Classroom Management

Last year I spent a lot of time thinking about classroom management as we welcomed students (a large number of whom had not set foot in our library, or any library, for a few years…) into our school building. The trouble was, I don’t have a classroom. I have a revolving door of 9th-12th grade students each period, each day, that can include all 500+ students throughout the year, and as many as 150 any period. So, all the classroom management advice about community creation of norms and setting expectations in the syllabus and the like that are standard fare for teachers with classrooms and classes of students that are indeed a classroom community day in and day out just doesn’t fit. I suspect I’m not alone.

Last Year

Last year, as we welcomed our students into the building we knew there was going to be a major adjustment for these students. I started the year with grace, gently addressing behavior violations (noise, cell phones, food, etc.) without formal discipline in the expectation that students would learn the ropes, and, grateful for the grace, adjust their behavior. Alas, that was not what happened. By the end of the first term my assistant and I were so fed up with rearranging disarrayed furniture, picking up trash (orange peels, half-eaten bananas!) and gym shoes, silencing serial chatters on the quiet floor, and picking up books knocked to the floor by students who sat in the aisles of the stacks, we decided to crack down. We collected cell phones–our policy for phones visible in the building–assigned demerits, and called in the Dean of Students to do extra walk-throughs during troublesome times. And it worked, sort of, for a while. We rolled through cycles of this throughout the rest of the year and vowed to find a better way. 

But what is the better way? I’ve read enough in the past year to know that I’m not alone, that what I’ve termed the squirrliness of our students was a fairly universal issue for educators in the past year as we navigated the effects of the pandemic with our students. That said, traditional classroom management advice doesn’t apply well to the library. The context just isn’t the same.  Fortunately, one of the joys of being an educator is that every fall we get to try again. So, here is my plan for library management. 

Next Year

1) Make expectations incredibly clear from the very start.

Lots of folks get the chance to talk in our opening assemblies, but the librarian was never one of them. I successfully convinced my administrators of the importance of sharing library rules directly and in person with our students within the first few days of school.  This will certainly undercut the students’ ability to tell me “I didn’t know” or “I thought the library was the exception” to schoolwide policies about phone use, eating, and the like. I know students don’t read the handbook, so the best way to assure that they are clear on the expectations for the library is to have a genuine opportunity to tell them.

2) Start strong, then ease up.

Clear expectations need to be followed with consistent consequences. I am aware that a good part of my troubles last year came from the grace I gave at the start of the year. As a parent of young children I’m well aware how important clear boundaries and consistent discipline are for developing brains, and yet somehow I let my sympathy for students get in the way of what would help them, and me, best long-term. Aside from being firm and consistent from the very start, I’m toying with a riff on the OSHA workplace accident signs as we start off the school year. I’m curious if noting daily violations in the space, with a hint of humor, will show both that the community rules are enforced and also demonstrate improvement over time.

3) Use space to my advantage.

The unexpected amount of time I spend considering space as a librarian is a post all its own. Space is absolutely related to student behavior, and I need mine to support students in utilizing library space. I learned the lesson in my first year not to have couches with the back to a wall, for example, something I always keep in mind now. I don’t expect students to scan the room and immediately think, “oh, it’s arranged this way so Dr. Gamble can walk around and see what we are up to,” but they are also less likely to start streaming Netflix when their screen faces towards a path I regularly walk. 

I keep seating on our quiet floor spaced out–mostly carrels and smaller tables with fewer chairs to discourage clumping–which leads to chatter, while on our collaborative floor I have seating spaced in ways that groups of various sizes can readily find the right place to work. This year I’m fortunate to have some new furniture pieces added to my space (see point 4) which I hope will help keep students from resorting to the aisles of the stacks for places to sit and will include some small portable C-tables that will make our couches and soft seating more conducive to schoolwork. Space matters, and I aim to harness it to support our library expectations as best I can.

4) Advocate, advocate, advocate.

Some of the things I’m excited to add this year, like addressing the whole student body in the first week of school, and adding additional seating, are products of extensive advocacy over the last year or more. As behavior issues and annoyances came up throughout the year, rather than simply handle them myself, I handled them and then shared those challenges with the dean of students. By having those frequent conversations, inviting him to come by during the busiest periods, and letting him know what I needed, I was able to secure face-time with the student body. Our furniture additions also were made possible by showing the right folks how crowded we were, the head counts from busy periods against the number of seats we had, and noting it frequently. We all know what they say about squeaky wheels, and I’m going to keep squeaking when I need to.

Advocacy with my students is also important, and an area I know I need to work more with this year. One small step last year showed how a bit of up-front work can go a long way. Mid-morning snacks from our dining services led to a parade of food into the library. Realizing this, I was on alert at snack time–it was a lot easier to catch kids coming in with  snacks and say “thanks for not eating that in here,” than to clean up the messes left behind later. This approach reminded them of the rule while reinforcing their ability to make the right choice. It also let them know that I saw they had food, and those students were much less likely to be sneaky about eating than ones I hadn’t addressed. Furthermore, it made the norm more visible, such that after a while students who walked in with snacks or bagged muffins from the coffee shop would hold it up as they passed me and say “Don’t worry, it’s for later,” or “I’m just grabbing a friend and heading outside.”

My students NEVER push in their chairs, they move furniture around and leave it, even with just-in-time reminders like stopping by a few minutes before the bell to tell them to put things back in place. One morning I asked my regular morning crew–regular culprits in leaving the furniture akimbo–how I might rearrange things so that they could sit the ways they wanted but also not leave me to clear furniture out of pathways every time they left. With the utmost honesty, one student said “bolt the chairs to the floor.” I’m more optimistic that this student, I still hope there’s another way. 

Please feel free to share your classroom library management tips in the comments!

Thinking Outside the Building

I have been a school librarian for three years, which of course means pandemic-induced library contortions are my normal. That said, there is at least one idea that came out of the constraints of pandemic protocols that I’m happy to continue for years to come. I call it my lawn library.

Last year, like so many, we started the school year fully in distance learning. By January we started experimenting with a hybrid schedule, and in late March most of our school was back full time. Our ability to circulate books varied, and we met student needs as nimbly as possible during distance and hybrid learning. While students were all back on campus every day by March, we were still hamstrung in the library–our health protocols prohibited browsing and book displays.

In practice, these restrictions meant that students could search the catalog and make requests through a Google form, then I pulled the books and delivered them to students. We had a quarantine period set up for returns so areas of one floor of the library were covered in books waiting out their decontamination period. It worked fairly well for our students doing research where I provided instruction in class and other supports. But, without physical displays and browsing, our fiction was languishing.

Taking it–Thanksgiving dinner, family gatherings, restaurant dining, etc.–outdoors was the answer to so many challenges during the pandemic, and so it was for our library. I took our largest and shiniest book cart, added some signs, sent some email blasts and Canvas announcements, and (with the blessing of our Health Services folks and a few bottles of sanitizer) loaded it with the newest additions to the collection and most enticing fiction and headed outside. Each day the rain wasn’t falling, I brought our lawn library outside during break and lunch so students could finally get their eyes on some books just for pleasure.

My view from the cart. Students were just starting to trickle out from picking up their lunches, and our talented jazz students were jamming on the piano.

And folks, it worked! Tentatively at first, but then in groups, students came. They browsed the cart and checked things out. Faculty started stopping by regularly, delighted that we had the titles right there that they were on long wait lists for at their public libraries. Middle school students ran to me and squealed in delight that they could check books out (our middle school library was sadly not able to circulate books at all last year, and the kids were missing it dearly). I swapped the books out regularly, and adjusted based on what students asked for (all the fantasy, folks).

The Lawn Library cart, loaded and ready to roll.

I admit that I probably wouldn’t have thought of such a simple way to get books in front of and in the hands of more students had it not been for the pandemic. Being forced to think outside the box–and outside the building–brought me to a solution, the usefulness of which will long outlast the health protocols that brought it about. Our library gets lots of student traffic, we are a busy place, but being outside we got in front of new students. And, we got on their radar when they were in a different mindset than when they came into the physical library. This year, I’ve suped up my lawn library cart with an elastic cord to keep the books in place as I rattle down the stone ramp to the courtyard where students still eat outdoor lunches. I imagine there will be more improvements as we continue.

How can we get outside our library boxes to surprise and delight our communities and ourselves?

I share my story, because I want to hear yours. What feats of ingenuity did you develop under duress the past two years that are worth sustaining? How can we continue to support the creative ventures that we all launched since 2020, even as the pressures and constraints that fueled them ebb? How can we get outside our library boxes to surprise and delight our communities and ourselves?

Around the World in 80 Books

I find upper school programming a delightful challenge, so this year I debuted a program for our upper school community to promote global reading. This year-long program–Read Around the World–started as a riff on Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, encouraging students to read books from a curated collection of books from 80 different countries.

Why? Well, in 2019, according to Statista, the top 4 US publishing companies published 98,800 new titles–a mere 737 of those titles were published in translation, fewer than 1% (0.74%). Even among those works in translation, there is not nearly the diversity one might hope for. Though there were 52 original languages of publication, 79% of the titles translated were translated from a European language, 14% from Asian languages, 7% from Middle Eastern languages, and a mere 0.2% were translated from an African language. Think of all the books we’re missing out on!

I know I’m preaching to the choir when I claim that through reading we are able to work towards eliminating what author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the single story” and the proliferation and reinforcement of stereotypes. The problem with a single story, she notes, is the way that it “creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” Furthermore, there are many stories that go entirely unheard when we read and engage solely, or primarily, with literature that is written by U.S. or British authors for American and British audiences in English.

That same data did make this program a challenge–to add exciting global literature to our collection that may not be readily found in our traditional lists, to read as much of it as possible, and to keep things equitable. To facilitate the latter, I selected a number of books from each continent proportionate to the number of countries within that continent.

To provide boundaries to the massive curation project that this otherwise could have become (it was big enough as is!) I gave myself the following criteria:

  • Works of fiction (most were novels, but there were some other formats too–poetry, short stories, graphic novels).
  • The author needed to be from the country and, when possible, currently residing there; there are certainly countries with extensive censorship and authors in exile. Ex-pat and immigrant authors will be another program for another time. I also preferred authors writing for their own country-folk as an audience, so I was often getting books in translation. Furthermore, in formerly colonized countries, I sought out indigenous authors.
  • They needed to be recent–most of the books were from the past few years. In a couple cases I had to dig deeper in time in order to meet my other criteria, but this was not the time for “classics;” I wanted students to be reading fresh works.

In the end, the list included 105 books from 81 countries, which allowed some elements of choice (some countries had 2 books to choose from) and permitted the inclusion of sequels. 

Digital Passport

Once I had the books, it was time to make it a program. For fun, I gamified it through our school’s LMS (Canvas) by creating a class for the program and badges for each country through Badgr, which allowed the process to be pretty automated once it was all built. In order to get students into the program “course,” they were invited to apply for a passport from the main library page through a link that added them to the program course. From there, they can get their passports stamped (with the badges) for each country from which they read a book. Badgr provides a dashboard so participants can see their badges/passport stamps, and what badges/stamps all other participants have earned. Students can also earn badges like “Globe Trotter” for getting a stamp from each continent and “Region Rover” for sweeping a stamp for every book in a continent. I’ll award prizes at random throughout the year by drawing a name from anyone who is participating, as well as at the end of the year to whoever reads the most globally. 

In addition to the gamification, the global books are on display all year organized by genre, with a rotating featured display each month of a particular region. This keeps the books visible while also allowing me to put fresh subsets in front of our community in new ways through the year so the program doesn’t get stale.

Europe books on a display. Covers from earlier displays (North America and Oceana) will be joined as the year progresses.

We’re only mid-year but I’m calling this one a success already. So far, books from the Read Around the World program have 66 checkouts. For one semester, I’m thrilled. Perhaps more tellingly, our global books account for a full 25% of all fiction checkouts so far this year (through January 1). I’ve also tried out new tools for gamification, acquired great books for our collection, and personally read books from Samoa, Tonga, New Zealand, Australia, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Iceland, Greenland, Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Brazil, Barbados, Nigeria, China, and Vietnam. I have more regions yet to visit!