April 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Storytime, Science, and Silliness: Up Close with Librarian Susan Anderson-Newham

“I think ideas are one of the things I do well,” says Susan Anderson-Newham, 2013 Library Journal Mover & Shaker, block play advocate, storyteller, actor, writer, and—since 2006—an early learning supervising librarian.

In the Pierce County Library System (PCLS) in Tacoma, WA, that she serves, Anderson-Newham is known as a force for foundational learning, due to both her groundbreaking B.L.O.C.K.S. program (Blocks Let Our Children Know Science) and “Our Children are Ready for Reading,” a study conducted in partnership with the University of Washington that involved training home child care providers in early literacy skills. B.L.O.C.K.S. teaches critical literacy, math, and cognitive skills to even the littlest learners through hands-on play and other engaging activities, while the study earned PCLS an Urban Libraries Innovation Award. Anderson-Newham has also been lauded for her efforts to work with her peers on initiatives to meet Washington’s curricula guidelines for early childhood education.

In this sixth of a dozen planned interviews with the youth services librarians named as Mover & Shakers this year, Anderson-Newham talks to School Library Journal about the importance of collaboration and a good sense of humor to her work, why play is key to kids’ learning, her inspirations and passions, and her top early learning picture books of all time.

You have a theater degree and worked as an actor/writer in New York City for 10 years before relocating to Washington and becoming a storyteller and librarian. How did you know that early learning and literacy were the right fit for you?
My undergraduate degree was in developmental psychology. In 1999 there was a training for librarians here in the Northwest called “Amazing Minds” [led by] Judy Nelson, a librarian colleague of mine; the purpose was to bring youth services librarians up to speed on the incredible research that was beginning to coalescing on the importance of early learning. That rekindled my interest in child growth and development. The next year, PLA/ALSC launched Every Child Ready to Read, which gave early learning a priority for all libraries. From then on, I found my attention turning more and more to early learning and ages 0–8. There’s something about those wee-ones that inspires and energize me! Their growth and development is really what I am most passionate about.

What books are on your all-time top lists for early learning and literacy?
The Empty Pot by Demi (Harcourt, 1985).
The best book about ‘honesty’ ever!

How Are You Peeling? Foods with Moods by Saxton Freymann (Scholastic, 1999).
Incredible introduction to talking about feelings and the food photographs are inspired.

The Three Billy Goats Gruff by Paul Galdone (Clarion, 1973).
Truly sublime retelling of the popular folktale.

Pattern Fish by Trudy Harris (Millbrook, 2000).
Introduces patterns, encourages interaction, and is very funny.

Say Hello! by Rachel Isadora (Putnam, 2010).
Repetition, diversity, humor, and child appeal.

Blue Sea by Robert Kalan (Greenwillow, 1979).
Perfect introduction to size differences, plus children love this book.

Little Blue and Little Yellow by Leo Lionni (Astor, 1959).
Color blending and emotions! Lionni was a genius.

Shades of People by Shelly Rottner (Holiday House, 2009).
Beautiful photographs and incredible vocabulary around skin color. I’ve had some wonderful discussions with children about skin color after sharing this book.

What new books in this category are your favorites?
Z is for Moose by Kelly Bingham (HarperCollins, 2009).
Making the alphabet silly and fun.

One Gorilla by Anthony Browne (Candlewick, 2013).
Incredibly fun, new counting book.

Grumpy Goat by Brett Helquist (HarperCollins, 2013).
Not only can you talk about feeling grumpy, but it celebrates the much maligned dandelion.

This is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen (Candlewick, 2012).
I love books that contain some wordless pages encouraging children to contribute to the story.

The Duckling Gets a Cookie by Mo Willems (Hyperion/Disney, 2012).
Executive Function skill-building wrapped in hilarity. Mo Willems talent is a great gift to children!

What are you reading right now for yourself?
I am reading three books at the moment—don’t all librarians have several reads going at once? Spirit’s End by Rachael Aaron (Orbit, 2012), the fifth book in a super fun fantasy series; The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (Dutton, 2012)—love him! Plus, my book group chose this as our current selection; and Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Steven Greenblatt. (W. W. Norton, 2004). Once a theatre wonk, always a theatre wonk.

What were your programming goals at PCLS when you first got there?
They had a fairly new early learning program going. I was actually terrified when I first started! I had been a children’s librarian in a branch and I knew exactly how to do that. But an early learning librarian? Uncharted waters. I remember sitting down with Judy Nelson (now my boss) that first week and asking her exactly what her goals were for me, and she replied, ‘I want you to grow the program.’  I know I had a deer-in-the-headlights-look as I sat there thinking ‘What does that mean?’ The level of freedom and opportunity she was placing at my feet was terrifying. But it was also invigorating and incredibly exciting! And lucky for me, she was there to offer inspiration and support.

What are you most proud of at PCLS?
I’m really proud of the community partners that we have gathered and what they have taught us about early learning. And I’m very proud that we have inextricably woven the library into the early learning system of our county. For example, we are just finishing up a partnership on a county-wide oral health project. Cavities create huge issues for a large number of children, and our coalition worked with the Washington Dental Service Foundation to create an awareness campaign. We created kits for providers to check out from the library, bookmarks of appropriate books, a songbook of silly songs to sing, and our librarians presented oral-health themed storytimes twice a year at most of our branches, where each child received a happy teeth ‘goody bag.’ Our partners were very enthusiastic in their praise for our contributions and it definitely strengthened our reputation with them.

Can you tell us more about the B.L.O.C.K.S. program?
Judy Nelson and I both became fascinated with the learning possibilities inherent in free block play. I had attended some amazing trainings at early learning conferences about preschool math and block play and Judy presented at an Every Child Ready to Read gathering in Montana, which included a training on play and blocks. The library in Montana had a unit-block cabinet and Judy felt there had to be a way to bring blocks to our libraries. She approached a colleague at the Puget Sound Educational Service district about a potential partnership; fortunately, the idea captivated our foundation board and they generously provided the funding for us to purchase large, portable, locking block cabinets and large sets of blocks for seven of our branch meeting rooms.

Children build a zoo at a Pierce County Library System “Block Party.”

We began the project with a training for the librarians and teachers on supporting block play and then once a month, seven ECEAP classrooms (Washington State’s version of Head Start) visit the branch nearest them for a ‘Block Party.’ We do a storytime and then we build together, always looking for ways to support the children’s learning—math, engineering, social emotional, literacy and language. Blocks are amazing tools for early learning! Plus, these parties are really, really fun. We also sponsor once-a-month Block Parties that are open to the public. The librarians at those branches use the blocks for free play after storytimes as well. We’re hoping to use the ECEAP teacher’s assessments of the children’s learning to gauge the effect of focused library block play.

One unintended but delightful consequence of the partnership with ECEAP [programs] has been that some of them have used the Block Parties as their monthly parent events. Holding these events at the library has provided us with a wonderful chance to reach many families who are not library users. Coming to the branch to play with blocks is very non-threatening and fun. In fact, one of the teachers was so thrilled by the level of play and interaction occurring between parents and children at the Block Party that she’s determined to make all parent events play events!

What are some of your top ways for kids to get hands-on with learning in your library?
A few years ago, we added a play component to storytimes, creating 16 themed play boxes that circulate through our branches. The librarians do a regular storytime and then open the play boxes. Inside are games, play objects, real objects—lots of things related to the theme. We call them Story Play Times and they provide children with an opportunity to play together at the library in a hands-on, self-directed way. I had wanted to add play to storytimes for a long time; librarians do such a great job of developing literacy and language skills at storytime, and since social emotional learning happens best during free play, adding a play component gives us a more whole-child approach.

Children build a log cabin at a Pierce County Library System “Block Party.”

In our children’s areas, our librarians have been quite creative in adding hands-on opportunities for learning: mailboxes to encourage letter writing, flannel boards for tactile learning, and housekeeping areas for free play. Plus, our libraries have been able to add incredible interactive learning structures and elements through generous donations of Friends groups and individuals.

What advice would you give to librarians seeking to launch similar programs?
Think seriously about what outcomes you desire and then search out and employ tools to help you measure those outcomes effectively. Libraries need to keep building in proof of our programming’s worth. I will often get very excited by a project, but when I think about how I’m going to measure its outcomes, it changes my approach. Documenting positive outcomes will help promote the great work that libraries do.

Who do you collaborate the most with? Does that come naturally to you?
We are very fortunate to have an actual Department of Early Learning! And we also have a vibrant early learning coalition in Pierce County (called First 5 FUNdamentals). We collaborate with a lot of groups—Child Care Aware, the educational service district, school districts, the health department, the tribes, and early learning organizations. Our early learning program also works quite extensively with child care providers, offering trainings, storytimes, and the circulation of materials and information.

What is the feedback like from kids and parents who participate in your programming?
We do lots of presentations for parent groups through ECEAP and Head Start, and also through MOPS groups at churches. So we converse with parents all the time; that is really what makes it all worthwhile, connecting with children and parents and providers and sharing the wonder of reading and stories and libraries. Lately, we have been partnering with our local Child Care Aware on a series of play programs for parents and Family, Friend and Neighbor care.

After the fourth in the series—a music program, where we sang and danced with scarves and ribbons—one Spanish-speaking mother approached us and made a point of thanking us in English, telling us that the programs had been very good for her child. I felt like the luckiest person in the world that day! I get to read and play and sing and dance, and have mothers thank me for it!

Children get creative building and playing at a Pierce County Library System “Block Party.”

What is next for you and why?
We would like to see block cabinets in all of our meeting rooms. They really are perfect places for block play, what with low pile carpet and all that open space. Some of the block sets would have to be a bit smaller, but watching the children create these amazing structures in the library has been incredibly inspiring. I’m in the process of expanding the program to home child care providers. The large unit blocks are not very practical for many home child cares and these parties will also offer them a chance to network with other providers as well as give their children a chance to build.

And I have a book coming out! It’s called, Cooking Up a Storytime, essentially a cookbook for storytime creation being published through ALA. I’m very excited about that. My current position has connected me with early learning professionals outside the library and I’ve learned so much from them, I’m hoping to share with my fellow librarians.

What’s on your career wish list? What would you love to do that you haven’t done yet?
I’d like to serve on a committee for ALA. I’d like to put together a funny and memorable library program with librarians from around the country to present at NAEYC. I am very excited to continue writing.

What was your reaction to being named a Mover & Shaker?
It was wonderful and flattering, but so much of what I get to do here is collaborative, to be singled out made me feel like I was cheating somehow! But it made my mother and father very proud; I love that.

You were pegged as an “Innovator.” Is that how you view yourself, too?
The advantage of having a great team [is] we toss [ideas] around—some we pursue, some we drop. Sometimes we fail, sometimes something amazing happens. But after being a youth services librarian for a long time, it seems to me that all youth services librarians are innovators! I’m constantly amazed at what other libraries are doing and what other librarians are creating. There is moving and shaking all over the place and I’m just proud to belong to such a group.

And truthfully, if I was to give myself a label, I think it would be ‘jokester.’ Silliness is my creed. Humor and fun are so much a part of who I am and have worked so well for me in the trainings that I provide and in the programs that I present. I am absolutely certain that learning happens much more effectively and memorably when you’re laughing.

What reactions and feedback have you gotten on being named?
My daughter created a Facebook post that made me cry. It was unbelievable to read the beautiful posts from friends from my past. It made me want to celebrate people that I love even if they aren’t called out as a Mover or Shaker. We get so busy with our day to day lives; we forget to tell people how great they are. And I know and work with some truly remarkable people!

What are the best professional development experiences that you have ever had?
Attending sessions at the NAEYC Institute has had an incredible influence on my work. Where once I focused almost exclusively on early literacy, attending made me realize that early learning is all bound together—literacy, math, science, social/emotional, physical; it all happens. My focus moved from the skills of early literacy to pondering the development of the whole child. Of course we want children to learn to read, but our ultimate goal is for them to grow up to be healthy, compassionate humans.

What do you think are the big issues and challenges for youth services right now?
I worry deeply about how the economy is affecting our libraries and communities. Healthy communities need infrastructure. They need investment and commitment and labor. And healthy children need healthy communities. I’m proud to pay my taxes. I cherish the community that my taxes help support: schools, parks, hospitals, and libraries! The political climate at the moment seems narrow and short sighted, in my opinion. I sincerely hope that in our rush to acquire, we don’t lose so many of the things that give our lives fulfillment and meaning.

What do you think youth services should look like going forward?
I would hope that we will keep our lens focused on our humanness. That we provide space for children to come together to laugh, learn, and play—and that we strive to remain significant and caring adults in the fabric of their lives.

Karyn M. Peterson About Karyn M. Peterson

Karyn M. Peterson (kpeterson@mediasourceinc.com) is a former News Editor ofSLJ.