Monday, March 3, 2014

Unprogramming at Rogers Public Library, from guest blogger Kathleen Connelly-Brown

Today's guest blogger is Kathleen Connelly-Brown, Library Assistant II at Rogers Public Library with 8 years experience, 6 of those in the children's department. Kathleen got in touch with me after she attended the Wild Wisconsin Winter Web Conference webinar that Marge Loch-Wouters and I gave on the topic of unprogramming. I admired Kathleen's enthusiasm for thinking about programs for kids, and I asked her if she'd be willing to share her thoughts and first experience with unprogramming. Today we get to hear about unprogramming from her. Take it away, Kathleen!

This crafter dubbed his costume "Obama Baby."
The thought the costume prop hat was a
baby bonnet, which of course prompted me
to explain some of the colonial garb.
The program I specifically used this approach for is called Expert Hour, which we started during Summer Reading Club of 2012. This program began as a way to offer special programs focusing on the arts and sciences for older kids, sort of a workshop-type program during SRC. We began with staff utilizing or teaching a special skill that they had, as well as a few paid presenters. Prior programs have included illustration lessons, cake decorating, comedy improv, intricate crafts, and a juggling workshop. We continued the SRC-only option during the summer of 2013, but we have now morphed the program and are offering it all year long. In the fall of 2013 and spring of 2014, we offer a Homeschool Expert Hour for kids age 5-12 at 2pm once a month, and an After-School Expert Hour for kids age 5-12 at 4pm once a month.

February was my turn to lead the program, and I opted to incorporate history (a passion of mine) with traditional crafts and literacy elements. February Expert Hour focused on the Presidents of the United States. My original plan began with the dreaded powerpoint presentation. There were to be lots of slides sharing information about the presidents past and present, some fun facts about several presidents, and a description of how one becomes president including facts about the election process. I found a neat website that would allow us to take a virtual tour of the White House, and I planned to show that to the kids. I had a craft in mind to add at least one element of what a typical program looks like: share some info, make a craft, go home. Sounds really boring, right? The more I planned, the more I got bored with my own presentation! I was really at a loss as to how to make this fun for the kids. I did not want to get trapped in the theory that history is dry, boring, and a total snooze-fest, much like I remembered it from school. In fact, I didn’t want this to be like school; I wanted it to be fun! I wanted the kids to see how much fun the library can be and how many cool resources the library has. My original plan lacked both of these messages I wanted the kids to come away with.
Craft Station
Finished Craft
Jump forward to January and the 2014 Wild Wisconsin Winter Web Conference! I heard about the conference ahead of time from reading this blog, and after reading the words “free” and “virtual” I decided to sign up. I’m so very glad I did! I was really interested in Amy and Marge Loch-Wouters's presentation “Unprogramming: Recipes for Successful Programming with School-Age Children and Teens.” I wanted to know how unprogramming could work at my library. How I could plan a program without spending weeks on it and pulling my hair out? How do I incorporate ALL the THINGS with very little planning and stress??? I had my doubts.

But, as I watched and listened to these two super-smart ladies explain the process, I had an epiphany. I didn’t need to stand in front of the group and tell them stuff. I didn’t need to hold their hands and lecture them on how history was cool. I didn’t need to have everything so detailed and specific that the kids in attendance were being shown the information as passive bystanders. I only needed to be a facilitator; the kids are smart enough and curious enough to be given some options and the discovery can begin with THEM taking the lead! Brilliant!!

Abe or George?
I immediately reconfigured EVERYTHING. I shortened my powerpoint to four slides, one of which was a breakdown of all the cool stuff there would be to do after I shut up. I added a non-fiction read-aloud to begin the program as a way to present some of the information that was included on my previous slides. I kept one slide with a fun fact (Grover Cleveland was the 22nd and 24th president. Technically we have only had 43 different presidents, although Barak Obama is considered to be our 44th president – cool, right?). Our Children’s Director began to get excited about my plans and ordered a Presidential Bingo game from Oriental Trading. She also ordered some costume props the kids could use: faces of presidents and colonial garb to play and experiment with. I pulled all the books on presidents that we had to create a table display to encourage the literacy component and the hope that kids would take the books home. I pulled a few laptops and set them up with different websites: the virtual White House Tours, a Colonial Williamsburg website with games to play, a National Geographic website with fun facts, and a Presidential Mad Lib type game. I printed out some fun word games, coloring sheets, and writing prompts to create a ‘writing center.’ I kept the craft, but had it as yet another optional activity for the kids to do. Now I had a program that included about ten minutes of me talking and lots of stations for the kids to explore on their own.

Mad Libs
I began the program reading If I Were the President by Thomas Kingsley Troupe and playing one round of the mad lib type game with the entire group. I explained what activity stations were available and turned them loose. Within minutes, I heard kids talking and sharing information with each other about what they already knew. They began sharing their own ‘fun facts’ knowledge with each other! They asked me questions about presidents they weren’t as familiar with. They tried to impress me with their knowledge, finding cool stuff in the books I had out. They laughed at their own mad lib creations and wanted to share them with me. They came up with some great ideas for what they would do as president: “All kids should be taken out for pizza on Friday nights by their parents” and “War should be illegal.” The boys were off laughing at the way they looked in the costume props area and the girls were giggling with each other while making crafts. A studious young lady was so absorbed in the book display that I didn’t hear a peep from her until it was time to leave. She wanted to make sure it was ok to check out five of the books (yes, of course!). I heard a lot of “Whoa, I didn’t know that!” and “Hey, check this out!” and “That is so cool, look at this!”

Presidential Bingo
As I called the presidents' names for Bingo*, I looked around the room and saw engaged, happy, bright-eyed children having FUN. And all it took was 20 minutes of room set-up (with a helpful volunteer) and 20 minutes of room clean-up (with a helpful coworker). I spent more time planning than Amy or Marge probably would have, but it being my first attempt at this style I’m ok with that. It was still MUCH less time (maybe two hours) than I would have spent using my old methods (days or weeks of planning). But mostly, the STRESS was non-existent, or close to it. I was worried there would not be enough to do – it turns out there wasn’t enough time! I was worried this new style wouldn’t go over well – what a non-concern that turned out to be! The kids had more fun during this program than many of the others I have planned and presented. To me, that is the key – the fun, the learning, the discovery – that the kids can find for themselves when utilizing the unprogramming idea. They did this, they were empowered, they were excited, they learned, they discovered, they experimented. So much of what we do in the Children’s Library is focused on these goals – leading the kids to discover new things. If I had planned and structured the program using my old methods, this discovery would not have happened the same way. Success!! Thank you Amy and Marge, for making my job more fun, easier, and less stressful.

Writing Center
Writing Station
*So as not to come away without at least one total fail, I share this story: During the fun fact about Obama being the 44th President, one six-year-old boy states “He’s the devil!” upon hearing Obama’s name. Color me shocked! Another boy, age 9, said “No he’s not.” The first boy said “Well, he’s Muslim and that’s bad.” The older boy said, “Well, actually, some of his family is Muslim, but Obama is a Catholic.” I finally recovered from shock and said, “Ok, well moving on.” During Bingo, one card was Obama and Mr. Six-year-old at the craft table beside us said “He’s a bad man!” while Mr. Nine-year-old and two others say “No, you are wrong.” To avoid any further controversy I said “Regardless of what we think of the man, he is the President of our country so let’s be respectful of that. There are deeper issues that reflect the political stances of each of our presidents, which we don’t really have the time to get into. Let’s just say that Obama is our President and keep it at that for today, ok?” Both boys seemed to be ok with this and there were no further incidents. I should point out that this area of Arkansas is deeply conservative and very Christian. I’m sure Mr. Six-year-old has overheard some lively conversations at his house and wanted to enlighten the group. We were having a grand time of sharing information after all.


Guest blogger Kathleen Connelly-Brown's main duties include baby storytimes for ages 0-24 months, as well as tween programming for ages 8-12. She also functions as the Volunteer Coordinator for her Children’s Department. Her library has a staff of five (three full-time, two part-time), and one page. The Rogers Public Library is a large suburban library serving the town’s population of nearly 58,000 and the surrounding communities.

All photographs provided by the guest blogger.


  1. All of our children's staff are great but, Kathleen brings her "A" Game every single day. When she says, "Oh hey I have this idea!" We perk up because we know its going to be a big hit and loads of fun for staff and patrons alike! ~Jeanne Besaw, Director of Tech Services, Rogers Public LIbrary

  2. Wow, you did great (as usual) wish I had been there!

  3. What a great program. I've tried "passive programming", but I wonder if anyone has adapted this idea of "unprogramming" for adults?

    1. I'm not aware of folks explicitly unprogramming for adults, but many of the great adult programs I've seen demonstrated at conferences, in webinars, etc., could be said to use the unprogramming mindset. Think travel programs that involve different stations with "experts" who have visited different countries, holiday card-making programs that begin with an introduction to available crafting books and a few key techniques before opening up for free creation time.


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