Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Saying goodbye to a successful program

thingsineverlearnedinlibraryschoolLast month I hosted another Career Conversation event at my library. I really enjoy these evenings. I’ve learned interesting things at every single one of them, even when the jobs that the panelists hold are nothing like the kind of work that suits me. The same has seemed to be true of the teens who attended. Those who came to the events because the topic (Politics, Arts, Engineering, Education, Sports, Health Care) is something that they want to pursue got practical advice and information. Those who came because their friends were interested still learned and were entertained. There’s nothing quite like listening to people who are passionate about their work share their love and encouragement with teens.

So it is with mixed feelings that I decided that November’s panel on careers in the Sports world would be our last. The series ran for a full year, and there wasn’t a stinker in the bunch. So why would I pull the plug on a good thing? Several factors come into play. And while I’ll miss hearing about the varied life experiences our panelists offered and we haven’t covered all of the areas of work that our teens are interested in, I feel confident that this is the right choice. Why?

  • The planning and coordinating of the event had become unwieldy.

I ran this event every other month, which means that before one panel had happened, I was already contacting panelists to come to the next one. Schedule-wise, this was difficult and time consuming but not out of the ordinary for programs. What made the planning of this really stressful though, was that I’d begin seating the panel by contacting my top four or five hopefuls. And then I’d wait. And sometimes then I’d wait more. And more. And then I’d contact another few people. And wait. And wait. And by the time I was a week or two ahead of the event, I’d still sometimes be scrambling to find one last person, or replace someone who had an unexpected schedule conflict. Working with one presenter poses some difficulties. Working with unpaid presenters poses others. Working with four or five unpaid presenters? Well, you can imagine the stress involved. This is not to say that anyone I worked with was difficult! It was just the process and the worry and the unending schedule coordination that really started wearing on me.

  • I had limited support in recruiting attendees.

Sometimes, the panel had a clear audience with community and school partners who were happy to promote it. For example, when we hosted engineers, I contacted the high school’s GEMS club and the word spread like wildfire. For others, like our event focused on politics and political science, there wasn’t as clear a link between school organizations who would promote the event. And our education panel – which I thought would fill to capacity – had the lowest attendance of all. After the fact, several regulars commented that they “already know what teachers do all day*,” so they figured the panel wouldn’t be useful. I’m not averse to running programs for the same core group of teens–there are lots of benefits that aren’t just numbers based. But in this instance, given the amount of adult involvement and goodwill from community members I was dependent on, I felt it needed to pull a wider audience to continue.

  • There’s a better way to do it.

It occurred to me that part of the hurdle in getting teens to come to an event like this is the social nature of teen programs. Would the teen who wants to go into archeology come to an event on engineering just because her friend was? Maybe, but more likely than not, she’d find other ways to occupy her time. But what if this event got bigger so that it could encompass the future archeologist and her engineer-hopeful friend, and their buddy who has no idea what to do after high school? I’m hoping that after a bit of a hiatus, I’ll be able to bring Career Conversations back, more in the spirit of a job speed dating event. This would bring groups of teens together, and would allow for one (albeit large and probably unwieldy) planning season. It would also be less dependent on individual presenters as I’d hope to bring in a lot of different folks who love their work and want to share about it. It could also serve as a community bridge building event by inviting the local community college and trade schools to be present.

  • The teens who originated the series were ready for new challenges.

This was a teen-generated program idea. Last year’s Teen Board came up with the idea and the first few topics, and had been a help in recruiting participants. This year, several of our movers and shakers have graduated and the new group of teens is interested in other events and programs. And this is what it all boils down to: programming by teens is going to change as teens change, and we have to be open to that and willing to change course. Even when by outward appearances, it’s all going well.


Brad Pitt laughing


The origami revelation: 1 program fail; 3 reminders

The other day I hosted a very regrettable program. In addition to my role as a teen librarian I also host a regular craft night for adults. It’s a nice way to extend my service population, and to be perfectly honest, I like seeing how an adult group handles a project before I hand it to teens. And thank goodness I tried this darn fabric origami thing out with adults first.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. It met all of my criteria for craft programs: inexpensive, can be completed in an hour or so, no special tools or skills required, easy to replicate, attractive. The idea is that you stiffen fabric with diluted wood glue, then cut the fabric to a square, and fold it up like you would any sheet of origami paper.

But here’s the thing: I thought all of the difficulty was in the prep that I did at home: figuring out the glue to water ratio, figuring out how to dry it quickly without destroying my dryer, figuring out how to iron it smooth without destroying my iron (failed at that one), figuring out how to cut a couple dozen pieces square… Frankly, it was a hassle I won’t be attempting again. The library members who came to my program would only have to fold the gorgeous fabric into a decorative lily or a useful box. Simple for them, right? After all the hard work I put in on the front end?

Well, no.

1. It’s not about me

All of that prep work had nothing to do with them! In my annoyance and preoccupation with the messy preparation I’d neglected to stop and look carefully enough at how my patrons would approach the project. Yes, I’d prepared step by step models and printed out instructions, but I overlooked the doing of the project in the preparation for the project. Origami is tricky. Some people practice for hours – days – years before perfecting a design. To expect people who had never done it before to do it with a difficult material and use a pattern not designed for beginners was way more than was reasonable. The doing of the program, for each person in that room other than me began when they set foot in the room. Not days before while buying the fabric, stiffening it, drying it, and cutting it. When we come to the desk, to the program, to the RA interaction, our preparation is merely prologue. It makes a difference for our patrons, but it doesn’t matter to them. The prep is our job. Not theirs.

2. It’s not about the project.

That evening as the group gathered, I tried to cut some problems off at the pass by fessing up and telling them that of all the programs I had helped them with, this was the trickiest. I showed them my steps and results and warned them of pitfalls, and assured them that I was here to help. And you know what? It was tricky for them too. They struggled too. And as each of them left, I don’t think anyone left with a product they really liked.

3. It’s about community

But in spite of that, they all had a good time. They laughed, poked gentle fun at each other, encouraged and gave tips, and actually thanked me. A couple times. I even got an email after the fact! And I realized that what they leave with each month is not a craft. It’s a sense of belonging, an hour or two of socializing, laughter and a break from their regular lives. It’s community. And we are part of it.

In our library service, let’s remember that the right answer is just one of the things we give our patrons. And I might argue that it’s frequent of far less importance than the other things they gain.

Minecraft After Hours & Letting Teens Lead… and Fall

Maybe it was because it was on Friday the 13th.
Maybe it was the heat, or all of the 5th grade classes I talked it up to.
Maybe it was those 4th graders who snuck in under the age limit.

Whatever it was, the Minecraft hangout and building contest that I hosted was both one of the biggest successes and most disappointing failures of my programming year so far. And that’s really been ok.

Here’s how it went down. Last fall I took a leap and started a Coding Club. In the months since, this group has grown tight knit and dedicated to both the idea of learning and playing with technology, and the library. As we discussed what else we wanted to do, Minecraft kept coming up.

What could we do with it?
Could the library have its own server?
Could we turn Coding Club into a Minecraft club?

I try to say yes as often as possible, but these were questions it was hard for me to answer. I’m not a gamer. The knowledge these kids have far exceeds mine in this realm, and as a part time librarian, I know that my limited time means limited abilities. But these teens had seemingly endless time and endless enthusiasm for both the game and getting it into our building. After mulling over the possibilities, one totally uncoached statement was the deciding factor for me. A member said, “Everyone likes playing Minecraft. But even though a bunch of us are in the same neighborhood, we’re playing with people all over the country, or world. That’s cool, but it just makes sense that we’d want to meet each other too. And the library seems like the natural place to do that. It’s where a bunch of kids can go in town and it’s ok for us to be there.”

Sold. I think they even said something about “community building.” Be still my librarian heart! So I gave them the go-ahead with the understanding that I would assist them with whatever they needed, but that I would only be able to be that — an assistant and facilitator. The planning and execution would be up to them.

What if we built our own server?
What if I donate my server to the library?
What if we just have a building contest?
Can we have fabulous prizes?
Can we have pop and Doritos?

Prizes, pop, and chips I could handle. The server questions were harder, but week after week the kids worked on their server, creating an environment in which a crowd of people could build. Moms took me aside and asked my opinion on letting their kids play online games. Moms told me they thought I was wonderful for giving their kids a place to fit in. Moms thanked me. Which was weird because I wasn’t really doing much. I was just opening our meeting room twice a month and listening for the most part.

Fast forward to last Friday night. Fabulous prizes in hand, snacks at the ready, we opened the library after hours and fifteen teens came in. That might not sound like a lot to some, but in a town where my SRP registration maxes out under 75 most years and I’m happy to get 5 kids at most programs, I was floored.

I welcomed the kids and introduced our illustrious Coding Club members, who went on to explain how the building contest would unfold, what the fabulous prizes were, the theme (design a symbol of what Minecraft means to you), and how to access the server.  At which point we realized that Minecraft was down. After a half hour snack break, everyone rushed back to their computers — it was back up! Game on!

And then we overloaded the server. 

From that point on, it just never worked right. We hadn’t planned on that many people playing. My teen had been certain that the server he was building had enough RAM. I trusted his assessment. As I watched him feverishly work to figure out the problem, testing it one way, and then another, I tried to placate the rest of the kids, encouraging them to go back for another snack or just hang out until everything was up and running. He looked me in the eye, and with all of the emotion a 12 year old (yes! he is only 12!) boy can pack in one pitiful look, he was pleading for help. And there wasn’t a whole lot I could do.

It was humbling and I felt horrible. But we kept working through it. We declared the building competition postponed, shared the server address for people to use from home, and decided to give them one week to construct their ideal symbol of Minecraft, at which point I’ll email them all a survey and ask them to vote.  Everyone seemed to leave happy, or at least happy enough in the case of my intrepid Coding Club teen.

On the one hand, it felt like a great failure that the program didn’t go how we planned and we ran into so many technical problems. But at the same time – what success! Great numbers, teen leadership and problem solving, a community began developing, a plan was made to continue the work started, and several people expressed interest in a repeat program.

But oh, my poor 12 year old, right? Maybe not. I pulled out my 40 Developmental Assets list, and started mentally checking them off. Other adult relationships? Supportive neighborhood? I was doing that. Community values youth; youth as a resource, service to others? Wow, this is going better than I thought! Planning and decision making, responsibility, involvement in youth programs… high expectations. And there it was. I had high expectations. It was crystal clear that I did. And he had high expectations of himself, he planned ahead, made executive decisions, and took responsibility for this youth program. This was a success, no doubt about it.

This year I’m taking part in ILEAD-USA, a months long leadership and technology workshop funded by a grant from the State of Illinois. One of the first things I learned there was the concept of Failing Forward. In this way of thinking, a perceived failure is not the end point; it’s the beginning of a new avenue of learning and growing. It’s hard to embrace. Just writing about it here was difficult – no one likes to admit that they’ve done something that turned out 180 degrees from where you planned for it to go. But we both learned so much from this experience. Not just about Minecraft, but about ourselves, each other, trust, perseverance, finding fun.. and RAM.


Program FAILS: Another thing I didn’t learn about in library school.

It was a Friday afternoon – my day off – and I was in a panic.  I had to set up for my big summer program, an open mic night, and things were falling apart, starting with the fact that I had no key with which to let myself in to the library for this after hours event.  I made a few calls to coworkers who live nearby, but no one answered.  I thought fast.  An outdoor open mic wouldn’t be so bad, right?

Actually, on a nice summer night it could be perfect.  I dug around in the basement and found some folding chairs, a rug for the amp and mic stand, and a whole lot of extension cords.  I packed this, along with a crate full of old sheets and blankets for seating, the amp, mic stand, mic, music stand… and my two kids (gosh, I thought my husband would be home by now!) into my hatchback and headed to work.   On the way, I got a call from my boss who was a)home and b)willing to lend me his key.  Yay!  I doubled back (oh shoot, now I’ve got a sleeping kid in the backseat), grabbed the key and made it to the library with plenty of time to freak the heck out of the janitor, who didn’t know I was coming, and set up.

It was all coming together.  My kids found a few dinosaur books and did the mic check for me, I put signs on the doors, my husband arrived to take the kids home, and I waited.  And waited.  And waited… 
And then I admitted defeat, gave up, took down the mic, mic stand, music stand, amp, pushed the chairs back into their normal spots, loaded up my car, changed the sign on the door, turned off the lights, and closed up shop.  Not a single soul had showed.
It was pretty disappointing. 
But not as disappointing as the time I hosted Exam Cram, only to find that the group that had taken up residence in the room with the snacks and the nice big table — the Board room — had decided to have a food fight to rival Animal House while I checked on other groups and was getting more snacks and sodas to refill.  I’ve never been so angry at teens in my library.  The blatant disrespect, the mess I was left to clean up, the waste… Well, you can imagine, right?
It’s not all sunshine and roses.  
But even when it all goes south, there can be positive take-aways.  My exam cram experience showed me that dancing on the right side of the line between trust and supervision is important, and that it wasn’t right to let one group monopolize a resource.  I’ve changed the structure and organization of my twice yearly exam cram now and haven’t had a single comparable incident since.

My open mic night – at the peak of summer on a beautiful night – didn’t hold a candle to the ballgames, ice cream shops, and outdoor movies that had drawn my teens away from the library and into summertime activities.  My marketing for the event also left something to be desired, and I realized that while the newsletter is great for promoting events to parents who will sign their younger teens up for activities, it’s dismal at promoting to more autonomous older teens – the kind that would take the initiative to come to an open mic.  I’m persevering and will try again with some different strategies in place.

We can learn from what worked, but also from what didn’t work.  
So, spill.

Out your worst program fails and let’s all groan at them together, then let’s troubleshoot ways to fix these flops and do better next time.