Film” article discusses the work of one of the first female heart surgeons, Dr. Nina Braunwald, and the blog was written by a library graduate student, Rachel James.

Search Strategy: I used this article by Rachel James to model search strategies and resources that Rachel used to develop her research on heart surgery.

New York Times Archive themes articles to famous events and provides links to historic newspapers. This article on the Three Mile Island disaster links to a newspaper article written at the time. Though you need to be a subscriber to view the historic newspapers, the featured articles often contain specific examples from the primary source newspaper.

Search Strategy: Use Advanced Google search archives “three mile island”

These are just a few of the “magical portals” that have opened up new ways for students to navigate archives. Rather than a straight path, research requires searchers to remain curious and experiment with search strategies. As Madeleine L’Engle observed in A Wrinkle in Time, “experiment is the mother of knowledge.”

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Biography Book Musical Chairs

In February, Black History Month, our Fourth Grade students studied the Civil Rights movement.  Inspired by the Unquiet Librarian’s Musical Chairs + Book Tasting * we played a little musical chairs of our own: Biography Book Musical Chairs.  Through this fun and dance-friendly game, students were introduced to a variety of picture book biographies about inspiring African Americans throughout our country’s history.  When the music played they walked (and danced) around the circle of chairs.  When the music stopped, students picked up the book in the chair closest to them and sat down to get a taste of the biographical figure within the book.  After four rounds of musical chairs, each student selected one of the four books** they had tasted.  The book was checked out and brought back to class for a project with the classroom teacher.  In class, students read their biographies and wrote about their chosen historical figures.  The teachers then had students select one passage from the text that they felt best represented the heart of the person they read about.  Some of the passages were very moving.  This project will be shared with parents at conferences this week, the highlight being the student reading the chosen passage aloud to their parents from the biography.

*Buffy J. Hamilton can now be found at her new blog, Living in the Layers.

**There were sometimes two or more students who were dead set on the same biography.  Trouble?  For the most part, no.  The majority of students were very kind and easily solved the problem through conversation or games of rock, paper, scissors.  For the others, we stepped in to help them make good choices.


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Affective Labor is Real: A Librarian’s Guide to Navigating #NeverAgain

Guest Post by Elaine Levia

Emma Gonzalez with mosaic of slogans (art by Serena May Illescas) uploaded by Flickr user Vince Reinhart, shared under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

Here we are.

It is hard for me to write that only the most recent events at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida have inspired this post. We’ve been inundated with stories of  gun violence in and out of schools far longer than we care to admit.  I was in elementary school when the Columbine massacre took place. Even in relative safety, I grew up learning to regard gun violence in schools not as incidents isolated by time and space, but as looming threats that would eventually happen to me or someone I knew.

Now, as a school librarian, I feel favorably positioned to approach the work of compiling resources for general and practical support in the current unfolding of violent events. We sit in a favorable seat because of our roles, adjacent to students as teachers are, but also as de facto counselors, confidants, advisors, and affective laborers of all stripes. Affective labor is the critical feminist term for work in the service or care of others, either emotionally or physically. It came about as a response to the invisibility of immaterial labor, and has even been explored in the context of academic libraries. You might be wondering, as I have wondered recently, how to broach the interconnected pieces of school shootings with students in a clear-cut way. How might we balance responsible reactions to unthinkable trauma within our training level and expertise? How might we support students in a time of anger, sadness, political fervor, and need?

I am reassured by the old refrain, shared often as comfort with me by my own mother, who also happens to be a librarian. We don’t need to have all the answers. We just need to be the connection. Today I want to share some thoughts and resources that have helped me figure out my personal role in the sea change, and I will ask for your help with one small action: consider this the crystallization, the reification of all the emotional, seemingly invisible duties of a school librarian. We’re already tasked with doing more with less, but I hope that the following few tips and resources provide a wide variety of inclusive practices for the toolkit. Moreover, I hope that a dedicated space for support and discussion within our community proves fruitful and restorative. The care of minds and bodies of others, particularly our students, is a borderless, ever-expanding pursuit. We can only do it so well when we’re able to lean on our community for support.

Additionally, I’m interested in your resources. I’ve started a public document, which you may notice at the time of posting is still in its nascent phase. Please feel free to contribute books, podcasts, training resources, tech tools, or timely articles.

Read on for some ideas about the connections we can make between the prevalence of gun violence, mental health, activism, and diversity & inclusion work.

Continue reading

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Lower School: You can find it anyplace–even in the Middle School

Scene 1: It’s a Tuesday in the Middle School library, and Sophie–a 5th grader–is arriving for library class. She has her iPad in her hands, and has evidently walked all the way from the Middle School building (close to 100 yards, admittedly across mostly open grass) holding it in front of her face, playing a game that the ever-resourceful tween population has been able to get to despite the firewall.

Having made it all the way across campus, up the wide concrete-and-steel stairway (I tried not to imagine that part), across the lobby and through the library doors, Sophie is headed straight for the massive column that separates the circulation area from the seating area.

Surely she sees that column?

Surely she’ll stop before she–


She looks up and does a last-second course correction before placidly making her way to the chairs where her class meets (back at the game, of course).

Scene 2: On another library-class day, I tell the 5th grade that we will be using their iPads to access our library catalog.  Several of them do not have the catalog app downloaded on their iPads, and their school-controlled App Manager doesn’t have it as an installation option either.  Frantic swiping through home pages ensues.

“What does it look like?!”

“Mine doesn’t have it!”

“I can’t find it!”

“That’s okay,” I say, “I’ll show you how to make a shortcut for your home screen.”  They are still staring at their screens, swiping and yelping and talking to one another about how they do or do not have the app installed.

“Guys,” I say.  Swipe, swipe, yelp, yelp.

“Boys and girls.”  Swipe, yelp, swipe.

“People!”  They stop.  “It’s okay. I’ll walk you through it step by step.  Go to your home screen and open Safari.  Now type this address: heathwood dot–”

“It’s not working!”

“How do you spell heathwood?”

“Mrs. Falvey, it’s not working!”

(Meanwhile those who did have the app already installed are back to playing a game.)

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

Of course it all works out all right, but scenes like these underscore the fact that we may be in  the middle school library, but this isn’t middle school.  In all but geography, these are still Lower School students.

I don’t know how many schools have moved their 5th grade classes up to the middle school.  Our school did it a number of years ago as a response to running out of room in the Lower School classrooms, and overall it has worked very well; our middle school is divided, with the first floor limited to 7th- and 8th-grade classrooms, and the second floor to 5th and 6th.  Day-to-day procedures and teaching methods are different for each section, even 5th grade compared to 6th, and these accommodations work well.  As I’m sure all of us have noticed, there is a world of difference between a 5th grader and an 8th-grader!  Fifth-graders may have shot up over the summer–especially the girls–but they are still, as our counsellor says, much more like little kids than teenagers.

In the library, as well, we make distinctions between 5th graders and the rest of the middle school.

For example, I have found that I need to introduce new concepts gradually, especially involving tech.  Our 5th graders may be digital natives, but they do need guidance in approaching tech as an academic tool (and in being willing to stop and listen to directions!).  At the beginning of the year, especially, when we are not actively using the iPads we put them down out of reach.  Impulse control–the struggle is real!

Also, our collection has to be carefully managed.  The Middle/Upper School library serves students in the 5th through 12th grades.  While I hope we will one day have a new building with separate space for the middle-school collection, in the meantime I have to manage two very different collections catering to a wide range of tastes and interests.  My predecessor handled this by choosing to skew the collection to the middle-school level; while this avoided any potential problems of inappropriate checkouts, the result was an entire group of students who were left without a collection.  This year, I am developing a YA collection separate from the general fiction collection.  These books have a different spine label, as well as a silvery holographic dot just above the spine label as a way to try and prevent “mistake” checkouts.  These books are also in a separate area of the library where I can easily see who is browsing.  While I do not plan to be a martinet about letting students browse that area, I do plan to limit checkouts to Upper School students.  We’ll see how it works out!

Finally, I have found that I have to be careful about seating for my 5th (okay, 6th too) graders.  I purchased some awesome beanbags (stuffed with foam pieces, not polystyrene beads–highly recommended, with reservations as noted next) from Ultimate Sack ( this fall.  The students love them–mostly because they are actually big enough to take a nap in and therefore nearly impossible to move (hence the conditional recommendation as mentioned above).  Did I mention that I bombed the spatial reasoning section on my high school career-skills test?

Exhibit A:

It’s the size of a small car!

Yep, these are very popular.  So we began the year spending anywhere from 5-10 minutes at the beginning of every class discussing where the beanbags were (Upper Schoolers take them to the back to nap on), how to move them (roll them like you’re a dung beetle), who should to sit on them this week, who got to sit on them last week, and who can do the best parkour pattern using *all* of the beanbags.  (Mrs.Falvey = facepalm). Needless to say we had to lay some ground rules for the beanbags!

All this to say that even though they may be located in the middle school, 5th grade is still very much still in the Lower School for most of the year.  And that is okay!  iPads and pillar-obstacles and beanbags and keyword searches are all learning opportunities in their own right.  I try to keep in mind that early-middle school students are still learning a lot about navigating life, and overall they are a joy to work with. I love their wide-open enthusiasm, the fact that they still love to read and be read to, and the fact that they will still speak to me when I see them on campus!  But oh, how I wish I had measured those beanbags ahead of time!




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Shoe or phone?


We cannot be the only school library that likes to have power cords available for use by students in need. Sometimes phone but mostly laptop, requests are frequent and desperate, so we’re happy to help.

Except for the fact that we kept losing them. Despite what I thought were some well thought out practices for tracking these expensive accessories: cataloguing and circulating them, attaching metre-sticks to them, allowing use only at our desk. NOTHING WORKED.

Until we started asking for a shoe or a phone. These seem to be the only 2 things that a student will not leave the library without. We haven’t lost a charger since we started doing this 3 months ago.

(Okay – on one occasion, a Grade 9 boy wandered out minus a shoe but figured it out by end of day and was back with the charger. I call that a win.)

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Be Internet Awesome

For so long, we have relied on Common Sense Media’s digital citizenship curriculum and Digital Passport activities in Lower School, but now we have a new (to us) option — Be Internet Awesome by Google.

For those unfamiliar, here’s a quick description of Be Internet Awesome:

To make the most of the Internet, kids need to be prepared to make smart decisions. Be Internet Awesome teaches kids the fundamentals of digital citizenship and safety so they can explore the online world with confidence.

If you’re teaching in a Google environment, students can easily navigate to Google’s Interland, where they can play games in the Kind Kingdom, Tower of Treasure, Reality River, or Mindful Mountain. While a ton of fun (I spent 20 minutes in the Kind Kingdom without even realizing any time had passed!), the games teach and reinforce key concepts about being kind online, securing your identity, sharing information responsibly, and navigating the web with a critical eye.

There are also tons of resources for educators and parents, including a curriculum guide. I also really like the look and simplicity of their internet pledge:

So, am I late to the game here? Are any of you using this with your students? What grades? What do you think?

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