Best Practices and Personal Style

OK, this extremely goofy picture is of me in the middle of baby storytime last year. My brother-in-law posted it on Facebook with the caption, “This is what my son’s therapists call ‘high-affect’.” So I said back, “But Max had purple grape juice AND orange sherbet in his bath water!* What OTHER facial expression would be appropriate?”

Well, we all know that there are MANY appropriate ways to present storytime! I do a pretty high-energy show, it’s true. I hope everyone has a good time and leaves feeling great. But it’s not the only way to go. I’ve been to storytimes that are so Zen and calm it’s like getting a spa treatment…but you still have a good time and still leave feeling great.

I’m a storytime mentor and trainer for my district, and for the last few weeks of the year my department is observing every storytime provider in storytime. I am seeing a lot of super storytimes, and they are ALL different. For our feedback sessions with the providers, we hope to celebrate what they are doing well and give them some pointers for what they might improve.

Here’s my big question…what aspects of storytime fall under “personal style” and what fall under “best practices”? What aspects of storytime should we leave up to each individual to decide how to present? And about what aspects of storytime, if any, can we say, “Here’s how you should do it, because this really is the best way.”

Here’s an example: You might be a great maker-upper-of-voices for your book characters. Or, maybe nobody can tell the difference between your “baby bear” and “papa bear” voices. “Doing voices” seems to me an element of personal style: Nice if you’ve got it going on, but not essential for a quality storytime. However, whether you do voices or not, I feel you should be able to project your voice to comfortably fill your storytime space. Having everybody in your audience be able to hear you seems to me to be an essential for a quality storytime.

But maybe you disagree! Maybe a soft, quiet voice is one that draws the children closer to you for a more intimate experience?

So where do YOU draw the line? What do you think are storytime presentation essentials, and what do you think should be left to artistic license?

*Max’s Bath, by Rosemary Wells. This is my home-made big book.

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22 Responses to Best Practices and Personal Style

  1. Barbara Huff says:

    Personally I have to leave the kids with their minds and wiggles sufficiently exercised through engaging stories that they participate in (preferably with gusto) and a well rounded mix of songs, finger plays and body movement activities (with or without scarves, rhythm sticks and/or instruments). That said, sometimes I need to whisper to emphasize the scary or climactic bits of the stories or songs!

    Some story times call for pulling out all the stops, some not so much. But whatever the style I think keeping the kids engaged and excited about books is our first priority. That is our best practice. Whether it’s with a subdued teller or exuberant one – the most important thing is finding the best way to bring the kids with us on our journey through the magical stories we present.

    Love the picture, by the way. You are my new hero!

    Barbara Huff
    Youth Services Librarian
    Farmington NM Public Library

  2. Melissa says:

    I agree that “engagement” is a best practice! That storytime magic is amazing. And you’re right, of course, sometimes you use a mix of presentation styles in one storytime–or even one book or one action song!

    So here’s a devil’s advocate question for everyone: How do you know when your kids are engaged? It’s not always about verbal responses, or following along with the fingerplay, is it? If you were teaching a newbie about storytime, how could you tell them when they’ve got it, besides “You’ll know it when you see it”? What are some tricks for engaging kids that work no matter what your personal style? Or should this be a separate blog post? πŸ™‚

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  4. Anne says:

    I would love to see a separate blog post about how you know when the kids are engaged. It’s obviously easy to tell when you’re reading Pete the Cat and they’re singing along with you or doing the motions in Can You Make a Scary Face, but harder with the quiet books.

    Eye contact is key, whether the kids are watching you/the book and appear to be interested. That said, some days there’s very little (anything?) you can do to make them happy/keep their attention. This is a great topic and I’d love to know what other people think!

  5. Melissa says:

    You’re right, engagement can look different in different situations–and with different aged kids. Let’s see what some other experts have to say & we’ll make it another post!

  6. marfita says:

    I have seen so many personal styles that work. Mine is a pull-out-all-the-stops, but I’ve seen a quiet, intense style that works as well if not better. One important thing is your own engagement in the material – using material that you like, because your love of it shows. Using a variety of materials (books, fingerplays, flannelboards, cut- or draw-and-tells, music, dance, creative dramatics, puppets, etc.) and mixing it all up into Fun Soup. The other important thing is finding your own style and honing your skills which frees you up to watch/listen to your audience so you know when something isn’t working or they’re just too wiggly that day – and the difference between wiggly while paying attention and wiggly while off in la-la land.
    It’s taken me 15 years to get to this point – and I still have lots to learn. I still go to workshops or watch other people because I know I don’t know it all.
    I love your blog – and that is a FAB picture! Yaaaay! Hee!

  7. Melissa says:

    Woot! So many great points in this comment!!! I especially like the point about using material you like & practicing…both of which allow you to relax and be comfortable and have attention left over for the kids. Absolutely! So here’s YOUR devil’s advocate question: What IS the difference between wiggly/paying attention and wiggly/lala land? πŸ™‚ I’ve been doing storytimes on and off since ’94…and I still have so much to learn!

  8. April says:

    I am trying to organize a storytime for the children in my area, and although I’ve never “studied” how to do storytimes, I think making sure the children can see the pictures, and have enough time on each page to see them, is important for “best practice”. I have been to many storytimes where the reader doesn’t take a moment to show the picture, or even hold it up so the kids can see it, and I think that would help.

    As for “personal style” in my opinion, that would be when a storyteller ads their own comments or dialogue, or possibly asks questions about what happened, or helping the children postulate about what might happen next. I personally LOVE it when a storyteller engages and interacts with the children this way, but I know some other people would rather they just stick with the story.

    Also, I’m hoping you can point me in the right direction of where I can buy “Big Books” for storytimes? Or do you just make your own? Do you scan the pages at a very high resolution and then print them out and laminate? Thank you!

  9. Melissa says:

    April, these are good points! I think making sure your audience can see your book & has time to look at the pictures does qualify as a best practice. I think the interactive reading is more of a personal style, too. We know that asking kids questions about the story, and having them predict what’s coming next, can really boost their language skills. But sometimes it’s great to respect the author and illustrator and their work and just get out of the way of their great collaboration. I think that can depend on the book you’re reading as well as your personal preference.

    As for big books, if anyone knows a definitive source, I hope they will speak up and let us know! We have had to look at each publisher individually to see what titles they carry in the oversize format. For homemade big books, I have both made my own out of construction paper & glue, and have made color prints of existing smaller books. In that case, I usually I color copy an image as big as possible on the biggest paper our copiers at work will take. Check out my “homemade big books” tag to see some examples on this blog!

    Good luck with your storytimes!

  10. Barbara Huff says:

    Ooooo…there are so many ways to know if they are engaged. They look up, of course, but they also make unsolicited comments that are in some way (however far fetched they seem to us) relevant to the story, you can “see” the wheels turning in their brains, they are physically re-enacting the story, they make appropriate faces, they aren’t biting their brother or poking their friend. We have a lot of tricks we use to keep them engaged (or bring them back from the dark side) like asking simple questions about the pictures, What is that? Color? How many? What do you think will happen next? Where is the bunny going? Do you think I should show you the next page, are you sure? We have the kids say the repetitive phrases with us, we have them make the noises for us, we have them do actions during the story, we whisper during the scary or suspenseful bits.

    Gosh I’m sure most everyone does the same things. It works pretty well too, except for the occasional squirrely whirlies that come to story time. Then we re-direct them by cutting the story short, doing an action rhyme or whole body song or two and sitting them back down for the next story.

    As far as helping the newbie know…I think when you have to raise your voice to be heard over the din and there are more than 3 kids twirling around the room at the same time, you might have lost them. Also, at the start of story time we actually ask the parents to show the kids how to be good listeners, those cell phones and mommy conversatins can really distract the kids AND US! πŸ™‚

    Happy story time!

  11. Melissa says:

    Thanks, Barbara! Great tutorial! You have made so many good suggestions here. I think watching faces is a super tip, and one that takes some getting used to. It’s easier I think sometimes to treat your group as a single entity, and make adjustments based on an overall impression (eg, “Only two kids are not really paying attention, I don’t think we need the Hokey Pokey right now.”). And it can be so much more powerful if we can keep track of the kids individually as well as the mood of the group (eg, “Hannah, where do you think the bunny is going?”). We can try to watch separate faces for that eye contact and those wheels-turning expressions. But it’s hard to do! There’s so much to pay attention to. The more tricks we have up our sleeves the better!

  12. Tracey says:

    –“It’s easier I think sometimes to treat your group as a single entity”–

    Absolutely! And that brings up something that I think is a measureable quality of a good storytime leader–the ability to gauge the crowd and make snap judgements and adjustments. While that skill is definitely something learned over time and with experience, I believe it’s also an inate skill that some have and some don’t. All storytime groups are different, and what works with some kids doesn’t work with others. The ability to evaluate an ongoing storytime, roll with the group and make necessary changes on the spot (throw in another verse of a song that’s going well, finish a book up early, stop and get wiggles out) is one mark of a good storytime person.

  13. Melissa says:

    Flexibility and the skill to adapt quickly to your environment I think are hallmarks of a good story time provider! The challenge with all of this is always going to be: how can you train for it? I think you’re right about it being in part innate, so what are the tips we can give anyway? This is the type of thing I’ve been thinking about. Some of it is obvious, but I am enjoying going back and taking it step by step. Thanks for helping me think it through!

  14. Anne says:

    Seconding preperation and flexibility as key. I also find that planning a whole session before it begins is a best practice (at least for myself) instead of trying to plan during spare time in the storytime session, if that makes sense.

  15. Nola Huey says:

    Something to add to the DO NOT list:
    Do not listen to all the little stories the kids have to share during story time. Wait until after.

  16. Melissa says:

    Absolutely! There’s a line between fostering dialogic reading, participation, and language skills–and getting completely derailed! Memorizing a couple of redirects is a good trick. “Wow, what an interesting thing to happen, Fiona, let’s see what’s going to happen next in the book!”

  17. April says:

    Someone mentioned parents and that is my biggest problem right now. Anyone have a fun and inoffensive way to remind parents they shouldn’t be talking while I’m sharing a story with their child?

  18. Melissa says:

    Hi April–that’s a perennial problem! Everyone has different ways to handle it. Sometimes I just pause before my next book/activity and let my eyes rest on the talkers for a moment. When they realize nothing is happening and look around, I smile a thank you at them and go on to the next thing.

    But it’s never wrong to say something direct at the beginning of storytime, like, “I’m happy to have grownups share storytime and I know it’s fun to visit with each other, but it’s really hard for our little ones to concentrate when there’s conversations in the background. There’ll be time afterwards to talk, I promise!”

    I checked on PUBYAC and found an old thread with some other ideas:

    https://mail.lis.illinois.edu/hypermail/public/pubyac/8587.html

  19. michelle says:

    This is a great thought-provoking post. In order to pull kids in at my storytime (elementary library) I need to use voices, soft and loud voices as well as drama and body movements. Kids have a hard time focusing on listening to even one story that it is in my best interest to do whatever I can to make it fun without going over the top.

  20. Melissa says:

    Thanks, Michelle! It has been interesting trying to think of storytime “musts” or “nevers” when there are so many variables, just as you mention! “Flexibility” is definitely an overall best practice!

  21. Caroline says:

    I really appreciate this conversation! Thanks Melissa. We are also in the midst of establishing and assessing best practices in our system. I’ll add that I am really focused on what is developmentally appropriate, and finding ways to meet those developmental needs through different entry points. For example, working with threes and fours on letter knowledge and the entry point might be reading aloud or music, or kinesthetic through rhythm sticks or dance, or through a craft. I think its difficult to articulate overall rules of thumb without breaking it down into developmental stages…a two year old’s body language communicates different needs than a four year old’s. Two year olds might seem distracted or just stand and stare while you are standing on your head and singing a song…but then we hear from the parent the following week how that same child sang all the way home and did the movements that matched! There is also knowing the chemistry of any given group, what has worked, what hasn’t, the time of day, etc.
    Getting parents to participate can be challenging but I do think it is best practice to share with them on a regular basis all the reasons why this is important,then build in participation. I think some parents are unsure what their role is, and feel more invested and even relief when you directly give them expectations. I encourage storytime leaders to tell adults exactly how to participate and why, “Parents, your children will follow your lead so its important you help me show them how to listen for details and make predictions during the story”. Then stop for a pair and share during the story. I have seen this work very effectively. I also strongly encourage removing all chairs from the storytime space. Children are much more likely to curl up on their parent’s lap or check in with them if they are sitting on the floor in a community circle. It also makes the “back row”, where the talkers congregate, disappear!

  22. Melissa says:

    Wow, Caroline! Thanks for all this fabulous feedback. I think you’re right about how the best practices need to break down along developmental stages…one of the reasons why this is all so hard to get a grip on! And once you figure it out (ha!), then you have to adapt your expectations again if you do “family” or “all-ages” storytimes! The more I delve into all the information that successful storytime providers carry in their heads, the more I am amazed. Thanks for contributing to this conversation. I am learning all the time!

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