Lately, high school librarian Meghan Stigge has had to scramble to keep up with orders for book titles in hot demand from students.
Books that inspired movie adaptations, such as "Everything, Everything" and "The Martian," John Green novels featuring teen characters facing extraordinary problems, even the thick and heavy biography of Alexander Hamilton — the inspiration for the Tony Award-winning musical — have been flying off the shelves.
Curating collections is a familiar task for the Shawnee Mission Northwest High School librarian. But keeping up with students' appetites for reading — that's a new phenomenon at the school.
During the first two quarters of the 2017-18, students checked out more than 2,600 books from the school library, or about 1,300 books per quarter in a high school of about 1,730 students. That's more than double the library's circulation from a year ago, when on average roughly 500 students checked out a book each quarter.
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Motivating tech-saturated students to invest time in sustained reading started as a joint effort between Stigge and the high school's language arts teachers, who began sharing concerns about student's disinterest in reading books in 2016.
Students weren't completing assigned reading at home or in class, stalling teachers' plans to have classroom discussions about particular literary works. Check-outs at the school library had been stagnant for years. Students didn't seem to enjoy the act of reading a book.
Instead, their reading was contained to "small bursts:" text messages, condensed messages in tweets, summaries of hyper-linked articles. Most troubling, technology and social media appeared to be shifting teenagers' attention away from deep sustained reading, Stigge said, which research has shown boosts retention and critical-thinking skills.
She and other language arts teachers at Shawnee Mission Northwest High School met casually in 2016 to discuss how they could engage kids around reading. They landed on a few simple strategies that school leaders credit not just with doubling book checkouts but increasing the amount of independent reading time students have logged.
"Our main goal was to increase motivation to read," Sigge said. "We wanted them to read more and we wanted them to want to read more.
"Their first strategy related to a learning element that districts have emphasized in other areas of education: bringing choice to students.
Teachers opted to give their students more choice when it came to what books they read for class curriculum and what books they could read for independent reading assignments.
That meant increasing both their classics and contemporary offerings, Stigge said, and it also meant giving kids more time to read independently during school hours.
Teachers began devoting more class time to independent reading, and also brought students to Stigge's library to expose students to more offerings.
Some teachers opted to devote Fridays to reading time, in which students could take time to read books, respond to an "essential" question posed by the teacher and note thoughts in journals that would later be used to write essays on the novel.
Requiring students to pen reviews, participate in book talks or meet with a teacher for story conferences kept students on track.
"We wanted to offer options to students, Stigge said. "To follow the things that they are interested in reading."
But that tactic revealed another problem. Students needed help not just finding books in a library but determining what kind of books they would like.
Finding books they were interested in just wasn't intuitive for students who have grown up an age where certified librarians in schools have been declining and more and more reading occurs on the Internet.
"Algorithms push content to us, whether it's Netflix or auto play videos," Stigge said. "It's my job as a librarian how to specifically find what they are looking for, the quality content that they want."
So Stigge and other teacher collaborated to teach kids to use other tools such as online review sites such as Goodreads, retailer recommendations and digital catalogs, in addition to how to find books in the library.
"That's the benefit of having a certified librarian in a school," Stigge said.
The group called their project the Reading Empathy Initiative because they hoped that kids reading more books would have other consequences: an increased sense of empathy for those around them and the appreciation of literary fiction as a way to put themselves in other people's shoes.Their efforts were recognized in the School Library Journal, in an essay Stigge penned that was published last year.
When it came down to it, Stigge said, the change that made the most impact was simple.
"It's giving them the time to search, because it does take a little bit of time to search and find what they are looking for," she said. "It's time to search and time to read.
"It's too soon to say if the reading initiative is impacting how people treat each other or if the strategies have worked at other high schools that Shawnee Mission Northwest has shared strategies with. But one thing is for certain, Stigge said. Book circulation is up at Shawnee Mission Northwest.
"This is fairly new," Stigge said. "But I think it's going really well."