The Benefit of Winging It

By Carter Higgins, Guest Blogger

 I always say that you have to be interested in neatness and calm and order to be school librarian. And yet, the richest parts of our job exist in those opposites.
Are your shelves messy?
That means kids have been picking through them. And probably quickly, with that urgency that comes from finding just the right book under the ticking time clock of the bell.
Is it loud?
Whispers are a thing of the past. Libraries are places for your school community to gather, to chat excitedly about books, to ask questions and work together.
Is your calendar filled with well-intentioned plans that are scratched out and cancelled in favor of something new? Something specific to you students and their needs?
That is the benefit of winging it.
I love teaching in the library, where I'm available to collaborate and act as an extension of the classroom. And yet, I equally love being the opposite. When you wholeheartedly embrace the advantages of flying solo, you might run into a little accidental magic.
Remember that neatness and order thing? I had the next couple months all planned out for my fourth graders. We were going to talk about new releases, invite authors to Skype with us, dive into the library's resources, and connect with their technology and social studies classes to launch into a big research project on our state's history.
And then I noticed the kid who was bored.
“I don't really like books.”
The kid who was bored had a friend who was brave.
“Me either. But I think it's cause we haven't found our favorites yet.”
Perhaps this duo was trying to stick it to me a little bit – that books aren't cool, that the library is boring, that they had me outnumbered and so there.
But I listened. And they kept talking.
The longer we talked, the more I mentally erased from my plan book. I reminded myself that the first thing that's always in my plans – talking about books – is truly the only necessary thing. It's the thing from which everything else radiates. We'll get to resources and reference materials and research. We'll connect with authors when we understand the thrill of what they create.
But that's the benefit of winging it. I don't have to teach a certain skill set by a specific date. I don't have a team with whom to divide and conquer the work. There's a different kind of accountability to ensuring student learning. I can drop those well-intentioned plans in favor of serving my community.
And so we're reading.
We're reading this week, and we're reading next week, and we're not reading for a grade or for peer or teacher feedback. We're reading for the sheer pleasure of it. We're reading for the bored and brave kids to find their favorites.
I still start each of our times together with a handful of book trailers and book talks. Not only is that an instant way to engage the room, it's a bit of sneaky-wham-bam-don't-even-know-you're-learning for the kids. The more they hear someone talk excitedly about books, the better they become at doing it themselves.
And then we read.
Some kids are just fine with a clock and a book and a comfortable spot. You know the ones. Others need some structure, and here's how our choices shake out.
Don't want a book? Have a magazine. They're glossy, graphic, and high-interest. Bite-sized stories and infographics are perfect for kids who don't have (or don't think they have) the stamina for longer passages. They're easily consumable and low commitment.

I always give them the option to take books and magazines outside. We're a campus-style school in Los Angeles, and that means the weather is usually beautiful. There are benches and trees and shady patches of grass, and taking advantage of them feels like an easy choice.
The ones that are still inside? They've got lots of options. 
We've got a Book-to-Movie Club, where a small bunch is either reading Coraline or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. If they fall in love with the Other World or Willy Wonka, how much more so will they enjoy seeing the story brought to life? Though both are visually stunning, I imagine they will still say the book was better.
Did you know you could read Choose Your Own Adventure books with a pal?  All it takes is a fierce round of Rock, Paper, Scissors to decide who gets to pick the fate and drive the story. This is a loud book club because the stakes matter so very much. There's a lot of excitement with the turn of a page. Is there a better noise?

That leaves a lot of room for kid-created book club with next to zero teacher input. Haven't you noticed what kids can create on their own? All I've asked is that each club opens their doors to anyone who wants to take part. These are pop-up book clubs in whichever section of the library kids choose. So far, they've created the Fairy Tale Book Club, the Cookbook Book Club (and they've got scrolls and scrolls of grocery lists for mom and dad!), and the Young Teachers Book Club. In that one, kids are reading as many picture books they can get their hands on in the hopes that they'll be invited to be guest readers in Kindergarten classrooms. 
How do they run? I'm not too sure. You'd have to ask them. All I know is that it is messy, it is loud, and it is wonderful.
We're finding our favorites. We'll figure it out. We're winging it.

Carter Higgins is an elementary school librarian, book blogger, and former graphic designer. Her debut middle grade novel is A Rambler Steals Home (HMH 2017), and you can find her online at Design of the Picture Book and @carterhiggins.