Reading choice matters because it shapes who you are.
Choices are as much a part of reading as breathing is a part of life.
I think Mrs. Rush has the superpower of making people want to read.
These statements all came from reflections my eighth graders wrote at the end of the school year. The last one makes me chuckle. I definitely do not have superpowers. What I do have, which makes comments like these possible, is an extensive classroom library.
Although it does not take superpowers to make my classroom library effective in getting students to read, the way I select, organize, and share books in my classroom library is very intentional.
Building my current library has taken me all of the 16 years I have been teaching. To acquire books, I have spent my own money, volunteered my time at Scholastic Warehouse sales in return for book vouchers, requested books and bookstore gift cards from family and friends as holiday gifts, and even borrowed from the public library. When it comes to getting books for my classroom, where there is a will, there is a way.
Despite my creativity, the main source of funding for my classroom library is my own pocket. I try to be very careful about what I purchase. I want each purchase to be a book that is sure to make its way into the hands of students. Nobody likes a dud.
I often purchase the latest books by authors I know have written high-quality, well-loved books in the past. Books by Laurie Halse Anderson, Jason Reynolds, Neal Shusterman, and Jenny Han are sure to be hits. I can add books by authors I know to my classroom library with confidence.
When an author is new to me, I have to rely on the word of others. So, I pay attention to book buzz on social media. If a book has gotten attention from multiple educators, it is usually worth checking out. I almost always use Amazon.com as my go-to database when I want further information about a title. From that one site, I can get a lot of information: the age range the book targets, the date of publication and release, what professional organizations have to say about the book (such as Kirkus, the American Library Association, School Library Journal, and Booklist), and what readers have to say about the book.
When I look at the reader reviews, I keep a few things in mind. I am interested in the overall number of reviews because that gives me an indication of the book’s popularity. I am also curious not so much about the percentage of good reviews and bad reviews but rather about what readers believed to be the book’s strengths and weaknesses. Reading that a plot is slow is almost always a deal breaker for me. Nothing causes a middle school reader to abandon a book more often than the pace of the story. However, finding that a reader did not like a book because of his own personal tastes in zombie stories as opposed to alien stories is not a deterrent for me.
A final consideration in selecting books for my classroom library is always the readers I have in front of me. Often, I don’t keep up with buying the latest book in a series until I have a student who is itching to read it. I am also always on the lookout for books that fill the gaps in my library—gaps that are made apparent to me when I have readers slipping into them. One year, I purchased Stetson by S. L. Rottman in hopes of reaching a student who was a budding car mechanic. Another year, I purchased Playground by 50 Cent to hand to a student with a tough exterior I was sure was hiding the soul of a poet (or rap artist). Recently, I purchased Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin to hand to a student who confided he was transgender. This is one of the ways I ensure diversity amongst the books on my shelf. If I tailor my library to suit the needs of the diverse students I teach, I will surely have an inclusive collection.
Over the years, I have tried many systems for organizing my classroom library. One thing I have learned is that there is not a wrong way to do it. I have never tried a new organizational system only to find that it completely shut down all possibility of students reading.
However, I found that organizing my books by genre didn’t work as well for me as my current system. The biggest challenge I faced is that so many books fit into multiple categories. Instead, I organize the fiction section of my library by the author’s last name. All of the books with an author whose last name begins with A are in one section. Within that section, the As are all mixed around. I do not have the time or energy to worry about alphabetizing further than by the first letter of the last name.
I have separate sections in my library for classic books, short story anthologies, nonfiction (which I do divide by general topic: history, stories of people, animals, self-help, etc.), poetry, and graphic novels.
A few years ago, I began using the free Booksource Classroom Library Organizer as a checkout system. I purchased a barcode scanner that connects to my computer through the USB port to make it really easy, but the system can work with a camera to scan or even by typing in the ISBN of each book. Once all of my books were in the system (a project that was well worth it), all I had to do was enter students and begin checking out books.
Last year, I began appointing classroom librarians to help me manage the checkout system. Students indicated their interest in the job by writing it down on an index card after I’d explained it. I was delighted when multiple students expressed interest. Classroom librarians got a second, more in-depth training in the system, including learning to find my login information in case the system was logged out (a separate password is needed to access the teacher part of the system, so sharing the login is safe). I showed the librarians some basic troubleshooting tricks, and they were capable of helping support students who had difficulty so that I could confer with readers uninterrupted during reading workshop. Every six weeks or so, I also gave the librarians a printed report of who had what checked out. They were lifesavers when it came to tracking down unreturned books.
On the first day of school, students inevitably walk into my room asking if they can start checking out books. I start the year ready with a classroom library permission slip. I borrowed words from Kelly Gallagher’s letter, found in his book Reading Reasons, and the letter to parents Penny Kittle shares on her website. The idea of the letter is to make parents aware of the reading expectations in my classroom and to invite them to partner with me in monitoring what their kids are reading. I teach students whose reading levels range from elementary school to beyond college. Although the range of books in my classroom meets the need of all students, not every book is appropriate for every student. I do my best to match students with books appropriately, but I urge parents to let me know any preferences they might have before allowing a student to check a book out from my library.
I start class daily with a book talk to share titles with students. They are expected to have their notebooks opened to the very last page, where they house their To Be Read—TBR—lists. If a book is of interest to them, they simply record the title and author, which are the two pieces of information they will need to track down the book in our classroom library, or elsewhere, in the future. Projecting an image of the cover makes recording titles and authors easier.
Whenever I do a book talk, I make an effort to mention anything that might be controversial about the book. In my experience, middle school students know what they are comfortable reading and what their parents would be comfortable with them reading. I tell students that I expect them to make wise decisions and that it is always okay to self-censor—to stop reading a book that makes them uncomfortable for any reason. If there are romantic scenes in a book, I mention it. If there is strong language, I warn students. Because I am real with students, I believe I have fewer issues with content that could be considered controversial, which gives me the freedom to have a more diverse and inclusive collection.
Having a classroom library filled with books that allow my students to see themselves and see others inside the pages is the best way I know to shape them as readers and as people.
Perhaps sharing a well-managed classroom library should be considered a superpower.