#WebbReads Wednesday and Friday Updates

For several years now, I’ve sent out two weekly newsletters – one to students and one to teachers. When I first started at Webb, the library was in a separate building from both of the divisions that it served, so it was hard to keep students, faculty, and staff updated on what was happening unless they specifically sought out the library. We have since gotten new libraries within the buildings of the divisions we serve, but my newsletters have become a tradition. They’re an easy form of advocacy and a weekly reminder to the school that we are here and have something to offer them. Here’s what I’ve learned from seven years of newsletters.

Pick a newsletter creation software. There are tons of choices here, some free. My favorite is Smore, which does require a subscription but is super easy to use. It is all drag and drop, and they make it easy to keep the same format each week. Currently, I’m using a tool that is built in to our learning management system. The biggest advantages of this is that everyone gets the newsletter in 2 places – their email and in the LMS – and, they can’t unsubscribe from me (yes I’ve had teachers unsubscribe and I will forever hold a petty grudge for that). Canva has newsletter templates, and you can get a free educator account to access their pro content. However, the newsletters I’ve seen come out of Canva get sent out as a link to the news rather than including it in the email, and I know my students, and many faculty, will never click on the link to read. I don’t know if Canva offers a different option, but I wanted to put that out there. MailChimp, Microsoft Publisher, and Adobe Spark are also options.

Choose whatever day works for you. Student news goes out on Wednesday because #WebbReads Wednesday is cute. Teachers get a Friday update because I often have time on Friday and I can choose whether it is a look back on the previous week or a look ahead to the next. I also know that a lot of the campus wide communications happen earlier in the week, so I have slightly less competition. If there’s no school on a specific Friday, I don’t worry about a newsletter. Pick whatever works for you and your community.

Don’t bury the lede. The first few times I sent out a newsletter, I sent it out monthly. However, after a full month, there would be a million things that I wanted to include, and a newsletter just doesn’t have space for that. Just like in journalism, you need to think about what will appear above the fold – what shows up in the email preview, and what will people see if they never scroll down? I decided to focus on one big story weekly, rather than try to focus on multiple things monthly.

Things to include. I have one main story that changes every week, and I keep a running list of ideas in my notes app for times that I feel stuck. For teachers: new databases, educator-specific databases, non-book resources (Breakout boxes anyone?), book award news (not just YMA but Mathical awards, etc.), library events (book fair, author visits), test-prep resources, resources for cultural heritage month lessons, items from AASL’s Best Digital Tools, graphs/stats about library usage. For students: new books, new book displays, books on a theme, state book award books, test prep resources, library events, contests, reading challenge updates, Sora magazines. Every newsletter I send out has our recent Instagram posts and the librarians’ currently reading titles, while teachers get links to the library calendar and students get links to the reading challenge and Sora.

Keep going – I promise someone is reading it. I won’t lie – occasionally I feel like I’m screaming into the void when I send out newsletters. Sure, I can check the official stats of how many people opened the email and clicked on a link, and my stats are pretty good, but it’s the other small ways I see my newsletters’ impact that make me happier. A math teacher will ask to borrow the book that I was reading last week, or an English teacher will tell me they didn’t know there was a Stonewall Book Award and ask to check out previous winners. A new teacher didn’t know we had Breakout boxes and now wants help setting one up for a class. I even have teachers reply to the newsletter saying they’ve been meaning to get with me to schedule research classes all week and the newsletter reminded them. I’ve had students ask for help signing up for the test prep resources I shared a week later. Last week I reminded students about our state book award process and 3 of those titles got checked out by the end of the week.

Some weeks, the newsletter is as quick as I can make it, while other weeks it’s a labor of love, but either way it is reminding my school community that the we are here for them. And don’t forget to include your admin to your email list – let them see all the ways you and your library are awesome! What ways do you communicate with your school community? Do you have any advice to add? Share in the comments!

Finally Seeing the Fruits of Our Labor

Four years ago, at the 2019 AASL conference, I attended a session about a 20 book challenge in a middle school library (you can find a webinar by the originator of this idea here). It was a great idea, and I know I was one of many who took that idea back to their own school and ran with it. We did a shortened 10 book challenge in spring 2020, and even with the world shutting down, had a quite a few students totally finish the challenge. We’ve done a new 20 book challenge every year since in our middle school, and have adapted the basics, based on student feedback, for a much more flexible challenge in our upper school.

The challenges are quite a bit of work for us as librarians, but I’m starting to see a change in how our students approach reading. Last week, I went into several freshmen classes to help them pick out a choice reads book. Choice reads is an initiative in our English classes to have students read anything they’d like for 15-20 minutes, once or twice a week, during class time, with the only rule being that the book needs to be in print. Usually, I have several students tell me they’ve never ever read a book for fun when we go to start choice reads checkouts. but this year I only had one student say that, and it was a student who is new to Webb this year. You see, my current freshmen who came up the hill from our middle school have always had a reading challenge. In fact, many of those same freshmen already had a book they were reading at home and wanted to bring in. I saw the same thing happen in several of my of the older students’ classes as well. Even the students who are more reluctant readers, and there are still plenty of them, could tell me about books and authors they liked or didn’t like so that we could find a good fit for them, a big change from the reluctant readers who looked askance at anything that resembled the written word.

The upper school book challenge has become a beast of it’s own as well. Students can submit any book they read outside of class, including their choice reads since they’re not read together as a class. Over the summer and for the first 3 quarters of the year, the grade that submits the most books gets an out-of-uniform day, and the competition for those days has become very fierce. The class of 2023 had won every single quarter since we started this tradition, so there was a huge opening for a new powerhouse grade as we began the new year. I made summer submissions due a few days into the new year, and I had over 200 submissions during the final day. When I announced the summer winner in our daily assembly, after having several students bug me about it in the days leading up to announcement, the cheers from the winning grade lasted a full minute.

The book challenge isn’t the only thing we do to encourage a culture of reading, of course. All teachers in the middle and upper school have a currently reading sign on their doors to share their current reads. We prioritize student voice in our collection development. We share books on social media, send out a weekly library newsletter to students, and host annual author visits and book fairs. And I know that BookTok is a contributing factor based on the number of book challenge submissions that start with “I saw this on BookTok.” But I can’t help but feel that the constant celebration of reading across our campus is making a big difference in how our students see themselves as readers, and it’s really nice to see all that hard work pay off.


I’m getting this in just under the wire because the American Library Association Annual Conference started today with my favorite part – the independent school tours! I love the school tours because I get to see the libraries in action. As much as I learn from you all in blog posts and the listserv, it’s different to see your libraries in person and see all of the little things that make each of our libraries unique. So I thought I’d share some of the things I loved at each.

The Kovler Library at the Francis Parker School is doing really great collaborations with between literacy, tech, and curriculum by working with their edtech team across all grade levels – and yes they serve pre-k through 12. The book recommendation vending machine was the result of one of these collabs – 4th graders created book recs for the 3rd graders, and now the vending machine lives in the library.

We also visited the libraries at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools and the Catherine Cook School, and both have amazing in-school book awards that are run by their students. At the UC Lab Schools, a committee of 6th graders works to create a list of nominees, which the 3rd – 5th grades then read, evaluate, and vote on. Winners are announced at a giant awards ceremony, complete with a winning author or illustrator from the previous year. The awards process is also cross-divisional – 5th graders make posters for the nominees in the style of their illustrations each year, and the posters from previous years cover the walls of the library (middle picture above)!

I didn’t get any pictures of the school awards at Charlotte Cook (just one of the cozy nooks in their storytime room), but they have each grade 1st – 4th do their own mock version of a major award. They also do a giant awards ceremony at the end, and students present the nominees and read selections.

The next chance for the tours will be at the AASL conference in October, so if you’re coming to AASL I highly recommend you join me on the school tours! If you’re at ALA this weekend, here are a few more sessions I’m planning to attend – say hey if you’ll be there too!

  • Asking for help makes me nervous: high school to college library experiences
  • 40+ sure-fire ways to spark a love of reading
  • Birds aren’t real: how students can work against misinformation and advocate
  • BookTube, Bookstagram, and BookTok: Understanding the online bookaverse as tool for professional development

Small Successes

We are currently in the middle of switching from Follett Destiny to AccessIt, so my brain is a mess of to-dos about data to check and settings to update and things that I need to make sure work before students leave (our seniors only have a week left!). So, here are some short and sweet things that have worked well for me this semester. The first is very practical, and the last two deal with how we help students relate to and understand the research process. I hope you’ll find these useful, and if you’ve had any small successes this year, please share them in the comments!

Zip Ties are the Secret to Successful Charging Stations

I wanted to create a charging station for students – partly because I knew it would be useful and partly because I was tired of students unplugging my things in order to plug in their own. I bought a cute little wooden device storage thing and all the necessary cords for laptops and smart phones, set it up, and within 2 days both of the iPhone chargers had walked away (Android users are not so immoral as to steal the charger, it seems). Despite many pleas, the cord never walked back. So I bought a new, completely wire stand, a few new cords, and a giant pack of zip ties. Now all the cords are not only labeled but also zip-tied to the station. It’s been a few months and nothing has walked off. It’s not as pretty as my original idea, but I’ll take the functionality any day. I still have a few laptop chargers students can check out, but students also know they can leave the laptop to charge when they go to lunch.

My unlovely but very functional charging station

Working Knowledge & The Great British Bake-Off

I talked in my last post about using the 1 minute test to see if students had a working knowledge of a topic before we move on to deeper searching. I still use that, but I’ve realized that students need an example of what working knowledge is and why it’s important. So I’m comparing it to the Technical Challenge on Great British Bake-Off. In order to complete a technical challenge for, say, cookies, the bakers have to know at least the basic steps and ingredients for baking cookies – they need a working knowledge of cookie baking. This working knowledge doesn’t mean they are experts in cookies, but they can at least pull from their basic knowledge in order to move forward. Research is a technical challenge – you have to know some basics before you can start putting pieces together to search.

This is not actually a meme from a technical challenge, but I really like James Acaster so. . .

Databases are Your Friend Who Only Posts Memes

We’ve all been dealing with the concept of container collapse and our AISL colleagues have shared lots of useful activities to help students understand containers, so this is just one more to add to the list. As much as I talk about it, my students (and even a few teachers) still have trouble seeing databases as aggregators and not creators of information. So like much of my instruction in recent years , I found myself pulling from social media to create an example again (subject headings are the OG hashtags, anyone?). Databases are that friend of yours that never posts anything original on their social media and only shares memes. Your friend didn’t even create the memes – they just found them somewhere else and posted them because they wanted others to see them too. Databases are not influencers – they are not content creators who come up with the new TikTok trend. All they do is share it when it comes along, and they just happen to be sharing things from newspapers, magazines, journals, books, and encyclopedias.

Research Season is Here

For me, the third quarter of the school year is my Research Season. Teachers of course assign small research projects all year long, and I work with them on most of those, but this time of year is when we do the big US History Research Paper. This is the biggest research project that many of our students do in their high school careers, and it is also the project where I get to collaborate the most with the teachers who teach it. Each year, we take a look at the results from the previous year, and what we’ve learned in professional development opportunities that year, and make any changes to the process that we think will help our students learn the process of research better. We’ve been tweaking this project together, year by year, for 7 years now, and here are 2 recent changes that we feel have made a positive impact.

The Synthesis Matrix

For a several years we tried to incorporate an annotated bibliography into the project, but the students never quite understood it or it’s place in the research process. Students would find things that had something to do with their topic in order to write the annotated bibliography entry, but when they started actually writing the paper, they would often need to find all new sources because they weren’t paying attention to how the sources answered their research questions. Then, in 2021 at the AASL conference, I attended a session that talked about using a synthesis matrix as an alternative to an annotated bibliography. We added it to the project last winter with great success.

Image from University of Arizona Global Campus Writing Center, https://writingcenter.uagc.edu/synthesis-matrix

In a synthesis matrix, you place the research questions or themes in the top row, and then add each source down the side of the grid. For each source, you answer how it fits each of the research questions/themes across the top, leaving a blank if that source doesn’t fit one of your questions. Our students create their synthesis matrix as soon as we start looking for sources and fill it in as we go. If a source is blank across all of their questions, they discard that source and keep looking. It helps students see right away that just because a source talks about the Civil War doesn’t mean that it’s useful for their specific research. It also helps them see which of their research questions aren’t addressed with the sources they have so that they can tailor their future searches for those questions. As a personal bonus, I end up with fewer freaked-out students who suddenly don’t have enough sources the day before the paper is due.

Free Research Goals + 1 Minute of Knowledge

Both of the following tips came from the AISL community in some way, and they go hand-in-hand. Shoutout to Erinn Salge, who got this tip from Dave Wee and then shared it on the list-serv – every time you have students do free research in class, set a goal for students to reach by the end of class. You could do this as an exit ticket, or like Erinn you could work with teachers to add it into the classroom participation for the day. I usually just have students tell me something they found. For example, in 2 recent biography projects, students had to tell me an interesting fact about their chosen person at the end of class.

For the US history research paper, I’ve combined this with the 1 minute goal from William Badke’s Research Strategies, a book that several of us read together last spring in a discussion group (it’s worth a read, though none of us agreed with everything Badke says). Badke points out that you need a working knowledge of a topic before you can dive in to full-on research, and a rule of thumb for what constitutes working knowledge is to be able to talk about a topic for 1 minute without repeating yourself. Today, we are exploring possible topics for the US history paper, and students are reading reference sources about whatever topic/s they’re interested in. The students’ daily goal is to be able to talk about their potential topic to a partner for 1 minute; if they run out of things to say, they know that they need to read a bit more. This is all taking place before students even turn in their topic proposals, so by the time we start looking for primary sources, students should have a decent working knowledge of their topic.