New Beginnings in a Classroom Library

The calendar may be telling me that we “only” have 36 school days left, but this week we celebrated a new year — at least a new year as far as our classroom library is concerned.  newbaskets The book baskets have been labeled and, when needed there are level reminders on the baskets.

On Monday, we talked as a class about the labels and what that meant as far as replacing books or looking for new texts to enjoy.  The students listened and asked questions and took their role as initiators of the new library very seriously.  During each guided reading group this week, students have been returning all the books that had previously come from the library.  Many of these books were either unlabeled — and therefore not in the database as of yet — or an inappropriate level for the student.

Another part of the process is to get kids picking books at their independent level. First, I created a large wall poster listing all of the levels (color coded). Then, using the last Fountas Pinnell benchmark as a guide, each child got a new book selection bookmark with a colored dot indicating the level of books that should be “just right”.  Students were instructed to pick 3 books from the library using the colored dot as a guide.  They can pick one level up or one level down from the dot.  I dislike putting a number limit on the books being checked out of the library and some time I hope to remove this from the groundrules.  However, for whatever reason, I have quite a few students who hoard books — 10 or more at a time — and I’d like the books to be in circulation for everyone.

Using the guidelines for selecting books from the library proved to be a challenge for the students and an eye-opener for me .  I thought the obvious benefit was going to be in the newly organized library. Little did I realize how much my students needed structure in selecting just-right books!  My students, many of whom are under confident about their reading, gravitated to books that were well below what they should be reading in order to grow as a reader.  For example, students who should be reading N chapter books (Yellow 4), were begging to reading Yellow 1 or Yellow 2 picture books.  Left to their own, they were selecting materials that would not challenge them to become better readers.  The new guidelines definitely appears to be a benefit of the new leveled library — one that I hadn’t even anticipated.  We are now having conversations about why reading at your level is a good goal and when reading a very easy book might be okay.

So as this project is winding down I can see there have been some real benefit from the work involved.  In addition to organizing the materials, and knowing first-hand what is available in the library, knowing how many of each genre and level will help me to make sensible choices when I purchase new books for the classroom.  The library has been consolidated so that the organization is more transparent and kid-friendly — holy cow, they even are putting the books away in the right bins! And it is becoming less easy to slide by picking books that are too far below the students’ reading levels to challenge them.

Happy new library, Room 207!  Now let’s get reading.

Two Lessons From Master Teachers

Every year we scour our standardized test scores wondering what we can do so that our students look as good on paper as they appear when we are assessing them day-to-day.  I hate that standardized testing, in this case MCAS, is considered the measure for success.  I think of some of my colleagues who took the National Teacher’s Exam — does that test still exist — a grueling all-day summative paper assessment by which prospective teachers were judged to be worthy or unworthy of hiring.  People I admired performed poorly on this test — the single measure used to judge employability.  In the same way, I dislike the high-stakes tests that judge our students and judge our teaching effectiveness. Should one measure be the end-all of whether or not students are learning?

Off of the soapbox now, the topic I’m considering is what magical intersection of ideas and conditions will help my students acquire mathematics?  And that’s what this section of the blog is about.

Once upon a time – at least 15 years ago — I was a participant in a summer course designed by Math Solutions and developed by Marilyn Burns.  Marilyn Burns is not only a master mathematician, but she is a master teacher — and unlike other experts/consultants in education, she puts her money where her mouth is: she actually teaches the lessons using the methods she advocates by volunteering in public schools in her area of California.  Right there she had my respect — no theoretical ivory tower.

One of the presenters said something sage that has stayed with me all these years.  When we are shifting the teaching of mathematics, or any topic for that matter, to a more constructive, meaning-based model, it can take up to 5 years for our students to “get it”.  The presenter, whose name has escaped me, told how her school in Texas had adopted using replacement units for basal math texts — unit based on deepening students’ comprehension of mathematics. And while the test scores (remember them?) were disappointing at first, after several years, there was a delightful, vindicative jump showing that students had not only acquired math concepts, but were now flexible in applying them.

Isn’t that what we h0pe for? The current frenzy of testing and accountability of teachers for what students can and cannot show in a single-shot standardized high-stakes test, doesn’t allow us much time for developing a program in a methodical way.  Lesson #1:  Things take time.

The second lesson was an idea planted in my brain by a brilliant and gifted mathematician, Andrew Chen of Edutron.  I had the privilege of being a student in one of Andrew’s Intensive Immersion Institutes, a mathematics class to strengthen/clarify/stretch mathematical thinking for teachers.  Andrew’s words, that our students are just as bright as their suburban and high-achieving counterparts, were like a breath of fresh air.  Generally urban teachers are told either outright or through insinuation, that they can’t be as good as counterparts in less troubled teaching environments — or the students’ test scores would be higher (how insidious is that!).  Here was an MIT mathematician telling us that our students (and teachers) can achieve much, but sometimes other things (socio-economic ills for example), get in the way.  Lesson #2: Don’t give up on students or yourself.

Both of these ideas have been in the back of my mind as I’ve been working with our Math Resource Teacher and Coach to tweak the third grade teaching resources this year.  As we develop materials that work for our kids, we’ll use this space to document some of the things we’ve learned about teaching mathematics in an urban school system.

Thoughts on Nearing the Finish Line

This week is April School Vacation Week here in Massachusetts — we celebrate Paul Revere’s ride, the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the Marathon, and a Red Sox Home Day Game all on one day. We also have a school vacation.

Why is it that whenever I am on school vacation, I spend about 20% of my time in school catching up? Well, I suppose that’s a discussion for another time.

Today, I used my “20% day” to work on two projects — one is a joint math curriculum project with our Lincoln School Math Resource and Coach, Colleen Turco and the other is the seemingly never-ending classroom library project. Guess which one ate up most of my day — yup, the library project!

I have about 20-25 more biography books left to level and add to the database. Of that 20-25 I am considering adding all but 5 or 6 to the crates of books I am discarding from the library. Not because I dislike the subject of the biography (although some seem a bit uninteresting to me — I know, I know, withhold my own judgements), but because in a perfect world, the biographies and historical fiction and nonfiction books would be a bit more supportive of our Massachusetts History and Social Studies Curriculum. Something to think about before we return to work on Monday, isn’t it?

I’ve also been pretty aggressively recycling the books at the upper end of the leveled library — S, T, U and beyond. Unless the book seems to be a “classic”, or an extraordinary read, it is just going to gather dust. Lucky for those books, they will find a new home I hope as we have some newer teachers in the upper classrooms who probably will appreciate having these levels added to their own classroom library.

This project has been an incredible amount of work, but the books that remain in the library have purpose, are in good condition, and once the children have been taught to do so, should be easily returned to their proper homes.

Next write, there will be pictures! Promise!

Week 4 – Getting Warmer…..

TLabeled and sortedhis week I spent most of a “day off” in school sorting through the books that had been labeled and logged and organizing them into color coded baskets – red for fiction, green for nonfiction, blue for poetry and yellow for special collections.  Using both the small nesting baskets from Really Good Stuff and the stackable medium bins has been a good thing.  And the shelves are beginning to look like something other than the mishmash that had been.  At this point, I have finished the most tedious leveling – those 500+ books that had not been leveled at all – and I am sorting through the baskets in of previously leveld books.  Will need to weed out used and otherwise unattractive books.

I hate the feel of books that have been sitting on the shelf – in the warm sun and near the blowers for the heating system in the classroom.  They feel dusty, the paper pages feel rough and uncomfortable and often the covers are worn or brittle.  These are the books that I’ve been recycling rather aggressively.  Those that belong to the school and were purchased with school funds (Title I, building budget, etc.) are shared with colleagues who need to bulk up their own classroom library or with the Lincoln Lenders.  The later is a collection of books for our students to swap – something that happens about once each month.  Bring a book to trade and get one in return.  It works quite well and more and more children are able to have a book of their own.

A side-activity to the classroom library sorting is that I have been classifying my own teacher collection of trade Author collectionbooks – you know, the books that drive a minilesson or those that are used to jump start a writing lesson.  By freeing up all those cardboard magazine files, I’ve been able to sort my “special” collection by writing topic (narratives, letter writing) and by mini lesson.  I’ve also organized the author collections that have accumulated over the last ten years of my teaching.

The room is starting to feel organized — and I feel as if I’ve got a handle on what books are available to my students.  It is tedious and hard work, but I believe it will be worth it in the end.  If there is an end!

How much is too much?

That’s the question under consideration this week. According to some of the readings out there on the topic, the recommendation is 20 books per student in the library.  For a typical classroom that’s somewhere between 500 and 600 books.  Since I’ve already hit the 500 mark on the database using just books I’ve brought into the classroom — the unleveled books from my former genre library — I’m starting to question how many books are “enough”.

Admittedly, too much of what is left in the class library is from the picture book genre.  And I have lots of lower leveled books brought over from when I taught a lower grade so clearly there needs to be a weeding out. That’s the tough part I think.  Never one to throw out something that might prove useful in the future, it is difficult to decide what books stay and what books go.

Also, the space issue is becoming critical.  The classroom seems jammed with “stuff” these days — where did all this come from?

It is time to take a more critical look at what book levels are in the library and to be ensure that genres are represented. And then possibly the weeding out can begin – again.

Progress midpoint

Two disasters – or near disasters – this week: First, I’ve been updating the Excel database file that I copied onto my school computer (a MAC).  That seems like a reasonable thing to do when adding books that got missed on the first pass through a book box.  I also have been bolding the titles of books as the labels are attached so that I can tell which books have been fully labeled and accounted for and which books might be squirreled away in a student’s desk.  Seems like it should work, right?

Well, wrong.  I am admittedly a PC person – outside of dealing with Macs in the schools in which I work, I don’t use Apple hardware or software.  I don’t remember when I first used Excel, but I’m guessing I’ve been using it since about the first version of it and definitely know my way around the PC version.  What happened to me in using the MAC version is that the save button in the tool tray didn’t actually save the file — you’d think that might be a requirement, but I guess not.  The only way this file was getting actually saved on the MAC was through the dropdown menu. By the time I figured out why  changes and inserted cells/rows were all messed up (my technical term), the entire file was a disaster (sigh).  I believe it’s now been righted — had to compare the PC Excel file on my laptop to a printed hardcopy of the MAC version.  Lesson learned: don’t get too cute by having multiple files going back and forth between operating systems and software versions.

First sort of Fiction Books.

First sort of Fiction Books.

The second glitch this week was in the color coded baskets.  There are WAY too many books — can you believe it — for the baskets I have.  And the small stacking baskets, while just the right size for paperback chapter books, are too small for the picture books unless I turn the basket on the long side.  This means I lose some shelf space and will probably mean the goal of getting books off of the counters in not reasonable.  I’ve noticed that Really Good Stuff has recently begun selling sets of 12 medium-sized baskets all in the same color so there is a solution, but not a cheap one.

I’ve started a preliminary sort of some of the labeled books as you can see from the image at the left.  The decision of which books are in the baskets hasn’t been carved into stone of course, but it seemed like progress was being made when some of the new baskets finally appeared on the bookshelves.  I still need to make labels for the baskets so the students will be able to replace books when making trades.  That will take some planning.

The old cardboard magazine boxes are cluttering up every available surface!

The old cardboard magazine boxes are cluttering up every available surface!

Now, what to do with those cardboard magazine boxes?  They’re too good to throw away (and if you are or live with a teacher you know throwing things away just isn’t something we do).  I’ll need to come to a decision soon as they are starting to take over the table and desk space!

So on the To-Do list for the coming week is to finish labeling the rest of the newly categorized library, solve the basket issue, and, oh yes…. get rid of the clutter before it drives everyone crazy.

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Something I’m learning

With about 400 books that were previously unleveled now identified by genre and reading level, I was feeling pretty good about the progress in the classroom library.  Machine-like, I’ve been able to go through 2 or 3 boxes of books on the white book shelves each morning.  Last night, however, as I was checking on the category for all the math-themed books I used to support our math series, I began to have my doubts.

Within Mary Brown’s website is a category I had been ignoring – picture books.  Reading over how this website defines a picture book gave me that sinking feeling – had I actually categorized much of this library incorrectly?  Were the books I had assigned to other genres really picture books?  If the illustrations are as important as the prose, which of “my” books aren’t picture books?  As Ms. Brown points out, books can fall into more than one genre category.

I have no clear answer here.  For me, at the grade level at which I am teaching, I’d like my readers to grow so that, even with some of the exquisite illustrations found in books (Jan Brett, Trina Schart Hyman, Susan Jeffers, Tomie DePaola, Chris Van Allsburg— too many favorites to name) students are using visualization skills to turn the words in the text to the pictures in their heads. So my executive decision (it’s a classroom’s library after all) is to use the genre identification of Picture Book only when it applies to wordless (or nearly wordless) books.  I’m sure there is some basis in library science to disagree, but this makes sense to me.

So with 400 books now in the database and another 10 baskets of leveled books to sort through, I can report progress is being made – slowly.