State of the States: Legislation and interest groups impacting freedom of information 

This post reflects the work of the ad hoc Database Working Group, which is not affiliated with AISL’s organizational structure, although we have many overlapping members. Also, credit for the work reflected here goes to all the members of that group, though for space and confidentiality purposes the members cannot all be named here. 

Additionally, while it is important to acknowledge that not every independent school has the same educational mission–and varying missions may impact the curricular and co-curricular needs of each of our libraries–we cannot know the full downstream impact of allowing censorship of educational materials. Therefore, it is important for each of us to understand the mechanisms by which information access is being curtailed.

Back-to-school means back to thinking about information access. Where electronic information is concerned, we have found (see comments on post) that it is not only the policies of one’s own state or school that have the potential to impact what information your students can access; research database vendors vary in their methods of responding to politicized concerns about content. Right now – as far as we can tell – there is a lot more pressure aimed at these vendors to curtail information access, especially around particular identities and scientific information, than to support students’ right to learn. As we independent school librarians are some of the few direct purchasers of research database products (since most public schools use only the state-provided products), our voices matter in what products offered nationwide actually contain.

I know we are all focused on kicking off our new school years right now, so it might not feel like the best time for a heavy post. But heaviness is impacting our students’ right to learn, so you might want (or need) to add electronic information access to your thinking about the year. It is certainly among the duties of my job to assure both that my students get the educational materials they need and that I am shepherding my school’s finances responsibly. That includes not paying for information my students cannot actually access due to blocked searches, or having content removed that I intentionally purchased to support learning.

In past posts by various AISL members we have discussed work being undertaken by the Database Working Group—a collaboration of various school librarians around the country–that functions independently of AISL. During our group’s boot camp this summer, we kicked off with a “State of the States” update. We agreed that the update needed to be shared more widely. Please note that we had significant assistance in our preparation from EveryLibrary’s John Chrastka, an ally fighting hard for your students’ right to read and learn.


There exist many methods for achieving censorship, or freedom to read, but we will start with a brief legislative overview of the first half of 2023. We need to care about legislation in our own states and also in other states. Legislators take other states’ bills as models for new proposals (and bills that die one year may well come back the next year, as with Nebraska’s very worrisome LB635) but also because the chilling effect  – plus legal impact – of legislation can change the content available to our students even if our own state does not legislate censorship.


According to Chrastka and EveryLibrary, the three major themes in legislation impacting reading and databases are:

  1. Limits: Bills such as Michigan’s HB4136 require public libraries to create an area only accessible to people over the age of 18 for “either obscene or sexually explicit matter that is harmful to minors” and further restrict where the materials from that area may be used.
  2. Ratings: Laws such as Texas HB900, which takes effect on September 1, 2023, require vendors, publishers, or libraries to apply a ratings system to materials. In Texas, for example, vendors must rate materials before sale, and must recall anything that has already been purchased which is rated as “sexually explicit.” Several states have put forth legislation of this nature so far, among them Tennessee and Maine.
  3. Criminalization: For the past several years, criminalizing databases themselves was the trend. Such laws passed in Idaho, Utah, Tennessee, and Oklahoma, and died in several other states. This year, there has been a shift to criminalizing librarians or all educators, making individuals legally liable if a student is perceived to have accessed obscene materials.* This year there has been more legislation that includes:
  • Redefining “obscenity” (diverging from the Miller Test): especially changing language around the “community standards” that define “obscenity” and/or removing protections such as those afforded to artistic, literary, political, or scientific sources. 
  • There is also a proliferation of alternate terms that (as I read it, not being a lawyer) attempt to legislate around the legal definition of obscenity, such as: “inappropriate materials,” “sexually explicit materials,” “pornographic for minors,” “harmful to minors,” or “hard-core pornography.” The definitions of these terms may vary from historical or contemporary common usage. 

(Much of this wording implies we are talking exclusively about electronic content dealing with gender, sexuality, and gendered health. However, certain book bans have applied “harmful to minors” to other identifiers, such as race/ethnicity and religion. We are still struggling to get transparency and understanding around how these identities are impacted by censorship attempts for electronic content.)

  • Iowa legislation, currently in committee, includes “accredited nonpublic schools” (and also prohibits “the use of standards or guidance developed by the American Library Association” for collection development and weeding). 

Among other trends, states such as Georgia and Texas are legislating statewide collection development and/or reconsideration policies that override those of individual libraries or districts. 

For more or state-specific information, we strongly recommend EveryLibrary’s page on 2023 Legislation of Concern, and especially reading EveryLibrary’s Unpacking 2023 Legislation of Concern for Libraries and Education.


Once again, we care both about bills passed and bills proposed. It is common to see several states proposing the same language, or to see legislators shopping their text around to other states. If many states legislate against the freedom to learn through accessing electronic educational materials, our vendors may change the content of our subscription products against our will. We have already seen that happen in at least one vendor’s products.

In the first half of 2023 we saw:

  • 7 laws passed and enacted
  • 1 bill vetoed
  • 28 bills dead (but not forgotten)
  • Many more currently in committee

The states that have passed legislation specific to databases and access in the first half of 2023 are:

  • Idaho
  • Indiana
  • Kentucky
  • Mississippi
  • Oklahoma
  • Tennessee
  • Utah (multiple)

Other forms of censorship

Legislation is created by legislators who are influenced by activists. Beyond legislation exist many other paths to enacting (or fighting) censorship. Each state mixes and matches legislation and these other forms in their own unique way. Additional paths include:

  • Policies that are created by executive heads of government departments, both elected and appointed, such as the governor or the head of the Department of Education.
  • Rules that are created by the bureaucracy. In many cases (but certainly not all), rules set the guidelines for how a law is actually supposed to be implemented.
  • Enforcement that can come from various administrative authorities, such as the state Attorney General, a school board, or a school administrator.
  • Requests for proposals from, for example, state libraries buying electronic resources on behalf of the K-12 schools in a state. Requests for proposals (asking vendors to submit an offer for a database that the state could buy) may lean on contract law to set requirements for what content is acceptable within a state. While most states keep RFPs public and transparent, other states have been placing the requirements of their calls for proposals behind non-disclosure agreements. 
  • Chilling effects that cause vendors to self-censor may lead to changes in the functionality or content in electronic products. It is extremely challenging to discover when browsing, searching, or content have been changed and are not giving students the educational materials we believed we purchased.

Federal level

Federal activity mirrors much of what we see on the state level. Contacting your reps to encourage support for the Right to Read Act and to get them on board re-introducing, co-sponsoring, and voting for the Don’t Block LGBT Act are first steps.

As a profession, we need to also follow policies and rules that might impact our students right to learn. For example, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Right has started working against book bans (example). 

What can you do?

To start with a very specific ask: Help us determine vocabulary that is not librarian jargon to distinguish among different types of blocked search terms. We are looking for language to describe:

  • technical stopwords like “the,” “an,” “or,” etc.
  • swear words that have traditionally been blacklisted
  • identity-related and health science terms that have been/have potential to be blacklisted for political reasons.

If you have ever tried to teach anyone about “stopwords,” you know that is not a term the public is willing to embrace. Feel free to email Tasha directly with suggestions for our group to discuss.

Another very helpful action that each of us can take: ask for transparency from vendors regarding their editorial policies for both content inclusion and responding to complaints about content.

If you want to go deeper, the latter portion of EveryLibrary’s Unpacking 2023 Legislation of Concern for Libraries and Education is a truly excellent description of necessary civic engagement beyond advocating for or against pending legislation. It is worth a read just to enhance one’s own civics education, even if this is not your personal issue. It covers the need for:

Pre-legislative prep: Research, Stakeholder engagement, Coalition building, Media push

Post-legislative actions: Implementation advocacy, Judicial actions

More than anything, we need to spread the word. There are many directly impacted states where we could really use contacts so that we can offer the most-needed support. Talk to librarian friends, but also potential advocates in other professions. 

In support of any or all of these actions, you are most welcome to join the Database Working Group! We meet twice a month – come when you can, do what you can. As we plan our conference presentation strategy for the next year we would love to have your voice making proposals to speak. Generally, cultivating our diverse range of skills, perspectives, and institutional needs makes us stronger.

Civic work is everyone’s business, and our particular business is making sure our students have the right to learn.

*Note that Arkansas’ law creating criminal liability for librarians and booksellers has been temporarily blocked by a judge. (Source)

on the copyright elephant…

There’s a terrible old dad joke that goes something like, “How do you eat an elephant?” … “One bite at a time!”

Well, terrible as that joke may be, it’s going to be my strategy for engaging with our faculty on copyright this year. Now, I dunno about the rest of you out there in Libraryland, but teaching people about copyright is not one of the most inspiring and motivating aspects of my job. Frankly, I kind of hate it. Copyright is boring; the average mortal who is not a copyright lawyer finds copyright confusing; and when you’re charged with teaching people about the basics of copyright a number of colleagues inevitably feel compelled to find you out in the breezeway after lunch to tell you the 12 reasons that they think US copyright law is broken. For the record, I don’t necessarily disagree with the sentiments above, but “Hey people, we all have janky parts of our jobs that we enjoy less than other parts, but we still gotta do what we gotta do and say what we gotta say so please keep in mind that Dave did not write US copyright law and Dave can’t change US copyright law so what do you want me to do about it?!?!?”

Sorry, that became kind of a rant! 🤣🤣🤣

Anyway… Rather than painfully trudge through an hourlong presentation on copyright during a Friday afternoon faculty meeting when nobody wants to hear what I need to tell them and nobody wants to stay for a faculty meeting after school on a Friday (Seriously, faculty meeting time AFTER SCHOOL on FRIDAY?!?!? 😳😳😳) I’m going to try to share out copyright basics in small bites throughout the year and see if eating this copyright elephant one bite at a time might make the copyright elephant go down with as little nausea and gastric distress as possible!!! 🤣🤣🤣

I have a few minutes with both our elementary and 6-12 faculties during our opening of school meetings this week and I’ll be attempting to present some basics on use of video in classroom instruction.

I’m planning to start with my handy-dandy homemade flowchart…

We’ll walk through the “NOT for direct instruction” and “for direct instruction” options. Let teachers know that we actually do have a public performance site license that we maintain for the school and what that means, and we’ll remind them that we subscribe to SWANK Video Streaming in an attempt to make complying with US copyright law as painless as we can afford to make it for them.

Do you do copyright instruction with your faculty? If yes, what’s worked for you?

That’s it for now. Today is my last day of summer break. New students join us on campus next Monday and all students Preschool-12 will be back next Tuesday. Ready or not here comes SY ’23-’24!!!

Recommended Reading: Your Brain on Art

I keep my watercolors in an old wooden box. The box holds the few art supplies I own, but it mostly serves as a pedestal to a potted plant. I don’t open it much. Watercolors were something I stopped playing with years before the pandemic.

This summer I decided to read along with the Art Department’s group book choice, Your Brain on Art: How the Arts Transform Us by Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross, two experts in the field of neuroaesthetics. I highly recommend it. Magsamen and Ross explain how cultivating an aesthetic mindset can improve our health and well being. They provide myriad examples of how to do so and explain the neuroscience and physiology behind the positive effects of engaging with the arts and paying attention to your aesthetic life.

But what if, like me, you are artistically insecure? You don’t know how to paint, draw, dance, or play an instrument? You don’t have time or money for art therapy or visits to museums? The good news is you can still find ways to incorporate the arts and aesthetics into your daily life and reap the benefits. Doodling, sketching, coloring, humming or singing aloud, dancing to music –  these simple acts of creativity can improve your mood, lower your blood pressure, focus your attention, and prime your mind for learning. And you don’t have to be good at any of them! Just playing around with the arts with no concern for the outcome is beneficial. Art can and should be part of all our self-care routines.

Art teachers know this. You probably know this. It might be why so many of you have stations in your libraries with art supplies and puzzles. You know how they can help students decompress. But it was a good reminder for me. Summer is slipping away. Work starts next week. I didn’t get half of my planned summer projects done. I can feel the divergent pulls on my time and attention ratcheting up. On top of that, it’s my turn to sit down and write an AISL blog post and think of something interesting to say.

Before sitting down to write this, I pulled out my watercolor set and gave myself twenty minutes to paint a photo of a sunset I took while on vacation last week. I’m a sucker for sunsets. I try to photograph them all the time and the photo never captures the beauty that I experience viewing it in person. That doesn’t stop me from trying. And I’ve tried to paint watercolor sunsets before, which is really hard to do for a beginner. Still, I sat down to play with painting, without any intention of creating something that was beautiful. It was a lovely twenty minutes. Just the mood reset I needed. Now I’m ready to blog for days!

Magsamen and Ross have me thinking about how I might create opportunities for students to cultivate an aesthetic mindset in my seventh grade media literacy class. In the past I’ve had students create podcasts or digital PSA posters warning their peers about various cognitive biases. These projects are fun, but time consuming. Like my watercolors, I put them away for want of time and motivation. I forgot how rewarding these projects can be, and that time spent working on them facilitates truly memorable learning experiences. 

In a media literacy class, I’m wondering if it’s worth making time to teach students about the importance of their aesthetic choices, both as media consumers and producers. About how neural networks form and change in response to our media consumption habits, how that can be a good or a bad thing, and how we can make choices to build networks to help us flourish. 

I’m also reflecting on the class discussions I’ve had with students about the choices other media producers make. We look at commercials, magazine covers, and movie trailers. We analyze intention, aesthetic choices, and how the producers hope those choices will impact their audiences. But when I’ve asked students to create media projects, I don’t take the same amount of time to discuss their own aesthetic choices. If I bring back the podcasts, the digital PSAs, or any other media production assignment, I want to make time to ask them about their intentions, their aesthetic choices, their hopes for how their audiences receive their messages. I want to give them time to incorporate feedback, revise, and iterate after evaluating whether the aesthetic choices they made aligned with their intentions. I want them to reflect on their creative potential as media producers and to consider the impact of their choices on themselves and the media landscape we all share. I want them to understand that Comic Sans is the font of last resort.

Can any of this be accomplished in the roughly nine times I see these students in a semester? How might the dynamic in my media literacy class change if, in addition to warning students about the consequences of consuming and producing the worst kinds of media, I am just as intentional about teaching them the benefits of consuming and producing media that promotes well-being, supports the common good, and nourishes the soul?

Pros and Cons of ProCon

This post is going to be of the “thinking out loud” variety – I’d love to hear what you think and how you talk about these things with students.

I used early on in my career but never really loved it. If memory serves, a lot of their references were internal links, which was not particularly helpful when trying to find additional sources. I also found that the idea of pro/con was a false binary for many of the topics students were looking into. I hadn’t really looked at it closely in several years.

However, as I think about search instruction and the challenges of generating search terms that help students find multiple viewpoints I’ve found myself wondering about ProCon as a site that would help students get a high-level understanding of the arguments on different sides of an issue, and perhaps find language and key vocabulary that would help them find more sources. As I started looking I also noticed that the articles/footnotes provide information about sources outside of ProCon – but no direct links which is kind of annoying. 

I decided to use some research I was doing for an upcoming class on banned books as a way to get a sense of how I might use ProCon with students (or for myself). And I am a little unsettled by what I discovered.

The Banned Books page starts with an overview of the issue, and then presents the top 3 “pro” and “con” arguments. I know that many of these arguments are based on personal beliefs and world view, but Pro 2 seemed to be pointing to some actual research and I wanted to follow that trail. To the footnotes!

And… hmmm. These sources are not exactly what I expected to find. But I did my due diligence and looked up the sources. I started with footnote 19 because despite the loaded language in the title I had the impression that it was citing actual research, and I wanted to find it.

Aha! A link to an actual study!

A study about pornography use. Which is not exactly how it was framed in either the article or on ProCon’s page. 

Footnote 17, which references the American Academy of Pediatrics, actually points to an opinion piece on a site called Politichicks. This is the paragraph that references the AAP – but there’s no link to a specific source.

The URL also refers to “Common Core approved child pornography” which… yikes.

I did not do an exhaustive search of AAP recommendations, but I couldn’t find anything they’d written in favor of restricting access to books. A 2009 report I found actually recommended reading as an alternative to heavy media use. 

There is a lot of nuance to the question of whether or not exposure to violent media causes aggression and I’m not prepared to unpack all of that. But suffice it to say it’s more complex than the author presents it in the Politicks article – and MUCH more complex than the sentence presented on ProCon.

I did not do a deep dive into every issue presented on ProCon, but I found similar issues in many of the pages I did explore. On the page about homework I found a dead link to an article from – I don’t know what the article said, but I do know that if a student came to me with an article from a job search site I would have many questions for them about if this was the best source for them to use. On the page about corporal punishment there is a reference that points to an article that has since been deleted and replaced with a counterargument. I know maintaining up-to-date links is a challenge, but this one is particularly egregious (I’ve contacted them to make them aware).

I was hoping to find some information about how ProCon selects and evaluates sources, but despite being listed in the table of contents in the FAQs, the section on Sources does not actually exist. 

So, what do I do with all this? The thing is, the blurbs on ProCon DO accurately represent the viewpoints and arguments on different sides of an issue. But what responsibility does a site that has as its mission “To promote civility, critical thinking, education, and informed citizenship” have to accurately contextualize those arguments and the sources being presented? They are presenting arguments on debatable topics (though the “debatability” of some of their topics is, well, debatable) and arguments like this are inherently biased. But being an informed critical thinker also means backing up your arguments with credible sources and accurately contextualizing the information you’re citing. There is something about this that feels like “choosing your own facts” and that is not what critical thinking looks like. 

I think there is a way to use ProCon to build critical thinking and analysis skills, though probably not in the way they intended. I’m wondering about asking students to do the same sort of tracing sources I did and using that to evaluate the strengths of different arguments. I still think it could be useful for understanding what arguments people are making on different sides of an issue, but I’m wary of the possibility that students will accept the arguments at face value – after all, they’re citing their sources, and many students have internalized the idea that a website that cites its sources is a reliable source. But what if those citations lead to less-than-reliable sources? But what if those sources are accurate representations of the arguments being made? As you can tell, I’m going in circles on this.

I will be teaching an independent research class this winter, and I’m considering using this as an exercise with my students – how do we contextualize our sources, how do we evaluate arguments and rhetorical strategies, how do we keep an eye out for logical fallacies. Curious to hear how other folks think about and use resources like this.

Book Bingo

Hopefully, you are all enjoying some meaningful (or not!) summer reading. For those interested, let’s check in on AISL Summer Reading Bingo:

Click here for the bingo card & guidelines:

Check out this shared doc for recommendations – intriguing and helpful on its own but also supportive of one of the bingo squares

Look at the AISL Instagram page for additional inspiration, particularly the #aislfridayfeature

Mark your calendars – live bingo on Monday, September 11 (at 5:00pm Pacific, 6:00pm Mountain, 7:00pm Central, and 8:00pm Eastern)

Yours in reading,

Shelagh (with shoutout to my bingo-planning partner, Catherine 🙂

Contests, Part Two

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!

2020 Winner: Failed ideas for Project Week: Axe throwing. –Hannah, 5th

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!

2023 Winner:

–Rylie, 7th

Celebrating ten years of school librarianship with abstract book covers

This year was my tenth at Castilleja, and my tenth as a school librarian (about 29th overall, depending on how you count). When I started at Casti, I considered myself a big reader of YA — only to discover I was reading all the obvious books and there was so much more out there to discover! I’ve never developed the superpower my colleagues bring to readers’ advisory, but I have a much wider range now.

So, I decided to celebrate my 10th anniversary by acknowledging my imperfections on the pleasure reading side by being vulnerable in another way — attempting to make abstract quilt squares of the covers of books that have been impactful for me over the past ten years. Quilting is another activity in which I engage with more passion than skill. It turns out to be an interesting intellectual challenge, however, to figure out what to convey from a cover, and how to handle layers of text over images. I owe a debt of gratitude to the #quiltyourlifecrew on Instagram for the original inspiration, and for helping me problem-solve.

For fun, because it is summer and fun is much needed, here are a few of the book/covers I love. I am about halfway through making the squares on my list so far. I would also love to know if anyone else has undertaken such a project — I would love to see your book-cover squares!

I figured to share (critique??) the fun, I could put together a can-you-guess-the-cover quiz. Answers below. (And if you cannot guess, it is sincerely not you, but me!)


#1: Nation, by Terry Pratchett
#2: All My Rage, by Sabaa Tahir
#3 The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by E. Lockhart
#4: A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness based on the idea by Siobhan Dowd
#5: The Summer Prince, by Alaya Dawn Johnson
#6: The Universe Versus Alex Woods, by Gavin Extence
#7: I Will Always Write Back, by Catlin Alifirenka, Martin Ganda, and Liz Welch
#8: Out of Darkness, by Ashley Hope Perez
#9: Counting by 7s, by Holly Goldberg Sloan
#10: Pet, by Akwaeke Emezi
#11: The Scorpio Races, by Maggie Stiefvater
#12: The Porcupine of Truth, by Bill Konigsberg
#13: Orbiting Jupiter, by Gary D. Schmidt
#14: When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead

STEM and Writing

In January 2023, NCTE posted a Position Statement on the Role of Nonfiction Literature (K-12), pointing out that nonfiction is “a rich and compelling genre that supports students’ development as critically, visually, and informationally literate 21st century thinkers and creators.” During NCTE’s nonfiction webinars this summer, several notable nonfiction authors expressed a concern that nonfiction works are often compartmentalized into a once-a-year topic report. Challenged to expand and deepen the use of nonfiction in our libraries, I have been incorporating nonfiction in literacy skills projects and exploring ways to encourage students to read and write more nonfiction. Here are some initial projects and future musings to enhance nonfiction reading and writing.

Launch Writing with a STEM Experiment
Patricia Newman, author of Plastic Ahoy and Planet Ocean, shared a fascinating STEM demonstration about ocean acidification at a TLA session (April 2023, Austin, Tx.). I adapted this STEM experiment to launch a writing activity with 7th grade creative writing students. 

Step One: (See experiment details in “A Tale of Two Acids” by Meg Chadsey)
A purple cabbage solution was used as a base in three containers. Students added lemon juice to one container and noted the dramatic color change as this citric acid reacted with the base (cabbage solution). 

Step Two:
Students watched a short clip from this Smithsonian video about the effect of carbon dioxide and ocean acidification on coral reefs. Students were asked how they could add carbon dioxide to one of the solutions to mimic the effect of carbon dioxide on oceans. Students guessed that their own breath could be added to the solution, and a student used a straw to blow into a second container of cabbage solution to see how carbon dioxide would affect a base. A color change again happened. 

Step Three:
Students were shown two photos of coral reefs, one healthy and one damaged by ocean acidification.

Students read a poem by a first grader at our school. The poem described the beauty of coral reefs, the coral resembling “underwater flowers in an ocean breeze.” Using the second photo of the damaged coral reef, students created a word bank to describe the contrasting appearance of the coral. Some words included “cemetery, white bones creeping out of the ground, and brittle branches.” The word bank inspired individual poetry writing, then collaborative writing to combine their best poetic lines about the damaged coral. Poetic imagery included “a coral city turned cemetery,” “spindley winter trees,” and “what used to be rich in color, rapidly changed to ghostly white and night black.”

Read to Write: Environmental Poetry
As a follow-up writing activity, students browsed nonfiction books about a variety of environmental topics of concern, and used database articles and online news stories. After identifying an environmental topic that interested them, students cited the nonfiction source and created a Word Bank from words in the article or book; these were words that resonated with them as important.

Here is an example of one students’ planning template, and following is the poem inspired by an article about the Colorado River water crisis.

River Run Dry
Sylvie C.

A coming quarrel of a river run dry
The basin on which seven states rely

A craggy, cracked channel soon to be empty
Used to be a source of plenty

The futile fight for conservation
Is an endless conversation

Aridification of the West:
Overuse of water on human’s request

The carver of a canyon grand
Now barren bones atop the land

Putting the A in STEM
As a final art activity themed to environment and nature, this video by artist and designer Raku Inoue demonstrated creating Insect Art out of garden clippings. Using garden clippings from my home garden, students selected leaves, twigs, berries, and flowers to create their own insects. Students loved designing nature insect sculptures, and the textures, shapes, and colors of the garden clippings inspired distinctive insect “personalities.” Below is a sampling of their insect art.

Encouraging Nonfiction Reading and Writing
Each year the library and creative writing teachers co-sponsor a literary magazine, and writing contests have been a popular way to generate writing and art submissions. This year’s writing contest will be themed to the environment (in praise of our natural world and ways to be better stewards of our environment). Creative writing students will be challenged to create a promotional video for the environmental writing contest by using their colorful insect nature art. These insects will be animated in a promotional video using the Puppet Pals app.

The library will be displaying nonfiction titles themed to environmental conservationists and activists, endangered animals, environmental concerns, and national parks. Suggested reading lists for environmental books have been created in Destiny Collections so that teachers and students can browse library titles available in print and through our digital SORA collection. To highlight nonfiction book checkouts, stuffed toy birds will be “nesting” at our circulation desks, and when a student checks out a nonfiction book, they can celebrate their nonfiction book checkout by pressing the stuffed bird for an authentic bird song.

Future Plans
Here are possible ideas that will be explored further this coming school year:

  1. Recycle/Upcycle Fashion Show
    Student-created designs would be paired with informational displays highlighting environmental concerns. Creative writing students have already interviewed Tina Davis, the owner of a Houston vintage clothing store, and the interview generated several creative ideas to possibly pursue. Tina Davis stressed the importance of “buying less and choosing more.”
  2. STEAM Literacy Event
    Nonfiction library books displayed with related STEAM activities.
    Students would facilitate STEAM demonstrations as visitors browse the display tables.
  3. Environmental Podcast
    Our creative writing students may be collaborating with our STEM teacher and her Digital Design class to create podcasts highlighting environmental concerns.

The goal of these STEM and writing activities is to spark students’ curiosity and deepen their awareness of environmental concerns through thoughtful reading of nonfiction writings. Please share the ways you enhance students’ reading of nonfiction and incorporate nonfiction in your literacy skills programming and collaborations with teachers.


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

Library Contests, Part One

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