Transforming Your Classroom Library

When I began teaching, my classroom library was a smorgasbord of items from the previous teacher, my own childhood book collection, and a number of books I had spent the summer scavenging for.  After unloading all of the books, I reorganized them by genre, slapped genre labels on the edges of the shelves and called it a day. I figured that I loved books enough that through my enthusiasm alone I would inspire students to want to read. How very wrong I was...

For the most part, the library remained untouched my entire first year of teaching (except for my handful of bookworms who were self-motivated).  And the worst part is that I was so overwhelmed by being a first-year teacher (I was teaching 5th-grade science, 6-8th social studies, AND 7th-grade language arts at a small Catholic school) that I wasn't even reading (other than reading for hours on end about the world history, geography, and science concepts that I would be teaching the next day).  For me, there was little time, nor energy, to enjoy a good book.  The only books I read that year were the ones I was teaching to my class and to be honest, I didn't even always finish those. My love of reading felt like something that would forever be left in the past.

It really wasn't until after a co-worker suggested I read Donalyn Miller's The Book Whisperer that I really began to understand that there were very distinct steps that I would need to take to motivate and inspire my students to love reading as much as I do.

1. I really had to make reading a priority in my own life.  If I'm not making time to read, how will I ever truly convince (and have a genuine conversation) with a student about the books they are reading? As teachers, we have to live what we preach and for me, that meant reading EVERY night for at least 20 minutes a night.  Just like I expected my students to do.  At first, the only way I could fit this reading time into my schedule was if I read a book while working out at the gym.  I can't even tell you how many ladies came up to me and told me they were impressed that I could balance reading a book with riding the elliptical at the same time 🤣It took me a few months, but eventually, I was back to finding books that really inspired and captivated me.  I fell back into my bookworm routines of carrying a book with me wherever I went, reading while others were watching T.V., and staying up into the wee hours of the night to finish a book.  It felt so refreshing to be a reader once again and I began feeling more confident that I could suggest good books to my students!

2. I needed to make my classroom library more accessible to my students.  I went out to the dollar store the next summer and stocked up on bins on bins on bins. I now place all of my books with the covers facing out so that students can flip through them more easily.  I still place genre labels on the outside of the book bin so that students can find books based on the genres they prefer.
It certainly isn't a guarantee that they will choose them, but at least it gets them looking.

I also set up a book checkout system in my classroom using Classroom Booksource (which conveniently is free!).  It took me hours upon hours to do, but it seriously is the best way that I have found for students to search for books they want to read and to make sure that students are held accountable for returning my books. To be perfectly honest, I'm not super great about making sure they all get returned, but when a student is looking for a particular book, I at least know who had it last. 

On the spine of each of my books, I label the book with a letter that corresponds with its genre. Below are the genres I use in my library.  If a book is both a mystery novel and a sports novel, I simply use book tape to put both labels on the spine. Get the labels for free at my TPT store!

3. Last but not least, to inspire and motivate my students, I need to be talking up individual books on a daily/weekly basis and then teaching my students how to do this for each other. I need to be an active participant in helping students find books at the library and actively seeking out books that will interest my students.  We really need to become a community of readers.  One way I have done this over the years is to begin reading response journals.  Sometimes this looks like the student and I writing back and forth to each other about a book on a piece of loose-leaf paper or in a reading notebook.  At other points, I have had students write to each other about a book, in a journal, or on a Google doc.  Most frequently, I hold literature circles for students to discuss small chunks of the books they are reading. It doesn't really matter what format it is done, so long as students are engaging in conversations about what they are reading.

When it comes to helping students find books that they will love, I rely heavily on our wonderful public library system. I have my students complete reading surveys at the beginning of each school year and then I compile a list of the topics they have indicated.  From there, I scour the public library's website and put as many books on hold as I possibly can.  It seems like every year I have students with vastly different interests and let's be honest, it doesn't make much financial sense for me to spend a ton of money on dinosaur books for one kiddo who will only be in my classroom for a year.  So instead, I just check out all the dinosaur books I can find and I keep them in a separate "check out" station, renew them as many times as I possibly can (usually up to 12 weeks at our library), and then return them to find new ones! If there is a book that students are all asking about and sharing, THEN I will go out of my way to purchase it.  I know there are many teachers out there who are amazing book bargain hunters and maybe someday I'll become one as well.  But for now, this is what works for my budget and my sanity!