Tips for Shy Storytime Groups

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I filled in for a colleague’s toddler storytime at a local daycare centre, and my goodness, talk about a tough crowd. Imagine a room full of adorable little toddlers staring at you as if you have two heads, shocked into complete silence by your terrifying visage.

Being the teacher I am, my first thought (after “woah, tough crowd”) was – this would make a great teachable moment!

And so, without further ado, here are a few thoughts on warming up shy storytime groups!

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Sharing names can be a great way to break the ice with a shy group of kids. One of my favourite name songs is Heckety Peckety Bumble Bee, because it gives you a lot of opportunities to practice the children’s names, but if the location you’re visiting has a favourite circle time name song, that’s even better. Being on a first name basis can warm up a frosty crowd, and can help make children feel welcome and included in the program. If the kids are too shy to tell you their name, they can whisper it to their group leader to say aloud for them, or ….

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A cute and friendly puppet can do wonders for winning over a nervous audience. A strange grownup might be scary, but a soft-spoken, fuzzy puppet can act as a non-threatening intermediary, especially if the puppet is shy too. Children who are too shy to speak directly to an unfamiliar adult might be willing to whisper their name to a cuddly stuffed animal, or whisper it the answer to a question. This leads nicely into another suggestion:

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Singing audience members’ favourite songs can be a great way to help elicit any kind of response from a group that feels practically catatonic. The tide in my shy toddler time started to turn when one of my little toddlers whispered to the puppet that he loved the alphabet song. Once again, shy kids can whisper their favourite songs to their group leaders or to the friendly puppet.

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If your audience members are reminiscent of deer caught in headlines, now is probably not the time to roll out your shiny new material, complete with complicated lyrics and hand actions. Think of yourself as a ’90s popstar on a comeback tour – audiences want to hear your classic material, not your new songs. Familiar, much-loved, well-known songs can be comforting and soothing for nervous little ones.

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My normal storytime approach is pretty high energy. I’m loud, I’m active, I bounce and jump and sing and make a lot of noise. With a shy group that’s already wondering where their beloved regular librarian is, my usual over-the-top, boisterous approach can lead to stunned silence at best, and terrified screams at worst (come on, who hasn’t made a kid cry in storytime?) Read the tone of the audience, and if your audience is quiet and nervous, like mine was, a quieter, gentler approach might be in order. It’s remarkable what a soft voice and a gentle smile can do to engage a reticent audience.

So, good luck to all my fellow substitute storytimers, and remember, sometimes your storytimes rock the house, and sometimes they…..don’t!

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Origami Madness, or, Why It’s OK to Suck

I facilitated an origami program as part of the spring break programming at my branch this week. Let me tell you, in no uncertain terms – when it comes to paper folding, I am the absolute worst. I am too clumsy, too impatient, too easily frustrated, not nearly detail-oriented enough, and far too easily distracted to be able to master something as fiddly as origami.

In the weeks before the program I was sweating. I looked at every origami book I could find, watched all sorts of Youtube tutorials, and scoured Pinterest trying to hone my paper folding craft.

In the end I managed to make a rather spiffy miniature Samurai helmet.

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And that was it.

When my origami program finally rolled around, things went from bad to worse. Not only was I still unable to fold anything other than Samurai helmets, there wasn’t a single child in the branch over the age of 9. Most of the kids in my program were 6-7 years old, with manual dexterity skills and attention spans to match. One instructor and a group of eager but impatient little kids. Not the ideal origami program scenario.

But you know what?

It all turned out alright in the end.

Sometimes, being absolutely rubbish at an activity can actually make you the best person to teach other people how to do it. You know that old saying, “those who can’t do, teach”? Turns out there’s some sense to it after all.

When something comes easily and naturally, it can be difficult to understand why other people find it so difficult or incomprehensible.

Because I found origami so difficult, I could empathize with the struggles of my participants. I focused on simple projects with limited steps – if I could do it, an impatient six-year-old could likely do it. No one felt stupid or unaccomplished at my program, or struggled to keep up with the instructor. Everyone worked at their own speed and at their own level, and everything any child made was a real accomplishment.

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Everything that’s not a samurai helmet was made by our librarian technician, Marianne. I can claim no credit for this adorable whale.

The children got to work with a grown-up who accepted her limitations with a smile and a complete lack of embarrassment. If I screwed up a project, I laughed, unfolded the paper, and started again. We learned to follow the different steps together.  I freely admitted that I wasn’t naturally talented, and made sure that everyone saw my many failures – failures are just a part of the learning process, after all! It was a fun afternoon, and I felt like a big weight had been lifted from my shoulders. It was OK to suck at something after all.

So, whether it’s singing, coding, crafting, paper folding, or any other kind of activity, don’t worry too much about your natural ability or skill – being rubbish at something can actually be a blessing in disguise, allowing you to mentor your participants, empathize with their struggles, revel in their successes, and reinforce the importance of not taking life too seriously, and being able to laugh at yourself.

Learning to let go and go with the flow – with LEGO

The title’s a bit of a mouthful, isn’t it? But it really does sum up what I learned while hosting a spring break LEGO event. The program is pretty simple: bring in a big tub of miscellaneous LEGO pieces, put out some LEGO books as inspiration, and let kids have at it.

Of course, things are never quite as simple as that.

“What am I supposed to build?”

“Am I doing this right?”

“Is my building good enough?”

Or, from a concerned parent, “am I allowed to help my child with their building?”

It’s easy to assume that all children will instinctively know what to do when presented with an open-ended project, whether it involves LEGO pieces, beads, plasticine or crayons and paper.

The reality, though, is that children (and their parents!) can sometimes struggle with the idea of undertaking of project with no specified outcome, and for which there is no correct answer. The idea of just making something for fun, without worrying about whether it’s “good enough” can be quite an unsettling experience.

What worked best for my group, I found, was leading by example. I dove into the tub of LEGO, pulled out pieces of different sizes and colours, and started to stick them together. First I built a little house. Then I took it all apart and just put pieces together at random, mixing colours and sizes to create a little abstract art installation. I smiled. I had fun.

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At first the children watched with some confusion, not quite sure what I was doing. Slowly, hesitantly, they ventured in to the tub of LEGO and started fishing out different pieces of their own, tentatively sticking them together on a LEGO board.

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Eventually the flood gates of inspiration opened, and I saw some beautiful and highly creative sculptures come to life all around me. I did still get the occasional question about the quality of a creation, but that’s natural – not everyone is a naturally confident creator. Still, my dubious kids had become a group of eager architects, working in hushed silence on their masterpieces.

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I guess all I’m trying to say is that you have to always be flexible when working with people, and be open to having your assumptions challenged and your expectations overturned. Be patient, and have fun. Your program might not run the way you expected, but with a smile and some understanding, you’ll get there in the end.

The Book Wars!

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I’m on The Book Wars today, talking about the important of valuing and respecting kids’ reading interests. If you’re not already following  The Book Wars what are you waiting for? It’s moderated by four of the smartest children’s literature professionals you’ll ever meet, and it’s chock-full of great book reviews and children’s literature love.

Have you followed them yet? Why not follow them right now? Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

Done?

Excellent! You can thank me later. After you’ve checked out and commented on my blog post, of course. And if you liked it, you’re in for a treat – it’s going to be a regular feature on the blog, and I couldn’t be more excited.

See you soon!

Thoughts on Public Speaking

They say that the two most common fears are death and public speaking…

This week I presented at two year-end school assemblies, speaking first to a group of 400 students, and then to another group of 300, which for a shy person is not the most natural environment. While practice definitely makes perfect (or at least less terrified), here are a few things I’ve learned about not being a knee-shaking public speaking mess and embracing your inner motivational speaker.

1. Don’t overthink things

I used to memorize my speeches so that I could recite them word-for-word. I thought that having a memorized speech would make me more confident in front of a crowd, as it meant I didn’t have to think of anything clever to say on the spot. While this strategy might work for some people, I’ve realized that I actually work best when I give myself a framework.

When I used to try and recite a specific speech in front of an audience, I would get so wrapped up in trying to remember the right words that my delivery would become forced and robotic – I couldn’t focus on anything other than the speech! Tying yourself too closely to a specific speech also means you can’t easily adapt things if your situation changes. At a recent assembly I was asked to cut my presentation from 5 minutes to just 2 – if had been relying delivering something exactly from memory, I would’ve struggled to quickly adjust it to meet my new parameters.

My strategy now is to outline the major points I want to cover in my speech, note any specific examples or facts I want to include, and give myself the freedom to adapt my speech when necessary. This means I still have some framework to hold on to as a support, but I can also focus on my audience and make sure I’m connecting with them.

2. Focus on the kids

School presentations can sometimes mean making a bit of a fool of yourself (in the best possible way, of course). You wear silly hats, make funny voices, dance about and sing ridiculous songs, all in the name of literacy. Putting on a silly show in front of 400+ people, including teachers, educators, administrators, and caregivers, can leave you feeling a bit self conscious! I know that my active, high energy, silly style of librarianship isn’t for everyone, and some traditionalists might turn up their noses when I step on the stage.

Is this hat too silly? I say neigh.

Is this hat too silly? I say neigh.

What helps me freely tap into my inner Charlotte Diamond in front of a big audience is to focus not on those grown ups, but on the kids in front of me. Grown ups might judge, disapprove, arch their eyebrows or smile condescendingly. Grown ups might make you feel silly for talking to a stuffed monkey at 31 years old. Kids, on the other hand, tend to think you’re awesome. Sure, they might think you’re making a fool of yourself, but you’re making an awesome fool of yourself. The kids are the ones that you’re there to serve, they’re the ones that matter. If your sparkly clothes or wild hair or crazy clothes help kids feel welcomed or included or excited about the library, than who cares what some stuffy old grown up thinks?

3. Wear the right clothes

The last thing you want to be worrying about when you’re up in front of 400 people is whether you wore the right clothes. For me, clothes need to be comfortable, moveable and reliable. I need clothes I know I can easily move in, without worrying about revealing more than I expected. My programs are all about movement, so this is particularly important for me!

Covered, comfortable, and ready to get silly.

Covered, comfortable, and ready to get silly.

Also…I’m not one of those ladylike women who “glow”. I sweat. Especially when I’m zoom, zoom, zooming all morning long. I need my clothes to be breathable, and to not show off sweat stains too badly, so I can wave my arms around with confidence.

4. Get to the point already!

Common sense here – kids aren’t designed to sit still for long periods of time. Get your point across quickly and simply. Have fun, of course, but don’t expect your kids to sit through your magnum opus. Admit it – you hate boring meetings as an adult, so don’t inflict them on the kids.

When in doubt, let a puppet do the talking.

When in doubt, let a puppet do the talking.

I’m definitely not a public speaking expert, and different people have different styles, but these are a few techniques that have helped me level up as a presenter!

An afternoon on the desk in the Children’s Department

Because of the changes to the information services model at my library system, I don’t spend that much time on the reference desk anymore (most of my time is spent doing programming and outreach). The one opportunity I do get to sit out on the desk is when I pick up the occasional auxiliary shift at the Children’s Department at the Central branch, which still has a fully-staffed reference desk.

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I love working the desk in the Children’s Department – you never know quite what to expect! To highlight this, I thought I’d share a few of the interactions I encountered during a recent four hour desk shift:

  • Several  international students from a local college looking for animated movies for an assignment.
  • A teacher looking for books on how to make paper airplanes.
  • Several parents looking for specific books (one of whom knew neither the title nor the author of the book they wanted, in which case Google is a saviour….)
  • A teacher looking for science books for elementary school students.
  • A teacher looking for French-language picture books.
  • An ECE student looking for picture books with same-sex parents.
  • A child looking for Minecraft books.
  • A parent looking for information books on trains.
  • An elementary school student looking for three books about Canadian explorers.
  • Another elementary school student looking for three books about the environment.
  • A child looking for music CDs.
  • Several parents looking for reading suggestions to offer their children.
  • A parent looking for Chinese-language children’s books.
  • A teen looking for the next volume in a manga series.
  • An adult patron looking for graphic novel versions of classic works of literature for a teenager.
  • Many, many small children looking for stamps!

UntitledThat’s one of the best parts of working as a children’s librarian – there’s so much variety, and never a dull moment.

If you’re wondering, these adorable little cartoon critters are the stars of the children’s section of our library website!