Awhile back, I stumbled across an article on the Washington Post written by a retired high school teacher. It is a plea to professors in higher education to understand that K-12 teachers are not failing students on purpose, their hands are tied by governmental regulations and an emphasis on testing. You can read the article here. The basic idea is that K-12 teachers are being forced into a corner where they have to “teach to the tests.” Both students and teachers are evaluated on these tests, they impact funding, raises, and everything else. However, the tests are getting easier over time, relying more on multiple choice questions and less on essay or constructed answers. When there is an essay, no points are given for correct grammar or style.  Even the teachers who want to do more with their students simply have too many students. One writing assignment could take a teacher 8-15 hours to grade, assuming they can read and comment on each paper in 3-5 minutes.

I wish I had a solution to this problem in the schools, but I don’t. What I do have, though, is a possible solution for our kids, so that their education and ability to think creatively does not have to be sacrificed to the standardized testing gods.  This is the perfect time for libraries to step it up and provide educational experiences that kids no longer find in school. Obviously, we can’t make the kids come to our programs. Marketing them as an extra school activity would not be helpful to attendance. To that end, I’ve come up with 3 rules for K-12 programming in libraries with an educational focus.

1. It has to be fun!
Even if, as librarians, we wish to help fill the educational void that students are now facing, we cannot force students to attend library programs. For that reason, we have to make programs exciting, fun, and social. They have to want to attend. Listen when the students are talking in groups in the library. You don’t have to eavesdrop on personal conversations, but you can listen for keywords about the types of activities they enjoy. What do they like to do when there are no demands on their time? Watch the students as they play on the computer. What kinds of games are they playing? What kind of music are they listening to? Which websites or blogs are they reading? Talk to them directly. Find out what interests them. Look at your circulation statistics. What are they checking out? If you get to know them, it shouldn’t be too difficult to come up with a list of ideas that will appeal to them.

2. It has to be learning.
This requirement is not as hard as it might seem at first. Learning does not have to happen in a school type setting. There do not have to be tests or quizzes or assignments. Look back at that list of things your student patrons enjoy. Is it gaming? They could learn to create a game in a Scratch program. They could have a Q&A session with a local game designer. There could be a display about the history of gaming, with a few emulators for them to try out different games.  Music? Have a local musician talk about writing songs, or a producer show them how to record tracks. Are they reading a lot of historical fiction? Perhaps a small Renaissance Faire would draw them in. [This is not a requirement for all programs, but if you want to provide an educational program, it should be educational.]

3. It has to be interactive.
Very few K-12 students enjoy lectures, so you need to plan more than just having a speaker come in. When you do have speakers, have them briefly introduce themselves and what they do. Then, let the students ask questions and guide the discussion. Have a few questions ready ahead of time in case the students can’t think of one, or are shy to start. When doing projects, such as game design or crafts, give guidelines, but don’t restrict them.

4. It should involve the teachers.
This one is more recommendation than requirement, because the level of teacher involvement will depend on the schools and teachers you work with. If you are lucky enough that the teachers will work with you, find out what they are teaching in class. You may be able to design programs that tie in to the curriculum. Perhaps the teacher has an idea that they just can’t fit into the class time, but that you could easily adapt to a library setting. Maybe you could get a couple teachers to offer extra credit as an incentive to get the students there in the first place (after which, they won’t need incentive, because they will see how awesome the library is). Teachers can also be a great source of ideas for book lists to keep on hand at the library. If you know what the curriculum is going to be, you can have a variety of books, fiction and non-fiction, that touch on subjects students are learning about. This way, they can continue to explore subjects that grab their attention.