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!

Recommended Reading: Your Brain on Art

I keep my watercolors in an old wooden box. The box holds the few art supplies I own, but it mostly serves as a pedestal to a potted plant. I don’t open it much. Watercolors were something I stopped playing with years before the pandemic.

This summer I decided to read along with the Art Department’s group book choice, Your Brain on Art: How the Arts Transform Us by Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross, two experts in the field of neuroaesthetics. I highly recommend it. Magsamen and Ross explain how cultivating an aesthetic mindset can improve our health and well being. They provide myriad examples of how to do so and explain the neuroscience and physiology behind the positive effects of engaging with the arts and paying attention to your aesthetic life.

But what if, like me, you are artistically insecure? You don’t know how to paint, draw, dance, or play an instrument? You don’t have time or money for art therapy or visits to museums? The good news is you can still find ways to incorporate the arts and aesthetics into your daily life and reap the benefits. Doodling, sketching, coloring, humming or singing aloud, dancing to music –  these simple acts of creativity can improve your mood, lower your blood pressure, focus your attention, and prime your mind for learning. And you don’t have to be good at any of them! Just playing around with the arts with no concern for the outcome is beneficial. Art can and should be part of all our self-care routines.

Art teachers know this. You probably know this. It might be why so many of you have stations in your libraries with art supplies and puzzles. You know how they can help students decompress. But it was a good reminder for me. Summer is slipping away. Work starts next week. I didn’t get half of my planned summer projects done. I can feel the divergent pulls on my time and attention ratcheting up. On top of that, it’s my turn to sit down and write an AISL blog post and think of something interesting to say.

Before sitting down to write this, I pulled out my watercolor set and gave myself twenty minutes to paint a photo of a sunset I took while on vacation last week. I’m a sucker for sunsets. I try to photograph them all the time and the photo never captures the beauty that I experience viewing it in person. That doesn’t stop me from trying. And I’ve tried to paint watercolor sunsets before, which is really hard to do for a beginner. Still, I sat down to play with painting, without any intention of creating something that was beautiful. It was a lovely twenty minutes. Just the mood reset I needed. Now I’m ready to blog for days!

Magsamen and Ross have me thinking about how I might create opportunities for students to cultivate an aesthetic mindset in my seventh grade media literacy class. In the past I’ve had students create podcasts or digital PSA posters warning their peers about various cognitive biases. These projects are fun, but time consuming. Like my watercolors, I put them away for want of time and motivation. I forgot how rewarding these projects can be, and that time spent working on them facilitates truly memorable learning experiences. 

In a media literacy class, I’m wondering if it’s worth making time to teach students about the importance of their aesthetic choices, both as media consumers and producers. About how neural networks form and change in response to our media consumption habits, how that can be a good or a bad thing, and how we can make choices to build networks to help us flourish. 

I’m also reflecting on the class discussions I’ve had with students about the choices other media producers make. We look at commercials, magazine covers, and movie trailers. We analyze intention, aesthetic choices, and how the producers hope those choices will impact their audiences. But when I’ve asked students to create media projects, I don’t take the same amount of time to discuss their own aesthetic choices. If I bring back the podcasts, the digital PSAs, or any other media production assignment, I want to make time to ask them about their intentions, their aesthetic choices, their hopes for how their audiences receive their messages. I want to give them time to incorporate feedback, revise, and iterate after evaluating whether the aesthetic choices they made aligned with their intentions. I want them to reflect on their creative potential as media producers and to consider the impact of their choices on themselves and the media landscape we all share. I want them to understand that Comic Sans is the font of last resort.

Can any of this be accomplished in the roughly nine times I see these students in a semester? How might the dynamic in my media literacy class change if, in addition to warning students about the consequences of consuming and producing the worst kinds of media, I am just as intentional about teaching them the benefits of consuming and producing media that promotes well-being, supports the common good, and nourishes the soul?

From the Bird’s Eye View to the Worm’s Eye View

All of the seniors at my school take a class called Global Humanities, the culmination of which involves students writing a 10 page capstone research paper. Those papers are ultimately turned into 5 to 7 minute presentations and delivered to the school community in a three day, academic conference style format. The paper and presentation are both graduation requirements for our seniors.

In years past, I’ve worked closely with the four section leaders to advise them on how they implement the research portion of the class. Due to staffing conflicts this year, I was invited to step in and teach one of the four sections. I knew that accepting this role would mean losing valuable time in the library (and I was right), but the chance to work closely with students as they navigated the biggest research assignment of their high school careers felt like it was worth the trade off. It allowed me to move from the bird’s eye view of their research experience to the day to day, classroom level application of skills – the worm’s eye view, if you will.

Maybe it’s just me, but I often don’t get to see the results of the information literacy lessons I deliver to other teachers’ students. This experience has been humbling and eye-opening. It turns out that my lessons aren’t always slam dunks. It turns out that students need research instruction multiple times, in multiple ways, with several opportunities to practice and receive feedback along the way. Of course I suspected this to be true, but being able to regularly observe and interact with students in the classroom as they try to make these skills their own brings it all into greater focus.

Teaching this class has also afforded me a backwards planning perspective of our library program. What do we want our students to know and be able to do as they head off to college? When and where are we building these skills, and how can we be more deliberate about doing so? As a result, our library department has pruned and fine-tuned our scope and sequence and aligned it to our school’s portrait of a graduate. We are better able to speak to our principals about what our students can do, or to what our teachers assume they can do, and keep information literacy at the top of our school’s list of priorities.

Finally, another benefit of teaching the class is the opportunity it gives me to practice some of what our faculty has been studying with our partner school, St. Andrew’s Episcopal School and their Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning (CTTL), whose mission is to “elevate teacher effectiveness, student achievement, and the whole child’s school experience using the most promising research and strategies in Mind, Brain, and Education Science.” For example, one thing I’ve learned from the CTTL is that giving students feedback without a grade has been proven to be more effective than giving students feedback with a grade. What do students do the minute you hand back a graded assignment with lots of feedback? Skip to the grade and ignore everything else. Today I handed back capstone rough drafts that took me on million hours to grade and respond to. There was no way I was going to allow all of that feedback to be disregarded by students whose primary concern is, “What is my grade?” So they got rough drafts back with feedback and without grades.

I’ve also learned that feedback should aid in the building of metacognitive skills, and how important it is to embed metacognition throughout the planning, monitoring, and evaluation of tasks and assignments. How would I make sure my students actually read the feedback I gave them and apply it to future drafts? I created a feedback reflection form that forced them to summarize their feedback and consider their next steps heading into the next draft. It also gave me a quick opportunity to gauge their confidence level at this point in the process (shout out to Carol Kuhlthau) and a space for them to let me know how I can best help them. If nothing else, this form provided a little friction between the time they received their feedback and the time they stuffed it into their backpacks.

This is my first year teaching this class, and it will also be my last. Next year, it will be time to work with my department to take the lessons I’ve learned about teaching students how to research – from that classroom level, day to day view – and use it to strengthen our research program for all students from the bottom up.

If I attended LibLearnX and didn’t tweet about it, was I really there?

This year I was lucky to have LibLearnX (formerly known as ALA’s midwinter meeting) in my own backyard. I didn’t realize until the end of my two days at the conference last weekend how much I needed a professional recharge, the kind that comes with bopping around a convention center, attending sessions, bumping into familiar faces, or just milling about the showroom and flipping through ARCs. This year, I particularly enjoyed listening to featured speakers such as Nic Stone, Ibram X. Kendi, Brian Selznick, Clint Smith, and Cory Doctorow.

Like all of the speakers, Doctorow’s talk was ostensibly a pitch for an upcoming book, Red Team Blues, but most of it was devoted to a scathing critique of platform economics. Doctorow described the process by which tech companies like Amazon and Facebook attract individual users, harvest their surplus data to lure in businesses seeking targeted access to users, and then turn around and hold that access for ransom by charging businesses to appear in user feeds and searches. Doctorow frames this as a massive payola scheme, one that degrades the user experience and results in what he calls “enshittification.” Users may notice the change, but by then they have become so invested in the service that it is difficult for them to leave. If you’re interested in a better explanation than I can muster here, I recommend going straight to the source and reading Doctorow’s January 23rd piece in Wired.

NEXTConf from Berlin, Deutschland, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Conversations like this are catnip to me. A couple of months ago, I decided to delete my Twitter account. It was a move that nobody noticed and which sent zero ripples through the Twittersphere. The decision was significant to me alone, and only because Twitter was the one social media platform I participated in. I could never get into Facebook or Instagram, Snapchat or TikTok. I had the headspace for one social network in my life, and Twitter was the best fit. When I joined over a decade ago, it felt like a professional imperative. Educator blogs I read at the time extolled the importance of building an online presence, of being Googleable. A robust professional learning network promised to benefit my students and faculty by granting me access to the expertise and experience of other librarians. Twitter made it easier for me to look up and over the metaphorical four walls of my own school site to see what was happening at schools across the country and around the world. And for a long time, I really did feel all of these benefits. Like most people, I had a love/hate relationship with Twitter, but the learning that came from the folks in my timeline outweighed the silliness and toxicity that often comes with the platform. 

I don’t know exactly when that balance started to shift. I valued Twitter as a professional resource, but over time the content that drew me to the service – school librarians and  librarianship – was eclipsed by the gross and annoying stuff. I’m not saying that a vibrant and supportive community of school librarians does not still exist on Twitter. But somewhere along the line the algorithm and I fell out of sync. Maybe it was all of the doom scrolling, the close attention to trends in polarization and disinformation, that trained the algorithm to clock me as someone who enjoys being angry, anxious, and depressed. Or maybe the content I signed up for, the educators I followed, were overshadowed by the people and organizations that could pay for the privilege of reaching my eyeballs. Doctorow made the point that even though he has hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers, whether or not they see him now depends on his decision to pay for verification. His reach is held ransom. How can I know that the algorithm isn’t replacing the people I want to see with those who have paid for me to see them? Whatever the reason, I’ve been falling out of love with Twitter for a long time. 

The final straw was when Twitter’s new owner tweeted homophobic disinformation about Paul Pelosi from a source that even my seventh graders could debunk with some quick lateral reading. Then shortly after, he (unwittingly, I think?) tweeted a photograph of a Nazi soldier with carrier pigeons in a failed attempt at humor. This was the guy who was now in charge of the town square? I couldn’t stomach it anymore. I deleted my account and, after waiting out the 30 days I was given to change my mind, let my feed lapse into semi-oblivion. Now, all that remains of my time on Twitter is the residual detritus of former mentions, my handle no longer a hyperlink but rather cold, dead text. 

Steve Jurvetson, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

As Sinatra sang, “Regrets, I’ve had a few….” There are times when I miss Twitter. The FOMO is real. I worry about becoming the-last-to-know librarian, learning about new trends after they’ve wound their way through the information cycle and into Knowledge Quest or School Library Journal. Have I rendered myself obsolete? If I’m not on social media, can I even call myself a school librarian? 

We’ll see. Maybe I’ll find another platform. Maybe I’ll go back to Twitter someday. In the meantime, I’m mostly enjoying my time away, rehabilitating my fractured attention span and finding a renewed appreciation for the smaller professional learning networks and in person learning that I’m able to take part in. I was thrilled to run into Courtney Lewis at LibLearnX, someone I always learn from, whether in person or through email. I’m looking forward to connecting with more of you at the AISL conference in Santa Fe next month. And what would I do without the AISL listserv? I may have stepped away from the larger platform, but that has only made me more grateful for the support and inspiration I receive from this community through your emails and blog posts.

I’m wondering if any of you have had second thoughts about Twitter lately? Is it still working for you? What other social media platforms are important to your professional development?