It may be a mess, but it’s our mess . . .
This is my thought as I look around my first grade classroom. Children are spread out in groups on the floor and sitting at tables surrounded by books. There are books in piles, books in laps, and books spread out so far we have to make paths for walking. This is what happens every year on the day we organize our classroom library, together.
In years past I believed it was my job to sort books, put them in baskets and label them with my best teacher handwriting so the kids would know what books we had and where to put them back. I even found pictures of authors and clip art to add the finishing touch. I spent hours making sure the library was inviting and organized. I knew every book in my classroom and where to put it when I was done. But it always seemed at the end of every day, I was the one putting the books back in the correct places and feeling frustrated with messy book baskets. Didn’t the kids know how much work this was for me?
Then I realized that was the problem. I was doing the work; I had the ownership over the library, not the kids. No wonder they didn’t know where to find the best books or where to return them. This is when I decided to put the library in the kids’ hands and give them ownership. As it turned out, this one decision made a huge difference for my kids and it can for yours too. With a few simple steps (and a little patience), you can give your classroom library back to your students.
First you need to pick an “Organizing Our Classroom Library Day.” I typically set aside time early in the year during our Reading Workshop when most of our work is around establishing good reading habits. As students enter the classroom the first sight they see are piles of books everywhere: on the rugs and on tables in (as far as they can tell) no particular rhyme or reason. They get so excited that they quickly put away their belongings so they can start exploring the books with their friends. Here is the teacher trickery that makes this seemingly overwhelming task doable. Take bins of books that you already had organized by author, theme, or subject matter and just mix them up and spread them out. Leave a few books of the same type in a stack. The kids won’t notice until you ask them to start sorting the books which is the next step.
Sorting and Categorizing
After you have given the kids time to explore the books around the classroom, pair them up and give each partnership a stack of books. This seemingly random stack will have two or three books by the same author, theme or subject so it will be easy for the kids to see patterns of how to sort them. The cool part is that the kids will think they are coming up with these patterns themselves. This is when the magic begins to happen. As the kids start sorting and making piles you may hear, “Look at this funny book!” and “I read these books with my mom!” You will even find that some are doing more reading than sorting; the kids now know what is on the shelves!
Following partner time, you start categorizing as a class. You may say, “Joe and Kelly have a pile of books by Mo Willems, anyone else have any books by Mo Willems?” Of course they do. The partners start bringing their Mo Willems books to Joe and Kelly so they have a comprehensive stack. Soon most books find a home. Sometimes the kids will have their own ideas about where a book fits best that you hadn’t considered, I let them be the decision makers about which basket the book should go in. By making an argument for where a book belongs and why and letting the class vote, the students take on the work.
Once the kids have created their piles of books, the stacks get put in baskets. Each partnership is then given a basket of books, a slip of paper and markers. Their job is to create the labels that will let everyone in the class know what books live in that basket. After the labels are finished, I cover them with strips of packing tape to keep them from folding up or falling off. I then ask all the partners to come to the rug with their baskets. The partners take turns introducing their basket of books to the class and then placing it on the bookshelf so all the kids can see where to find it.
It can be overwhelming to try and tackle the whole classroom library at once. For me, the kids organize the fiction bins first. Nonfiction is organized prior to starting our nonfiction reading and writing units to build excitement for topics. I leave the leveled section of my library alone as it would be too much for the kids to try and level all those books themselves.
Celebrate Their Hard Work
Finally, it is time to celebrate! After getting the kids all excited about the books they have on their shelves, you can’t just move on to the next thing. Give them about 10-15 minutes to investigate the organized book baskets. Now this is the perfect time to practice putting the books back correctly. It is important for the kids to know that if they don’t take the time to put the books back in the correct baskets, they won’t be able to find the books they want when they are looking for them later.
Whew! They did it. By taking extra time to build the library in your classroom, you will foster excitement for reading, expose the kids to a variety of reading material and empower kids to make choices. What a difference you will see in the way your kids interact with the books from that day on. Give it a try and see what happens.