Stifled: or, the exact wrong way to think about storytime

Oh, dear sweet baby Picard Jebus, there’s a rage making thread on pub-yac about a children’s department being forced to do all of their storytimes the same. Here’s a quote:

[…A]ll the storytimes for one age group should be the same because:
Patrons get disappointed when they can’t get into a certain storytime because its registration gets filled.
Using personal props, puppets or flannels is shunned because you may leave the library one day and the library patrons will be familiar with those items that were personally yours.
If you are out sick, another librarian will need to cover the storytime and the patrons will be disappointed if “Miss Tina” isn’t there and the librarian covering the storytime will feel bad, because the group is disappointed.
That the staff of librarians have different levels of performance ability and because of  that they should all work together to be about the same or at least contain the same materials.

My first flippant thought was, “Welcome to Camazotz storytime. All storytimes are equal. Now for 1.5 minutes of literacy time.” My second, equally flippant thought was, “Sounds like Amendments 211, 212, and 213 got passed at this library. Soon we’ll be seeing library job postings for a staff Handicapper General.”

When I was still working as a preschool teacher, there was a big movement away from genuine praise–instead, we were supposed to say things like “You did it!” No qualifiers, the only thing we talked about was done and not done. Which also ties in with our current climate of “Everyone’s a winner!” “A+ for trying!” And I can understand the impulse. You don’t want kids or people to feel bad. But by making everyone equal, we’ve done the exact opposite– when we don’t allow children, or staff members, to find out what they excel at, then we have a society full of people who aren’t really good at anything. Not allowing people to fail has caused so many people to never find out what they are truly good at, and by making everyone equal, we’ve inflicted a great injustice on many.

Equality isn’t about what we are–it is about how we are treated, and how we are utilized in society. Those who have talent and work hard at developing and applying it should be lauded, of course, but not at the detriment of others.

Forcing more talented staff to perform at the level of your least talented staff is demoralizing for all involved. Why would anyone do this? I think a smarter approach would be for your staff to try out presenting different programs to different groups and seeing what works. Not every group wants or needs a high energy, jazz hands style presenter. I actually think baby time/lapsit benefits from a calmer, more methodical approach, perfect for shyer or perhaps older librarians.

If you end up with a staff member who is incapable of successfully presenting to any group, in any style, well, then, that’s another discussion. But stifling the creativity and joy of your other staff to meet imagined needs of a public is simply poor management. If I were working with whomever created those guidelines above, I’d be on the lookout for a better situation.

This situation also reminded me of Mel’s recent, excellent series on the elements of storytime, which is as elegant and perfect and precise as Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. I highly recommend anyone who currently performs storytimes or wants to in the future read the entire series. And library school educators, you might just want to incorporate it into your curriculum–with proper credit, of course.

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5 thoughts on “Stifled: or, the exact wrong way to think about storytime

  1. I can kinda see the “people will be disappointed if it’s not their favorite librarian” thing b/c at my library, before I came, the storytimes were done by a woman from the school district. Miss Pattie is known and loved (and for good reason) throughout the entire community. She still does toddlers and babies while I do preschoolers and I couldn’t get by without her. BUT kids do cry when I sub. Parents ask “where’s Miss Pattie?” and I have struggled long and hard to get people to move up to preschool storytime from toddlers. People also don’t seem to grasp that there are storytimes outside of the ones Miss Pattie does, with the result that her storytimes are getting severe overcrowding and we will have to move to registration soon. BUT I did not deal with this by turning myself into a Pattie-clone (amazing though she is). In fact, after a lot of work, what finally made my preschool storytime successful is that I made it different – different age group, different stories, different structure, different activities, and marketed it as such. I will be doing the same thing in the fall when I take over Friday toddlers (Pattie is going to do double sessions on Tuesday to deal with the increased numbers).

    • It’s hard when there is a staff member who is so beloved that it seems like no one else can hold a candle to him or her. Since she’s been the storytime presenter for these kids since infancy, her hold is going to be strong, and I can understand the reluctance of some kids and parents to move on from Miss Pattie. Would it ever be possible for the two of you to do some storytimes together, as a team, so families can see that you and Miss Pattie are part of the same whole, rather than two separate entities in competition?

      This is one of those tricky situations where no one is necessarily doing anything wrong, circumstances have just cropped up that make for thorny interpersonal issues. I would suggest trying a few storytimes as a team–not even whole sessions, maybe just one or two–and maybe you’d want to pick up a session of baby time, so you can curate a crop of infants that will follow you as they age.

      And good for you for being yourself. Like I’ve written about before, authenticity is important, and if you’re not true to yourself you’ll be destined to fail. I think with time and as kids get older and patterns change, you’ll find your following–and as long as you and Miss Pattie can work together, you can become a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

  2. Hi Julie,
    Can you give me your thoughts on praise? I’ve read about the movement away from it.
    Do you think that a no-qualifiers “You did it!” is the best approach? Can you praise specifics about what was done well?

    I read the Self Esteem Trap by Polly Young-Eisendrath a few years ago, and thought it had some good information. The author’s premise was similar to yours- that by praising everything you hobble children’s ability to judge their actual strengths. They then become adults who are unable to judge and build on their actual strengths.

    • Firstly, I’d read what Janet Lansbury has to say, because I’ve come to really rely on her expertise and research: http://www.janetlansbury.com/2010/03/praising-children-risking-failure/

      I’d also look at this post, about praising the process, rather than the child: http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/10/27/too-much-praise-is-no-good-for-toddlers/

      For example, when doing an art project, perhaps talk about the process–why your child chose one color over another, or discuss her technique, and talk to
      her about how she enjoys painting, how it makes her feel, what she’s trying to
      express. Helping children find joy in creating, doing and learning, rather than tying praise to their performance or who they fundamentally are (You’re so
      smart/pretty/etc) is the way to go (in my opinion).

      Janet often writes about respecting the feelings of children, and rather than trying to bolster or distract them when they are sad, or mad, allowing them to fully feel what they are feeling and talk about where those feelings are coming from, so kids learn how to process emotion and then eventually regulate those emotions. Sometimes the best way to get over being sad is to have a good cry,
      or when we’re made to have a healthy shout.

      I don’t know if there’s any definitive answer, but this is definitely a good starting point. Let me know what you think and we can keep the conversation rolling!

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