The first time I did virtual storytime, I created a Mr. Rogers-inspired background in my living room, broke out some carefully crafted finger puppets, and thoroughly enjoyed performing on Zoom. Over the following weeks, I grew to appreciate many aspects of virtual programming. But, like so many children’s librarians, I also began to feel like something was missing. I wanted to hear giggles, tales of lost teeth, and requests for favorite songs. I missed the kids.
When I first started doing storytime as a new librarian, my palms sweat, my voice shook, and I didn’t enjoy it as much as I had expected. A wise mentor suggested that I focus on simply being present with the children. It worked! From this advice, I developed a personal mantra for library programming–presence, not performance. I wondered how to bring the same presence to virtual programming.
Luckily, I had started the shutdown by taking a virtual class about mindful communication. As part of the class, we paired off with a “communication buddy.” My buddy and I began meeting weekly to practice our skills. She logged in from Israel, and I logged in from Maryland. She and I were practicing bringing presence to communication on Zoom each week, and forming a true friendship through the exercise. A year after the class ended, we still meet regularly.
As I considered the lessons I learned about virtual mindful communication, I assessed my virtual programming line-up with an eye for opportunities to be present and connect. We are a large system and our virtual storytimes had too many kids to build in much interaction. This is OK! A well-performed storytime is a beautiful thing. But, I realized I needed to do something different if I wanted to get to know the kids in the little boxes on my screen. I began planning small programs and experimenting with the format.
After a year of virtual programming, I am here to say that you truly can build deep and meaningful connections through virtual programs. I have grown to know many of the kids and their families. I know what they like and what they don’t. I hear silly jokes and know all about their pets. I see their excitement as they share discoveries they have made and work they have done. Even when we cannot be physically present with one another, it is possible to communicate with deep presence.
After a year of experimentation, here are my tips for building real connections in virtual space:
- Keep the group small. This prevents chaos when the kids have the power to unmute themselves and ensures that there is time for everyone to talk. Which brings me to…
- Let the kids talk! So many virtual programs are all about the adult presenting. At least half of my hour-long program is listening to the kids share their ideas about our topic (and many other things, too!). I pose questions and give them space to answer.
- Really listen. When the kids are talking, give yourself permission to stop being the presenter and just be present. If a child wants to tell you about a lost tooth, listen to their story. It’s important to them. Often, our own anxiety about keeping the program on track and navigating this novel space keeps us from really hearing what a child says.
- Plan for security. With all this talking and listening, we need to think about safety. I require registration for some of my programs and only send the Zoom link to registered participants. I don’t love this barrier, but it is much easier to connect if everyone feels at ease about security.
- Invite ongoing participation. We work on projects that kids can finish in their own time and bring back to share with the group.
- Give kids as much ownership as you can manage. In the weekly virtual context, it might not be possible to let the kids fully lead the program. However, I like to let them suggest topics for future programs, vote on what we read, and tell me their opinions about my plans.
- Have fun! None of this needs to be perfect. I regularly say the wrong thing, forget to do some part of my plan, or lose my sense of being present to stress or anxiety. One of the most beautiful things about building real relationships is that they give everyone room to make mistakes and to forgive.
How do you strive to be more present in your virtual programs? Let us know in the comments below!
Today’s guest blogger is Briana Brockett-Richmond. Briana was a children’s librarian in public libraries until recently. She is now a freelance researcher and writer specializing in publications for children, caregivers and educators. When she isn’t working, she is usually watching the bees in her garden, napping with her cat, or playing trucks with her kiddo. You can find her on twitter @BriTellsStories or at BrianaBrockettRichmond.com.
Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position of ALA or ALSC, nor do they express the views of her employer.