Playing book fairy

(Warning: I’ll be library-nerding hard here, it being a safe space to do so 🙂 )

Oh, the thrill of connecting a reader with just the right book, at just the right time! I particularly enjoy making a literal connection; this could be placing a book in a reader’s hands (although a member of my library team brought back an interesting tidbit from our provincial conference, about how to find greater success by not holding a book when talking about it, but placing it on a table/bookshelf, allowing for something akin to transfer of ownership to the reader…fascinating! But I digress…)

Making a literal connection could also be following up on a conversation over the lunch table or by email, by placing a book in a school mailbox, or on a reader’s desk.

As I’m on and off campus throughout the summer, I like to keep this going when opportunity allows. Sometimes I’m dropping things off for people who live/work on campus, sometimes I’m bringing things to people who live near me (we’re in a small town, and I’m lucky to live close to quite a few colleagues)

I had 2 deliveries this morning:

  • A teacher has finished reading Narnia to his kids and was curious about Percy Jackson, so I gave him the first 2 Olympians. He also likes Michael Lewis, and we didn’t have The Undoing Project – I’d ordered it, it recently arrived, so it’s in there too.
  • I ran into a colleague in the park yesterday, which gave me a chance to tell him that I was disappointed about being off my game when he asked me for some summer reading suggestions at the very tail-end of the school year…my brain was fried by then. Based on his reading interests, two books had come to mind, and bumping into him reminded me to get them to him – The Mandibles and The Art of Fielding.

Note the ziploc bags, also doubled-up with plastic bags on this misty morning.

This is strictly for fun, when my schedule allows, not onerous in any way – and I’ve found people to be so appreciative. I’ve also found it a good motivator for getting myself out for a walk!



The Gift of Summer Reading

There has been no shortage of discussion on the topic of summer reading, but as ’tis the season, here’s another piece! As the end of the year approaches and a flurry of school events come and go, it seems to be the library-mission related topic that is most visible and most on the minds of school community members at the moment.

This will be our third year of using a student-driven summer reading model first inspired by a presentation from a fellow independent school librarian at our state affiliate organization conference several years ago. I know many schools have been approaching summer reading in similar ways and each school whose summer reading process I’ve taken note of “does” summer reading a little differently to fit their own school mission and reading community. I’ve learned a few things about summer reading at our school over the last two years and I’m sure I have more to learn this year as things come together.

To sum up our method: starting in the winter, I recruit Summer Reading Leaders (SRLs) from the ranks of returning students in grades 9-11 (rising sophomores-seniors). I make announcements, send out visually appealing emails, and speak face-to-face with students.

Together we select a book for each of them to put forth as an Upper School summer reading option. Some of these students know a book they’d like to share immediately, others need suggestions to choose from or a little re-direction. Once the list is final, the rest of the students rising to grades 9-12 fill out a Google form asking for their top three favorites from the list. I arrange the students into reading groups based on these preferences. Nearly everyone is assigned to their first choice reading group.

When we return to school, a one-hour Summer Reading Group session is built into the orientation/pre-season sports days. The SRLs are in charge of leading discussions, or, for the more ambitious, activities during this time.

I am always thrilled to see which students might volunteer to be SRLs and to see positive responses from those who are so happy to be asked. I am often tickled by their book choices, too.

The benefits of this approach:

  • More choice means more student buy-in and excitement around summer reading. The peer-chosen factor is a big one here.
  • We start the year on a positive note around reading. The idea is that everyone is reading something of their choice which ideally they also enjoyed.
  • Through their choices, I get to know the students better as readers; especially those who don’t read for pleasure as much or new students who need to be welcomed into the library.
  • When a SRL needs help choosing a book, I get a chance to promote something that deserves more readers, or else provide overlap with Reading Olympics or the PA Young Readers Choice Award.

Of course there are also The Challenges

  • When it comes to recruiting SRLs, it’s easy to think first of the students you know to be voracious readers. However, other students want to be involved too. They might just need to be asked. They are likely to bring great additions to the list. (I aim for enough SRLs to have reading groups of about ten students and to provide enough diversity in the book options.) 
  • Relatedly, balancing the list takes careful consideration, as Christina Pommer posted a few years ago. The list has to appeal to many different reading preferences.
  • There are some students who don’t read the summer reading book. I survey the students anonymously after the groups meet, with one of the questions being “Did you read the book?” Most have either responded “Yes” or “I read most of it.”

Lessons learned

  • Last year we had a couple of repeated books from the year before led by new SRLs. I was happy that I still had the previous year’s reading group rosters, as some students wanted to sign up for the book they had already read the previous year. While I was pleased they had enjoyed it so much the first time, I could refer to the old roster and assign them to their second choice.
  • Keep Admissions informed of the process. Make book selection easy and friendly for new students. Seeing their book choices come in during the summer is a great entry to getting to know them before the year starts.
  • It may be that the students who initially resist assigned Summer Reading will make great SRLs because it’s the SRLs who have the most choice in their Summer Reading selection. 
  • Check that the books are easily available; internationally, if applicable. A book fair can really help with this, or hold a book downloading help session before the end of the year.

Through most of the school year, I worry that Upper School students generally don’t seem to be reading for pleasure very much. Though we put together physical and virtual book displays, promote new and seasonal titles through email and social media, set up pop-up libraries in different spots around campus, participate in Reading Olympics and book talk for classes and clubs, often it seems that this dynamic collection of super-awesome books is going unnoticed, spines in near-perfect condition with nary a stamp on the date due slip. I wonder whether I am promoting the collection enough, or selecting and purchasing books the students want to read. Maybe students are just not interested in reading library books, preferring to watch TV shows or read on Wattpad when their hearts and minds need a story.

While these are important things to evaluate, I often forget about the simple and real factor of time. Like many of us, our busy college-prepping students just don’t have that much time during the school year to curl up with a good book that they love. Some make the time, but it’s hard to do. When a break rolls around, I am delighted by the reading that is all of a sudden part of the imagery of “how I will spend my summer vacation.” That’s when many students are ready to have a book put in their hands. When given the chance and an enticing array of  choices many will welcome summer reading as the gift a good book is.

There are a lot of great summer reading ideas to be found on the AISL wiki, listserv, and other places. I’d love to see a comprehensive database of different summer reading approaches in our schools, so we can see others’ ideas and lessons learned. Anyone with me? 

Interactive summer reading

I know it’s (only) April, but with just seven weeks of school left, my mind is on the finish line – summer! I don’t want to think about database renewals or cleaning the mess that is the workroom, nor do I care to give another thought to the book hospital that is overflowing with patients or the inventory that is calling my name. That can all wait until tomorrow (or the next day). No, right now, I’m planning summer reading!

For the past two years, I have created recommended summer reading magazines – my favorite picks from the year (here’s 2015 and 2016). I include them in my end-of-the-year library newsletter and send black-and-white copies in our end-of-year reports which go out mid-June. I print some in color and place them on our Parent bookshelf in the lobby, so that all who walk by can see and take them. I have ideas in mind for this year’s magazine, but I want to do more – I want this year’s summer reading to be interactive.

Lower school students do not have required reading over the summer, but I know they are reading voraciously. I have wondered about how to stay connected with students and their reading over the summer and have dismissed many ideas because I didn’t think they would work with our population. Send me a picture? Write me a letter? Blog about it? What’s a quick and easy way to collect and share our summer reading?

I am always looking to connect the right student with the right book at the right time, and now I find myself in need of the right tool. Books, I’m pretty good at and manage to stay updated. Tech tools, I always feel a step behind. So, please try not to roll your eyes when I introduce the new (ahem: four years old) tool that I plan on using for summer reading this year:

I don’t know why I hadn’t heard of Flipgrid until just recently, but I feel like I am seeing it everywhere nowadays. For those of you, maybe like me, who may not know what it is – Flipgrid is essentially a video discussion board. Imagine if Padlet and Voicethread had a baby (though I wonder about the ages of those two…). For my summer reading Flipgrid, I plan on taking video of myself talking to students about sharing their summer reading. Then, they can go to my Flipgrid page and add their own video about what they’re reading. In the end, I hope to have tons of videos of students sharing with me and each other. What I love about Flipgrid is how easy it is to use – go to the board, click the plus sign, and record yourself! It organizes the videos much in the same way as Pinterest, very neat rows, and students can watch each other’s videos.

I’m looking forward to introducing this next month and might encourage some beta testers to add videos of what they want to read over summer break. Have you done anything similar? Advice to share?

Jumping the Gun on Summer Reading?

It’s almost spring break, and so my mind is turning towards….what….summer reading???

Orion reads The Hobbit

I’m betting that my students would be shocked to learn that my internal goal involves having the framework set by spring break. This informal list lets me, or other teachers, read any books that have been recommended but that are unfamiliar to us.  I’m sure the students have never thought about the magic behind the curtain of a well-produced list. Instead, selections are unveiled at a fast-paced assembly on the final day of school when teachers each have a minute to whimsically “pitch” their books to the students.

Since upper schools operate all sorts of summer reading programs, here’s some background on ours. We have one community book that all high schoolers read. Discussion takes place in advisory and focuses more on personal growth than on literary merit. All students must also read a book of their choosing from a list of 12-15 teacher-sponsored books. Some AP courses also require course-specific summer reading, although that’s decided by the individual teacher. Finally, the division directors each sponsor a professional book for the faculty to discuss the week before school starts. In a practical sense, this means that all teachers read at least three books over the summer, and all students read at least two. Short comprehension quizzes, mainly multiple choice, are given in the discussion groups, and summer reading is a requirement that is marked on student report cards.

This has been a series of compromises, most notably the quizzes. I have mixed feelings, which now lean slightly towards supporting them. I’m curious to hear your thoughts below. For years, we had some students who did not complete summer reading. Every year, a few of these students would brag to their friends about getting away with not reading. Even worse, they’d tease their friends for wasting their time reading. (Mind you, we’re talking numbers you can count on one hand…) Thus, administrators added the summer reading completion component to report cards. However, teachers leading book discussions felt that they could not always tell solely from participation whether a student read or not. They didn’t want to send kids in the direction of the principal simply for being quiet. The rules for quizzes are simple.

No trick questions. No sneaky answers. If a student read the book on the beach in May, he should pass the quiz in school in August.

 Here are three sample questions from our most recent community book, The Hobbit.

 Who is the leader of the dwarves?

A.  Thorin Oakenshield           B.  Gloin Erebo           C. Bombur Esgaroth                D. Dori Sindarin

 What is Bilbo’s stated role on the quest?

A. Burglar                    B. Musician                 C. Archivist                             D. Bait

 Throughout his travels, what does Bilbo say he most misses about home?

A. His food                              B. His parties                  C.  His wife                           D. His radio

 All justification aside, I hate testing students on summer reading. I think that basic comprehension tests undermine the complexity of reading, and they imply that students are completing an assignment for a grade. At this point, however, students expect the quizzes at the beginning of their discussions. Many teachers will finish with a free response question that they’ll use to begin the discussion. Since our threshold for passing is 6 out of 10, students who have read are generally not too anxious about the process. Looking at the examples above, if you’ve read The Hobbit in the past 10 years, I hope you’re at least two for three.

I’ve run the statistical data for the sponsored books. (For example, almost one third of the students read nonfiction texts, no matter how many are offered.  Or English teachers sponsoring classics get higher readership than Math or Science teachers doing so.) Because we know how students think, we prominently note the page count of each option. Past “shortest books” have included C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet and Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, books that provide excellent fodder for discussion and are in no way easy reads. I am confident in my ability to juggle a variety of sponsored texts each year into one list that will support English Language learners, Physics buffs, and Harry Potter fans. The community book takes more thought. The criteria as explained to me include:

Lowry Park Zoo Field Trip
  • Interesting for boys and girls as old as 19
  • Appropriate for boys and girls as young as 13
  • Something students wouldn’t be embarrassed to read on vacation, on an airplane or in a coffeeshop.
  • Something we can justify to parents who might question its legitimacy
  • Available in paperback and on the iPad
  • Around 200 pages

Writing that out makes me a little amazed that we’ve founds some excellent choices that meet the criteria. Here are some quick reflections from the last five years’ books:


PB2009Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card – The students were more skeptical than the teachers of Ender’s young leadership, though a fair number picked up Ender’s Shadow in the fall.

2010Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes – Students refused to admit they liked it. The intensity of their emotional response to Charlie and Algernon’s plight showed that they connected with the story.

2011Zoo Story by Thomas French – This book focuses on the management of a zoo about an hour north of us at the turn of the twenty-first century. Most students were more interested in the sections about animals than those about humans. They loved visiting the animals in person on a fall trip to the zoo.

2012The Princess Bride by William Goldman – We required them to watch the movie and read the book, which led to some fabulous discussions on adaptation. The book is a hilarious satire, though that sadly went over the heads of many of our less adept readers.

2013The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien – More people read more thoroughly when it’s a book that’s well below their reading level, but some people who encounter unfamiliar fantasy vocabulary don’t give fantasy books a shot. Also, you can tell if someone’s just watched the movie.

 Moral of the story: You can’t please everyone all the time.

Books don't have to be read in English
Books don’t have to be read in English

Top surprise hits in the sponsored book area were: Twelve Mighty Orphans by Jim Dent (thank you to whoever on the AISL listserv told me about that book last year when I was soliciting suggestions) Pure by Juliana Baggott, The Pregnancy Project by Gaby Rodriguez, The Cardturner by Louis Sachar and Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Randy Frost. Let me know if you want annotations and reviews for any of these books, or, alternately, books that didn’t go over as well.

Continue the conversation below. What have you done to improve your school’s summer reading program? What books have most resonated with the students?