Levelled Library Project

Three years ago I changed grade levels and schools.  As is my habit, I made alterations at a snail’s pace.  I prefer to think that the teachers who come before me, no matter what teaching job I’ve had, may have some insight that I don’t yet possess.

When I moved to the Lincoln School in Lowell, my predecessor, Deb Grimard, was a well-respected and expert teacher and she left me a beautiful classroom library full of engaging books for the third graders that would soon fill that classroom.  Having taught second grade for nearly 15 of the 20 years that I had been teaching at that time, I was not always familiar with literature more appropriate to grade three — besides, I had plenty of new curriculum to learn.

Fast forward 3 years: Now feeling much more comfortable about what it is I need to teach, I decided that this was the year to once and for all become my own “expert” about the books in the classroom library.  The posts that follow are my documentary if you will, of how one third grade teacher got a handle on the resources right under her nose.

–July 2009

Post #1: March 2009

In the Beginning….

I have no clue as to how things got so chaotic. Well, that’s not entirely true…. I think my organizational systems are so complex that the average 9 year-old might just have a tad bit of difficulty deciphering just what that organization is.

Too many lower level books for Grade 3.  The baskets are crammed.
Too many lower level books for Grade 3. The baskets are crammed.

Here is the “ugly”: I have 2 main book areas for the children. The first one is a leveled library of books. Pretty standard stuff, huh. However, having come to Third Grade 3 years ago from second grade (did I mention I taught second grade 15 out of the last 23 years?), I have lots and lots of lower level reading books. Sometimes that is advantageous as I am the classroom teacher in a special education inclusion classroom — there’s quite a range (this year from Level aa to Q/R). Goal #1: I’d like to whittle down the baskets so there’s a one- or two-level range of books to choose from.

I have a lot of books from my very generous predecesor who retired. I am noticing that the age of the books, the amount of wear and tear, sometimes causes “classics” to go unused. Goal #2: Improve the display of the books in the library.

Most of these books are organized by Genre, Author, or some other category.
Most of these books are organized by Genre, Author, or some other category.

Finally, having previously personally purchased (is this a surprise to anyone outside of education?) most of the books in my classroom library for my classroom in another school, (yes indeed — all of those books on the white shelves plus about a third of the ones in the blue leveled baskets) I know I have too many “categories”. All of the books on the white shelves are sorted by “genre” or interest or series. Goal #3: Consolidate the book selections so children can easily locate a just-right book.

Yesterday I encouraged the students to start making suggestions for reorganizing this choas through suggestions made intheir response journal. I got my first feedback this afternoon:

Dear Mrs. Bisson,
You should make a catagory for Jack Prelutsky books. You have too many of them.

Well, S, I will definitely take that under advisement — however, I can’t imagine I’ll ever have too many Jack Prelutsky books 🙂

Post #2: March 6, 2009

Measure Twice, Cut Once…

Thinking about how to organize books for students and figuring out the best way for your classroom is quite a challenge.  Many people are pretty adamant about what should and shouldn’t be done; it makes my head spin sometimes.

I’ve been reading a couple of interesting websites about how other teachers have decided to organize the library. I like this posting from Mandy Gregory

…..I still want my kids reading.  Alot.  Especially in the beginning of the year.

To reach a compromise, where students are reading but not destroying my carefully collected and maintained classroom library, I compromise.

It struck me as those words jumped out from the page.  I must stay mindful of the fact that this reorganization is not about neatening up my classroom.  The overarching goal must be that students find the book area accessible; that the literature in the library is attractive and appealing to them in the hopes that my readers and nonreaders will always find something they can pick up and read.

Mandy Gregory has many ideas for organizing a classroom library (and other management ideas too).  Just reading her marvelous website encourages thoughtfulness.  Another great resource I’m co-opting comes from the Hill School in Troy New York where Ms. Newhouse and Ms. Gordon share a third grade classroom. So much to consider!

So I’m getting ready to make that first cut — and measuring once, twice, maybe even three times.

Post #3:March 9, 2009


What is that expression?…. No good deed goes unpunished.  This morning — March 9, 2009 — I had intended to arrive a bit early in order to start taking stock of the classroom books.  Full of energy and fresh off of a beautiful spring weekend (temperatures in the 60s), I was committed to doing a little each day in the hopes that the reorganization would be ready within the next 4 weeks.

However, what greeted me on this fine Monday morning in New England was a barrage of ice pellets hitting the house followed by a late spring snowstorm…. you know the kind of snow: heavy and wet, clinging to the branches like so much confectionary sugar.  Add to the mix (pardon the expression) is the quaint little tradition of turning the clocks forward for daylight savings.  Meaning – I drove to school in some of the slickest driving of the winter… in the dark.  The commute itself – normally about 10 minutes, took much longer as even the Interstate was snow covered. So much for my plan of doing a little every day.

I have, however, made a list of some of the unleveled books in the classroom genre library.  Tonight, while watching some benign television, I will look these titles up either in Fountas Pinnell or some other database and begin assigning levels to the books.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the range of books in one of my lower level book baskets — fiction and nonfiction titles, plays (!), poetry…. all of these genres are fairly well-represented.  And I even have found some multiple copies of titles — something I can put together in a Buddy Readers’ basket for students who would like to read the same text with a partner.

While the surprise of the snow this morning put a crimp in my well-laid plans and schedule for getting the reorganization of books underway, I suppose I should not be surprised.  New England weather is probably the least obnoxious of the impediments to getting things done in the morning.  There’s always something.

Post #4: March 15, 2009

Finding Databases for Levelling Books

Recording titles and determining genre is a piece of cake next to leveling books, at least that’s what I think.  Last week I generated about 10 pages of titles — all of which need to be leveled.  As my good friend Mickie pointed out — it is a massive amount of work.

My current strategy is to try to locate the book titles in online databases — preferably the databases that are free.  Yes, I know Fountas Pinnell has the Cadillac of levelled book databases and I actually subscribed to it once upon a time.  What I discovered was that, unless I had a significant amount of time to just punch in book titles, I quickly ran through my subscribed visits.

Now I am trying a more economical way to level which of course means I’m relying on someone else’s skill at leveling books. Considering the number of titles that need to be leveled, I’m okay with that — any huge disagreements/discrepancies can be addressed later, if there are any.

With this in mind,  I’ve located 2 databases which are quite helpful, if not as extensive as Fountas Pinnell.  The first, is a database of leveled books available through Beaverton Oregon Public Schools.  This database allows the user to search by title, author, guided reading, reading recovery, etc. While the newest titles in my classroom are not always listed on the database, I’m finding a lot of books that have been in the library a while.

The second database I’ve been using a lot is from Scholastic Books. Since Scholastic has such a large piece of the publishing pie, many titles are included in their database.  The books that are published by Scholastic, but not leveled according to Guided Reading principles at least have a grade equivalency and/or Lexile attached — that will make my own leveling a little easier as there will be at least a ballpark benchmark.

With 10 pages of handwritten notes, it is clear that very quickly the scribbling will get out of control, so some thought needs to be given to a way to keep the book inventory electronically.  Some who have been through this process have made recommendations for online book databases, but as I have mentioned, I am trying to do this project with minimal expenses — and I don’t like having to pay subscription fees to keep records.  There are database programs available through both Appleworks and Microsoft Office.  However, my database requirements will be quite simple — record the title, level, genre and the ability to sort and print.  For this application, I am going to set up a database in an Excel worksheet.

There’s much to consider and do.

Post  #5: March 21, 2009

Plodding On

This week – and most likely next – has been spent in the tedious exercise of listing any book in the classroom that will remain in the students’ library. Coming from a lower grade level, I am amazed at the quantity of books that I have for Reading Levels A-J…. too many in fact. So the issue will become, which to save, and which to “recycle”?

I feel as if, given the circumstance that I most likely will continue to be one of the special education inclusion classrooms, I should hold on to an amount of books at the lower reading levels so that struggling readers can still find a “just right” book. However, the coding system I’ve adopted goes no lower than “J”. There will definitely be a weeding out of many of those books; some I will put up for adoption by the lower elementary teachers who may find them useful, some – the more worn copies – I will donate either to the Lincoln Lenders (a trading library at our school) or give directly to children who do not have books at home. The books I keep will be stored separately unless I need to use them. A set of baskets simply marked “fiction” and “nonfiction” with a purple sticker will mark them.

Using the databases that were mentioned in a previous post and one new one — from a teacher at McCarthy Towne School in Acton, MA — have been helpful in leveling most of the books.  Some books, while not leveled according to Fountas Pinnell, have either an approximate reading level or lexile associated with them.  For those books, I am using a conversion chart.  Here is one from Southern Utah University that is quite extensive (be sure to back up one level to see the other reading resources they’ve collected) and a PDF document from Tassajara Hills Elementary in Danville, California.

Still, after exhausting all of these resources, about 10 percent of the books will need leveling. I know that current thinking encourages teachers to leave  “some” books unleveled.  It’s that unquantified “some” that is bothersome — how much is that? If you are reading this blog, and you have a suggestion, I would welcome it! I am considering taking the easy way out though — if I can’t find the book in either a leveled database or through correlation with lexiles, it just may end up in a browsing basket of unleveled books.

For now, however, I’ll keep working on the seemingly endless task of inventorying, leveling, and adding the books to my Excel database.

Post #6: March 27, 2009

Organization Redux

The lists of books that need to be leveled has been completed!  That would, under normal circumstances be something to celebrate; however, right now things feel pretty overwhelming.

The nightly task of typing a book title into, first Scholastic Book Wizard, and then one or more of the other databases is quite tedious.  Many of the older titles have a vague grade level assigned to them.  The topics seem too good to let go and I am having trouble justifying putting them into a browsing basket of unleveled books.  Face it — I’m just not going to be able to let go of books very readily.

This morning, I began working with a printed copy of the most current book database and started to apply the genre and level stickers to the front covers.  Since the genre library in my classroom is still being used — a disadvantage of taking on a reorganization while school is in session — I had instructed the students to check with me before putting a book box marked with an X (meaning that I’ve listed the books in that particular box).  The students have been very conscientious about this “checking” process which usually leaves me with a pile of books to check on.

Anyway, I’ve firmed up the genre organizations firmly enough that I feel comfortable in creating a batch of 8160 Avery Labels (see previous posting) and this morning I began applying the labels to books.  How cool is that?  First the white genre label is applied, then the colored sticker and finally I put a piece of clear packing tape over the label.  This last step is one that I hope will save me from dealing with stickers that fall off the shiny covers of books.  Once the new label is on the book I check the title off the leveled library printout and replace it in the library.  With the label attached I can be sure that I’ve listed the book in the database — can’t wait to get labels on everything that’s been listed!

The biggest problem I’ve run into is that some of the books in boxes that were marked as being listed, did not show up on the printout.  So either I’ve lost some data — possible but not likely; lost some handwritten sheets before they were input — possible AND likely; or some formatting problem with EXCEL has caused data to be dropped.  Hoping that I can resolve that issue this weekend and get back to making progress.

Post #7: April 2009

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.

Post #8: April 9, 2009

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.

Post #9: April 13, 2009

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!

Post #10: April 21, 2009

Nearing the Finish Line

his 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!

Post #11: April 28, 2009

New Beginnings in our 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.

Post #12: May 21, 2009

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.

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