Classroom Libraries: Sources of Instruction and Inspiration

“A good library will never be too neat or too dusty because somebody will always be in it taking books off the shelves and staying up late reading them.” -Lemony Snicket

“To build a library is to create a life. It’s never just a random collection of books.”-Carlos Maria Dominguez

There is something beautiful about a classroom library, especially if it is well-used. Books are meticulously stacked with the best of intentions, but once students begin browsing the contents of the shelves, everything is moved out of place. I don’t mind because this is a tell-tale sign of the traffic my classroom library receives.  Anyone who comes into my classroom, into anyone’s classroom, can tell if students are using the library, and how often.  Neat rows and dust particles tell the stories; we don’t have to.

I always consult my library for mentor texts, the examples of great writing I want students to utilize as they develop their own writing craft and unique writing voice. When reading a book that I may add to my classroom library, I not only consider interest level, but also the paragraphs and passages that students could use as guides to inform their writing, to strengthen their developing abilities.  If I want students to fall in love with reading and develop great writing skills, my library must be filled with exceptional books.  

My classroom library is more than a showpiece. It is more than an accessory or an afterthought, more than a simple system of borrow and return.  My library is an anchor of instruction because it builds reference and context for conversation with students and other teachers.  It is a major source for book talks, reading suggestions, and mentor texts. Additionally, it is always askew, and each afternoon, in the quietude of my classroom, I straighten rows and reshelve books if necessary.  My library is personal because I have built it myself; I have identified (and continue to identify) books that I know will weave their way into the hearts of kids.  If I am responsible for cultivating the minds of my students, I have to build and cultivate a powerful classroom library and be knowledgeable of its contents.  When we know, and I mean really know, the books in our libraries, we have the power to transform student attitudes, a realization I came to last year.   

It is not pretense when I say that last school year was one of the most challenging of my career.  The students were apathetic and frustrating, and my greatest attempts to educate were fought against with an almost impregnable force.  At the start of the fourth nine weeks, I decided to give a reading and writing workshop a try; the results were phenomenal.  I spent hours curating my classroom library, and although many books were eliminated, I kept the ones that would have the most influence in students’ reading lives. Large gaps were left on the shelves, but I wasn’t curating my library to please an aesthetic; I knew time would close the gaps.  I took an assessment of the genres represented by the stacks of books on the countertops and floor and spent an entire afternoon reshelving the books and adding genre labels to each row.  The following day, students noticed the bookshelf first, and I gave them time to browse and select books if they wanted something other than the books they had gotten from the school library.  I worked like a fiend to add new books because this library meant something to me.  I had read Nancie Atwell’s In The Middle and Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer, and their seminal writings confirmed what I knew to be true about the power of student reading choices, as well as the paramount importance of a voluminous classroom library. Personally, I wanted the books of the library to comprise the preponderance of mentor texts I used for instruction.  I wanted students to see that conversations about character, plot, literary devices, and writing style were relevant to young adult fiction, the books that would appeal to their developing readership. We teach students to see literary conversation in limited contexts because we often discuss it when we are textbook-ing novels.  I wanted students to see that the literary conversations were transferrable, and the conversations they had about timeless characters, such as Guy Montag and Clarisse, in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 could be transferred to Ryan Dean West of Winger, Andrew Smith’s beautiful coming-of-age novel. The conversations about plot in Shakespeare’s masterpiece, Hamlet, could be transferred to conversations about plot in I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson. As I added to my classroom library, I kept in mind the conversations I would have with students to demonstrate how conversations about books can continue beyond the boundaries many English teachers create.

The day I introduced the reading and writing workshop approach, I talked with students about the power of reading, and how I was certain they would discover a love for books they did not know existed.  I drew their attention to the recently-curated bookshelf, and pointed out the different genres available in the library, as well as recent additions.  In my lesson plans, I reserved time for weekly book talks, and I made sure the books I chose to advertise were well-written and diverse. My students didn’t quite know what to make of the workshop approach at first, but after a week, they fell in love with the routine, and when asked to discuss their books, they had an unlimited supply of conversation. Between classes, students would congregate at the bookshelf to browse and recommend, and the number of students around the bookshelf grew.  Even the more reluctant readers were compelled by the atmosphere. Like grown-up readers, exciting conversation about a book sparked their interest, and wait-lists for popular books grew.  My greatest intentions could only reach so far, though.  One student, we’ll call him Logan, found the approach cumbersome, and his caustic comments, which had been brutal over the course of the year, peaked again at the mention of independent reading.

The irony was that independent reading was not a foreign concept to him. He was academically gifted, and I had required him to read challenging texts all year, as well as read one book independently each grading period.  We had studied Hamlet and Fahrenheit 451 intensively, and during class we would discuss the passages they read at home.  The difference, however, was in the expectation: the burden of reading was his responsibility, a stark contrast to the passivity of in-class discussion that many students rely on in school. Logan’s book selections were from the school library where he could find a shorter, simplistic books that were written for developing readers. I didn’t stop him, but I did observe.  The plot lines bored him. There were few ideas to ponder. His body language and facial expressions told the story of his interest in these books. In The Book Whisperer,  Miller mentioned the whispers she looked for in student reading inventories, the stories students were telling or trying to tell with the answers they provided. Logan’s reading inventory gave little information, and I quickly realized that the inventory was a reflection of his limited reading life: he didn’t know what books were out there because he didn’t read. He was so turned off to reading that book talks about some of the most exciting YA fiction were white noise to him. From conversation with him, I knew that the only reading he did was what was expected in class, and considering he was still not a reader after eight years of school, something was amiss.

I kept his reading interest inventory on my desk and would catch glimpses of the section about books and reading. His answer echoed the mini-manifestoes he had uttered in class, and I felt lost in my attempts to guide him to good books and a love of reading.  Maybe I was too late.  I looked again at the books he listed on the inventory as favorites: Night by Elie Wiesel and The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. These books were gritty, truthful, and enlightening in their own right. He had turned down other books by these authors, but the way he wrote about them let me know he had read them. How could I reach him? I decided to do what Hermione, the intellectual hero of The Harry Potter series, habitually suggested: I went to the (classroom) library!

I scanned the shelves, especially the realistic fiction and nonfiction* sections, but nothing “spoke” to me. I spied Neal Shusterman’s Unwind in the dystopian section, and even though neither of Logan’s “favorites” were of that genre, I felt it would be a great choice. It was gritty, ethically challenging, and I felt it had truth to it that he would appreciate. If I handed it to him, I was certain he would flip through it and place it back on the shelf. The following day, I was teaching a mini-lesson on narrative beginnings, and I had already copied the resources I planned to use, but as I looked at the beginning of Unwind, I noticed the masterful beginning, especially Shusterman’s narrative hooks. It might not work, but if I could place the book in his hands as an assignment, he might make a deeper investment.    

I photocopied the first three pages of the book, and after independent reading the next day, I handed the beginning of Unwind to each student. I dreaded handing Logan his page because his facial expression and attitude would deflate the rest of the class. True to form, he looked at the handout with disgust, but I walked to the front of the room to deliver the instructions. In Book Love, Penny Kittle explained how she would ask her students to read a mentor text and mark their noticings, such as interesting words, transitions, sentences structures, and figurative language; then, these would be pulled into group and class conversation. I modeled this activity after her instructions, and after I explained the assignment to the students, I gave them space and time to work. Logan stared at the page for a moment, peered around the room at busy classmates, then sighed and began reading the text. As he read, I noticed that he sat up in his desk, leaning closer to the page in front of him. He underlined and wrote in the margins multiple times. During group discussions, he offered more insight about the beginning than anyone in his group, and when I visited his group to track the progress of their conversation, he asked me if I had a copy of the book. He wanted to read it! I made sure he had the only copy in the classroom library before he left.  When he came into class each day, I could see the amount of reading he had completed at home based on the placement of his bookmark. During his conferences, he managed the conversation; I didn’t have to pull information out of him. It wasn’t long until he asked me for the second book, and before the end of the year, he had read all four books of the series.

A classroom library has the power to transform. It has to be more than a collection of books students can read if they finish their assignments early or if they have spare time. Class time is the best time to read! As I choose texts to illustrate concepts or help students practice skills, I always look to my classroom library for inspiration because I want students to see reading skills come to life beyond the textbook and class sets of books I may provide. I am not against novel studies or textbooks, but I see the bigger value in a classroom library that informs instructional practice. Mentor texts are powerful tools if we use them to their fullest capacity. I wanted students to see how Neal Shusterman began Unwind and to practice writing using his sentence structure, characterization, and dialogue. In the end, I learned a beautiful lesson about mentor texts: they not only enhance writing skills, but they have the potential to engage students as they are seeking good books to read.

We are the ones responsible for cultivating our classroom libraries.  When I walk into a classroom, I immediately look for the library. If it is dusty and neat, I understand the story of reading in that class.  A well-used library is unmistakable. My friend and mentor, Michael Clay Thompson, spoke eloquently in regards to reading and the responsibility of the educator. His books, especially Classics in the Classroom and The Heart of the Mind, have affected my teaching practice, and I continue to use classic literature in my classroom because of his persuasive prose. During one of his presentations I had the privilege of attending, he mentioned the enormous responsibility of teaching, and explained that if his students left his class and did not enjoy reading, he felt as though he had failed. We earn our stripes, he continued, by reaching the most difficult students. His words resonate in my mind constantly. I am the one responsible for building a love of reading in my students. I am the one responsible for giving them access to good books. I am the one responsible.

If not me, then who?

Classroom Bookshelf

*Nonfiction, I am aware, is a broad genre, and within it exist beautiful subgenres that should indeed have their own section in my library.  Unfortunately, the nonfiction section of my classroom library is very small, and as I have worked arduously to collect books of diverse genres, nonfiction seems to be one of the hardest to gather.  Please note that I am working to build a sufficient nonfiction section in my classroom.

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