Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Boot Camp Model for Deeper Informal Learning

A few years back, I read about the Fayetteville Free Library's forays into Geek Girls Camp--a weeklong summertime program during which the same group of girls came to the library every day to explore, learn, and build on what they were doing each day. It's an intriguing model: more sustained learning for a core group of program participants than a typical one-off program, with the resulting outcomes of greater increases in skill and confidence among the attendees.

Now I don't know about your library, but at mine, we'd have to majorly shuffle around our program schedule in order to offer even one single all-day, weeklong camp program like this one. Considering our already robust, well-attended program schedule, reducing typical programs to add one really, really big one like this just isn't feasible at our current levels of capacity and community participation. The idea kept rattling around my brain, though. After all, if there's a way to support deeper informal learning for kids in the library, it's something I want to seriously consider. And consider it we did.

That's no rave... that's a Robot Dance Boot Camp!

Starting with winter break of last year, we've made our own foray into the camp-style program for kids: boot camps. For us, the boot camp model means a few things in terms of program formatting:
  • Each boot camp program has a core theme, with all activities taking place during the sessions tying into that theme.
  • Each boot camp has an intended age of attendees that will facilitate age-appropriate peer learning. We tend to offer boot camps for grades K-2 or grades 3-5, not spanning the elementary age range too far in any single program.
  • Each boot camp meets at least two days in a row, potentially three. Depending on the age of attendees and content planned, each session ranges from 60-90 minutes long.
  • Boot camps take place during weeks school is not in session: winter break, spring break, and during the summer.
  • Boot camps benefit from multiple instructors: as a minimum, we try to have at least one lead instructor for all sessions on a theme with another staff member to assist each day.
  • The boot camp topic determines the ideal number of participants, with a standard range being 12-20 kids.
A lot of these best practices for our kids' boot camp programs came from years of learning what does and doesn't work in our community when it comes to programs in a series--which is essentially what a boot camp program is. In years past, we'd offered multi-week series programs; for example, a 3D printing program that met every Monday for four weeks. As you can imagine, even though interest was extremely high for these programs, attendance was rough--we found it was difficult for families to commit to attend across multiple weeks because family schedules just aren't that consistent. And so we developed a boot camp model with back-to-back sessions on consecutive days, making it easier for families to schedule their kids to attend all sessions.

We also require that all attendees participate in all of the offered boot camp sessions. That is, if it's a three-day boot camp, the registered child can't be planning to miss even one of the days. That's been something of a shift from our default attitude about program attendance--many families had gotten used to signing up and then deciding to show up on the day-of, rather than clearly committing to attend or canceling should they be unable. That more lenient mode works for us for one-off programs, where we then fill vacant spots with wait list or walk-in participants. Not so for multi-day boot camps, however, where each day builds upon the last. Kids need to be present for all days for the boot camp to be meaningful.

To that end, we employ two core strategies. First is very detailed reminder calls to all registrants. Our library's program assistants call every single family with a child registered for a boot camp, and during that call they remind them a) of the schedule and b) of the expectation that the child will attend all days. Then the program assistant asks, "Will your child be able to attend all sessions?" If the answer is "no" the program assistant once more explains the expectations before removing the child from the registration list. Any time we remove a child from a boot camp because they won't be able to attend all days, we follow that explanation with an invitation to attend a similar upcoming one-off program event. So while a child might not be able to come to a boot camp because they're not available both days, we still leave them with options for other library programs. (We do something similar if a kid shows up on day 2 having missed day 1.)

The second strategy to facilitate all-days participation: the coolest stuff happens on the last day. If it's a boot camp with a creative or art component, that means the core project isn't completed and ready to take home until the end of the final session. If it's a tech or coding program, that means we don't show off the programs we've created until the end of the final day. When all activities in the boot camp build up to a final product or show-and-tell, motivation to participate throughout is strong.

As I mentioned, we've been offering this style of boot camps for three school breaks now, with another set coming up this winter break. In all those camps, we've averaged one child dropping out after day one at each camp--usually a kid who wasn't interested in the topic, but whose parent insisted they try it anyway. The rest of the kids are in it for the long haul, really developing their skills, honing their creations, having conversations with their fellow attendees, and overall engaging in deeper learning than we can typically support in a standalone one-hour program.

Curious what topics we've explored with boot camp programs for elementary age kids? My colleague Amy and I have led, and written about, our Scratch Jr. Code Boot Camp (grades K-2) and our Robot Dance Boot Camp (grades 3-5). We also offered a two-day DNA boot camp this past summer (grades 3-5), and we're about to offer a two-day Baking Chemistry Boot Camp (grades 2-5), where we'll explore the chemistry behind basic baking skills while making three yummy baked goods. Other staff have also lead camps on puppetry (sessions for grades K-2 & 3-5); enchanted forest-themed games, crafts, and stories (grades 1-4); basic video editing (grades 4-6); 3D printing (grades 3-5); and simple sewing (grades 3-5). Some colleagues will also be offering a winter nature-themed boot camp in early January, with sessions for grades K-2 and 3-5.

We've found this boot camp model to be really successful at our library: there's always plenty of interest (so that we're thinking about when to repeat camp topics); staff are invigorated to create boot camp activities in areas of their own interest and expertise to share with kids; and kids themselves get elbows-deep in a topic they might be exploring for the first time. When a kid can walk out of the final day of boot camp excited about coding, or proudly holding a handmade puppet or terrarium, or with a link to the video project they made, they're leaving the library not only with a new skill, but with a new interest that can connect them to even more exploration and learning in the future. That's why we offer boot camps for kids.

Monday, September 11, 2017

How do you measure engagement? What we learned during Summer Reading 2017

Starting with this year, my role in summer reading is a specific one: I work at developing and implementing our measurement tools and strategies for capturing program outcomes and other evaluative data. To that end, the reading clubs committee's meeting that matters most to my work is the one where they confirm the program goals for the year. Not the theme, not the design of the program--the program goals. Once I've got a grasp of what the goals are, and why they've been chosen, I start thinking about how we can collect data to help us gauge our success.

For Summer Reading 2017, which here at Skokie was called Camp Imagine, our reading clubs committee identified two main goals of our program:

Goal 1: Increase the completion rate by 10%. This goal is a change in outputs--the proportion of registrants who went on to finish the program this summer as compared to the proportion from last summer. You need two data points to get your completion rate: the number of people who signed up for the program, and the number of people who completed the program. This is pretty standard data to collect for reading programs across the country.

Goal 2: Increase engagement. This goal is both a behavior in itself, which is an output, and a change in behavior, or an outcome. In other words, the reading clubs committee was designing a program that would hopefully result in more people participating across the whole summer as well as engaging with both the program and the library at greater rates than they might have otherwise.

(Also, a note here: we didn't attempt to measure engagement last summer, which means we didn't have a baseline to compare this summer's numbers to. As a result, we were actually measuring our success toward the goal of facilitating engagement, as opposed to increasing engagement year-over-year. We can track that next year, using our 2017 numbers as our baseline for comparison.)

Now, you may be thinking to yourself: but how do you measure engagement? That, my friends, is a really, really good question. And there's not necessarily a single best answer. You see, measuring engagement starts by first identifying what engagement means to you with regard to your specific program or service.

So pretty much immediately after I got word that these were the goals selected by the reading clubs committee, I went to them with some questions. Specifically, what did they have in mind when they envisioned patron engagement? That's when I learned that they envisioned Camp Imagine participants sticking with the program throughout the summer; doing the program with some specific participatory behaviors; using the library in new ways; and interacting with one another and the community around books and reading. That may still seem somewhat amorphous and abstract, but this definition gave me plenty to work with--especially since the committee was designing the program so that participants could choose specific activities and challenges that tied into the engagement goal.

That length-of-participation type of engagement--sticking with the program throughout the summer--was measurable by seeing how many days, on average, Camp Imagine participants were active in the program. We tallied the number of days between registration and final visit to the Camp Imagine desk for 20% of our participants (a solid sample, considering we had over 3700 participants). This was a straight output numbers analysis.

Because of the way we implement our summer reading program and the volume of participants involved, we knew we'd stick to a participant survey to capture most of the rest of the data to get at whether we were actually facilitating engagement. With the goals and definitions in mind, I got down to creating our survey questions to measure engagement.

The reading clubs committee was defining engagement as participating in a few direct ways with the program. That's not the same as just participating in the program. Rather, a specific engagement activity option was available at every level of Camp Imagine: to submit something to the Camp Mailbox. It might be a book review; a picture or drawing of a friend; a favorite recipe; a map of places traveled, or hoped to travel; and more sharing prompts like these. We had a physical Camp Mailbox just next to our Camp Imagine desk, where all registration and badge completion interactions took place. The program was designed to give participants the option of engaging directly with the program and program themes by submitting to the Camp Mailbox, and this type of participation was incentivized when we featured Camp Mailbox submissions on a display next to the camp desk and on our Facebook page. And so, when it came time to think about quantifying this type of engagement, we asked two specific questions on the summer reading survey:

1) While participating in Camp Imagine, I submitted an item to the Camp Mailbox. (Options: Yes / No / Not Sure)

2) While participating in Camp Imagine, I looked at items submitted to the Camp Mailbox on display in the library or on the library's Facebook page. (Options: Yes / No / Not Sure)

The next definition of engagement was using the library in new ways. Once again, this type of engagement was built into the design of the program as an option. At every level of the program, participants were invited to find relevant information in a library database or resource; try reading in a new genre; set up an account with and try a downloadable resource like Hoopla or RBDigital; and more. To get at whether participants were in fact using the library in new ways, we asked one specific question on the summer reading survey:

3) While participating in Camp Imagine, I tried a library resource I'd never used before. (Options: Yes / No / Not Sure)

Finally, the last definition of engagement was that participants would ideally interact with one another and the larger community around books and/or reading. Again, this type of behavior was incentivized, with many levels of the program including the activity of sharing a book or other media recommendation with another person--be it friend, family member, librarian, or anyone else. This type of engagement is also where my initial research into measuring engagement--specifically during summer reading--paid off. I had explored write-ups and descriptions of how California libraries have been tracking summer reading outcomes since 2011, and that's where we landed on this concept of engagement with reading programs as resulting in participants considering their communities as places valuing reading. With the combination of our program-incentivized sharing and the concepts learned from California's outcomes iterations, we asked two specific questions on the summer reading survey:

4) While participating in Camp Imagine, I shared a book recommendation with a family member, friend, or other community member. (Options: Yes / No / Not Sure)

5) As a result of participating in Camp Imagine, I feel that Skokie is a community of readers. (Options: Strongly Agree / Agree / Neither Agree nor Disagree / Disagree / Strongly Disagree)

The survey was rounded out by questions from the PLA Project Outcomes summer reading surveys--we feel it's important that we contribute to the project, which provides its aggregate data for library advocacy across the country, whenever it fits into our own strategies and plans for capturing program outcomes.

Our final survey was one half-sheet of paper, front and back, and we got a response rate that allowed us a pretty high degree of confidence in the data we collected.

Curious what we found?

Our graphic designer Vanessa Rosenbaum created a gorgeous 4-page final report for Camp Imagine. Here's the page about engagement. I put together the data analysis and narrative, and the sidebar includes items from the Camp Mailbox and anecdotes.

From analyzing the length of time that Camp Imagine registrants engaged in the program (which was 73 days long in total), we found that:
  • Youth who earned at least one badge (i.e., didn't just register and never return) participated on average 34 days, or about five weeks.
  • Teens who earned at least one badge participated on average 29 days, or about four weeks.
When we looked at the top 50th and 25th percentiles of youth and teen participants, these numbers were even higher. This type of sustained engagement has implications for combatting the summer slide.

From our survey questions, here's what we learned about program engagement:
  • 84% of participants submitted something to the Camp Mailbox.
  • 61% of participants viewed the Camp Mail.
  • 65% of participants tried a library resource they'd never used before.
  • 75% of participants recommended a book to a family member, friend, or other community member.
  • 94% of participants feel Skokie is a community of readers.
Now, considering participants had the option, at every single level of the program, to complete each level in the traditional summer reading way--by reading alone--we think these numbers are pretty remarkable. In every metric, over half of program participants opted to participate in our engagement activities alongside the traditional reading activities. And the fact the 94% of participants feel our community is one of readers? Well, that makes a librarian's heart happy. And these data all provide solid baselines for continuing to measure engagement over the course of subsequent reading clubs.

So that's how we did it: that's how we measured engagement during Summer Reading 2017.



Saturday, July 8, 2017

Program Kits for Summer Bookmobile Pop-Ups

Two summers ago, I wrote about our forays into pop-up programming for the summer. I mentioned in that post that I'd be assessing this volunteer-staffed, in-the-library, weekly activity model for the following summer, and my youth program team and I definitely considered all aspects of the program. What we ended up with last summer was an in-library program schedule with a much higher volume of activities--which meant we could focus our pop-up energies elsewhere. And so we did: to the bookmobile. What we discovered last summer is that we can pretty simply pop-up with activities for bookmobile patrons, but we have to provide staffing for every pop-up; our bookmobile staff see such a high volume of patrons at each stop that they can't lend one of their regular staffers to lead an activity.

So for this summer, we considered what we'd learned, then iterated again. For 2017, we're sending activities out to the bookmobile once again. Since we know providing staffing is vital, and scheduling staff can be difficult during the summer, we needed to be really flexible to ensure that any staff member could confidently and competently lead a pop-up program with the bookmobile, little advance training necessary. And so we created Bookmobile Program Kits, each with video instructions that we can play at the pop-up.

Ribbon Cutting for New Bookmobile by Skokie Public Library, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

See, we got a magnificent new bookmobile a little over a year ago. This gorgeous library on wheels boasts an exterior awning, under which we can set up a folding table and lead activities. Also under the awning, beneath a panel on the exterior wall of the bookmobile, there is a flat-screen television. Which means we can play videos while we're set up under the awning leading activities. Thus our idea of how-to videos for bookmobile programming was born.


This summer we've got five different bookmobile program kits available, each with a bin full of supplies and a how-to video featuring a library staff member of community volunteer who has experience leading that same activity in a formal library program or space. Our kits, all with a STEAM connection:


We've only made a few pop-up appearances with the bookmobile so far this summer, but word is they're going quite well. The short videos help to reinforce to bookmobile patrons that they can participate in the activity even if they only have five minutes--we've found most patrons plan enough time for browsing and checking out books, but don't plan to stay for a longer activity. Staff leading the activities have shared that the kits work well logistically: all the supplies are easily accessible, the activities don't require a huge amount of space for patrons to engage, and the video allows ease of participation even when there's a larger size group of eager participants. And no one forgets how to do an activity, because you have the how-to on a loop.

At this point in the summer, we're considering these Bookmobile Program Kits a success. And a bonus: we didn't specifically brand the how-to videos as pertaining to the bookmobile pop-ups, so we can reuse them in so many potential programs and spaces in the future.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Actually, She Did That: The Civic Lab for Women's History Month

The team of folks here at my library who curate the Civic Lab were having a meeting a few weeks ago where we were discussing potential topics for future Civic Lab pop-ups. Sometimes we tie our pop-ups to formal programs on our calendar, sometimes to topics in the news, sometimes to installations in the library, and sometimes to specific days or months of import or conversation. We were brainstorming what topic to focus on for Women's History Month, and we had plenty to choose from--there's a lot going on right now affecting women, have you noticed? You might be surprised, then, to hear that the person who came up in conversation was Kanye.

Or maybe you're not too surprised, because he came up in the context of one particularly annoying and eye-roll-inducing line from Famous: "I made that bitch famous," said in reference to Taylor Swift. As if he, a man, made her, a huge pop star who is a woman, famous because he physically took the stage and microphone away from her while she was winning an award. Gross.

And so we had our topic for the Civic Lab for Women's History Month: women who have accomplished something, but who do not get their deserved credit (often it goes to a man or group of men), or they are better known for something irrelevant to their accomplishments.

We called it "Actually, She Did That"--taking the mansplainer's favorite opening word of "actually" and shedding light on some excellent women throughout history whom many do not know and whose accomplishments have been snatched from them.


The central activity in "Actually, She Did That" was a game of sorts. On a column constructed out of our multipurpose crates, we affixed large images of 11 different women who fit our criteria stated above. (As one of the mother/daughter participant pairs said, these 11 are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to women not getting the credit due to them.) Each image included the woman's name and date of birth (as well as death, where relevant). On the table next to the column, we had 11 slips of paper. Each slip noted the accomplishment of one of these women, with a parenthetical about how or why she hasn't gotten credit for that accomplishment. The goal was to try to match the woman to her accomplishment, learning more about these 11 fantastic women along the way.

Our 11 featured women were:
  • Nellie Bly (1864-1922) - Bly was a brilliant, pioneering journalist, despite popular opinion that she couldn't be a good journalist because she was a woman. Bly was an early undercover investigative journalist, checking herself into a mental asylum and writing articles exposing the despicable treatment of (mostly female) patients in these facilities.
  • Selma Burke (1900-1995) - A sculptor, Burke was the artist behind the FDR profile that was used on the dime. Yet the (male) engraver typically gets credit for the design, rather than Burke.
  • Laverne Cox (1984- ) - Cox is the first transgender actress to be nominated for an Emmy in an acting category. Yet despite her talent and prowess as an actress, much media coverage of Cox returns to questions about her gender assigned at birth--regardless of its lack of relevance to her career.
  • Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) - Franklin's research led to her discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. Her male lab partner stole her findings and gave them to Crick and Watson, who went on to win the Nobel Prize for DNA discoveries.
  • Katherine Johnson (1918- ) - One of NASA's "human computers" whose supreme math skills allowed early astronauts to safely start to explore space, Johnson and her colleagues have only recently started to get recognition due to the book and film Hidden Figures.
  • Regina Jonas (1902-1944) - The first female rabbi, Jonas was refused ordination for years despite having gone through the same training as her male colleagues. She was finally ordained before being sent to a concentration camp. She died in Auschwitz.
  • Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000) - Lamarr was a brilliant inventor, developing spread spectrum communication and frequency hopping technology which are now the basis for cell phones and wi-fi. Yet she is often known only for being a beautiful actress.
  • Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) - She wrote the first computer program, although her male friend Charles Babbage is usually credited as the first computer programmer. Lovelace is usually first credited as daughter of Lord Byron. So not only does she not get credit for what she did, but she's defined in relation to her male relative.
  • Wilma Mankiller (1945-2010) - Mankiller was the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation. Many American history texts ignore her leadership and maintain there has never been a female head of state in the U.S.
  • Arati Prabhakar (1959- ) - Prabhakar was the head of DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, from 2012 until January of this year. Research and developments under her watch have included huge strides in biomedical technology like prosthetics. Credit is typically given to the presidential administration at the time of the invention.
  • Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997) - Called the "First Lady of Physics," Wu worked on the Manhattan Project. Her work in nuclear physics won a Nobel Prize for her male colleagues, but she was not recognized. Even though the winning experiment was called the "Wu Experiment."

We had some really wonderful conversations with patrons as they engaged in this activity. Many recognized a few names or pictures, but couldn't place their finger on where they'd seen or heard of these women before. We share biographical facts with participants, many of them shaking their heads in frustration at just how common this type of credit-stealing is. One teen girl, participating with a friend, remarked after hearing the stories of several of the women, "Why do they keep giving away credit?" We talked about how it wasn't a question of these accomplished women giving away credit, but rather them having credit taken from them or given to someone else. These teens got mad. They demand better, for the world to see them and their friends and other women. As it should be.

Alongside this activity of matching women to their accomplishments, we also had a few other elements available for Civic Lab participants. We had a number of great titles on offer for folks interested in learning about more women and their accomplishments, including:
  • 50 Unbelievable Women and Their Fascinating (And True!) Stories by Saundra Mitchell, illustrated by Cara Petrus
  • Bad Girls Throughout History: 100 Remarkable Women Who Changed the World by Ann Shen
  • The Book of Heroines: Tales of History's Gutsiest Gals by Stephanie Warren Drimmer
  • Dead Feminists: Historic Heroines in Living Color by Chandler O'Leary & Jessica Spring
  • Rad American Women A-Z by Kate Schatz, illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahl
  • Wonder Women: 25 Innovators, Inventors, and Trailblazers Who Changed History by Sam Maggs, illustrated by Sophia Foster-Dimino

We also put together a handout with resources for hearing more women's stories through an email newsletter, podcasts, and online videos. (See the handout here.)

The handout also includes three questions to get folks considering the stories of women in their own lives, as well as how they can make space to hear and share the stories of women:
  1. What have women in your life accomplished? Have they gotten credit for these accomplishments?
  2. What would you say to them in acknowledgement of what they have accomplished?
  3. How can you help to share the stories of women and their work?

We intentionally posed that first question on one of our crates, and we provided sticky notes and pencils for participants to weigh in. During the two hours a coworker and I facilitated "Actually, She Did That," however, no one wrote a response to the question. We don't think it was from lack of interest, but rather from the greater appeal of learning about the women whose images were front and center in the installation. We're hopeful that the public question, as well as the handout, provided fodder for reflecting on the women in participants' lives.

Monday was appearance number one for "Actually, She Did That." We'll be popping up again this Friday, and we're eager to see what types of interactions are prompted this time around. From there, we want to think about how to continue this idea of making clear space for women and women's stories beyond just Women's History Month.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Together at the Table: A Civic Lab Program for MLK Day

My library aims to observe Martin Luther King, Jr. Day each year with multigenerational programming that engages our community on issues from Dr. King's work and themes in his speeches and writing. When it came to planning for MLK Day 2017, the new Civic Lab here at the library felt like a completely natural connection. We wanted to intentionally connect our goals for civic engagement with Dr. King's vision for a truly united country, starting with our library community. And so our 2017 event was created: Together at the Table.

The title Together at the Table is lifted from Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech from the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom:
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
Our Together at the Table program was, at its core, a drop-in community gathering meant to foster feelings of empathy and belonging among all the many people who live in Skokie and who use the library. From noon until 8 p.m. on that Monday, Together at the Table took place in our larger multi-purpose programming space which is adjoined with a kitchen. We pushed together four of our tables, end to end, to create a long banquet-style table with chairs. Spread across the tabletops were tent talkers to get conversations started; we chose 6 questions from "The 36 Questions That Lead to Love." We purchased many dozens of muffins (all kosher) and set out hot coffee, hot water and tea, and ice water as well. And so the stage was set.

A snapshot from Together at the Table,
by adult program librarian Mimosa Shah.
Throughout that day, four excellent high school volunteers helped facilitate the program alongside library staff. Those high schoolers greeted patrons at the door--and we indeed saw patrons of every age. After encouraging (and in some cases helping) patrons to make a name tag, the volunteers led them to a seat. New arrivals were seated next to people already in the program, and so the volunteer would make introductions--nobody in the room was a stranger, nobody without someone to talk with. The volunteers would then go to the kitchen to get a muffin for each participant. More often than not, before the volunteer could even come back with the muffin, the patrons were diving into conversations with their tablemates.

As I pitched this program to my fellow programming team members and staff, I kept coming back to the central idea that participants would be able to break bread with one another and get to know fellow community members. I had the support of supervisors throughout the library that these conversations be open to staff at every level as well--and we did have about two dozen staff drop in to meet and talk with patrons throughout the day. Breaking bread is such a strong human interaction that seems to span all cultures; friendships and family are made over a shared meal. We wanted to facilitate that feeling of goodwill and community in our library--in particular at a moment, and at the beginning of the week of the inauguration, when many in our community were feeling unsettled, isolated, and worried.

Was the day successful? To be honest, I would have counted Together at the Table a success if even a single conversation took place in that space. I wanted to foster a space for meaningful interaction--something deeper than a rote "How are you?" / "Fine, and you?" back and forth or a conversation about the weather. And with that modest goal, I was blown away by the interactions that took place and the relationships that were formed.

Some snippets of the interactions, almost all between people who came to the shared table as strangers:

  • "We discovered that we have friends in common!" A patron who participated without knowing anyone struck up a conversation with someone seated near them, and they discovered that they share mutual friends. They remarked about feeling like the community is a close-knit, interconnected one.
  • A girl scout leader in the program with her troop connected with our deputy director, who leads a troop in a neighboring town. The two groups have made plans to get together.
  • An older elementary boy, who spends many of his out-of-school hours at the library, expressed delight and excitement at not only learning the library director is, in his words, "Korean like me!" but in being able to have a conversation with him as well.
  • Two young men who entered the program separately and were seated next to one another became friends in the course of their conversation, trading numbers before leaving so they could meet up again.
  • One woman responded to the prompt about something she's dreamed of doing with her desire to open a female-friendly auto repair garage. After talking about this dream with her seatmates, one identified himself as a person in real estate and he shared with the woman information on how to find a location for her business. They exchanged numbers and made plans to continue their conversation.
  • A 21-year-old man shared that the day of the program marked his twentieth day since coming to the U.S. from Afghanistan. In the course of his conversations with his tablemates and one of the teen volunteers, he became curious about the library's volunteer opportunities as a way to meet people and improve his English. He ended up talking with our volunteer coordinator, who had come into the room.

These are just a handful of the interactions that played out across the shared table. Our community embraced the ethos of Together at the Table wholeheartedly. I was struck by how open-hearted and honest the conversations I had, and the conversations I heard about, were. By how willing our community is to forge bonds with one another.

We had several participants ask if we plan to do this sort of program again, and many of us on staff and in our administration want to. If a root of civic engagement is feeling invested in one's community, Together at the Table certainly showed we have strong foundation in Skokie for this work.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

In the Civic Lab: Let's Talk About Standing Rock

When we started the Civic Lab at the end of this past summer, we knew one of our major goals would be to engage our community in conversations around current events and issues in a landscape with disappearing local news sources. Like many libraries and other institutions dedicated to access to information, we've felt this particular goal explode in import over the past few weeks. Or, rather, it was always important; the past few weeks simply cast the need in a more urgent light. To that end, many of our staff are scouring news and current events to think about topics about which our community can discuss and learn.

This past week, we focused on Standing Rock.

This pop-up of the Civic Lab had a simple statement to bring people to the space: Let's talk about Standing Rock. I worked with a coworker (who is a bookmobile librarian and a philosophy professor) who had gone out to Standing Rock in early November; with lots of input from his experience, research, and resources, we determined that our pop-up would explore three core questions:
  1. How do the collective economic gains of the Dakota Access Pipeline weigh against its environmental impact, both actual and potential?
  2. To what extent should the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock be considered in the context of the history of interactions between Native Americans* and the United States government?
  3. How should the government respond to the presence of water protectors?
It should be clear from these core questions that our goal was to provide all of the information, resources, and perspectives our patrons would need to be able to make an informed opinion of their own.

To that end, we gathered and curated a number of resources. These included:
This Civic Lab installation popped up for community conversation last Wednesday evening for 2 hours. In that time, we had some really outstanding conversations with patrons ranging from junior high-age through seniors, and all across the political spectrum. Those participants also ran the gamut in terms of previous knowledge they brought to the conversation; plenty had known nothing, while a small handful were already up on many of the details. While several patrons did feel the urge to identify themselves politically, none of the conversations were overtly political; rather, everyone seemed really eager (and relieved) to have conversations about issues rather than partisan posturing. Only one of our conversations lasted fewer than 10 minutes--that's the level of engagement we're talking about.

This photo from the library's Instagram account shows the
Civic Lab pop-up space and several of the participants.

Through the course of our conversations, we learned that 35% of the folks who stopped to talk had not heard of Standing Rock before they came to the Civic Lab. About 30% of the participants took copies of resources with them and/or expressed a desire to share what they were learning with others; one gentleman snapped some photos of resources to share on his Facebook page on the spot. And, when all was said and done, about 80% of the people who stopped to talk about Standing Rock indicated that they had learned something in the course of the conversation.

What we're learning in these Civic Lab pop-ups is that our community is really interested in having thoughtful and resource-based conversations about topics--both ones they've seen a bit on the news, and ones that are totally new to them as well. Are you finding this in your communities as well?

We're also learning that many patrons want to know when these pop-ups will be happening; they want to be sure they plan to come participate, and a few even said they'd do some advance research to come better prepared. These pop-ups thus far have been true pop-ups in the sense that they aren't advertised anywhere; staff know when they're happening and on what topics (so that we can plan), but patrons participate only if they happen to be in the library when the Civic Lab appears. We're going to change that model in coming weeks; while we want to retain the flexibility to pop up around topics as they emerge, we'll take steps to advertise pop-ups on our website and events calendar (and, potentially, via social media if the topic warrants). If the people in our community want to have these conversations, we certainly want to give them tools they need to do so.

Right now we're in planning stages for what's next for the Civic Lab. Staff are scouring the news and thinking about models for civic engagement that may resonate with our community. As we reflect and plan, I'd love to hear how you're thinking about civic engagement in your own libraries.


*You'll note that we used the term "Native Americans" rather than "First/Native Nations" in referring to indigenous groups participating in the Standing Rock action. We used this terminology because it was the express preference of the water protectors my colleague stood alongside when he was at Standing Rock.

**The #StandingRockSyllabus from NYC Stands with Standing Rock was incredibly valuable in allowing us to curate the content for the Civic Lab; if you've not yet explored it, I recommend you take the time to do so. We also looked to a variety of news sources--big networks and national papers as well as the international coverage and, particularly importantly, coverage from within indigenous communities. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Pop-Up Stories & Discussion in the Civic Lab

In this first iteration of our Civic Lab here at my library, most of the modes for participation are passive: voting on the major question, browsing the resources, and reflecting on or responding to the conversation starter questions. This first appearance of the Civic Lab has been largely unstaffed--which is decidedly different from how we plan to proceed when we get to round two.

But there has been a specific active component for youth in conjunction with the Civic Lab's debut: pop-up stories and discussion.

I facilitated each of these pop-ups, one for each of our six topic areas. During the days we were focused on each topic, I grabbed the picture book from that topic's micro-collection and headed into the youth services department. I looked for the areas where kids were playing or hanging out, then introduced myself and invited them to participate in one story with some talking afterward. As is usual in our busy library, only a handful of kids were willing to put down the activity they'd been engaged in to participate--but that's fine, as it ensured our groups were small and cozy, better for thoughtful shared reading.

Then, when we were settled around a table, or in a circle on the floor, I'd open the book and start to read. Depending on the particular title, we might immediately start talking about what we saw in the pictures, or words that we were hearing in the story that weren't familiar. The goal of the pop-up stories was to engage kids in the focus topic in a developmentally appropriate way; and in many instances, the reading was the first encounter with the topic. It felt important to share the story together and to think about it, to ask questions and to encourage kids to ask them, too, and to respond with information, or more questions, when appropriate.

Here are the books we discussed:
  • I, Too, Am America by Langston Hughes, illustrated by Bryan Collier (Black Lives Matter)
  • Where's the Elephant? by Barroux (Climate Change)
  • Two White Rabbits by Jairo Buitrago, illustrated by Rafael Yockteng, translated by Elisa Amado (Immigration)
  • Yard Sale by Even Bunting, illustrated by Lauren Castillo (Income Inequality)
  • Donovan's Big Day by LeslĂ©a Newman, illustrated by Mike Dutton (LGBTQQI)
  • My Body Belongs to Me: A Book About Body Safety by Jill Starishevsky, illustrated by Angela Padron (Reproductive Justice)

My favorite, and probably most successful, of these pop-up stories and discussions was with the title Where's the Elephant? In that gorgeous picture book, kids are asked on the first, lush spread to try to find the elephant, snake, and parrot. It's a familiar type of book-sharing for kids--the seek and find. They get really into it, applying laser focus to each spread to find those animals. It gets easier and easier to spot them on each spread, as with each page turn, more and more of the lush forest in which they've lived is cut down. Eventually, the animals are hiding among houses, not trees, until finally they end up in the zoo. Easy to spot? Absolutely. And that visual storytelling makes it so impactful to finish the book and ask the kids, "So what do you think the story was really about?"

Spread from Barroux's Where's the Elephant?

Spread from Barroux's Where's the Elephant?


Where's the Elephant? spurred great conversations about how humans impact our environment, and how that has effects on other living creatures as well as on ourselves. It was a unique approach to the larger topic of climate change, which ties back to humans' impacts on our world. The simple story gave kids a frame for thinking about the topic.

I think this type of activity could be easily replicated outside of a larger initiative like our Civic Lab. A storytime leader could easily add one of these picture books into storytime and have a quick little chat after the story. If parents are present at the story sharing, the story gives them the opportunity to think about how they might have that conversation with their kids. We've anecdotally found that parents do want to talk to their kids about these major topics in the world, but they don't always know how to go about doing so. Sharing stories that connect to major topics can show parents that there are resources to support those conversations, and that their library is a place to go for those resources and for their own support.

Sharing these types of stories gets us engaged in conversation with each other in ways that build community bonds--whether among a family, a neighborhood, or an entire community. Give it a try.