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If you’re a Language Arts or Reading teacher, then chances are that you have a classroom library. Be honest with yourself: how much do your students really use it?
For my first few years of teaching, I pretty much just figured that just having a classroom library was enough. This is pretty embarrassing now, but I found a picture of my first classroom and the “Reading Nook” I tried to create (6th Grade ELA). Pretty typical, right? One bookshelf, tucked away in the back of the room, with some floor pillows. I had such high hopes as a newbie teacher, but I’ll be the first to admit that this library got almost ZERO use.
Why did I even bother to unpack those boxes of books?
How NOT to set up a classroom library:
- Unpack the books at the start of the year and set them neatly on the shelves.
- Give your attention to other things for the rest of the year; what else is there to do?
- If student a student asks to check out a book, write their name and the title on a sticky note or legal pad.
- (If you’re lucky, you’ll get that book back. If not, oh well.)
- At the end of the year, put all the books back in storage for the summer.
This school year, I decided to try the Million Word Challenge with my eighth graders. (Want to do this challenge with your own students? Get everything here!)I could say so much about everything I’ve learned as an educator through this one challenge, but what I want to share with you is that if you want your students to grow as readers, you need to start with the classroom library. Let me reiterate:
Improving your classroom library is fundamental to fostering a joy of reading in your students.
1. Is your classroom library easy to access?
If possible, place your classroom library near the door or other high-traffic area. The left bookshelf also houses the students’ journals and supplies, so some of the new and popular books are placed on the shelf above them, right at eye level. (Sneaky, right?)
Tucking the library away in a cozy corner might seem appealing, but then students have to go out of their way to find a book. With this setup, students browse the books before and after class– which is really key for building interest in reluctant readers.
2. Are the bookshelves attractive and clean?
One thing I wish I’d done a lot sooner was cover my shelves with contact paper. It was so hard to keep them clean, because the black metal showed dust like crazy.
For $5.99 each, I bought two rolls of gray chevron contact paper from Walmart and went to work on the all the black bookcase shelves. (By the way, don’t try to do this on your own. Get a buddy to help!) The contact paper should stick well, even if you have wood or composite shelves–I actually covered my teacher cart and even a portion of my wall near the trash can.
The bookcase below was so dirty and disgusting at first– but an entire roll of contact paper made a huge difference!
3. Do students know where new and featured books are located?
Make it easy for students to find new books. Designate a shelf at eye level, and display books so that students can see the covers. Plate holders don’t work for novels, but these literature/pamphlet holders from Office Depot work amazingly well!
Like it or not, we all judge books by their covers. I have two of these acrylic holders, and I rotate the books every couple of days. Most of the time, those books are the first ones to be checked out. If I notice that the book hasn’t generated much interest, sometimes I’ll do a brief book talk about it. Most of the time, though, I just swap it out for another one.
4. Do you have a reliable and quick method for checking out books?
Take it from me: sticky notes and legal pads may be quick, but they are are not reliable methods for checking books out! After doing a bit of research, I came across the Booksource Classroom Organizer. Maybe it wasn’t life-changing, but it definitely transformed my classroom library for the better!
It’s incredibly easy to use–for both teachers and for students. It only took a few minutes to follow their directions to upload all of my students’ names. Then, I put some student volunteers to work scanning in my books by using the Booksource app with my iPad. If the book doesn’t scan, you can manually enter the ISBN. That part did take some time, but you only have to do it once!
The website is very easy to navigate, and I have it bookmarked on all of my classroom laptops (I just leave it logged on with the password automatically saved for quick student access, and there’s a separate password for teacher access!). There are a variety of settings, including limits to the number of books checked out, but my favorite feature is that the website generates all kinds of reports! The report about which books are currently checked out is extremely useful!
It only takes my students about 30 seconds to check out a book using the website, and even less time to return a book. They just click on “Check Out & Read” and type in their first name. Then, they search for the book title, and click “Check Out.” That’s it! Students needed reminders at first, but after a month or so they all got the hang of it.
5. Do most students regularly check out your books?
This is the real test of whether you have a healthy classroom library–Having lots of books doesn’t mean anything if the students aren’t checking books out.
Throughout the year, it’s important to highlight books from your library that you recommend. I usually do this near the beginning of class, when students are getting started with their bell work and it’s a good time for them to be checking books out. I always offer to help students find a new book, and it allows me to learn more about their interests.
Start with what you have and give students some recommendations, but to keep them coming back, it’s so important to be adding new books every month. You can ask for donations from friends and family, but former students are often willing to give their old books, too.
When starting the Million Word Challenge, I realized very quickly that my library had some serious gaps. There were plenty of books that interested me, but that didn’t matter. When I asked my students, they requested mystery/suspense, sports, and graphic novels. I barely had any of those genres, so I actively worked to get those types of books for my students.
If you want brand-new books at no cost to you, set up a Donors Choose project. I received over 50 books in a project earlier this year, and it was crucial in bringing my stagnant classroom library to life!
Another option is the Scholastic Reading Club. I always associated the thin paper catalogs with elementary classrooms, but their offerings for teenagers are fantastic in their TAB and Teen sections! I typically only have a few orders every month or so, but that’s still enough to get free books! The prices are very good if you choose to spend your own money.
Finally, try perusing your local Goodwill — ours sells paperbacks for 50 cents, and I’ve walked out with a stack of practically brand-new books for less than $15.
The next chance you get, read Kelly Gallagher’s book Reading Reasons: Motivational Mini-Lessons for Middle and High School. In it, he explains that an ideal classroom library should have at least 1,500 books (according to the American Library Association). Gallagher personally has over 2,500 books, and describes that creating this “book flood” as “the single most important thing I have done in my teaching career.” After what I’ve seen this year, I would have to agree–even though my library has just over 500 books, I plan to get even more.
6. Are students talking about books?
There is no greater joy than seeing students talk about the books they’re reading with classmates.
When you have a truly healthy classroom library, you’ll have books that are passed around and are barely checked in before getting checked back out again!
Your students will be excitedly discussing the characters and plot lines, while others are looking for a sequel to a book they just finished.
Students will be giving each other recommendations, or asking “have you finished that book yet?”
Even if you have a student who declares that he “doesn’t read” and literally finds the shortest possible book on your shelf just to appease you, just wait–put high-interest novels within his reach, and he won’t be able to help it. A few months later, he’ll be reading at levels far above what you dared to hope for.
Even though maintaining a healthy classroom takes work, the rewards are well worth it!
Is your classroom library healthy?
What are some suggestions you have for building a strong collection?