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.
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.
National Novel Writing Month is, without a doubt, the biggest project I have undertaken in my teaching career thus far. While I have been familiar with NaNoWriMo since my early 20’s, and I knew of the Young Writers Program in passing, I more or less jumped into the unit head-first with only a basic, general idea of what I was doing: focusing on the narrative fiction CCSS standards for reading and writing, and trying to get the 30 kids in my classroom to write something. A lot of something.
First, I need to back up a few months to May 2018, the end of the inaugural year of my teaching career. I never intended to teach middle school. If we’re honest, the 6th through 9th portion of my K-9 Elementary Ed. degree program was merely nominal. I learned how to teach young kids to learn to read, and then immediately found myself in a classroom of accelerated eighth grade students, some of whom were scoring in the 99th percentile on our district benchmark. That first year was messy, as I’m told any teacher’s first year is, but I keenly felt throughout the year how much of a trainwreck my ELA instruction was. I had very little idea what I was doing with my list of standards, and a basal textbook curriculum that I probably hated even more than my students, and an incredibly supportive and patient instructional coach who has been with me every step of my learning journey as a new educator.
In short, over those 10 months, I never truly felt like I found my stride. I never reached a place where I felt like I was helping students reach the standards while getting them to enjoy and buy into reading and writing activities. The provided basal curriculum was overwhelming and needlessly complex, and the stories and texts it contained were not pieces my students could connect with. I plugged forward with it because I had little idea what else to do, but in my heart it felt wrong. My writing instruction, beyond the prompted responses to the textbook passages, was virtually non-existent. Everything felt disjointed.
So in May I began to regroup, to look ahead to next year. I threw everything I had done out the window, knowing I would need to start from scratch. I thought through elaborate units on different, interesting themes with texts that I felt would be challenging enough but more interesting than the textbook stories my students abhorred. I Googled and researched and leaned on my instructional coach and my professional networks on social media and my fantastic mother, a veteran master teacher, who has graciously spent hundreds of hours on the phone with me talking about best practice.
And then, in June, I picked up Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle, 2nd ed., and it changed my life. That feels dramatic to say, but it was like jumping in a cold pool in the midst of a humid Florida summer. The path I’d long been searching for suddenly became so much clearer to me. I tossed out (with some sadness) my carefully over-planned units, and began to think through how I would help a brand-new class full of students learn to brainstorm and plan and take their own ideas to the furthest possible heights. I doubled down on my already large classroom library and spent probably way too much money on making sure I had diverse books that reflected my students as well as their interests. I prepared to dive into this whole “workshop” thing, and see what happened.
I had forgotten all about NaNoWriMo until late August, when things were crazy and stressful as I learned to navigate not only my second year of teaching, but a brand-new science lab that required me (and all our science teachers) to split my time between multiple classrooms and live off a cart. I was suddenly asked to help teach a new elective during my push-in period that I knew absolutely nothing about. A freak accident one morning in early September led to a broken knee and a month of teaching out of a wheelchair, followed by months of physical therapy. I was still trying to work through starting the first Genders and Sexualities Alliance in our school. Not to mention graduate school, my usual non-work time commitments, and all the stuff that comes along with, y’know, teaching. And then one morning on my way to my advisory class, stressed and disoriented and already in need of another summer break, my principal came up to me and said, “Hey, are you still planning to do that writing thing you told me about last year?”
I could have said no. Arguably, I should have said no- I was juggling a lot.
But writing workshop was off to a good start so far, and I recognized a clear need for more club offerings for our introverted students. So I thought, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’
I researched, and looked through all the Young Writers Program materials, and planned, and planned more. I figured out which coworkers would be able to give me rides home after my first few club meetings as my knee healed. I attempted to start a committee and get other teachers on board, but it was too new and not clearly defined, and I was not the only one juggling a lot both personally and professionally. I pushed forward anyway, figuring I could try again next year once my coworkers had a chance to see what this project was all about.
I introduced NaNoWriMo to my ELA students as an optional project they could take up as part of workshop. We would all be working on fiction, I explained, and students could choose to focus on a short story or continue to write something else entirely, but I made a pretty strong sales pitch- anyone who participated in NaNoWriMo, met their word count goal, and finished their novel would get a physical, published copy. They would be real, published novelists.
I made this same pitch to the students who showed up for the initial club meetings, a mix of 6th through 8th graders. We brainstormed together, talked through setting realistic word count goals, and planned our writing for the month of November. I was excited, planning my own novel project to write alongside the students, and I let them into my thinking process as I named characters and organized plot points and tried to make sense out of disjointed ideas. But I was also a bit cynical- I expected students’ initial excitement to carry them through the first week or two of November, and then most of them would fizzle out and move on to something else.
And then November 1st hit, and something amazing happened- my students wrote. And wrote. And wrote. And wrote. During workshop time, my room was utterly silent beyond the sound of keyboard keys clicking furiously, or a student asking another student to “hey, read this” or “what do you think about…” And I buoyed my students’ clear enthusiasm with word sprints and author pep talks and stickers and all the other exciting things that NaNoWriMo offers as part of the month-long noveling experience. My students rushed in excitedly each day to update their novel progress trackers hanging on the wall. They called each other on the phone at night to discuss character ideas and lament their frustration with writer’s block. They wrote. And they enjoyed it.
Much to my continued surprise, the club kids kept showing up to write, too. Each meeting I fretted about having fun activities or engaging writing games to hold the students’ interest. This wasn’t a class project for kids who would be writing anyway, these students were voluntarily staying after school to participate in a writing club. But what I quickly discovered was that the students didn’t need fun, frilly activities- much like my ELA students, they just wanted me to get out of the way so they could write. I stayed after school for the club twice a week, to make sure that all through November students had a quiet place to write. It was a lot of time to invest, but my intentions weren’t entirely without selfishness as it forced me to invest time on my own novel. My students frequently asked about my own word count progress, which helped hold me accountable, as I couldn’t let them down by quitting or fizzling out myself.
My project came down to the wire- I ended up with my 52,210 words at 11pm on November 30th. My students collectively combined for over 300,000 words written in the month of November- one student wrote 95,000 words alone! I was already willing to call the month a success.
Then came December. Students kept right on writing, wrapping up plots and filling in holes and jumping into that frustrating process of revision. We moved on to new topics in ELA, but the kids carried on work through January and February, eventually settling on and submitting a ‘best draft’ of their work.
This put the ball back in my court. I didn’t have the instructional time to devote to teaching students to use the book-publishing software I’d found, so I spent a long three-day weekend editing, formatting, and uploading.
Finally, in mid-March, the result- 20 physical, published, paperback novels. 20 new young novelists.
There were many points along this journey that were validating. Watching the fervor with which my students attacked their stories, listening to them interact authentically about writing without any input or suggestion from me, watching them meet their word count goals, and in many cases, surpass them. Reading my students’ stories, uploading the covers they designed themselves, sending the books off to be published.
But probably the most validating moment was in the main office of my school (shoutout to my school secretaries who knew how excited I was and helped me watch for the UPS truck!), when I sliced open that box from Blurb and saw, for the first time, the real and physical impact of what I started a over a year before with an after-school conversation in my principal’s office. Needless to say, I cried. And I excitedly showed them off to any of my coworkers who had the misfortune of strolling through the office at that moment. And then I took them all home and cried some more.
I didn’t cry when I handed out the novels to the kids- I was nervous, actually. I had done my best with editing and formatting, but I am not a book publisher and I’d literally never done this before, so I was worried they would be disappointed by typos or slightly blurry covers or awkward page breaks. If they were, I never heard or saw those things. They were too busy showing their books off to all their friends, passing them around and comparing and reading.
I wasn’t quite done with the waterworks just yet, though. My super-supportive district was kind enough to put together a video about our project, interviewing me and some of the students who participated. We were interviewed one at a time, so I didn’t get to hear the students’ responses until the video was published on our district Facebook page. It was the end of an incredibly long week, one of those weeks where everything seems to go wrong and random student issues abound and I wasn’t sure if Friday would ever arrive. And then Thursday night the video was posted and I saw, once again, the impact of what I started, and I cried. A lot.
In a separate post, I’ll walk through the cut-and-dry of how I set everything up and how other teachers can emulate this project with their own students. I’ll lay out the timeline and spell out the specifics. But I wanted to take some time, first, to memorialize this project; mostly for myself, so that in approximately 6-7 months when I’m wondering why the hell I signed up to do this crazy thing all over again, I can revisit this and remember how much this changed me and my teaching. It was one of those truly magical once-in-a-lifetime experiences. I can’t wait to continue to share NaNoWriMo with other teachers, and I hope others are inspired to take risks and build the experience for their own students who have a story inside them, just waiting to come out.
Til next time,