THE HEART OF OUR READING CLASSROOM
Our classroom library is the heart of our middle school reading classroom. It’s the space that my students immediately gravitate toward the first few days of school, the area that somehow attracts the notice of students I don’t even have in class, and the place that brings us all together as a community of readers.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: If you bring the books, the readers will come. When you take the time to curate a classroom library that gives students immediate access to high-interest books and invest your energy in building a community of readers, your students won’t be able to resist the books in your classroom. Some will come around sooner than others, but it is possible to get all of your students reading. Better yet, you can help your students enjoy reading, too.
It all starts with access to books. In other words, it begins with a strong classroom library that sends the message “We read in this classroom” and shows students that books are right there, ready to be read. We know classroom libraries are pivotal, transformative, and necessary. We crave a class full of readers on their way to a lifelong journey, but sometimes we don’t know where to begin.
MY JOURNEY: FROM 11TH TO 7TH
I’ve been there. When I accepted a job teaching 7th grade after 6 years in high school, I was overwhelmed with the daunting task of starting a new classroom library from scratch. I had kept a small classroom library as a high school teacher, but it was unorganized and underutilized. Unfortunately, I did not do much to foster a love for reading, and I regretted that. I saw middle school as a fresh start and a new chance to cultivate a community of readers. While I was eager to get started, I was terrified of the very empty shelves sitting in my new 7th grade classroom.
How would I ever fill them? What books did 7th graders enjoy? How would I organize everything? Where would I find the books? How quickly could I build my collection? What kind of checkout system should I use? And how would I keep up with it all?
WHAT I’VE LEARNED ALONG THE WAY
Over the years, I’ve gradually found the answers to these questions. I’m finally at the point where I’m truly proud of my classroom library. It’s well-stocked, purposefully designed, and reader-friendly. And yet it’s still a work in progress, and it always will be as I search for new ways to serve my readers.
I’m no expert, but I’ve learned a LOT along the way. Today, I’m sharing it with all of you. Here are some of the most common questions I’m asked online (and in real life) about my classroom library. This will be the first post in a series, so if you don’t see your burning question answered, drop it in the comments so I can address it in a future post. 🙂
Let’s get started: Here is everything you need to know about my classroom library, whether you are starting your own from scratch or looking to revilatize your library.
WHY DO YOU NEED A CLASSROOM LIBRARY WHEN YOU HAVE A SCHOOL LIBRARY?
Valid question! If we want our students to read and actually enjoy it, books should be as accessible as possible. School and public libraries are invaluable resources, but we need books to be at our readers’ fingertips. Books need to accessible, inviting, appealing, and right there. After all, our students cannot read books that are not right in front of them. But when the right books are on the shelves, right over there, students will gravitate toward them, and they will read them. Again, this will be lightning fast for some, and a slow, hesistant comearound for others. But growth will happen with books, choice, and time. Here’s what having this kind of fingertip book access looks like in the reading classroom:
Not sure what to read? Here are a few books you might enjoy. Finished reading your book? Great, go ahead and grab the sequel from the shelves! Don’t like the book you’re currently reading? It’s okay, you can abandon it and look for a better fit. You loved that book? Oh, yes! Come check out these other books on the shelves…you’ll love them too! Almost done with your current read? Get excited, because the next book on your to-read list is right here waiting for you! Whoops, you forgot your independent reading book? Grab a replacement book today, and remember to bring your current read tomorrow!
Sure, you can plan regular visits to the school library–and you should. But nothing can replace a well-stocked classroom library full of enticing, high-interest books just waiting to be read. And if you don’t believe me, believe the research. Studies have shown that students with access to classroom libraries read anywhere from 50-60% more than their peers. NCTE’s statement on classroom libraries fiercely asserts the need for this kind of book access, outlining a host of benefits: “[Classroom libraries] have the potential to increase student motivation, engagement, and achievement and help students become critical thinkers, analytical readers, and informed citizens.”
HOW DO YOU FIND AFFORDABLE BOOKS TO BUILD YOUR CLASSROOM LIBRARY?
You’re asking the right person because I am incredibly thrifty when it comes to finding books for my classroom library! I rarely buy brand-new or full-price books. (The exception is if I know a book will have massive appeal or will fill a gap in my library, especially when it comes to representation). I usually find that if I’m patient, I’ll eventually find the books I’m looking for one way or another. Here are my favorite ways to buy books on a budget:
- Local used bookstores
- Book Outlet
- Thriftbooks (Get verified for their teacher program to get a free used book every time you purchase four or more books at a time).
- Discover Books, Second Sale, and other used bookstores online (Just google “Buy [title] book” and see what pops up)
- 2nd & Charles (Bring your teacher ID for a discount and wait for their BOGO sales to maximize your savings)
- Half-Priced Books (Sign up for their teacher discount card)
- Goodwill & other thrift stores
- Library sales (Look on your local library’s website and/or ask a librarian the next time you’re in)
- Donations from family & friends (Ask if anyone has any used books they no longer need!)
Honestly, I’ve lucked out the most with local bookstores that I’ve stumbled upon, so I HIGHLY recommend Googling bookstores near you and asking around. You never know what hidden gems are nearby!
Here are a few other places I’ve heard about but haven’t personally tried yet.
- Donors Choose
- First Book Marketplace
- Book Love Foundation grants
- Pango Books
- Better World Books
- Outlets: Half Priced Books, Goodwill, Scholastic, etc.
HOW DO YOU FINANCE YOUR CLASSROOM LIBRARY?
Like I mentioned above, I am as thrifty as possible, because I want my money to stretch as far as possible. I get a small stipend at the beginning of each school year, and I spend it all on books. The rest I purchase with my own money. I’ll be the first to admit that it does add up. However, I have pretty much stopped buying anything else for my classroom. I used to spend a decent chunk of money on decorations, flexible seating, and supplies, but I’ve realized that spending my money on books makes the biggest impact on my students. My students don’t care if I have the latest trending bulletin boarders or cutesy dollar spot trinkets, but they do care that I have high-interest, accessible books.
I’d also like to note that I’ve built my classroom library slowly but surely. I did NOT have a robust collection when I first moved down to middle school and had to start over in the world of middle grade lit. In fact, I had a pretty tiny library (just 2 shelves) my first few months of teaching 7th, but it still worked! It also forced students to learn to use their resources and access books through our school library and the public library. During this time, I relied heavily on the school and public libraries. I helped all of my students sign up for free digital library cards so they could borrow ebooks and audiobooks for free through Overdrive & Libby.
HOW DO YOU ORGANIZE YOUR CLASSROOM LIBRARY?
Over the years, I’ve worked on the accessibility, organization, and appeal of my classroom library. The most helpful structural change I’ve made is organizing by books by genre. For example, I have labeled shelves for the following genres/formats:
- Graphic novels
- Novels in verse
- Realistic fiction
- Historical fiction
- Science Fiction
“Genre-fying” my classroom library has made a world of difference for my readers, who are beginning to discover their favorite genres and series. It also works out seamlessly with my genre-based book brochures, an important part of my book recommendation system. Each brochure features a fun reader personality quiz. Based on students’ answers, the brochure recommends a book tailored to their interests. To help students, all I have to do is ask “What genre/s are you in the mood to read?” Then I can hand them a brochure and point them in the direction of that section in our library.
Organizing by genre has worked so well that it actually worked TOO well. Students gravitated towards the specialized genres and often forgot about the giant realistic fiction section, which was basically every other shelf. To remedy this, I added some topic-based book bins at the beginning of this year. For example, I gathered great sports books, thrilling survival stories, books under 250 pages, etc. So far, this has worked really well. Just like the genre organization complements my book brochures, my topic organization complements my new topic-based book rec posters.
WHAT KIND OF BOOK CHECKOUT SYSTEM DO YOU USE?
I use Booksource, a free classroom library management tool. It has been a game-changer in our classroom library. With Booksource, all you can scan in all of your books (on your phone) and students can check them online online with their user-friendly system. Booksource also generates helpful data, like a Diversity Audit that tracks how inclusive your collection is, and a Reading Level Audit that shows if you have enough books below, at, and beyond students’ reading levels. You can also run reports to keep track of checkouts and returns, as well as see individualized student checkout history. You can read all about how to use Booksource HERE.
HOW DO YOU PREVENT STUDENTS FROM TAKING BOOKS, EVEN WITH A SYSTEM?
I’m afraid that this is one of those questions that will never have a perfect answer, no matter what system you use. There’s always the possibility that students will walk off with a book. However, I do think that with a strong system, teacher supervision, frequent reminders, and visual cues, you can minimize these kinds of situations. For example, I do the following:
- Provide links and instructions for using Booksource in an easily accessible part of our Google Classroom page
- Keep “How to Checkout” & “How to Return” posters right next our classroom library and book return bin
- Frequently remind students to use the online checkout system when I see them grab a new book from the shelves (and then again when I see them return books)
- Monitor book checkouts with Booksource’s reports and scan bookshelves frequently to make sure books are accounted for.
- Check in with and closely supervise students who forget to checkout/return books and work with them to make a plan
HAVE YOU READ ALL OF THE BOOKS IN YOUR CLASSROOM LIBRARY?
Absolutely not! While I’m a voracious reader, there’s no possible way for me to do this. (I have hundreds of books!) If I attempted to read every book before adding it to my classroom library, I would be drastically limiting the books I offer to my students. However, because I teach middle school, I do check up on any books I’m adding that I haven’t read myself. All it takes is a little bit of searching to find out if it’s something I feel comfortable adding to my library. More on that in the next question!
DO YOU MIX YOUR MIDDLE GRADE & YOUNG ADULT TITLES, OR DO YOU KEEP THEM SEPARATE?
Ah, the STRUGGLE! I totally mix my titles (*for the most part). Here’s why: As a middle school teacher, my students are caught right in between “middle grade” books (ages 8-12) and “young adult” literature (ages 12-18, but also often defined as grades 9-12). Most of my students are 12 at the beginning of the year, so they’re right in that awkward zone of genres. It’s almost comical, the way these literature labels mirror the awkward, in-between world that is middle school. Some of my students come to me on a strict diet that consists solely of Diary of A Wimpy Kid, while others show up ready to devour Shusterman’s 1,500+ pages Scythe trilogy. But the vast majority of my readers are right “in between,” content to hop back and forth between middle grade and young adult titles. And if there’s anything I’ve learned about middle schoolers, it’s this: Some days they want to be kids, and some days they want to be teenagers. The books we offer our young readers can make this possible.
*I said for the most part, because I do have to make some decisions on which book are appropriate for my classroom library. But more on that in the two answers that follow.
HOW DO YOU KNOW IF BOOKS ARE APPROPRIATE? WHAT’S YOUR VETTING PROCESS?
Before I answer this, I want to acknowledge that this is a challenging question, and there’s no right answer, process, or standard for books. The definition of “appropriate” varies wildly depending on the educator, community, and context. What’s “appropriate” for one reader may be totally “appropriate” for another (considering both reading and maturity levels). It’s challenging to rule any books out, and it’s one of my least favorite parts of my job. I want kids to read what they want to read, and I don’t want to stop them!
But at the end of the day, I still teach 12-year-olds, and I want to respect parent boundaries when it comes to reading. I freely add middle grade titles, as those are specifically written for my age group/younger, but I always research the young adult titles I add to our collection. I don’t have rigid guidelines for vetting books, but I usually consult one or more of the following resources:
- Common Sense Media
- Publisher age ratings
- AR Book Finder (reading level and interest level)
- Other websites, reviews, summaries, or blogs
- Our school library (If it’s in our school library, I feel comfortable adding it to our classroom collection).
If it’s rated for my age group on one of the following resources, I usually feel comfortable adding it, knowing I could back up my decision more easily. If it’s not, I may read the book myself if I have time/the desire to do so, or I’ll add it to my “parent permission” shelf. More on that below!
HOW DOES YOUR PARENT PERMISSION SHELF WORK?
Any YA book that I do not feel comfortable shelving in my general classroom library goes on the “parent permission” shelf. Usually, these are books with excessive language, references to drugs, and any depiction of sex. Again, if I were still teaching high school, these YA books would be fair game, but as a middle school teacher, I’d rather let a parent make that choice. So that’s exactly what I do: Anytime a reader expresses interest in reading a book on the parent permission shelf, I email home with a quick note and usually a link to the book/an age rating from Common Sense Media or the publisher.
Fun fact: I’ve NEVER had a parent object to one of these emails. Usually, they’re just so thrilled that their child is excited to read a book (and also probably appreciative that I reached out). I highly recommend taking this approach, rather than ruling out “mature” books completely. 🙂
I HOPE THIS CLASSROOM LIBRARY FAQ WAS HELPFUL!
Still reading? You’re my kind of teacher friend. It sounds like you are totally committed to creating a strong classroom library and community of readers. If you’re looking to learn more, you’re in the right place. 🙂 Please let me know if you have any lingering questions via the comments or a DM on Instagram, because there will be a part 2 to this post.
IF YOU LIKED THIS POST, CHECK OUT THE FOLLOWING:
- How to Give Students Better Book Recommendations
- 5 Ways to Help Students Fall in Love With Reading
- 5 Ways to Use Overdrive (& Help Your Students Read More)
- 10 Reasons to Try First Chapter Friday
- Book Trailer Tuesday: How to hook students on books in 3 minutes!
- Book Recommendation Brochures: FAQ
- 10 Ways to Use Book Recommendation Posters in the ELA Classroom