Getting Books in Their Hands from a Distance: It Takes a Vision & a Village

This past Friday, teachers, aides, my principal, our secretary, our custodians, a crew of parents, and community members came together to make sure our close to 400 distance learning students in kindergarten through fifth grade have access to physical books to read for the next few weeks. In 5th grade, our students even chose their books! While we did not all physically come together, we were united by one mission- getting books in all of our students’ hands.

Now, I have to say that making this happen took a ton of work and an unwavering determination from many people. There are no hacks, tricks, or gimmicks involved. It took an organized effort from a lot of staff and volunteers and a principal who believes that kids need books. All kids.

You may approach the long list ahead of how we made this happen thinking this is way too much work for one or two people to complete- and you’d be correct. There is no way one or two people could make this happen in a timely manner. This was a school community-wide effort. Everyone chipped in to make it happen.

Our school mascot is the dolphin. I don’t know which staff member came up with this saying, but at the beginning of pandemic teaching in March, one of my colleagues came up with the following: Whatever the weather, dolphins swim together. And, it’s true. We do. We do because we are led by an unwavering and dedicated principal whose motto is we all teach all the children. Indeed, we do. We especially did for this massive effort.

I’m sharing our process with the hope that other teachers and administrators can read this with a lens of possibility. Our kids, all kids, need books. It should be a right. It should be the norm, not the exception. The vision of a few and a village of dedicated staff and volunteers made this happen. It can be done. It’s not easy, but it is possible.

Here’s how we did it…

1. Start with A Vision

My fifth grade team and I are departmentalizing this year. I’m the reading teacher for our entire group of students. I knew I had to somehow get choice books in our students’ hands in order to teach reading workshop. I also knew that the books would need to be safely rotated in and out of the classroom without students and families actually coming to school. We are not a traditional neighborhood school with all families in close proximity, some are, but not all. Our students are spread over a massive geographic area. So, I knew this would require a lot of driving. If you’re familiar with San Francisco Bay Area geography, in my classroom alone, I have students who reside in East Palo Alto, Los Altos Hills, Stanford, Redwood City, and in the southern end of Palo Alto. It’s a huge area to cover by car! Since I’m teaching all day long, I also knew I couldn’t be the one doing most of driving. I realized this would have to be a massive team effort. So, I took this idea to my principal as I knew she would gather all the necessary staff, PTA members, and community volunteers to make it come to life.

2. Enlist Others in the Vision

I told my team that I was going to start photographing all of our classroom library books in order for our students to have choice in what they read. Book choice is one of the tenets of solid reading instruction, so I knew I had to make this happen- even from a distance. My team was in support of my idea, so we got to work with the help of Liz and Carla, two of our amazing aides at school.

We also made intentional delivery plans with my principal. There are so many rules we have to follow, such as not having parents or volunteers on campus, so we knew that a group of staff members would eventually need to get these books to a group volunteer drivers. My principal was determined to make this work- and so were my colleagues. And, together we chatted with other staff members and started putting this vision into place. Our principal also started working with our school PTA in enlisting volunteer drivers for each grade level.

3. Create a Visual of Classroom Library Books

In 5th grade, it was very important to us to offer choice from the start. Not every grade level at school started this way, but everyone has the goal to eventually teach and offer choice over the coming weeks and months so students can have a say in the books that are delivered.

I safely (masked and always at a distance) worked with Liz to photograph our 5th grade libraries. Since photographing an entire classroom library would be a massive task and we were in a time crunch, we decided to just start with realistic fiction only for the photographs. We then put all the photographs on a Google slide show for students to view. More genres and sections of our libraries will be offered for choice later.

Images of the the photograph slideshow for student book browsing

4. Teach and Offer Choice

After our book slideshows were created, during one of our reading workshop Zoom sessions, I book talked a few books and authors, talked about book choice a bit (many more book choice lessons will be coming later), shared the realistic fiction library slideshow with our fifth graders, and invited them to make their selections using a Google form. Their choices were due the next day- book choice takes time and thought. It shouldn’t be rushed. We also encouraged the kids to talk with each other about their choices in Zoom breakout rooms and to search for more information about books that piqued their interest. A day later, we had a spreadsheet full of the choices the kids made.

Seen here is part of the survey we created for our students to make their choices. One of the final questions (not pictured), asks students to tell us anything they think we should know about them as readers in order to create their book stacks. So, while we could not exactly replicate in-person book choice, we came fairly close!

5. Create Book Stacks Based on Student Choices

This was the most time consuming task in the process, but it was also the most fun! Using the Google Form spreadsheet automatically generated from the Google form survey, we were able to gather our students’ choices and preferences into stacks.

As a side note- we were fully masked and gloved during the book gathering process- during this entire process actually. And it is important to state that our rooms are cleaned each day even though there are only one or two staff present at a time in a room (when two are present, we are always at least physically 6 ft apart and masked). All safety precautions are being strictly followed. Additionally, only the staff who feel safe/comfortable coming in to the building come in. Some staff did this work from home by communicating with other staff at school. I’m grateful our school district allows us the choice as professionals whether to work at home or at school during this time. It should be this way everywhere.

Back to the book choices… Not every student received their first or even second choice as we only have so many copies of each title, but everyone did receive books that matched some of their preferences and 3rd, 4th, and 5th choices.

On the form, I inserted another column titled Books Given Out (shaded blue in the image below) so we could track who was being lent which books.

A snapshot of part of our book choice spreadsheet with student names hidden for privacy
Four of us in three separate fifth grade classroom libraries started assembling stacks of books. Again, we were masked and remained physically distant during the entire process.

6. Teachers and Our Principal Emailed, Called, or Texted Families

We got in touch with families to let them know that books would be on the way and to enlist more volunteers at the same time. We already had a big crew of volunteers who were enlisted at the beginning of the process, but we needed more. Also, we needed to make sure we had permission from families to share their addresses with our volunteer drivers. Initially we had permission from most, but not all, so this involved some phone calls from teachers to gain permission to share addresses for book delivery. It is important to state that books were delivered with permission from families.

7. Our School Secretary Created Grade-Level Lists of Geographic-Based Student Addresses for Delivery

Since our students and families are spread over a big geographic area, our amazing secretary, Becky, worked to lump close addresses together for our volunteer drivers. This took a lot of work on Becky’s part! Once she did this, she distributed the lists to each grade level to start bagging and boxing our books for our volunteer drivers.

8. Teachers and Aides Bagged and Packed the Books in their Geographic-Based Boxes

Again, this was all completed following our safety protocols.

9. Staff Members Drove Boxes to Our Volunteers

Since it is not yet determined to be safe to invite volunteers and families onto our school campus, multiple staff members drove and dropped off boxes for our volunteer Book Fairies (I couldn’t resist with the name!). I drove to four different volunteers’ homes and dropped off boxes in a safe way- masked, contactless, and physically distanced the whole time. Other teachers and aides did the same.

After school on Friday, our principal and our custodian even got in on box delivery duties! Our custodian volunteered to use his truck to drive more boxes to more volunteers. They packed the bed of his truck with boxes and drove to safely drop book boxes off for volunteers to deliver. Again, it’s important to mention that everyone was masked and remained physically distant throughout this entire process. This could not have happened unless everyone involved agreed to follow our strict safety guidelines.

10. Our Volunteer Book Fairies, Parents, and Community Members, Delivered Books to 6-10 Students Each

One of the greatest parts of this process was receiving emails from our volunteers and from my students’ families about how much fun it was to deliver and receive books. Now, our kids have books that they chose for the next few weeks!

Next Steps

Honestly, all of our next steps have not been figured out yet. We do know that our students will once again choose books in a few weeks. We also know that we will go through the process again of packing up books and delivering them. When the new books are delivered by volunteers, students will hand back their current bag of books at the same time (following all safety protocols, of course). Once we receive back the current bag of books that students have, they will remain in book quarantine for a couple weeks before the next delivery.

Since we have a record of who has which books, we should easily be able to get most of the books back. However, I do know that we will likely not see some again. That’s what happens when books are lent out- and that’s ok. We knew that before embarking on this journey. We plan to go through this process as long as our students are distance learning. We know that will be at least through mid-October at my school and maybe longer depending on our county’s status as far as our state reopening requirements go. So, we could be doing this for the next month and a half or for the entire school year. We just don’t know.

The one important thing we do know is that kids need books. We took a vision, enlisted our village, and made it happen. We did this one step at a time. This can happen at any school. It takes the willingness of administration, the determination of staff, and the kindness of volunteers to see it through. It takes hours of work. It can be done. It is is worth every ounce of energy and hour of time that it took.

I hope sharing our process can help more kids get books in their hands.