Each year, for the last ten years or so, a “tornado of books” has hit my room sometime in the first two weeks of school. It is pure craziness; books fly off the bookshelves in my classroom, and land in jumbled piles throughout the room. Ironically, the “tornadoes” tend to happen right before my students get to school, or right before they come back from specials.
When my students walk in the room, you can hear cries of “What happened?” and other surprised exclamations. When I tell them the darnedest thing happened while they were out of the room, they are a little bit skeptical. I share that a wind gust, or tornado, must have blown through our room, and the books are now in shambles. (Ironically, this year, hurricane force winds actually did pound our city, and caused us to lose electricity for several days the week before our book “tornado”.) After we laugh about the absurdity of all this, our real work begins.
Learning from How Students Organize Books
I start by asking them if they have felt frustrated the first few weeks of school as they’ve tried to locate books to read in our classroom library (up until this point, books were all on the shelves, spine out, or in piles on the shelves). Many students strongly agree that this has been the case. We talk about what we can do to make our classroom library more user-friendly for them. Almost always, I have at least one student who suggests organizing the books by genre.
This is a great jumping-off spot for this lesson, so I send them to all the different piles of books in the room, and ask them to start looking at what types of books are in their “tornado” pile. The conversation in the room begins to get quite spirited, as the students discover books in series, books by the same author, and different genres of books. We come back together to report what they’ve discovered, and start charting all the different possibilities for organizing our books.
After we come up with categories for our books, the actual sorting and gathering begins. If the busy hum of the room was a trifle loud before, the energy now makes the noise a mild roar. But the quality of the conversations about books far outweighs the noise factor. Students start to walk around the room, gathering books from a certain genre, or books by a certain author, or books that belong to a certain series. The excitement builds as they complete the initial sifting and gathering, and start to realize how many more categories we can create. I stand by the chart paper, adding to the original list when someone comes back to me to suggest a new category of books.
This continues until all the books find a home. For most books, that might be the shelf where books that didn’t “fit” a category, and we called it general fiction. When all books are in a tub, or on a bookshelf, the students then decorate an index card that explains what might be found in each area.
Why I Have a “Tornado” Every Year
Every year, I think to myself how much easier life would be if I would just organize the tubs of books myself, in the summer, before I even know who might be in my class. But for me, there is one compelling reason to continue organizing our classroom library in this manner — student ownership. There have never been two years where different groupsof students categorized the books in the same way. The organizational tubs they come up with are never the same; each group sees the books in their own, unique way.
The other positive thing that comes out of the “tornado” is the exposure all students have to so many books. As they are looking at, categorizing, and gathering books together, there are a lot of “hands on” opportunities with books they might not otherwise have seen. During the initial discovery phase of the “tornado”, students have clipboards with a piece of paper titled, “Books I Want to Read”. As they discover new and interesting books, they add the titles to their list.
Though I do this activity at the beginning of the year, it also works very well at other times of the year. For the last two years, in my role as CST (curricular support teacher), I would go into classrooms to help with literacy instruction. One teacher had seen me go through this activity with my own students, and decided with my help she would like to try it with her second graders. This happened in mid-October. Another teacher heard about how successful the second grade experience was, and asked me to come in January. Another success!! Whether the “tornado” took place in September, October, or January, students in all these classrooms gained ownership of the organization of the books in the classroom, which in turn made them much more aware of how to be successful at finding books they wanted to read. Isn’t the choice of good books one of the cornerstones of good literacy instruction?