Deep Work and Children’s Librarianship

Sometimes when I talk to my academic librarian friends about the institutional support for professional development and research-related work they are guaranteed as part of their jobs I get a little green with envy. The paid flights and hotels! The time off teaching! The expectation to continuously learn and grow! The access to research locked behind paywalls!

I love being a children’s librarian at a public library. While I don’t get all those perks, I do get an immense amount of joy and satisfaction from the work I perform. But lately I’ve been wondering about how to do more of what my academic librarians have (more) access to than their public library counterparts. It’s something called deep work.

I was introduced to the concept of deep work by a colleague who lent me the book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport. The first part of the book defines and describes the concept; the second part of the book gives ‘rules’ for how to achieve it. I’m not going to focus on the rules – they will work for some and not for others. I want to focus on how the concept of deep work made me think critically about my day-to-day activities as a children’s librarian.

So what is deep work? Newport defines it as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.” Deep work stands in contrast to shallow work which is performed when distracted and is easy to replicate. He believes the ability to do deep work is becoming increasingly rarer while also becoming increasingly valuable. Those who can integrate deep work into their lives will thrive.

One of Newton’s points that stuck with me the most is the importance of a distraction-free time frame where you can immerse yourself in study or in practice. Having no distractions is incredibly valuable as it allows the mind to strengthen neurons in the brain circuit by adding layers of myelin, thereby “cementing the skill.” It made me think about how often at work I have no distractions. Any? Firstly, I work in an open office environment. Secondly, the amount of time I’m not working the reference desk, programming, or doing community outreach is relatively small. And even then I may be on back-up reference duty or be frantically trying to stay on top of emails. So the first challenge I identified for myself is carving out distraction-free times where I am not responsible for serving the public, am not needed by other staff, and can set aside shallow work like replying to emails, prepping program materials, or organizing things.

Newton acknowledges this challenge – deep work is rare. Many businesses and institutions don’t actively support it because there are more perceived pressing demands in addition to an emphasis on things like “serendipitous collaboration, rapid communication, and an active presence of social media.” In short, we like to be busy. We identify with being busy. In a library setting, busy is good! It means we are a well-used resource in our community worthy of funding. But I also find myself wondering if there are things we do because “doing lots of stuff in a visible manner” feels productive. And easier. It is much easier for me to spend an hour replying to emails than it is to read a relevant research article, take notes, and think critically about how to apply what I read to my work. That’s just one example of many.

Newton’s last point about deep work is that is is meaningful. It gives satisfaction. And it is not that the specifics of one’s job – storytime, weeding, helping families find the perfect book – are what makes the work meaningful, but the rarefied approach to one’s job that makes it meaningful. This point challenged my thinking as I do believe that those job duties have meaning, at least to me. When I look closer at them, I realize that the effort I put into planning an intentional and interactive storytime and the relationship focus I bring to my work with families are really what make it meaningful. I would even use the phrase Newton employs – “a sense of sacredness.” So even if I’m not able to carve out that distraction-free time every day to read, write, and reflect, I am able to bring an element of deep work to my job as a children’s librarian.

After finishing the book I admit I was left with a desire for more time at work (and not at home blogging) to do deep work. Which is not to say that that’s all I want to do. Even the book cautions that about 4 hours a day is the maximum the brain can spend in deep concentration. But right now I don’t feel like I have a good balance. Part of that is the reality of my work schedule, job responsibilities, and work space. And I have little control over those. But part of that is because I choose to focus on shallow work tasks during those times when I do have an opportunity to do deep work and that’s where the shift can happen. It’s more about me prioritizing the deep work and being okay with letting things like email wait until a later time.

Wouldn’t it be cool if all the children’s librarians had the time to do this level of work and then spend our meetings discussing our findings? I’m thinking about the ways we could impact service, program design and delivery, and the general direction of youth services. I don’t see deep work as solely singular.

Here are some questions I’m asking myself. I would love to get your feedback on in the comments!

  • What aspects of my job already involve deep work?
  • What strategies could I implement to carve out time for deep work?
  • What are the topics or issues I’d most like to to dive into if I had time to do deep work on a regular basis?

Thank you, dear blog readers and commenters, for pushing me to think deeper about my work as a children’s librarian. All of the comments – whether they are in agreement or in challenge – are a valuable part of my growth as a professional.

Guest Post: Making Storytimes More Inclusive

Today’s guest post features an interview between two youth services librarians from Beaverton City Library. If you missed the first guest post by this team, check out their Ready, Set, Kindergarten program.

I get asked a lot about how to make storytime inclusive to people of all ages and abilities, so I am happy to share these ideas by Carson and Brenda. Take it away!

The following is an interview with Brenda Shelton conducted by Carson Mischel. Both Brenda and Carson work in Youth Services at the Beaverton City Library in Beaverton, Oregon.

Carson: The word “inclusive” is used a lot in library-land these days to describe the evolution of programs and services to make them more welcoming to different populations. What exactly are we talking about at Beaverton City Library when we talk about making our storytimes more inclusive?

Brenda: I think inclusive is a very hard word to pin down, because it can be so broad. To me, “inclusive” means that our storytimes are crafted with all children in mind. When libraries talk about “inclusion,” I think a group that is continually left out is disabled patrons. I wanted to make our storytimes universally inclusive for children regardless of disability or ability. This means that children can attend any of our storytimes and be both engaged, and capable of participating, whether they are verbal, non-verbal, sighted, deaf, neurodivergent, neurotypical, differently abled, or not. Rather than giving accommodations when they are asked for, each of our storytimes have multiple means of communication and engagement built in to benefit all learners, so that everyone has equal opportunity to engage and enjoy. They also have shared elements that serve as anchors for families that may graduate from one storytime to the next, or attend multiple storytimes in a week. I think everyone should have an equitable experience at the library without having to ask for it. I want every kid to feel like they can come to storytime and have fun and learn with their friends, in ways that work for everyone. I want to normalize everyone’s ways of learning. I don’t want to perpetuate a dichotomy of one thing as normal and the other abnormal. I think that it is our job to meet every patron where they are at, rather than perpetuating practices that may only serve certain children. While we are just starting this process and will expand over time, our current inclusive practices are:

  • A Visual Schedule guiding every storytime.
  • A shared, interactive opening song with a visual “Choice Board,” that allows the children to choose what we sing about that day.
  • Implementation of “props” for each child in one or more books during the day.
  • Encouraged use of Big Books.
  • Explicit modelling of behaviors and concepts through direct language and actions.

Carson: You have worked very hard to make all of our existing storytimes at Beaverton City Library more inclusive. Why do you believe it is important for all of our storytimes to have inclusive elements?

Brenda: I think that when you exist in any kind of identity or experience that puts in you a “minority,” you face a lot of othering in your life, whether intentional or not, that tells you that you are not welcome in places that others are. If you truly believe that “Libraries Are For Everyone,” I think that making patrons ask for “accommodations” is just another barrier, and it does communicate that they are not welcome. Instead, we should be adjusting all of our services to benefit all of our patrons inherently. It was also a goal of mine not to make a special Inclusive Storytime that was specifically aimed at neurodivergent or physically disabled kids. While I think those are great, and I would love for us to have one someday, I wanted to show that every storytime can easily benefit all children by incorporating some of the practices you would see at those specialized programs. I don’t want to send a message that disabled patrons need a special program to be valid. They don’t. We just need to shift our approach and think about the ways that we are favoring certain patrons in our libraries. We follow a Universal Design in this way, in that our storytimes aim to work for everyone together, rather than apart. I think that’s really important, especially with kids. I want them to know that no matter who they are, they are welcome at BCL, and they deserve to learn and play in the same ways as each other.

Carson: What is the purpose of using a visual schedule as part of storytime?

Brenda: Visual Schedules are often used for children on the spectrum, but they are beneficial to everyone. They are basically just a visual guide or outline for the activities in storytime. Visual Schedules help those who have trouble with transitions, as well as those who may have trouble with written language or who are non-verbal. There are many different types, but you can think of it as a card with a word and a picture representing that word—for instance “Book.” As each activity is completed, you take the card away. It’s just a great concrete way of making mapping out what is expected of everyone that day, and illustrating when it is completed. This can be helpful to soothe any kind of apprehension or anxiety around tasks and behaviors.

Carson: What are a few of your favorite books and/or visual props to share in storytime and why?

Brenda: One of my favorite books for storytime is Crunch, the Shy Dinosaur by Cirocco Dunlap. It’s an interactive book about a shy dinosaur that requires audience participation. I’ve always had great success with that book. You can easily modify it with Popsicle props with pictures of the different actions printed on them so that all of the kids can engage, as most of requests are verbal. Anything that each child can hold and use the engage in the story is great.

Another favorite was given to me by a coworker, and its super simple. Read Tap the Magic Tree and give each child a die cut tree. Then, every time they have to tap the tree, or shake it, or blow on it, they can do it with their own personal tree. It’s really just all about having multiple ways for children to engage in the story experience with you. Touching and holding props is a great way to get children physically engaged with the story through touch and action. It really grounds them in the story, and you all participate in the process together—which is the best!

Interactive, repetitive, and literal books are best!

Carson: If a library is interested in making their storytime more welcoming to children of all abilities and learning styles but don’t have the time or budget for a total re-design, what are three simple things that be changed or added to make storytime more inclusive right away?

Brenda:

  1. Create and implement a visual schedule. There are lots of examples online. Find one that works the best for you!
  2. Incorporate more visuals and methods that allow for multiple means of communication. For everything you say or do, try to think of how you can express that activity or concept with a picture, object, or action.
  3. Pick interactive books or adapt the stories you have to make them more interactive with the use of felt, die cuts, Popsicle stick props, or scarves.

Carson: Can you recommend any books or websites that offer information and resources for making storytimes more inclusive?

Brenda: My first recommendation is always to talk to your local organizations that are run for and by people who carry that identity. For autism, my first and always recommendation for this at a broader level is to check out Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN). It is run by autistic people, for autistic people, unlike harmful organizations like Autism Speaks. Other resources include:

Brenda Shelton is a Youth Services Reference Assistant at Beaverton City Library in Beaverton, Oregon. She enjoys spending her weeks making DIY Crafts with tweens and teens, talking about pop culture, and being artistic. When she’s not connecting with patrons or surrounded by books, she enjoys spending time with her black cat, Blackjack, getting tattooed, and watching The X Files. If you have any questions about inclusive resources or practices, please feel free to contact her at bshelton@beavertonoregon.gov.

Guest Post: Ready, Set, Kindergarten

Today’s guest post comes from two youth services librarians at the Beaverton City Library in Oregon. Carson and MacKenzie are here to share their Ready, Set, Kindergarten series for preschoolers. I really like how they incorporate social emotional learning into the design of the program which sets out to give families a safe space to practice school readiness. Take it away, Beaverton!

As you might know, parents are often fairly nervous when their child enters kindergarten in the fall. And they don’t just think about it in the fall—they have plenty of time to get anxious when completing registration paperwork, attending kindergarten orientations, and planning during the summer beforehand. You might even get the question: what can I do to help my child be ready for kindergarten? As we all know, there are a lot of pieces to that question, and the Beaverton City Library created the Ready, Set Kindergarten series to help answer it.

The Beaverton City Library’s annual Ready, Set, Kindergarten series came into existence after our manager learned about Brooklyn Public Library’s similar initiative in a chance meeting with one of their librarians. The following day, my manager couldn’t tell me fast enough how excited she was about Brooklyn’s workshop series designed to help get 4- and 5-year-olds and their parents transition into kindergarten. At this point we had all been hearing about the widespread epidemic of children entering kindergarten without the skills they needed to succeed. There were frequent reports in the local news about Oregon preschoolers scoring well below average on kindergarten assessments, especially in areas of social-emotional development, reading, and basic math skills. My colleagues and I saw this as an opportunity to educate parents, and so, with a few tweaks to the Brooklyn Public Library’s curriculum to align more closely with the Oregon Department of Education’s standards, we started offering our Ready, Set, Kindergarten series in spring 2016.

So what exactly is Ready, Set, Kindergarten? RSK—because we all love acronyms—is a series of six “enhanced” storytimes, and each one focuses on a different readiness practice. During each session, the “teacher”—one of our librarians—reads books, sings songs, and leads activities with the children while also interjecting a few tips for parents along the way. We host one session per week for 45-minutes. We also try to build consistency between each session by having repeating songs, the same teacher, and an opening and closing routine to help mimic a kindergarten classroom. Families are not required to attend all of the sessions, but it is highly encouraged that they do so. Watching a child grow and become more comfortable with each passing week is a true joy.

Below is a sample from each of our six sessions, including the main topic, one of the books we read aloud, and one of the tips we share with the parents/caregivers.

Session 1: Ready to Learn

Ready to Learn is the first session in our series, and it is when we first talk about being a good student. We introduce skills that include raising hands, listening to our teacher, and being kind to one another, and we have a discussion about these expected behaviors. Because these are brand new skills for a lot of our kids, we review our “rules” at the beginning of each session and gently enforce them throughout the entire series. Making sure that the kids have a positive experience in RSK is our first priority—not punishing rule-breakers.

The Book We Shared

Tip for the adults: Having a routine at home is important for your child’s development and will help them be more prepared for their school routine in the future. We’ve talked to local kindergarten teachers, who recommend starting a routine of going to bed and waking up at the same times you will need to for school several months prior to starting school. Do you want to make bedtime fun and something your child will look forward to? Start a bedtime reading or storytelling routine!

Session 2: Let’s Be Friends

In our next session, and subsequent sessions, we review our rules, go over the visual schedule, and remind families to speak and read to their children in their first language. We then dive right into the session’s skills: learning how to appropriately interact with other children, the basics of self-care, and learning to manage their emotions. Between stories and songs, we play a game to show empathy. For this game, we hand out face pictures to the kids and ask them to raise the appropriate face to answer some of the following questions: How do you think your friend would feel if someone broke their favorite toy? How would your friend feel if you painted them a beautiful picture? If there was a kid in your class who didn’t know anyone, how do you think they might feel?

The Book We Shared

To the adults: Use stories to help children through transitions or changes.  Your librarian can help you find books on things that may be happening in your child’s world:  starting school, sibling rivalry, taking a trip, bullying, and more!

Session 3: Reading and Writing

For this session, we get to stress the importance of reading and writing. We read books and sing songs that we know kids like (Jim Gill’s “Jump Up, Turn Around” is always a hit), as well as sharing a wordless picture book that the kids help narrate. We also share plenty of ways that families can develop writing skills with their kids at home: drawing pictures, checking off items on a grocery list, crossing off days on a calendar, and playing the alphabet game. For our activity, we have the kids decorate a manila envelope as a “family mailbox” so families can write (or draw) letters for each other.

The Book We Shared

To the adults: Look around you! The alphabet is everywhere! You can play an alphabet searching game to practice identifying letters. Choose a letter of the day and look for it around the house and on signs outside. Children love finding letters in their world, and it helps them to get excited about reading and writing.

Session 4: Let’s Talk

In this session we encourage adults to have daily, engaged back and forth conversations with their children. We talk about building vocabulary with books and by finding new ways to describe everyday things. As a class we play observation games like “I Spy” and challenge parents to take their child on a nature walk and ask them about what they see.

Book We Shared

Tip for the adults: Look at clouds together and imagine different shapes and objects.  Choose books that encourage children to see things in their world in a different way, and talk about them together. This helps children expand their vocabulary and learn how to communicate their ideas. 

Session 5: Playing Together

Play is essential to a child’s healthy development, and it is how they learn social skills, build and strengthen motor skills, and learn about their world. Children and families are often over-scheduled, and it is important for kids to have plenty of opportunities for unstructured playtime, especially when their brains are developing so rapidly. We like to congratulate parents for bringing their children to library events where they have an opportunity to interact with their peers and then we end the session with a fun LEGO play time!

Book We Shared

To the adults: Making time to play with your child in a fun and relaxing way will help build a lasting bond. When you spend time playing a board game, going for a bike ride, or drawing a picture with your child, it also helps build their feelings of self-worth. Be silly and laugh with your child! These early and joyful interactions will lead to better family communication, trust, and your child’s sense of belonging and safety.

Session 6: Make Time for Math

In our last session, we get to show that early math skills are more than numbers and counting—these skills include shapes, engineering, opposites, and more! We read books that cover these topics, as well as sing and use a flannel board for the ever-popular “Five Green and Speckled Frogs” and turn our hands into frying pans and fingers into hot dogs while chanting “Five Little Hotdogs.” We have a lot of families who are interested in developing STEM skills with their kids as early as 12-months-old, so we want to make sure they know how to make it fun!

Book We Shared

To the adults: Playing with shapes helps kids get ready for math AND reading.  Since letters are made up of different lines and shapes, it is important for children to play with shapes, like blocks and puzzles. Studies have also shown that children who play with a variety of shapes in their toys learn new words and concepts faster. 

It is important to mention that in the last couple of years, thinking on Kindergarten Readiness seems to have shifted a bit from a state of panic and blame to a belief that if so many children are not meeting certain standards when entering Kindergarten, perhaps the standards need to be adjusted to meet the needs of these children. I have heard it called “leaning in,” which I like. The intention of our Ready, Set, Kindergarten series is not to hand out a checklist of milestones that children must accomplish before entering school. Instead, we hope to give children and parents a safe, comfortable place to practice being in a classroom. We want parents to feel more confident that they are helping their child succeed, and if our RSK graduates walk out of the library happy with their first “school” experience, then we have done our job.

Author Bios

Carson Mischel is a Youth Services Senior Librarian at Beaverton City Library. Her favorite part of the job is reading books to babies. She also enjoys working on creative projects, gardening, and reading fantasty and sci-fi novels.

MacKenzie Ross is a Youth Services Librarian at Beaverton City Library. Her favorite part of the job is connecting kids and teens with books they will (hopefully) love. She also enjoys running, baking pies, and reading graphic novels.

Resources

Baker, R. (2015). Counting down to kindergarten. Chicago: ALA Editions, an imprint of the American Library Association.

Rice, J. (2013). The kindness curriculum: stop bullying before it starts. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.

2019 Picture Books: Counting, Numbers, and Shapes

Did you know early numeracy is a predictor of later reading success? Just one of the many good nuggets of information I picked up from the Center for Childhood Creativity. Here’s a selection of picture books coming out this year that support counting, number sense, and shape awareness.

Don’t miss the other lists in this series:

Numbers are in English and Spanish. A wonderful third title to go along with Round Is a Tortilla and Green Is a Chile Pepper .
I wanna be an arithmechick.
Math is a beautiful lens to see the world through.
How do you count when the number of pigeons keeps changing?
You had me at “counting book thriller.”
Build, measure, count, compare in this companion to Crash! Boom!
Encourages physical touching of the pictures to help learn to count.
Fun fact: I almost majored in math.
I love books that challenge us to think about things differently. How much is enough? It depends.
Well if you’re going by the title above…
Anyone with little ones can relate to helping a child understand how long five minutes really is.
Very clever, Judy, very clever.
These jungle gym structures give me mild heart attacks, not gonna lie.
A story of nonconformity!
Someone looks a little defensive.
Jenkins is back with not one but two infographic books.

Seen any other good counting or number books coming out this year? Let me know in the comments!

HELP Reads & Literature Reviews

Recently I was asked how I find current and relevant research related to children’s librarianship. Let me introduce you to my secret research weapon called HELP Reads. HELP stands for The Human Early Learn Partnership which is “a collaborative, interdisciplinary research network, based at the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia.” My alma mater is pretty cool.

Their mission is to create, promote, and apply new knowledge to help children and families thrive. To that end, every month they release a research review which “aims to expand awareness of topics in human development, particularly social epigenetics, social determinants of health, socio-emotional learning, Aboriginal children and youth, and family policy.” And this research review is a GOLDMINE, friends.

To help spread awareness of the research and to encourage my fellow library workers to read it, I’ve decided to share their reports every month and highlight a few articles that look interesting to me. My goal is to help their research reach a broader audience and to push children’s librarians to think critically about how we can apply it to our work with kids and families. I’m sure some of these articles will make their way to the Library Services for Children Journal Club.

September 2019 Research Review

Here’s the 2019 HELP research review. At the beginning of the review they share the Editor Picks. You can visit their website to see the archive going back to 2015. Here are a few articles I’m going to dig into:

Play Today: B.C. Handbook

I’m interested in this handbook because it was written by the B.C. Ministry of Education and takes into account the new B.C. Early Learning Framework and School Curriculum. With play being such a big topic in early literacy, I’m interested in learning more about the types of play and strategies to support play-based learning. A great resource to keep in mind when advocating for play in the future.

The Psychobiology of Emotional Development: The Case for Examining Sociocultural Processes

This article from the Developmental Psychobiology journal caught my attention because I’ve been thinking a lot of the sociocultural context of early literacy. Especially with regards to Every Child Ready to Read. I’m interested to learn how this affects emotional development and what role the library could possibly play.

National Progress Report on Early Learning and Child Care

I love getting the big picture. This report from the government of Canada gives the lay of the land for each province’s pressing issues and goals. I think this information is really good to know about in terms of advocating for funding and designing programs that match government goals.

Using Two-Eyed Seeing in Research With Indigenous People: An Integrative Review

This one stuck out to me because I’ve never heard of two-eyed seeing and I’m intrigued. As researchers become more aware of the implications of “studying” Indigenous people, I hope more Indigenous-led methods of research are taken into account.

Which articles grab your attention? Where do you find current research related to our field? Hit me up in the comments.

2019 Picture Books: Neighbourhoods and Homes

Houses, apartments, dens, nests, planets – all of these are types of homes. This list features books about the places we live, both big and small, and the neighbourhoods we create with others.

Don’t miss the other lists in this series:

See how woodland creatures create homes.
A dual narrative of kids wondering what it would be like to move to the other’s city: New York City and Mexico City
I’m getting Little Mouse, Little Mouse vibes.
A family pulls together to turn a little shack into a home.
I’m getting Stranger Things vibes.
A little girl imagines what’s behind all the doors in her apartment building.
A touching story about having to move to a new home.
Another title featuring an apartment building!
Animal House?
A case of mistaken home identity.
Another interactive gem from Teckentrup.
Man, I used to dream about having a tree house so bad as a kid.
I love MacKay and I love fairies so I love this one automatically.
A grumpy bear searches for a place to call his own.
I love me some National Parks.
Had me at “creative creatures.”
A lovely nonfiction title for your animal collections.
It’s our home!
I couldn’t not include Wenzel’s latest and I think the earth counts as a big stone.
From small to big, follow a girl as her world expands.

Which ones are you looking forward to reading? Let me know in the comments!

LSC Journal Club Summer 2019: Summer Reading Clubs

Coming in a bit late with this recap but it’s been a busy summer! Here’s what we discussed at our summer meeting for the Library Services for Children Journal Club.

What better time to discuss summer reading than in the summer. Summer Reading Clubs, also known as Summer Reading Programs, Summer Learning Programs, Summer Learning Challenges, etc., are a core part of children’s services in public libraries. But what are best practices around this ubiquitous feature? And how do we evaluate them?

The main article we discussed is called A Hook and a Book: Rewards as Motivators in Public Library Summer Reading Programs (2017) by Ruth V. Small, Marilyn P. Arnone, and Erin Bennett. There were two supplementary articles that helped us look beyond traditional models of summer programming.

Article Summary

The main article studied incentives offered by two urban public library systems during their summer reading programs and how these rewards impacted kids’ reading motivation and behaviour. They begin with an excellent summary of the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and summarize the research on extrinsic rewards for reading. Most notably they found that extrinsic rewards intended to control behaviour are ineffective and even detrimental. However, if there is little intrinsic motivation to start, extrinsic rewards can be effective at first to help kids identify the value of a task. Lastly, and most applicable to libraries, kids who receive rewards for reading have less interest in reading going forward unless the reward is a book.

The end of the article contains the most useful bits in my opinion. The authors present 6 recommendations for best practice. Among these are providing reading choices, building variety into the program, designing programs that stimulate curiosity and interest, and providing rewards related to reading.

My absolute favourite part of the article which I have implemented into my own practice is the idea of fostering “creative readers.” Noting that schools have incentive programs that control what kids read, they recommend that libraries become “reading advocates and role models to foster students’ creativity and lifelong reading habits.” Now that’s what I call a goal.

Discussion

Our group spent a fair bit of time talking about what a summer reading program would look like if we took into account the article’s recommendations for best practice and could create it from the ground up. One of our main questions is around the goals of a summer reading program. Does your library explicitly state your goals? We realized that the library system many of us work at doesn’t have a guiding statement around what we are trying to achieve over the summer. Having it laid out would help us cater our messages to kids and families and investigate if what we are doing and saying now is relevant and meaningful. We agreed that getting kids excited to read and learn by providing choices and recommendations is a key aspect of our summer program. We also want to build connections – to the library as a place and to the staff through relationship building.

Thinking about the goals of a summer reading program made us turn to the supplemental documents, especially the guide called Libraries at the Center of Summer Learning and Fun by the Urban Libraries Council. This brief guide gives examples of libraries transitioning to summer learning programs. One thing we noticed as a trend particularly in the U.S. is the push to tie library programming to school curriculum standards. The guide argues for this alignment and mentions that it can be helpful in an effort to secure funding. As I mentioned in my critique of Every Child Ready to Read, the trend to explicitly support education goals raises concerns for me personally. While I do think schools can be natural allies for libraries, I wonder what we lose when we focus so heavily on education goals.

Particular to Vancouver, we discussed the changing demographics of our city. So many of our school-age kids are in day camps throughout the summer making it near impossible for them to attend our programs during the day. How are we communicating with day camps and serving them? Should they be a priority for us? What are our limitations with resources (staff, space, supplies)? We agreed that a system-wide strategy for how to maximize our connections with day camps would help us reach our most vulnerable kids who need access to books over the summer the most.

Coming away from this meeting I was invigorated to do even more research on summer reading clubs. I am planning on writing a post called something like, “If I Could Design a Summer Program From Scratch” which takes everything I’ve gleaned from the research and gives a pie-in-the-sky vision. Something I can actually be excited about.

What are your thoughts on summer programs? What have you found to be super successful? What would you change? What are your pie-in-the-sky ideas?

The Fall 2019 Library Services for Children Journal Club meeting has just been announced! Next up we are looking at social emotional learning. I am so ready!

Early Literacy Research is Not Neutral: A Critique of Every Child Ready to Read

We’re going long form today, folks.

At our Winter 2019 Library Services for Children Journal Club meeting we read an article by my friend and former colleague Tess Prendergast where she cites a 2011 article by Stooke and McKenzie called “Under Our Own Umbrella: Mobilizing Research Evidence for Early Literacy Programs in Public Libraries.” I promised I’d be back to write more about my reaction because it *shook* me. And I love when articles do that.

If you’ve already read the article, please jump straight down to the reflection section.

What follows is a deep dive into the article and an examination of how the authors’ findings have impacted my thinking about early literacy. I’m asking children’s librarians, myself included, to take a step back and think critically about something we’ve adopted so wholeheartedly that it’s hard not to talk about it when we talk about library services to the early years community.

So let’s start with the article. Stooke and McKenzie come out of the gate strong. They begin with the argument that we rarely investigate research evidence and the “political, economic, social, and material consequences that may attend privileging one form of evidence over another” (15). They turn their attention to children’s librarians in particular – what research evidence do we use to plan our programs and to deliver messages to caregivers? And does the evidence we’re using help us further our mission in our unique role as a library? They come out even stronger with the argument that using the evidence-based practice model to choose “research evidence on which to base practice decisions is… not a neutral act.”

What they are arguing is thus: The research we use to justify the importance of early literacy is not neutral. The research we use to determine what to focus on in storytime is not neutral. The research we use to talk to caregivers about how to get their child ready to read is not neutral.

To investigate this claim the authors looked at data from a variety of sources. They interviewed 25 Canadian librarians, they observed both school-age programs and storytimes, and they consulted contemporary and historical professional literature for children’s services librarians. Their intent was to “explore how certain things came to be said or done and to identify potential consequences, including those consequences that fall most heavily on vulnerable groups” (18).

Research Trends

Let’s take a walk through history. Sooke and McKenzie provide an overview of children’s services in North America over the past century including the varying research trends. They note that the ALSC core competencies expect children’s librarians to keep abreast of trends and research in “librarianship, child development, education, and allied fields” (19). However, this expectation is relatively new, emerging most strongly in the last 15 years, whereas the origins of children’s librarianship looked different.

“When public libraries in North America began serving children more than a century ago, they did not view themselves as parent educators or reading teachers. Reading as a field of study was in its infancy (Gillen & Hall, 2003) and for much of the twentieth century, librarians viewed children not as students, but as readers with their own reading tastes (Walter, 2001, p. 13). They were unperturbed that schools and libraries approached children’s reading differently and took pride in the differences (Ziarnik, 2003)” (19).

In an effort to gain more credibility within the field of librarianship itself, children’s librarians turned to research as a way of elevating their status and as a way to advocate for funding and resources. From the late 1970s through the 1990s the emergent literacy movement gained traction and reading picture books to kids was viewed as one of the most important activities for developing literacy. Children’s librarians found themselves positioned as experts in this area and aided in the development of “new professional identities as early childhood educators with specialized knowledge of books” (20).

By the year 2000, a new trend in reading instruction gained favour: scientifically-based reading research (SBRR). The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) released a National Reading Panel report called Teaching Children to Read which was especially dominant in educational policy discussions in the U.S. The research used to write this report was “only experimental or quasi-experimental studies with sample sizes “considered large enough to be useful” (21). An emphasis on data-driven results has been felt keenly in schools and school libraries. A focus on research-driven results and measurable outcomes has meant more tests and quantitative measures of reading readiness.

Sooke and McKenzie argue that this push has been so strong that libraries have adopted school-style learning and school readiness as part of their mandate. Children’s librarians now talk about school readiness often with caregivers. Children’s librarians integrate school readiness skills into storytime. Rather than a place of “self-directed literacy learning” the public library has become “a place where parents take their children to reinforce school success” (Ward & Wason-Elam, 2003, p. 20). And even more unfortunately, by adopting the school’s mandate around reading instruction libraries have placed themselves in direct competition with other social agencies for scarce resources to support it. Yep, it’s a money game.

Which Research is the Best?

Sooke and McKenzie next take a closer look at the NICHD’s National Reading Panel’s report Teaching Children to Read . One finding from the report that impacted libraries is that it’s “unnecessary to delay intentional literacy instruction until first grade” which Sooke and McKenzie claim led to more didactic library programs where staff explicitly teach phonemic awareness and ask comprehension questions using dialogic reading. In 2001 the Public Library Association (PLA) and the Association for Library Services for Children (ALSC) forged a partnership with the NICHD which culminated in Every Child Ready to Read @ Your Library. As we know, ECRR was created to develop library programs based on this research and to disseminate the research to parents and caregivers.

Sooke and McKenzie draw our attention to ECRR because it has been so successful. They call its adoption “unprecedented” in terms of uptake by libraries. But they also call our attention to it because they believe it has been an “uncritical adoption of recommendations derived from studies that frame research and literacy so narrowly” (23). What do they mean by narrow? The research used to create ECRR excluded the following:

  • Objective case studies
  • Correlational research
  • Observational studies
  • Sociocultural studies

It is the last on that list that Sooke and McKenzie find the most disturbing as the field of education has since debated this exclusion and now widely draws on sociocultural research to inform classroom practice. They define sociocultural research by stating it “foregrounds the roles played by language and culture in literacy learning. Learning and development in sociocultural research are viewed in terms of participation in a community and the appropriation of the valued practices of that community” (23). Unlike the field of education, the field of librarianship appears to have an unwavering committment to ECRR and the SBRR it was founded on.

Consequences of a Narrow Research Lens

The authors are not shy about their concerns. Relying on the narrow framing of research in ECRR has two major consequences:

  1. Undermining the public library’s ability to achieve important goals with respect to social inclusion
  2. Positioning children’s services librarians as educational technicians rather than professionals

With regards to #1, they posit that “literacy practices derived exclusively from cognitive research cannot be responsive to the cultural and linguistic diversity that characterizes Canada and the United States” (24). The authors use their observations of a Reading Buddies program to illustrate how sociocultural research would have helped the program reach its targeted audience or would have helped the librarians develop a program better suited to the language learners who attended. Here is what they say with regards to #2:

Framing research narrowly obviates the need for practitioners to critically reflect on the consequences of their actions. They need only to follow guidelines for best practice and adopt the research-based handouts and scripts developed by agencies such as the
ALA. A narrow framing of research limits acceptable research findings to those derived from experimental and quasi-experimental studies, thereby making it difficult for librarians themselves to conduct research that would count. Consequently, children’s librarians come to rely on the expert opinions of others rather than on their own professional judgment (25).

Reflection

Sooke and McKenzie end their article with the conclusion that “adopting a widened lens on research, one that is a more inclusive understanding of what might count as research and evidence, opens up new questions and new understandings about early childhood literacy.” They urge us to ask questions and to investigate ways a widened lens could help us shine a light on our uniqueness as a public library. Lastly, they call on children’s librarians to become researchers themselves – to help create a “literature under our own umbrella” (27).

This article had a profound effect on me because it made me question something I myself had never taken the time to question. As someone who loves reading research and who thinks it’s important to implement research-based practices, I was alarmed at first to consider that the Every Child Ready to Read framework may be leaving out important parts of the conversation around literacy development. What is being left out of the conversation? Who is being left out of the conversation? Would broadening our research lens help us better serve vulnerable populations? These are the questions I’m left pondering.

To be fair, the second edition of Every Child Ready to Read – ECRR2 – broadens the phrasing we use with caregivers to 5 key practices – talking, reading, singing, writing, and playing. I’ve found these 5 practices much easier to cater to different audiences and also easier to use to weave in diversity and different cultural contexts. So despite the fact that sociocultural research was not used to inform ECRR, I think we as children’s librarians can the knowledge of our communities to take those factors into account. It doesn’t change the the underpinnings of the model, but it does allow for some flexibility.

Another point the authors made that hit home with me is the argument that libraries have given up their commitment as an open literacy environment in favour of catering quite significantly to the goals and mandates of schools. I would argue that this loss comes at a time when libraries are struggling with their identities in general – who are we if we aren’t solely book warehouses anymore? As libraries try to figure out how to best serve their communities, prove their relevance, and perhaps most urgently, fight for funding, latching onto something like education gives us cred. My worry, which I felt reflected in the article, is that we latch on so tight that we lose sight of our own goals outside of our common allies.

I have seen this “latch” reflected in our professional conversations about storytime and early literacy in particular. In the Winter 2018 Children & Libraries journal there is an article by Kathleen Campana called Moving from ECRR to ECRS: Getting Every Child Ready for School. Whoa. Now we have moved from preparing kids to read to preparing them for school. And this is framed as the core goal of storytime. The article actually includes many social emotional skills that are not covered in ECRR which I think is great! What gives me pause is the framing – we are no longer using our unique services (free storytimes) to promote our own goals but rather to support the education system. Things like Kindergarten Boot Camps are not uncommon in libraries nowadays. Even Summer Reading Programs are being redesigned to align with curriculum standards.

The questions that keeps popping into my mind are:

  • Do we know who we are without schools?
  • Is preparing children to learn to read a main goal of a library?
  • What other mandates unique to libraries, and perhaps more relevant to vulnerable populations, do we leave out when we focus so heavily on school readiness?
  • What research can we use to help us meet our unique library mandates and reclaim our space as a socially inclusive literacy-based institution?

I certainly don’t want to position schools or the education system as our enemy. We are natural allies. But I think that allyship would better serve libraries if it was based on collaboration rather than one-way support.

What are your thoughts? I’d love to discuss in the comments.