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Flannel Friday Round-Up April 8, 2016

Hello! We’ve got some great storytime activities for you this week.

Welcome first-time poster, Jennifer! She offers this up a seriously adorable flannelized rhyme: 5 Little Eggs. She’s new to the FFRU, but clearly she’s an old soul when it comes to making flannel boards. 

Wendy at Flannel Board Fun has been slacking this week…NOT! She has two great felt sets:

  1. Freight Train by Donald Crews
    Freight Train:
  2. She makes these amazing flexible felt sets. I LOVE THIS IDEA!!! She creates one beautiful felt set, and matches up the pieces with several different stories. Brilliant!  One set, many stories… Economical and adorable!
    Dessert Set:

Lindsey at Jbrary has 3 great food-related felt boards this week. They are cute and yummy.

Babies are falling all over themselves for Mariah’s 5 Little Babies. Take a look-see at Read Them Stories.

And Annie at SoTomorrow had a nesting chickens playset collecting dust on top of her file cabinet for ages until she realized they’d pretty clucking awesome storytelling prop.

Kathryn is buzzing with Old McRainbow’s Flower Garden at Fun with Friends at Storytime.

Kate from Felt Board Magic offers up 2 delectable felt creations: Five Currant Bun in a Baker’s Shop and Five/Ten Fat Sausages Sizzling in a Pan

A beautiful flannelization of a beloved classic from Lauren at the Dilley Dalley The Very Hungry Caterpillar

Did you notice how chickenful this week has been? Well, here’s one more for you from Jane at Piper Loves the Library: Flannel Friday Chick Week! Cheep, Cheep, Cheep!
Next week’s FFRU will be hosted by the brilliant founder of this weekly tradition, Melissa Depper! YAY! So check out Mel’s Desk, and stay tuned!

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Year of Wonders: Launching a STEAM Lab in the Library

This poor blog has been neglected for a long, long time. The reason for this long hiatus is that my focus at NPLD shifted quite a bit over the last couple of years. When I started this blog I focused on storytime and early literacy programming. I still do some of that, of course, but the bulk of my work over the last year or so has been one major project.  Before I get into what this project actually is, I will you a little background…

Background: Renovation and Reevaluation

This assignment came about a year after NPLD’s renovation and rebranding project. In 2013, the library was completely gutted, and reorganized. And in 2014, we opened the doors to a completely new NPLD. We had a bigger, better department for teens on the lower level, aptly branded as the Teen Underground (this link leads to interior tours of NPLD). The department formally known as Youth Services was rebranded as the KidSpace. In addition to a new, sleek interior, we expanded and enriched our early literacy play space. And we built a new, fancy tweens-only space for 5th-8th graders. Riffing on the naming theme used by the Teen Dept, we called this space the Middle Ground. *And yes, I still get a a bit twitterpated when I see these two department names in the same sentence because I am just that nerdy.*  The Middle Ground is decked out with it’s own computers, big-screen TV, and gaming consoles. These new spaces were an immediate success with the age groups for which they were designed.

Unfortunately, that left the K-4th graders feeling like they were left out in terms of having a “special new space”.  I mean, they still had the rest of KidSpace to hang out in, but they didn’t have a space all their own. This was intentional. After all, We didn’t want to break up the entire library into little clubhouses. The idea for the MG was developed because NPLD is an extremely popular hangout for middle schoolers. We wanted to give them a space to act in an age-appropriate way without disrupting service for younger children and their parents. Of course, for kids on the cusp of adolescence, being too young for something fun is maddeningly “unfair”. The K-4th graders voiced their displeasure early and often. But the fact is, they are simply not old enough for the responsibility that comes with being on their own in the MG. TBH, middle schoolers aren’t old enough for this responsibility either. We require them to register as a MG user, provide parents’ contact information, and sign a contract promising to follow a set of behavior guidelines. It takes time for them to adjust, but they do grow into it given the chance to to make mistakes a few (dozen) times.

In the spring of 2014, my supervisor told me that plans were in motion to build a maker space and digital media for adults and teens, and asked if I thought KidSpace needed its own makerspace. After the renovation, I had rolled out a new Maker Monday program that was struggling to gain momentum. So far, we had tried a variety of the popular maker programs that my colleagues at other libraries love: bristlebots, scribblebots, t-shirt hacks, Hour of Code, light painting, etc. I never had more than 3-4 kids in attendance, and even when they had fun, they rarely came back. I sort of grimaced at the thought of spending a ton of money, time, and effort on a space I wasn’t convinced our patrons wanted.

I didn’t want to say no. I love a good challenge. So, instead, I asked for a little more insight into what the library’s leadership was hoping to accomplish. It turned out, the Board of Trustees had shown a great deal of interest, not just in the Maker Movement, but in STEM education initiatives in libraries. Now, this was something I could really dig my teeth into. I closed my eyes, took a great big CHOMP!

I started to draw on my memories from past programs to look for science-y inspiration, and one experience jumped into view. It is the single most universally wonder-inducing activities we’ve offered in my time at NPLD: the Monarch Butterfly nursery.

Butterfly house as inspiration.

The Monarch nursery has evolved over the last two or three summers. It started when one of our clerks in patron services brought us a caterpillar in a Dairy Queen cup. Iris Henderson is a monarch enthusiast. She has a large patch of milkweed in her yard. My coworker, the brilliant Debbie Graham, decided to gather some caterpillar books, and put together a proper display. Patrons and staff, alike, were immediately mesmerized by these little creatures. People would come into the library for a quick visit, and wind up staying for hours to watch it nibble and explore its tiny habitat. So, Iris brought more caterpillars. She brought some into the kid’s department, and offered others as giveaways to curious patrons as they checked out books. The enthusiasm for these little caterpillars grew, grew, and grew some more.

One evening, a long-time regular came in with her mom and dad just as one of the caterpillars was preparing to pupate. They were planning on a quick visit before going home to make dinner. But when this girl saw the caterpillar hanging in it’s little J, she plopped down in a chair, and wouldn’t take her eyes off of it. They wound up having a pizza delivered to the library so they could watch the metamorphosis. I had been hoping to catch the moment on camera, but I had a program planned for that evening. I asked them for a full report. And the next time I saw this family, all three of them were bubbling over to describe the experience to me. I had so many questions for them, What did the antennae look like just before it metamorphosed; Did it wiggle around a lot as it transformed?; When did the golden glittery spots appear? They had amazing answers for each of these questions. Their descriptions included–what could only be described–as an “interpretive dance” to demonstrate the process. That’s when my coworkers and I really began to see how powerful this experience was for the library.

So this year, one of my coworkers asked her husband to build an official caterpillar house. It’s a simple whitewashed wood frame about 30 inches tall and 12 inches square, a mesh top that pops off, and fiberglass windows that slide out for easy access. This house allows for clear views on all sides, and it’s very easy to clean. It can house 2-5 caterpillars comfortably.
With this new addition, the staff’s enthusiasm continued to grow. I found a simple Monarch Observation worksheet on Pinterest, and put them in a binder labeled “Field Notebook” to encourage kids to draw and write their observations as they watched the caterpillars. All drawings are really impressive. I don’t mean they are impressive in artistic terms–although they are impressive. But more importantly they are clearly drawn from careful, conscientious observation. The field notebook also offered us an easy way to take statistics. We found it was impossible to track how many people were observing the caterpillars, especially with all the summer reading craziness. These drawings gave us some insight into how many people were actively participating.

But the other incredible thing for us as librarians is that we realized how much we had learned about monarchs from one year to the next.  I don’t think we realized how much knowledge we had acquired the previous year until the were back on the floor. We found we were able to answer patrons’ questions, point out subtle phenomena, and predict behavior without having to look it up.

It’s one thing to know how powerful a learning tool observation can be, but this really illustrated that principle to all of us. I mean, were all had a lot of respect for monarch butterflies before this program, but we didn’t really know that much. And while I wouldn’t call us experts, two months of regularly caring for and observing monarch caterpillars has deepened our understanding of their life-cycle. And when patrons ask, “How do you know so much about them?” Our response, “Well, we’ve read about them in books, but mostly, we just watch them carefully. Over the course of the summer, and we really grow to understand them.” At least half the time, the kids and parents immediately plop down in a chair to ready watch and learn.

So when the opportunity to build something new for the library fell into my lap, I knew I had to infuse it with this type of enthusiasm. I asked my boss if she would consider letting me focus on the Science, Art, and Math rather than the technology and engineering. Just to add a little advantage to direction, I pointed out that a makerspace may require a great deal of maintenance from IT. We have a small, overextended IT department that oversees A LOT of computers for patrons and staff. I suggested they might appreciate if we made this space self-sufficient in terms of tech support. She agreed, so I got to work.

Getting Down to Business

I like naming things.  The moment I decided I wanted to take on this project, I was struck with the perfect name for the space: the Wonder Ground.

Once this was set down on paper, I dove into my favorite part of any project: THE RESEARCH! If you are interested in finding our just how obsessively nerdy I am, you’re welcome to explore my Wonder Ground Pinterest boards. I looked high and low for inspiration: museum’s, zoos, nature centers, classrooms (esp) Reggio and Montessori classrooms, documentaries, parks, blogs, toy stores, and anywhere else I could find it. Once I opened my mind to the possibility that ideas could be anywhere, I began to find it everywhere. I developed a vision: to build a place where kids and their grownups can gain a richer understanding of STEAM concepts while having fun.

I moved on to develop a more focused mission. I read and read and read. I hashed ideas out with the awe-inspiring Rebecca Zarazan Dunn. I wanted the Wonder Ground to emulate the places like the Morton Arboretum and Adler Planetarium’s Planet Explorers even if only on a small scale. I got about a zillion ideas when I visited Gateway Montessori. A magical Montessori community that many of my friends’ kids attend.

Then I outlined the areas of science I wanted to cover: biology, botany, physics, geology, astronomy, and math. I decided to stay away from computer science and chemistry (at least for now). I felt these sorts of activities might create a headache for other departments that already have an intense workload keeping the library clean and running smoothly: IT–as I mentioned above–and Maintenance. I think these are small sacrifices to make in the name interdepartmental relations.  I have seen our maintenance staff stress over carpet stains more than once. I knew they would sleep better at night if I left chemistry out of the picture. I put together a budget, and started purchasing a ton of crazy science equipment (we had a large grant that covered this project and a Maker Space for adults and teens) to cover a full year of Wonder Ground themes.

Somewhere in this frenzy of activity, my department got a new supervisor, the indomitable Arianne Carey, and a brilliant new program coordinator, Deidre Winterhalter. I can’t say enough good things about these two. They are both stellar librarians, and all-around amazing people. Deidre helped me shape my amorphous, hodge-podge of weirdo ideas into a succinct mission:

Kids in kindergarten through 4th grade are invited to play, explore and learn in our exciting STEAM room. STEAM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math, and is crucial to a well-rounded 21st century education.  Wonder Ground is a place where we can gain a richer understanding of these topics while having fun.We will transform curious thoughts into meaningful questions and solutions that lead to a deeper understanding of the world

Arianne worked with the publicity department to design a brand, logo,  signage, and web content. They did–and continue to do–a fantastic job on the PR for the WG.




Inside the Wonder Ground

I spent a lot of time thinking about how to design the interior. The space is huge: 11’x 10′. I wanted the space to be flexible, yet structured.

I didn’t want to spend a ton of money on furniture. We needed a high quality locking cabinet for a few delicate items. Maintenance took care of that, as well as an inexpensive, narrow table on wheels. The table is perfect for our needs. It’s narrow, but not too narrow. And we can roll it out of the way if we need a little space play. The white wardrobe is from Ikea, and it’s works as storage+display. We can tie things to it and weave things into it the mesh. I like to keep extras (e.g. related equipment and provocations) in there for kids to explore during Open Labs (I will talk about those in a moment).

I decided to think of each theme as a module, and planned to produce content the same format for each module. A huge pegboard makes this simple and easy. I laminate relevant print materials (e.g. magazine and internet articles/images/infographics, weeded books, reproducibles from our teacher collection etc.), punch holes in the top and hang them from peg hooks, so that kids can read them during open labs. I hang baskets on the pegboard for storing supplies we use for every theme (scissors, magnifying glasses, tape, a plushy Einstein, etc.), as well as theme-specific materials (mirrors for optics, stethoscopes for human anatomy, etc.).

On the wall adjacent to the pegboard I hung a Big Ideas poster. I use this poster to highlight some main principles of that month’s theme. Each week I use this poster to connect ideas from previous weeks to that day’s Open Lab activity.


On the wall near the door, we have a spot for recording and posting kids observations. I keep a big pile of post-its on hand. Whenever a kid makes an observation they want to remember, I write it down, and stick it to the board.


These are particularly helpful when kids return the next week. When I talk about the previous week’s Big Idea, I often refer to a specific observation a kid made. 90% of the time, it sparks a specific memory, and the kids begin to draw connections between the idea and the experience in a very real, and exciting way. Next month, I plan to hang a clothes line across the room for drawings, questions, and other content the kids create during Open Labs.

We Have Liftoff!

We launched the Wonder Ground in the fall, and immediately developed a loyal following. I currently plan and facilitate two 2-hour open-lab programs each week. Each open lab is broken down into 20-minute sessions for 1-5 kids. During the first two months, it quickly became apparent that I had A LOT of learning to do. Luckily, I work in a library where experimentation is strongly encouraged. I quickly realized, I was trying to pack to much into each session: too many words, too much stuff, too much everything. Part of the problem was that I was collecting activities from a variety of sources: online, books from the collection, and word-of-mouth. Every activity I planned was extremely different from the week before, and lessons never built on previous knowledge.  It made me feel like I had to have all the answers ahead of time. Half the time, the activities went brilliantly, and others fell flat.

During botany month, we dissected beans, and this was brilliant, doable, and fun. Then the next week, kids came back eager to learn more about beans and seeds. Some of them had germinated bean seedlings at home, and had very interesting things to talk about related to the previous week. I had planned an activity dying flowers, and didn’t have any beans on hand. Some kids were happy to move on to the new activity, but others were clearly yearning for more. Luckily, I had more flowers than I needed, and as I looked around at some disappointed faces, I was struck by an idea: dissect the flowers! This went over like gangbusters. We pulled the petals apart, sliced up the stems, opened the sepals, spread pollen on our fingers, and so on. We discovered, drew, described, photographed, and examined each part carefully. We took magnified images using the digital field microscope. These two Open Labs made big impact on me, and gave me two big insights into what kids wanted from the Wonder Ground: 1) depth–much more depth than I originally envisioned; 2) a voice. They wanted to describe everything they saw and felt in wildly creative ways. They wanted to feel, smell, see things, and then relate those sensations to other experiences they’ve had. Their descriptions were personal, funny, scary, weird, and AMAZING!!

After this experience I went home thrilled. I was also a bit nervous to lose this momentum, since were moving on to a new theme the next week. I tapped the best resource a librarian could hope for: my good friend and neighbor,

Not only is Jen one of my favorite people on Earth, she also happens to be a curriculum developer and teacher trainer for the Center for Elementary Math and Science Education at the University of Chicago. I told her about the beans and flowers, and she took me to her bookshelves, and started plopping book after book into my lap:  science education materials, inquiry science teacher guides, textbooks, articles, etc. I truly had no idea what I was doing until I raided her shelves. Using her resources and brilliant mind, Jen helped me to hone my vision and philosophy for the Open Labs in the Wonder Ground. She encouraged me to focus on developing a culture of scientific inquiry where all participants can engage in productive science discussions. She has been helping me adapt these methods to the library setting.

This is a work-in-progress, for sure. Obviously, a Wonder Ground-like space isn’t right for every library. But I have found that the Wonder Ground is so much more than space and stuff. The Wonder Ground is a state of mind. If you’re interested in developing ongoing STEAM programs and/or clubs, consider how a science inquiry program can guide your planning. The Inquiry Project offers a ton of great information and research on the benefits of an inquiry-based approach. Their work is geared towards teachers, but can be adapted to a libraries. If you are interested in exploring the scientific-inquiry-through-library-programs concept with me, here is a great article to get you started: Talk Science Primer. If you want to see what we’ve done since starting down this new path, check out the Niles Library Buzz Blog posts from December on light and optics.











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Flannel Friday Round-Up 4/24/15

Happy Arbor Day, and welcome to the Flannel Friday Round-Up! I am a huge bum, so I have no #FF, but these awesome librarians have some great flannelboards for you!

Kim flies high with “Five Colorful Kites”:

Kathryn forgot her umbrella, and raindrops keep falling on her head in storytime:

Miss Meg sings about colors in spanish:

Storytime Katie is counting babies with her flannelized Ten Tiny Babies:

Danielle is doubling up this week with some great color-coded toddler storytimes:



Mallory offers up a little mouse barn flannel, with bonus favorite scissors…oh boy, tips! I love tips!

Mallory is hosting next week, so flannelize your hearts out!


Flannel Friday: An UnQWERTY Storytime Keyboard!

Here’s a fun group activity I have used with my toddlers storytimers. I do 2 Toddler Times each week. Toddler Time is a registration-required lap-sit storytime for ages 20 months to 3. We have two sections of up to 20 kids. It runs during the school year for 4 6-week sessions. As we all know, this age group is a bit funky. I have tinkered around a lot with my storytime planning, routines, demeanor, etc, to strike the right chord with this age group.

As we all know, repetition is HUGE at this age. But let’s face it, even the most solidly beloved storytime traditions, can get stale after a while. So I start fresh with new rituals at the start of each new session. This has been hugely successful with both parents and kids!

The kids are a bit sad to say goodbye to the old routines at the end of the session, but they also get excited to see what “new, weird things Ms Cate comes up with” on the first day of a new session. And by week two, they recall the old routines fondly, but they are also excited to repeat the new ones. And I think learning to tolerate a bit of the bittersweet sadness that comes with getting older is an important experience for kids and parents alike.

At some point, I stumbled upon a box full of perfect little paper squares. I believe they were originally cut for a Minecraft program. It gave me a kooky idea: Let’s make a special storytime keyboard! First, I showed the group an old keyboard. We passed it around, and let kids push the buttons. I explained that it was called a QWERTY keyboard because the first 6 letters…yaddayaddayadda…They all love the word QWERTY, btw.

Then I taped a big piece of contact paper on the wall sticky-side out. I invited storytimers to take turns picking squares, and placing them on the contact paper. As each kid came up, I stood by with a marker, and she told me what write on the key. We started with letters, and once we got the whole alphabet on the keyboard, we moved on to other stuff, leaves, flowers, animals… We had a ball.


I brought our “storytime keyboard” each week, and used it to “type out” each storytimer’s name as a good-morning routine. The kids loved this greeting activity. More importantly, this little ritual enabled me to get all my storytimers’ names down by week 2! I can very, very tricky. And, of course, this has great letter knowledge practice going on!

Happy FF! I am hosting the FFRU, so stay tuned!

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Flannel Friday Round-Up: January 23, 2015!

Hello all! It’s been a billion years since I last hosted a FFRU!

***UPDATE! See newbie #2 Erin Davison***

Let’s begin with two FFRU-Newbies!

#1 Melody (aka the Storytime Bandit…ADORABLE!) knocks it out of the park with this flannelization of Shape By Shape by Suse MacDonald! Welcome Melody!

#2 The lovely Erin Davison shows off a foxy little flannel.

Next, we have Fun With Friends Storytime! Kathryn offers up this very festive flannelized 5 or 10 Birthday Candles. Incidentally, she matches this flannel story with my all-time favorite birthday book: Don’t Spill the Beans by Ian Schoenherr.

Lisa gets sneaky at Thrive After Three. She dreamed up a brilliant way to make One Mitten by Kristine O’Connell George interactive! She hides these amazing big yellow mittens under the carpet squares in the storytime room! Brilliant!

Look out, Bunnies! Don’t snooze on Anne’s parachute! You might get a pretty wild awakening. She uses Kathy Reid-Naiman’s”Sleeping Bunnies” for this brilliant activity in Parachute Playtime.

Storytime Katie is already looking ahead to springtime…Chicago winters can really get you down! So she’s got her butterflies on sticks and ready to flutter! 

My hat’s off to Laura’s of Laura’s Storytime Adventures. Check out the gorgeousness that is her flannelized Hurray for Hat! by Brian Won.

Here’s my nonFF…This is an oddball UnQWERTY keyboard thingy that we made in Toddler Time.

And Jane of Piper Loves the Library is partying with the Pigeon for Take Your Child To the Library Day.


Flannel Friday: Early Bird Prop Story


A Flannel Friday dropout NO MORE!! I haven’t had a #FF to post in a zillion years! I can’t promise to post #FFs as regularly as I have in the past, but I have one this week. Anyway, here’s a prop story for a brilliant little picture book: Early Bird, by Toni Yuly.

Early Bird by Toni Yuly

Early Bird by Toni Yuly

This is a perfect book for baby and toddler storytime. The illustrations are bold. The language is simple. The concepts are concrete. And yet, in spite of all this simplicity–or perhaps because of all this simplicity–the story delivers a boat-load of drama and character development. This makes it an ideal choice for a prop story.

If you haven’t read this picture book yet, YOU MUST!! Here’s a summary…SPOILER ALERT: Early Bird features a surprise ending, so if you want to experience this twist in real time, read this post after you read the book. However, the story is told in less than 100 words. If you’re reading this, you are a grownup, so I’m guessing you don’t mind the spoilers. But I digress… I am paraphrasing. Early bird wakes up. She stands up as tall as she can. Then she gets going. As she walks, she passes grass, flowers, a spider web, rounds a corner, enters the garden. In the garden she meets a worm. She picks up the worm, lays it on a big juicy strawberry, and then… She and the worm share the strawberry for breakfast. The last page shows early bird and worm singing a morning song.

We are very fortunate at my library to have a jam packed storage room. Well, sometimes we’re fortunate to have such a great storage room, and other times it turns into an unholy mess. Anyway, this is not one of those artsy fartsy #FF. This was quick and dirty, and ready to go in under 10 minutes. Here’s the whole spread:

here's the whole kit & kaboodle.

here’s the whole kit & kaboodle.

Early bird……….finger puppet

grass…………….green felt

spider web……..white die cut spider web (laminate)

flower bed………leis

worm…………….rubber band, cut so that it’s all squiggly & wormish

strawberry………strawberry plushy

corner……………milk crate

path……………..brown felt

garden…………..sheet from Ikea leftover from SRC13

Here’s a close up of the finger puppet, worm, and strawberry. They are a little hard to make out in the 1st photo.


First we read the book aloud. Then we did a few different activities. Then I pulled all this junk out, and we retold the story using the props. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.

Ms Kelly at the Library is hosting the #FFRU! Thanks Kelly!  Don’t forget to check out the pinterest for lots of flannely goodness.



Write This Down: Story Dication and Vivian Gussin Paley, You’re My Hero!

This gorgeous image was created by our soon-to-be-former graphic designer, Colleen Kelly. We are all so sad, but happy for her. She's amazing!!

This gorgeous image was created by our soon-to-be-former graphic designer, Colleen Kelly. We are all so sad, but happy for her. She’s amazing!!

This summer I started a program at my library that is very close to my heart both professionally and personally. Little Authors is a story dictation program inspired by the work of the visionary preschool teacher and McArthur Genius Grant recipient Vivian Gussin Paley. If you have not read any of her books, you must immediately. Er, wait, I said that wrong… If you haven’t read ALL of her books, you must find them, and read them immediately. Her body of work covers a wide range of unconventional child development issues: from the peculiarities of three year-old behavior in Mollie is Three to moral philosophy of young children in the Kindness of Children.  Honestly, I don’t know how to describe her writing other than to say that each of her books is a dose of vital life-force.  They are all unique and unputdownable.

The focus of each book draws from Paley’s 35 years as a lower school teacher at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. Here’s where the “personal” connection comes in, Lab is my high school alma mater.

Let’s just say, transferring to Lab was the best thing that ever happened to me. My life changed the day I walked through the doors of that school. I was embraced by every student, teacher, and PTO member from day one. If you want to know what my experience was like at Lab, and what my classmates were like listen to this clip from This American Life. They are pretty amazing people, and a good chunk of my senior class had spent their early years in Mrs. Paley’s classroom. As I read her books, I picture little Mollie Stone, Patrick Sellers, Dima Khalidi, Kareem Saleh, etc; and I feel the dumb, gooey grin spread across my face. My classmates never outgrew Mrs. Paley’s awesomeness. I wholeheartedly believe, was a major influence on the people they grew up to be.

When I started at Lab, I quickly realized I would be at the bottom of the class. But this bottom was different than the one at my grammar school and junior high. My classmates were smart…scary smart. But more importantly, they were open, warm, inspiring, and supportive. After years of disapproval in school, for the first time in my life I held up as an example of a “great kid”. Lab is a progressive ed school. So there were no bells.  My classmates had never been tortured by spelling tests, multiplication tables, or sentence diagrams like I had in grade school. As a result they couldn’t spell, so they used spell check. They couldn’t add, so they used calculators to finish up their calculus problems. Every classroom was filled with stimulating debates, discussions, jokes, and imaginings. My sister used to joke, that the kids at my school “couldn’t spell worth a damn, but when a sociology professor presented his research findings to a group of high school juniors in a Lab assembly, they’d better prepare for tough questions.” In other words, it was nerd heaven.

And obviously, it took a lot of wonderful people to make Lab what it is.  But the more I read and re-read her books, I am convinced that the foundation of awesomeness was built in Vivian Paley’s early childhood classroom.

I’ve read many teacher-conducted interviews with Paley.  In each one, the interviewer inevitably asks something like “Your wonderful books on your classroom experiences with young children show what an excellent observer of children you are. Can you talk about the specifics of how you managed to do this while teaching?” Here’s her response from an interview that appears in Learning Landscapes:

I found out that observing, listening recording, re-observing, recommending, and writing it all down was the same thing as teaching.I found out that observing, listening, recording, re-observing, re-commenting, and I discovered that it was this ongoing narrative that in fact matched the child’s own discovery of an ongoing narrative—call it play, dramatic play. It was a very exciting realization for me. It meant that I was always in my own laboratory and the questions that I had would be answered eventually right there. All I needed to do was listen to the children while they played, and join the conversations engendered by play. 

In other words, there are no “specifics”. Listening to children, and interpreting the things children is a difficult process for adults to master. In fact, time and time again, Paley, herself reports that it is a process she finds perpetually challenging and humbling. One of my favorite examples comes from Paley’s second book, Wally’s Stories: 

Wally: People don’t feel the same as grown-ups.

Teacher: Do you mean “Children don’t”?

W: Because grown-ups don’t remember when they were little. They’re already an old person. Only if you have a picture of you doing that. Then you could remember.

Eddie: But not thinking.

Wally: You never can take a picture of thinking. Of course not.

You can, however, write a book about thinking–by recording the conversations, stories , and playacting that take place as events and problems are encountered. A wide variety of thinking emerges, as morality, science, and society share the stage with fantasy. If magical thinking seems most conspicuous, it is because it is the common footpath from which new trails are explored. I have learned not to resist this magic but to seek it out as a legitimate part of “real” school.

Early on in her career, Paley decided to play the long game when it came to student performance.  And it led her to wildly profound insights into the follies of grown-up thinking. I love putting kids in the driver’s seat, and seeing where they take me. So of course, I love another thing Paley said later on in the Learning Landscapes interview:

Let’s go back to “peekaboo,” the beginning of story. The adult didn’t invent it—the adult merely added some more words…the infant not yet having gotten to that stage.  But it’s the infant who begins the story: “Where is that nice smiling person? Gone. Will she come back? I’m afraid. Ah here she is, back again. Peekaboo, peekaboo.” This is the beginning of the child as his own narrator. It is the child’s job in our cultural history of mankind—this is the learning tool, the job of asking her own question and then playing around and finding out the options. What we tend to do is bring the answers, the adult-established answers, to so many subjects earlier and earlier into a child’s life. Now, what is the task of early childhood? I would say, number one, to learn to listen to others—and you do want to listen to others when they’re telling you stories and to learn to express your own narrative. You want very much to give them back the gift that they have given you. And then, we play around with the combination of a half a dozen different narratives and see where they go: “What if the mother and baby do this? What if there’s noise at the door? What if there’s a big wind and it looks like a hurricane? What if the bad guy comes and where is Superman? Are the pirates good or bad? Are pirates always bad?” No end to it. It is the beginning of abstract thinking, of concentration, of focusing on a subject, and focusing on people.

Everyday, I strive to set a similar tone with the kids and caregivers who visit the library. Little Authors was motivated by this goal. And I want to get to that part of the post. So for now, I will get on to how the program worked…

Vivian Paley didn’t invent story dictation as an early childhood education practice. She did, however, innovate the hell out of it by making it the central focus around which all other classroom activities revolved.

Anyway, in the library story dictation is a deceptively simple early learning activity. In fact my library soul sister, Rebecca Zarazan Dunn, totally independent of me, experimented with it at Chattanooga Public Library. She had the brilliant idea to crash the Lego Club on the 2nd Floor for a little spontaneous story dictation. She wrote about it on Sturdy for Common Things. So it’s a very flexible activity. All you need is paper, pencils, and your undivided attention. Ask a child to describe an event, idea or person; and write down the words exactly as the child says them. Then read the story back to her, and watch her face light up in pride & triumph! I’m sure this sounds ridiculous, but it really is that simple. I tried to write out a program outline, but it looked like this:

Little Authors

Prep: 15 minutes

1) Set up a story dictation corner in one corner of the program room using floor pillows. Sharpen several pencils, and fill a clipboard with lined paper.

2) Set out lots of toys: puppets, dress-up stuff, blocks, picture books, play food, and anything else you can find that gets kids pretending. Also set up a drawing station with lots of blank paper, and mix in some coloring sheets. Dollars to donuts, the characters from both the books and coloring sheets will show up in the dictated stories.

3) If you want, you can also make a sign-up sheet. If a kid wants to tell a story they can write their name down. This will serve as your queue. Also, it’s a good idea to use name tags because names are important.

The Program

As the kids came in with their parents, I explained what we were going to do. A few parents asked, “Do I have to stay?” But when I explained what we were doing, I think they got curious. Only one parent out twenty from all three sessions stayed for the program. I even heard one parent say, “I’m so glad I stayed for this. What a fun thing to do in the library.” #yay

Next, I just explained what we were going to do. I said, “So most of the time, when we’re in this room, I do most of the storytelling. And I always get the feeling that kids want to tell the stories. Have you ever felt like that?”

They responded with lots of nodding. And Joey, whose story you will read later, piped in, “I tell you lots of stories, Ms Cate, remember my stories?”

“I do, Joe! You tell lots of good stories. Today, I’d like to write them down, so we can read and reread them over and over, and remember them forever. Who wants to do that with me today?” They were all fired up and ready to go.

One by one, they joined me in the story corner. When a child sat down, I showed him a blank sheet of paper. I wrote his name at the top. I said, “Your story can be about anything you want. It can as long as one whole page. Or it can be as short as one word. Oh, and I need to talk kinda slowly, because I need to write down every word. And you can talk a lot faster than I can write. So if I need to catch up to what you’re saying I’ll say, ‘hold on, dude-man!’ I might also ask you some questions about some of the interesting details. That’s just because I’m curious, and I want to know more about what you are telling me. But you can just say that doesn’t matter, if it doesn’t matter.”

And we were off. It was super simple and fun. And the stories were mind-blowing. At the end of the session we all got together and I read one story from each kid (a few kids told me two or three stories). Enjoy!


First was a caterpillar. Then it eat lot of fruit and lots of vegetables and sweets. Then it turns to a cocoon. Ten days it stays in the cocoon. Then it opens and turns into a butterfly.

Austin, 5

So once upon a time there was a place. Well it was some kind of fun house, but some evil person named The Joker lived there. But one day the dynamic duo came and they knock the Joker out of the fun house. And the Joker went to jail. The Joker didn’t like jail at all.

Bella, 8

Once upon a time there was a fish named Fisher. He loved to play all day. He loved his parents, but they had to go away, now. And now he lives with his big brother and sister and small brother and sister. He had a neighbor, and he thought he could play with her but she was busy because she was moving far away. They just started today though. So she had a little time to play but after they play her parents call her and all they have left to do is move a mattress through a door. The door is ginormous. It was one foot bigger than the mattress. His big sister though they should go to the beach. The beach was a perfect place to hang out. The big sister had to go somewhere really quick. So after the beach she took her brothers and sister back home. So she could go to do her job. “It was so much fin hanging out with my family.” One day their parents came back and they had a celebration. There were games, cake, and food. It’s fun hanging out with my whole family.

Colette, 4

The man cracked the stairs. And then he cleaned and fixed the stairs. There was a little a little girl named Goldilocks. She lived with her mommy and daddy. There’s two bears: sister bear and brother bear. Daddy bear said, “Who squooshed the porch?” Goldilocks did! There’s a bad danger. Goldilocks saw the fierce, bad danger and she runned away!

Farhan, 4

The cat ate an apple. Then the dinosaur needed to eat an apple too. Then the dog wanted to eat an apple. And the elephant wanted to eat an apple.

The bunny wanted to eat a pear. The monkey wanted to eat a banana. The bird wanted to eat a pear. A frog wanted to eat an apple. Then a mouse wanted to eat a cheese. A kangaroo wanted to eat an apple.

A deer ate an apple. A cat ate a pear. The duck ate an apple. The octopus ate an apple. The cat ate a pear.

Joey, 5

Once upon a time there was a dinosaur. He’s a meat eater. And he eats meat. And a good dinosaur came up to him, and a bad dinosaur snapped the prey.

Maeve, 6, The Dancing Tooth

I want to tell about when I got my first tooth out. I went to Mommy. I went and got a tissue. Then Mommy pulled it out. It was bloody. I got a tissue and put it in my mouth.

I want to tell about my second tooth. Me and Daddy were watching TV in the bed and I just bended it and it comed out. I went  downstairs in Mommy’s office and I told her about it. Actually we were at Grandpa’s house.

Prisha, 4

One day the Little Red Riding Hood went to the Grandma’s house. But the big wolf chased her. But Grandma’s right here! But the Teddy Bear came and the Big Bad Wolf run away over there. The Teddy Bear play with Little Red Riding Hood and Grandma came back!

Laith, 6

Once long ago there was a creative guy. His name was Jones. He build a big giant robot with giant laser beam eyes. And he opened the garage door. And then he started destructing the whole city. The robot said, “You can’t stop my power. It was the millennium. When you connected the last piece you released me too! My dragons do their work. You need to stay here. I will suck up your soul into my eye. You can’t stop me from destroying the world. If you stay here I will chit chat with you. And if you stay here I will destroy the bridge with cars going across. I will make all the cars talk on the phone and topple into the sea.” The end.


Here is a list of books. These are my five favorite Vivian Paley books, plus a wonderful book by Ann Gadzikowski on the story dictation process. It is a wonderful resource. However, I don’t think you need to read it to get started with story dictation. The real meat of the Gadzikowski’s book how to use these stories as a tool for understanding how young children think. I will add to this in the future, but this will get you started:

Screenshot 2014-09-05 at 6.08.30 PM

Boston Public School offers an INCREDIBLE RESOURCE for anyone who is interested in story dictation. They offer videos of teachers supporting students in telling their stories. They are wonderful to watch, and wildly helpful. I think the best part is, they show you just how practical an activity this is.

In the end, there is no trick to bringing story dictation to your library. In the words of the great Fred Rogers:

“You’ve got to do it.
Every little bit
You’ve got to do it, do it, do it, do it
And when you’re through,
You can know who did it,
For you did it, you did it, you did it.”