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!).