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Create An Inviting Classroom Library

Apr 26, 2008
When I support a school district with improving reading and motivating middle school students to read, I always interview dozens of students from each grade during my first two visits. I find that middle school students are candid, and these interviews often spotlight students' needs and provide me with the data I need to work with administrators and teachers.

David (pseudonym) was the first seventh grader I interviewed on my first day at his school. When I asked him how I could help improve his reading, he blurted: "Give me words. Oh, yeah," David added, "and stuff I can read." Indeed, when I reviewed David's standardized testing and the Independent Reading Inventories teachers had administered in the past, David and too many other students at this school had weak vocabularies and were so far behind their grade level that they weren't able to read the grade level anthology in language arts classes and the textbooks in science and social studies.

Outside of school David read "some comics," but not books or magazines. "Man, I don't touch those," he told me.

The language arts classrooms in David's school had no libraries. Moreover, the school's library was inadequate and manned by parent volunteers who were not there all the time and who lacked the training and authority to order books and magazines. Readers like David, who needed access to books to practice reading to enlarge their vocabularies and background knowledge, lost reading ground each year. The first initiative teachers, parents, and administrators rallied around was to raise money for rich and varied classrooms libraries. I helped them understand that immediate access to books, magazines, and graphic novels at a wide range of reading levels in a classroom library would enable students to choose books that interested them, books they could connect to and enjoy (Cunningham & Allington, 2003). Immediate access to materials they could and wanted to read would provide the practice reading students needed to become better readers.

It's wrong to assume that books and other reading materials are available to all children in the United States. Moreover, differences in access to books cause gaps in reading achievement. Now let's explore ways to make the classroom library not an "add on" to curriculum or a luxury item for independent reading but an embedded literacy strategy, one that promotes independent reading.

Inspire Students to Read With Your Classroom Library

With schools using government approved basal anthologies - one grade level text for all - those learners who need the most reading practice to improve don't have easy access to books. Like Richard Allington, I believe that readers who struggle need to read as much, if not more than proficient readers. That's why I believe that if more schools put classroom libraries at the top of their wish lists, they could make it happen and meet the needs of all students.

A library should be one of the first resources schools buy. I want books to be central, and reading them the heart and soul of every middle school classroom. Books should be the first thing that catches students' attention when they enter a classroom, and they best serve students when they are arranged to "sell" themselves, not unlike how you find them displayed in a good bookstore. I organize and label my books and book shelves by genre because I find that middle school students look first for a favorite genre - and then for a beloved author or one recommended by someone. I separate fiction and nonfiction genres into categories such as realistic fiction, suspense, biography, nature books, and so on. Come up with your own ways of organizing your books that reflect your students' reading interests. Here are the genres I suggest you collect:

Poetry: this includes fiction written in free verse such as Dark Sons by Nikki Grimes, The Taking of Room 114 by Mel Glenn, Witness by Karen Hesse, and Carver by Marilyn Nelson.

Short Texts: short stories, fairy and folk tales, myths and legends such as Kathleen Krull's Lives of Extraordinary Women and Lives of the Athletes, Her Stories by Virginia Hamilton, Heroes and Monsters of Greek Myths by Bernard and Dorothy Evslin, and Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes.

Fiction: realistic, historical, letters, diaries, suspense, fantasy, science fiction, graphic novels and comics. Here are a few books my students rate as topnotch: California Blue by David Klass, Crash by Jerry Spinelli, Miracle's Boys by Jacqueline Woodson, Somewhere in Darkness by Walter Dean Myers. A few all-time favorite authors are Richard Peck, Diana Wynn Jones, Avi, Barbara Cooney, Walter Dean Myers, Gordon Korman, and Jacqueline Woodson.

Nonfiction: informational chapter books and picture books, biography and autobiography, diaries, letters, journals. Black Whiteness: Admiral Bird Alone in the Antarctic by Robert Burleigh, Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez by Kathleen Krull, Confucius: The Golden Rule, and Lincoln: A Photobiography both by Russell Freeman are titles students repeatedly check out. Beloved nonfiction authors are James Cross Giblin, Russell Freedman.

Suspense, Mystery, Horror, Romance, Series, Graphic Novels, Magazines: In addition to the above categories, I also include a section on horror and suspense, romance and "girlie" books (my students' name for these), comics, graphic novels, and magazines. Each year students bring comics and magazines for their peers to check out. I always permit students to choose what they enjoy and find interesting. Through book talks by me and their peers, most students branch out from comics to books. That's why my library contains books by R. L. Stine, Stephen King, Carolyn Cooney, John Bellairs, and Joan Lowry Nixon. Authors of series that are frequently passed from student-to-student are Gordon Korman and Aiden Chambers.

It takes time to build a large and varied classroom library. You can ask your PTA to raise dollars for books, you can apply for grants, and you can order titles from book clubs and use your bonus points to enlarge your library. Make sure that you create appealing displays that shout to students, "Read! Read! Read!"

Keep Book Displays Dynamic
Books in a neat row with spines showing save space, but it's not an ideal display for book-browsing. Here are some strategies for enticing young readers to pick up a book:

Create clear, colorful labels above each section (mysteries, biographies, etc.).

On each shelf, place two to three books with covers facing outward.

Use your entire classroom. Set up displays on window sills, line some up in the chalk tray of your chalkboard, on an extra table, on your desk, or on the top of bookshelves.

Change displays every five to six weeks and take a few minutes of class time to point out each new crop of books that arrives. Pique students' interest by sharing the genre, author, cover photo, and if you have time, read the text on the back or inside cover. Advertise books so they invite students to browse and explore genres and authors that are new for them.

When my students write about their personal reading lives, they give high marks to classroom libraries. Christa Doerwaldt notes, "I love having a library in our classroom! It has books at our reading levels, and it is easier to see what books are there than in a big library." And Alice agrees when she explains that "A library in class really helps me because I have so many books at the tip of my fingers."

Knowing students' interests early in the year can empower you to help them select books that will motivate them to continue to read. Also, negotiate a way to keep track of books that have been checked out. Here's a system that works for me.

Tips for Keeping Track of Library Books

Put your name in each book.

Record each book title in a data base on your computer.

Create a check-out system so students can take books home. I use a notebook where students write their name, the book's title, the date checked out, and date returned. Students can keep books up to a month.

If a student fails to return a book, I work with that student. Most of the time students return books. However, it's wise to accept that there will be some books lost each year that you may have to replace.

Have students shelve returned books.

Since most schools have small to no budgets for classroom libraries, you'll have to be creative to enlarge your collect. Here are some suggestions:

First: Ask parents to donate books they no longer need.
Second: Mine those yard sales and your local good will store.
Third: Ask your parent organization to do some fund raisers to purchase books.
Fourth: Use book clubs and build your library with the bonus points you receive.
Fifth: Visit local business and ask them for contributions to books for classroom libraries.

Make sure that you let your principal know what you plan to do.
About the Author
Differentiating Reading Instruction: How to Teach Reading to Meet the Needs of Each Student, reflects and offers ways to deal with the fact that middle school classes include students reading at a diverse range of instructional levels. To learn more about Robb's books, classroom libraries, recommendations, teaching and parent tips, and more, visit Laura Robb.
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