Reflections on a Classroom Library

About 3 years ago now I spent a winter-spring weeding and reorganizing the library in my classroom.  Lots of people have lots of ways to do this — and lots of reasons for what they do.

The first thing I did was to throw/recycle or donate books – relentlessly and without much sentiment. I teach in a school where many children do not have access to their own books so, whenever I could, I gave away books. What I was left with was a collection of material that I would enjoy choosing from, and that is key. If you personally wouldn’t touch the book, your students probably won’t want to touch them either.

Responding to what I felt was a need to level books so that children read within a range of levels and a need to expose students to varieties of genres, I did lots of research and found the system Beth Newingham employed in her own third grade classroom was the best fit for what I intended. I color code baskets so that, even on the most basic levels, students can select and return books without any intervention from me (well, most of the time).  I have red bins designated for any fiction genres and green bins for any non-fiction genres.  I keep a larger browsing crate of poetry.  Within each of the two major categories, fiction and non-fiction, there are sub-genres: for example realistic fiction, historical fiction, informational text.  Sometimes I’ve subdivided those categories further: Science and Nature, Lands and People for example.

Again, the reason for this is to be sure children are exposed to many different genres. Also, it helps me ensure that I have a balance of book genres; my natural tendency is to load up on realistic fiction. It’s been enlightening to see what gaps there are in our library.

The labels for each book are afixed to the book front as is the colored dot designating the book level range.  I tape the label onto the cover with clear mailing tape and have not have any problem with a student picking off the label.

Because the levels in each color range are somewhat broad, I haven’t found any problem with students trying to read books at their frustration level, known by my colleagues as “fake reading”. We “color conference” frequently using Modified Miscues or Fountas Pinnell Benchmarks and students are coached in conferences.  I have found that when the children know there’s an opportunity and an expectation for movement from one color to the next, competition is less of a problem. When I had baskets of books in just one level, that was not always the case.

Children are fairly accurate in replacing the books in the bin. This is a task and responsibility that I expect from each child. Not every book in the room is leveled or labeled; there are opportunities for children to self-select and decide for themselves whether or not a book is a good fit.

Additionally I created a spreadsheet/database for tracking which books are in the library. I keep an alphabetized list (by title) in an index notebook that the children can access in case they are looking for books with more than one copy for a buddy reading or in case they are looking for a particular book title.  My children consult this book often when they are swapping books in and out of book boxes. The list also is useful as every so often we get asked to provide an inventory of the books in classrooms. I can sort the list in several ways: color code, Guided Reading Level, author, genre. This is helpful when replacing or adding to a library.

For more on how my personal journey in organizing a classroom library progressed, check this link. As Beth Newingham states “Every teacher organizes a library in her own way”. This is one that works for me.

And one more thing…..

Yesterday, I made my annual pilgrimage to the Scholastic Warehouse Sale. Armed with a listing of my newly reorganized Leveled Library inventory, I forced myself away from the picture books and materials more suitable to second grade independent readers in order to focus on increasing nonfiction texts.  20 year old buying habits are not easy to break.

Although the sale was not as big of a bargain as I’ve experienced previously (economics?), I still walked away with some nice reads for my third graders — lots of N, O, and P texts — in the nonfiction genres. Sometimes there is a lot of flotsam in the materials Scholastic puts out, and the warehouse sale does involve quite a bit of sifting through, but that being said, getting books at 25 to 50% off list certainly is a big deal when adding to a class library with personal funds.

And I bought myself a book or two for read-alouds.  If you’ve never read Bats At The Beach by Brian Lies, I highly recommend it.  I first discovered this book on NPR’s Weekend Edition with Scot Simon.  Scot was reading this book with Daniel Pinkwater (who doesn’t love Guys In Space?) — it was so engaging that I bought it right off.  And it has been a well-loved read aloud by my students ever since.  Well, on this trip to the warehouse I discovered Brian Lies newest edition, Bats at the Library. Equally enjoyable — and we premiered this book during our read aloud this afternoon!

This morning, we spent more time on the library’s organization.  Under the impression that the students were putting books back in their proper bins, I was shocked to find that over 20 had carelessly been thrown in any available bin.  Regie Routman speaks to us about the gradual release of responsibility — in this instance, I must have not be gradual enough.  So the minilesson I had planned during Literacy Studio turned in to a shared practice of how to put books away.  Will this be the last time? I doubt it.

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.

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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