I’m Done with Rules

Another year, another Summer Reading Club (but maybe one year, not!).

Where I live kids still have another month of school which means all the youth services staff are gearing up for school visits to promote the bejeesuz out of SRC.  Since I’m not doing any visits this year I thought I’d take this time to reflect on school visits and how my goals have shifted in recent years.

When I first became a children’s librarian over 10 years ago Summer Reading Club had a lot of rules. You must read for 50 days in the summer but the days have to fall between a specific time range the library decided. You must keep track of this reading on a paper calendar we give you by marking off each day. You have to read for at least 15 minutes a day or it doesn’t count. If you do all of these things we will reward you with a medal.

When I would visit classes to promote the SRC I would focus heavily on these rules. Sometimes I would even quiz the kids to see if they remembered them. The goal seemed to be kids would come away understanding how Summer Reading ‘worked.’ And I suppose the assumption was that if kids knew how it worked they would be more likely to join.  But upon reflection I feel like I was trying to hook them through the rules, and that just doesn’t align with how I want to treat kids or how I want them to think about the library.  Looking back I feel sad that I chose to spend my precious 15 minutes per class focused so heavily on something I actually don’t care about.  

In the past few years I have transitioned my presentations to focus less on rules and more on engagement. What do we have at the library that engages kids?  Summer Reading Club is one thing for sure. And I still want them to know what it’s about and why they should come visit us. But I don’t get bogged down in the details. I don’t “test” their memory. I don’t focus on the lure of a gold medal.  

Here are some goals I’ve identified for myself to guide me in planning my future visits.

  • Kids know the library is a free, warm space they can visit with their family.
  • Kids understand the basics of Summer Reading Club (i.e. they should bring their grown-up to any of our branches to join and learn more).
  • Kids are encouraged to read and play all summer long.
  • Kids learn about some of the amazing things they can do at the library – find their next favourite read/watch/listen, play with board games and STEM toys, join us for free activities, make friends with other kids
  • Kids meet their local children’s librarian (me), learn my name, and begin the very first step in building a relationship.

I understand that libraries have to put some parameters in place for their summer programs.  I know some kids even enjoy the challenge of following all the rules and earning a medal. But letting go of the ‘rules’ of Summer Reading has reignited my enthusiasm for visiting schools and connecting with kids in a way that feels good to me.

What do you do when you visit schools?  What are your goals? I’d love to chat in the comments.

24 thoughts on “I’m Done with Rules

  1. I am not always excited about summer reading, but this year I am! We created a summer reading mascot. His name is Seemore (like have an adventure and see more). We have given away about three hundred of them and are encouraging families to take him places over the summer and feature him in photos, in the spirit of Flat Stanley, and tag us in their social media posts. Our community is so excited about him!

    We keep track of minutes but reward kids along the way with ice cream coupons and free books.

    1. We have something similar. Each year we pick an animal from the SRC artwork and create an Incredible Shrinking (insert animal) contest (i.e. Incredible Shrinking Dinosaur). Each week we hide an increasingly small version around the library and kids come in to find it and enter to win a prize. It’s the one thing that kids remember every single year when I visit schools. Never underestimate the power of a mascot!

  2. I love this! The summer reading program at my library is pared down this way too–instead of focusing on number of books read, we focus on getting people into the library and engaged with our programming/displays/etc. It’s been successful so far and I think it also makes it easier on staff to know they don’t have to be rules lawyers when kids are doing the program. We want to make it easy for everyone so more people participate! I hope your school visits go well and good luck this summer!

    1. As a parent, I really appreciate this approach! Life gets so busy, especially over the summer with everyone in camp and on holidays, and anything that makes it easier to participate in an activity or program is always helpful. 🙂

    2. Thanks, Liz! Alternate name for this blog post could have been “How Not to Be a Rules Lawyer.” 🙂

  3. Been a youth librarian for 15 years and I have seen with new management that there are more rules than ever added each year.
    I totally agree- Make it fun for them to come into the library and read with less focus on amount of hours or books read and just help them explore the joys of books and libraries.

    1. I’m sorry to hear that. It’s really frustrating when management doesn’t listen to staff who are directly interacting with kids and families. In these situations I try to understand the reasoning/the why behind the rules. Maybe then a conversation can be started?

  4. Our rules are very simple. Show up for an event, get a entry form for a chance to win the big prizes. Read any length of time for 7 days, they don’t have to be in a row, then get an ice cream coupon, a brag tag and an entry form for a chance to win the big prizes. They keep track of reading each day by marking the 7 smiley faces that are on the back of the bookmark. When the 7 smiley faces are marked off they bring the bookmark back and get a new one.

    1. We have a sticker component to our program too, but I really feel like it stops drawing interest around Grade 3. Maybe the ice cream is enough to keep the older kids coming in 🙂

  5. YESSSSSS I was just thinking about this. I’m so passionate about school visits, I could write an entire essay about them, but I’ll try to restrain myself here haha. I feel exactly the same way – for years I emphasized the rules of Summer Reading Club, and now my entire philosophy has changed. I want kids to rush home after school and tell their grown ups that they HAVE to go to the public library RIGHT AWAY because there’s SO MUCH COOL STUFF. I don’t even really care if they join Summer Reading Club. If it sounds exciting to them and they want to participate, that’s awesome. But it’s more important to me that they leave my visit thinking that the library is a warm, fun place where there’s something for everyone.

    To accomplish this, I bring a lot of materials and do a show-and-tell. I want the emphasis to be on the LIBRARY and all it has to offer, and not on me as an individual (hence why I don’t do fancy song-and-dance routines, because I don’t want kids to go home and tell their grownups that “a lady came and drew a neat picture for us” and not remember anything about the library). I bring magazines, graphic novels, chapter books, nonfiction, video games, and books in different languages, with an emphasis on themes I know will attract attention, like popular series and characters. I pull them out of my bag with a flourish, always eliciting gasps and squeals of delight and “the library has THAT?!”. Bringing books in different languages is especially powerful, as kids are always so excited when they recognize their home language.

    I tell kids that the summer reading club is about having fun, and that we encourage them to read over the summer. They can read whatever they want, however they want – with their eyes, their eyes, their hands, their voices, their bodies! They can read a book, listen to a story, tell a story, write or draw or act out a story! We’re all different, so why would our summer reading all look the same?!

    Being a mother has also given me new insight into the whole school visit experience – there’s no way my son is going to remember “read for 15 minutes a day, every day, for 50 days. Mark every day in your reading record using these stickers. Bring your reading record back into the library after 50 days and get your medal.” None of that information is going to come home to me. But if you show him a Pokemon comic book, he’s going to remember that! 😉

    1. As lot of my changing values around school visits are also connected to being a caregiver. It really does give you a new perspective. I love the phrase: “They can read whatever they want, however they want – with their eyes, their eyes, their hands, their voices, their bodies!” I’ve never thought of saying it like that and I really like how it makes literacy more accessible. Thanks, Jane!

  6. That all sounds good. I think there’s one more thing I might add to your list. If your SRC includes reading with young children (younger than school-age), it deserves a mention because these children have younger siblings. It is often these very children who are reading with their siblings. Many of them take great pride in caring for them. What a great opportunity to acknowledge how they are already or can make a difference!

    1. I think most summer programs encourage younger children to join too or have something special to offer them. I find reaching that audience is driven more by connecting with caregivers, either in the library or at other community events where they are present. But yes, I always encourage kids to read to all family members – grandparents, aunts, siblings, even pets 🙂

  7. I like what you are saying. We have lots of STEAM programs for children to come and enjoy.
    I’m tired of the push to answer questions and have goals.
    This year I’m just asking that they read and every week they read they will get to pick a book and a prize.
    If nothing else they will have books at their home they can read when they are ready.
    It has made me less stressed and I’m sure that the parents will be less stressed.

    1. Wow, it’s amazing that you have enough free books to give away like that. Being in a big city with a huge population makes it hard to do things like that. I remember hearing about one library system that switched to giving away free books at the beginning of summer so kids had books in the home and it sounds like you are on a similar track. It’s all about access!

  8. Our SRP (summer reading program) kick-off party is next week with a theme of “Choose Your Own Adventure”. We hope to spend more time engaging patrons, instead of standing in line to sign up online. We use Beanstack to track reading progress and prizes and will enter data after the event, instead of during the kick-off party in years past. We’re hopeful that this year’s CYOA theme will entice young readers to enjoy the adventure and not get too tied up with the rules!
    Thanks for the reminder!

    1. That’s a great theme. We need that theme. I can already picture the decorations and programs!

  9. I work in a public library and also help run a tiny former branch library. At the tiny library, we decided to do something simple and easy to get the kids and families browsing the shelves. All they have to do is read five books, one in each genre: fiction, nonfiction, biography, poetry, and graphic novels. Any level book counts, chapter books, easy readers, picture books, reading with an adult or an adult reading aloud counts. We just want them to explore the shelves and read different kinds of books, whatever they choose, no pressure or further rules. They’ll get a coupon for a free ice cream from a local ice cream shop when they complete the genre sheet.

    1. I like the simplicity of this program. You are also the second person to mention coupons for ice cream. Where are all these ice cream shops giving away free scoops in my city?! I would be curious to know what families report in terms of having to read different genres. Did it push them to discover something they would have never picked up before? Were there any drawbacks? Good food for thought.

  10. When I first started in libraries the library I worked at had at least 6 different reading logs, and a multi-step system for tracking stats and keeping track of who had already claimed prizes. It was way too complicated and took way too much time to explain. I’ve kept mine simple, flexible, and fun. This year I eliminated the registration step, and tracking who had already claimed their free books for registration and completion. It add steps, caused a backlog at the kick-off, staff had trouble with it, and the main person it was designed for still managed to con staff out of extra prizes! So this year it’s just pick up the reading challenge sheet, get a free book, turn it in at the end of the summer, get another free book and entry into a modest prize drawing.

    If it were up to me, I’d eliminate any sort of reading log and just give away books, have fun & educational programs, and do outreach.

    1. “I’d eliminate any sort of reading log and just give away books, have fun & educational programs, and do outreach.” Basically describing my dream summer 🙂 At least you’ve been able to make huge improvements since you’ve been there. It takes a really good youth services staff to evaluate what’s working and find ways to make it better for staff and families.

  11. I love this! Especially your honesty! I have also felt myself evolving to focus more on the joy rather than the rules. Totally. We have a pretty simple approach as well that has become more streamlined over the last ten years. We actually got a book vending machine and do other themed reading challenges through the year, including winter break! Why limit it to Summer!

    1. Are the book vending machines all they are cracked up to be? I would love to see how one of those things works in practice. Do kids find what they are looking for? I have heard of winter reading challenges. Our winter breaks are usually short staffed due to vacations, plus we are trying to focus on other priorities like the collection during those times. If you can make it work though, all the more power to you! I’m guessing it gets easier to do every year.

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