Little Makers

Just about a year ago, my library closed the building because of the COVID-19 pandemic. To commemorate the unprecedented time, here is the story of a program I codesigned with a colleague at a local early childhood organization to support families in our community from a distance. There have been a lot of tears, frustration, and even anger during the last year, but this program has been a triumph. It represents the many community partnerships I’ve been part of in the past year – with both organizations and individuals – and reflects the library’s place in a web of organizations and institutions that support families.

The virtual Little Makers program for 3-6 year olds premiered in the Fall of 2020 as an experiment and we will be hosting our third iteration of it, Little Makers Spring Edition, in the coming weeks. Families were and are eager for learning experiences hosted by our two organizations and we are happy to connect with families.

Our shared goals for the program:

  • support early learning
  • introduce key media literacy and computational thinking concepts and skills
  • foster family engagement
  • maintain and even grow families’ relationship with the library and the community partner

Platform

Zoom was the obvious choice for our needs, especially considering our weather here in Alaska between September and May. When we launched the idea of a virtual Little Makers on Zoom, enough time had passed during the hunker down period that many families were well-versed in using Zoom, or at least familiar with the idea of using videoconferencing for everyday meetups. Families joined with laptops, tablets and cell phones.

Little Makers Materials Kit

Materials

Before the series of meetups began, registered families picked up a kit of materials funded by our Friends group and other Foundation support. I applied what I had learned from my summer experiment with Activity to Go! kits and included almost everything a family would need for the program – supplies and supporting information – organized and labeled for each of the four weeks. We didn’t assume families had glue sticks, for example. This way families could pull out a bag just before each week and be ready to go. For example, one week in the Winter session, we read Big Bed for Little Snow by Grace Lin. We then made a comfortable bed for Little Snow- one that wouldn’t burst – from materials including a paper plate, white and blue tissue paper, a coffee filter, pom poms, feathers, tape, and a tape measure. Some kids decided the bed was for a stuffy they had at home and found the tape measure especially useful for making sure the bed was the right size.

Information about how to make the virtual experience a successful learning experience was included in the supporting information, as well as details about the books we would share and prompts for making. (The image above shows what materials were included in each families’ kit for the Winter session). In the event that a family missed a week, or needed to leave early for whatever reason, families could make at home with the information and supplies provided.

Making a bed that won’t burst for Little Snow

Timeline

The routine for each of the four meetups in each session looked very similar so kids and families knew what to expect. We met for 30 min each week which was just the right amount of time. Kids were engaged and excited for the next week.

Welcome (2-3 minutes): We provided tech reminders as families entered the meetup from the waiting room including “Change your screen name to your child(ren)’s name” so we can call kids by name and “Before Claudia begins reading, we’ll ask you to mute your audio so everyone can concentrate on the story.” (This reduced at least some of the distractions we all experience.)

We also made time for hellos, calling kids by name and introduced ourselves to make sure everyone knew our names.

Opening song (1 minute): “If You’re Ready for a Story” (This is the same song I sing on my weekly Radio Storytime program.)

Story (10-12 minutes): Each week I read one picture book and included one early learning, computational thinking or media literacy tip for grownups. As I read, I asked questions that kids could answer with a thumbs up, a nod or head shake, or a smile. These questions took into consideration the Zoom platform and the need to have audio muted for this portion of the program, but encourage engagement. I also asked questions with slightly longer pauses than you might expect, leaving space for caregivers to repeat the question at home and discuss with their little makers or siblings could talk about together. This was done in a way that didn’t disrupt the flow of the story.

Note on reading stories on Zoom: During the first meetup, I tried sharing a story using an iPad as a document camera connected separately to the meetup. For those on a mobile device, it was hard for them to see both my face and the book pages. With all of the different device types, different comfort levels with Zoom, and some people having updated versions of Zoom and some not, it worked more smoothly to share the book on my computer only with the pages close up to the camera while I read the text and then moving my face into the view when I was asking questions about the story, observing the illustrations, etc.

Making time (10-12 minutes): This part of the program was similar to the second half of preschool storytime in the library before the pandemic. The activity aims to help the little makers explore ideas in the book we shared, practice vocabulary that might be new to them as they play with the materials, and express their creativity. We invited grownups to turn on their video if it was off, change their Zoom view to gallery and turn on audio so we could all see and talk with each other for the remainder of the program. We then invited little makers to open their bag of materials as we announced the week’s creative prompt. The prompt presented a “problem” and families used the provided materials to make something that helped solve that problem. One week it was a bed for Little Snow. During a later week we used ingredients similar to those found in the book Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard and Juana Martinez-Neal to make edible, no-bake playdough. Some of the materials from one week’s bag could be incorporated into another week’s making. This models repurposing and encourages creativity in problem solving.

Regardless of the activity, we encouraged families to incorporate materials they had at home into the project. To get their creative juices flowing from the start, we played games like a color scavenger hunt in the first meetup (find something yellow like the colors of both Claudia and Red’s sweaters) or bring a stuffy to storytime today (and then make a fort or den for them in the activity portion of the meetup).

We also made sure to notice when families were doing something a little different and asked what they were up to and helped make connections to our activity if applicable. For example, while some of us were making fort prototypes with craft supplies after reading The Little Red Fort by Brenda Maier and Sonia Sanchez, one family made a fort out of couch cushions. The whole group talked about the fort as the family gave us a video tour and then we discussed where else we could build a fort – in the snow! We asked questions that encouraged the makers to tell us the fort’s story.

We anticipated that families would continue making beyond the time together on Zoom. We invited families to post pictures of their projects on a Padlet. Families could connect with each other and with us through the posts on the program specific Padlet. We talked about the images during the following meetup. These photos were not shared on social media and the program was not recorded.

Closing (2-3 minutes): At the end of the meetup, we invited little makers to share and talk about what they were creating and what they might do next.

General Thoughts

We slowed down the pace of reading, asking questions and talking with families. What might be a normal pace for adults talking with others on Zoom or how we might talk in person, isn’t the same in this type of program. We keep in mind that families had different internet connection speeds which cause delays in what they see and hear, kids need a little time to get used to what they were seeing on the screen and young children often process and respond to information more slowly than adults.

We talk about the technology, the parts of the book, and the maker materials so that kids learn the names of things and what they can do. This is an important part of media literacy.

Fifteen families have registered for each session we’ve offered, the maximum we set. Within each session there has been lots of variation in terms of who registered and almost all registered families have participated in every week. The number of families is determined by the funds we have for materials and a good size for the Zoom meetup. This group size allows us to have conversations with individual families within the allotted time.

We encouraged caregivers to play alongside their children and most households had a child or children attend alongside a grownup. But not in every case. And in some households, the caregiver never appeared in the screen. The prompts we designed took into consideration that an adult might not be right there.

It was very helpful to have two people on hand to share the facilitation roles and the tech troubleshooting, even if we were partners codesigning a program. While I am sharing the book, my partner was answering questions, welcoming families form the Zoom waiting room if they were late and noticing if something was amiss. While she was introducing the maker activity, I was doing the same.

When we read Bee-Bim Bop! by Linda Sue Park in the first session, the families “programmed” the Claudia robot to make Bee Bim Bop with the felt pieces in the kit as my partner retold the story.

Two Lessons We Live by in This Program

  • If something isn’t working as well as we’d hoped, we change it.
  • We keep it as simple as we can while being creative.

Media Literacy Week: Girls Learning to Code at the Library

It’s Media Literacy Week (November 5-9)! How are you helping youth in your community learn how to access, analyze, evaluate, COMMUNICATE and CREATE using a variety of media formats? 

Girls learn how to solder with the help of a teen mentor at the Girls Get IT! NCWIT camp. (Ages 9-12)

Two high school girls from my community are in the process of applying for NCWIT’s annual Aspirations Award. The award “honors women in grades 9 through 12 who are active and interested in computing and technology, and encourages them to pursue their passions.” Many young women, from all 50 states and US Territories, apply each year so two might not seem remarkable. But, in my community it is another step in the right direction.

While not new, the fact that women are underrepresented in the tech world and STEM professions, especially in leadership roles, still persists. In rural communities, jobs in tech-related fields, and many types of STEM professions, seem out of reach or are never introduced as an option, especially to girls. At my library and many others, girls are often out numbered by boys in maker programs, LEGO clubs, and robotics teams. The goal of these programs is to provide access to learning opportunities that introduce and strengthen Computational Thinking (CT) skills and computer science knowledge, yet a significant number of kids are still missing from the picture. Populations of kids still think these programs, and the associated skills, are for others. How much do we really talk with kids and teens, including girls, about the important role computer science now plays in business, government, and our/their personal lives, beyond “screen time?”

Makers2Mentors, our Libraries Ready to Code project, aimed to change that. What if kids and teens in our community had new opportunities to become comfortable not just using digital media on a superficial level, but digging deeper to understand how computers work and using digital tools to express themselves and make their voices heard?

Girls learn the basics of 3D design with the help of a teen mentor at the Girls Get IT! NCWIT camp. (Ages 9-12)

Over time I have connected the idea of learning how to code to learning how a book works. If we teach young children the fundamental concepts that will later fuel them as readers and writers, which we do in storytime and in other experiences, why can’t we prepare kids and teens to control digital information, creating and manipulating the medium, just as authors and creators have done with paper formats?

One of the goals we set for the Makers2Mentors project was to provide CT and CS learning experiences specifically for girls. We want more girls to learn CT and CS skills, and be prepared to think critically about information in all its forms, so we wanted to encourage their participating in all of the M2M programs. I also recognized that I needed to reach out to girls in targeted ways. In some cases, this meant integrating CS and CT into traditional library programs like storytime to reach girls before extreme gender stereotypes about STEM get a foot hold. I also led a coding program for girls and their moms (or grandmothers, aunts, grown-up female friends), partnered with the local Girl Scouts to provide a girl scout overnight for area troops featuring robotics and CT activities, and hosted a camp for girls, led by visiting CS college students, that introduced girls to new skills as they explored computer hardware and software.

Reaching underrepresented populations requires creativity and doing things differently. Obviously, if a group isn’t coming to the current programs or using the library space now, something needs to change. New partnerships, unique program designs and flexibility are essential. Sometimes opportunities to provide learning experiences come in unexpected ways.

Girls and their families are excited about making a space for girls’ voices in the digital world, even those from a faraway place like Homer, Alaska.

Teen mentors are recognized for their service and interest during the reading of the 2018 National Library Week proclamation at a City Council meeting.

Key to the success of many of the M2M programs was the empowerment of teen mentors who helped fill leadership gaps often found in small communities like mine. Many of these mentors were girls, and in fact, several of the girls who acted as mentors became interested in learning about CT/CS as they mentored. They got involved not because of their tech experience, but because they like mentoring. So, I capitalized on their valuable leadership skills and ended up providing CT/CS training sessions that became ‘programs’ in and of themselves. They learned about CT and CS and helped other girls (and boys) gain new skills also. Over the course of the year long grant period, more girls were interested in both the girl specific programs and general events.

Here are some images highlighting girls in the library’s M2M programs.

Girls make cardboard automata at an afterschool Maker Club.
A girl programs Ozobots with markers at a Maker Club session.
Two girls, with their moms, make the robot Dash move during a coding program. (Ages 8-12)
Girls and moms work in teams to program Dash & Dot robots.
Young girls, and a teen mentor, learn coding basics with Dash and Dot at the Girl Scouts overnight held last winter. (ages 5-11)
A teen mentor preps materials for a LEGO Lab featuring LEGO WeDo.
Girls Get IT! camp was a little fun…

Media Literacy for Young Children: Accuracy Matters

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Emperor Penguin by Christopher Michel via Flickr

Many people have no idea how much discussion and debate children’s librarians have about topics like books, programming, library organization, awards, digital media use, inclusion/diversity, holidays and more. We are a passionate, caring bunch! Even in my small, rural library we analyze, critique, and evaluate the merits and missteps of kids media on a daily basis.

Recently, our in-house discussions have focused on media that reflects the Alaskan/Arctic experience. Finding any content that includes Arctic animals, cultures, landscapes, etc. can be hard. When we do come across media with Arctic references, we pay special attention.

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Walrus by USGS via Flickr

Three titles, two picture books and one app, came across my desk late in 2016 that made me let out a deep sigh; Penguin Problems by Jory John and Lane Smith, Little Penguins by Cynthia Rylant and Christian Robinson, and LumiKids Snow by Lumos Labs. (See more info below.) At first glance they had nothing to do with the Arctic, but then…

Why does some children’s media continue to feature, incorrectly, penguins living in the Arctic and walruses in Antarctica?

What’s the big deal, you ask? Accuracy.

I am calling attention to the penguin/walrus issue here because I think it represents the broader accuracy/authenticity issue that is sometimes pushed aside as minor because the media is otherwise high quality. Some might say I am exaggerating or being overly sensitive. Should I overlook penguin/walrus issue?

While I am a true fan of the fantastical, fictional, and imagined, I do think that kids and their families learn a lot about the real world in fictional media. In all media for kids, books, apps, etc., I think accuracy matters. Incorrectly associating penguins and walruses may seem like a silly example of accuracy issues, but authentic representation supports kids by allowing them to see themselves, their environment, and their culture in the media they read, watch, and explore. All types of media also feed all types of kids’ curiosity about other people, places, and times. Inaccuracy- stereotypes and misinformation- can have lasting effects. I know writers, illustrators, designers, and developers can create high quality experiences that entertain, challenge, represent, and teach.

Interestingly, the Annoyed Librarian posted about scientific accuracy in children’s picture books on the Library Journal blog (November, 2016). While there are several comments to consider on the blog site, check out the additional conversation over on the Storytime Underground Facebook page. Whether or not Eric Carle’s caterpillar makes a chrysalis or a cocoon may not seem connected to the current discussions about fake news, but it might be. Kids and their families take away information from all reading experiences.

As media mentors, it is important for librarians to help families think about what the book, app, video, and website is telling us and whether or not the content is factual (and accurate), fantastical, or a hybrid. Media literacy is not new to librarians and this aspect of our work continues to be fundamental across formats. Intentionally including critical thinking skills in programs for even the youngest patron and conversations with families will have a long term impact. These skills will be invaluable as young children become adult readers and expand their media consumption. I and several others talked to Linda Jacobson about this for her article, “The Smell Test: Educators can counter fake news with information literacy. Here’s how,” in the January issue of School Library Journal.

The examples:

Problem: Walrus in the Antarctic?
A walrus appears late in the story clearly about Antarctica and told by a penguin. There is no explanation why and how the walrus appears in a marine world filled with otherwise authentic Antarctic animals. Was this a mistake or did I not get a joke in the otherwise humorous story?

penguin problems

Penguin Problems by Jory John and Lane Smith

 

Problem: Walruses and Penguins?
Again a walrus appears in this book about penguins, but in this case the walrus is a subtle addition to a book not as clearly about Antarctica, except for the presence of penguins. The generic types of animals, other than penguins and walruses, can be found in both regions. Maybe the penguins have immigrated? Maybe the walrus did?

little penguins.jpg Material Life

Little Penguins by Cynthia Rylant and Christian Robinson

 

I read both books with preschoolers on different occasions and asked kids to help me decide. I asked the two different storytime groups to help me find the issues. One or two kids were able to recognize that walruses (native to Alaska and the Arctic) and penguins (native to the Antarctic and Southern Hemisphere) do not coexist. That was ok- we all learn something everyday. They liked the books for the most part, but were a bit puzzled why the walruses were there given that all of the other animals were appropriately connected. Even the adults had the “huh!” expression on their faces.

With information literacy on my mind, I then used the books as starting points for media literacy conversations. We briefly discussed whether the book was  a pretend story or a real story (pretend- penguins don’t talk or live in igloos, they were sure) and tried to figure out if the authors and illustrators added the walruses as a joke (not sure). We also used nonfiction titles and images on my iPad to help us take stock of where the other animals in the books live in real life (all in Antarctica except for the walrus, they were sure) and to decipher if the illustrations looked like northern Alaska and the Arctic or Antarctica (not sure- both regions can be snowy, icy, and have water).

Problem: Penguins in the Arctic?

lumikids snow

LumiKids Snow, Early Learning Play for Kids by Lumos Labs

 

App Description (iTunes, 3/10/17): “Explore an arctic adventure in LumiKids Snow! In this frozen playground, meet new LumiKids friends while you toss snowballs and sled around then warm up with some cozy s’mores!”

The app I reviewed for inclusion on my library’s mounted iPad, but I will not be adding it until the description is updated. (I contacted the developer in early January).