Thursday, November 14, 2013

Storytime: You Have to Play to Win, by Cory Eckert


In grad school, I was going to be a teen librarian. I had no questions about this; it was all I wanted to do. As a result of this absolute certainty, I paid no attention whatsoever to any avenue that might have taught me storytime skills. This meant that I arrived at my first job, serving 0-18 year olds, with a ton of ideas about what to do with the teen program and zero tools in my storytime toolkit. I don't think I had ever even seen a storytime. I had worked in a school library, and done a lot of read-alouds, but even kindergartners aren't that excited about shaking their sillies out in front of all their peers. I had never done a fingerplay, or integrated a puppet into a song. I had never even heard of a flannel board, much less a draw and tell story. One thing I sort of intuited from what I was reading on the internet, and that you may not know, is that storytime is not just reading books out loud.*

Beyond that, want to know what storytime really is? It is a non-stop workout that involves keeping the attention of 10-100 toddlers while integrating early childhood development material, language awareness, body movement, and music, all while making it seem like so much fun that kids don't notice they're learning. In the beginning, I did not do any of this. I just read books out loud and sang (stiltedly, self-consciously) a couple of songs. The songs had to be tied to the theme, and there had to be a booklist on a parent handout that showed what Every Child Ready to Read skill it all related back to, etc. Kids did not really have fun at those storytimes. Nor did I, nor the parents.

The turning point for me was when a mom told me that her daughter, who never participated in shaking her sillies out during storytime, sung the song to her baby sister at home. This is how I began to understand that the way in which kids are learning at storytime cannot be measured by the metrics I was trying to use. This gave me room to loosen up, stop taking myself so seriously, and get comfortable in my skin. This might seem counterintuitive coming from someone who is always on about how misunderstood youth services librarians are in the profession, and how we don't just play but instead work very hard. It's not really counterintuitive. Babies and toddlers learn by playing, so we have to play with them.

We're not school. Part of why kids and parents voluntarily come back again and again, and make connections with us personally and as an institution, and champion us in voter campaigns, and tell their friends how great we are, is precisely because we're not school. In order to teach during storytime, I had to give up on the whole teaching idea and embrace the idea that we are creating an experiential whole literacy time, where kids learn all kinds of physical and social skills by playing and doing, and I have to play and do to get them comfortable. This comes out in all sorts of ways: not reading a book all the way through (which teaches parents who might have limited literacy skills that talking about a book also builds print motivation), abandoning songs when kids aren't into them, singing to random strange kids in the grocery store line to learn to go outside my comfort zone, and more. This letting it all out in front of a crowd is a muscle I have to develop, even as an extrovert. It goes against everything we're socialized to do, as educators, as women, as grown-ups. As such, it's been really good for me. I credit three year olds with being my favorite life mentors (Also, my favorite humans. The feeling is mutual).

From Saroj Ghoting, “According to the National Institute of Child Health and Development, early literacy is defined as 'what children know about reading and writing before they actually learn to read and write. To clarify, early literacy is not the teaching of reading. It is building a foundation for reading so that when children are taught to read, they are ready.'” Of course we build this foundation deliberately, and want to be taken seriously within our profession for how much work goes into it. Of course we want parents (and other patrons) to know that we educate ourselves in this practice extensively, so that they don't think we can be replaced by volunteers. But our service population is toddlers, and toddlers literally are not developmentally able to learn without playing, so we must have fun. Bonus! We're teaching parents how to play with their kids once they get home, which is a key component in early literacy. Print motivation means that kids are motivated to want to read books. That means they have to think reading books is fun, which means you have to think reading books to them is fun! So, brand new children's librarians, have as much fun as humanly possible. After all, you have the best job ever invented, and your fun is changing lives.


*For some great reading on essential storytime skills, check out Melissa Depper's blog series on the subject:

Cory Eckert is the Youth Services Manager at the Octavia Fellin Public Library in Gallup, NM. She received her MLIS from the University of Arizona in 2010 and learned what a flannel board was in 2011. She is the idea girl behind Guerrilla Storytime. She tweets at @helenstwin and blogs at Storytime Underground.

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