The Right Stuff v. The Wrong Things

Students are the easiest part of my job. Sure, they’re sometimes loud, and they don’t always have the best hygiene, and occasionally, they meltdown and I have to try and think about what I’d want someone to say to me if I was twelve and crying, but the same could be said about most of my close twenty-something friends. It comes with the gig. After the third break down, you learn what to say; you can always send them outside; eventually someone makes them take a shower.

Once I conquered my fear of middle school children, it was all downhill cruising from there. You can toss me, barely prepared, in front of a class of 7th graders and I’ll make it work so well that somewhere, Tim Gunn will raise an approving eyebrow without even knowing why.

So when our Middle Division head asked us to lead a conversation with the parents about literacy in Middle School, I quite naturally freaked the heck out.

(Just a little bit. I got better.)

Continue reading

Roll Initiative, or: Why Dungeons and Dragons is the Ultimate Cross-Curricular Opportunity

It’s dark and hot in the roughly carved stone tunnels, and I’m two hit points away from dying.

The orc is coming on strong, barreling down on me with a morning star raised high in the air, its points already wet with my blood. My sword is in my hand and I slash up at him with desperate motions. I can’t die here. I won’t.

I roll a 16 and connect, knocking him back and down, and it’s sweeter than sweet.

I’ve been a nerd for as long as I can remember. In second grade I hid my (surprisingly shiny) collection of X-Men trading cards from prying eyes. In seventh, it was a black marble notebook full of X-Files fanfiction (it needed to be written.) It wasn’t until college, and my first exposure to comics as culture that I started to realize a shocking fact: it was okay to be a geek. In fact, it was actually pretty fun.

Fast forward ten years, and geek chic is going strong. Being into fandom or other historically “nerdy” things has become normalized in a lot of ways. My kids are eager to come in and show me a fanart or video on Tumblr, excited to talk “Doctor Who” theories and “Sherlock” reviews, or recommend a new anime movie or series in a way I never would have felt comfortable confiding in my middle and high school teachers.

Their confidence has lent me some of my own, and allowed me to take a step far nerdier than high-school me would ever have admitted to. I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons (and I love it.)

Not only do I love it, but the longer I play it, the more I’m convinced that we’ve been overlooking a valuable tool in teaching morality and teamwork for the past forty years. Want to help your students understand the consequences of their actions, work together, think imaginatively? Create and participate in a narrative? Make cost-benefit analyses? Become part of a team and learn to collaborate for the benefit of the group?

Dungeons & Dragons, my friend. One of the best, cheapest, most adaptable group work and gaming opportunities this side of the 1970s.

Not convinced?


It’s Easy to Be Age Appropriate

One of the hardest things I’ve found with running a video game club is finding age-appropriate, four person games that don’t bore the kids. But D&D is easy to cater to any age, and because it’s all about the power of IMAGINATION it’s violence is less graphic. Few people are going to be concerned over the age appropriateness of a ranger killing an evil worg, and the images are only as graphic as each student’s mind wants to make them.  And if you’re DMing, you can steer the adventure every step of the way to keep it in a place where you and your players feel comfortable.


It’s Got Endless Curriculum Tie-Ins

For any game, players are expected to (at the very least):

-Create a character and a back story. This is like a creative writing/art exercise, only with vested interest beyond a grade– if I set my character as this type, with these limitations and these skills, this will determine how hard or easy the game is to play as I go forward. So it makes sense for me to take the time to weigh the pros and cons, talk to my friends and DM to get any information I need, and plan well.

-Choose and design their character to personalize them. Have a 3D printer that you are just itching to use for something fun? How cool would it be to have your kids make models of the their characters/tools/dice and then get them printed out?

-Decide what they want to carry on them and keep track of how much weight they’re carrying. There is a lot of math in this game. Your character type can only carry 40 lbs without moving slower? Then I guess the 20 lbs of chain mail aren’t in your future. You want to carry three weeks of dry rations? Here’s what they weigh. As you eat, drink, drop things, shoot arrows, change clothes, leave behind equipment, it’s up to you to update your sheet appropriately and keep track of your own inventory.

-Make moral and ethical decisions about how to treat other players and characters they encounter. Ethics class wants to have a larger discussion on society, morality, and responsibility? You’ve found a dungeon full of goblins begging to be released, claiming maltreatment by the guards. Goblins are traditionally evil, but you’re getting the sense these guys are in some real trouble. Do you let them out? All of them? Only some of them?

-Decide where you’re going and how you’re getting there. Some of the best maps I’ve seen are D&D maps. The world you create for D&D can be as small or as massive as your imagination. Being able to read and keep track of where you are, judge distances, and prepare for terrain is hugely important.

It’s Cheap

A video game console may cost hundreds, with games ranging from $10-60. A set of game dice costs less than $10. Books to help you lead the journey and help your group understand what they’re doing can be found second hand for cheap, with many available online as PDFs and EPUB files. Beyond that, all you need is a room, a table, some comfy seating, pencils and paper, and time. (And snacks. Snacks are always a good decision.)


It Encourages Research

I’m a paladin. Something about them appeals to me– their moral unimpeachabl, their noble stupidity. I admire their windmill tilling, even as I struggle to do the “right” thing instead of the “smart” thing. At first I played knowing only what I heard from my DM, but once I started looking into the books upon books about paladins and fighters, I fell in love with the character.

I’m going to get a noble soul-bonded steed! And I’ll be able to turn zombies good! And if I can stay noble long enough, I get to do magic! The more I learned, the more invested I became in the game, and the more fun I had. And the better I got at playing the game. Oh, hey, there’s a goblin over there– I can tell because I can detect evil in a certain radius. ‘Cuz I’m a paladin, that’s right.


It’s Fun

Think of D&D as the best interactive story time hour of your life and go from there. You’ll build entire levels only to have the kids explore one room and move on. You’ll be shocked by their creative thinking in trying to get out of bad situations, their willingness to help each other out in the game and how that translates to real life. You’ll have so much fun you won’t know why everyone hasn’t been playing this game for years.

And more importantly, you’ll reinforce that most wonderful of lessons to your kids: that it’s OK to be a little silly, play games and have fun, and indulge in your nerdy passions. If more kids grew into adults who had learned that lesson, the world would be a much more chill place.


Are you dice gaming with your kids already? Do you have a D12 in your back pocket at all times? Or do you think I’m spouting nonsense? Chime in below and join the quest!

Stop, Collaborate, and Listen

Collaboration has become the magic “c” word, recently. Everyone wants to do it. Everyone wants to hire someone who can do it. “Collaborative” has become code for “team-player;” “positive;” “adaptable.” The idea that you can sit down with a teacher from another department, and enhance a lesson together is a powerful one, and it fits so nicely with our school-librarian-goals that it’s become one of our major focuses. Collaboration between the library and other departments is no longer an option; it’s a requirement of the job.

This past Friday, I finished up a project with a library colleague and an English teacher, and it’s served as a great reminder: as important as the collaboration is the evaluation that comes after it. Being willing to try new things is only the first part of the challenge– next comes looking at what you did and figuring out what you could have done better.

The Project

Back in October, the head of our English Department came to me and said that he wanted to find a way to encourage fun-but-active reading with his students; to let them read something they enjoyed, while making sure they were actually reading.

Well. Reading and the library? This was a match destined for greatness.

Book groups! Book groups were the thing to ensure the student were work-ing. Take fun-reading, add self-regulation, and shake with a liberal helping of group work and bingo bango, here’s your active-fun-reading-experience. And because I was fresh from Annual and floating on a lot of great presentations, we decided to add a multimedia-tech aspect to the end: 90 Second Newberys. A great opportunity to let the kids have a bit of fun, while making sure they read and took enough to put a script together. And Bonus Gold Star Sticker: it offered a great chance for the kids to use their iPads for class.

We started with a book tasting. My last post talked a bit about how the great thing with middle schoolers is that they’re willing to play along with the gag, and our wonderful 7th graders did not disappoint. Soft lighting, Kenny G playing through the Smartboard speakers for ambiance, table cloths and cafe menus transformed our reading room into Cafe Katz, home of great literature and wonderful prix fixe meals.

Using a QR-code linked Google form and their iPads, students rated each book on a scale of 1 (I would NEVER read this) to 5 (Give me a copy right now!) This way the teacher had multiple options for each student, and could assign groups based on interest without letting the kids cluster together with just their friends. (They like to do that, you may have noticed.)


The Debriefing

Over the course of two months the students read their books in groups, discussed, wrote a script, filmed it, edited it, and showed off their awesome films. On Friday we had a mini film festival, complete with popcorn and comfy chairs. It was like seeing a painting come together after months of work, or tasting a cookie baked fresh from a complicated recipe.

And just like biting into a cookie and thinking “Hey, next time, I’ll add cranberries,” good collaboration requires a debriefing; gathering feedback, discussing what went on, and evaluating what you’re going to do different next time.


Ask the Kids

Kids are great resources. They’re generally honest, want to be heard, and love pointing out when adults have done something wrong. Plus they’ve bearing the brunt of whatever program you and your partners put together– giving them input is imperative.

Our students reported:

-Time management issues– “It was hard to find the time to meet together as a group to record/edit/discuss outside of class.”

-Scheduling issues- “We didn’t space out the reading well enough.”

-Technical issues- “Recording stuff on the iPads has its challenges.”


Ask the Adults

After the kids had run to their next class, we took a half hour or so to sit and talk with the English teacher we’d partnered with. Together with my coworker Ashley Landry (who’s amazing and currently a one-year replacement; I envy whichever library is fortunate enough to hire her next year), the three of us came up with our own list:

-Technical issues- Getting the kids to email the video or bring it in the day before class for a dry run would help cut down on last minute oopsies, and give the kids a chance to see how their finished product looked and sounded.

-Book choice- Our books were chosen because we had enough of them on hand between the library and the classrooms, but that meant not every book was the same page length, difficulty level, etc. Better curated choices would help.

-Tighter scheduling- We left a lot of things up to the students; we let them set their own reading goals, plan their own timetables, and manage their own schedule. Kids are kind of bad at that. A bit more overseeing might not be a bad idea.

-iMovie- The students put their movies together in iMovie. We did a quick tutorial before we got started, but that might not have been enough. In the future, we’re thinking of doing a dedicated one to two class session just for editing, with librarians on hand for assistance.


Ask Yourself

So, Self, what would you have done differently?


-More examples– The kids could have benefited from more example videos, scripts, etc. and from a heads up about certain pitfalls (e.g. recording audio on the iPads is hard; good sound effects can make or break a movie; everyone else in the class has access to the iMovie stock screens and audio– use something else to really make your movie pop.)

-Different timing- A project this big that gets split in half by winter break? Yeah, no. Let’s plan that differently next time.

-More troubleshooting before hand- The iPads are great, but they provide new tech challenges. For example: importing video from the camera into iMovie used to be a snap, until the new iOS came out. This would have been good to know before I went to give the classroom demo on how to do it and found out it worked for one out of ten kids. (A good lesson to remember when doing tech demos: technology gets stage fright. Always have a back-up plan.)

Next Time

With the stamp of “This Was Great!” approval from our teacher-collaborator-in-crime in hand, there will definitely be a next go-around for this project. He’s been a wonderful advocate for the library among his colleagues, and we’ve already had a few teachers reach out to us about doing similar projects together. And with the experience of the last couple of months firmly in mind, our next project will be even better.

Good projects are like good governing documents– they have to live; to grow and to change and improve with age and tweaking. And the better you can make them through experience and reflection, the better the quality of your input the next time a teacher sits down across from you and says “So, I want to do…”

Bridging the Gap, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Middle School

Confession time: I’m more of a high school librarian by trade and training. My energy level, reading tastes, and general nerdiness play well with high school kids, and If you had asked me two years ago “Hey, wanna be a middle school librarian?” I would have looked at you with a fearful little smile and a polite nod of “Yeah, no, thanks for that.” If a colleague hadn’t taken some time off, I probably wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity to work with middle schoolers at all, and would have continued to view them as nice, mini-patrons who would one day age into my domain.

Over the last year and change of working with them, however, I’ve come to the not-so-surprising conclusion that past!me is a fool. Because middle school kids are amazing. AMAZING. They’re fun, and passionate, and on the cusp of something big and scary that they greet with remarkable aplomb and, overall, good sense. I’ve had such a blast working with them; hearing their stories, collaborating with their teachers, and watching them grow into the next stage of their development. It’s been the most rewarding and wonderful opportunity, and I’m so grateful to have stumbled into it.

A year older and wiser, I often run into other high school librarians who hold similar opinions as past!me when it comes to middle grade students: they’re slightly smaller versions of teenagers; their books aren’t as cool; call me when they hit 9th grade. But as more libraries are facing budget or staffing shortages, being asked to cover a division or grade that you’re not familiar with can be a reality of working in a K-12 school. And that can bring mixed feelings of excitement and terror.

Don’t panic; this is going to be great. Presenting four lessons that I wish someone had told me going into this (but that I enjoyed learning along the way):


Middle School Would Destroy You If You Tried to Go Through It As an Adult

You think you’re nervous? Let’s take a moment to appreciate just how absolutely stressful and nerve wracking this whole “middle school thing” is for your students, shall we?

Sixth graders are a step out of elementary school and that’s a huge leap for them to have taken. Fifth grade saw them in a room with one teacher: one person who was educator, helper, surrogate parent, emergency nurse, disciplinarian, and mentor. Now they’ve been thrown into a world where everyone else is bigger, no one is guiding them around from class to class, and they have to deal with a new group dynamic every time the period changes. They’ve generally nervous, full of excitement for the future, and want what everyone else in life wants: someone to be nice to them and think they’re really cool.

Then there’s seventh grade. The kids know the players, understand the system, and are starting to relax a bit. But just as they’re comfortable in their own skin, it goes and changes on them. Think about how absolutely frustrating and awful that is: you’re hitting your stride and all of a sudden BOOM. Puberty, hormones, mood swings, and all that great stuff is in full swing, and everyone else is in the same boat. You pinwheel from happy to sad to confused to angry for no good reason. Your peers are in the same boat, life is awash with insecurities and feelings, giving room for bullies and isolation to grow. I’m a grown-up, and it’d be enough to send me home to sob into a cup of tea and hide under my comforter.

By eighth grade, they’re starting to feel that itch for more freedom– the right to make more choices and try new things. They’re eager for the next step, but also hearing the roar of the falls and the hard-won knowledge that change always brings both good and bad. They simultaneously want to go on to high school and don’t want to leave the safety of a place that may not be what they want but is at least a known-entity. The emotional roller coaster is still rolling, friends are changing and alliances are breaking, and then there’s schoolparentssportsclubsthefutures to worry about.

And through all of this craziness, with all of this stuff happening to them that they can’t control and often don’t enjoy, they still come to school every day and sit down at a desk, willing to learn. That’s insanely brave, right there.


Readers’ Advisory is Hard

These changes mean that a sixth grader is miles away from a seventh grader who is miles away from an eighth grader, and that can bring new challenges to finding and recommending a book. Whereas a 10th and 12th grader might enjoy the same title, a 6th grader often lacks the context and emotional maturity to appreciate a book that an 8th grader swears by. Likewise, most books a 6th grader likes will be a hard sell for an 8th grader who wants something with more gravitas to match their experiences.

This can lead to some uncomfortable moments when you realize the book you’re talking about has that one scene, or the opening page has that reference that they might get or might not, or the end, oh no, the end, that ending– will they be okay with that ending?

If you’re not sure how well a student will take to a possibly too-mature title, remind them that it’s okay to “self-censor.” Our library has no circulation limits (anyone can check out anything), but when we see a student grab a book that might be a bit beyond them, we give them a little schpiel that boils down to: “This is a great book. Remember that if you’re reading and you start to feel uncomfortable, or like you’re not liking where this is going, that’s okay, put it down. We do that all of the time, and maybe you’ll like it more in a few years, or maybe it’s just not for you. That’s okay, too.”

Part of growing up to become a librarian was getting over the stigma of not finishing a book. Supporting and cultivating well-adjusted middle schoolers means letting them know it’s okay to do the same, while encouraging them to be open to trying again later.



When I’m teaching an upper division class, I tend to bounce. High-energy enthusiasm is a great default setting when you’re dealing with high schoolers because while they generally won’t meet your enthusiasm (being too cool for school, and all), it sets the tone for the class on a positive note. It presents you as an open, willing to help resource, and one who has a passion for the work, and there is nothing more encouraging than someone who wants to help. Teenagers are like bees; they can smell fear and someone who doesn’t want to be there.

Middle schoolers, however, will meet your energy level and pass you by like you’re doing 35 in a 75 mile zone. They’re living, breathing perpetual energy machines, and if you rev them up they’ll go. This has meant an adjustment in my teaching style because you haven’t seen chaos until you’ve seen twenty preteens who all want to talk at the same time because you’ve gotten them all so excited that they might just burst if they keep it inside any longer.

It might take you some time to find a balance between encouraging and calming, and that’s okay. Just remember to evaluate and adapt as you work with them– just like you would with a high schooler.


Middle School is a Creative Librarian’s Eden

You know what all of that energy is good for, though? Having fun. Having so much fun you just might burst with librarian-satisfaction. Middle schoolers are willing to meet you halfway. They’re willing to play a little silly, have some laughs, try something new and not worry so much about looking cool.

They’re on the cusp of losing that love of make-believe that we remember with fond nostalgia; the days when your backyard became a fairyland, populated by evil hags, plotting toads, bewitched trees, and crusading ninjas. Middle schoolers will play games; pretend along with the class; suspend their disbelief and let you lead them somewhere really cool. If you have a lesson that you’ve always wanted to try, or a hat that you’ve always wanted to parade out in front of the class, or a silly set-up premise to a class that would be so much fun if only the kids would play along– try it.

If you can sell it, they’ll buy. Not only are middle grade learners willing to suspend their disbelief, but they’re willing to try something new and see where it takes them. And if you try something new and it doesn’t work, they’re hugely forgiving; if a teacher can try something and not have it work, and brush it off, and be okay, so can I.

They love that.

So what say you, librarians? Are you facing a new division for the first time? Have you been working with middle schoolers for years? Bridging the gap between 6-8 and 9-12? What lessons have you learned about how the two age groups are different (and maybe similar?)

Bulletin Boards: Cheap, Easy, and Eco Friendly

I love doing bulletin boards. Really. They’re kind of my zen exercise. There’s just something about getting to do grown-up Arts N’ Crafts while being paid that I just find too wonderful to be believed. A rewarding rush of “Oh hey, this is my life. Sweet.”

And sometimes, there’s glitter glue. Really, who can turn down the chance to play with glitter glue?

Last September, we opened up our new Middle Division Reading Room, in search of a library space that our 6-8th graders could call their own. Featuring middle-grade lit, laptops, and these bean bag chairs that make 12 year-old-me want to take a running leap, it’s a cozier, smaller version of the attached main library, and it’s just for them.

And, bonus: with four bulletin board spaces and huge blank walls, it’s got lots, and lots of space for us to hang stuff up.

My keywords for doing a board are “cheap, quick, and interactive.” Cheap and quick because, well, who doesn’t love saving money and time.  And an interactive board not only makes your display more interesting and effective, but it saves you massive amounts of time. A board that gives your student a chance to write or draw and interact with it is engaging them in conversation, and you only have to carry half of a conversation. Ask your kids a question (“Favorite banned book” “Summer plans” “Ultimate YA Crossover Match-Up?”), post up some pens, and let them fill in the rest.

Since it was September, I felt back on that old chestnut “What Did You Do This Summer?” And because he’s never out of style– a Mario themed display. A Mario themed display where kids could write what they had spent their summers doing, and share stories of good times with each other. It’d be a nice pop of color on the beige walls, it’d be fun to make, and all the pixelated shapes would be easy and quick to cut out.

Okay, concept created. Inventory time.

My generation grew up looking to “Captain Planet,” because he’s a hero and he’s gonna take pollution down to zero. So recycling materials from one board to another board is an absolute must; it’s like a neurotic birthday party when I take them down, desperately peeling tape away from paper and cringing at small tears. I had a long piece of blue construction paper, originally from last year’s Mock Newbery display. I flipped it over, turned it horizontal, and tada! Instant Nintendo-blue sky and board backing.

The color printer could provide details (question blocks, Mario himself) but the blocks on the ground required a shopping trip. And where better to get supplies than the local dollar store.

Dollar store shopping is awesome because a) why spend money when you could use that money elsewhere? There’s always an “elsewhere.” And b) going shopping in a dollar or variety or party supply store expose you to so many things that you can use for a board that aren’t normally considered art supplies. Oak tag? Psh. That’s for posters; displays should be avant-garde.

At my dollar store, I found:

*a brown table cloth for $1.29

*black shower curtains– 3 for $1.29 each ($3.87)

*all natural butcher paper- 1 roll for $1.30

*red and yellow cellophane paper- 2 packages for $1 each ($2.00)

The tablecloth had texture, color, and depth. I added a quick brick pattern with my Sharpie, cut out the sections I needed, and huzzah! Ground!

All I needed now were details. Using Pixisnap, I pieced together a mosaicked image of Mario using our Summer Reading book covers. Boom– print it in color, back it on oak tag so the paper doesn’t curl, and cut away. Same deal for Mario’s iconic Question block. The Goombas (angry walking-mushroom guys) and Koopas (turtle dudes) were recycled construction and scrap paper, no more than one sheet of each color.

Sorry Mario, your princess is in another castle.Letting the kids write on the display with their own pens and markers just seemed like asking for trouble, but having a cup of pencils or pens sitting on the counter did, too. Our supply cabinet yielded a small, surprisingly thin manila envelope; mounted to construction paper, it made the perfect hanging-holder. After about twenty seconds of staring at it, I realize that putting the “Take Pens from Here” pouch on a part of the display itself was a terrible, “hey, let me take a pen like a middle schooler woul— RIIIIIIIPPPPPP”-idea and moved it over to the wall next to the display.

Stealing a piece of chalk from the math department, I wrote a quick life/level/coins count at the top of the display, and it was done. Finished. Alive.

WARNING: BANNED BOOKS MAY CAUSE ENLIGHTENMENT.All in all, the dollar store trip cost me $8.46 and helped with three displays. With two pairs of hands and five minutes of work, and the black shower curtains became display paper for a Banned Books Week board. We shredded the cellophane and twisted it into flames to lick at the banned and burning literature floating above in a sooty black sky. The butcher paper was used for an upper division display of Blind Date with a Banned Book, with scintillating hints written on the wrapped titles as to what would be so awful that the book needed to be wrapped in plain brown paper.

Shower curtain. Not just for showers anymore.

And when we were ready for our next board, we were able to leave up/save/reuse:

*the black shower curtains– much more durable than paper, and shows no dirt/hand smudges

*the pen pouch on the Mario display

*the blue Mario sky

*the brown tablecloth

Now I just need to find a way to reuse those plastic 6 ring soda can holders for something and I will have totally earned that Planeteer ring.

Total Cost: $8.46

Time: Approx. 3 hours (spread over two days)

Time Left Up: September

Materials Used: Blue paper (recycled), brown table cloth, construction and scrap paper (recycled), chalk, manila envelope, pens, color printer and paper.