Organizing Classroom Libraries — One Teacher’s Answers

My job as an English teacher is to empower my students to discover, identify, locate, rediscover, find, and fall in love with the books that speak to their souls and their hearts.

In order to make that happen, I have to have a dynamic classroom library. A year and a half ago, I didn’t have anything on my shelves in my classroom, but because my school, my family, and my colleagues are on board with the vision of robust classroom libraries, my library looks a whole lot better than it did then.

We’ve raided the school book room, collected our main library’s discards, purchased books off of facebook and other “garage” sale type of venues, and we bring back hundreds of pounds of second hand books in our suitcases at every opportunity. (I live in Nicaragua, which complicates the book buying at times.) We spent our entire English department budget on classroom libraries last year, so this fall we felt like kids in a candy store when we were setting up our new classroom libraries.

Each time we are blessed a new influx of books, we have to think about storage, and more importantly, organization. It’s essential that we store and organize our books so that students will be drawn to the shelves and compelled to read new books.

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I haven’t had any experience that tells me that labeling and micro-leveling books is what makes my students want to read. Quite the opposite. What I read also tells me that labels aren’t for public display on the spines of books or on the front of organizational book baskets. They are tools for teachers to use, which may help them with a cursory understanding of texts before they can get to know them better.

My job as an English teacher is to empower my students to discover, identify, locate, rediscover, find, and fall in love with the books that speak to their souls and their hearts.

My experience and observations tell me that organizing my books by general level and genre is what works best for my classroom library. That rotating book displays pique student interest in titles they might not have noticed or cared about in the past. That topic, passion, and enthusiasm can sell a book to a student a whole lot more convincingly than a level or a label can.

My classroom library is split into four basic sections:

  1. middle school fiction
  2. young adult fiction
  3. contemporary fiction
  4. nonfiction

I do this out of necessity: I teach three sections of seventh grade English and two sections of AP Language and Composition. It’s important to have some distinct sections for these students so they at least have a starting place when they browse for books. They do tend to meet each other in the young adult fiction shelves, and there isn’t much that stops them from “shopping” on all of the shelves.

Within those four sections I have subsections, however.

I have grouped some middle school fiction into some general categories: magic/fantasy, mystery/scary, realistic fiction, historical fiction, books in a series, sports, and shorter/easy reads.

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In the young adult fiction section I caved to a student who really wanted a romance section (why not? I thought). I’ve also grouped some of these books into a “books in a series” section, a mystery/horror section, dystopian, and a sci-fi/fantasy section. The section on World War Two shelf was created because I have a number of students who are gravitating towards that topic right now. It’s not comprehensive, and it mixes middle level, young adult, contemporary fiction, and nonfiction, but it is what’s working for my students right now, so it will stay for at least a while.

That’s the whole point. Our classroom library organization is based on what works for my students. It wasn’t prescribed by any “experts” or mandated by anyone outside of my classroom. It’s authentic, preserves student emotions and privacy, and the shelves are open to whomever would like to browse them.

There is a tiny bit of leveling – three levels plus nonfiction, but this leveling is more about maturity and content than text leveling.  It’s certainly not the microlevels of Lexiles, A-Z, or AR that some libraries employ. It’s helpful rather than restrictive.

Because the books are organized into these smaller topic or genre sections, students have a helpful place to start looking that isn’t rigid. I feel like it’s the best of both worlds because it gives students a direction and a guide, but not rules or rails they have to live between.

Simply because of the space and shelves that I have in my room, I’ve added a subgroup of poetry, plays, and picture books section in the nonfiction corner.

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This is a corner that needs some work. As I add titles to my classroom library, I will deliberately look for poetry and drama, as well as relevant picture books to add to these shelves.

While I have these semi-permanent organizational ideas, I also have some rotating book displays.

Right now, my AP Lang class is starting a research project. One of their sources needs to be a book with either endnotes or footnotes, so I’ve collected many of my classroom library books that meet that requirement and put them on display.

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This display changes about every week or so, sometime with deliberate purpose like this one, and other times it’s just whatever comes to mind. Some recent displays have been around the topics of time travel, aviation, The Great Depression, and sports. Anything goes when it comes to displaying a collection of books.

Another way of displaying and organizing books is by what is popular with students, what the teacher is currently reading, and what’s been book talked in the last day or so.

These are all examples of rotating book displays, and they rotate between every other day, and every couple of weeks. It’s a matter of doing what makes sense for the type of display it is, and what the current needs of the classes are.

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So once the books are organized and on display, students actually start to look at them! It’s a miracle, and a wonderful feeling when they get interested and excited when they haven’t been in the past.

At that point, a check out and return system becomes key.

Mine is old-fashioned and easy to navigate. It’s a spiral bound notebook and a pen. Pretty simple.

Just because it’s low-tech doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. Quite the opposite. Students know to check out books and put them in the return basket when they are done. Sometimes they cross out the original entry of their  returned book, but mostly all they have to do is put the book in the return basket and I’ll find their name and cross it off and then re-shelve the book.

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The return basket is right next to the check out notebook and this sign which reminds students that the honor system is what makes this whole thing work.

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The classroom libraries in our hall are open to all of our students, so often students from other classes wander in to my classroom looking for books. The system is the same for them as it is for the students I currently have in my classes. All of the students at our school are our students; all of the students have access to all of our classroom libraries.

If some students have books out for a long time, and we don’t see those students on the regular because they aren’t in our own classes, we rely on each other to ask those students about those titles, which means we often get books returned promptly with that simple system. Our department has a shared google doc and we list the students’ names and titles that are checked out, so we all have that information at our fingertips.

Our organizational and check-out systems are thoughtful and simple, and can be adopted by almost anyone. There may be other better, different, or more complicated ideas and systems out there that work for people, but I wanted to share ours because of its simplicity and effectiveness.

How do you organize your classroom library, and what philosophical beliefs to you hold that are behind these practices? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments.

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for more than twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon,  four in Amman, Jordan, and the most recent school years in Managua, Nicaragua. 

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

Layering Notice and Note Signposts over the Plot Triangle

Teaching seventh grade is both a challenge and a joy. Students are inquisitive, silly, maturing . . . and in the seventh grade. Until last year, I hadn’t taught this grade for about eighteen years, and I wasn’t expecting to. But, life can be unpredictable, and in a strange and wonderful turn of events, I have found myself teaching seventh grade students.

I couldn’t be happier.

Recently, because of some standardized testing they were involved in, the concept of the plot triangle was raised. My students, for the most part, stared at me blankly, not understanding what it was. I realized that the plot triangle is a simple diagram, but can be a difficult concept.

It was really perfect timing because we were starting to read some short stories together as a class, and we needed some common language for when we discuss and write about them.

I created a chart I and posted it on our classroom wall.

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As the students digested the ideas in the plot diagram, I was peppered with eager questions.

Why is the climax so close to the resolution? 

What is the falling action? 

How many events belong in the rising action? 

We talked it through, and students started to feel more comfortable with the ideas, but the next question was one that made me smile. Why does the plot triangle matter?

Fair question. Why? is always a fair question in my classroom, and I had a proud teacher moment.

In trying to explain why the plot triangle matters, I tried to share that a visual representation of a story helps us to understand more deeply.

We made the connection that the fiction signposts also help us to more deeply understand a story. Since we’ve been studying the signposts as we study short stories and narratives, it was a great connection to make.

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So, after class I annotated our wall chart with the fiction signposts. It took some thinking, and I’m hoping I got it right.

I didn’t want to limit anyone’s thinking by suggesting that a signpost might only be found in one part of the story, but I did want to let them know where they might start noticing them.

They started to create plot triangles with some of the stories we had recently read together, and then layering some of the signposts into the plot triangle.

  1. Charles by Shirley Jackson
  2. Thank You, M’am by Langston Hughes
  3. The Medicine Bag by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve
  4. Fourteen by Alice Gerstenberg

Here are some examples of what they did right at first:

My students aren’t done creating their plot triangles, and they aren’t done thinking about how the layering of the plot diagram and the signposts complement one another, but so far their thinking is going in the right direction.

They are asking questions and making connections. They are talking to each other and challenging each others’ thinking. They care more deeply about the stories and the characters they are reading about.

I’ll call it a win.

Update: I had another “aha moment” and asked my husband to help add another layer to the wall chart. What do you think?

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Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon,  four in Amman, Jordan, and the most recent school year in Managua, Nicaragua. 

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

This post was originally published on Three Teachers Talk

Three Ways to Go Public with Your Reading Life

We all know that part of building a community of readers in our classrooms and in our schools requires modeling the behaviors and habits we are trying to promote.

The question for me, though, has been how? How do we model our reading lives at school when we do most of our reading at home, on vacation, or while in the waiting room during our own kids’ orthodontist appointments? Our students certainly don’t have access to those moments, so modeling a healthy reading life can be a challenge.

Of course, we do read at school sometimes. But school is busy, and while our students are reading we are submitting our attendance records, welcoming in the occasional tardy students, and conferring. It’s difficult to model the behavior we want to see in our students because of all of the tasks teachers do.

This past school year, our school tried three different easy strategies for sharing our reading lives and habits with our students. They aren’t revolutionary, new, or difficult, but they worked, and I think they are worth sharing.

  1. We put laminated signs on everyone’s classroom doors. Sticky notes and scraps of paper were used for posting our current titles, and students regularly noticed and commented on different titles throughout the year. 65535402_2081290802172377_7501378884630216704_n2. After finishing our books, we took the sticky notes and scraps of paper and posted them in the secondary office of our school. This is a place where students and teachers are in and out every day, and it was on a highly noticeable wall. This bulletin board was a great place to get “next reads” suggestions, and sparked conversation between students, teachers, and other staff. 65977219_652574388573414_1805783836705947648_n3. Some teachers kept a list posted in their classrooms. I kept mine on my classroom door right next to my current reads sign so that when I changed out the titles, I could easily add it to my list.

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One of the benefits of going public with our reading lives like this is it has motivated me to read through many of the books in my classroom library and in our school library. As I read through my classroom library, I got to know the books better, and I was more deliberate about book talks and about recommending titles to individual students.

While posting titles isn’t exactly the same as modeling the reading behaviors and habits we are trying to instill in our students, it’s close. It’s a visual reminder to our students that we read. It’s a way to show students that we aren’t asking them to do anything we aren’t willing to do ourselves, and it’s a great conversation starter when it comes to building next reads lists and encouraging independent reading habits.

Next year I will use these same strategies, and in addition I might try to get my students involved in the same type of board — a “What are the students reading?” bulletin board in our classroom where students can share titles and recommendations with each other.

How do you model a healthy reading life to your students? I’d love to learn about more strategies and ideas!

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon,  four in Amman, Jordan, and the most recent school year in Managua, Nicaragua. 

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

This post was originally published on Three Teachers Talk.

Developing Common Language between Disciplines

I work with some great people. We are usually on the same page: we all want what’s best for kids, we respect and support each other, and do our best to communicate with each other. Even with all of theses good intentions and practices, we sometimes are reading different words off of the that same page.

Our school has set us up to meet as small groups every week in the form of PLCs. In my 7th grade PLC, we talk about students and curriculum, about days of service and classroom environment. Through these conversations we realized that we ask students to write similar types of texts in many of our disciplines.

While students are asked to write similar types of text, we were all using different language when describing and teaching it. While none of us felt that we needed to use the exact same language all of the time, we realized should at least make it clear to students that these writing tasks are related, and that they should transfer their new skills from one class to the next.

So today we created anchor charts for each of our classrooms. We gained new understanding from one another through the task, and our students will benefit with new clarity and understanding of vocabulary and writing strategies.

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Our group represents four disciplines: electives, science, English, and Spanish. Many of our students speak Spanish as their first language, so between the fact that we have Spanish speakers and students taking Spanish classes, we were sure to include vocabulary not just in English, but also in Spanish.

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Our final product looked like this:

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We feel as though now we teachers, and soon the students, will soon be reading the same words off of the same pages, and we will have common language between our classes. It’s a simple anchor chart to hang in all of our classrooms, but it will be a valuable tool for our young writers.

How do you ensure that your students understand the relationships between writing tasks in different disciplines?

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family have moved across the world to Managua, Nicaragua this year, where a new adventure has begun.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

This post was originally published on Three Teachers Talk.

Utilizing Every Square Meter

We’ve got them in every class… those students who love to sit in the back of the room or in the corner that’s difficult to get into once chairs are out, backpacks are on the floor, and drawers have been opened, etc. The corners and spaces that present challenges to navigate, and without being aware of it, make it so we let things slide. Maybe we don’t check in as often during notebook work, maybe we don’t see what’s on the computer screen as much during our writing work time, maybe we don’t always see what page they are on during independent reading time.

Maybe you all have figured out how to prevent these “dead spaces” from being a thing in your classrooms, but I was still working on it at the beginning of my twentieth year of teaching.

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It was a concept I had first started thinking about when reading Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion a number of years ago (the updated version can be found here).

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I remember having a conversation with colleagues about “owning the room” based on what we had read in the book. I knew then that I had dead spaces, and I’ve worked on eliminating those spaces ever since.

This year I wanted to think about my classroom differently. I didn’t want to “eliminate dead spaces” as much as I decided I wanted to utilize the space to its fullest potential. I wanted each student to have a front row seat for at least part of the class time every day. I feel that this is inclusive; the students who often stay under the radar in the quieter spaces of my classroom can still find the spotlight, and the students whose personalities require constant attention sometimes find that they aren’t in the limelight for a little while. I want to spread my attention evenly and fairly, and I think that utilizing our space deliberately is one of the answers to this issue.

While nothing is every perfect, I think I’ve stumbled upon some good solutions.

I started by figuring out where the traditional problem areas are. I’m sure many teachers can relate: it’s primarily the corners and the walls. So I first focused on the perimeter of my classroom.

I looked at the corners and made sure that each of the four corners has a specific purpose.

  • One corner has the TV screen and rug so that students can come up to participate in mini-lessons.
  • One corner is where students enter and exit, so I used the wall space for student work and my currently reading notice. I also re-purposed my podium — I turned the front of it to the wall and am using it as a place for students to sign in when they leave class or come in tardy. There are also handouts for students on the lower shelf.
  • Another corner has a cupboard in it, which is always accessible. It’s for students — they can find extra supplies as well as their textbooks (we use them more as anthologies, to be honest).
  • The last corner is the most popular. It’s the reading corner. It’s next to the classroom library, has the comfy couch, and also showcases student work as well as our reading agreements.
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This corner has the TV/computer set up for mini-lessons.
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The corner with my door showcases student work, has a spot for handouts and the bathroom/tardy sheets, and has my “currently reading” notice on the door.
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The corner with the closet isn’t off-limits to students. Extra supplies and textbooks (we’re calling them anthologies this year) are accessible to students at any time.
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Student work is displayed in the reading corner. Currently on the walls are some grade eleven one-pagers. These also provide ideas for what other students might want to read next.
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The reading corner is a popular spot; it’s right next to the classroom library and has the comfortable furniture.
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Mrs. Swinehart is currently reading…
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Students come to the rug for mini-lessons in this corner of the room.

After looking at the corners, I examined the purpose of each of the four walls.

  • One wall is our classroom library, which is always a popular place to be. We use it and love it every day, in every class. It’s organized, at eye level, has a rotating display, and most importantly, includes titles that will appeal to my students.
  • Another wall is what would traditionally be the back of the room. It already had bulletin boards on it, so I hung anchor charts that are relevant on a daily basis. I refer to them, I walk to and through the space, and kids actively turn their bodies to look at them.
  • The next wall is what would traditionally be the front of the room. It’s where the white boards are, so it’s naturally where I put our daily agenda, and where I write the things that don’t need to be digital or saved on a chart. Books are displayed on the marker tray, monthly book talk lists are on one of the bulletin boards to the side of the white board, and it’s where we can go for “spur of the moment” lessons that aren’t created digitally in advance and don’t use the document camera.
  • The last wall is a wall of windows, and where a teacher might put a desk. My “desk” is there, but it’s pushed up against the wall and serves as a supply table. Next to it is our conferring space, which is used when I’m not circulating the room, and is even as a space for completing our Running Records. When I’m circulating the room, it’s another space for students to complete the learning in our classroom.

 

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Our classroom library is constantly in use.

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The white board wall is also used for book displays, a daily agenda, and unit goals.
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The “teacher desk” is also a supply table. I’ve reserved a student desk behind it for the “teacher stuff” – including the obligatory year-round-use Christmas coffee mug, stack of loose papers, and Norton Reader. (I’m assuming every teacher has something like this?)
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The conferring space/extra space for student learning

 

Lastly, I had to look to the inside of the room. The perimeter is important, but the students tend to “live” towards the center of the room. I’ve tried to make it so the desks aren’t pointed in one particular direction so that each space feels important. I’ve moved desks so students have partners, I’ve had arcs facing different directions in different parts of the room, and sometimes the desk arrangement feels random or messy. I think that’s okay. The point isn’t to have orderly desks. It’s to have students who are engaged in their learning.

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While I’m sure I’ll still have days when I don’t visit every square foot in each and every class period, I think it’s an improvement on what my classroom set up once was. I don’t think there are any spots for students to “hide” and I feel comfortable walking around in each corner and cranny of the classroom. Because I circulate throughout more of the room, and because my students get up and move more often to the spots where they need to be, I interact with my students on an individual level more often than before. It helps to build relationships, which leads to trust, which leads to learning. This makes for a more inclusive, learning-focused classroom, and that’s our ultimate goal.

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A panoramic view from one of the conferring chairs. On the right side of the photo, behind the fan controls, is the closet. The rest, I think, is self-explanatory.

What do you do that ensures that every corner in your classroom is used for the power of learning?

This post was originally published on Three Teachers Talk.

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family have moved across the world to Managua, Nicaragua this year, where a new adventure has begun.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie