Thursday, May 29, 2008

Summer Reading and the Scourge of Beach-Balls

This post was inspired by Adrienne's post in her Unpopular Library-Related Opinions series called, “To the Left,” or How to Ditch Your Summer Reading Program and Find Something More Fulfilling:

As a child, I was completely unaware of my local library’s summer reading program. I was too busy trying to read all of the books in the children’s section to be aware of anything but the next book. I’m not exaggerating. My first exposure to the library’s summer reading program happened when I was 14 or 15. My mother, who was trained as a children’s librarian, started working at our local library as a shelver, then as a reference librarian, and finally as a children’s librarian when that position opened up. The schedule of the previous children’s librarian’s summer reading program with all its prizes was already in place. For some reason (probably having to do with staffing issues), my mom could not oversee the film showing of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” and had a library staff person host the program. [Correction: She was not yet the children's librarian.] My mom The librarian asked me to help with the distribution of the prizes afterward: beach balls and Frisbees.

After the film was over, it became quite clear that almost everyone was there for the prizes. They swarmed up and loudly clamored for the beach balls. One boy said he’d forgotten his summer reading program sheet, but he had read all the books. I believed him, and gave him a beach ball. Soon after, the patrons started yelling at me. We had run out of beach balls, and only had Frisbees left. The parents said they had come for the beach balls, and I was ruining their child’s summer reading program experience. (No, I don’t think they actually said that, but they were quite whipped out of shape.) After scolding me, one of the moms told her daughter, “You don’t get a beach ball after all,” and radiated triumph when her daughter started to cry.

My mom will probably point out in the comments that I got parts of the story wrong [Yes indeed! Corrections are noted], but I definitely know that she was appalled by the behavior of the patrons. She said, “They watched a movie that addressed kindness and selfishness, and the message didn’t sink in at all. I can’t believe they came to the program just to get a 3 dollar plastic beach ball.” The next year, and all the years after that she was a children’s librarian at the local library, my mom had more mellow summer reading programs with books as prizes.

As the sole children’s librarian in a branch independent of the county library system, my mom was able to make those kinds of decisions without having to wrangle with a centralized system. When I myself became a children’s librarian, I worked in large systems where the themes, programs and prizes were already mandated. I do appreciate the benefits of large systems (being able to place holds on books that are then delivered to my home branch, online full-text periodicals databases), but I wish that the children’s librarians had more of a say in how they oversee their summer reading programs. Frankly, I wish they wouldn’t be run ragged by the intense schedules. When I worked in the libraries, I was always so grateful when the summer was over and the school schedules began. As busy and lively as the libraries were during the school year, it was nothing in comparison to the frenetic intensity of summer.

I'm happy to say that Seattle Public Library has a low-key, simple summer reading program. The reader writes down ten books read during the summer, and then gets to choose a free book and enter his or her name in the "Breakfast of Champions" drawing at the end of the summer. Subsequent groups of ten don't warrant more prizes, just more chances to enter the drawing. Lucia loves choosing a free book for her prize. The reward for her reading (i.e. being read to) is more reading.


Christine M said...

I know at our library that they keep a full schedule of activities during the summer. The reading program itself however isn't individual book driven (if that makes sense). Each child who signs up gets a sheet on which they keep track of the time they read or are read to (a box checked off for every fifteen minutes). Two hours worth of reading earns 1 book buck. The book bucks can then be turned in for small prizes. My kids like the prizes - but they'd read even if it didn't mean getting a sticker or bracelet or pencil.

Andrea V. said...

Yet another reason to admire Seattle Public Library!

Jules at 7-Imp said...

Oh yay! I'm so glad you went and read Adrienne's link, and I LOVE THIS POST.

I'm currently filling out the books that my girls and I read in the elaborate summer reading program at the library down the road, but only because the numbers help the nice librarians who are working their butts off. (You have to read 30 in a summer, and it's been less than a week, and we're over that already. I'm not boasting; I just simply am not cut out for this. We constantly read, and I don't normally stop to keep count or take notes. Ergh. It's driving me crazy).

I have half a mind to turn in my notes so the numbers help them and then just skip the prizes. My husband and I already have a problem with the girls saying to him every time he comes home, "did you bring me a surprise?!" or asking Granny that when she comes over (of course, she ALWAYS DOES have a surprise), just 'cause he will bring home surprises *sometimes.*

And, yeah, I think they already get that reading has its own intrinsic rewards.

It all makes me kinda crazy. I know that's an unpopular opinion, but I just. don't. get. it. All the research says it does not work.

And there's the larger issue of contemporary American kids thinking they should get rewarded for just about every-little-thing, but I've already run my big mouth enough.

adrienne said...

Thanks for this, Alkelda! These are exactly the kinds of experiences I hope to avoid. Aside from the fact I think they aren't accomplishing any of our goals, I just don't want to spend my time in that kind of atmosphere. When we did more prize-focused programs, I'd die a little every time I heard a parent speaking harshly to a child about how they HAD to do the summer reading program so they could get such-and-such a prize or had a parent complaining to me about the quality of our prizes. I think it was the father who said to me "You expect my kids to read just so they can win a lousy pencil?" that really sent me over the edge. Like I told my boss when I first proposed this program, if they're ONLY coming in for the prize, I'd honestly rather they didn't come in at all. I was gambling on the fact that we had way more to offer that was of a much higher value than plastic toys (an engaging room, a solid collection, and excellent programs). Thankfully, I was right. :) Stats continue to go up, and we're busy, busy, busy--but we're busy doing stuff I enjoy and feel good about. It's one of the best decisions I ever made.

(I am, incidentally, hugely lucky to have the freedom to make this decision. My boss says the other directors keep telling her she's crazy for letting me do this, but she is extremely supportive and lets me try out my crazy ideas. It is most excellent.)

Lone Star Ma said...

Well, I never knew that some programs were really prize-driven. At our library, the kids read 10 books (or are read 10) and get to put their name on a card that goes up on the wall. They also get a plastic bag with donated coupons from local businesses for things like a free milkshake or something, and maybe some stuff like pencils and a bookmark, and a certificate, but no really tangible one really cares about the bag. After that, each ten books earns a star sticker to go by their name on their card on the wall. That seems to be plenty of motivation for those that need some, and it is sort of fun. I agree about prizes being silly, but I love, love, love, love the busy-ness of the summer reading program. I know it is a busy time for the librarians, but I think it is very valuable to have all the story times and craft times and to have the kids so involved at the library.

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

LSM: As a parent now, I just love all of the programs that are available in our two library systems. As a librarian, I only got to see the music or puppet-shows if I were the host-librarian for that program. I think this is the summer that Lucia will actually be ready for Oregon Shadow Puppet-Theatre. I've waited years! And thanks to SRP, we've gotten to go to many Nancy Stewart, Captain Bogg and Salty, and Recess Monkey shows. I'll admit, I was off my head with joy when I found out my former library system handed down a "no craft program" mandate. It irked quite a few crafty librarians, but I was always the one stuck doing the "bunny cutting" craft programs. Not that it's all about me (ha ha ha), but that's why I learned origami in the first place-- if I had to do a craft program, I wanted to teach something I loved.

I appreciate all of your comments and any further discussion they garner. Maybe someday I'll blog about the SRP snow-globe/glue-gun craft program we almost had to do.

Melangell said...

Hi, this is Alkelda's mom, posting anonymously(ha ha). I was NOT the children's librarian when this travesty happened, though I was on the staff at the time. Poor Alkelda was "hired" by the then-children's-librarian to help out with the onslaught of kids wanting prizes. Lamb to the slaughter.

During the years when I was in charge of the children's summer reading program, we had an intensely personal, interactive program that an assistant (think Dewey in "Unshelved") and I developed: a Dungeons and Dragons-inspired reading program which some of the kids adored. One had to roll the dice and then read from a genre accordingly, or choose a different path, etc etc. "Dewey" was and still is a gifted illustrator and a graphic novel specialist. I have often wondered if he could make money selling our library summer reading programs.

At the end of the summer we always had a low-key program to tell each other how we "won".... read a lot of books, or read a hard book, or had a lot of fun - you name it. And then the kids got to choose an ARC or review book.

When I was a beginning reader, back in the '50's, the local library had a huge caterpillar which stretched across the library bulletin board. Each time we read a book, we could add a small segment to the caterpillar. I got so much satisfaction in seeing the caterpillar grow. I read and read. I think that was when reading took off for me, like learning to ride a bicycle. No creepy little prizes, just immense pleasure.

K. Jay said...

I had a mother come on my bookmobile in the late 90's and sign up her three kids for the summer reading program. When I started explainig the program and prizes to the kids, she gave me a quick "shhhhh" and a stern look. Well, that shut me up quick. Later, after she got the kids distracted, she told me in a whisper that her kids had never known about the prizes. It had always been a practice to treat the summer reading program in their family as a challenge to see how many books they could read. Not once did they ever come in to claim a prize and, so far as I know, not once did her children feel like they were missing something.

Fridaysweb said...

I owe my love for reading to my 7th grade teacher at a very unorthodoxt (sp?) middle school. My mom never had time to read to me and my dad never really saw the benefits of reading. My 7th grade Language Arts teacher allowed us to choose ANY book we wanted to read, as long as we gave a brief synopsis and it was available in our school library (she checked each and every book out and read enough to efficiently grade our book reports). I also give my mom a little credit, as she allowed me to read pretty much anything I wanted, as well. Comic books were the norm, "Highlights" were always received via USPS, and Mama never questioned the novels I read. I owe that teacher and my mom the world for teaching me that reading is FUN, not just educational! Hurrah for all those who encourage reading; any genre, any resource, any outlet! I think librarians friggin ROCK!

abcgirl said...

so... why did they disallow craft programs? and what is the Breakfast of Champions?

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

ABCGirl: Aha! I wondered if someone would bite. If I recall correctly, the library system wanted programs to be book or materials related in some way, and they found that a lot of librarians were spending gobs of time preparing craft programs that didn't actually connect to the library materials. I know that I wondered if the taxpayer dollars really were put to their best use by all the cutting, punching and laminating. For some summer reading programs we had "round robin" crafts by which we traveled to different libraries doing our one craft program. It felt, overall, as if more time, resources and energies were spent than the actual programs warranted. Now, when a library staff person who was skilled in his or her field of craft expertise did a program, or someone from the outside came in to do a program, it made more sense and was an enriching experience. I learned how to make a book from one such program.

The Breakfast of Champions is where you get to have breakfast with the mayor, the SPL library director, and the other branch winners of the drawing.