3 Powerful Library Activities for the New School Year

Summer break cannot possibly be over, can it? In truth, I love my summers as much as anyone, but by August my brain is starting to drift toward possibilities for the coming year. I’m always looking for library activities that students will see and ask, “When do we get to do that?”

And so I’ve once again pulled together a list of three library activities we’re going to feature in our program this year that will hopefully light a spark for you as well. Last year’s post, “3 Activities to Try This Year,” centered on Skype, robots and writing challenges. This year, I’m inviting you to join me in mock book awards, student-led projects and a diversity audit.

Let’s do this!

1. School-based Book Awards

Chances are you’ve read a fair number of children’s books that feature a shiny metallic award sticker or two on the cover. The awards, including the Newbery, Caldecott and Geisel, are announced annually at the Youth Media Awards, broadcast from the American Library Association (ALA) annual midwinter conference. The various awards honor authors and illustrators of distinguished works for children and young adults, and the books awarded are selected by committees of librarians throughout the country.

And while it’s nice to teach students what those shiny stickers on their favorite books represent, I find it especially gratifying to delve into the awards criteria and then ask students what books they would select. We work from a selection of titles that meet the criteria for the award, and then we devote a series of classes to reading, analyzing and reflecting on the books before the students are given the responsibility of selecting their winners. The result is a different kind of read aloud, one that’s more considered, more studied and more defended. Also, it’s pretty cool when your students select a book and then discover that one of the official ALSC committees picked it as well!

Here are some mock awards, each done a little differently, that you might take inspiration from as you consider adding a student-selected book award to your library activities:

  • Travis Jonker shares how his K-4 students participate in a Mock Caldecott.
  • Armin Arethna and Mary Ann Scheuer describe how their school and public libraries partner for a Mock Newbery book club.
  • Amy Seto Forrester, Amanda Foulk and Misti Tidman invite the online community to vote in their Mock (Theodor Seuss) Geisel
  • I proudly display the winners of our Mock Coretta Scott King book bracket.

2. Students Lead the Learning

It’s hard to beat a well-planned, engaging lesson. You feel like you’re in a flow, your thinking is in sync with that of the students and there’s a level of harmony or energy that you want to return to over and over — which makes what I’m going to suggest next feel, perhaps, a bit counterintuitive.

What if you dropped your plans and, instead, approached your students with a goal or learning objective and let them decide the process through which the goal would be accomplished? Library activities of this nature require a great deal of coordination, resource management and trust, but the results might be some of the most meaningful moments in your teaching career to date. They are for me, without question.

Here are some pro tips to help make your student-led library activities (and the process leading up to them) manageable and enjoyable for both you and the students.

  1. Keep the end goal in mind. Doing so will help keep your work in focus and eliminate unnecessary steps. Last year, our fourth and fifth graders were given the goal of helping to build kindness and empathy throughout the school. Any ideas that did not support that goal were quickly weeded out.
  2. Picture the process. Do you want the students working individually, in groups or as a class? Will they all be working on the same thing, or can there be variation from student to student or group to group? Having a vision in mind for the process is critical and will also allow you to determine what is most manageable for you as a facilitator.
  3. Rein it in. Some students may struggle during the ideation process while others may have ideas in abundance. Check in with students frequently throughout the process to ensure that they’re staying on task, that they have a clear, communicable vision for their work, and that the work can be completed within the timeline you have established for the project(s).
  4. Model pride and trust. Speak openly with students, affirming their work and vision for their projects, and regularly remind students of the support you can provide as a resource should they need it.

3. We Need (to Audit for) Diverse Books

The We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) campaign was founded in 2014 with the vision of establishing “a world in which all children can see themselves in the pages of a book.”

Have you ever stopped to consider more critically the books you are sharing with your students? Our classroom libraries, school libraries, book displays, read aloud suggestions, reading group selections, author visits, book fairs, and summer reading lists all communicate, subtly or not, our value of diversity and of the ability for our children to see themselves in the pages of a book.

Understanding what it means to have a diverse book collection is important before we move forward with this idea. WNDB defines diversity as “all diverse experiences, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, Native, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.” With this definition in mind, we can offer library activities to analyze our book collections and better understand how diversity is represented through them. This process, known as a diversity audit, can be done by adults and children alike. The information discovered throughout the process can be used to inform future purchasing as steps are made toward a more inclusive collection.

Many articles are available that may help give you inspiration. Lee & Low shared an exceptional post a few years ago that inspired me to do a diversity audit with my students. In an article entitled “Having Students Analyze Our Classroom Library to See How Diverse It Is,” veteran educator Jessica Lifshitz describes the logistics of doing one such audit with students. In an episode of the Books Between podcast, teacher Corrina Allen describes the process of facilitating her fifth-grade students in an audit of their classroom library, sharing their work in addition to their ideas for expanding the audit next time. And Karen Jensen’s robust work with her YA collection diversity audit includes a defense of census data on which to base the audit, consideration of how to present the findings and resources that can be referenced when making collection purchases in the future.

All of this is to say there are discussions going on in the education and publishing communities at large. By following and participating in these conversations, we all have the potential to help more readers see themselves in literature and to send a message about the value and importance of inclusive book collections. There’s a lot of work to be done, but it is good, down-and-dirty, meaningful work that centers on students and on standing up for those who historically have been looked over.

Connect With Us Online

How are you kicking off the new school year? Do you have any library activities or ideas you’d like to see materialize this year? Are there ideas you hear others talking about that you’d like explained or supported with resources? Be sure to let us know in the comments below or by connecting with us on Twitter at @MatthewWinner and @demco. We’d love to spread the word about the amazing things you have planned for the new school year!


Matthew Winner

Matthew Winner

Library Media Specialist and Host of The Children’s Book Podcast
Matthew Winner is an elementary school librarian in Howard County, Maryland. He is the host of The Children's Book Podcast (formerly All The Wonders), a weekly podcast featuring insightful and sincere interviews with authors, illustrators and everyone involved in taking a book from drawing board to bookshelf. He is the author of Asha Went Walking, a webcomic for young readers illustrated by Lorian Tu-Dean, about a girl, her arctic fox companion and her magic bag. In 2013, Matthew was named a Library Journal Mover & Shaker and was invited to the White House as part of the Champions of Change program. Visit Matthew online at www.matthewcwinner.com/blog or on Twitter at @MatthewWinner.