Jenn Smith | Recess: A night at the library

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DALTON — There was a time while working for The Eagle when it was typical to find me at a local watering hole on a Friday evening, taking in entertainment, a libation and amusing barroom interactions while working on my latest nightlife column.

This past Friday night, however, I found myself lured to a more unusual venue that was buzzing with patrons: The Dalton Free Public Library.

The invite came from St. Agnes Academy Enrichment Director Katie Flanders, who has been piloting some after-hours programs for the school's children and families. Library Director Rob DiFazio graciously loaned his time supervising the stacks, keeping the lights on and cleaning up afterward for the cause.

By my count, more than 50 people turned up to take part in the evening's activities. Like me, I'm sure some adults there also wouldn't have envisioned themselves spending a weekend evening at a library, but for the most part, they, and their kids, genuinely seemed to be enjoying themselves spending quality time with one another.

I asked Flanders whether it's a struggle to get and keep families engaged with the school.

"Of course," said the mother, whose own children span between the ages of 2 1/2 and 11 years old. "But this is about enrichment and getting everyone to have fun."

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Like the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) activity night she piloted in the school's cafeteria back in the fall, Flanders again tried to offer a little something for everyone in kindergarten through grade eight, and their guardians.

There were age-appropriate escape rooms, where kids had to sleuth out hidden clues to solve a mystery. The favorite hangout was a mummy mystery set up on the second floor. In darkness, it was a perfectly spooky-fun backdrop for playing the escape room game, or just hide-and-seek.

I attempted to get some insights on the event from a pair of girls crouched in a corner, trying to assemble clues in the right order. "It's really fun," was all they would give me, as they redirected their focus back to their puzzle.

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I could see I could take their word for it.

"That's the power of books," Fadia Rostom Makdisi, the school's principal, told me later in the evening. "They can really put [kids] there, in that place they've read about." Downstairs, there were activity stations where kids could use stamps to imprint their names and other words in clay, or use feathers to draw letters and pictures in trays of salt. In lieu of a bar, a table was spread with crackers, cheese, water, juice and fruit.

The evening also included a guest appearance by local author Jana Laiz, who was on hand to read and sign books, and talk about writing with a purpose. It seemed like a nice informal way to interact with a real-live author who exists as a rock star in some children's eyes. Laiz will continue working with students in grades four to eight this spring.

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"I think Jana will shake things up and help kids embrace diversity in writing," Rostom Makdisi said.

But the real highlight of the evening was watching families really get into playing bingo for books. The prizes, donated by the Friends of the Dalton Library, included some top titles, like "Hidden Figures" by Margot Lee Shetterly, "The Crossover" from the Kwame Alexander and Dawud Anyabwile graphic novel, and the most coveted of title of the evening, "Who Wet My Pants?"

Yup, you read that correctly. The latter is a laugh-out-loud story by Bob Shea, illustrated by Zachariah OHora, about how to be a good friend to another friend when they are facing life's — ahem — accidents and challenges.

Even parents couldn't stop belly laughing at this book with their kids.

My takeaway from the evening is this: The system of schooling and learning can be challenging, and there will always be struggles. But how you work to overcome those challenges doesn't always have to be a hassle. Sometimes, you just have to turn the page, offer a fresh take on the subject, and work together to make sure the system offers something for everyone.

Jenn Smith can be reached at, at @JennSmith_Ink on Twitter and 413-496-6239.


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