Definitive Guide to Classroom Libraries for the New Teacher, Part 5: Good Libraries Gone Wrong

You’ve researched and made long lists (Part 1), collected scores of awesome books (Part 2), organized those books into a system (Part 3), set your library up to have the best chance of long-term success (Part 4), and worked to get your students invested and using it. But alas! Despite all of your best efforts (and sometimes even because of them!), things have gone wrong. Today we’ll talk about what to do when students lose your books, when your books lose interest, and when your books lose you.

Alas, a student has forsaken my book.

Despite your efforts above, a student finally admits that his “little sister took it out of my backpack and hid it somewhere,” or worse, “dropped it in the toilet.” Another one bites the dust. What now?

Option 1: Cut your losses.

Just let it go. Be sure to let the student know you are disappointed, and that it hurts you that the student was so careless with your property that you provided for all students to use. Maybe limit access for repeat offenders, or revoke that student’s checking-out privileges, temporarily or permanently.

Option 2: Ask the students and parents to replace the title.

My mom is militant about this with her third-graders. She uses a paper/pencil log, knows exactly which kids have books checked out, and will start cold-calling parents come mid-May if those books haven’t made their way back. If the book is lost or damaged, my mom asks them simply to replace the title. She makes it clear that it doesn’t even need to be a new copy, and gives them directions to the local used bookstore or explains buying used on Amazon. Sometimes, students will just bring her the cost of the book and have her order a replacement. Either way, because most paperback books can be found online for relatively cheap, it is a perfectly reasonable ask to have a student replace the book they lost. Be prepared for some possible pushback from parents, though- unfortunately, some do not believe it should be their problem that their child lost your materials. If you’re going to go this route, make sure your checkout records are impeccably kept so that you’ll have a leg to stand on.

Option 3: Ask for some community service.

If the student can’t (or won’t) pay for the book they lost or damaged, ask them to serve some classroom community service to make up for it. They could re-shelve books and organize the library, wipe out the book baskets, help you sticker and label new titles, or help with any other classroom tasks you might have. This provides a natural consequence for the student’s actions and will hopefully encourage them to be more careful with your materials in the future.

Alas, scores of tomes fill my shelves, yet my students scoff and shake their heads.

It can be incredibly frustrating to invest so much into your library to find that students simply aren’t using it. Before you lose your mind, take a breath and a step back, and observe your students’ habits. Are they not reading at all, or are they just not reading your books? If they’re not reading your books, are they checking out books from the school library or bringing them from home? No matter the answers to these questions, you have options forward.

Scenario 1: My students aren’t reading at all.

Find out why. Talk to your students. Likely, they aren’t reading because they don’t want to, which means you may have to do some extra legwork to get interesting books into their hands and hook them on reading. Go back to Part 5 and retry some of the engagement activities. Regularly schedule time for First Chapter Fridays. Have your students do book talks of the books they have loved. Get your students making lists in their notebooks of books they’d like to read next. Show them inspiration for those lists from Goodread lists or lists compiled by book blogs that are appropriate for their age group. They can read a bunch of descriptions of possible books in a short amount of time and add them to their lists. Survey students to find out their individual interests and use what you learned to personally recommend a book for each student- there is nothing quite so powerful as “Hey, I saw this book and I thought of you!” to get students reading.

Scenario 2: They’re reading, but only books from other places.

My first response to this is heck yeah, they’re reading! Who cares where the books are coming from as long as students are engaging with them! But that’s not what we’re here to talk about, so let’s zero in on some possible causes. Again, the best first step is always to go directly to the source and talk to your students. You may find that your checkout schedule isn’t lining up with their reading habits. It may be that you simply have a bunch of students fortunate enough to have parents who support their reading habits with trips to bookstores or the local library. But you may also find a wakeup call that the books in your library aren’t interesting or relevant enough for your current group of students.

If this is the case, you’ll need to decide how to respond. If your students seem to be accessing lots of texts from other places with relative ease, then I wouldn’t stress too much about it and go spend a boatload of money buying all new books. I would, however, survey them about their interests, get some recommendations of titles they’ve loved, and consider adding some of those texts to your library. Chances are, future students will enjoy them, too. You may also want to get your kids accessing some eBook services, especially if not all of them seem to be accessing titles from home. Another possible fix here is to take more time to highlight titles from your library. Students may just need more exposure to what’s available in your library, especially if they’re more used to checking out books from the school library- they may just feel more familiar and more comfortable with the setup. This problem may also be a sign that it’s time to purge older and less relevant titles from your library, and I’ll talk a bit more about that in the next section.

Alas, I have purchased too many fabulous books, and my space has forsaken me.

Running out of space for books is a bummer, as any bookworm will tell you, and the prospect of parting with books can be challenging, especially when you spent your own money on them. Here are some suggestions to consider when your shelves are full-to-bursting.

Option 1: Kill Your Darlings, A.K.A. the Purge

Humans have trillions of cells that make up our bodies. We’re born with a massive number of cells, and that number increases exponentially as we grow and develop. Along the way, we lose trillions of our cells as they die off due to injury or natural body processes. Even though we’ve lost all those cells, we’re still healthy, living organisms. S. Ranganathan, developer of the 5 Laws of Library Science back in the early 1930s, explains that libraries are growing organisms (just like young humans). While books are added and the size of the library increases over time, an essential part of maintaining the health of this “organism” is weeding the dead “cells.” Essentially, a healthy library must be actively maintained so that it contains only books that are an active part of the reading ecosystem- the ones that someone, anyone, is picking up to read. This careful weeding process is even more crucial when you’re short on space. If you can only afford a few shelves of space for your collection, it raises the pressure a bit to make sure those few shelves are packed full of solid, engaging reads for your students. Limited space means you’ll simply have to be incredibly picky about your collection. Release your inner #booksnob and let it flourish!

But how do you decide what stays and what goes? How can you be sure if books are actually worth keeping around, and what do you do with the ones that aren’t? There’s no set criteria, and you should always approach the process through the lens of your particular students and community because everyone has different needs. Organizations like the American Library Association can help provide guidelines to help you get started, though. Read more about purging books here!

Option 2: Coworker Co-op

Do you have a coworker BFF or a next-door neighbor who also has some classroom space? Consider working together to share your collections across both spaces. You may need to be more structured with appropriate checkout times and lay groundwork early to make sure students don’t treat checkout as a social call, but it could potentially be a way to double not only your space but your students’ book access! Just make sure that you and your coworker are on the same page with each other (and your students!) about book checkout expectations.

Option 3: Location Rotation Formation

No extra space or coworker friends close by? Take a chill pill- or capsule! In fashion, a capsule collection is a tiny wardrobe of around 25-30ish carefully curated pieces of clothing with the idea that this is enough to build a whole wardrobe, but you can refresh it by rotating pieces in and out over seasons and as trends change. If you’re low on shelf space, approach your classroom library with the same mindset. While it’s helpful to have some sort of alternate space (a storage closet, cabinets, another non-student-accessible space in or near your classroom), it’s not strictly necessary. You can achieve the same effect by partnering with other teachers in or even outside of your school to trade collections periodically, or by actually exchanging books for trade-in credit at local used book stores (though this can get costly- be careful). If you’re fortunate enough to have space somewhere, even if it’s in a basement or closet at home, separate your full library into a static core and 4-6 different capsule collections that you can rotate in and out. The books that aren’t currently out for use can be boxed away, but I recommend trying to keep them at least somewhat accessible so you can pull specific titles for interested students. You can rotate books out as often as you want, but it’s always a good idea to pay attention not only to seasons but to various holidays or cultural awareness months so you can curate related titles!

Learn As You Go

Ultimately, as with anything in teaching, curating and maintaining an awesome classroom library takes practice and is an active learning experience. Trust in yourself and in your knowledge of your students- they are the most important beneficiaries of these books, after all! Let them play an active role in helping you develop and maintain your library by gathering their input on everything from book selections to class-wide expectations to favorite titles worthy of putting on display. Remember that there are ultimately no wrong answers here- it’s always about whatever is best for you and your students!

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