Virtual Thanksgiving Storytime

My coworker Angela and I had a fun Thanksgiving-themed Interactive storytime this morning, with families and two preschools logging in via Zoom. Here’s what we did:

Introduction:

We opened by talking about Thanksgiving, and sharing this funny list of things that kids are thankful for from the Huffington Post, which includes gas, ceiling fans, and “Mommy wiping my poop”: 21 Things Kids Are Thankful For That Will Make You Laugh by Hollis Miller.

OPENING SONG: Do As I’m Doing

As usual, we asked the kids to find a cloth of some kind to wave the first time we sang this song. Then we asked for suggestions to do for the next few times we sang it. We ended up jumping (always a favorite), twirling, saying “I Love You” in sign language, and smiling.

[C] Do as I’m doing, follow, follow [G7] me.

[C] Do as I’m doing, follow, [G7] follow [C] me.

[C] Follow, [G7] follow, [F] follow [C] me.

[F] Follow, [C] follow, [G7] follow [C] me.

Follow, [G7] follow, [F] follow [C] me,

[F] Follow, [C] follow, [G7] follow [C] me.

SONG: The Turkey Jerky

So many Thanksgiving books are about unfortunate turkeys trying to escape ending up on the dinner table. I do enjoy some of them, especially Sometimes It’s Turkey, Sometimes It’s Feathers by Lorna and Lecia Balian, but they are sometimes a bit depressing. This time, we mostly avoided the turkey theme, but I couldn’t resist including this song, because it’s so much fun.

(To the tune of The Hokey Pokey)

You put your right wing in,

You put your right wing out,

You put your right wing in,

And you shake it all about.

You do the turkey jerky and you turn yourself around.

That’s what it’s all about!

Repeat with your left wing, your right drumstick (right foot), left drumstick, waddle (your chin, or a cloth hanging from your chin), and tail feathers!

BOOK: Benjamin Bear Says Thank you by Claire Freedman, illustrated by Steve Smallman

Angela read this cute story about a bear who always forgets to say “thank you.” We showed the kids how to say “Thank you” in American Sign Language. This book is available through both Hoopla and Overdrive.

SONG: If You’re Happy and You Know It

We taught the kids the sign for Happy in American Sign Language. Then we sang the song, but added in different emotions. Angela had several paper plates with faces depicting different emotions on them, so she up a different one for each verse. We sang:

If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands…

If you’re sad and you know it, cry “Boo hoo!”…

If you’re sleepy and you know it, yawn and stretch…

If you’re surprised and you know it, give a big gasp!…

If you’re angry and you know it, say “I’m mad!”…

If you’re happy and you know it, shout, “Hooray!”

BOOK: You Are My Happy by Hoda Kotb; illustrated by Suzie Mason

Short, sweet story with adorable illustrations, about a baby bear and his mother, sharing the things that make them happy. It made for a great read-aloud for toddlers and preschoolers because there were lots of opportunities for them to make the sign for Happy, as well as blowing kisses, giving themselves a hug, and other simple motions.

SONG: I Am Thankful

I couldn’t think of a good song for the theme, so I wrote this one. Feel free to use it however you like, or add in your own verses. We did it as a play-along, encouraging the kids to play whatever instruments or noisemakers they had on hand, or just clap or dance along.

[C] I am thankful for

The [F] colors that I see,

For [C] friends who play with me,

And for my [G7] loving family.


[C] I am thankful for [F] rainbows in the sky,

For the [C] taste of pumpkin pie,

And for a [G7] warm hug when I cry.


I’m thankful [F] for the sky above

I’m thankful [C] for the ones I love,

[D] My cozy bed at night,

And for [G] the summer sun so bright.

[C] I am thankful for the [F] monkeys at the zoo

But [C] most of all I’m [G7] thankful for [C] YOU!


[C] I am thankful for [F] bubbles in the air,

For a [C] cool breeze in my hair,

And for my [G7] snuggly teddy bear.

[C] I am thankful for [F] yummy things to eat,

For [C] ice cream cones so sweet,

And for a [G7] special birthday treat.


I’m thankful [F] for the sky above

I’m thankful [C] for the ones I love,

[D] My cozy bed at night,

And for [G] the summer sun so bright.

[C] I am thankful for the [F] monkeys at the zoo

But [C] most of all I’m [G7] thankful,

[C] I am so very [F] thankful!

[C] Most of all I’m [G7] thankful for [C] YOU!

CLOSING SONG: You Are My Sunshine by Jimmie Davis & Charles Mitchell (or possibly by Oliver Hood)

All in all it was a fun program! Some of kids held up favorite toys or books, and we talked about them here and there. One challenge with Zoom is that, while we muted the kids while we were reading or singing (because unfortunately music doesn’t sync well over Zoom), the kids can unmute themselves by hitting the space bar, which of course is the biggest button on the keyboard, so we did have to occasionally mute certain kids (even though they were adorable!). Luckily, we had another coworker, Kelly, managing the tech side of the program. Highly recommended if you have enough staff!

What are your favorite Thanksgiving books or songs? Please share them in the comments.

Storytime for National Native American Heritage Month

Last week, my coworker Angela and I did an Interactive Musical Storytime featuring books by and about Native Americans in honor of National Native American Heritage Month. While we were planning it, I checked with a friend of mine, Laverne Pilcher-Villalobos, who is a member of the Omaha tribe. As a school librarian, she is also a passionate advocate for accurate representation of Native Americans in children’s books. She has recently compiled this wonderful virtual library of books, curriculum, and web sites for students and teachers: November American Indian Heritage Month Virtual Library

As with all of our programs right now, the storytime was held over Zoom, with families registering in advance. Here is what we did:

OPENING SONG: Do As I’m Doing

This has been our regular opening song for our Interactive Storytimes. It’s great because it allows the kids to suggest actions they would like to do. As usual, we had asked them to find a cloth or blanket to wave around, so for one verse, we waved the cloths. We also did a couple of verses when we jumped up and down (always a favorite!), and one where we danced. Here are the lyrics and chords, and a link to video if you would like the tune:

[C] Do as I’m doing, follow, follow [G7] me.

[C] Do as I’m doing, follow, [G7] follow [C] me.

[C] Follow, [G7] follow, [F] follow [C] me.

[F] Follow, [C] follow, [G7] follow [C] me.

Follow, [G7] follow, [F] follow [C] me,

[F] Follow, [C] follow, [G7] follow [C] me.

After our opening song, we talked briefly about Native American Heritage Month. I had originally asked Laverne if she had any songs she would recommend, but she was concerned that sharing a song from any one tribe might give the audience the impression that it was representative of all tribes and tribal languages. She emphasized that there are 574 federally recognized tribes in the United States, each with their own distinct language and culture. Instead, she shared this video of representatives from different tribes saying “I Love You” in their language, so I played a short clip for the kids:

I also shared the map of historic tribal lands from Native-Land.ca, which is an excellent visual of the sheer number of different tribes who have lived, and are currently living, in the United States: https://native-land.ca/

SONG: If All the Raindrops Were Lemon drops and Gumdrops

Since our first book was about food, we set the tone with one of my favorite food songs. We had the kids throw their cloths in the air and let them fall like raindrops, and suggest different foods to sing about. We had pizza, and strawberries, and strawberries with ketchup (!). As I mention in this video, it’s one of the easiest songs to play on the ukulele, because you only use two chords (C and G7):

[C] If all the raindrops were [G7] lemon drops and [C] gum drops,

Oh, what a rain it would [G7] be.

[C] I’d stand out- [G7] side with my [C] mouth open [G7] wide,

[C] “Ah, Ah, Ah, [G7] Ah, Ah, Ah, [C] Ah, Ah, Ah, [G7] Ah!”

[C] If all the raindrops were [G7] lemon drops and [C] gum drops,

Oh, what a [G7] rain it would [C] be!

BOOK: Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Maillard; illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal

We shared this ebook from Overdrive. Luckily, there were two copies available in library system, allowing both Angela and I to borrow one in case one of us lost our Internet connection (which happened before).

The book is a series of short sensory descriptions of a simple, but delicious food made and enjoyed by a number of different tribes, which also serves as a symbol of their adaptability and resilience. The author, Kevin Maillard, is a registered member of the Seminole Nation. This book was the perfect length for our audience (mostly toddlers and preschoolers), especially because it gives the kids the opportunity to mime the mixing, rolling, and flattening of the dough.

SONG: Five Days Old by Laurie Berkner

This is such a fun and lively song, and was a perfect segway for our next book:

[C] I’m sitting here, I’m [F] one day old, and [C] I’m sitting here I’m [F] two [G7] days [C] old.

[C] I’m sitting here, I’m [F] three days old, and [C] I’m sitting here I’m [F] four [G7] days [C] old.

[F] One [C] day, I’ll [F] be a [C] year, then [F] I’ll be [C] two, then [G7] three, then four.

[C] As for now I’m [F] sitting here, I’m [C] five days old and [F] no [G7] days [C] more!

I’m jumping up, I’m one day old…

I’m clapping my hands, I’m one day old…

I’m kicking my legs, I’m one day old…

Getting really tired, I’m one day old…

I’m jumping up, I’m one day old..

Book: First Laugh, Welcome Baby! By Rose Tahe and Nancy Bo Flood; illustrated by Jonathan Nelson

Angela read this sweet book (also available on Overdrive) honoring the First Laugh Celebration practiced by the Navajo (Diné) tribe. The story follows a family and all of their attempts to make their new baby laugh, so that he may be welcomed into the tribe. This is a wonderful book that portrays experiences all kids and families can relate to, while also demonstrating language and cultural elements unique to the Navajo.

SONG: Circle of the Sun by Sally Rogers

This was one of our two “play-along” songs, so we asked the kids to play something from around their house (pot lid and spoon, cereal box, etc.) or simply clap along. We also asked them for suggestions of things that children or babies might do for the first time. We had “Babies laugh their first laugh,” “Children all go dancing” and “Children all go jumping.” Here’s a recording of the original song:

[C] Babies are born in a circle of the sun,

Circle of the sun on their [G7] birthing [C] day.

[C] Babies are born in a circle of the sun,

Circle of the sun on their [G7] birthing [C] day.

CHORUS

[C] Clouds to the North, Clouds to the South,

[F] Wind and [C] rain to the [F] East and the [G7] West,

[C] Babies are born in a circle of the sun,

Circle of the sun on their [G7] birthing [C] day.

ENDING SONG: You Are My Sunshine by Jimmie Davis & Charles Mitchell (or possibly by Oliver Hood)

Incidentally, I noticed that Laverne Pilcher-Villalobos uses the term “American Indian” instead of “Native American,” and I asked her which term was preferred. Here’s what she said:

First, not all American Indians think alike and some don’t care how they are addressed or about stereotypes. However, those of us in the education or libraries do care and a lot. If someone mentions their native background to you, the best way to address them is by asking “what tribe or what nation are you from?” There are approximately 600 federally recognized tribes and each one has its own language and culture… To clump everyone together would be equivalent to saying “European” instead of Italian, Irish, Spanish, French, Swedish or what have you. Using Native American or American Indian is appropriate but the better way to use generic terms is using “Indigenous” to America.

Laverne Pilcher-Villalobos

Do you have favorite books by Native American authors? Please share them in the comments.

Click or Treat! Two Virtual Halloween Storytimes

Happy Halloween! Since my last post, my coworker Angela and I have done two more Interactive Musical Storytimes via Zoom. It’s been wonderful to see the kids again, even just on the computer, and we invited them to come in costume, which was adorable.

This time we did sign-ups with a Microsoft Form, instead of using the Zoom registration. This gave us a little more flexibility in the kinds of questions we could include, including a checkbox to acknowledge that the person registering was over 13 years of age, and that any kids under 13 would be accompanied by an adult. This has been our workaround for the COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act) rules, which would otherwise prevent from doing any interactive programs for kids under 13. (Click here to see the form we used). The downside to this method was that I had to send participants the Zoom link over email, because unlike registering through Zoom, they wouldn’t receive an automated email confirmation when they filled out the form.

Like last time, we had a coworker managing the chat, and muting and unmuting the kids at different times. We mostly muted everyone during the songs and stories, and unmuted them to ask for suggestions at different points. The books we used were all from Open Library. We did have one major technical glitch in the middle of one of the books. Angela’s Internet suddenly went down, and since she was the one who had the book checked out, I had to improvise for a few minutes until she logged back in. After that, the book wouldn’t load for some reason, so she had to quickly return it, and have me check it out instead. Luckily, the crowd was very patient.

Here’s what we did:

STORYTIME 1: PUMPKINS

Intro: As usual, we asked the kids to find a piece of cloth to wave, and something to make noise with (drum, pot and spoon, etc). We took a few minutes to admire everyone’s costumes, and let them talk if they wanted to, and we explained how to switch from Gallery view (where they could see everyone) to Speaker view (where they could see Angela and I in a larger window). Zoom actually now lets you “spotlight” multiple speakers, which is supposed to make those speakers larger for everyone, but it doesn’t always seem to work.

OPENING SONG: Do As I’m Doing

We asked the kids for action ideas: spinning their cloth, throwing it in the air, jumping up and down, etc. Here are the chords and lyrics:

[C] Do as I’m doing, follow, follow [G7] me.

[C] Do as I’m doing, follow, [G7] follow [C] me.

[C] Follow, [G7] follow, [F] follow [C] me.

[F] Follow, [C] follow, [G7] follow [C] me.

Follow, [G7] follow, [F] follow [C] me,

[F] Follow, [C] follow, [G7] follow [C] me.

RHYME: Five Little Pumpkins

This is a classic Halloween rhyme that most of the kids already new. My daughter made me five paper pumpkins that I stuck on my fingers with tape.

Five little pumpkins sitting on a gate.

The first one said, “Oh my! It’s getting late!

The second one said, “There are witches in the air!”

The third one said, “But WE don’t care!”

The fourth one said, “Let’s run and run and run!” (run in place)

The five one said, “This is Halloween fun!”

Then, “OOOH” went the wind, and OUT (clap!) went the light!

And the five little pumpkins rolled (roll your hands) out of sight.

BOOK: The Pumpkin House by Roger Vaughan Carr; illustrated by Julie Davey: https://openlibrary.org/works/OL4794526W/The_Pumpkin_House?edition=pumpkinhouse00carr

An adorable story about a mouse who decides to carve herself out of a pumpkin, only to eat so much of the pumpkin that she soon outgrows it.

RHYME: Pumpkin Patch

I learned this rhyme from an Orth Music teacher years ago, so I don’t know who wrote it, but it’s a fun one to do with a group.

Pumpkin Patch, Pumpkin Patch,

Walking all around in my pumpkin patch.

Here is a pumpkin, nice and fat (spread arms wide),

Turns into a jack-o-lantern, just like that! (make a scary face!)

We did this one a few times, taking a minute or two to comment on all the scary faces on the screen. The kids loved it!

BOOK: This is NOT a Pumpkin by Bob Staake: https://openlibrary.org/books/OL8458611M/This_Is_NOT_a_Pumpkin

Cute, simple book with large illustrations which show something that clearly looks like a pumpkin, but turns out to be a Jack-O-Lantern.

SONG: Jack-O-Lantern

I loved this song as a child, although I have no idea where it came from. We had the kids play their homemade instruments while I sang and played on the ukulele.

[C] Jack-O-Lantern, Jack-O- [G7] Lantern, you are such a spooky [C]sight,

As you sit there in the window looking out [G7] at the [C] night.

You were once a pretty [G7] pumpkin, growing on a pretty [C] vine,

Now you are a Jack-O-Lantern, let your can- [G7] dlelight [C] shine.

ENDING SONG: You Are My Sunshine by Jimmie Davis & Charles Mitchell (or possibly by Oliver Hood)

STORYTIME 2: MONSTERS

OPENING SONG: Do As I’m Doing (see above)

RHYME: Five Little Monsters

Angela did this one with an adorable felt board of five little monsters, partially covered by a blanket.

Five little monsters sleeping in my bed,

One crawled out from under my spread.

I called to Mama (call “Mama!”)

And Mama said, “No more monsters sleeping in the bed!”

Four little monsters sleeping in my bed…

BOOK: Leonardo, the Terrible Monster by Mo Willems: https://archive.org/details/yourpalmowillems00will

You can’t go wrong with Mo Willems, so I’m grateful that he has given us a book perfect for Halloween. Leonardo is a terrible monster, who simply can’t scare anyone, until he meets Sam. Angela read the narration and Leonardo, and I got to do Sam’s long tearful rant.

SONG: We Are Scary Ghosts

I learned this song from an Orth Music curriculum, where it was originally called Scary Skeletons. We had the kids put their cloths over their heads to be ghosts, and sang it through a couple of times. Then we asked for other things to be. We were scary witches, monsters, vampires (with the cloth as a cape), bees, and pretty butterflies.

We are scary ghosts floating down the street,

Floating down the street,

Floating down the street.

We are scary ghosts floating down the street,

We’ll scare you…BOO! (pull the scarf off and yell, “BOO!”)

BOOK: Skeleton Hiccups by Margery Cuyler and S.D. Schindler: https://openlibrary.org/works/OL166479W/Skeleton_Hiccups?edition=skeletonhiccups00cuyl (There are two editions of this on Open Library)

Simple story about a skeleton with hiccups, and the hilarious way his friend Ghost finds to help him. Angela read the narration and I provided the hiccups all the way through.

SONG: On Halloween

Our first play-along song, where we asked the kids to pull out their drums or other noise-makers. We asked for suggestions of scary things they might find in the house. We had cats in the house saying, “Meow, Meow, Meow!”; spiders in the house going creep, creep, creep; monsters in the house going stomp, stomp, stomp; witches in the house saying “Hee, Hee, Hee!”; and children at the door saying “Trick or Treat!”

To the Tune of The Wheels on the Bus

[C]The ghosts in the house say, “Boo! Boo! Boo!”

[G7]“Boo! Boo! Boo! C] Boo! Boo! Boo!”

The ghosts in the house say “Boo! Boo! Boo!”

[G7]On Hallo- [C]ween!

ENDING SONG: You Are My Sunshine by Jimmie Davis & Charles Mitchell (or possibly by Oliver Hood)

Do you have favorite Halloween songs or books (either e-books or print ones)? Please share them in the comments.

The New Frontier: Interactive Virtual Storytimes

Last week, my coworker Angela and I performed our first “live” interactive virtual storytime via Zoom.

For the first time since March, we could actually see the kids and they could see us.

I was surprisingly nervous, even though prior to the shutdown, I used to regularly perform six or more live storytimes a week. But technology adds a whole new level of unpredictability. Now, on top of my recurring nightmare of being faced with a large crowd of toddlers with nothing to read but The Grapes of Wrath, I now had to worry about Zoom bombers, Internet outages, glitches with our ebook databases, and any number of other problems completely out of our control.

But thankfully the Internet gods were kind, and we had a wonderful coworker (Darren) managing all of the nitty gritty techical challenges of muting and unmuting, and monitoring the chat. We had a large and enthusiastic audience of kids, and we all had a blast.

Here’s how we did it:

In order to reduce the risk of Zoom bombers, and also to comply with COPPA (the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act), we required participants to register in advance, and verify that children under the age of 13 would be participating with an adult. Advertising went out over social media (Facebook and Instagram) a week in advance, although it was really the email newsletter that went out to our patrons that brought in the most sign-ups.

On the morning of the program, we logged on to our Zoom meeting about an hour in advance to make sure all of our ebooks were loading properly, run through songs, adjust the lighting, and gather props. We kept everyone in the Zoom waiting room until the program started, although I sent a message to them saying that they could rename themselves if they didn’t want their full name or their child’s full name on the screen.

Once we let the audience in to the meeting, we spent a few minutes explaining to the families how to mute and unmute, and how to set the Zoom meeting to Speaker view, so the kids could see me or Angela when we were talking. Mostly Darren managed muting throughout the storytime, which was a bit of a challenge, since muting everyone meant that Angela and I were temporarily muted too, but only for few seconds.

We also asked the kids to find some kind of cloth (dish towel, small blanket, wash cloth, etc.) and something to make noise with (paper cups, pots and pans, keys, etc.) to use in different parts of the storytime.

We kept the kids muted while we read the books and sang the songs, but we would unmute them in between. For many of the songs, we asked for suggestions of motions we could do, or animals to sing about. These were the books and songs we used:

Opening Song: Do As I’m Doing

This is a really simple action song, which worked well in the virtual setting. We asked the kids to suggest different motions (twirling, jumping, etc.), which they demonstrated on video. Some of the actions involved the cloth that we asked the kids to gather at the beginning (twirling the cloth, throwing it in the air, etc., basically the same kinds of things we used to do with play scarves in our regular storytimes). I played it on the ukulele, while Angela demonstrated the motions. Here are the chords and lyrics.

[C] Do as I’m doing, follow, follow [G7] me.

[C] Do as I’m doing, follow, [G7] follow [C] me.

[C] Follow, [G7] follow, [F] follow [C] me.

[F] Follow, [C] follow, [G7] follow [C] me.

Follow, [G7] follow, [F] follow [C] me,

[F] Follow, [C] follow, [G7] follow [C] me.

Song: If You’re Happy and You Know It

We added verses for different emotions: If you’re sad and you know it, cry boo-hoo!… If you’re angry and you know it, say “I’m mad!”… If you’re sleepy and you know it yawn and stretch… If you’re nervous and you know it, hide your face (we used the cloth, and then did a big “Peek-a-boo!” at the end of each line). Angela had paper plates with different faces (happy, sad, angry) on them that she held up at the beginning of each verse.

eBook: Grumpy Monkey by Suzanne Lang; illustrated by Max Lang

When Jim Panzee, the monkey, wakes up in a bad mood, all of the other animals try to cheer him up. We read this one from Overdrive, using the Share Screen, so the kids could see the illustrations up close. Angela read the narration and the voice of Jim Panzee, and I did all the other animal voices. This is such a great book for 2020, when everyone feels a little grumpy sometimes. One mom emailed me later to say that her toddler retold the story to every member of their family, so I think it was a hit!

Song: Old McDonald Had a Farm

Angela had a bunch of puppets prepared to hold up, so we could sing about the different animals, but we didn’t end up needing them. The kids (adorably) were all eager to hold up their own stuffed animals, or suggest a favorite animal and the sound it made (unicorns apparently say “neigh!”). This ended up being one of my favorite parts of the storytime.

eBook: There is a Bird on Your Head by Mo Williems

Gerald the Elephant is unhappy when two birds build a nest on his head. This book is available for 1 Hour Borrowing from Open Library. Angela and I each read a character, and I held a bird stuffed animal on my head (in retrospect, I wish I had asked the kids to pretend their cloths were birds and had them put them on their heads). The simplicity and humor of these books make them perfect for almost any age group, and sharing the ebook on screen made it really easy for the kids to enjoy the illustrations.

Song: Five Little Ducks

There are LOTS of different versions of this song, but the tune I usually sing is the Raffi one). Angela had a Monkey Mitt with the 5 Little Ducks velcroed on, so she held it up while I sang and played the song on the ukulele.

Closing Song: You Are My Sunshine by Jimmie Davis & Charles Mitchell (or possibly by Oliver Hood)

We had unmuted the kids temporarily while we talked about this being our last song, but before we could mute them again, one little boy sang the whole song through all by himself and it was adorable! We asked the kids to play along on the noisemakers (pots and pans, etc.) that they gathered at the beginning of storytime. Angela and I always used to end our regular Musical Storytimes with this song, so it felt almost like old times.

REACTIONS AND TAKE-AWAYS

All in all, Angela and I felt that the storytime went really well. It was wonderful for us to actually see our audience, after months of performing pre-recorded storytimes in an empty room, and wonderful for the kids to see us and each other.

After the storytime, I emailed all of our participants with the registration link for the next Interactive Storytime (which was led by a different librarian). One mom emailed me back to say that in some ways she almost preferred this format to the live storytimes in the library. She said that sharing the ebooks on screen made it easier for her toddler to see the illsutrations and follow the story, and muting the kids during the story meant he wasn’t distracted by the usual noises of the audience. He also bragged to his older brother, who is doing At Home Learning, that he too got to be in a big class with lots of kids on Zoom.

This feedback made me wonder if there might be ways to incorporate some elements of virtual programming into in-person storytimes in the future. For example, I might try displaying the illustrations on a screen while I read from the physical book (so the kids still get the sense of how physical books “work”, but can still see the illustrations clearly. Or I might try to use more “big books,” although I have a hard time turning the pages. In any case, it’s definitely something I will be thinking about when I finally go back to doing in-person storytimes.

Have you performed or attended any virtual storytimes? If so, what worked well, or not so well, for you? Please share any thoughts in the comments.

Virtually Normal: Reinventing Storytime Online

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Photo from one of my favorite storytime families

Well, here in the San Francisco Bay Area, we are in our seventh week of Sheltering in Place, and my job has changed in ways I never imagined. Last week I did my first Virtual Storytime, goofing around in front of a webcam in the corner of my bedroom, with no way of knowing who was watching or what their reaction might be. I think I was more nervous than I was the first time I did a live storytime, even though I had been practicing with coworkers for several weeks. Here are a few things I’ve learned so far:

Virtual Storytime is much more tiring than live programs.  Usually when I do programs in the library, I feel energized by seeing the kids and parents singing along or enjoying the books. For this type of program, all of the energy has to come from you. Whenever I finish a virtual storytime, I’m left feeling both jittery and exhausted, and also with an unsettled feeling of not knowing how the program was received.

Anything and everything can go wrong. I think the scariest aspect of virtual programs is that so much is out of your control: your Internet can fail, software can crash, ebooks can refuse to load, the sound can be distorted, cats or kids can run through your programming space.  During my first virtual storytime, I somehow clicked on the cover page of the ebook I was reading in some magical way that opened a new tab with a .jpg of the cover. It took me what felt like hours (but was really only about two minutes) to figure out what had happened, and how to get back to the book.

After watching lots of other virtual programs lately though, I know that everyone is in the same boat, and in some ways it’s these kinds of unexpected, frustrating glitches that are the most humanizing and endearing.  It’s definitely not always easy to remember that in the moment. But I’m trying to make a habit of writing down a few song ideas and having a back-up book in case I run into problems with our ebook databases. For the other problems, I just have to be prepared to laugh them off and keep going.

Doing a trial run with a remote audience is key. Before I was given the green light to do my first virtual storytime, I had to do what felt like dozens of practices over Zoom in front of other library staff. This was hard for me, but it helped so much in terms of getting used to the technology, and identifying problems I never would have known about otherwise.

I learned that if I played my ukulele at my usual volume, Zoom would prioritize the strumming over the sound of my voice, making it hard for people to hear the words to the song. I learned that the lighting was better if I put the laptop next to my bedroom window, and that sounds like jiggling keys or tapping pan lids to demonstrate some homemade instrument options were painfully loud to my online audience.

The practices also taught me that ebooks showed up better on the screen than holding up physical picture books (where the illustrations sometimes looked washed out, or obscured by light glaring off the page), and that using F11 to make the pages full screen was helpful for hiding the tabs at top of my web browser, but sometimes made it harder to turn the pages when I was sharing my screen over Zoom. I’m incredibly grateful for all of the feedback I got from fellow librarians who took the time to watch my practices and give advice.

The needs of our storytime families have changed. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, especially after watching this webinar from Reaching Across Illinois Library System: https://www.railslibraries.info/events/181406.  In it, Ann Santori from Lincolnwood Library talks about the importance of having a purpose behind each of the songs or activities she does. One of the things she has been doing is creating a video series called Give Me a Break, featuring easy free play activities that parents can provide to keep their young children occupied, so that they can have a few minutes to do something for themselves. So now I’m trying to incorporate something similar into my virtual storytimes. In my most recent one, I took two minutes towards the end of the program to demonstrate Flower Painting, one of my favorite process art activities, where kids can squish flowers or leaves on paper to create natural paintings without the mess of using actual paint.  (Here’s a great description from No Time for Flash Cards).

The other thing to consider is that while our storytimes in the library provided parents and caregivers a chance to bond with their kids, I suspect many parents are using the virtual storytimes as a way to occupy their kids for a few minutes while they squeeze in a few uninterrupted minutes of work, or make dinner. So a lot of the cuddly, tickly, lapsit songs and rhymes I love probably won’t work for them right now.

I’m trying to focus instead on songs the kids can learn and sing and adapt for their own families (I talk about how, instead of singing about the people on the bus, they can sing about the people in their house, or the toys in their closet, etc.). I do also try to highlight our ebook collections and other resources families can use while the libraries are closed. And I try to find ways to incorporate things families have at home, to stand in for some of the things we use in storytime (wash cloths for play scarves, a cereal box for a shaker).

There are still ways to connect. The weirdest part of virtual programs is the isolated nature of them. As the weeks drag on, I miss my regular storytime families more and more, and it’s really hard to feel connected to them when I’m all alone with my laptop. But one nice thing about doing programs online is the ability to reach more and different people. Knowing my niece and nephew were watching my first storytime from Ohio, I used my last song, Freight Train by Elizabeth Cotten (with revised lyrics by Elizabeth Mitchell) to ride my imaginary train to their house. That gave me the idea of posting on one of our local parent Facebook groups to ask if anyone would like me to do a shout-out to their kids in an upcoming storytime. I’ve already gotten a few responses, both from regular and new families. It will make it much easier to stand in front of the web cam, imagining the kids’ surprise at hearing their own names, and thinking of some of my favorite families watching from home.

Those are just my preliminary thoughts, after a week of virtual storytimes. Please share any ideas, suggestions, experiences or questions you have about virtual programs in the comments.  In the meantime, stay safe (and sane!).