Thursday, December 29, 2011

Lessons Learned in a Year of Story Time

It's been over a year since I started performing weekly story times in a library setting, and almost a year since I started doing them in the new branch library I work in now. Since the year is winding down, and I'm on my first story time break ever, I thought it would be the perfect time to reflect on some of what the past year has taught me. In no particular order, here are the ten most significant lessons I have learned from doing story time.

  1. There is no one "correct" way to perform a story time. Some people are very bubbly; some are more reserved. Some like to dance and bounce off the walls; others like to keep things calmer and low-key. Whatever your personality, the important thing is to be yourself and do what you enjoy. Share songs you don't mind hearing over and over again, read books you can get excited about, and present crafts and other activities in the way that makes you the most comfortable. Not only does this remove the stress of trying to fit into someone else's mold, it also relaxes you and makes you more likely to engage your audience.

  2. Combat stage fright with structure and routine. I am sure there are librarians who  feel perfectly at ease in front of their story time audiences all the time. I am not one of those people. If someone had told me two years ago that I was required to get up in front of large groups of toddlers and nannies and dance like a teapot and read in silly voices on a weekly basis, I would have burst into tears. I am not someone who naturally seeks the spotlight, and it has taken a lot for me to feel comfortable even standing at the front of a room full of people. The main thing that has helped me is that I have developed a structure for each type of story time that I do. This is not only great for the kids, who thrive on routine, but also for my planning. I know ahead of time how many rhymes, songs, fingerplays, and books I need to fill the allotted time slot, and I can plug anything into these slots, depending on the season, the theme of the books I'm reading, if there is one, and the age of the kids. I have found great comfort in starting the story time the same way every time. I do still get nervous, especially when I'm introducing something new, but by the end of that hello song, I'm usually calmed down and ready to go.

  3. Have a story time persona. I don't think you have to have a funny name, or a puppet, or a special costume to do a good story time, but I do still think it's important that the kids and adults at your story times feel that they know you. I ask everyone to call me Miss Katie, for example, and when I provide handouts of songs and rhymes, or promote special events, I refer to myself by that name. I also have a very distinct way of speaking in story time - what my coworkers call "story time voice." It's not necessarily a sing-song voice, but it's louder and clearer than my normal way of speaking. I think it works well because my audience can tell when I'm just chatting quietly with one or two children versus when I'm trying to get everyone's attention. And stepping into that persona makes me feel less ridiculous and therefore less nervous.

  4. Gain and maintain control. The hardest thing for me when I did my first story time at my new branch is that every adult in the audience had advice for me on how they would do it differently. And I made the mistake of trying to explain myself and make excuses to every single person who criticized me. Why? Because I was new,  and I forgot that I have been trained for this, and do know what I'm doing. In the intervening months since that first program, I have gone with my instincts on everything, from where I choose to sit, to how I hold the books, to when and if I shush chatty adults. And some of those initial complainers have stopped attending the story time, but many more have complimented me and even provided positive feedback to my manager. You truly cannot please everyone, so it's really important to remember that you are the librarian, and you ultimately decide what's right for you and your programs. Sticking to your guns can be difficult, but it's better to stand up for your decisions than allow people to constantly second-guess and undermine you.

  5. Variety is the spice of story time. With groups of older children, it is often possible to read four or five books and limit the extension activities to a couple of stretches or action rhymes. With very small children, however, it's a whole different ballgame. One of the things I like most about my story times for babies and toddlers is that in addition to books, I can do flannel boards, rhymes, songs, dances, fingerplays, and other activities. Varying the types of activities really helps keep the little ones focused. Moving from one thing to the next keeps them constantly curious, and interested in what's coming up next. The use of props and hand motions also engages them in a visual and tactile way with more abstract ideas, helping them to understand and become invested in what the librarian is presenting. I've also found it useful to rotate much of my repertoire on a seasonal basis, to keep myself from burning out on one particular activity or song.

  6. Teach adults how to behave in story time. It has amazed me to learn how little adults who care for children know about how to interact with them in a story time setting. I'm still working on ways to model story time behavior for them, but so far, using a baby doll prop has worked well for showing lap time parents how to engage their babies, and rhymes and songs sheets have helped the adults follow along during story time, as well as to repeat those activities at home.

  7. Don't be afraid to repeat yourself. Children learn from repetition, so there is no shame in doing the same rhymes and songs for weeks at a time, or even all year round. There is also nothing wrong with reading the same book multiple times a year. Most of the time, my audience doesn't realize it's a repeat anyway!

  8. Expect the unexpected. As much as I love routine, it's also important to be prepared to deviate from the plan if necessary. There will always be those days where more or fewer kids show up than you expect, or where a typically preschool story time is suddenly overrun with babies. I am always ready to leave out a story, or add in some extra songs or  rhymes depending on the climate of that particular day. This is where it really pays to know some rhymes and songs well enough that you can pull them out off the top of your head without any preparation. I've also found it necessary to have a back-up plan in case of laryngitis! Audiobooks work well in that situation, and familiar songs that everyone knows are a huge help as well!

  9. Know your books. My first few story times last Fall were very slapdash. I picked books at the last minute and didn't necessarily know the text or illustrations very well before reading them. What I have learned since then is that the more familiar I am with a book, the better job I do reading it aloud, and the more I'm able to point things out in the illustrations and ask leading questions to help the kids see where the story may be headed. I can't say that I know every book this well, since I don't always have the planning time, but when I can, I do my best to read the books the night before the program to refresh my memory and look for interesting things to share with the kids.

  10. Have fun! I know of some librarians who see story time as a chore to be completed each week, and because of that attitude, they dread their story time sessions and don't show the enthusiasm and excitement that grabs kids and makes them want to participate. Our job as children's librarians is to get kids excited about books. Choose books you love and activities that make you happy, and everything else truly will fall into place. 
Tomorrow, I'll count down my top ten favorite story time books of the year.


    1. What a fabulous post! This reflects very well on my first six months as a story time librarian also. In particular, #1 and #2 really resonate with me. I've had to find my own story telling voice and method of story time but it's working better and better each week. I too like to have a routine that I can stick to fairly closely. Yeah, sometimes I have to throw it all to the wind but that's life anyway.

    2. Great post and some great tips that even storytime veterans should definitely remember!

    3. What a great post! It's definitely one I'm bookmarking to share with new Children's Librarians.

    4. I started doing storytimes for toddlers at my library about six months ago. This is everything I've learned too! I use lots of rhymes, dances, parachute play, etc with the young ones and I have a song and book I repeat every week! It works and the kids love it!

    5. From a newly minted children's librarian, thank you.


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