The Big Blog Review (Part 2 of 2)

I think that this will be my final post for this assignment, barring any new ideas that cross the transom of my mind in the next few days. And so what I want to do is just to talk about how I think I can apply what I’ve seen and learned to the career I have today and to the career I hope to have in the future.

I want to borrow from the Harvard Family Research Project’s piece on engaging with families for my categories here, and talk about people, place, and platform.

People

It is not just a cliche that our libraries are only as good as our staff.

Staff need to be well trained.  I think we can see (at least some of) what we need to know from this semester’s coursework. We need to know things like…

  • How to engage with families and their children – especially parents with young children experiencing normal aspects of development (including the frustrations and trials of life with kids); how to welcome, support, empathize, talk, and assist
  • How to partner with parents, find resources for their children – not just quality books and media, but also resources for various needs as the community demonstrates; how to be a trusted expert in the community and a destination for families
  • What early literacy looks like and how to promote early literacy practices with families and children; how to work with families whose children have differences or special needs
  • Why connection matters, and how to help people connect to other people interested in the same things they’re interested in

And in turn, I think there are many messages that we need to extend toward families and the community. These messages include things like…

  • Parents are their child’s first and best teacher. You might have questions about how to do that, and that’s OK.
  • It’s a safe place for you and your child to explore. Come ask questions, get resources, have fun, meet people.
  • We aren’t really made to do this alone, and the community around storytime and/or parenting groups and other resources can rebuild the sense of “it takes a village” and help pull us out of isolation.

The more I look at this, the more I think all staff need to be trained to work with children and families – not just children’s librarians. Staff need to be ready to help any family that comes in. There might not always be a children’s librarian available to answer questions for a family, and that means sometimes the reference librarian needs to fill in. We may not all be gifted children’s librarians, and that’s OK, but I think these aspects of service matter for all staff.

I want to be a leader. If I am a leader from the bottom of the org chart, that’s fine, but I want to be a leader on this. I want to engage all of my coworkers toward the important work of children, families, literacy and learning.

Place

I live in a county with twenty-three library branches. I haven’t visited them all. But I wrote half of this blog sitting in the flagship branch – a beautiful building with lots of windows and (sorry) little personality. There’s no adult seating in the children’s area, no toys, nothing interactive. Lots and lots of wonderful books, but nothing interactive.

In previous classes, we’ve looked at spaces for children and even designed one from scratch. It was an interesting exercise, but it didn’t fully come alive until I considered the relationship between the place and the purpose. In other words, I didn’t really think about why play in the library mattered until I considered more intentionally the role that play takes in early literacy development. When you think about how words are intertwined with every experience we have, you see that there are many skills that are promoted with intentional play and interaction.

In my school, our classrooms are set up intentionally. Our classrooms have open play areas for gross and fine motor play, creative and dramatic play, and interactive play; they have tabletop areas for teacher-led activities and art/craft/writing activities; they have a safe spot for a child who  needs a moment to collect himself; and they have literacy areas throughout, including an independent self-selected reading area.

I think these are ideas we could incorporate into our libraries as well. We can do this without spending a ton of money, too. In my favorite branch where I spend all my time, we could remove one section of bookcase, add a couple of interactive elements, and a couple of comfortable chairs – and parents would feel more welcome.

One of the Touchpoints videos I referenced in a recent post talked about the library being a place where sometimes parents come when they need a break. They just need a few minutes sometimes where someone else, or something else, is entertaining their children so that they can breathe for a minute and then return to the hard work of parenting. This is exactly what we talked about in our first Collab session for this class, in which we talked about how the library can use its space to demonstrate that we understand what it’s like to be a parent. It can be a way to generate trust. I think that’s more important than we might realize sometimes.

Platform

Our people and our places give us our platform for helping families achieve early literacy success with their children. But what is our platform?

Perhaps we could sum up our platform like this: Parents, you have the ability to help your child achieve success in literacy skills and in life; and we’re here to help with whatever tools you need. Bold statement.

I think there are two factors that go into this being an important platform for libraries, and they both emerge from libraries’ history. One is libraries’ position as a place for people to freely obtain access to information and tools for success in an open, free, democratic kind of way; the other is libraries’ position as a place for people’s self-education on many topics, including literacy. I have always known the library as the place you go when you need to learn something, including how to read, because that’s been how the library has positioned itself for generations.

Our platform includes our approach to early literacy learning, including things like:

  • Children learn through interacting with their world. Literacy is no different. They need to hear words, touch and feel things, and understand that words represent objects and actions and feelings they experience in their everyday lives.
  • We can help mitigate various factors (both inherent and environmental) that impact a child’s literacy learning with simple, purposeful techniques employed in a welcoming and interactive environment.
  • Parents spend more time with their children than anyone else, so parents need tools to support their children’s learning and development.

And it includes a vast variety of tools and approaches. I’ve looked at a lot of those, and for the most part, they end up at the juxtaposition of the early literacy skills and the early literacy practices.

  • Print motivation, print awareness, letter knowledge, vocabulary, phonological awareness, narrative skills
  • Talk, sing, read, write, play

I’m not sure it has to be too much more complicated than this – most everything else is local variation. But our platform has to be intentional; we really oughtn’t just read a bunch of books and sing a song and do some product art without considering what those activities will do for the children in our company. There is a place for every one of the fun activities we find in programming blogs. They just have to be placed in our programs in a way that promotes some meaningful learning in some dimension.

Conclusion

I spent a lot of time early in the semester trying to prove that some factors in children’s early literacy attainment are inherent, not environmental; I was then and am still now a little uncomfortable with the unspoken assumption in some of the literature that where environmental factors are at play in children’s early literacy learning, it’s parents that are at fault, and not wider factors like economics and sociocultural matters. In other words, I was looking for a way to avoid the blaming of parents who don’t or can’t provide their children with a strong foundation in early literacy, which I feel occurs in some of the conversation.

I still feel that way. I feel a deep urge to protect parents from judgment, especially from people they might consider to be elitist in some way, which sadly could include a librarian sometimes. I think the Touchpoints model confirms that instinct. Building upon strengths and filling in gaps is so much more encouraging than starting with a deficit to be made up.

But there is an extent to which nature-vs-nurture doesn’t actually matter in this context. Children will come to us with a wide variety of literacy abilities and foundation. They might have learning differences, they might speak another language at home, they might spend most of their day in front of a TV, they might come from a highly educated family and read five books a night – we don’t know. We can learn those things from our families, but we don’t know. We just know that they are children to be cared for and families to be lifted up.

I also spent a lot of time looking at STEM programs, cultural programs, cool whiz-bang things we do in our libraries. But guess which programs emerged as being really effective? Summer reading, and reading help (like reading to the therapy dog). Turns out that getting books into kids’ hands and helping them achieve a sense of success with reading makes a big difference.

Those other things fit in there, too, though. STEM is a hands-on way of exploring a variety of concepts and building vocabulary, cause-effect relationships, problem-solving, and self-advocacy – all critical school skills. Cultural literacy is part of forming a deep and broad view of the world, building empathy and interest in other people’s lives, and forming a sense of self. All these kinds of programs also have the effect of helping kids and grownups connect with each other. That’s a good deal for us, too.

So I guess in conclusion, what I want to say is that I just want to get my  hands in it. I want to meet some people, try some programs, do some storytimes, invite people back, help people make friends with each other, read some books, sing some songs, learn some letters, build some block towers, play with some kids. I want to help create a place that parents think of when they need a place to get a break with their kids, when they need an idea for a book, when they need a person to tell them it’s okay.

I’m writing this post weeks after the single worst election I’ve experienced in my whole life. I want the library to be the kind of place that transcends this stuff. I want to be the librarian that provides great service to people of all varieties, that loves people and the community, and that helps overcome some of the difficulties in our world today. I want to use my tools to wage imagination, creativity, learning, play, joy, and togetherness. I want my efforts in literacy to lift people up – wherever in library-land I end up.

And I think that is what early literacy means to me, right here and right now.

 

The Big Blog Review (Part 1 of 2)

This semester, my blog has been a collection of sometimes-big, sometimes-small, thoughts and ideas and things I’ve found on the web. I want to use the last post for this class to recap the sum total of what I’ve discovered through creating this blog. In Part 2, I’ll reflect on what I’m summarizing here.

Children and Technology

The use of technology with children is a matter that still needs a great deal more work and research. We need to understand better how children’s brains respond when technology is used, and how technology influences learning. But here are some things I’ve learned so far:

The upside: Technology can present information and activities to students; assess students’ work; respond to students’ work; provide scaffolds, such as access to word pronunciation and definitions, that help students read successfully. Literacy apps can bring simple books and literacy activities to children’s fingertips.

The downside: Electronics use can have a negative impact on children’s well-being and require special attention from parents, caregivers, schools, and medical professionals.

The reality: We may have to assume that children are using technology day in and day out and we will need to find ways to harness this for positive purposes.

Children’s Programming

Children’s programming is exciting, interesting, and multidimensional.

Experts in our field are using materials, spaces, and programs to create relationships with families and children. How we present our spaces and our programs can demonstrate that we understand what families experience on a daily basis, can demonstrate what’s really important to us, and deserve consideration and thought.

Children with special needs can be accommodated in our storytimes with a little thought and adaptation.

Hands-on activities can enrich what we already offer and provide additional learning opportunities. This can include STEM activities (and more STEM activities), activities linked to children’s interests,  activities related to books we already know children enjoy, and cultural presentations that stimulate learning in many dimensions. We can intentionally approach learning with our children patrons by borrowing from early childhood education experts.

Early Literacy Fundamentals

We know that there are early literacy practices that promote learning in children, and stages that children go through while developing their literacy skills. We know that deficits arise when children aren’t exposed to these practices, and we also know that there are differences in children’s inherent learning styles. Some children seem to absorb literacy activities readily, and others experience difficulty learning these concepts. Research has broken down the processes of learning to read into very fine points of detail at the brain processing level. Literacy instruction can support learning at this level by supporting the particular brain functions involved in developing these skills.

We can have an impact with struggling readers – just by doing the things we do every day.

But early literacy skills are not just the skills involved in decoding and understanding words on pages, or words read aloud. Early literacy is a big concept that involves cultural and diversity factors which we need to take into consideration in order to approach early literacy holistically.

Learning Differences

More and more, we are becoming aware that there is a wide spectrum of ability and learning style among children that we can respond to for the benefit of all children. As schools are learning to differentiate their instruction, we need to learn to differentiate our technique as well.

Simple adaptations can make storytime more accessible for children with some special needs.

But from a literacy standpoint, perhaps the most important things we can do is to connect kids and books, provide literacy support, and create opportunities for kids to experience reading success in a safe environment.

Parent Education

We say it over and over and over: Parents are their child’s first and best teacher. So how do we partner in that?

We can make our facilities speak to appreciating the needs of families with children.

We can – and to actual impact – educate families on different ways they can promote literacy with their children in the context of their daily lives. We can even create kits that help them do it!

We can speak clearly and practically about how literacy practices and literacy skills link up – without prattling on or finding the whole conversation awkward or intimidating.

Play in the Library

Perhaps it is clear from my blog content that I think that play is essential for children and their development, and that I would prioritize play in importance over academics or academic-prep activities, for the reason that it promotes early literacy learning as well as other developmental features. So thinking about play and how to incorporate play in our libraries is exciting for me. This is one of my areas of bias after years and years in preschool-land, so I want to look at how to translate this over to library-land.

We can make our spaces more play-friendly – with or without significant monetary investment. Some libraries have already undergone significant space updates to allow the space to more intentionally support play, relationship building, and learning in the library.

We can play more in storytime, too, and create opportunities for play-based exploration.

Something we can do that will create investment from library stakeholders – and parents too – is to create intentional linking between innovative play-based library activities and traditional library functions such as the book collection.

Resources & Recommendations

Parents may come to us asking questions about all kinds of things. Hopefully we make ourselves such good advocates for their children that they come to us all the time asking questions! So to have resources at the ready will benefit us and them! Here are some I found.

Literacy apps for kids
Parent/child literacy activities from NYPL
Parent handout materials from a variety of sources

STE(A)M

How can we tie in STEM activities with early literacy? Why is this even a thing to talk about on a blog about early literacy activities? I would argue that it is more than a trend or a buzzword; it is a set of activities, thought processes, and practices that will enable us to be more hands-on with our activities, diversify our practices, and make space for children to learn additional skills (such as vocabulary, problem-solving, social-emotional skills, and learning from mistakes) in the context of our own practice.

STEM can look like play – and perhaps at its best, it is play – just it’s play with a learning component.

 

Guest Lecture: Claudia Haines, Media Mentorship

So last night we had a guest lecture on media mentorship that I want to make sure to spend some time on here in this blog, to keep a record of what was said. It was a terrific and useful lecture that has implications for lots of us in many different jobs.

In short, media mentorship encompasses understanding what people do with technology and what technology is available for people’s use. Media mentorship is bringing together those concepts by helping children, families, adults, and others learn and understand how to use technology in a way that promotes their learning, development, and relationship.

I find with my preschool families that they don’t want to be told about digital media use with their kids. We are the first generation of parents to have these tools so immediately available in front of us and our kids – we are the first smartphone adopters and our kids the first generation of smartphone kids. I, like many in my preschool cohort, weary desperately of hearing that smartphones are basically going to rot our kids’ brains and turn them into little zombies.

It doesn’t keep our parents from posting endless anti-smartphone memes on facebook… from their smartphones… but that is a story for another time.

smartphones-02(image: failbluedot.com)

The point that I’m making is that we have to figure out how to talk to families about media in a way that actually fits the existing conversation. If we don’t engage the culture, we lose the culture. And I say that full well knowing that I have in this very blog talked about managing screen time with little kids.

This is actually why the concept of media mentorship – which is new to me – is so resonant with what I’m seeing in my daily work. Screen time guidelines like the ones I linked above are part of the conversation, but they are only part of the conversation.

Here’s more of the conversation.

There’s a huge difference between using digital media as a babysitter and using digital media as a tool for learning in a purposeful way – and that difference matters.

Understanding the needs of the child and the needs of the family is part of understanding media use in families. It’s okay to individualize our recommendations a bit – what works for one family may not work for another.

There’s also a huge difference between passive consumption of media and active participation in a media experience. Most people I know understand and embrace the value of vegging out with a Netflix video and a cup of hot cocoa when your brain is just on overload and what you really want is passive consumption of media. That’s okay. And I would venture that that’s okay for kids too – sometimes, when we choose it as a conscious option and not as the default position. Even more, we can help parents select apps for kids that are fun and entertaining but also contain an element of using their cognitive abilities. We can find digital tools that not only entertain but provide opportunities for creativity, problem-solving, learning developmental or academic skills, developing strategy or coordination or any other developmental characteristic. And something parents need to know is how to balance out the passive by reinforcing the active – by making conscious choices with their families.

We can model co-consumption of digital media for families who might want to know what that looks like. My 8-year-old loves cat videos and something that makes her endlessly happy is to sit on the couch with me and watch cat videos. Is a cat video developmentally enriching? No. Is the experience of watching a cat video together developmentally enriching? YES. Also enriching is the experience of her creating a story in a story creator app and sharing it with me, or her emailing a piece of digital artwork she’s proud of to a relative who lives far away, or her connecting with a friend over a game they play together. Digital media does not need to be isolating – it can actually be used to enrich relationships when we know how to make it do that.

Something I often think about is – you never, ever know what a family has going on at home and why they make the choices they do. Touchpoints would remind us yet again to assume that parents are doing the best they can by their children and that their children’s development and growth is important to parents. So I am realizing more and more that if my media recommendation doesn’t take into account the needs of the single mom who just needs her kid to be entertained for twenty minutes while she gets dinner on the table just as well as it takes into account the needs of the stay-at-home mom with a well developed home literacy environment, then I’ve missed out on an opportunity to connect with a segment of my patron base.

Just like everything else we do, we have to take into account the diverse needs of the people who are receiving information from us. But we have to do that from a position of assuming the best of people, and I think that’s one of the places that the conversation around digital media has previously fallen flat, and subsequently one of the places that the idea of media mentorship is especially strong. I’m excited to learn more about it and am actually sorry that I only learned about it now – I will continue learning about media mentorship after this semester is over for sure!