I just wrote a curriculum of STEM programs for a rural library to hold for special education high school students. I was initially intimidated by the concept because I am a liberal arts major, a creative writing fellow, a librarian for the love of books. Thankfully I found tons of research and ideas for STEM programs online, especially on the YALSA wiki.

The program ideas I came up with on my own, on the other hand, seemed more…artsy. Given my background, that’s not a huge surprise, but I felt defeated when I’d come up with what I thought was a great idea just to realize it’s too artsy.

That’s when I discovered STEAM. The programs I wrote are strictly STEM, and I respect that and stuck to it. But there is a debate about STEM vs. STEAM, and as someone who has only become familiar with these concepts in the last couple of years, I’m fascinated.  

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This semester I’m completing my final exam for my Masters in Library Science. It’s a stressful time (as we all know), but it’s also really exciting. It’s exciting because part of my exam asks me to look over my work in the program and pick three projects to highlight. Off the top of my head, it was hard to identify my best projects, but once I started looking over my coursework, they jumped out at me…And most of the projects I wanted to showcase involved community engagement. This surprised me because I always thought I worked best alone. I thought I preferred working on my own schedule, with my own ideas. That might have been true in my more solitary undergrad English degree, but librarianship just seems better when you work together.


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A group in my Information and Communication Technology class developed a staff intranet together. This is a project that would have been very difficult to do alone, as each of us had different skills—one was good at thinking of what elements were needed and why, one was good at graphic design and web layout, and one was good at doing behind-the-scenes work like composing intranet training and relating everything to ALA competencies.

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CLOUD901 is a digital learning lab that opened September 16, 2015 in the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library in Memphis, Tennessee. At 8,300 square feet over two floors, it is one of the largest learning labs in the country—and it’s all for teens. To enter the lab, you must be a library card holder between the ages of 13-18 (or be an adult on a scheduled tour). The space is amazing—I never thought I’d willingly be in high school again… but CLOUD901 would make it worth it.

I interviewed Janae Pitts-Murdock, Teen Services Coordinator, to see how the lab was shaping up after being open for four months. I wanted to find out what spaces were most popular, what programs were being taken advantage of, and what problems were cropping up.

CLOUD901 images
Clockwise from left: CLOUD901 entrance, Video Production Lab, Audio Production Lab, Dream Catcher Space. Images from Memphis Public Library and Information Center

On any given afternoon, most teens can be found in the Gaming Zone, Collaboration Zone, or the Play Cafe.

  • The Gaming Zone is exactly what it sounds like—a video game area where teens can play a variety of games on different consoles. Instead of fighting over what game to play or whose turn it is, Pitts-Murdock says that teens are more likely to organize a tournament. Instead of being isolated in their video games, teens talk about their favorite games and other common interests.
  • The Collaboration Zone is a meeting space where teens can literally write on the walls. Pitts-Murdock says this is “where the activists gather”—teen organizations like BRIDGES USA and a local LGBTQ group host meetings there.
  • The Play Cafe is unique because it’s the only place in the library where food and drinks are allowed. Because of all the expensive equipment in CLOUD901, staff didn’t want teens sneaking snacks and getting crumbs in keyboards and spills on audio equipment. The Play Cafe has become a community gathering place within CLOUD901.

The music programs are the most popular, which is appropriate for a city known for its music culture. CLOUD901 staff and local musicians offer a series of workshops that lead teens through the process of writing, recording, producing, and mixing songs. Teens can use the equipment by themselves, but there’s often a lot of collaboration. Pitts-Murdock says teens almost seem to use the Audio Production Lab as “group counseling for each other—sharing lyrics about life experiences.”

In general there is so much to do in CLOUD901 that every patron finds their niche. Since Memphis is such a high poverty and high crime area, Pitts-Murdock initially worried that there would be more problems in the teen learning lab. Instead, patrons have a safe space because they’re given freedom and responsibility. “Teens rise to the level of responsibility that you give them,” Pitts-Murdock said proudly.

There is also a mobile CLOUD901 that goes to other branches to reach the teens who can’t make it to the Central Library. This isn’t like a technological bookmobile where teens come inside; it’s equipment that is taken into the library to construct a pop-up learning lab. It includes computer monitors, hip and comfortable furniture, a 3D printer, and equipment for music production, like a microphone, laptop, and headphones. CLOUD901 took a lot of fundraising and grant money, and while what’s offered in the mobile version wasn’t cheap, it might be a little easier for other libraries to assemble something similar: Taking makerspaces to a new level, developing 21st century skills that teens can use for creative expression as well as to get a leg up on college- and career-interests.

See more about what CLOUD901 has to offer on the Memphis Public Library and Information Center website. See cool behind-the-scenes photos and videos of CLOUD901 in action on Instagram (@knowledgedefenders) and Facebook.

DIY1I’m excited to compile my favorite YALSAblog posts of the year because I referenced these posts in my classes. I’m a library science student in an online program, so I often cite these articles in relevant discussions to hear my classmates’ feedback. I only have two semesters left, so I’m stuck in that middle ground of being immersed in classwork while already fretting about what REAL library work will be like. These posts have helped me with a lot of that, so I send major thanks to the authors!

Empowering Teens

Teens, Help Yourself by Jami Schwarzwalder

  • How to help teens find information they need without staff assistance.

30 Days of Teen Programming: Preparing Teens for Life Through Creative Programming by Deborah Takahashi

  • Using programming to enable teens to help others, cook, defend themselves, and more!


Programming: How Tos, and Overcoming Challenges

Back to School: Afterschool DIY by Donna Block

  • Provide supplies for teens, but let them craft at their own pace, doing what they’d like, instead of having a set structure.

Pop-Up Programming by Becky Fyolek

  • Plan everything for your program except a date, and pull out the supplies when teens are around and want something to do.

30 Days of Teen Programming: Organic Teen-Led Programming by Jen Scott Wills

  • Let teens use the library for whatever they’re interested in, and create programming around them.

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While trying to get an overview of library services offered in my area, I spoke with a high school librarian who brought up an idea that seemed revolutionary to me. The librarian had previously been a special education teacher, so she purposely made her library services welcoming to this population.

Note: This particular high school still has a “Special Education” program. Most schools are inclusive, so students attend classes together, and those who have learning disabilities or special needs may have a tutor for certain subjects, or attend other learning activities to get extra help.

Because of her background, the librarian reached out to the current English teachers to form a book club for students with disabilities. She wanted to hold a weekly book club in the library during English class. Holding programs during school hours can be difficult, because there is already so much to do during a school day. But it increases participation, since many students ride the bus or have other after-school obligations, and often can’t stay late.

For the book club, students chose a book from three the librarian suggested—no required school reading, but instead books that were of an appropriate age level, deemed “fun” reads. She read aloud one chapter a week, and they were responsible for reading the next two chapters on their own, to discuss at the beginning of the next week’s meeting.

The librarian used the rest of the period to relate the book to skills that would help the students in English class. Sometimes they would have informal quizzes to help with reading comprehension. Students also learned how to pick a thesis and write a short critical essay, which the teacher accepted at the end of the semester for bonus points.

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Last week I attended a Literacy Summit at the Mid-South Book Festival in Memphis, Tennessee. I was inspired by speakers like Jeff Edmondson of Strive Together and David C. Banks, the founding principal of the Eagle Academy. I learned that 73% of students in local Shelby County Schools were reading below grade level. That statistic might be specific to my area, but similar numbers can be found elsewhere. (The KIDS COUNT Data Book has extensive information broken down by state.)

I learned that there are ways we can change this unfortunate trend. I sat in an auditorium surrounded by teachers and tutors who were specifically told “You can do THIS.” And I looked around, wondering where the other librarians were.

Librarians might not have as much, nor as consistent, access to students as teachers do. Librarians certainly don’t have the one-on-one access that tutors do. But librarians can help improve reading levels in their own ways.

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Adapted books are texts that have been modified to make them more accessible for people with different abilities. Making books more physically accessible could mean using fluffers, which are foam stickers or Velcro squares added to the corners of stiff pages to make them easier to grab and turn. Any book can be adapted with these fluffers, but its important to make sure the books that are modified can also be independently read by patrons. Turning regular texts into adapted books will not only round out your librarys collection, but it can also be a great makerspace project!

There are several quality resources online for ready-made adapted books. The Paul V. Sherlock Center on Disabilities at Rhode Island College has a great database and is constantly adding new books, as well as taking submissions! The books are available as Powerpoint slides, so they could be shown on a big screen during a program, but are also downloadable as PDFs that can be printed, bound, and added to the librarys collection. Most books that have already been adapted are picture books, but there are quite a few for different age levels. Middle grade novels like Beezus and Ramona by Beverly Cleary and the Al Capone books by Gennifer Choldenko have been adapted. There are also some higher level books like Beowulf, or A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens.

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Teens strive for independence, branching out to explore new interests and behaviors. They depend on their friends for support and feedback, leaving their parents in the dark about what they’re doing, thinking, and feeling.

Teens with disabilities often don’t have the same opportunities to test their independence. They might depend on their parents or caregivers for help getting around or being understood. Their parents might prefer to stay close, in case their teen has a behavior or needs special medical attention. “Inclusion and integration of children with special needs is based upon a strong collaboration between the parent and the librarian” (Feinberg et al. 20-21). Parents know their children best, and librarians can watch that interaction to learn how to effectively work with teens with disabilities in the library.

As a librarian, you can offer inclusive programming that welcomes all teens, with or without disabilities—and also includes parents! By encouraging family fun, you’re getting families to explore and enjoy the library together, regardless of ability level. You’ll also be giving teens with disabilities a place to let loose and be themselves around peers, but to still have their parents close by without looking childish to others.

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Whether you know the teens that frequent your library or not, disabilities can be hard to see. If you’re lucky, teens and their parents may be open about disabilities and how you can help them get the most out of their library experience. And if you’re not lucky, well, sometimes you’ll deal with behaviors or unsatisfying encounters that make you wonder if you helped the patron at all. Thankfully, making your summer reading activities seem inviting to teens with disabilities is easy to do. With just a few tweaks to what you already have in place, your program can be inclusive! This way, it doesn’t matter if you know what disabilities you’re dealing with, or if you’re just taking a wild guess. Check out these tips, and share your ideas and notes on what works and what doesn’t in the comments.

  1. Have a visual sign-in sheet.

Hang a poster in a prominent place that shows teens what to do to sign up for summer reading. List the steps in simple terms, like: wait for the librarian; sign your name; pick your challenge. Have visual aids printed next to each step, like a photo of the librarian in charge of summer reading and a pencil signing on the line. Make a similar poster to show how to log weekly progress. This will help teens with disabilities be independent when they come to the library to participate, rather than feeling like they always have to ask for help.

  1. Divide tasks by reading challenge rather than by age.

Instead of having elementary aged kids sign up for a certain challenge, and having teens sign up for another, let everyone pick their own challenge. Read three books a week, read for an hour a week, listen to two audiobooks a week— the possibilities are endless! This empowers teens with disabilities to challenge themselves on their levels, and also shows other patrons that reading can take on a variety of appearances!

  1. Expand your program to be a learning challenge.

Instead of a straightforward summer reading program, some libraries are hosting summer learning challenges by partnering with city attractions to promote learning and interaction all summer. Some learning challenges have a theme, like Explore & Roar at Chicago Public Library focusing on animals and the environment. Reading is still important, and patrons can read anything they want, but there is also an aspect of taking that knowledge and discovering things in the city’s museums, zoos, and historical sites. The City of Memphis offers free days to many city attractions to encourage involvement with the summer library program Explore Memphis. All of these experiences can tie back in with Makerspace programs at the library or other community centers.

  1. Collaborate with the school system.

Reach out to the school system, especially the special education department, and find out what books are required reading for the upcoming school year. Make sure your library has plenty of copies available, and ask how you can make this reading easier on students with disabilities. The library could host a book club meeting during summer reading to talk about one of the required texts, or plan a program based on a book or elements from the story. Reading the book in advance and being able to talk about it with others or relate to it in another way could help teens with disabilities stay on track in the upcoming school year.

  1. Make your program known.

After your library collaborates with the school system, make sure promotional materials are handed out to students before the school year ends. Make it clear that everyone is welcome to participate in summer reading so the special education teachers and students know they should join in! Also consider sending promotional materials to summer camps for teens with disabilities, therapy centers, and intramural teams, as well as any day centers for people with disabilities in your area.

  1. Encourage teen volunteers.

When teens are signing up for summer reading, ask if they’d like to volunteer to help with any aspect of the program. (This goes for teens with or without disabilities!) Teens can help their peers sign in or update their progress. Teens with disabilities might not want to be in the spotlight, so they can work behind the scenes, helping set up for programs or cleaning up after parties.

  1. Work in small groups.

A lot of Makerspace activities are individualized, but can easily be adapted to work in small groups. A teen with disabilities who might not be able to make something on their own can be part of a team and still participate. Break the activity into steps where the team has to plan their project before they build it, and then can present it to the entire group. Circulate often so you can offer help to everyone, without seeming to focus on the teens with disabilities, while making sure they know you’re available if they need you, and that it’s ok to get help. Check out YALSA’s Maker & DIY Programs for ideas.

  1. Eliminate distractions.

Let’s be honest, it’s easy to get distracted regardless of your age or attention span! Depending on their disabilities, some teens may get more distracted than others, and some distractions can quickly lead to disruptive behaviors. Teens with autism might not be able to focus on spoken words if there is also music playing, even if others just consider it background music. It can also be distracting to hand out too many items at the same time, or give instructions all at once. Start by talking slowly and outlining what’s going to happen at the event; it’s helpful to make visual charts, as mentioned in the first tip! This way teens know what’s going on and in what order, and can look back to it often, without interrupting the program flow.

  1. Schedule breaks.

Even if the program doesn’t seem long, taking a few short breaks will help everyone stay focused. Put these on the schedule so attendees will know they when they can go to the bathroom or grab a drink without having to interrupt the program. These breaks can also give teens with disabilities time to process what they’ve done and prepare for what’s coming next. It’s also a good time for you to check in with them and make sure everything’s ok, and see if anything can be done to help them engage more easily.

  1. Roll with the punches.

We know that nothing ever goes according to plan, but when you’re including teens with disabilities, things could get derailed easily. Instead of throwing away your whole schedule, make sure you have substitutes for each part of the program, and even changes you can make individually for the teen who needs a little help. If the music is too distracting, turn it off, even if it means scrapping a part of the event that involved dancing. If the art supplies are too messy, have some alternatives (or even gloves!) so all teens can be involved in the program in their own way. It can be a bit tricky when you’re adapting a specific activity for teens with disabilities: you don’t want to seem like a pushover, but you do want to be accommodating and helpful. For more information on this balance, check out YALSA’s resources on Serving Disabled Teens.