Category Archives: Storytime

On Process Art

I’ve always been a proponent of process art, though I didn’t know that official term until about ten years ago. When I was growing up, my mother – who was a Kindergarten through third grade teacher and also an artist – would talk to me about teaching art to young children, and about how important it is to not limit children by presenting them with a set, teacher-made example that shows the children there is only one correct way to make art, thereby squelching creativity and artistic exploration.

Her lessons stayed with me through my time as a camp counselor in my late teens and early twenties, and through my multiple regular babysitting gigs through high school and college, and even through my time teaching special education students at an elementary school, though I was responsible for teaching them reading, writing, and phonology and not art. And when I became a children’s librarian a little over fourteen years ago, I knew I finally had the venue to really engage young children with art in the most creative, explorative sense.

As I tried to figure out how to implement this type of art, I searched the library catalog and the internet for inspiration…and somehow the first search term that I entered turned out to be the correct one: process art. Perhaps my mother had used this term, and I just don’t remember her saying those words, or perhaps I was able to distill the concept down to its bare essentials, but however I got there, I was able to find some amazing materials available for use in my programs. The most useful resource that I found in that initial search, and which I still use regularly today, is MaryAnn Kohl’s book Preschool Art: It’s the Process, Not the Product. Along the way I’ve found some other print resources that are hugely useful, such as Asia Citro’s books and also Meri Cherry’s books, as well as some blogs that focus on process art and preschool education.

For yesterday’s Art & Stories for 4’s & 5’s I needed a process art project that was simple but wintery, since I was doing a themed winter storytime with the group. The books I read yesterday were The Storm Whale in Winter by Benji Davies and Here Comes Jack Frost by Kazuno Kohara, so I wanted a project that was complementary to the books. Happily, I found a wonderful, easy project on the Stay At Home Educator blog that used materials I had readily available.

I gave each child a nice thick piece of watercolor paper, a large paintbrush, and a palette loaded with three colors of paint: white, royal blue, and turquoise. It was great to see how different each of their paintings turned out – all in wintery blues and whites, but each completely unique. As each child finished the painting part of their project, I handed them a bottle of white glue and let them have at it squeezing glue on their paintings. Interestingly, the one six year old in the group kept painting far longer than the other children; developmentally, she was in a different place when it came to the painting portion of the project.

So much glue was squeezed on, in lots of cool formations: some large and goopy blobs, some delicate gluey tracings, and one that was just glue along the bottom of the page while the blues of the painting covered the top of the page. And then when they were each ready I passed them a small cup with a couple of tablespoons of sea salt in it (I didn’t have Epsom salt on hand, and the sea salt worked quite well). The group had a great time spreading salt over their paintings, and it was also great fine motor skill practice and problem solving, as some children delicately pinched and sprinkled bits of salt over their paintings, others put the salt in the palm of their hands and shook it over the painting, and still others used the cup to shake the salt. Some of the children even took it a step further and shook the salt around their papers and then funneled the excess salt back into their yogurt cups. (Others, of course, went for the “as much salt as possible approach” and pillaged the discarded salt of their peers to enhance the large sparkly salt pile on their own painting.)

As the children were nearing the end of their creative process I called in their grownups to come see what they had made. This is my favorite part, especially with this group of intuitively awesome grownups, since all kinds of great conversations take place between the children and their adults: “Tell me what you did here!” “I love the colors that you used – how did you make that blue?” “The sparkles are so beautiful – what are they? Salt? Wow!!!”

All in all, it was a wonderful last preschool art storytime of this decade, and yet another affirming process art experience.

Another reason I love my job

File this one under the category of “Why I love my job.” (It’s a very full file, for the record!)

One of my storytime regulars, who is not yet two years old, renamed me today – I am now Humpty Dumpty.  This verbal little cutie kept chattering away before storytime: “Humpty Dumpty taking sweater off”  “Humpty Dumpty drink water”  “Humpty Dumpty sing now?”

And then when storytime was over:  “Abby play trains now?”

So I guess I’m back to being Abby, but it was kind of fun being Humpty Dumpty…  🙂

(Pictured here is the Humpty Dumpty felt piece that we use at the conclusion of each Mother Goose on the Loose storytime…)

A Day (or Two) in the Life of a Children’s Librarian

I always get a good giggle when someone I don’t know very well says to me, “Oh, you’re a children’s librarian? How sweet. That’s a pretty sedentary job, isn’t it?”  [Yes, doctors in particular like to say that to me, as they assess how active I am.]   Or, “You’re a children’s librarian?  That must be such a nice quiet job!”  Or, “It must be nice to read books all day!”

Before I go any further with this post, let me make it abundantly clear that I would hate to have a job that was sedentary or quiet or even a job where I got to read books all day.  I actually love the frenetic craziness of my work world, and I love the absolute unpredictability of each work day.  

Having said that, there are certain weeks like this one where even I cannot believe how busy I am.  So, for the sake of posterity, and for the sake of busy children’s librarians everywhere, here is a glimpse of this week at my job…

Yesterday (Monday) started off with discovering that the group who used the large program room on Saturday night had left all the chairs out, and also had forgotten to sweep and get rid of the trash (we have a big mouse problem in our building – old buildings in the country tend to be that way!). So before I could set up for storytime I had to stack fifty chairs in short order, sweep the floor, and ask Pete (former Trustee and current amazing volunteer) if he could take down and put away the speakers. Thank goodness Pete was there to do that, since I actually don’t know how to maneuver those heavy speakers down off their stands.

Then, fifteen minutes later (I stack chairs and clean quickly!), I set up for storytime and ran an absolutely lovely Mother Goose on the Loose program for a wonderful group of dedicated attendees. There is no better way to start a Monday, in my opinion, than to sing to and interact with a group of the youngest children and their caregivers – it is completely soul-affirming and rejuvenating.

Once storytime was over, I looked at the library website on my phone to see whether I could set up for my Tuesday afternoon program, which would be a lovely and efficient treat, since our program room is heavily used, and also very far away from the children’s room, so that it is hard for me to get up there to prep the room for my programs. It looked hopeful, so I went downstairs to check with my director about the state of the calendar.

She checked, and indeed it was hopeful: the R—- group had cancelled their Monday night room reservation, which left only the W—- book group with a Tuesday noontime reservation. We agreed that I could set up most of the room for my program, and just leave three tables and twelve chairs set up for the book group on the side with a view of the pond.

Back upstairs to unstack those fifty chairs, and then to arrange all eighty-nine chairs in a configuration that worked for the book group and for me. My Tuesday program (a presentation on Birds of Prey) also needs three six-foot tables, so I brought those out and arranged them. Done!

Back downstairs, where I first put away the Mother Goose accoutrements and then finalized planning for the 1:30 Art & Stories for 4’s & 5’s. Feltboard story: Froggy Gets Dressed by Jonathan London (felt pieces by me), check. Musical instruments: mini maracas, check. Music to play: Jim Gill’s Sneezing Song album, check. Pre-read the books for the day, including one of my absolute favorites, A Visitor for Bear by Bonny Becker, check. Set up the art project (Chalk Dip from MaryAnn Kohl’s Preschool Art), check. Then into the story room to pull out the small art tables, the feltboard easel, and the carpet pieces, check.

[ As you can see, by midday I haven’t had a sedentary moment yet! 😉 ]

Just as I sat down to check email, my boss called down to tell me that the book group had cancelled for tomorrow, and that she and one of the reference librarians were going up to the program room to take away the tables and reestablish the auditorium style seating that I would need on Tuesday. I said, “I’ll be right there to help you!” and bounced up two flights of stairs (but really the equivalent of four flights) and together the three of us finished setting up the room for my Tuesday program. Teamwork!

Then back downstairs to catch my breath and finally check my email at 1:00. Several emails needed my attention, so I quickly typed replies before the four- and five-year-olds arrived for storytime.

Storytime was wonderful – this group is so much fun to be with, so full of positive energy and giggles and creativity. We all loved the stories, and the mini maracas were a huge hit. And the feltboard story went over SO well that I realized that I should really make some additional felt stories for this group while I’m on break from school (over the years I’ve made at least fifty felt stories, but for my own sanity it’s time for some new ones!).

After cleaning up from storytime, it was time to swap out the small art tables for the large six-foot full height tables for the 3:30 GraviTrax program. Feltboard safely stowed away, chairs tucked into the closet, then I brought out the GraviTrax sets and set up the pieces on the tables so that the two teams would have equal “special” pieces and that the common building pieces would be on the middle table accessible to both teams. [Find out more about GraviTrax here.]

This brought me to 2:45…and I realized that I could actually have a bite to eat if I was quick. So off to the staff room I went, and got to chat with the electricians who are upgrading our lighting while I quickly ate my yogurt and banana. There were some tempting cookies on the table, and of course I took one, and S—-, the head electrician, said “Hey, no eating cookies!” To which I replied, with a wink, “I think I’ve earned it!”

By 3:15 my highschool senior volunteers for the GraviTrax program had arrived, which was great because it gave me time to give the new volunteer an overview of how the program works. It’s wonderful having such mature, awesome volunteers in whom I have complete and total trust! GraviTrax was a hit, as it always is, and the volunteers and I were hard-pressed to get the kids to finish up their construction by 4:30. (If you haven’t had the chance to witness GraviTrax in action, it is an amazing way for kids to learn about force and motion and gravity while having a really, really fun time.)

Then it was time to put away all the GraviTrax pieces, and to put away the six-foot tables and bring back out the art tables, and to set the story room up for the 6:30 evening program, a Polar Express Storytime run by the senior Girl Scout troop.

In the midst of this cleanup, my boss came downstairs with a woeful, apologetic look on her face, and with the bad news that the R—- group who had cancelled their Monday night reservation for the large program room hadn’t actually meant to cancel, and that they were coming after all…which means that I need to go in early this morning to set up the large program room for the afternoon Birds of Prey program before the first of four 5th grade classes arrives at 10:00 today for their research instruction.

Having reminded myself of that, I think I’d best continue this “day in the life” post sometime in the future, and get myself to work right now to set up for today, Tuesday! 🙂

Happy September

I actually love the month of September – even though we’re busy at the library after school with kids coming over from the elementary, middle, and high schools, the mornings are lovely and quiet and I get tons done.

Sometimes my storytime regulars ask why I take a couple of weeks off from storytimes in September, and I always reply, “So I can get some ordering done after the summer!”  Summers at the library are almost relentlessly busy, and it’s difficult to focus on reading book reviews in The Horn Book Magazine and Kirkus when kids are coming up to the desk every few minutes to redeem summer prizes or ask for summer reading book suggestions.  I need these next few weeks to pay some careful attention to ordering, and to make sure our shelves are fully stocked with the latest and greatest as winter comes around the corner.

But there’s another reason I take a couple of weeks off from storytimes in September: it’s vitally important to take a little time off from them so that I get refreshed and revitalized.  Yes, I could keep plugging along at the usual stiff storytime pace that I keep up the rest of the year (five or so storytimes a week), but we all benefit from me having just a few weeks off.  I actually love that I get nervous and edgy before my first September storytime, because it means that I’m coming back to storytimes with a fresh perspective.  If I’m nervous, then I’m fully engaged, and if I’m fully engaged, then storytimes are soooo much more fun for everyone.

One of my greatest fears is getting stale in my job, which is why I’m always pushing myself to do more and to try new and different things.  And by stepping back and taking a break, I can look at my storytimes from a bit of a distance and evaluate what I’m doing well and what I need to do better.  I’ll never go so far as to film myself doing a storytime, because that would destroy my self-confidence, but I’m very capable of being objective about my own performance.  I know that I overuse certain phrases, and I’m aiming to not say those phrases coming up in September.  I know that I’m a little afraid of using parent tips in my storytimes, but I need to get over that hump and start incorporating those tips more regularly.  And I know that by the end of the summer I was a bit tired and worn out, and I’m glad to take this breather and regain my enthusiasm.

So the next few weeks will be devoted to freshening my storytime perspective, and spending some intense time doing my absolute favorite part of my job: ordering books.  Yay!  Happy September, everyone!

Best art project ever…

Well, ok, maybe it’s not the *best* art project ever (how could I pick a favorite, really?), but today’s process art project was phenomenally fun, and also a great example of the cool things that you can do with art in a preschool storytime.

I’ve never been a fan of craft projects as part of storytime, since it pains me to limit the imagination of those beautiful four and five year old minds: one predetermined “right” final product teaches kids early on that there is a right way and wrong way with art.  How dismally depressing for the child who struggles to achieve the perfect final result while others are creating exactly what the teacher/librarian/adult prescribed.  And how limiting for those who are more dextrous, those who have the fine motor skills to really push their artistic bounds.

And so I’ve gone with process art projects, which have been incredibly fun and satisfying for everyone, adults and kids.  [Thanks, as usual, to Mary Ann Kohl and her book Preschool Art for providing the projects and the inspiration.]  Today we went with more of a group project than usual and made salad spinner art – page 217 in Kohl’s book – and I have to admit I was a little worried before storytime by how this project would work.  I never know exactly how many kids will be at the preschool storytime (today we had five), and it can be hard for kids of this age to work together and have patience while everyone has a turn creating.  But I also felt that it was important to try, and so we all shared one salad spinner to make our art.

It was fantastic.  Truly fantastic.  All five kids were great about taking turns, and everyone was fully involved in the process of each piece of art.  How would those two colors work put next to each other like that?  How would the super fast turning of the salad spinner by the child in charge affect the end result?  What about the child who chose to turn it slowly – would the paint look different than the super fast turning?  And, best of all, the questions about why the paint was doing what it was doing – moving us into a gentle discussion of force and motion.

It was so much fun, in fact, that even the adults were anxious to take a turn after the kids were finished.  One adult discovered the magic of turning the spinner first one way, then the next, which gave a completely different look to the paint on the paper.  Which then drove some of the kids to ask to make just one more, please, in which they experimented with alternating rotation and also with more bold placement of color on the page.  So we talked not just about art, but also about science and color mixing (I got out the color paddles from the STEM kit) and we also learned how to use an eye dropper.*

We kept at it for a full forty-five minutes, and I think many of the families will be going home and finding an old salad spinner to experiment with on their own.  It was awesome.

*  N.B.:  the eye droppers were the one change I made from Kohl’s directions in the book; we have eye droppers on hand, and I thought it would be cool to introduce the kids to using them.  And it worked!

Spring is coming…and thanks

I have absolute proof that spring is coming, despite the snow currently fluffing through the air:  at Monday morning’s storytime, several of my regular attendees – kids who are always attentive – were practically bouncing off the walls.  Some of these usually docile children even had to be taken out the story room by their grownups.  Spring is definitely coming.

And thank you to all of you who left such sweet comments about my last post on the loss of our dear Ophy.  I appreciate your love and support.  I’m slowly getting used to the idea that Ophy isn’t around anymore, and I keep reminding myself that she was terribly sick and ready to move on.  I’ve never had to make that decision before, and now I fully appreciate what our wonderful vet told me: while putting a beloved pet to sleep is very difficult, it is also one’s obligation as a caring pet owner to make that decision when the time comes.  And hopefully Ophy is cavorting in the great beyond with her best feline pal, Rudy.

Still here…

Yes, I’m still here – but I’m finding that my still-healing broken foot is limiting my evening creativity.  While at work, I think of things that would be awesome blog post topics: a very young child who says or does something charming, a book group that takes the book discussion to a new level, an idea for a new program.  But I can’t write blog posts at work, and by the time I get home I’m a bit cooked, mentally and physically, after stumping around at the library all day with the walking boot on my foot.

So here’s a quick summary of what I’ve been up to for the last couple of weeks:

  • Lots of storytimes, which have been especially crowded now that the gloom of winter and cabin fever has set in for everyone.  Last week there were forty-one adults and kids at the Thursday storytime, which is about the limit of what we can fit into the story room.  But it’s such a nice group of attendees, all of whom participate enthusiastically.  There was a wonderful moment at one recent storytime where every single adult in the room was belting out (in harmony, of course!) “Where is Thumbkin?”.  Very very cool.
  • Lots of great book groups.  Of course I’ve waited too long to write up coherent retellings of each book group discussion, so I’ll just sum up each one quickly.  The 5th grade group read Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett, and eleven out of twelve kids disliked the book because it was “too slow.”  The teen book group read The Ruins of Gorlan by John Flanagan, and while talking about what kind of book it is I discovered that most of the group had never heard of caviar, creme brulee, or Agatha Christie.  The 4th grade group discussed Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin, and they unanimously loved it.  (They were also happy to hear that a book they read earlier this year, The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, was the winner of this year’s Newbery award.)  And the 6th grade group discussed Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick, which they mostly loved; it interested me that they were all surprised to find out that Brian Selznick both wrote and illustrated the book – the group members thought that he was only the author.
  • And then there are the random things: sweet moments at the art portion of the storytime for 4’s & 5’s (a five year old discovering that he can “erase” his painting and start fresh, thus prolonging the creative experience); an eighteen month old finding his dancing legs and grinning ecstatically while bobbing up and down to some Zydeco; two sweet girls at the Create a Valentine program surprising me with Valentine cards (one said “Feel Better!” and the other – launched at my back – was emblazoned with “Guess Who???”…the artist finally came over and told me she had made it, since I was clearly confused); and the daily niceties of working in a small town filled with caring people.

Hopefully my foot will be fully healed soon (eight weeks and counting right now, this is a loooooooong process), but until then please forgive me if I have lapses of blog entries.  I’m still here!

Ah, I wish…

At this morning’s storytime, one mom told me that she was watching Downton Abbey yesterday, and she talked with her young daughter a bit about the show.  As the credits were rolling, the daughter asked her mom if that was where Abby the librarian lived. 

Ah, I wish…

Little Books

I’ve written many times before about my success stories using projects from MaryAnn Kohl’s book Preschool Art: It’s the Process, Not the Product – enough times that I’ve felt a bit redundant in my praise of Kohl and her book – but yesterday’s experience at storytime was good enough to warrant yet another post on the topic.

With my broken foot, I’ve struggled with how to continue with art projects in the weekly Art & Stories for 4’s & 5’s storytime.  Last week, I was still on crutches, so I thought long and hard and finally decided to go with an old standard project: rolls of paper laid out on the floor, kids lie on the paper, adults trace the outline of each child, and then the kids color in their tracings.  Huge success!  No set up for me – no tables, no stress, the parents did the tracings of the kids – and the kids kept going for forty-five minutes with their artwork.  (Of course, this makes total sense, since four and five year olds are still quite self-focused, and working on a self-portrait at that age completely fits their developmental level.)

So last week’s art project was terrific, and I was feeling the pressure yesterday to come up with a similarly awesome project.  But I’m still pretty gimpy: off the crutches, but hobbling around on a walking boot that comes up almost to my knee.  I knew I would be able to drag some tables out of the closet, but I also knew that I wouldn’t be able to sort through our stacks and stacks of awesome art supplies in order to set up a complex project.  What to do??!?!

A paper-only project seemed in order (especially since my coworker Carol, a recently retired teacher, had just donated three grocery bags full of the most gorgeous construction paper I have ever seen), so I opened up Kohl’s book, flipped to January’s projects as a starting point, and ka-bam.  There it was:  Little Books.  The only prep necessary was to use the paper cutter to cut some white copy paper down to half size, and also to cut some sheets of construction paper down to half size, and then I dug out pencils, markers, and some staplers.  The idea (without giving away Kohl’s project instructions – you REALLY should buy her book if you don’t already own it!) was to have the kids and their grownups work together to construct a little book.  Then the grownups stepped back and let the kids create the insides of the books.

Before we started on the project, I talked to the group about the process they would be going through.  One wise little boy, upon hearing that he would be creating a book, said, “But I don’t know how to write words!!!!”  And so I talked about how there are many wonderful books that tell their stories only with pictures, no words.  Perhaps, I suggested, if the kids knew how to write their names, they could do that, but otherwise they could just fill up the pages with pictures.

And they did.  And they kept going and going and going.  Some kids talked out loud as they created, telling anyone who would listen what their book was about, while other kids hunched over their creations so that no one could spy on their artwork as it was in process.  We started the project at 2:25, and several kids were still going strong at 3:15…and they would have kept going for quite a while if it hadn’t been time to pick up their older siblings at the elementary school.  Only a reassurance that there were markers and pencils at home to use kept these last artists from having a meltdown at having to step away from their book before it was finished.

Another huge success.  Now to find another project for next week that meets the criteria of helping a gimpy librarian run a great art project.  Thankfully, I have the resource to find that awesome project!

Tooting my own horn

One of my storytime regulars said the nicest things to me today – so nice that I just had to share them, though I know it comes close to blatant self-promotion…

This storytime regular (who drives in from another town) has been coming to my storytimes for a few years now, first with just her oldest son, then with both of her sons once the younger was born.  Their family has come to my Mother Goose on the Loose storytimes for a long time, and then the oldest son grew older and they also started coming to my Storytime for 2’s & 3’s.  And today they tried out my Art & Stories for 4’s & 5’s for the first time.  As the kids in the group settled in to their art project, this mom came up to me and said, “Abby, you are phenomenal.  You’re good with all the ages – some people are only good with one age, but you’re good with them all.  You’re phenomenal.”  She went on to say some other really nice things, all of which made me feel appreciated and understood in a way that I haven’t in a long while.

And then later we were chatting again as I rinsed out paint-filled Chobani containers and messy paintbrushes.  I mentioned that my mother had been a teacher, and that she had always wanted me to be a teacher, too, grooming me from an early age; Mom even brought me with her to work when she was a preschool teacher and I was ten or eleven, putting me to work with the kids and talking me through how to work with them.  “The sad thing is,” I said, “my mother never lived to see me in this job.  Which is a shame.”  And this lovely storytime regular said to me – bringing tears to my eyes then and now – “I bet your mom knows exactly what you’re doing, and that she’s watching and smiling down on you.”  And then she went on to say, “It’s definitely in your blood, teaching.  You’re a teacher-librarian, that’s what you are.”

So here I am tooting my own horn, but also expressing gratitude to someone who did what we all should do more often, but don’t: telling another person that you value and appreciate them.  It’s such a great feeling to know that you’re making a difference in the world, because I know that there are many days that go by where I’m not sure if what I’m doing is having any impact.  Today, happily, is not one of those days.  Today I am reassured that what I do every day is worth doing.  Thank you!!!