Ways of Reading

As I followed the “reading culture” thread on the listserv last month and scrawled lists of related books I need to investigate, it got me thinking about all the ways I read nowadays. More specifically, I thought about how differently I read now than I did when I was a kid. When I was the age of my current students, reading meant a print book, or maybe an article in a print magazine or newspaper. Now, though?

  • In the morning and evening, as I get ready for work or bed, I listen to audiobooks. I also listen to audiobooks on long car trips. For short trips, I prefer podcasts, though often that means reading-adjacent storytelling podcasts like The Moth or StoryCorps.
  • Professional articles I mostly read on my computer, though my school does subscribe to print versions of SLJ and Hornbook, which makes for a nice break from staring at screens all the time!
  • In my father’s last years, I called him daily to read him articles from The New York Times, Smithsonian, or BBC Travel, all of which I read on my computer (though I do maintain a print subscription to Smithsonian).
  • I review books for SLJ and Kirkus, and these days, I read all those on my computer.
  • For travel, or for books I need to read as soon as possible, I have a Kindle, or the Kindle app on my phone.
  • Before I go to sleep, I catch up on Webtoons, and read fanfic recommended by my friends’ kids or my students.
  • And yes, I also still read print books and graphic novels!

I’m sure that most of your reading lives are equally diverse, and I can only imagine what my students’ reading lives include! So often I think our students don’t consider themselves readers because they don’t read print books except for class, but they may well devour (or write!) hundreds of thousands of words of fanfiction online, or listen to serial stories on podcasts, or read articles in areas of interest online, etc.

So how do we celebrate all kinds of reading as we build a reading culture at school? Chris Young mentioned a few things in their recent post on using Beanstack to foster a culture of reading, with Book Bingo that included articles and audiobooks. That’s a great start! Perhaps I could start the year with a board inviting kids to write down all the ways they read, and then work from there? Perhaps I’ll get amazing ideas from books about reading culture, as well. I don’t yet know how I’ll approach it, but I know I want to take into account all kinds of reading.

Tell me in the comments all the ways you and your students read!

Covers of all the books I read in the last twelve months, flanked by my favorite Webtoons.

“Just teach the databases”: Better responses than eye-rolling?

A recent conversation with a colleague about that perpetual, one-time-a-year “collaboration” request for “just a quick introduction to databases” made me reflect carefully on why I don’t really get that particular gem of an assignment anymore.

This colleague had just received that same ask and felt saddened – as it did not resonate with what she thought students actually needed.

So, we began discussing what skills her particular students do need to move forward in the word, and then we began plotting a “database lesson” that would deliver one of those skills, instead. The process reminded me of a closely-held principle I’ve had since before entering school librarianship: what we teach is mostly thinking skills; any technical skills will need to be about flexibly adapting to change over time and across tools, in any event.

This is where I began to reflect on strategies I used in the early years at my school when this was a frequent instructional request. Now, I do teach the basic intro in ninth grade (and my colleague in sixth). Otherwise, whenever I was asked to teach databases, I instead taught a skill that was useful in a broad range of research situations. Of course, we used the databases to practice, so I was delivering on my colleague’s desires. These lessons include, but are not limited to:
*How search tools work (I’ve pivoted to using Stephanie Gamble’s lego method, far superior to my prior attempts);
*Mind mapping pre-existing knowledge to expose potential search terms;
*Using stepping stone sources (reading for useful search terms);
*Imagining sources (for example: most newspaper articles on sports do not mention the name of the sport, but tend to mention team names; articles on psychology do not tend to use the word “psychology” – unless it is in the journal title – but instead refer to specific conditions and possibly the subject group tested);
*Close reading of non-fiction to determine POV;
*Accessing multiple perspectives;
and so forth.

I have recently realized that this approach not only delivers more skills to my students that are more flexible across their needs, but it also demonstrated to my colleagues the greater range of what I have to offer and has led to many fewer requests for “just the databases,” and colleagues coming in the door looking for more meaningful and applicable (and less repetitive) engagements.

School’s out….

Today is the last day for our students and tomorrow is the last day for teachers.  As much as I dislike our early start of the year (we report back at the beginning of August), it is nice to be done with school by Memorial Day.  This is always a time of reflection for me as I review the previous school year and (attempt) to clear my head for next year’s planning. This year has been one of growth and change for me.  Frankly, at this time last year I was disheartened, and I entered the summer with uncertainty.  I was not sure how I fit into the vision for the school.

Original artwork by former teacher, displayed in MS Library. I found myself contemplating this piece many times over last summer.

My day-to-day activities changed as I moved into the middle school library full time.  I was able to fully collaborate with the 6th grade students and teachers and build a scaffold for both technology and library instruction.  The year also brought the opportunity to build personal relationships with teachers in the other two grades with the goal of deeper collaboration next year. I am happy to say that the uncertainty that I felt last summer has disappeared.

As I reflect on the 2023-2024 school year there are definite wins!

  • Regular meetings with all 6th grade students.  During English class, we met twice per month during the first semester and at least once per month in the second semester.  We worked together to hone citation skills, basic evaluation of digital resources, and work on building effective notecards.  Additionally, I met with these students during Science class beginning in October.  I became an embedded librarian for the duration of their science fair research project.
  • Increased circulation of library books. For the past 6 years, I was only part time in the middle school which made it difficult to consistently promote reading and check out of books.  With an increased presence and more opportunity to talk books with kids circulation increased by 15% over the 2022-2023 school year.
  • Connections with students. The library became a “third space” for a significant number of students before school and during our morning break.  Getting to know my regular visitors was such a treat.  We connected over books, I learned more about what was going on in their lives outside of school, and several of them became unofficial library helpers.  When shelving books moved to the back burner, these kids jumped in and helped me empty by shelving cart.

What does the 2024-2025 school year bring? I’m not entirely sure.  I have a great relationship with my building administration and feel fully supported in the library activities.  I have a few big programming ideas that I am working on implementing and I have plans to increase my collaboration with classroom teachers.  But first…..I’m going to work on my personal summer reading list! 

A New Approach to Bouncing Balls

This post comes with a preface, a caveat. I am early in this process but it’s what has occupied my mind lately so I’m sharing not just to let you all know what I’ve been ruminating on, but also to solicit your discoveries and successes.

We’ve hired several new administrators this year, and my wonderful Learning Support Specialist colleague asked each of them questions about how they would support and work with our neurodivergent students–academically (for our Academic Dean position), in disciplinary contexts (for our Dean of Students position), and holistically. The questions and the ensuing answers had me thinking more about what I can do from our US library to support these students, which, at our school primarily includes ADHD and some ASD.

Of course, the easy place was to start with books, both for our students and our faculty. I updated and added some titles to our collection, some with an eye towards informal professional development for faculty, including these:

Others, I ordered or noted in our collection as good mirror books for our students, like these:

Given that many more of our students use the library as a space than to check out books, I next considered how I can make the library space more inclusive and productive for students. In looking into ways to support our older students, given that much of my early searching focused on items for little kids, I came across an emerging trend in college and university libraries for sensory rooms. After exploring what those spaces offered, and talking with our Learning Support folks more, here are some things I’ve adopted or am planning to have in place for next year.

  • One option I’m seeking funding for is some alternative seating. Particularly the covered exercise ball chairs that are as sturdy as furniture but allow for students to bounce and wiggle quietly and discreetly.
  • Soothing items: I’m eyeing up a desktop zen garden, but in the meantime I have a handful of lava lamp-esque bubble timers that are super calming.
  • Fidgets: I regularly purchase give-away items during exams that are stress relievers, but lately I’ve switched to ones that work as fidget items as well. Pop bracelets were a hit last year. This year I’ve acquired these squishy pencil grips that double as “ooh, free thing!” and sensory fidget for the students that may need that.
  • Noise-reducing earmuffs–while most students who want to tune things out seem to opt for music and their own headphones, I have a few noise reducing earmuffs they can check out for kids who really do want quiet while they work.
  • Pencils! Ok, this is a bit different than the other things on my list, but for kids with ADHD materials management can be HARD. On each level of my library I have a cup of pre-sharpened pencils that I buy in bulk and refill as needed.

One thing I aim for with these items is that they aren’t specifically for neurodivergent students. They are useful or fun for any student. That also means that the kids who might get a particular boost from them don’t need to feel visible or singled out for having them.

Already, I can feel the small but important shifts that come from taking a different perspective. Last week a ninth grader came in to the library with a soccer ball (again) and started tossing it from one hand to the other and rolling it back and forth across the table and I could see that it was going to be a problem. I have a tidy collection of tennis, lacrosse, ping pong, and other balls that I’ve collected of late as students just can’t keep still or resist bouncing/tossing/playing with them inside. But this time, as I got ready to head over to take the ball or have him put it away I took a deep breath, and told myself that he might not even realize what he’s doing. So, before I headed his way I ducked into my office and grabbed a pop bracelet. Now, when I headed over I simply set the bracelet down in front of him and said, “here’s a better thing to fidget with.” He stopped messing with the ball and I felt a lot more positive about the interaction. I suspect he did too. And that’s the culture I want our library to be about.

Commit to Curiosity

This summer we are taking a different approach to summer reading at The Oakridge School by combining suggested reading with options for other activities. These include ways to delve into art, culture, science, sports, literature, service and technology.  We are calling this platform: Commit to Curiosity. I am still a huge proponent of required reading for the summer; (with lots of choices), but for now Oakridge has opted for suggested reads.  Lower and middle school students are excited about summer book bingo  – possibly because of the raffle and gift cards on the line.  (I am excited about AISL Bingo!)

I think the key to success will be promotion, promotion, promotion. We’re marketing the guide with a student created commercial, and social media combined with our school website will hopefully keep the momentum going.  The students also have an option to keep up with their activities in a “passport” book. Links to the Bingo Boards are in the platform under Literature. 

We are almost there!

Happy Summer!

Author Visits from the Author’s Perspective: Part Three: Visit Day

Welcome to the final post in this series. In part one, I covered the demographics of the authors who responded to my survey, and logistical planning for an in-person visit. In part two, I covered preparing for and promoting an author event at your school. In this final post, I will cover ensuring your author visit goes smoothly on the day. As always, many thanks to the authors who took the time to respond to my survey!

Day-Of Logistics

Asked how a librarian can make a visit day go smoothly, most authors ticked all the boxes: Keep a communication device handy in case of issues; Meet the author at the check-in point; Escort the author wherever they need to go; Make introductions; Help with any tech needs/issues; Have water available; Facilitate signings with post-its and extra pens.

In the “other” option, Margriet Ruurs suggested: “Display books on a table so kids can see the relationship between the books, the speaker and the slideshow/talk.” Kirby Larson said: “The more communication, the better!” Kelly Jones added: “I don’t need to be escorted (I know you’re busy!). But it helps if the office is aware that I’m coming and can tell me where I should go.”

Make It Special

Here are some examples of librarians who went the extra mile and made the author visit really special.

Martha Brockenbrough: “Not only did Terry Shay have the cheerleading squad, he had every kid outside with little signs to welcome me. It was over the top, but definitely incredible. The excitement made me feel good, but more important—it made the KIDS pumped for what was to come.”

Margriet Ruurs: “If they do all the things listed above, it’s awesome. But often that’s not the case and you have to make the best of it for the students’ sake. It’s a great gesture when the principal attends a session and sets the tone for the importance of reading in the school.”

Phoebe Fox: “With everything an author brings to a visit, it is especially helpful to have a parking spot reserved near the library or area of presentation.”

Dianne White: “Librarians who have prepared the kids and teachers by talking about the visit ahead of time, sharing books, and helping kids and staff get excited about the value of author visits make for the best overall experiences.”

Kirby Larson: “At one middle school in Arkansas, the librarian worked with the cafeteria to have food that was suggested by my books! Amazing. I am so grateful when librarians provide extra water for me and a little sweet snack in the afternoon; I appreciate being introduced to the principal; I’m always touched when there’s a little welcome swag bag in the hotel room. Honestly, I’m so appreciative of how hard librarians/teachers are already working; I am in total awe of all the extras they do to connect kids with books and their creators.”

Kelly Jones: “I appreciate it when librarians prepare students for my visit, but I also really love hearing any follow-ups! It’s been wonderful to hear about classes who’ve continued the writing exercises we talk about and create their own stories, or libraries who’ve created ways for students to share the stories they create with each other.” In addition, “If there’s a practice you use for library time or assemblies that works well with your students, please tell me! For instance, one library often used a “stop and share” practice for the kinds of exciting questions I was asking students to think about. The librarian would ask the question, then students would have one minute to discuss it with a neighbor before we moved on. When the librarian stopped my presentation to explain, it was a perfect addition—something I could use with that school and with others!”

Lily LaMotte: “The cafeteria serving the students lunch with the recipe from my book… I’ve also had a teacher in West Palm Beach make a whole diorama on stage. Other librarians decorated their libraries. Another teacher had a contest where students wrote essays about why they wanted to come to a small group student lunch with me.”

Dori Hillestad Butler: “I love when I pull into a school parking lot and see a sign that tells me where to park. (I especially liked the ones that said VIP AUTHOR PARKING—I’ve been to several schools that did that.) A librarian in Oregon had read that I like Diet Dr. Pepper and had a couple bottle of it (nobody has Diet Dr. Pepper on hand!). One of the best school visits I ever was in Colorado–the kids wrote a play based on one of my books and then performed it for me.”

Cautionary Tales

Sometimes, visits don’t go so well, unfortunately. Here are some (anonymous) examples, and reasons why.

“I would say that most visits are always wonderful, but I did have a visit last year that was close to the end of the school year. The multi-purpose room was full of stuff that had been recently been moved there because the year was coming to an end. There was a lot of last minute cleaning up and making room for the classes to fit. It left me with the feeling that the author visit was more of an after-thought and the assembly was just a way to occupy the kids for a short while, rather than an enrichment to the educational experience.”

“One school (a middle school) left me alone with the kids to do a workshop. For the entire period. And one of the kids basically wrote [inappropriate fiction] and then read it out loud. It’s not my job to deal with that. Now I have a line in my letter of agreement that says “author will not be left alone with students,” which is probably a good idea for any kind of liability as well.”

“I once did six visits in a day (too many), and the school didn’t provide me with lunch. I would have brought my own had they told me there wouldn’t be lunch. It made for a hard day.”

“I’ve been very lucky so far in that I haven’t had any bad visits. The only one that I can think of that didn’t go well was a virtual visit to a library during lockdown. Unfortunately each attendee was trying to get onto the facility’s WiFi from their own laptop while outside the building because they weren’t allowed in because of the lockdown. But the tech issue wasn’t the librarian’s fault. And it was the pandemic so it was a time for everyone to be more flexible than normal.”

“My presentations, in the end, are always very well received. But if there are no books displayed, no art based on books, no enthusiasm about the visit – it is much harder to achieve a positive atmosphere.”

“Though I work very hard to engage kids, if they have no idea who I am or why I’m there, it can be a slog for me to help them get the most of the presentation. I can overcome tech issues or other things but adequate prep really helps the school get the biggest bang for their buck.”

Annoyances and Frustrations

The authors gave insightful responses about things  that specifically annoy or frustrate them on visit days, which I present anonymously.

“I once had a principal want to meet with me before the visit to make sure my visit would be OK for his students. I’m a published author. I do school visits regularly. I used to teach at a high school. Asking for more time and, in a sense, justifying my presence is pretty uncool.” This author added that, in addition to unprepared students, having disengaged or absent teachers makes it impossible for the teacher to build on the author’s lesson, which is intended to support the curriculum. Especially if teachers are absent, “it feels as if they want me to entertain their students for an hour and that’s it. But that is not how author talks work. A good author presentation is not reading from your book. Anyone can do that. It is sharing the excitement about writing, planning, editing – making kids want to write, too!”

“When there is no introduction made, it feels very awkward to introduce oneself.”

“Requests to do additional presentations after the contract has been set/settled are hard to deal with but, truly, I know things come up at the last minute. We’re all doing our best, that is for sure!”

“Very noisy outside environments (for instance, a really loud class on the other side of an air wall in a divided gym) can be hard to overcome.”

“It can be difficult to quickly adapt and give the students the experience I’d like them to have when the tech arrangements we agreed upon aren’t available after all—for instance, no microphone or working projector for a full-school assembly.”

“I also prefer for teachers to support students asking me questions during the Q&A, even if someone else has already asked it, or it might embarrass the teacher (such as, how much money do I make). I believe that students are trying to imagine themselves in a writer’s shoes, and trying to connect and be seen. I have answers for these situations that everyone can learn from without anyone’s attempt being shut down.”

“Before: Not getting a schedule, not getting a response from my host if I email, not receiving my signed letter of agreement back in a timely manner.”

Final Thoughts

Margriet Ruurs: “Whether it’s local or around the world, sharing your books in schools and libraries is awesome. And keep in mind that it makes it financially possible to stay home and write during other times. Author visits support the writer on so many levels.”

Kirby Larson: “I am so grateful to the teachers and librarians working so hard every day in their buildings. Though a school visit with me might not work out/fit their schedule or budget, I am in awe of all the ways they work so hard to connect kids with books and their creators. So a huge thank you to our wonderful educators!”

The Return of Summer Reading Bingo

Based on the fun that was had last year, we’re bringing back bingo! Graphic designer & educator Bram Meehan of Santa Fe created our unique bingo board and has updated it for this year. All AISL members are invited to take part – and yes, there are prizes!

Here is the bingo board:

And here are the guidelines (also on the board), but the main thing is to have fun!

  • 1 book = 1 box (no repeated titles)
  • Each completed row (horizontal, vertical or diagonal) = 1 ballot in the draw
  • Completed bingo cards should be emailed to sstraughan@tcs.on.ca by Labour Day (Sep 2)
  • Multiple winners will be drawn, and gift cards awarded based on winner preference: local bricks & mortar bookstore or online bookseller
  • An optional Zoom wrap-up party will be held on Mon Sep 9th (5pmPST/8pmEST) where winners will be announced and an informal book chat will be held (winners not in attendance will be notified via email)

Share your ongoing bingo experience by DMing AISL socials!

on gratitude…

Hi Friends,

As it turned out, this post ended up being a lot harder to write than I’d expected it to be.

See, as of this morning, we have 5 more days of school in the ’23-’24 school year and at the end of the day on May 24th, instead of being a “school librarian” I will be a “retired school librarian.” This also means that, after hitting the publish button 79 times since my first Independent Ideas post in November of 2013, that this is the last time I’ll get to share with you in this space.

What follows, you know, deserves a really good backing track so please open this in a tab in the background: What Was I Made for Instrumental

Thanks for humoring me one last time!!! 🤣🤣🤣

In all honesty, retiring is something that I’ve wistfully dreamt about on every single first day of school for the last 37 years, so it is, frankly, shocking to me that saying farewell feels as hard as it does. And, well, saying farewell to the wonderful community that AISL has been for me for the last 24 years might be hardest of all.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m retiring. I’m not dying #CrossesFingersAndToes so I very much hope to continue a relationship with AISL as a KARL (“Kick A** Retired Librarian” for the uninitiated 🤣 ), but the farewell process I’ve experienced with colleagues and friends here on campus has already made me acutely aware that when you head off into retirement your relationship to people in organizations WILL change–and I know that will be the case with all of you as well.

More than anything, I hope that each and every one of you knows how grateful I am that you’ve invited and allowed me to be part of this community and part of your professional lives. Whether you realized it or not, by virtue of the fact that you are here reading my rambling last post; posting a question, supportive comment, or a solution to someone’s quandary on the listserv; or just reaching out on email to say “hi” to a fellow librarian, each and every one of you has had a part in building this community called AISL that I have come to love and cherish so very much over the years.

When I published my first Independent Ideas post. The Independent Ideas blog had just launched so I didn’t really know what I was doing or what I was supposed to write about. I was just told, “Write about middle school stuff…” 🤷🏻‍♂️🤷🏻‍♂️🤷🏻‍♂️

At the time, the ginormous new middle school library at Harvard-Westlake in Los Angeles where I worked was about a year old. After living in our new space for a year, we were looking for ways to address some of the pain points in our lovely new library so I walked through the library with a video camera and used Mozilla Popcorn Maker to create and post a “VH-1 Pop-up Video” style video asking people for suggestions about how they might make better use of our space. And yeah, I am about to be a retiree so I get that VH-1 Pop-up Video and Mozilla Popcorn Maker are anachronisms to, probably, 85% of you reading this now!!! #HavingOldMan KneesSucksButYouGetToRetireSoTheresThat 🤣🤣🤣

A couple of times over the years I seem to have hit the mark and a few posts have held up pretty well over time. Sometimes posts aged really, really poorly and it was more like, “Well this is the end of an era error…” 🤣🤣🤣

Always, though, you’ve let me feel safe sharing my successes and sometimes my frustrations and failures. I hope you know how truly lucky I’ve felt for that alone.

I’ve read countless amazing posts from fellow bloggers; I’ve cherished comments that many of you posted or sometimes sent me privately via email; and I’ve stolen borrowed countless amazing ideas from listserv posts.

You’ve helped me think through challenges in ways that I likely wouldn’t have been able to get to on my own; you’ve helped me to realize that I wasn’t alone in feeling frustrated or deflated or ALONE…; and you helped me to know that in spite of the random thing that was my anxiety of the day, that everything was gonna be OK.

Please continue to support each other. Please continue to be kind to one another and yourselves. Please continue to do the truly important work that you do. Please help this wonderful community continue to thrive.

While I didn’t get to accomplish everything that I wanted to accomplish when I first became a school librarian 24 years ago, I hope that I’m leaving the libraries and institutions that I workied in, and maybe even the profession, a little better than I found it.

As I turn off the lights in what will no longer be “my library” for the last time, I can honestly say that I will leave full of gratitude for all that I’ve been given and full of hope because of all of you and the wonderful work that you will continue to do.

Thank you for that. That you all for all of that.

Farewell friends. ❤️❤️❤️



That lovely moment when you go to the last elementary chapel of the year and you get notes of love–and two overdue books! 🤣🥰🤣😍

Building the Plane While You’re Genre-flying, or: Sort, Stick, and Shift: Genrefying in Three Easy Months

I, like many of us, am a list person. I like systems, structure, and knowing what happens next. My week is organized in To Do Lists, and everything gets itemized and checked off as I work unless I have lost the list, at which point “Clean Desk” is added to the new list.

When I joined my school, I put together a five year roadmap of how to build the library program our community deserved. Year One was Figuring Out Where the Bodies Are Buried. Year Two was Programming. This is Year Three: Literacy and Literature because, frankly, my students are absolutely brilliant and also my fiction stats have historically been in the absolute toilet, and these two things together are enough to drive any librarian to cry into her bookmarks.

So after reading all the posts, visiting a few schools, and reminding myself many times that no one will die if I do a thing and then have to undo the thing, I decided to genrefy my fiction. Because our space is used in the summertime, it had to happen while the library was up and running. And because the Board comes in every year for a visit before winter break and I hate looking messy in front of my boss’s bosses, it had to be done by mid-December.

Step One: Sort and Sticker

Before anything moved, we categorized. Every fiction book got assigned a category and then it got a sticker. This can be tricky, obviously. Is The Yiddish Policemen’s Union* a mystery? Sci-fi? Does it go in Historical Fiction so it can be near Kavalier & Clay? Not everything is clear cut, and I had to do a lot of reminding myself “It can always be changed.”**

This step was by far the most exhausting; making that many microdecisions in addition to the thousands of other microdecisions we make every day meant I would go home and couldn’t find the brain space to answer questions like “What do you want to eat for dinner?”***

*I put it in Mystery. We’ll see how it goes.

**This process also helped me do a quick fiction weed. No point in sticking and shifting a book that hasn’t ever circ’ed and you wouldn’t buy today.

***The answer is always pizza.

Step Two: Make Some Space

We had about 2,000 fiction titles that were sorted in low to the ground shelves. The problem with this is evident:

A change of scenery was in order.

But you know what else we had? A whole ton of Reference Books that no one had looked at in about 15 years. So I went through and made a list of all of them and emailed it to all of the faculty. If they wanted it retained, it moved either to the general collection with an In Library Use Only restriction on it or out of the catalog and into to their departmental offices. Everything else went away to a farm upstate.

This freed up a whopping 55 shelves.

Note: Make sure you warn your admin before you do this, because I think I almost gave my new principal a heart attack when he walked in with a visitor to find me tossing a thirty year old copy of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians on the floor and beaming about all the empty shelves I’d created.

Step Three: Shift What You’re Working With

Said empty shelves I’d created are half obscured by a big study carrel that’s bolted to the floor, meaning popping all my newly stickered books there was just moving them from one place no one looked at them to a place they couldn’t be accessed. So it was time for a shift.

Our library has 11,000 volumes and we shifted every single one. This was dusty, dirty work and my shoulders ached for a week after it was done but it was so worth it. I spread out sections that had been packed to bursting, weeding more as I went.

In the end, the Biography section got shifted to where the Reference Books had been because a) students were more likely to look for a biography with someone already in mind and b) someone had to take that hit for the team and it was going to be Voltaire, sorry Voltaire.

Post shift, we had 36 empty shelves that were perfectly positioned for high-school eye-height browsing.

Step Four: Put Things in Their Place

I made lists in Destiny with the names of my assigned genres: FANTASY, HORROR, HISTORICAL FICTION, etc., pulled all the books from each genre and scanned the barcodes. The lists made the eventual reclassifying of Sublocations a super simple two-click process. It also gave me exact numbers per genre category and where they’d fit: the 40 romance titles could go in this corner shelf, the historical fiction with its 220 copies needed more space. This was the final stage for simplifying categories; my 20 Dystopian titles didn’t warrant their own shelf, so SCI-FI & DYSTOPIAN became one joint Sublocation and in went the books.

This process was a little trial and error-y, but once I started pulling copies and reshelving them it fell into place pretty quickly. The now vacant low shelves that are the wrong height for teenagers to know they exist were the perfect place for a middle grade collection I created for our 5-8th grade scholars program, with bonus shelves for our PD Collection, Alumni Books, and a whole case for rotating faculty/staff/student recommendations.

Step Five: Shift Again

Crap, we’re out of space. Shift the 000-100s back the other way. Ok, fine. Fine. It’s fine. No one’s gonna be mad that the 400s end in the middle of the shelf and the 500s immediately begin. Literally no one.*

*I’m still kind of mad but whatever.

Step Six: Signage

With books on shelves, it was time to let people know where they were. All hail the Cricut. I stuck the “N” in REALISTIC FICTION up the Friday before the Board Visit, thus completing our genrefying in a little under three months.

Now new books get stickered and filed during the cataloging process. When I eventually need more room I may do another shift, but for now, I have plenty of space and books are easily accessible and browsable.

Step Seven: Stats

In preparation for my State of the Library end of year report, I took a look at our stats the other day. And my fiction circulation has increased.

By 200% compared to the same period last year.

With the exception of our Course Reserves, Fiction is now the most popular category of things circulated in our library. I kept up the same things I’ve done before– weekly book recommendations on our website and regular displays in multiple places. The new recommendation book case has been a great addition and encouraging faculty and students to sponsor a shelf has been a lot of fun.

So. Was it a ton of work? Yes. Was I constantly having to stop tasks midway through to help one of my students do research or print or navigate being a teenager? Double yes. Am I incredibly glad I did it and didn’t wait to try and cram it in over a break? You bet your vintage DUE DATE stamps I am.

It’s increased circ, it’s made reshelving so much faster. Last week a kid picked up Looking for Alaska and came back two days later saying he had never read anything like that, asked what this kind of book was called and if we had any more of it.

And yes, we did. And this time I cried tears of joy into my bookmarks.

Using Beanstack to Foster a Culture of Reading

I’ve seen some queries about Beanstack come through the listserv recently, as well as calls for suggestions for building and sustaining a culture of reading, so I thought it might be helpful to share how my first year incorporating Beanstack into my programming has played out.

When I collected data for my annual report at the end of the last school year, I was disappointed to see just how much our circulation statistics had dropped. I wasn’t entirely surprised by this; a year spent teaching a new class took a lot of my time and attention away from my primary role as librarian. Still, the numbers were bleak. My reading program needed a shot of adrenaline.

Pulp Fiction, 1994, Miramax

I don’t recall the exact context, but I first heard of Beanstack when Courtney Lewis (the progenitor of so many great ideas) shared a pandemic-era memory through the listserv of students getting competitive while looking at publicized Beanstack statistics. Intrigued, I contacted a sales rep to learn more about how I could make the platform work for me. I liked the idea of a competitive element and public leaderboards. I also thought that Beanstack could replace the way our sixth-grade students track and share their progress as they complete their 20-book reading challenge, a long time collaboration between me and their English teacher. Beanstack would be expensive, but I was committed to prioritizing reading this year, so I found ways to cut other areas of my budget to make room for it.

Having learned what Beanstack could do, an idea for a year-long reading initiative began to take shape. I wanted to concentrate on roping in our upper school students, though middle school students and all faculty and staff would be invited to participate. To that end, I envisioned a series of reading challenges that might seem doable to busy high school students. I also liked the idea that each month would bring another chance to participate in a different way. I wanted readers to feel as though they could jump in and out of the program as their schedule and interest permitted. I thought about incentivizing participation through rewards. I considered offering rewards by class or advisory groups with the most participation but ultimately, I wanted to reward anyone who pushed themselves to participate, regardless of whether or not their peers were interested. I named this initiative “Year of the Reader” and began planning how to roll it out to my community.

SeptemberRead a Graphic Novel
OctoberRead a Featured Magazine Article
NovemberRead Yourself to Sleep
(for five nights in a row, phone on airplane mode)
DecemberListen to an Audiobook
JanuaryRead Traditional Literature
(mythology, folklore, fairytales, legends)
FebruaryRead a Memoir or Biography
MarchRead a Nonfiction Science Book
AprilRead a Poetry Collection
(or complete set of album lyrics)

First came the fun stuff. Designing a logo. Ordering swag (buttons and stickers). Planning the monthly challenges that would start off requiring less time and effort but then gradually grow more challenging. Creating digital badges for each challenge (Beanstack has several pre-made badges to choose from, but you can design and upload your own). I decided on eight monthly challenges beginning in September and ending in April.

Next came the pitch. This was the tricky part. How do you convince busy high school students that they should get excited about something that they don’t think they have time for? I requested some time at upper school assembly to introduce the Year of the Reader. The theme of the presentation was remembering what we love about reading. I first acknowledged the students who already had robust reading habits. To those students who weren’t willing to admit that they ever loved reading, I could at least get them to admit that we all love stories. Being read to. Watching movies and TV shows. Gossip and drama. Our ability to make up stories, share them with others, and believe in them together is what sets us apart as a species. It’s our human superpower. That was the big idea, followed by a sampling of the benefits that research tells us we get from reading for pleasure – academic, emotional, and physical.

My colleague, Kate Turnbull, the mother of a member of our senior class, had the brilliant idea of soliciting parents of the Class of 2024 for childhood pictures of their kids reading or being read to. Before revealing the first reading challenge, we introduced a game called “Guess the Reader,” putting up the pictures and seeing how long it took to identify the young seniors (this game would become a month feature at assembly each time we announced a new challenge). We dedicated the Year of the Reader to the Class of 2024, a graduation gift they didn’t ask for, and challenged them to lead the way. Kate and I were even able to convince the cheerleaders to close out the assembly with a special cheer about reading.

With that, the Year of the Reader began. The September challenge was to read a graphic novel, something we knew most kids would see as an easy win. To unlock the badge, students had to log in to Beanstack and answer three simple questions: What was the title? What was it about? What was your favorite thing about the book? (the questions changed depending on the challenge, but there were always three and always this simple). I frequently ran reports to see which students unlocked their badges and then posted their names on leaderboards that were broadcast on monitors across campus – the library, the dining hall, the gym, and so on. The leaderboards were updated frequently. When it felt like participation was flagging, I’d email updates to students to stoke competition. Although each individual on the leaderboard would receive the reward, ice cream for this first challenge, it was surprisingly effective to pit one class against another to drum up participation. Pointing out that the freshmen were walloping the seniors had the desired effect of bringing the Class of 2024 into the library to defend their collective honor. At the end of the month, we’d come back to upper school assembly to project the final leaderboards, congratulate the “winning” class, and announce the next month’s challenge.

Library displays were designed to support the monthly challenge. I invited English teachers to bring their classes in to browse displays and find something to satisfy the challenge. The books didn’t have to come from our library, but proximity goes a long way and it was great to see circulation boosts in sections of our library that don’t usually get a lot of traffic – the 500s, folklore, memoir, poetry. The challenges also directed people to library resources that are often forgotten or ignored, such as magazine articles in Flipster or audiobooks in Sora. I made it clear to upper school students that checking out books intended for middle school students was perfectly fine. The objective was to find something enjoyable to read that would work for their schedules. If that meant grabbing a volume of Scientists in the Field or revisiting Rick Riordan, have at it. Some students were happy to take that route. Others wanted to challenge themselves. There was no wrong way to participate. The point was to have fun with reading and to do it together.

The Year of the Reader is now coming to an end, and I’m pleased with the results. Between middle school, upper school, faculty, and staff, we had 294 participants. That number represents about 65% of our middle school students and 52% of our upper school students. 69%  of all participants completed more than one challenge and 35% completed half or more of the eight challenges. I was also thrilled to see that compared to this time last year, circulation saw a 65% increase. Harder to measure but just as satisfying, it was great to see students and teachers talking to each other about the reading challenges. Carving out time at monthly assemblies to celebrate the joy of reading increased our visibility. And watching groups of upper school students huddled around piles graphic novels, folklore collections, and poetry books as if they were kids again was probably the most rewarding part of my year.

Do you need Beanstack to make something like this work? Probably not. You could pull it off with Google Forms and a little gumption. But the Beanstack platform made things a lot easier for me. There are several report options that helped me keep track of participation throughout the year. I was surprised how many people were motivated by unlocking the digital badges throughout the year, especially teachers and staff. There is a social element within the platform that can be activated or turned off, allowing students to see what others are reading and find new recommendations. For our sixth graders, Beanstack made reading logs a lot less tedious.

Beanstack and the Year of the Reader helped me generate a lot of enthusiasm for reading this year. It was the shot of adrenaline we needed. Today I returned to the upper school assembly to share some of the data I’ve shared with you in this post. I thanked everyone for participating before the big reveal, which is that every year, of course, is the year of the reader. The name and logo may be retiring, but we need to take what we’ve learned from and loved about the different reading challenges and carry them with us into the future. I have the summer to think of how to maintain the momentum.

In the meantime, please share what is working for you! Erinn Salge hosted a Zoom meetup last month about creating a reading culture at our schools, and several librarians shared fantastic ideas. Join us next time and keep the suggestions coming!