Thursday, April 10, 2014

"K-5 Programming": Differentiating in the Library

This week I had a program where I picked the incorrect book. It was a good book, and good for the topic, and a perfect read-aloud for 8-12 year-old kids.
...Problem was, the day of the program, 4-8 year-old kids showed up. I still "read" the book, skimming pages while following the story; but I left the program disappointed in myself. Why hadn't I prepared for this? Why didn't I just skip the book when I saw who was there? 

I'm kind of glad this came up, because another Iron Fist post has been rattling around in my head, this time about helping kids navigate your programming for success. Truly, the following post is probably step #1 in Traditional Programming Child Management: is your program developmentally appropriate? This is really important to think about now that we're all trying STE(a)M at our libraries. I'm not saying that toddlers can't love learning about the weather or that fifth graders can't love sensory activities; but: how are these ideas presented? Are you explaining clouds in a tangible way that toddlers can connect to their world? Are you talking to fifth graders about the weird things their senses do every day without their knowledge to screw with their heads so they're interested? If they're bored out of their skulls, kids will let you know by acting out. Chaos or disinterest in your program is not their fault, it's yours.

I don't say that to be harsh, I promise. I say that to empower us all: their interest in your program is under your control

As I thought about my book of choice, and how disappointed in myself I was, I realized that my programming is influenced by education in a way that I never realized before: differentiating instruction.

In the education field, differentiating instruction means that instead of teaching to the "average" ability of a class, expecting struggling students to catch up and higher achievers to just deal, you provide a few different ways to learn the same information. And everyone might get something a little different from the lesson, and that's okay, because they get what they need.

And seriously, everyone, when you're trying to occupy 5 year olds AND 12 year olds at the SAME TIME? This is exactly what we should be aiming for. It makes it easy on you and fun for them. And it might be the reason a lot of my programming has been met with success, and Bad Self-Reflecting Librarian on my part for not realizing it.
Same meme, differently accessible joke

This isn't making three separate programs to reach all kids, but differentiating for all ages does take some deliberate thought. It takes a little extra thinking during preparation, but will make a program run more smoothly. Here's a few things I do to differentiate my programming to make sure all kids get something out of them:

1) Explain things a few different ways: Don't skimp on the big words just because you've got kindergartners. Use them, but define them in a kid friendly way (please read that book if you're interested in this). If you're not sure what's accessible to the kids, Wordsmyth is a great place to start. If you have a read-aloud, make sure you know the book first and have a 2 word definition for any large words or idioms. This way, younger kids will learn a concept exists, and older kids will learn some new vocabulary.

2) Use pictures AND written words: This is a great idea for many reasons, from helping those who are learning English to accounting for lack of prior knowledge. It also helps when you're writing out directions and some of your kids can't yet read on their own (the only time I do this is AFTER I say directions, but I leave them up as a reminder or for late attendees). Use written words, too, so that the older kids don't feel like you're patronizing. They'll come back if they feel valued.

3) Know Your Stuff: I was so proud of the work Angie put in to reboot her American Girl program, but what stood out to me was her dedication to the attendees by reading the books beforehand. You shouldn't phone in any program, but sometimes you need to know a little more so fans (especially older kids) will buy in, like when I held a DOAWK party or a Ninjago party. Or a Chima party. I was just reminded that I need to be more on my toes about this when I didn't know the type of cipher we were using in a spy program. Some kids come to see what the fuss is about, but some kids want to seriously talk shop, and you owe it to them to be able to.

To differentiate #3 for GIF-centered learners:


4) Different directions for different kids: If kids seem lost by your directions when you explain an activity, it's okay to pull them aside and help them out with simpler directions. And sometimes, you might just want to have a whole new set of directions entirely. During my recent program as well as my Mars program, I had a challenge for the kids to create, but it was a little too much for 3-4 year old attendees. Did I forget about and make the older kids deal? Nope, I challenged them to do the activity, and let the younger kids make whatever they wanted related to the program topic. It is completely okay to have different activities, even, for different kids. And if the younger brother wants to try what his older sister is doing? Let him. The second he becomes frustrated, though, have the more developmentally-appropriate directions in hand.

Differentiated programming can even make it easier for you to run toddler/preschool programming and middle school/high school programming. Right? I'm just guessing here, since I've never tried. But I HAVE had programs with 3 year old kids and their 10 year old siblings, and both were engaged in the activity.

It's not about pushing younger kids to understand content they can't wrap their brains around yet; and it's not about dumbing down the material either. Meet your kids where they are, wherever they are, and we'll all be awesome together.

And now, nearly 3 years into the life of my blog, I can actually use a favorite quote from Lupe Fiasco, in a song that I listen to every time I feel like I have an educational "win":
So G, they told me I should come down, cousin; but I flatly refused: I ain't dumbin' down nothing.

What do you do to make sure all your program attendees are engaged?


  1. Thank you so much for this post - it's such an important topic and such a good brainstorm starter. Thank you!

  2. My brain is exploding with new ideas. And gifs. Definitely gifs. Great post!

  3. Both my regular programs fall in this category. I suspect I do a lot of these things almost subconsciously now. The other night I was off sick and a coworker took over my program. I told her where to find the materials and basically what to do with them. She said she felt thrown off when all the kids who came turned out to be younger than she expected. I almost hadn't remembered that WAS an issue, I've gotten so used to adapting on the fly! I've noticed it helps to have several potential read-alouds that can be switched out on a whim, and open-ended projects with various levels of "done."

  4. Thanks everyone!

    And Amy, you're so right! It ends up being subconscious most often. I love that you had a ready example of seeing this happen recently. Something I learned long ago is that nothing "just happens". So if successful programming isn't the result of a perfect storm by chance, anyone can definitely learn how to do it. And that is some powerful stuff! I'm trying my best to unpack the subconscious parts of my planning, and I'm glad you're around for the ride!

  5. Nice post. This happens to all of us at one point or another. Thanks for sharing!