Low Stakes Book Club: serving my faculty and staff

We do plenty in our library that is not academic. We try to make space for students to unwind, to commune, to take a little break, as well as a space for study. When our campus is open we have events like many of you do: board game days, trivia contests, crafting days, and so on. We have jigsaw puzzles, bean bags, magnetic poetry boards, and all the fixings for a great community space. Now that we are all on zoom (we’ve been home since 3/13/20 with no end in sight), those events have transformed into new things. We have book and movie fan parties, for example, with trivia and sticker prizes sent to students’ homes via snail mail. Our zoom events that are just for fun are a bit more sparsely attended, which isn’t a surprise. Who wants to go to another zoom after a long day of school?

But what about the adults on our campus? How can I serve them better in a non-academic way? The academic support, I’ve got down. I think we’ve done a pretty decent job reformatting our instruction, collaboration, and research projects for this moment. We have new services and digital resources to replace what teachers cannot access in the physical space. And while I guest-teach in classes all the time, my teaching load is nothing compared to our faculty. We have teachers with overloads, teachers with three different preps, not to mention grading, parenting, planning, being a club moderator, and wearing all the many hats one often does at a small, independent school. While we have been home, not only have I been looking for new ways to serve our student patrons, I’ve also been trying to keep present in my mind that our teachers and staff are also our library patrons. 

This topic might be on my mind at the moment because this is one of my heavy teaching weeks. I am teaching twelve classes this week, so the same number of blocks as a teacher with an overload. I am currently writing this in the last part of my lunch break after having taught the first three blocks of the day and getting ready to hop into the last. I haven’t returned emails, looked at my to-do list, or come up for air more than to get a glass of water and pass snacks to my third-grade child. When I have weeks like this, I can’t stop thinking “How are they doing this week after week?” For me, and perhaps for you, some weeks are heavy teaching weeks and others are not. They are all busy weeks, but this is next-level. 

If I believe that the library is meant to serve the students’ academic as well as non-academic needs, then I also want to consider the same for our faculty and staff. If I believe that the library is a learning space and a community space, how am I helping our teachers maintain community while we are all at home? 

Many of you probably have faculty and staff book clubs, right? Well, we didn’t. Years ago we did, but the teacher who ran it retired and I wasn’t in a position at the time to take it on. As the 2019-2020 school year came to a screeching halt (and somehow also took forever to end), I spoke with several friends and colleagues about how little we’d all been reading for pleasure since the pandemic hit. People were watching Tiger King and making shared movie/tv show lists, but our brains were fried. Yet, we all missed reading. It felt unnatural not to have one, two, or three books going at the same time. People seemed to feel that they should be reading, but also that they should be reading certain books. To that I say phooey! Well, not entirely.

I do think that informed people who intend to grow as humans should read certain books or certain authors or at least read on certain topics and about certain experiences. I do not, however, think that any reader should reject a book they want to read because it’s not on someone’s should list. I also know that sometimes, to kickstart reading after a slump, I need a particular kind of book to get me going again. Once I’m out of the slump I can tackle something more serious or challenging, but the kickstart book can be really hard to find. I wanted to end my own slump, and I knew some of my colleagues did too. To that end, I created the Low Stakes Book Club for faculty and staff. What does low stakes mean? For us, it means a few things.

  1. The book selection will not necessarily be a great work of literature, though it may be. It will often be a popular mystery, a page-turner, or a celebrity’s book club selection. We often choose books on the fly, though sometimes I send out a poll.
  2. The book club meeting is itself low stakes. Didn’t read the book? Who cares? You can show up anyway and hear about it from those who did. Maybe you read three chapters, hated it, and put it down. That’s cool! We hope to see you there.
  3. The purpose and administration of the club is low stakes. There is no theme, no pattern, no goal except to come together (on zoom) and keep our wonderful community going in a totally low stakes way. I might plan a game or trivia or discussion questions, but I really might not.

It’s been great. We have teachers and staff who faithfully read the book and show up every time, and people who never show up even though they always say they will. We’ve read some serious things and some less serious things. It’s been a nice way to connect with colleagues that I have no other chance to see since we’ve left the hallways and the dining hall (and the library!) to collect dust in our absence. And when we return to a new normal, the library will have played a role in bringing some happiness to a few teachers and staff along the way, which feels pretty good. 

The Low Stakes Book Club has read:

Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight

Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Stamped by Jason Reynolds

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

The Guest List by Lucy Foley

The Girl from Widow Hills by Megan Miranda

The Last Story of Mina Lee by Nancy Jooyoun Kim

Talking politics with students

Public libraries are well-known for their role in promoting and facilitating civic engagement. But school libraries? Talking about civic engagement can lead to talking about politics, and talking about politics with students can be tricky, even taboo in some schools. I’ve been thinking about the role of the school library in encouraging students to lead active, healthy, informed civic lives. As school librarians, what value can we add to our students’ civic and political identity development? What happens if we take on this work?

In the fall of 2018, I asked a group of seniors to consider root causes for low youth turnout in the 2014 midterm elections. They resoundingly gave answers like “we don’t know about elections,” “our parents don’t talk to us about this,” and “we wish the school would teach us about politics.” While our students all take US History and US Government, those courses aren’t necessarily designed to teach the kind of political identity development and participation that informed elections require. These kids weren’t getting what they needed.

Subsequently, a few politically conscientious students asked me to help them make sense of the 2018 midterm election. They were going to vote for the first time, but they didn’t know where to begin. I planned three informational sessions in the library called Students Vote! We covered voter registration and rights, state ballot measures, the importance of the youth vote. To my surprise, it was a hit! The students asked me if we could keep going with this type of programming, and what could I say? Yes, of course! Let’s keep going!

We formed a leadership committee. They called the effort Teaching Youth Political Engagement, or TYPE. The committee was made of two students who identified as liberal, one conservative, and one moderate. It’s worth mentioning that this part was (and is) a challenge. Our school has a moderate-to-left leaning student population and many of our more conservative students have expressed discomfort at being politically vocal. One of the goals of TYPE is to be inclusive, though we still don’t have much representation from the right side of the political spectrum. That, however, is another blog post altogether.

In 2019, we held more voter pre/registration efforts, had a few informal discussions on political current events, and chugged along happily doing what we could when we could. There was some student interest, but as it is with many new efforts, I wasn’t sure this one would ever take. Our students are over-scheduled to the extreme, and TYPE is very much an extra that is easily dropped from to-do lists when life gets busy. Then, the pandemic hit, everyone went home, and my TYPE leaders graduated. I was pretty sure TYPE was done for. No one has the time or energy for something extra anymore, right? Still, in a moment of righteous optimism, I put out a call for new leadership in June of this year, and suddenly we were up and running again. Much to my surprise, delight, and mild nervous anxiety, six younger students raised their hands to lead TYPE into the 2020 election season.

What qualifies me to do this work? Good question. Back to school librarianship. In many ways, I feel the essence of my professional existence is to help people parse information. Politics is no different than any other topic when it comes to this. I don’t express my opinion, and I’m lucky not to have had anything too contentious come up. The format of our sessions is “here are the facts” followed by “what do you think about those facts?” and “how do these facts impact your life and what you care about or do?” Librarianship puts me on very firm ground when it comes to facts, and that helps because the students already know that about me. They know I care about sources and citing them. They know I don’t mess around with information.

Our discussions intersect with so many other areas of school librarianship. I really didn’t plan for that, but it turns out to be true every time. Each political discussion we have includes a nod to media literacy, news literacy, and information literacy topics. We talk about verifying information that circulates on social media in the context of images from protests, rallies, and riots. We talk about vetting news sources, reading news from multiple sources, and the consequences of irresponsible news consumption. We talk about information production and sharing. We talk about unpacking media messages and resolving contradictions. We talk about free speech and censorship, what it is and what it isn’t. In fact, this is maybe one of the most school librarian-y things that I do!

So how does it work? The leadership team decides what topic feels most pressing, we set a date to invite the student body to a discussion session, and then they collaborate to research and create a short presentation with discussion questions. The goal is to give some background information on topics students care about and that are not necessarily covered anywhere in the curriculum, and then to open the forum for discussion. We invite everyone, and usually somewhere between sixteen and twenty students show up— after school on a Friday— for yet another zoom meeting. I call that a raging success.

I begin each session by reviewing our community norms, the leadership team gives their brief presentation, and then we discuss. The meeting lasts an hour. We have some regulars that always show up, and we have new faces each time. Sometimes students talk about what happens in their classrooms or in their homes when it comes to political discussions. Sometimes the discussions are emotional. I frequently don’t have answers to all their questions, or their questions are ones that have no clear answers, but I try to follow up the best I can.

TYPE is definitely one of my favorite things. None of it is attached to a grade or a class or a research project, yet these kiddos show up, time after time, looking for space to develop their political and civic identities. They show up on a Friday after school to talk about the news they consume and the research they do on their own, to compare notes, to compare source material. I think school libraries are great spaces for this work. The public libraries of my youth certainly were. I’m glad my school library is growing its reputation as one of those spaces, and most of all, I’m so grateful that school librarianship provides a trusted and trustworthy context for this work .

Do you talk politics with your students, or promote civic engagement? I’d love to hear what you’re doing!