Using Beanstack to Foster a Culture of Reading

I’ve seen some queries about Beanstack come through the listserv recently, as well as calls for suggestions for building and sustaining a culture of reading, so I thought it might be helpful to share how my first year incorporating Beanstack into my programming has played out.

When I collected data for my annual report at the end of the last school year, I was disappointed to see just how much our circulation statistics had dropped. I wasn’t entirely surprised by this; a year spent teaching a new class took a lot of my time and attention away from my primary role as librarian. Still, the numbers were bleak. My reading program needed a shot of adrenaline.

Pulp Fiction, 1994, Miramax

I don’t recall the exact context, but I first heard of Beanstack when Courtney Lewis (the progenitor of so many great ideas) shared a pandemic-era memory through the listserv of students getting competitive while looking at publicized Beanstack statistics. Intrigued, I contacted a sales rep to learn more about how I could make the platform work for me. I liked the idea of a competitive element and public leaderboards. I also thought that Beanstack could replace the way our sixth-grade students track and share their progress as they complete their 20-book reading challenge, a long time collaboration between me and their English teacher. Beanstack would be expensive, but I was committed to prioritizing reading this year, so I found ways to cut other areas of my budget to make room for it.

Having learned what Beanstack could do, an idea for a year-long reading initiative began to take shape. I wanted to concentrate on roping in our upper school students, though middle school students and all faculty and staff would be invited to participate. To that end, I envisioned a series of reading challenges that might seem doable to busy high school students. I also liked the idea that each month would bring another chance to participate in a different way. I wanted readers to feel as though they could jump in and out of the program as their schedule and interest permitted. I thought about incentivizing participation through rewards. I considered offering rewards by class or advisory groups with the most participation but ultimately, I wanted to reward anyone who pushed themselves to participate, regardless of whether or not their peers were interested. I named this initiative “Year of the Reader” and began planning how to roll it out to my community.

SeptemberRead a Graphic Novel
OctoberRead a Featured Magazine Article
NovemberRead Yourself to Sleep
(for five nights in a row, phone on airplane mode)
DecemberListen to an Audiobook
JanuaryRead Traditional Literature
(mythology, folklore, fairytales, legends)
FebruaryRead a Memoir or Biography
MarchRead a Nonfiction Science Book
AprilRead a Poetry Collection
(or complete set of album lyrics)

First came the fun stuff. Designing a logo. Ordering swag (buttons and stickers). Planning the monthly challenges that would start off requiring less time and effort but then gradually grow more challenging. Creating digital badges for each challenge (Beanstack has several pre-made badges to choose from, but you can design and upload your own). I decided on eight monthly challenges beginning in September and ending in April.

Next came the pitch. This was the tricky part. How do you convince busy high school students that they should get excited about something that they don’t think they have time for? I requested some time at upper school assembly to introduce the Year of the Reader. The theme of the presentation was remembering what we love about reading. I first acknowledged the students who already had robust reading habits. To those students who weren’t willing to admit that they ever loved reading, I could at least get them to admit that we all love stories. Being read to. Watching movies and TV shows. Gossip and drama. Our ability to make up stories, share them with others, and believe in them together is what sets us apart as a species. It’s our human superpower. That was the big idea, followed by a sampling of the benefits that research tells us we get from reading for pleasure – academic, emotional, and physical.

My colleague, Kate Turnbull, the mother of a member of our senior class, had the brilliant idea of soliciting parents of the Class of 2024 for childhood pictures of their kids reading or being read to. Before revealing the first reading challenge, we introduced a game called “Guess the Reader,” putting up the pictures and seeing how long it took to identify the young seniors (this game would become a month feature at assembly each time we announced a new challenge). We dedicated the Year of the Reader to the Class of 2024, a graduation gift they didn’t ask for, and challenged them to lead the way. Kate and I were even able to convince the cheerleaders to close out the assembly with a special cheer about reading.

With that, the Year of the Reader began. The September challenge was to read a graphic novel, something we knew most kids would see as an easy win. To unlock the badge, students had to log in to Beanstack and answer three simple questions: What was the title? What was it about? What was your favorite thing about the book? (the questions changed depending on the challenge, but there were always three and always this simple). I frequently ran reports to see which students unlocked their badges and then posted their names on leaderboards that were broadcast on monitors across campus – the library, the dining hall, the gym, and so on. The leaderboards were updated frequently. When it felt like participation was flagging, I’d email updates to students to stoke competition. Although each individual on the leaderboard would receive the reward, ice cream for this first challenge, it was surprisingly effective to pit one class against another to drum up participation. Pointing out that the freshmen were walloping the seniors had the desired effect of bringing the Class of 2024 into the library to defend their collective honor. At the end of the month, we’d come back to upper school assembly to project the final leaderboards, congratulate the “winning” class, and announce the next month’s challenge.

Library displays were designed to support the monthly challenge. I invited English teachers to bring their classes in to browse displays and find something to satisfy the challenge. The books didn’t have to come from our library, but proximity goes a long way and it was great to see circulation boosts in sections of our library that don’t usually get a lot of traffic – the 500s, folklore, memoir, poetry. The challenges also directed people to library resources that are often forgotten or ignored, such as magazine articles in Flipster or audiobooks in Sora. I made it clear to upper school students that checking out books intended for middle school students was perfectly fine. The objective was to find something enjoyable to read that would work for their schedules. If that meant grabbing a volume of Scientists in the Field or revisiting Rick Riordan, have at it. Some students were happy to take that route. Others wanted to challenge themselves. There was no wrong way to participate. The point was to have fun with reading and to do it together.

The Year of the Reader is now coming to an end, and I’m pleased with the results. Between middle school, upper school, faculty, and staff, we had 294 participants. That number represents about 65% of our middle school students and 52% of our upper school students. 69%  of all participants completed more than one challenge and 35% completed half or more of the eight challenges. I was also thrilled to see that compared to this time last year, circulation saw a 65% increase. Harder to measure but just as satisfying, it was great to see students and teachers talking to each other about the reading challenges. Carving out time at monthly assemblies to celebrate the joy of reading increased our visibility. And watching groups of upper school students huddled around piles graphic novels, folklore collections, and poetry books as if they were kids again was probably the most rewarding part of my year.

Do you need Beanstack to make something like this work? Probably not. You could pull it off with Google Forms and a little gumption. But the Beanstack platform made things a lot easier for me. There are several report options that helped me keep track of participation throughout the year. I was surprised how many people were motivated by unlocking the digital badges throughout the year, especially teachers and staff. There is a social element within the platform that can be activated or turned off, allowing students to see what others are reading and find new recommendations. For our sixth graders, Beanstack made reading logs a lot less tedious.

Beanstack and the Year of the Reader helped me generate a lot of enthusiasm for reading this year. It was the shot of adrenaline we needed. Today I returned to the upper school assembly to share some of the data I’ve shared with you in this post. I thanked everyone for participating before the big reveal, which is that every year, of course, is the year of the reader. The name and logo may be retiring, but we need to take what we’ve learned from and loved about the different reading challenges and carry them with us into the future. I have the summer to think of how to maintain the momentum.

In the meantime, please share what is working for you! Erinn Salge hosted a Zoom meetup last month about creating a reading culture at our schools, and several librarians shared fantastic ideas. Join us next time and keep the suggestions coming!

2 thoughts on “Using Beanstack to Foster a Culture of Reading

  1. Thank you, Chris, for sharing such a fun idea! I’m sorry to have missed the reading culture Zoom, so having your post is really appreciated.
    May I ask: what were the prizes each month? (You mentioned ice cream for one …)
    Thank you!

  2. Thanks for reading, and great question. These were the rewards:

    September – Creole Creamery ice cream (donated by the owner, one of our parents)
    October – Bomb Pops (popsicles ordered through our dining staff)
    November – Bundtinis from Nothing Bundt Cakes
    December – Hot cocoa bar (provided by our dining staff)
    January – Skittles
    February – Fruit smoothies (dining staff again)
    March – Snoballs (New Orleans’ version of snow cones)
    April – Full circle; Creole Creamery again

    We’re a very food-driven school. ; )

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *