Now that you’ve got stacks of books (Part 1 & Part 2) and something to put them on (Part 3), let’s talk maintaining a library in a classroom of anywhere from 18 to 150 students! (High school teachers, mad respect for all that grading. Yikes.)
Alright. Before we jump into maintaining this library you just built with your own two hands (and wallet), first, I need to share a hard truth with you. It sucks a lot, but I’m just going to come right out and say it. Students are going to lose your books.
I’m sorry. It’s out there now. The big, ugly truth about classroom libraries is that you’ve invested money in creating reading experiences for your students, and some of those reading experiences are going to grow legs and walk away and never be seen again. It’s the hard reality of teaching, in much the same way that all the pencils have miraculously disappeared by November, except with a larger price tag.
I wanted to put the depressing bit of this post up front, because I need you to know that the loss of books is simply an inevitable part of starting and maintaining a classroom library. In spite of that inevitable loss, a classroom library is still worth it, and is still one of the single most powerful things you can implement to turn students into readers. And, depending on the level of effort you’re willing to put in, there are things you can do to prevent some of those book losses and help ensure that your library stays strong.
Before I jump into some anti-loss measures, I’ll start off by tying up some loose ends of library setup and upkeep so that you’re not tearing your hair out every week with a library that looks like this one.
Let’s talk about how to finish setting up your library to make maintenance easy from Day 1 to Day 180.
If you decided to use a specific organization system (read more about those in Part 3), you may need to label your books based on that system. This is especially true if you’re doing topic or genre baskets or shelves, or sorting your book by a reading level system. Library websites like Demco sell pre-made genre stickers you can buy for relatively cheap, or you can purchase mailing labels of various sizes and make your own. I have found that mailing labels tend to pop off a bit easily with time, so I bought these sticker covers from Demco to keep my labels locked down long-term.
Labelling your books will make it far easier for students to re-shelve them, and thus you can enforce an expectation and make a clean, organized library the students’ responsibility.
One of the joys of teaching middle school is that students are in the middle in almost every sense of the word, and this includes acceptable reading content. Some of my students are mature enough and ready for Young Adult content in their fiction, and some are still firmly residing in the land of Middle Grades. There is nothing wrong with either of these camps, and I leave it entirely up to my students (and their parents) to decide what content is appropriate for them. However, to help make that decision easier, I tag all of my YA books with YA stickers on the spine (I made some to print on mailing labels with a picture of a Pac-Man ghost to help it stand out).
Designating books as having YA content helps my readers make more informed decisions about their book choices, but it also protects me. While I take reasonable precautions to ensure that books are not too inappropriate for 14-year-old students (my hard line is usually explicitly-described sex or drug usage; anything that goes beyond casual, passing mention), there is content in some YA books that parents might find objectionable. I have parents sign a letter at the beginning of the school year that places responsibility for content of students’ reading firmly in the hands of parents and students. It is independent, choice reading, and I do not feel it is my job to censor what students read. I mark books with this content so students can be aware of it, and I move on.
How will your students check out books from your library? When are they able to check books out? May books from your library go home with them? How long can students keep books for? These are all decisions you will need to make for yourself before students begin using your library. I will detail two of the most common book checkout options later in this post, but some teachers choose not to have any kind of checkout system at all- students grab books and return them as they please. Like me, some teachers allow checkout any day during reading time, while others limit students to certain days of the week on a rotating basis to prevent the library from becoming a social space. I allow my students to take books home, as I want them to be reading as often as possible, but I also understand the decision of those who ask that their books remain in the classroom to help minimize loss and damage of books. I generally let my students keep their books as long as they need to finish them, but if I haven’t seen a title in a couple months I’ll start inquiring with the student about where it’s at and when I can expect it back. Making all of these decisions in advance, while perhaps difficult, is essential to a smooth-running classroom library.
Once you decide what the rules and procedures are for using your library, you should be sure to share them with students in a place where they can be easily seen year-round. I hang sheets by my non-fiction and fiction sections that explains the organization of each section and the checkout process for books.
If you do jobs with your students, consider having some class librarians. These students can be in charge of checking out books to classmates if you’re comfortable with that, and they can also be responsible for general library upkeep and making sure books are in the right places. This invests students in keeping the library orderly and takes the task out of your hands.
Invest a lot of time early in the year in explaining and reminding students of your library rules and procedures. It will begin to feel repetitive, but if you ingrain the behaviors early it will mean less work and frustration for you later on in the year. Make students practice if needed, and hold students accountable for care and upkeep from the beginning.
No matter what system you use, try to rotate your books a few times a year on the shelves so that new ones are at students’ eye-level. This is part of the reason I keep my books in baskets. Around winter break I reverse the alphabet of my fiction baskets so that my Z basket is first on the top shelf and my A basket is last.
I opt to clean mine in early August before school starts, as I’m usually so burnt out by the end of the school year that I couldn’t possibly care less what state my book baskets are in. If you have particularly messy students or just want to minimize dust and germs, you might also want to clean them out over winter break. Enlist people to help you with this task- find some local high schoolers who need community service hours, or a friends with younger kids who want to make a few bucks.
I put library-grade dust-jacket covers on all of my hardback books. This ran me between $60-90 for my pretty sizeable library, including the jacket covers, the special tape to attach them, and the special tool you need to smooth out the edges as you’re installing the covers. I went back and forth about this additional cost for awhile, but the thing is that most of my hardback covers are new books, often brand new releases. (Note: If a book is available in paperback, always, always, always buy in paperback. It’s cheaper, it takes up less space, it’ll last longer, and I read somewhere once that students subconsciously prefer them because they’re easier to carry.)
The other factor is that once the dust jacket of a hardback is lost, that hardback is useless to you. Students simply won’t checkout hardbacks that don’t have a dust jacket. There’s no image on the cover to entice them in, and there’s no summary blurb for them to read to know what the book is about. The book will look too old and uninteresting for them to give it a second thought. Thus, dust jacket covers protect both the shelf-life and readability of my hardback books. I also view my library as a long-term investment, and $60-90 is a cost I’m willing to pay to protect that investment when the sum total value of my hardback books is probably 3-4 times that cost, easily.
Again, just to reiterate, you will never be able to prevent the loss of all of your books. But there are a few key steps you can take to minimize a lot of potential book losses.
How you choose to do this is up to you. I’ve seen handwritten names in permanent marker, specially-made “This Book Belongs to” stamps, stickers and labels, etc. I personally prefer labels, as I can print pages out at once. Avery makes nice handy ones that are easy to pull off the sheet, so it’s fast and easy to label whole stacks of books at once. Whatever method you choose, do not skip this step! When my students leave their books laying around the school, they always find their way back into my mailbox in the staff room because the inside cover is labeled with my name. I’ve also heard stories of parents returning books to a teacher years later, when the books were discovered while cleaning out a child’s bedroom. Putting your name on those books is important.
There are several popular free online library management systems out there right now; Booksource is my personal favorite and the one I’m most familiar with. The idea is that you can catalogue your entire classroom library either through manually entering or scanning in each of your titles. Then, once that’s done, you can use that online system to check your books out to students just like a real library does. It’s easy to see at-a-glance where all your books are, and how long students have had them for. You can start leaning pretty heavily on students to return your books after they’ve had them for 3-4 months. Another benefit to this system is that when you’re at the thrift store trying to remember if you already have a copy of that book you’re holding, you can look it up on your phone and know for sure!
But I will be really honest with you and say that this process is incredibly, seriously time-consuming. I catalogued all of my books two years ago with the intention of using Booksource as my checkout system, and it had lots of great features I’ll talk more about in a future post. But then I ended up purging a ton of titles from my library at the end of the school year and acquiring even more new ones, and it was just too much to deal with scanning all the new titles in and then trying to figure out which titles were no longer in my library as I’d donated them before thinking to delete them from my inventory. If protecting the investment of your books is worth it enough to you to devote the time to implementing and up-keeping this system, then it will likely help reduce a lot of your book losses. I ultimately decided the time tradeoff just wasn’t worth it for me.
If an online library management system sounds too complex or time-consuming, consider doing a paper/ pencil checkout system. All you need to do is write down the date, student’s name, and book title, and you’ve got all the information you need to keep a record of where your books are at. When the book comes back, you just cross out the student’s name and write the date they returned it. Pretty simple stuff. I used a spiral-bound notebook for this, and I actually made a page for each student so I could visually see how often the student had checked out books from me or whether they’d returned everything they borrowed. It served most of the purpose I needed in terms of helping me keep track of titles and reducing the number of lost books.
While the options mentioned above won’t save all your books, it will protect the majority of them from loss by students. Remember that sometimes losing books is an inevitable part of the library experience, but when it happens, I always like to hope that either the kid loved the book so much they couldn’t bear to bring it back, or that the kid will stumble upon the book at some future point after they’ve left me and have fond memories about their time in 8th grade. Would I rather have the book back? Sure. But I’m a realist, so I’ll take what I can get.
Now that we’ve covered pretty much everything you need to know and do to start a classroom library from scratch, I’ll talk in the next post on Wednesday about tons of different strategies and activities to get kids using your library and reading books.
Welcome to Part 3 of my series on starting a classroom library from scratch as a new teacher! In Part 1, I discussed how to begin searching for titles your students will love, no matter what grade you teach. In Part 2, I listed 17 different low-cost ways to start collecting books for your library. In this third installation, I’ll talk book storage and different approaches to organizing your library, so you can answer the question of where the heck to put all those wonderful books!
Your best book storage options will depend on the size of your library and your classroom. Some teachers prefer one or two floor-to-ceiling shelves to maximize floor space; I use shorter shelves that run along a wall underneath the windows of my classroom. Both are valid options. If you’re clever and craftsy, you can get shelves such as the popular IKEA Kallax or Expedit models that can double as seating for your young readers with just an afternoon’s effort and a few add-ons. Plastic milk crates can be spray-painted and attached together with zip ties or strong adhesive to create all sorts of modular shelving options to fill your needs. The more creative and outside the box you can think here, the more you’ll save and the more inviting your library can be!
Two of my shelves were hand-me-downs from the teacher I took over for, and I scrounged up the others at Aldi for cheap. IKEA, garage sales (both digital and traditional), Craigslist, thrift stores and the side of the road before trash night can be places to find shelving. Another great tip is to drive to your local college town the weekend of graduation- many graduating seniors will leave used furniture behind to be dumped, and you can find some pieces that are in pretty good condition. (Incidentally, this is how I found my favorite desk chair!)
If you are someone who likes everything to be matchy-matchy (believe me, I get it!), snag some spray paint and sand paper from the local hardware or craft store, or use contact paper to cover shelves. Within the last decade or so the amount of available designs for contact paper has exploded, so you’re sure to find a design you love that will match the rest of your classroom decor!
I keep my books in nice, sturdy Sterilite baskets. This makes it easier to shift them around on the shelves (and refresh what’s at students’ eye-level periodically), and to pull out whole baskets of books for activities with students. I also have to use baskets for my Aldi shelves, because they’re made of that open wire that things could potentially fall through. The Sterilite baskets are a bit pricey compared to what you can find at the dollar store, but those suckers will last. My mom has used them in her own third-grade classroom library for over a decade and rarely has to replace any. Before the start of each school year, you’ll want to go around and wipe out the baskets (a task my younger sister and I were often assigned in our earlier years), to remove dust, debris, and random writing utensils that always somehow seem to find their way in.
A clear benefit to not using baskets is cost. It’s definitely cheaper to get standard bookshelves and just place the books right on them. But, if you have a non-standard room space or are having to get creative with where your library goes, baskets can help you use all available space by placing them around the classroom in different locations, on top of counters, etc. Baskets might also not be the way to go if you’re primarily stocking picture books- at least, not the Sterilite baskets. The larger ones you’d need to fit picture book sizes are more expensive, and a full basket would likely be too heavy for little hands.
If you go the basket route, you can label your baskets with laminated index cards, or the Target Dollar Spot sometimes has peel-and-stick clear label pockets for book baskets during their back-to-school sale.
If you are not a crafty woodworker, maybe you have a friend or relative who might be able to build you some shelving or book storage for the cost of materials and dinner. This could be a way to get some of those neat book display furniture pieces without spending the hundreds (or thousands!) of dollars they often cost from school supply companies. Here’s a basic set of plans for building a front-facing wooden book display. If your library is mainly picture books and you are able to mount shelving to the wall, here’s a set of super easy plans for wall-mounted book ledges. And here’s a post on a whole variety of DIY classroom furniture including multiple shelving options and more!
Now that you’ve got some shelving, let’s explore some common ways to organize the books in your library, and pros/ cons of each.
If you’re in the “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” school of organization, choosing not to organize your books at at all might be your option- just stick them all up on the shelves and let students have at it!
An oldie but a goodie, organizing books by author’s last name is still a logical choice, whether you’re using traditional shelving or book baskets.
Sorting your fiction (and non-fiction!) books by genre (mystery, realistic fiction, etc.) is fast becoming a much more popular way to organize both classroom and school libraries.
A third library organization option is to sort books by topic (animals, winter, family, etc.).
Sort your books by reading level, no matter what leveling system you use- Fountas & Pinnell, Accelerated Reader, Lexile, “I Can Read” or other pre-leveled text series, etc.
I’ve outlined the four most common methods of classroom library organization above, but you may find that one system is not the key for you. In my library, I organize my fiction by author’s last name and my non-fiction by topic. I have series in their own separate section in chronological order, and I keep separate baskets for poetry, short story anthologies, and dramas/ plays. I will also occasionally do separate topical baskets for my fiction; for example, I recently acquired a set of books containing collections of short folktales from different ethnic backgrounds. These weren’t technically a series, but I decided to highlight them by giving them their own basket. Be flexible with your setup, and feel free to choose whatever works for you and your students.
Picking a library organization system requires some thought from you about what experience you want your students to have and how much effort you’re willing to invest to maintain a system. However, this is just one (albeit important) piece of the puzzle, as is deciding upon a shelving system and whether to use baskets. You will also need to make decisions about whether to label your books to fit your shelving system, whether you want to tag books with certain types of content, what to do if you run out of space for books in your library, etc. In the next post of this series (coming tomorrow!) I will talk about maintaining your library- some of these additional decisions you’ll need to make before opening your books up to your students to ensure that your investment is protected, your books are cared for, and your students have a great reading experience.
In Part 1 of this series, I talked a bit about the immense value of having a personal library in your classroom, and I explored some ways to figure out what those crazy young whippersnappers are reading these days (*shakes cane*). So now that you’ve likely got a wishlist that’s five miles long, it’s time to start getting those books in your classroom and into the hands of your kids. Let’s explore a bunch of different ways you can do that without breaking the bank.
A minor regret from the beginning of my own classroom library was that I picked up any book that was in remotely decent condition, especially if it was free or inexpensive, without regard for whether my students were likely to actually read it. This left me with a basket-full, for example, of ancient-looking Fear Street trade paperbacks from the 1970’s or 80’s. My students, I reasoned, might be into horror, and they might recognize R.L. Stine from the Goosebumps series, and they’d been a free pass-down from the teacher whose position I took.
As you might expect, my students never touched them once. As much as we try to convince students not to judge a book by its cover, it happens anyway. At the end of my first year, I ended up clearing out and donating that basket and other titles I’d known deep-down my students would never touch so that I could make room for more high-interest books. Learn to evaluate whether your students are likely to actually read a book. Even if it is free, an unread book is just taking up shelf space and gathering dust. Only take or purchase books that will actually see use by students.
Alrighty, now that’s out of the way, let’s talk about how to get ALL the books!
Your first stop, if possible, should be your principal or the person in your building who knows how funding works. There may be money set aside for you to use to purchase books for your library. In my building there is not money for individual classroom teachers, but my teacher team can use our team account to purchase book club sets and titles that can be shared by all 70 of our students. Things are different in every district and building, and it absolutely never hurts to ask. Your Parent-Teacher Association may not be a bad place to ask, either.
If you are a new teacher these days, there’s a pretty decent chance you’re replacing a new retiree. Get ahold of that person’s contact info if you can, and see if they would be interested in donating (or selling) any of their classroom library to you. Teachers also change grade levels, and some don’t wish to hold onto books in storage. Most of the base of my middle school library came from my mother, an ex-fifth-grade teacher who moved down to third and no longer had use for her boxes upon boxes of higher-level chapter books.
Don’t assume that the books on the shelves at your local Goodwill are all musty romance novels from decades past. If you’re willing to put in the time and sweat equity to regularly pop by and peruse the stacks, there are plenty of excellent gently-used books waiting for your students, and at many stores they are only $0.50 – $1.99 each. You can also watch for sale days when certain colored tags are cheaper, or holiday sales (I’ve seen Goodwill do 50% off on holidays like Labor Day).
Another thrift store tip – If you’re willing to drive a bit, drive to the thrift stores in the more affluent neighborhoods around you. While most chains like Goodwill attempt to spread quality product between locations, most stuff that gets donated at a particular location gets sold at that location. More affluent stores (in my experience) tend to have a wider selection of quality texts to purchase.
If you are a Facebook user, make sure you are connected to the local garage sale groups in your area, as well as teacher resale groups. You can often find decent books at low prices, and this is a great way to find bundles of multiple books and collections of series that your students will enjoy! Whatever group you choose, make sure you take a moment to read the group rules and understand the buying and selling procedures. The last thing you want is to accidentally step on someone’s toes or get booted from a group!
Shop garage sales in neighborhoods with lots of school-aged families. Parents will sell books that their kids have outgrown. Church or organization sales are also a great place to hunt. You can find out about local garage sales in your area on sites like Facebook and Craigslist.
Inquire at your local library- most libraries have some sort of ‘friends of the library’ organization that organizes annual or semi-annual book sales to clear out titles that are no longer in circulation and raise funds for new books. You can find all sorts of books at these sales for really great prices.
Many book fair providers, especially Scholastic, will sell value titles, clearance books they are trying to purge from their inventory. At Scholastic sales, these books can usually be identified with a red circle sticker that tells you the bargain price. Don’t forget, too, that most school book fairs allow teachers to submit wishlists for parents to donate books to the classroom. Create a list of reasonably-priced high-interest books and ask your parents to purchase and donate just one.
Scholastic, of book fair fame, hosts semi-annual BOGO sales on merchandise at their warehouses to clear inventory. Get on their email list and you’ll be among the first to know. These sales usually run for a couple weeks (the warehouse near me holds one in late November/ early December and one in May). Also, if you have some free time on your hands outside of the school day, you can sign up to work a few shifts at these warehouse sales and earn vouchers that can be spent on books at the sale. Either way, great prices abound.
My two favorites are Book Outlet and Thrift Books. Both offer some titles at as little as $2-3, and both sites have points-based rewards programs. These sites sell books that are overstocked or marked as ‘damaged,’ but I have never received an unusable book in any of my orders- in fact, some of the books marked as damaged were actually autographed copies! Keep an eye out for sales around holidays and subscribe to emails for coupons, etc. Important tip: Always compare the price of a book between these bargain outlet sites and Amazon. For newer titles especially, Amazon’s ‘New’ or ‘Used-Excellent’ prices may still be cheaper!
Half-Price Books is a chain new-and-used bookstore all over the country and online. In addition to offering decent prices on books, HPB also partners with local communities to donate boxes of gently-used books to classroom teachers as part of their One Million Books donation project. Another useful tidbit is that HPB will buy used titles for store credit or cash- not a ton of money, but those books my students just aren’t reading can be turned into one or two titles I know they’ll love.
Some people are uncomfortable with the idea of using fundraising sites like GoFundMe to finance their classroom libraries, but I firmly believe the mission of getting great books in students’ hands is a more-than-worthy cause to donate a few bucks for. Put in the time to really sell the need for books and how they will help your students. Include pictures of your students or your classroom if possible, as well as a bit of information about the types of students you teach (urban vs. rural, low-income, diverse, low-readers, etc.). You have to paint a strong picture to explain why people should donate money to you.
Networking is also key here- even if friends and family can’t contribute much, they may have some sort of business or community connection that might be willing to help you out. Share, share, share on social media and ask friends to do the same. Remind everyone that donations are tax-deductible! Something I also like to do is put a sticker or written inscription inside books purchased with donated funds to honor the people or organizations who donated (i.e., “This book was donated by…”). This not only honors the people who were kind enough to donate, but it shows your students that people care enough about their education to invest in it.
DonorsChoose is an especially great place to start if you’re working in a low-income or Title I school, but this classroom fundraising platform is open to any teachers. Be prepared to put in some work- DonorsChoose requires a lot of information from you about your students and school, your project, photos of your students and classroom, etc. The other important difference between DonorsChoose and general fundraising sites like GoFundMe is that DonorsChoose does not directly give you money- people donate money and DonorsChoose orders and sends you the materials you asked for. This means that DonorsChoose might be a better route if you are looking for book club or whole-class sets as opposed to individual titles. It can also take awhile from the time you set up your project on DonorsChoose to the time you’ll actually get books in your hands, so plan well in advance if you’re looking for group or class sets for a unit or novel study.
There are a variety of grants and funding available to teachers if you are willing to invest the time to research, find them, and apply. You can find and use grant money to purchase books for your classroom. If you go this route, I recommend you first spend some time learning more about grant writing and looking at successful examples of grant letters & applications to understand what organizations are looking for from applicants.
I got my mom a Book of the Month Club subscription for Christmas a couple years ago, and she was so delighted with it that I ended up getting a subscription for myself. Every month I pay $14.99 for my choice out of five or six options, and if they don’t have anything I’m interested in for the month I can skip it and the credit saves for later. They recently added a YA section to their add-on books, meaning my saved credits have been merrily purchasing new books for me and my classroom. There are also YA-specific book boxes such as Uppercase, and increasingly I come across subscriptions for children’s book boxes (Amazon is offering one– I can’t speak to the quality, though). If you choose to go this route, it can be a great way to get fresh, newly-released reads into students’ hands, but be sure to compare your options before choosing a service. I chose to stick with Book of the Month over Uppercase because while Uppercase is specifically geared toward YA, you don’t get any choice in books each month- every subscriber gets the same surprise title, and I wasn’t willing to risk the monthly fee on books I may or may not end up enjoying, or that may or may not be appropriate for my students.
This is another avenue of book collection that requires leg work, but publishing companies will send out ARCs, or Advanced Reader Copies, to people who are willing to read unpublished books and write reviews on social media and sites like Goodreads. The leg work exists in finding publishers and sites that offer these ARCs, and once you do there’s often some work involved in explaining why you would be a great candidate to receive ARCs. Because of the costs involved to the publisher, they won’t send these books to just anyone. It helps if you already talk about books on social media (book-stagram, anyone?), and if you play up the fact that you can likely get multiple student reviews out of a single ARC copy. Or, if you have any students who are heavily invested in their social media presence and could reach a lot of people, this could be an opportunity for them to seek out books and review them. Goodreads will host giveaways for ARCs, so that could be a good place to start your search.
Let’s be real honest here- no eReader will ever compare to physically holding a book in your hands. It just won’t. However, you’re a teacher on a budget, and while sharing that power of a physical book with students is great, there are thousands of reading opportunities available to your students for free online. If you teach upper-middle or high school and want to get your students reading some classic literature, good news- you can find most ‘classics’ for free on the internet. If your students have library cards from their local libraries, they can often use those to login to the library’s website and check out eBooks from there. I’ve had students who will start by reading the free preview of an eBook through Google Books, and if they like it enough to continue reading past the free preview we work together to get our hands on a copy. If you have iPads or other tablets for students there are tons of book apps available, and your district may even have a subscription to services such as Epic! (elementary) or TumbleBooks (all grades). Technology also opens students up to different reading experiences such as news or magazine articles, blog posts, etc. and gives them a richer pool of reading material to choose from.
For all of the suggestions I’ve given above for creating a low-cost classroom library, when it comes down to it you’re going to have to spend some money. I have a massive book addiction and young adult fic is my genre of choice, so I have no problems shelling out for new releases or popular titles. I read and enjoy them myself, then I stick them in my library. Even if you are not an avid reader of the books that you’re purchasing for your students, remember the investment you are making in their reading lives, and the dividends that will pay as you see them fall in love with texts and learn what good readers do.
I’d be lying if I didn’t say I have invested quite a few hundreds of dollars at this point into my own library (I consider this an inherited trait- I spent my childhood helping my own mother hide bags of classroom library purchases made at the local used bookstore from my dad’s inquisitive eyes). I just love books, love reading, and so the investment is worth it to me. If you aren’t willing to invest like I am, that’s okay, too- I recognize that not everyone can. Allow yourself time to build up what you can. Scrape and scrounge, jump on opportunities, go through those books the school librarian is removing from circulation, do the leg work to find the opportunities. Work with a colleague, especially one whose room is geographically close to yours. Build a shared library together that all of your students can enjoy. Building your dream classroom library is not easy, but it is so, so worth it.
As an aside, if you are someone in a position to regularly buy newly released titles for your students, try to always buy new releases during the first week of their release- it helps the author a ton, as first-week sales are a huge marker of success on the part of the author and the publisher.
As I mentioned in Part 1 of this series, do not feel like you have to go out and buy hundreds of books at once in your pursuit of the perfect classroom library. Start with a core of high-interest books (or whatever you can get your hands on) and build slowly from there. Your classroom library will be an ever-growing, ever-changing collection as you add and remove titles over the course of your teaching career. Start with what you can, listen to what your students want, and go from there.
Come back tomorrow for Part 3, where I will discuss classroom library setup and maintenance, different ways to organize your books, and that pesky problem of kids losing your books and what to do about it.
I can’t emphasize enough the impact of a good classroom library. There is nothing more powerful than instantly greeting a student who has just finished a book with, “Here is another one I think you’ll like,” or “I saw this book and thought of you.” If you work in an environment where your school library is less functional (or nonexistent), a class library is essential to getting kids reading.
I’m only a second-year teacher, but I have one of the largest classroom libraries in my middle school building, because I was lucky enough to grow up understanding and appreciating the value of books. While my library wasn’t cheap, there are a lot of ways to build a low-cost classroom library if you’re willing to invest a little time and cash, and the payoff of putting great books in the hands of students is beyond worth it. In the next few posts I’ll explore some ways to get an awesome classroom library growing in your classroom no matter what grade you teach.
Today I’ll explore how to choose books for your library that your students will love, even if you aren’t sure what’s currently popular with students in your grade level.
If you haven’t signed up for Goodreads and you like reading even a little bit, you’re missing out! In addition to book reviews, content summaries, and author information, Goodreads has hundreds of user- and community-created lists of books your kids are sure to love, no matter what grade you teach. You can find lists based on genre, publication year, themes (diverse/ multicultural lit, divorced parents, latinx main character, etc.), and more. If you are unfamiliar with the latest, hottest lit for your grade level, this is the best place to start. Warning: you will be exposed to so many exciting titles that your wishlist will grow exponentially right before your eyes!
If you know one or two popular titles for your age group, Amazon can send you down a rabbit hole of similar titles and themes. Like Goodreads, Amazon allows you to preview content and reader reviews. You can also use the Amazon bestseller lists to discover what titles are most popular right now for your grade level.
Make sure to include a core selection of titles from different genres. I have found, and have heard from other teachers, that student genre preferences can vary widely from class to class and year to year. Set yourself up for success in connecting students with books by being prepared with high-interest texts from a variety of genres. Also make it a point to hunt down high-interest non-fiction. This will be, perhaps, trickier than finding books for other genres, and you may want to plan to spend more money on these titles, but it is money well-spent to show students that not all non-fiction is dry and boring!
If you are a secondary teacher, reach out to other content-area teachers in your building to find out what sorts of topics are covered in the grade that you teach. If you are an elementary or self-contained teacher, you hopefully already have access to this information. You can use content-area topics to direct your book-buying, especially of non-fiction texts. For example, my 8th graders study U.S. history in their humanities class and take the Constitution test at the end of the year. I made sure to stock up on books about various topics in American history including wars, presidents, etc. 8th grade also does life science, so my science basket includes books on cells, genetics, animal life, and other biology topics.
If you are fortunate enough to have a good school librarian, she or he will be able to tell you what kids are checking out and reading. If you are less fortunate in that department, go talk to the teen or children’s desk librarian at the local public library- not only will they have the same information, but you can learn about programs on offer that may be of interest to your students, and you can find out what students need to do to sign up for a library card to encourage them through that process. It’s been my experience that librarians love to help classroom teachers, especially if it might mean more patronage for them down the road.
I signed up for emails from both Epic Reads and Book Riot, and I’m sure there’s other similar large-scale book blogs out there. I get emails every few days with info on new releases, best-of lists, and all kinds of really good recommendations. I have connected with so many great YA reads through these emails that I may not have known about otherwise. I also tend to find out about popular or highly-anticipated new releases months in advance, allowing me to plan which books I want to pre-order and spread out my purchasing.
One of the most powerful statements I’ve ever heard about literature is that it provides students both mirrors and windows: mirrors to access their own identity through a relationship with characters who are similar to them, and windows into other worlds and cultures that will increase their empathy and understanding of people from diverse backgrounds. Any good classroom library should include a variety of diverse stories and characters from a variety of cultural backgrounds, no matter how diverse (or not) the students in your class might be. A massive body of research and many organizations exist as a testament to the importance of diverse classroom libraries, but I think their power is best summed up by a comment from a colleague’s reluctant reader who read Angie Thomas’ stunning The Hate You Give for the first time: “I’ve never read a book where the characters talk like me and my family. I didn’t know books were like that.” You can use Goodreads lists to find age-appropriate books with diverse characters and stories. Initiatives like We Need Diverse Books can also be helpful places to look.
Try to include own-voices authors- diverse authors from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds as well as differently-abled and LGBT+ identities. Apart from encouraging diversity in publishing, inclusion of own-voices authors gives your students a richer reading experience by exposing them to a variety of backgrounds and perspectives. Also, be wary of books with multicultural characters that were written by white authors- they can sometimes contain unfortunate stereotypes and well-intentioned but harmful misconceptions. Again, Goodreads lists can help you out.
If you work in a school environment where you need to be extra careful about the content of books in your classroom, Common Sense Media can help you determine whether a book is appropriate for your students or contains any objectionable content. I personally feel that the site sets the bar almost too high for what content is appropriate for a given age, but that can be useful if your district is highly conservative about these things.
It takes time to build a strong library, so don’t feel like you have to rush in and spend hundreds of dollars right away, especially as a first-year teacher with other necessities to snag for your new classroom. I talked above about making sure you have a variety of genres; you may want to start as simple as one basket (or chunk of books) per genre. After perusing Goodreads and Amazon and book blogs, I started a long, long list of books I wanted to purchase, sorted them by genre, and then selected my top few must-have choices for each, keeping the rest of the list for future shopping opportunities.
Then, when you get your first group of students, survey them about their preferences, notice what books they prefer, and build your library around what your students are into. As student interests shift each year, as sales pop up, as books fall into your lap, you can accumulate little-by-little over the years until you build up a really well-stocked library.
Stay tuned tomorrow for Part 2 of this series where I’ll discuss a boatload of different cost-effective ways to build your classroom library from the ground up.
One of my favorite school experiences was when my 8th-grade teacher encouraged us to create our own blogs on Xanga, an early-2000’s service that sadly went the way of Myspace- still around, but no longer relevant. I loved the experience because the creativity and the freedom to post about things that mattered to me were just fun.
Hoping to recreate that experience and engage students in multimedia-inclusive writing, I scoured the internet for a student-friendly blogging service. I wanted the features available from traditional blogging platforms, including posting and commenting; however, the lack of adult oversight inherent in having students create independent accounts for commonly-used sites such as WordPress or Blogger left me wary. I wanted open communication between my students, but I needed to be able to moderate content. I also wanted to easily access students’ blogs in one place. A further challenge was to avoid platforms students might find childish, as middle schoolers (especially 8th-graders) can be sensitive to content that feels condescending.
Months after I began searching I randomly stumbled upon EduBlogs, which turned out to be everything I’d hoped for and more.
EduBlogs, a WordPress subsidiary, operates like any typical blogging service- in fact, the interface is pretty identical to WordPress, creating an authentic experience for students. The skills they learn by creating a blog through EduBlogs are directly transferable to WordPress and similar sites. Additionally, the site has that more ‘adult’ look I wanted for my students.
A side-by-side comparison of WordPress user interface (left) and EduBlogs user interface (right)
EduBlogs offers me all the control and moderation I’d been looking for. With a free account, I’m able to moderate my students’ comments on each other’s posts. The free account does not allow me to moderate the actual posts before they go up, but that’s irrelevant- I have total access to student blogs and can edit or delete any of their posts with ease, essential when working with impulsive, emotional middle schoolers.
Students have creative freedom in setting up their blogs, including changes to theme, background photos, text colors, etc. Each blog becomes a reflection of the student, and students love making their blog their own space. This may lead to some… unconventional design choices, but while we talk together about the importance of presentation, these blogs are not meant to be professional and stuffy- I want my students to feel comfortable here. This is their space.
Just a few of my students’ customized blogs.
I can view all student posts in chronological order from my dashboard, making it easy to click through posts without having to open each student’s individual blog. In the same window I’m also able to view other students’ comments. I can even leave private comments only visible to the author, making feedback a breeze. Massive time-saver!
You can embed all sorts of media into posts, including photos, YouTube videos, and even Spotify playlists! Pretty much any media that you can grab a direct link to can be embedded. (Note: Using actual embed HTML code is a premium feature- a bit limiting, but not something my students and I have missed terribly). I try to model incorporating different types of media for my students in my own blog posts.
EduBlogs offers support and instructions to optionally transfer ownership of student blogs to parents or students at the end of the school year. They even provide an informational letter you can send home to parents to help them decide if keeping the blog is something they want for their student. No more months of work down the drain when the school year ends!
While I love EduBlogs’ authenticity, less-comfortable tech users may struggle to adapt to all of the features in the user interface. I am an experienced blogger and have used WordPress for years, so it was a seamless transition for me; I knew how to help students from day one. Someone less familiar with the setup of traditional blogging platforms may want to spend some time learning the site before using it with students. However, EduBlogs offers lots of useful videos, PDFs, forums, and instant chat to support teachers as they learn to navigate the site.
A major missing feature I hope to see integrated in the future is account compatibility with either Google or Clever. I have found it simplest at this point to manually create my students’ accounts, but this is obviously time-consuming. You can have students create their own blog accounts and then join your class, but it’s not a perfect process and may end up giving students access to a separate blog that you can’t moderate. For my students, who are prone to interpersonal drama and for whom cyberbullying is a persistent issue, this wasn’t an acceptable tradeoff for any time savings.
This year, I have used EduBlogs to have my students do book reviews and podcast reviews. Apart from that, students are required to post something on their blog once a week. I provide suggested prompts each week that are broad and high-interest, but students are not obligated to use these (though most do).
Next year, I want to expand my use to include more assignments such as reading responses, quick writes, etc. that are traditionally done in student notebooks or turned in directly to the teacher. I hope to encourage a more collaborative learning community where dialogue occurs between a student and their classmates, not just the student and me.
So, I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I am a total workshop junkie, but this school year was actually my first real go at it. Like many teachers when they initially hear about the free choice involved in workshop, I had a boatload of concerns about starting an independent free-choice reading program with my 8th-grade students.
I knew from my own school experience that I loved the days when my own 8th grade ELA teacher gave us a full period to enjoy a good book, but I was also an avid reader- a bookworm. Could I really expect to get all kids reading independently? Was it really okay not to worry about what ‘level’ books they picked for themselves? How would they be challenged? How would I hold them accountable? So many questions!
I decided to go with my gut, to envision the sort of classroom I would like to be a part of, and to have some faith in my students. Here is what I did, and what I found.
I started the very first day of class by making sure a book entered every kid’s hands. I have an extensive classroom library, which I’ll discuss in a later post, but it enables me to get kids reading from day one even if the school library hasn’t opened for the year. I instantly create a culture of reading in my classroom- this is what we do here.
The other thing I did on day one is make a promise to my students. I promised my students that in my classroom, because their voice matters, I would trust them to make their own decisions about the texts that they would read and write that year. I explained that while we may engage in literature occasionally as a class or through book clubs, their independent reading would always be their choice.
I told my students that I trusted them to challenge themselves, but that I also understood that there were times when they may choose to read books they know are easy or just for fun. This is what real readers do. I told students that I didn’t care what level a book was, Lexile or otherwise. I also didn’t care if students reread books they love or enjoy- real readers do this, too. I didn’t care if students abandoned books on the path to finding a reading experience that was right for them. I am fond of reminding my students that life is too short for boring books when there are so many great ones out there waiting for you. Students were free to spend their reading time each day on magazines or news articles, though I explained that I expected them to read at least a handful of novels this year as it was necessary to build stamina and skill as readers.
As I spoke, students were turning to each other with raised eyebrows and wide eyes, unsure whether to take me seriously. When I finished explaining what reading looks like in my classroom, they gave me a literal standing ovation (looking back, this should probably have been my first clue that this group of students was highly overdramatic).
Despite my reassurances to students that it really didn’t matter what they read, so long as they read, I was still nervous. I didn’t want to have to go back on my word if I found that students were not actually reading, and I’d already encountered enough fake readers in my career to know that the struggle was real where that was concerned. I also wanted a way to assess students on CCSS reading standards using their independent reading. But every time I looked for independent reading assignments or projects on Teachers Pay Teachers or other sites, I always left with a bad vibe. Many projects seemed well-envisioned, creative, fun, and engaging, but I was looking for what real readers do with books, and I have never once sat down as an adult to create a playlist based on the main character’s emotions in chapter 3.
For the first chunk of the year, I took another leaf out of Nancie Atwell’s book and gave reading journals a try, giving each student their own Google Doc ‘journal’ and creating a master class list so all the students could write to each other. They had to write once a week and write to me every other week, but they could write to anyone they chose the rest of the time, and they had to reply if someone wrote to them. I gave students a prompt to answer in about a paragraph, and then the rest of their letter contained their own thoughts, feelings, and opinions about the text.
I learned so much about my students as readers through these letters, and I gained invaluable insight into the reading choices students were making. It was also a much more authentic form of assessment in that, beyond my standards-based prompt, students were authentically responding to their experience with a text, and doing so in an informal “friendly letter” style with other members of our reading community.
It was through the reading letters that I began to see the fruits of trusting my students. Very early in the year, I had one student plugging his way through the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. This series was far below his reading level, but I stuck to my guns and said nothing as I knew that anything that might be seen as going back on my word would permanently damage my students’ trust in me. I figured I’d give him another couple weeks and then broach the subject in a reading conference.
About a week later, I got a reading letter from the student, in which he stated, “I finally have a chance to re-read these books now that I’m old enough to understand the humor, and I just don’t get why anyone ever thought these books were funny.” In allowing him to have that reading experience, he was able to come to his own conclusions about the quality of the literature. That same student ended the year (voluntarily!) reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, a much higher level text. He got there because he came to it on his own.
That student is not my only success story. I’ve had kids this year chug their way through Pride and Prejudice, The Time Machine, The Great Gatsby, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and other high-level complex texts that most teachers have to beg students to pick up. These students were, as you might suspect, more motivated readers than the average 8th-grade student, but even my students who never pushed themselves to that level still read scores of books. I gave them time to read in class each day, I gave them choice, and I built the culture from day one so that they understood the importance of reading in my classroom. My mini-lessons focus on what real readers do, and I try as often as possible to show students the benefit of reading in their academic and personal lives.
I work hard to make high-interest non-fiction texts available to my students, but non-fiction still does not tend to be a choice for many of my readers. I navigated around this by continuing to use non-fiction texts for mini-lessons, increasing my content literacy instruction in my science classes, and incorporating Article of the Week a la Kelly Gallagher every few Mondays (I alternate with podcasts and TED Talks for variety). I continue to book talk high-interest non-fiction regularly, but I also teach around it.
I got outfoxed by a fake reader this year. This kid used every single trick in the book, from summarizing texts she’d read last year to claiming she “was reading something at home” to keeping an eBook open on her screen while she picked at her nails for 20 minutes. She tried One of Us is Lying early on, but found the rotating character perspectives too much to keep up with. She picked and prodded at a few other books, and finally seemed to find some success with novels in verse. I recommended every high-interest verse-format text I could find, and she enjoyed some Jason Reynolds for awhile, but to this day I’m still not sure she actually finished any of those books, either. Nonetheless, she still showed her requisite growth on our district benchmark come spring, and she’ll make her merry way off to 9th grade, still not a convert to the magical experience that is a great book.
I share this with you to admit and acknowledge that choice reading won’t be a magical silver bullet for every reader, no matter how much freedom and opportunity you give. It just won’t. I strived all year to reach this student, connect her with texts, get her friends to make recommendations for her, but none of it connected. She dutifully completed all her work, made average grades on assessments, and got along just fine, but she never got hooked on a rich reading experience. Some years, with some kids, I suspect that’s just the way things go.
But for this one kid I failed to hook on reading, 28 other kids in my classroom regularly engaged with books and had at least one meaningful reading experience this year. They read, and they enjoyed it. They connected with texts and with each other. And at the end of the day, I’m willing to call that a success.