The other day, I was thinking about how librarians find ways to connect their outside interests and talents with their work, such as how I incorporate my love of writing into my career. Here are many of the ways I do that, and I would love to hear how others connect their interests and talents to their jobs!
I review almost everything I read in GoodReads, both for my own use—remembering what I read—and for school use. I often add my GoodReads summaries to catalog records as a “general” note to offer more information about the book, and may also use those summaries in booktalks. As I usually summarize every story in short story books I read, I find those helpful when searching for a short story about something specific, either for a teacher or for an AISL query. The tags and stars I add to reviews also help when I’m looking for books to recommend or add to a to-buy list.
In addition, I write professional reviews for a couple of library magazines, which requires more meticulous work than a GoodReads review. It also gets me reading and thinking about books I might not have otherwise encountered, and helps me hone my ability to write concisely. And it’s always nice to open a magazine and see your own name there!
While I’m not sure if blurbs count as reviews, I write those as well, for our new middle school fiction. We paste them onto bookmarks that go into books on display, hoping to interest students in the books. My colleague also writes blurbs, and she captures the key, intriguing points of a book more concisely than I, I must admit.
For eighteen years at my current school (and five years at my previous school) I ran the middle school literary magazine. While I’ve given it up due to lack of student interest and lack of time, I always enjoyed reading student writing and finding unexpected literary gems.
I also run a “Writing Time” club for students who like to write, but can’t find a moment in their packed schedules. While some students occasionally share writing and ask for feedback, for the most part, we just write.
For ten years, a colleague and I ran a picture-book writing project for our school’s Project Week, and I’m considering reviving it this year. It’s based on the book Written & Illustrated by, by David Melton, and I always love helping students craft their stories and create their books. I also participated with the same colleague in a poetry-writing Project Week project, and learned how to write sestinas and ballads along with the kids. I wrote a ballad about a pony-riding mishap when I was a kid; the ballad was more fun than the incident, and kids always appreciate the chance to laugh at teacher mishaps!
I run multiple contests each year, as I wrote about in two AISL blog posts (Contests Part One, Contests Part Two), and many of those involve writing. It’s fun to think up things that require some creative writing and thinking, but in a one to three sentence form. While most entries are not winner-level, many always impress me.
I recently read a KQ article about a “Reading Quest” that motivated me to create my own version. The authors mentioned that students loved poking around in the quests to find the cute drawings the authors had done. Since drawing is not my strong suit, I peppered my quest with characters saying ridiculous things, instead. I tried this out with our 6th grade, and it went pretty well—though I don’t know if the jokes helped!
Over the years, I’ve enjoyed writing silly skits to introduce various contests, activities, and so forth. While I still do that, where I mostly flex my skit-writing skills these days is in scripts for videos my colleagues, students, and I put together to advertise my library’s eBooks. Writing about those videos was part of my first AISL blog post this year, and the skits are always such fun to write and film!
For many years, I wrote articles on books and other library matters for VOYA magazine, which unfortunately appears defunct. That is one reason I’m happy to be able to write for the AISL blog!
For the retirements of two recent colleagues, I chose “patter” songs (such as the Major General song from The Pirates of Penzance) and wrote lyrics about my colleagues. I asked the choir teacher to perform them at the faculty end-of-year party, and she did a wonderful job. I had such fun writing these, and was especially proud that I managed to use the word “defenestrate” in one of the songs!
Though I quickly learned that the traditional publishing world is too rejection-heavy for me, I continue to write novels, both fanfiction and original. I’ve self-published a couple through Amazon so I could have a printed book to my name, and as they were YA titles, I donated copies to my school library. (Shameless self-promotion: Summergreen, and Tales From Camp Brightlake.)
How do you bring your hobbies, interests, and passions to your job?
Thanks so much to the 100+ people who filled out my survey about selecting and familiarizing yourself with books! Here’s the breakdown of respondents by grade levels, so you can see that most serve grades 9-12, followed by grades 5-8, followed by K-4. The “other” responses included Pre-K students.
For selecting books by reviews, respondents most often use:
Sites that curate multiple professional reviews
Online versions of print sources
Online video reviews
Responses in the “other” category included:
Social media like Twitter/X, Instagram, and Facebook (“I hear about 90% of the fiction titles and many of the nonfiction titles I purchase on Twitter”)
See the end of this post for a full list of specific sources mentioned.
Familiarizing Ourselves With Books
Familiarization Methods Overall
When it comes to familiarizing ourselves with books, top methods included:
Using new books in displays
Reading book jackets and back-of-book summaries
Skimming new books
Reading new books
Least popular included:
Reading reviews on social media/ blogs/ YouTube/ etc.
Reading social media posts
Answers in the “other” category included:
“We get 30+ books on a biweekly basis so that simply isn’t possible!”
“Read the ones that don’t seem like they’d be popular so I can \”sell\” them!”
Give books to students and request feedback
“Read specific ones with an eye toward adding them to the HAISLN list.”
Top Two Familiarization Methods
The most popular methods for familiarizing ourselves with books include:
Reading book jackets
Interesting answers given by one person each included:
Watching author videos
Checking trigger warning sites
“An interesting follow-up survey could be about people’s feelings on paying for acquisitions services. Ingram is coming out with a paid service that will supposedly select books for your school.”
“I familiarize myself with books as part of the evaluation process.”
“I’m a slow reader so skimming is as good as it gets unless I think the book will be popular or if it’s a book we’re choosing for book club.”
“I just look at the covers. 🙂 I know what I’m ordering and know what to expect when those boxes arrive; I read summaries as I order and listen to from webinars; I have lists ready of who requested what and I set aside those titles I know I should read for readers’ advisory.”
“I read a lot! And I skim the ones I don’t fully read. I handle every book I purchase.”
“I catalog all of our new books; Follett’s cataloging often leaves much to be desired, so I usually do a little digging with each book to create a good record. I also do weekly book talks during our all upper school gathering where I promote new books in the library and our new books libguide weekly.”
“I use the 10-minute read technique. Secondly, I enhance the resource records when processing, during which I read the entire cover information and perhaps the first few pages.”
“When I order them I familiarize myself with what they are about. I read some, but there is no way to read them all!!”
“I use Titlewave, especially Kirkus Review that usually includes information such as “characters cue white” or “protagonist is Southeast Asian.” I also like that it has multiple reviews that include age ranges. Reading the books is also helpful although I’m a slow reader and there are many books! I tend to let the popular books sell themselves and read or read excerpts of the books that might not be as popular but that I know will be good.”
“Read the book. If I like it, I read the entire book. Otherwise, I stop when I know enough to book talk it to students.”
“Sadly I do very little of this, other then trying to match the titles with the content I saw when reading the reviews.”
These are resources mentioned in the survey, as well as resources from an earlier query by Sarah Davis of Viewpoint School (CA), who compiled this list.
I’ve been wanting to write about Webtoons for the blog, since I started reading Webtoons webcomics a few years ago and now follow multiple series, but have held back for a couple of reasons. One, the world of webcomics is enormous, with a multitude of sites around the world hosting many thousands of series, but I’ve pretty much stuck to Webtoons so can’t comment on the others (except I know that sometimes series/episodes too racy for Webtoons end up on Tapas). Two, I haven’t really found a good way to translate my love of Webtoons to my job, except to post a list of the series I’m following, and to add some to our catalog if they are available in book format or were adapted from books. I’d love to hear other ideas for how to use them at school!
Webtoons is a South Korean company that’s gone through a few iterations since 2004. Originator of the scrollable-comic format that works well for the web and mobile devices, Webtoons now publishes original webcomics, has a self-publishing platform called Canvas, and is also associated with the writers’ site Wattpad. Though Webtoons is free, readers can choose to support their favorite comic creators, and some comics are offered on a “daily pass” system that allows you to unlock one episode a day or use virtual “coins” to unlock other episodes. Many Webtoons series are in progress, updating at different intervals or on hiatus, so don’t expect to read a story all the way through like a novel unless the series is marked as completed. Finding new Webtoons to follow can be frustrating, since the subject search is unfortunately minimal.
For the most part, Webtoons are aimed at YA and adults, though many are fine for grades 7+. A select few are appropriate for younger kids, though I wouldn’t recommend the site to younger students. More mature YA/Adult webtoons can have significant “R-Rated” content, though not generally above that; obviously that’s subjective. I’ve encountered a ton of LGBTQ representation and a fair amount of other diverse representation, which is always a plus! I also enjoy reading the comments, which has introduced me to more current slang, and let me see how other, probably younger readers connect with the material. Often people will tell how their own situation or personality mirrors something happening in the comic, such as autistic people seeing their experiences reflected in the experiences of Extraordinary Attorney Woo. I also learn things I never suspected; for instance, from reading comments on the trans comic Hyperfocus, I learned that people can identify as multi-personality “systems,” or as “non-human entities.” Windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors are well-represented in webcomics!
English-language YA titles that have been adapted as Webtoons (I’ve starred ones I’ve read):
Callie thinks she’s nothing special. With the unexpected addition of friendship and adventure (and dead radishes) into her life, she’s about to find out that she was very, very wrong! [On hiatus]
Space Boy. Stephen McCranie. Science Fiction, Adventure, Romance, School Story
A girl who belongs in a different time. A boy possessed by an emptiness as deep as space. A story about an alien artifact, a mysterious murder, and a love that crosses light years. [In progress]
Raven Saga. Chihiro Howe. Fantasy, Adventure, Romance
When her grandmother is taken by a mysterious boy, Wen must travel to the outside world to save her, but the world isn’t as magical as she once thought, and danger lurks around every corner. [On hiatus]
Gwendolyn doesn’t look like a fairy-tale princess, but she’s got a big heart and a loving family. When she accidentally stumbles upon the world of the Cursed Princess Club, her life will never be the same. [In progress]
Heartstopper. Alice Oseman. Romance, Realistic Fiction, School Story, LGBTQ+
Charlie, a highly-strung, openly gay over-thinker, and Nick, a cheerful, soft-hearted rugby player, meet at a British all-boys grammar school. Friendship blooms quickly, but could there be something more…? [In progress]
Brass & Sass!Antlerella. Romance, Realistic Fiction, School Story
What Camilla lacks in musical ability, she makes up for in passion – especially when it comes to Victor, the handsome musician who’s caught her eye. Will love rule the day, even when your crush-of-choice is a real brass-hole? [Complete]
Dr. Marino loves his quiet life, and when the strange Miss Abbott arrives in his town he decides he doesn’t like her at all. Unfortunately, she’s funny and quirky, has an uncommon past, and seems to enjoy getting him in trouble. [Complete]
Happy August, all! As we return to our schools and our jobs, I’m thinking back on the wonderful professional development trip I took this summer to Oxford, England. Oxbridge Academic Programs by Worldstrides has been running student programs for thirty-five years, in locations including Oxford, Cambridge, Paris, New York, and Barcelona. An offshoot of that is the weeklong Oxbridge Teacher Seminars, this year taking place in Oxford and Cambridge. This is my third time joining these programs, and the second time in Oxford. Each year the programs offer several different tracks, which in Oxford this year included: Literature and the Fantastic (about the Oxford fantasy writers like J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Philip Pullman, etc.), The Library and the Academy, Shakespeare in History, and Leadership Challenges in Contemporary Education. As I had previously taken the Literature and the Fantastic course, which I loved, this year I chose Shakespeare. My AISL colleague Jennifer Lutzky, from Campbell Hall in California, chose the library track. She contributed all information related to that, as well as contributing to the details of the program overall.
The programs take place at one of the thirty-nine colleges included in Oxford University; this year at Worcester College. Program days start with breakfast in the college dining hall, seminar meetings in the morning, a tea break at eleven (because, of course), then further seminar meetings or local field trips with your seminar group until lunchtime. Lunches are on your own in Oxford. Afternoons include plenary (all-group) sessions that could be lectures, workshops, walking tours, college tours, or local activities. Dinner is also in the college dining hall, and can be followed by optional excursions to pubs, concerts, plays, etc. And of course, there is lots of time for connecting with your fellow course participants over meals, at meetings, and in your free time—network away!
There is also plenty of time for exploring Oxford and souvenir shopping. Oxford is a highly walkable town, with something new and photo-worthy around every curve, narrow alleyway, and corner. Our introductory walking tour, through the lively river of summer tourists and students, touched on all the main sites, such as the Radcliffe Camera, Ashmolean Museum, Bodleian Library, Sheldonian Theatre, etc. Despite its historic buildings, Oxford is no museum; it’s a living, active host to hundreds of years of scholarship and shenanigans.
Here is a daily schedule of the 2023 program, for the Shakespeare and Library tracks:
Day One: Arrival at Worcester College
Welcome: Group meeting to go over the program and make introductions
Discussion Groups: The Shakespeare group, led by Dr. Kim Sturgess, discussed Shakespeare in general, and teaching Shakespeare. One suggestion was treating it like a video game, with many different levels of expertise. We then took a “field trip” to the college lake, overhung by willows, for a reading/discussion of Ophelia’s death in Hamlet. The library group, led by Steven Archer from Trinity College Cambridge, discussed “Libraries and the University”, an overview of how the Oxford and Cambridge systems work and how their different types of libraries integrate into the institution as a whole. Then we visited Merton College, established in 1264, and their library, which was built in the 1370s. It is the oldest continuously-operating university library in the world.
Plenary Session One: Dr. Mark Hammond: “Exoplanet research, Education, and Outreach.”
Plenary Session Two: Prof. Patrick Porter: “Blood and Iron: Ukraine, Taiwan, and the West.”
Discussion Groups: The Shakespeare group read aloud from and discussed Romeo and Juliet, and ways to approach it with students, mostly by knocking it off its pedestal and connecting students with the universal emotions and experiences at its center. At our second session, we talked about the lyric poem Venus and Adonis, one of the few pieces published in Shakespeare’s lifetime. The library group discussed theories about what makes a library a library, and got an overview on the history of ancient and medieval libraries. Then we had two library visits! The first was with the curator of medieval manuscripts at the Bodleian Library, where we got to see an array of manuscripts, including one scribed in the 1180s and the first bible translated into Middle English in the 1430s. Next we visited the Lincoln College library, which moved into a beautiful church in the 1970s and has exquisite Georgian ceilings.
Plenary Session One: Charlie Gilderdale: “Experiencing Learning.” In this session, we spent forty-five minutes on a math problem, and forty-five minutes discussing our experiences as students.
Plenary Session Two: Punting on the Thames, unfortunately canceled due to rain.
After Dinner: “Optional drinks with the faculty of The Oxford Tradition and The Oxford Prep Experience at Corpus Christi College.” Worcester College Cellar Bar also open.
Discussion Groups: The Shakespeare group read from and discussed The Tempest, and some of its problematic aspects, such as the treatment of Caliban. Dr. Sturgess tried to frame it with an Elizabethan consciousness to help us understand how its original viewers would have responded to it. The library group learned about the early history of printing, and then discussed cataloging and item access. Today’s library visits were to two particularly impressive libraries, Duke Humfrey’s Library in the old Bodleian, and the Radcliffe Camera. Both are places typically restricted to Oxford students and faculty, without any public access, and both were extraordinary to see in person. The library group was especially awed by Duke Humfrey’s library, with all its 15th and 16th century splendor, and amused by the juxtaposition of centuries-old volumes and bookcases with power strips and USB ports.
Plenary Session One: Gabriel Sewell: “Visit to Christ Church’s historic Upper Library with the college librarian.” Discussion about the library system at Oxford. On display: a 14th century copy of The Canterbury Tales, among other wonders, and a beautiful exhibition devoted to Lewis Carroll, who was both a student and mathematics tutor at the college.
Discussion Groups: The Shakespeare group discussed The Merchant of Venice and its controversial aspects, as well as how it would have been viewed by Elizabethan audiences. The play does feature some wonderfully strong and intelligent women, who found ways to have power in a society that allowed them few choices. The library group discussed library spaces and how they have changed, and talked about ways that libraries can engage and serve their users. We then visited the library at Queen’s College, which has three floors with three distinct atmospheres, built in the 17th, 19th, and 21st centuries.
After Dinner: Walk to the nearby Norman-era Oxford Castle for an outdoor performance of Romeo & Juliet.
Discussion Groups: The Shakespeare group discussed last night’s performance of Romeo & Juliet, as well as reading from and discussing Henry V, and watching video clips from the Kenneth Branagh version. In the second morning session, we watched an episode of Michael Wood’s In search of Shakespeare, a documentary exploring Shakespeare’s lifetime. The library group talked about library services and the broad spectrum of what libraries do for patrons. Then we again fit two libraries into our field trip schedule. First we were off to the Oxford Union, the iconic Oxford debating society, to hear about their history and see their library (including a ceiling painted by William Morris). Next we explored the library at Trinity College, which is over 600 years old and houses everything from 10th century manuscripts to a collection of rare erotica to limited editions of Winnie the Pooh.
Plenary Session One: Choice of walking tours, one for architecture, one for literature.
After Dinner: Optional concert at the Sheldonian Theatre: “Shakespeare in Music; Oxford Philharmonic.”
Free time: With a free morning, some new friends from the Shakespeare group hopped on a local bus to visit Blenheim Palace, the vast and lavish estate that’s the seat of the Dukes of Marlborough, and birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill. The library group snuck in one last field trip, a visit to St. Edmund Hall (“Teddy Hall”) and their libraries. Another library housed in a church, the College Library building dates from the 12th century and is one of the oldest churches in Oxford. There is a tomb nestled among the desks in the reading room, a crypt underneath the floor, and students regularly lean against the gravestones outside to study on sunny days. The Old Library, in a separate building, was constructed in the 1680s and was the last Oxford library to keep their books chained to the shelves to prevent theft.
Plenary Session: Tour of New College (founded 1379). “A visit to this 14th Century college to explore the magnificent chapel, hall, quads, and gardens.”
Drinks Reception: Presentation of certificates.
Rebecca: I think I could happily spend part of every summer in Oxford, and I highly recommend the Oxbridge program, though it is rather pricey as far as professional development goes (I paid for it myself). Please feel free to contact me for any more information, and you can read an expanded day to day description of my experience here. If you’re really interested, you can also read a way-too-long travelogue of my experience with the Literature and the Fantastic course in 2011 here. That course is still being offered, and while of course it would be different, the travelogue could give you an idea of the type of thing likely to be covered.
Jennifer: For the library group, just to be admitted into so many very old and very beautiful library spaces, and surrounded by the sheer volume of rare and many-centuries-old books and manuscripts, was overwhelming and awe-inspiring. Those opportunities, paired with engaging discussions about libraries and library services, made this seminar both worthwhile professionally and delightful personally. I hope to repeat the experience, perhaps the next time it is hosted at Cambridge!
Composite of photos taken around Worcester College. It is enormous, including a small lake, multiple academic and dorm buildings, a library, a chapel, a dining hall, a pub, a Henry Moore sculpture, ancient trees in luxuriant gardens, walking trails, and a vast athletic field.
Happy summer, everyone! Here is the second half of my article on the contests I run with my middle schoolers.
Fortune Writing Contest. In this contest, students must write a better fortune than the ones they find in traditional fortune cookies. This contest is more of a lift for me, as I need to buy fortune cookies, steam them soft in the microwave so I can extract the original fortune and insert a student-written fortune. It’s such fun, though, to watch kids open a cookie and find a student fortune!
2022 Winner: Look forward, don’t look back, unless you’re driving, then you want to look back when merging. —Mia, 6th
Photo Finish. Before this contest, I hold a lunchtime meeting in which students cut interesting photos out of magazines and catalogs. During the contest, they must choose three photos from among all the cut-out photos, then write a story (at least three sentences!) that incorporates those photos. It’s another colorful contest, with all of those stories posted around the library!
Scenes From a [Virtual] Hat. This pandemic contest came from a game in the TV show, Whose Line Is It, Anyway? With some help from colleagues and AISL, I devised a bunch of prompts, like “Most useless spell Harry Potter could learn,” “Things you don’t expect to hear when you put your ear to a seashell,” and “Scout badges we’ve never heard of.” I loaded them all into a wheel of choice widget that students could spin, and then they had to write a response to whichever prompt they got. This is another one I only ran once, though I would love to run it again!
Six Word Memoirs. This contest was inspired by a book: I Can’t Keep My Own Secrets: Six-Word Memoirs by Teens Famous & Obscure. After some confusion about what a memoir is, though, I retitled the contest; it’s now the “Your Life in a Six Word Sentence” contest, as I was tired of getting lists of words! This contest actually inspires students’ most thoughtful writing, and on occasion, has alerted me to something I think our counselors should look into. You never know what you’re going to get!
2022 Winner: A bit messy, a bit magical. –Virginia, 7th
Story in a Tweet/Story in Twenty-Five Words. This contest began when tweets were fairly new, with the original length of 140 characters. When that changed, I adapted the contest to keep the challenge of squeezing a whole story into a few words.
2020 Winner: She walked inside the house admiring the furniture, taste-testing the food, and tried out the mattresses. Unfortunately for Goldilocks, she was not at IKEA. –Emily, 8th
Two-Sentence Horror Stories. An SLJ article by Rozanna Baranets inspired this contest. I challenged students to write either a funny or scary two-sentence horror story. They excelled!
2022 Scary Story Winner: Everyone always asks how many trick or treaters I get. But no one asks how many leave. –Savannah, 7th
2022 Funny Story Winner: Through the darkness, a silhouette emerged. I screamed in horror as it said: “I’m here to talk about your car’s extended warranty.” –Andrea, 7th
Unlikely Superheroes. This contest came from a game in the TV show, Whose Line Is It, Anyway? I challenge student to create an unlikely superhero with an unlikely power, and a ridiculous crisis for them to solve. Extra points if students write a short story showing how the superhero used their power to solve the crisis. This was a pandemic contest, and though it was a lot of fun, I didn’t get a ton of entries so have only run it once.
2020 Winner: Superhero: Taco Teen, who can create extra spicy tacos out of thin air. The tacos can dissolve enemies from their spicy salsa. Crisis: Two big cutting boards come alive and are trying to poke the city with the extra sharp knives! –Jon, 5th
World Book Contest. This contest requires a full set of World Book encyclopedias in print, with “World Book” written across the combined spines. The challenge is creating new words with the letters available.
Zip Code Poetry. A teacher alerted me to this NPR article about “Zip Odes” in Miami, and it seemed like a great idea for a contest. For this one, students chose a zip code connected with them (home, school, grandparents, etc.), wrote it vertically, and then penned a poem with the same number of words in a line as the corresponding number in the zip code. For zeroes, they could draw a picture or leave it blank. Obviously, this will work better in parts of the country without a lot of zeroes in the zip codes!
During a recent professional day, when we divided into interest groups, I joined teachers who wanted to talk about SEL. I was so touched when many of them told me that I did a lot for SEL through my low-stakes, brain-break library contests! I have always enjoyed contests, and I try to run one a month during the school year. Connecting them with books, reading, or writing, I use contests to leverage students’ creativity and writing skills in a fun way.
Everyone who enters my contests, whatever their skill level, earns intramural “Green or Gold” points for their efforts. At Overlake, all students are on one “team” or the other, and earn points all year through ASB activities, Field Day, and library contests. I love that my contests help quieter, maybe non-athletic students to shine and earn points for their team. Full disclosure: in addition to points, students also earn small prizes (water bottle stickers, lollipops, key chains, etc.) or one of my homemade cookies. I consider that a significant point of SEL, as well as an encouragement to flex their creative muscles! To pull the biggest possible participant pool, I run all my contests in the cafeteria during lunch. To determine winners, I cull the top 10-12 entries, and send them to faculty for voting.
I thought I’d write a two-part blog article to cover my contests, many of which originated with other librarians. I can’t run all of these in one year, so I alternate some of the less popular contests, and I’m always up to try a new contest as well. Please contact me if you’d like more information on any of these! I’ve listed them alphabetically, so here you have Bad Writing through Food Haiku.
Bad Writing Contest. This is an iteration of San Jose University’s Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, which challenges entrants “to write an atrocious opening sentence to the worst novel never written.” I append the rule that kids’ sentences cannot gross me out, and must make sense. This is their favorite contest; they love the opportunity to write badly! As an example of how much a challenge it is, though, I’ve added a category for “accidentally great sentences,” since often I’ll encounter a sentence for a book I’d love to read!
2022 Winner: The sheep attacked my face like I was wearing a wool sweater and it wanted justice. —Diya M., 6th
2022 Accidentally Great Sentence Winner: If I can’t dream, am I allowed to live in this lightless city? —Rylie, 7th
Book Spine Poetry. This contest came from the library zeitgeist a few years ago—it’s a great one to run in April, as part of poetry month. My colleagues and I gather books with titles clearly visible on the spine, making sure we have some verbs, adverbs, etc. Having a cart of these available, I challenge students to “write” a poem using at least three books. I photograph the poem, as well as having students write it down so I know who created what verse.
2023 Winner: Meesha, 6th
Book Stacking. I borrowed this contest from a librarian at my last school, and it’s exactly what it sounds like. I have six boxes full of discarded books, and I challenge students to see how fast they can build a tower using all the books in two boxes. Stacks consist of one book laid flat on another book (no pyramids or books on their sides), and cannot wobble. Of course, the kids’ favorite part is knocking the stack down!
Book Title Snowman. This was formerly Book Title Hangman, which someone pointed out was not a good association for a kids’ game. For Snowman, I list twenty authors and titles that I hope kids will be familiar with, and turn them into forms with blanks. Because this contest requires a lot of input from those running it, I recruit student helpers. Kids guess letters and try to identify the author or title before their snowman is built.
Bookface. This activity was in the library zeitgeist a few years ago, when a lot of book covers featured partial faces or just parts of bodies. My colleagues and I amass a cart of books with such covers, and students choose a cover to be photographed with. As the trend in cover art has moved away from this type of cover, I haven’t run this activity recently.
Captions Contest. I could not do this contest without generous people who still get the local paper in print, and save their Sunday comics for me. Gathering these pages, I hold a lunch meeting before the contest, and ask students to cut out interesting comics panels and then trim out the speech bubbles. That leaves me with a pile of cartoons without captions, so the contest challenges students to write better, funnier captions. This is a colorful contest, when I post all of the entries around the library!
2021 Winner: Sammie, 8th
Clickbait. We all know what clickbait is—it promises amazing information with a tantalizing headline, but if you click, be prepared to be completely underwhelmed (and possibly infected by a computer virus). For this contest, I challenge students to come up with a great clickbait headline, as well as the less-than-thrilling truth behind it.
2021 Winner: OMG!!! TRAIN WENT THROUGH A MOUNTAIN!!! (There was a tunnel.) —Nidhir, 7th
Excuses, Excuses! To prepare for this contest, I take all of the entries from the prior writing contests of the year, and put them through a word frequency counter. I list and cut out the less common words, and students must draw three of these and use them to write an excuse about why they were late to school, or why their homework was late. For whatever reason, this contest inspires students to write mini-novels!
2022 Winner: Words: Mice, Moon, Foil. I’m really sorry that I’m late today, as when I woke up, I saw a bunch of giant mice surrounding me. I was obviously very terrified and tried to run away, but the mice all collectively grabbed me and put me in a spaceship that was made of foil or something, and sent me to the moon. I had to find my way off the moon but I made it, only six hours late! I brought some moon dust though, so please don’t mark me tardy. —Gloria, 8th
Food Haiku. What’s more inspiring than food? This contest challenges students to write a haiku about food. Over the years, I’ve tried alternate versions of this contest, like Book Review Haiku and Overlake Haiku, but food remains the most popular version!
2022 Winner:I love chocolate/Rich and dark and bittersweet/Like tasting a hug —Diya M., 6th
At Overlake, we have been using NoodleTools citation-building software for years. I am fortunate enough at this point to have several English, Social Studies, and (sometimes) Science teachers invite me to help with project research, including NoodleTools citations. Before the year’s first project, I refresh students’ memories on how NoodleTools works. Depending on teacher preference, I teach a traditional lesson, or kids watch a series of screencasts I put together, with me and a library colleague in the classroom to answer questions. We use MLA in the Middle School, at “starter” or “junior” level. Prior to any research, I set up a “project inbox” in NoodleTools; during the lesson, kids connect their projects to the inbox, so I can see and comment on citations.
For grading citations, I offer teachers two options. The easier option—for me and the students—is for me to look through the citations, commenting only if I spot an unreliable or otherwise questionable resource (outdated, biased, etc.), or if the citation lacks significant information, like titles or working URLs. I use database software (Microsoft Access) to track how many sources a student lists, the quality of those sources, and whether the citation needs significant fixes. Throughout the project, I check citations several times and update teachers on their students’ progress.
For the second option, I hone in on the details that make a well-executed citation, and comment on every citation. I let students know exactly what changes they need to make, and keep track of those changes. In my database, a list of changes could look like: sourcex1, cpx2, titlex1, datex3, which would tell me that a student needs to correct one source type, find two database citations to copy and paste, fix or add a title, and add or correct three dates. We allow students to copy and paste database citations rather than enter those field by field, as such citations can get complicated and the students are only 10-12 years old! A citation with three or more errors I note as “maj” rather than enter changes type by type. This saves me time, and ensures I don’t ding any citation for more than three errors.
When grading the citations, I devised a rubric based on a project requiring at least three sources. I can adjust the rubric if a teacher requires additional sources. I grade on three aspects of a project: number of sources, quality of sources, and number of changes needed. Here are my rubrics.
Number of Sources Grading points
Images other than infographics do not count as sources, and I do not give detailed comments on image citations unless I see major errors.
Quality of Sources Grading Points
No sources/3+ questionable sources
2 Questionable sources
1 questionable source
Questionable sources: Sites deemed unreliable due to mis/disinformation, outdated information, bias, no information on author/sources used, etc.
Quality sources: Books, databases, pre-approved websites, websites from well-known companies, websites approved by a teacher or librarian
Number of Changes Needed GradingPoints
I translate the students’ points into a percentage for the teacher, who can weigh it in their assignment as they choose. As 100% for a project requiring three sources translates into 18 points, I wrote out an equivalency chart so I wouldn’t have to calculate every time. Students with more than the required number of sources often earn over 100%.
Percentages out of 18
Here is a screenshot of a fully graded project list in Access (I have deliberately cut off the students’ names):
Writing comments on every citation, multiple times throughout a project, takes a long time! I recently decided to write detailed comments for up to ten citations per student, and beyond that will just check for reliability and major errors. I made that decision after a 5th grade assignment in which many students, required to find three sources, cited upwards of 10, 20, even 30 sources! I applaud their diligence and enthusiasm, but really, enough is enough. 😊
Our current goal is for me to give detailed comments to 5th graders on one assignment each year, 6th graders on two, and 7th graders on three. I feel so fortunate to have teachers willing to work with me, and I like to think I’m taking at least part of the onerous job of grading off their shoulders!
I have long been in favor of genrefying fiction collections so students will be better able to find books they know they will enjoy. With our school, we took the plunge starting in the fall of 2019, and here are the steps we went through to complete the process.
1. Genre Stickers
We started with our middle school fiction, and for step one, added genre stickers to every book. Although we had stickers for fantasy, science fiction, horror, mystery, adventure, humor, historical, realistic, romance, sports, and graphic novels, we combined realistic, romance, and sports into one “realistic” section when we moved the books. We also kept graphic novels intermixed by genre, but in their own separate collection.
2. Tally Books
For step two, I went low-tech, though I’m sure there are more sophisticated options out there! I printed out a form with spots for each genre, then took a clipboard and pen and went into the collection and did a hand-count of titles in each genre. That gave me a rough count (assuming some books were checked out) of the numbers for each section.
3. Estimate Shelf Space
I estimated how many feet of shelf space each section would need, based on number of books plus extra space for growth. Then I measured our shelving, which, as you can see from the image (MS Fiction in purple), is divided into a number of different places and sizes of shelf. I noted how many feet of shelf each unit contained, front and back for double-sided units, and then figured out which section would fit where. For many of our shelving units, continuing to a second unit would create a non-intuitive flow, so we avoided that as much as possible.
4. Move Books
We moved books during winter break, when no students were around; we had the three library staffers plus one volunteer. Starting with the shelves on which our alphabetized collection started, we moved all the books from the shelf space needed for the new section up to the tops of the shelves, leaving them in order. Then, using book carts, we went through the whole collection and pulled all the books for the new genre section. As our fiction was already in alphabetical order, pulling them by genre sticker did not disrupt that order and allowed us to move them to their new shelves without much reshuffling. I believe eventually we each started moving different sections, which worked so long as the books removed from the shelves to make space for the new sections went to the top of the shelves in order. The process went reasonably quickly, and I think we moved the collection in a couple of days.
Here are some photos of our current genrefied collection.
5. Change Location in Catalog
The part that took the longest was changing each book’s sublocation in our Follett Destiny catalog. We all worked on different sections over a couple of months, going book by book.
We are still working on the ideal signage for the collection. Currently we have small labels above each rank of shelves, and larger signs on the endcaps, but students still ask where a section is (though they have no trouble finding the graphic novels!). Here is a sample of the cool signs Andrea designed, though we think the genre title needs to be a little larger, and arrows would be helpful.
7. YA Fiction
The procedure for genrefying our recently completed YA fiction section was spearheaded by my colleague, Andrea. It started with a previously-finished diversity audit that included the genres, then adding genre stickers to all the books. As I had done with our middle school fiction, Andrea mapped out the YA fiction according to genre, with some genres like humor getting lumped into realistic. With a volunteer, she moved books by pulling out genre-stickered titles to put on carts in alpha order, then consolidated the remaining books to make room for the new section.
I’m really happy with how the collection turned out, and while the pandemic has made it difficult to assess whether circulation has increased as a result, it has made it easier for students to browse their favorite genres and find some new books to try.
In which book did a dragon crash-land on a row of porta potties? (Answer at the end of the post)
Nothing brings me more joy than seeing a team of middle schoolers, heads together, hotly debating books. “It must be Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire because there’s a dragon!” “No, Dragonet Prophecy is all about dragons—it has to be that!” “But there aren’t any porta-potties in Pyhrria!”
Welcome to the Battle of the Books.
I first encountered the Battle of the Books in the 1990s, during a graduate internship in North Carolina. At the time, BoB was a state-wide public school competition with a list of twenty-plus books and multiple age levels. Teams alternated answering twenty questions a round from that set list of books, the answer always being the book’s title and author. From school competitions, teams moved to regional and state competitions. I thought it sounded amazing!
2. In which book do characters regularly eat canned food that’s over 200 years old?
When I wanted to Battle at my first school, since I wasn’t in a BoB state and lacked that infrastructure, I decided to stage a Battle just at my own school. Though I have happily continued that, I’ve always felt guilty for not expanding into something more like the statewide program. For the last few years I‘ve had the good fortune to compete with one or two other local schools, but trying to expand the program further brought up issues of time/scheduling, number of books kids were willing to read vs. number of questions needed, and too few/too many participants. Unfortunately, I think expanding would require more time and organization than I can currently manage, plus just looking at the thirty-two page book of rules and regulations for the current North Carolina Battle of the Books overwhelms me! So what follows is a description (probably TL;DR) of how I run a one or two school Battle.
3. In which book does the main character break out of jail using a key made from hardened porridge?
At my school, 5th grade Battle is required and limited to that grade, and 6th-8th graders can sign up to compete against our partner school on a voluntary basis. As I discovered this year, it’s vital to run a “Mock Battle” at weekly announcements to ramp up excitement. Having not been able to stage one this year, my 6th-8th grade participation is unfortunately down, plus kids’ reluctance to miss more than one class block meant conducting the Battle virtually. In general, I run the Mock Battle and signups in late November/early December, and schedule the Battles for late February/early March. That allows time for reading.
4. In which book does the main character accidentally call the Tanzanian president’s wife a diseased wildebeest?
After the Mock Battle, I solicit student input on the book list. Students choose half of the books and librarians choose the rest, to balance the list for genre and diversity. With the two-school Battle’s list of thirteen books, that means students at each school choose three. My partner librarian and I generally make our additional selections from the extensive list of titles for which I already have questions, to save time. We will sometimes add fabulous new books that we can’t resist, though!
5. In which book did a character wear red nail polish made with snake venom?
I post the lists and the Battle rules on the Library website, and our library assistant pulls/orders books and puts them on display. I also recruit colleagues to help read books and write up questions. When I write up questions, I often try to make them intriguing enough that students will want to try the book based on the question, if they haven’t read it. I mean:
6. In which book do two characters send the main character a toilet seat to cheer him up after an adventure?
Who wouldn’t want to read that?
My partner school often runs team practices, but I have never had much student interest for that; this year I’m trying some Kahoots, using questions from non-Battle books. I do assign 6th-8th graders to teams, balancing for grade level. I send several reminders to the sixth-eighth graders and the question writers during the months before the Battle, and I also remind students that they need to show good sportsmanship!
7. In which book does the main character say: “It was like towels were meeting each other in the laundry room, getting married, and having babies”?
To prepare for the Battle, I recruit volunteers for timekeeper/scorekeeper and crowd control. I set up a board that includes the Battle rules, the schedule of rounds for the day, and the scoreboard, which gets updated after each round.
Organizing the questions takes the most time, and I’m sure others could find a better way! I’m old-school, so I have all my questions printed out. After I determine how many questions I need from each book, I go through all the questions for each title and select the best. To ensure each book is evenly represented in every twenty-question Battle, I use a randomizer to tell me in which order to draw questions from each book’s pile.
8. In which book does a monk give oddly specific blessings, like “may wasps never sting the palms of your hands”?
During the Battles, each team on deck selects a captain, and the answer can only come from the captain, after consultation with their team. They get twenty seconds to give me the title (four points), and the author’s last name (two points). If one team can’t answer or can’t answer fully, the other team gets ten seconds to earn half points with a correct answer. I find that even if kids haven’t read all the books, they start to recognize elements in the questions and often make accurate guesses! The questioned team may challenge a question as possibly applying to more than one book, and I might replace that question.
9. In which book does the main character get attacked by bronze spiders at the “Thrill Ride O’Love?”
I love staging Battle of the Books, and seeing kids get so hyped over books! It is a lot of work, but I think it’s time well-spent, and it also encourages me to read new books and see what books kids really love these days. If you are interested in running your own Battle, I am happy to share my questions (I have them for more than 100 books), or you could look into America’s Battle of the Books, a membership-based organization that offers pre-written questions and a variety of competition formats. Battle on!
Answers: 1. The Lost Hero, Rick Riordan. 2. The City of Ember, Jeanne DuPrau. 3. Eye of the Crow, Shane Peacock. 4. Spy School, Stuart Gibbs. 5. Holes, Louis Sachar. 6. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling. 7. Front Desk, Kelly Yang. 8. A Wish in the Dark, Christine Soontornvat. 9. The Lightning Thief, Rick Riordan.
I have been running bookfairs, with books provided by local independent bookstores, for over twenty years. After listening to an episode of Amy Hermon’s School Librarians United podcast about inclusive libraries, I started thinking more about the equity issues of traditional bookfairs. Wanting to try something different, I explored other options, and of course posted a query on the AISL listserv. Others had been looking into alternatives as well, and after assessing various forms of book swaps and the like, I settled on Claire Hazzard’s Book Bonanza as the most equitable since it didn’t require students to bring in books for a one-to-one swap.
I started out with a request sent through our Communications Department and our Parents’ Association for donations of books in good shape that would appeal to students in grades 5, 6, 7, or 8. My plan was to divide the number of donated books by the number of students in the middle school, to determine how many books each student could choose. This being my first Bonanza, I could only guess at time frames and volunteers needed, so I used my Bookfair timeline. I reserved a large room for two and a half days (the half for set up and the two days for the Bonanza), and spread the word through my usual channels.
And pretty much nothing happened.
While several parents expressed interest in volunteering, by about two weeks before the event, I’d received fewer than fifteen donated books. So I consulted colleagues the Parents’ Association about what I was doing wrong. We finally decided that I hadn’t allowed enough time for donations (with a bookfair, that isn’t an issue), and the wording about donations was too specific. So I postponed the event from mid-October to mid-January, simplified the donation request, and brainstormed other ways to increase donations. Deciding I needed to increase awareness about the Bonanza, I took the following steps.
Increased communication to the wider Overlake community, including parents, Upper School students, and faculty/staff.
Turned the donation request into a competition between our two in-house teams, Green and Gold, with one point per book, and a goal of 500 books. (We have Green/Gold competitions in library activities, ASB-designed activities, Field Day, and more throughout the year, with one team coming out on top at the end.)
Created a “thermometer” to show the progress of each side, and set it up in the library foyer along with boxes enthusiastically decorated by the 5th grade. I toted the thermometer to weekly MS announcements to display the totals and keep up interest.
Wrote a skit to film and screen at Middle School announcements. I recruited student actors, and the Communications Department did the filming and editing, with my input.
Created a series of six promotional flyers, changing them out every couple of weeks. I looked for phobias I could possibly connect to the event/books/etc., and used those as a basis for suggesting donations. Here is the first one:
Other phobias I used were ataxophobia (fear of untidiness), abibliophobia (fear of having nothing to read), cleithrophobia (fear of being trapped), scholeciphobia (fear of [book]worms), prasinophobia (fear of the color green), and aurophobia (fear of gold).
I stored donations in the library. With help from colleagues, I sorted them into genres and removed any that were too high-school/adult, or were in poor shape/too out of date. Despite all the promotions, books were slow to come in, and large collections from a few people (76 books, 82 books, 124 books, etc.) accounted for the majority of titles. Many other donations included novels read in class, so I had multiple copies of those. But after several weeks of announcements and a few more large donations, we hit our goal and beyond, with over 600 books!
For day one, we boxed the books up by genre and hauled them over to the large room I’d reserved in our Campus Center. With fewer books than a bookfair, I’d thought that two of us could manage this on our own, and with wheeled carts, we did. It was a slog, though! As a late-in-the-game scheduling conflict necessitated moving the books to a small library classroom for day two, we recruited our wonderful Maintenance personnel to help out.
On day one, I set out a third of the books, sorted into genres and labeled, and held back the rest so that the first few classes wouldn’t snag all of the best ones. Working with the teachers, I had scheduled all of the English classes to visit for part of a block. (I think I should have sent more reminders to faculty, though—I did have to go to some classrooms to remind them about the event). The kids had a mixed reaction to the books; many didn’t find anything they wanted at all, but in some classes, everyone found more than enough—and the difference in enthusiasm between the 5th grade and the 8th grade will surprise no one! For students wanting only one or no books, I allowed them to “give” their choice(s) to a friend, and that worked well.
By the end of the Bonanza, I had a large number of books left over; several scheduled classes never made it in, due to teacher absences, a fire drill, etc., and many students choose no books. I planned to offer the remaining titles to anyone who wanted them after the last class. Also, I planned to set out any leftover books in the library for a week, to cut down on the number of boxes I needed to take to Goodwill. To my surprise, however, at 2:40—the end of the last class—I was swarmed by kids who wanted books. By 2:45 they had taken ALL of the books! I had not realized that kids would want to take home whole boxfuls of books, and if I do this again, I will limit them to five until everyone who wanted more books had gotten some.
In the end, the Bonanza was a success, but I don’t plan to do it again soon. It was a lot more work than a traditional bookfair, and obviously I had no control over the mix of titles; the fantasy section was about 70% Warriors and Wings of Fire! I would still like to explore more equitable ways to run a bookfair, though, and I’m glad I gave this a try. I greatly appreciate the many colleagues who helped along the way, all of the students and parents who donated books, and all the AISL members who described their creative bookfair/book swap programs to me.