Keeping Story Time Alive in the Pandemic
Story time is a powerful tool for helping preschool and elementary kids and their families feel connected during distance learning.
I’m a school librarian who believes in the magical power of books. When the world turned upside down with the pandemic in March 2020, I felt my students could use a little magic. I asked myself, “How can I use books to help students in grades pre-K to 5 navigate this uncharted territory?” I knew I could use literature with my students to explore and validate feelings and experiences, but I had never done this in a virtual space.
When we started distance learning, students felt isolated and disconnected, so I wanted to share a book with them that would help them feel less alone. I sat on my sofa with my daughter and my dog and recorded myself reading The Invisible String by Patrice Karst, a beautiful story that illustrates how we remain connected to those we love even when we can’t be physically together. I wanted my students to know that they were still connected to their friends, their teachers, and their family members even when Covid-19 was preventing them from being together in person.
I posted the video on our learning management system, and within hours there were positive responses from families saying how much their children loved the story and its message. This prompted me to switch from recorded videos to live virtual story times in the evenings so that students would have the opportunity to connect with books and with each other in a relaxed setting.
At the start of the pandemic, I spent most of my days supporting teachers, families, and students with tech issues as we transitioned to online learning, so I was able to trade my regular weekly library times for evening story times.
The sessions last about 15 to 30 minutes, depending on the story and how much students want to chat. I started offering the program Monday through Thursday evenings, but some students advocated for expanding it to seven nights a week. Many are only children, and nightly story time provides a much-needed connection with friends and the structure and predictability they crave.
As the weeks progressed, we fell into a comfortable rhythm. Students would drop in at story time, I’d read a picture book, students would offer comments, I’d lead a mindful moment, and then students would stay on to chat.
With each passing day, I did less of the talking and leading as students took ownership of our time together. The comments they make after a story often reflect how they’re feeling. When I read It’s Okay to Make Mistakes by Todd Parr, students shared their mistakes and responded to their peers’ vulnerable disclosures with kind and supportive words. At every virtual story time, without prompting or reminders, these young students compassionately explore a wide range of thoughts, ideas, and emotions.
Each night we end our story time with a mindful moment. At first, I facilitated these short moments of reflection. A favorite mindful moment is the loving kindness meditation. With eyes closed and hands on hearts, students breathe in slowly and out as they offer loving kindness to themselves, to their friends and family, and to the larger world. I want my students to understand that even in a stressful time, when mistakes have been made or tempers lost during the day, if they end the day with a moment of self-compassion, they will be ready to start the next day fresh.
Guiding Students to Show Courage
A couple of months into the program, a student’s mother sent me a text and a video of her daughter Isabelle reading her favorite book. The text read “She decided every night after your story time she is going to pretend to be Mrs. G. and do her own story time and it’s been really helping with her reading. She wanted to show you the first time she read her favorite book on her own.”
I invited Isabelle to be our first student guest reader. This brave 5-year-old practiced for days before reading in front of a group of older students and several teachers, and she rocked her story time. Her courage inspired other students to volunteer as guest readers. Many felt nervous but found the courage to read anyway. Others wrote their own stories and bravely shared them for the first time.
As one mom perfectly sums up, “When they are the guest reader, they hear praise and compliments and thoughtful questions from a small sea of familiar, unmasked faces. It truly is a time when they can be cheered on for who they are, what they care about.”
Everyone is assured that feeling nervous is normal, making mistakes is okay, and sharing a story they love is all that really matters.
Continuing to Nurture a Community
What started as a simple idea for sharing books to help my students cope at the start of the pandemic has grown into a close-knit community of readers and friends. Everyone is welcome at story time. Some students have invited their neighbors or friends from as far away as Japan to join us. Younger siblings not only listen to our nightly stories, some have also been guest readers. A few families join us each evening as they eat dinner together, and a number of parents have volunteered as guest readers. Each story time member offers and receives something unique and validating from the experience.
Virtual story time doesn't have to be in the evenings. It can work within the regular hours of the online school day. School librarians often host book clubs during lunch when we’re in person, so they could host virtual story times during the lunch break. Students miss connecting with friends across grade levels and classes at recess and in the lunchroom. There’s no need for special equipment—just a laptop, a quiet and comfortable place away from distractions, and good lighting so that students can see the books when they’re held up to the camera.
As for when we’re ready to go back to the classroom, while I don't see virtual story time happening post-pandemic, I do envision family story times and book clubs as after-school options and opportunities for students to gather in mixed-grade groups in the library. The virtual story time experience demonstrates how we can gather as a community during any time of crisis or uncertainty and use literature to explore our feelings and connect.