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Taking Children Reading to Dogs Virtual

Like so many of us, March rolled around and stay-at-home orders forced us to quickly adapt the way we provide library services. Storytimes and book clubs went virtual, staff created engaging videos, and we hired presenters to film music and fitness videos that we could share online.  After a hearing from participants of our popular, Children Reading to Dogs programs; one of our children’s librarians brought the idea to our Engagement and Program services department to see if it was possible in this landscape.

What we did

We transitioned our in-person Children Reading to Dogs program into a 45-minute virtual program. Children’s Librarian Allie Barton proposed the idea, and with this in mind, our Volunteer Coordinator, Digital Services and Strategy Manager, and Teen Services Manager met to determine a format that might work.  Once that was determined, we created best practices, guidelines, and a schedule for the virtual program.

The technology platform we utilized was Zoom and Zoom’s Breakout Room feature. Each breakout room includes a therapy dog team, staff person, and child reader. While the children and dog teams have their cameras and microphones on, the staff keep their cameras off and microphone muted unless they have a role that required a camera. Staff change their screen name to “Metro Staff – my name”.

Participants register for the program on our calendar of events and are sent a Zoom link for the program.  The number of participants is determined by the number of staff and dog teams available.  

Staff Roles

Volunteer Coordinator

We are fortunate to have a Volunteer Coordinator who recruits the therapy dog teams, schedules, and reminds staff monitors and volunteer dog teams each week.  This person maintains a spreadsheet with dog teams, staff, and participants for each week. They recruit additional staff and dog teams as needed, and also send reminders to staff and volunteers the day before the program.

Greeter

One staff member is the designated greeter each week. This individual has their camera on as they welcome the volunteer dog teams and children to the program. They will also mention any updates about library services and upcoming programs, explain to the participants how the program works, encourage participants to update their name, and give a brief overview of Zoom and how to use the toolbar.

Name Updater

One staff member is responsible for updating the names of readers plus the dog teams (dog and human) when they join. Some participants and volunteers do this themselves, while others need a little help. This helps the Attendance Coordinator know who is in the room to mark as present.

Attendance Coordinator

One staff member keeps track of the attendance of staff, dog teams, and participants.  This helps keep the Meeting Host updated on who’s in the room and who’s missing.

Meeting Host

One staff member serves as the meeting Host. This person admits staff, dog teams, and participants into the meeting. They assign staff members as Co-Hosts, setup the breakout rooms, and broadcast notifications to keep everyone on track when it is time to start and end the program.

Staff Monitors

Staff were present in each breakout room to monitor the reading session, answer questions, and give reminders when it was time to wrap up. These individuals have their cameras turned off and keep their microphones muted unless they need to talk to the participants.

Program Structure

All staff and volunteers arrive at least 15 prior to the start of the program.

Meeting Host

  • Starts meeting 20 minutes prior to start of program
  • Admits staff and dog teams from waiting room
  • Admits participants when program is scheduled to begin
  • Sets up programs in the library calendar including the email notifications and reminders.

Staff Greeter:

  • Welcomes everyone to the program
  • Share library related updates prior to the program
  • Gives a quick overview of Zoom and the toolbar
  • Encourages readers to share what they are reading tonight.
  • Welcomes everyone back after their time reading in the breakout room is ended.
  • Provides salutations to everyone and encourages them to sign up for the next week.

Name Updater

  • Talks to parents or children to help update participant’s names on the screen.

Meeting Host

  • Will split the main group into Breakout Rooms. Each breakout room is made up of:
    • One Staff Member
    • A Child
    • Dog & Owner

Staff Monitors

  • Be present and actively listen
  • Provide technical support as needed
  • Monitor actions inside the breakout room
  • Ensure who is supposed to be in the Breakout Room and remove anyone who may try to enter the room
  • Watch for broadcasts in chat room
  • Inform volunteers and participants of 5-minute and 1-minute notices near end of program

Meeting Host

  • After 20 minutes, the host sends a broadcast in the chat to all rooms letting them know there are 5 minutes left
  • After 24 minutes, the host sends another broadcast in the chat to all rooms letting them know there is 1 minute left
  • Close all breakout rooms and everyone will rejoin the main room and will conclude the program

Technical Notes

  • We purchased a Zoom Business account which allowed us to have programs that last longer than the 40 minutes that come with the free account
  • We utilize the waiting room feature to admit the staff and dog teams prior to the start of the program and admit participants when it is time for the program to start
  • Breakout rooms are manually created for the number of participants registered for the program. (You may need to turn this feature on your Zoom account online).  In each breakout room, assign a reader, dog team, and a staff member.  After the rooms are created, let the Volunteer Coordinator know the rooms are ready.  Hit the “magic” button and send each participant into a room to read.
  • Use the broadcast to all rooms button to send messages and alerts to the breakout rooms.
  • Have a spreadsheet open at the same time to keep track of who’s in the waiting room and if they need to be admitted early (staff or dog teams). 

Lessons Learned

  • Always recruit 2 – 3 more dog teams than participants each week.
  • Always have 2 – 3 more staff members available than dog teams
  • Communicate a day in advance with all staff and volunteers
  • Clearly define roles for staff:
  • All staff should have cameras off unless they have a role that requires a camera.
  • Always remind volunteers and participants to accept the breakout room request
  • Have a couple of extra staff members in the main room to troubleshoot if necessary
  • Be prepared to step in and help the volunteer at any time.
  • Do not advertise the Zoom link publicly.
  • Set up email notifications to share the Zoom information for the program.   Also include an email address incase a participant has questions or cannot get in the Zoom room.
  • Have a waitlist on your program.
  • Be flexible!  If something goes wrong like a dog team cannot make it, don’t be afraid to put sibling groups together or use your own pet to stand in for a therapy dog.
  • For security purposes, lock the meeting room 10 minutes after the program starts.
  • Having multiple people on video can be overwhelming for a new reader.  We learned quickly that staff who did not have a visible role needed to have their camera off.  This helps the reader focus in on the dog team.
  • While this is a program focusing on developing literacy, the dog teams receive a sense of community and purpose during this difficult time which they may not get from any other source.

Successes

Taking this program virtual was the brainchild of children’s librarian, Allie Barton. In her own words, these were the successes of the program going virtual:

While disappointed that Children Reading to Dogs can’t happen in-person, it is so rewarding seeing how our librarians, patrons, and dog team volunteers have adapted to make this program happen. While you can’t pet and hug the dog or high-five the kids when they get a word correctly, the smile and joy from both the children and the dog volunteers is the same as in-person Children Reading to Dogs. In fact, because of the nature of breakout rooms, the children have more time with the dog team to practice their reading. The limit of time, space, and number of dog volunteers only allowed children during in-person children reading to dogs to have at most 15 minutes to practice their reading, but during our Virtual Children Reading to Dogs can have 25 minutes. Many of our kids often utilize the full 25 minutes!

My favorite aspect of Children Reading to Dogs has always been the relationships built between the children and the dog teams. It’s been a joy to see this continue over Zoom. Children will request the same dog team each week or the dog teams will be fully invested in what the kids did last weekend and ask about it at the next program. Even our librarians have found creative ways to celebrate our kids practicing their reading over Zoom. One of my co-workers fills a balloon with confetti and at the end of the session he pops the balloon over his head to celebrate the reader completing their reading time.

While I can’t wait to get back to in-person programming (whenever that will be), there is still nothing as rewarding as spending an hour each week on Zoom, watching kids blossom as they practice their reading to dog teams.


Today’s blog post was written by Kristin Williamson , Children’s Services Manager, and Allie Barton, Children’s Librarian, at the Metropolitan Library System in Oklahoma County, OK, on behalf of the ALSC Managing Children’s Services Committee. They can be reached at kwilliamson@metrolibrary.org and aileen.barton@metrolibrary.org.

This post addresses core competency III. Programming Skills.

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