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

AP Lang: Writing a Rhetorical Analysis Thesis Statement After Discovering the Tone in “Unique” Texts

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After our last round of practice rhetorical analysis essays, I realized that my students need more instruction and practice with writing robust, specific, defensible thesis statements.

My students see the value in well-written and thoughtful thesis statements; they realize that when the thesis statement is solid, the essay can almost write itself. The problem is in writing the thesis statement itself.

They were also having trouble identifying tone and what builds it, even though I thought I had taught these things. We had practiced with texts released by the College Board, and while those are robust and important, they don’t always have the “fun factor.” After several formative essays and a summative essay, we all agreed that we needed some sort of break, but we still needed to be learning.

So, I tried to get creative about how to teach my students more about tone and thesis statements.

I gathered several unique texts, mostly available in my classroom library. These texts will likely never be on the AP Lang exam, but they have unique tone and purpose, and are accessible and important to my students. The skills my students learn through reading and analyzing these texts are transferable, and that’s important.

 

In one of my classes we started by discussing two texts: Tiffany’s Table Manners for Teenagers and Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents. Because this is a particularly small class, we were able to have a discussion that didn’t require too many formal directions. I asked the students to read the texts one at a time, and then try to write a thesis statement based on tone. I was there to prompt and direct their conversation, but they did most of the thinking, which mean they did most of the learning. They came up with the beginning of a thesis statement for each text, and I liked what they did.

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The next day, with my larger class, I took the discussion we had had the previous day and organized it with step-by-step directions.

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The texts they had available, in addition to the two listed above, were as follows:

First they read the text with a partner. Then, using a half-sheet of chart paper, they recorded their thinking. When finished with the first six steps, they followed a formula for a thesis statement.

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I know that formulaic writing isn’t the goal, but I want to scaffold them to a place where they feel confident to get creative. They need to internalize the important elements that build a robust thesis statement so they can deviate from it later.

 

The results were encouraging, but I thought they needed more practice. After they wrote their first thesis statements, I rotated the texts from one partnership to the next, and they tried again. By this time, we were on our second day of this activity.

This time, the results were spectacular. While we aren’t “perfect,” we have made a ton of progress, and the thinking process, including multiple draft readings, is evident on their papers. It was messy, but that’s where the magic, the learning, happens.

As I rotated around the room, I overheard and participated in some deep conversations about rhetorical devices, how tone is built, and what makes a defensible thesis statement. By the end of the second class, we were high-fiving for a job well done as they exited the class. It felt good.

(If you don’t want to decipher the handwriting, you can find the students’ thesis statements are typed in the photo captions.)

 

Next, we will try writing thesis statements with more robust texts, but for now, I think they “get it” and can see that a defensible thesis statement includes audience, purpose, and rhetorical decisions made by the author. A defensible thesis statement is specific and can help to structure the rest of the essay.

They’ve got confidence now, and I can’t wait to see how they transfer this new learning to more robust texts. We have another rhetorical analysis essay practice next week, and I fully expect that all of my students’ scores will go up from the last one based on this activity.

How do you instruct your students when they are writing robust and defensible thesis statements? What would you add or change to this activity? I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas in the comments.

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 years in Managua, Nicaragua. 

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

Scaffolding an Authentic Reading Community with Multiple Copies in our Classroom Libraries

As the school year gets off to a great start, I am thinking about how I am going to build an authentic community of readers. My goal is that my students will be as independent and engaged as possible, which means I have to step out of the way and make room for them to do their thing. I’ll scaffold along the way, but I am hoping that they take ownership and come up with their own ideas.

Building an authentic reading community is our goal. I had a few students last year who decided to read books in a partnership, and they ended up having a great time. They read, talked, laughed, and ended up enjoying their books, I think more than if they had been reading alone. It’s always more fun with a friend.

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This memory of last year got me thinking about how to encourage this type of partnership without requiring it.

I realized that I purchased lots of multiple copies of the same titles for my classroom library, and I can simply make the suggestion. Students have asked for multiple copies of the same book before, so if I place them in my classroom library strategically, maybe they will take the bait…

So I rearranged a few books and remain hopeful…

I reorganized a few of the books in our contemporary fiction section and went from there…

Many of the doubles (and triples, etc) that are in the classroom library have already been checked out, but the ones that are left I shelved together with the suggestion that students might pick them up with a friend.

Last week our department invited all students to tour each others’ libraries, and as a result of that activity, three of my students decided to read Butter together. These books were all in different classrooms, but these students decided to read the same book anyway. It gives me hope that when I intentionally place books next to the suggestion of reading with a friend, they will start to read together.

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I’m looking forward to seeing how my students decide to move forward with this suggestion, and I’m hopeful because I’ve seen it happen before.

How do you encourage your readers to read together?

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.

What to do after the exam?

We all know that AP classes (all of our classes, for that matter) are about the learning, and not the standardized test. We get it. We know it.

But we also know that we’ve crammed and studied and reviewed and stressed and motivated and encouraged… and it’s been about the test.

But school isn’t about tests, it’s about learning and growing. It’s about developing good habits and becoming good humans. So the learning can’t stop because the text has already happened.

But what are we to do?

I have about three weeks with my students after the AP Lang exam. We operate on a 90 minute block schedule, so I see them two to three times per week. That’s not a lot of meeting time between now and the last day of school.

I decided that I want my students to keep learning, growing, and developing as readers, writers, and thinkers, but I also want to honor all of the hard work and stress they’ve been under during these first couple of weeks of May.

The first idea I had was that we could read one last book together. But I didn’t want to choose the title for them, and I didn’t want to take class time to choose because we have so little left.

So then I thought, “Ah ha! Book clubs!” and started looking through my classroom library along with the list of what we have in our department book room, and I started getting excited. I ended up with a dozen titles I wanted to share with my students, and I realized that I have a dozen students in my AP Lang class (small class size is one of the many benefits of teaching outside of the US).

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I ended up choosing titles written by women of color. It just felt right. And I went with it.

As I was trying to figure out how to roll out this last unit of the school year without overloading and stressing out my students before the exam on Wednesday, I realized I wanted to make it fun. Exciting. Like an adventure, or one last gift of AP Lang reading before summer starts.

I wrapped the books in recycled anchor chart paper in order to make them a surprise, in order to build anticipation.

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I glued and taped descriptions of the books onto the wrapped books, but I removed any identifying details such as author, title, or other obvious clues about what the book really is. Instead of choosing based on author, title, cover, etc, they are going to choose based on a basic description copied from Amazon or Goodreads.

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On Tuesday, the day before the exam, we will meet as a class. I’ll bring in some fruit and muffins as a breakfast treat, they will pass the “mystery books” around to each other and collaboratively decide who gets which book. We’ll go over any last review questions and details they need, and we then be ready to come to class on Thursday, the day after the big exam, and quietly read, talk, and learn together. It won’t be a stressful, cramming, reviewing, worrying kind of class. It will be one where we recognize the importance of the AP exam, but also recognize that there is life and learning after the exam, and we should be looking ahead to it.

The summative assessment for this unit will likely be a graded video discussion. I’ll ask them to get into book clubs for these last few weeks and to talk about their individual books, trying to find themes and other things they can link between texts. If the students propose another idea for a summative assessment, I’m all ears. I respect their need for choice, and they deserve that someone listens to their voice. 

I’ll write again about how this all plays out, but so far, the students who have had the chance to preview the descriptions and who have an idea about what is coming their way after the exam have responded with enthusiasm. I think it’s safe to say we are all looking forward to this time together, without the focus on the exam, but instead, returning the focus to our reading and our reading lives.

What will your students study and learn after the exam? I’d love to hear how other classes move forward in the last few weeks of the school year.

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

Book Talking the Newbery Honors and Winners with our Middle School Readers

Living in Nicaragua is amazing – it’s a beautiful country full of stunning volcanoes, unique wildlife, and lovely people. While there are many fantastic reasons to live here, it’s still sometimes a challenge to find new books for my classroom library. Luckily, my parents recently came for a visit, and before they travelled, they hit up some local second-hand shops and library sales. They ended up filling extra suitcases with 95 “new” books for our classroom library!

As I was shelving and organizing our new books, I noticed that there are several Newbery Honor and Winning books in our collection.

Newbery books
Brown Girl Dreaming, 2015; The Voice that Changed a Nation, 2005; Because of Winn-Dixie, 2001; The Ear the Eye and the Arm, 1995; The Thief, 1997; The Bronze Bow, 1962; The Egypt Game, 1968; Anpao, 1978; Miracles on Maple Hill, 1957; The Witch of Blackbird Pond, 1959; Hitty Her First Hundred Years, 1930; The Door in the Wall, 1950; Savvy, 2009; Walk Two Moons, 1995; The Giver, 1994; The Westing Game, 1979; The Dark Frigate, 1924; Indian Captive, 1942; Al Capone Does My Shirts, 2005; Dear Mr. Henshaw, 1984; The Crossover, 2015; The Trumpeter of Krakow, 1929; The Wanderer, 2001; The Road From Home, 1980

I also realized that I needed a quick way to get my seventh grade students familiar with the new titles.

I decided to pull all of the Newbery books and set them out on my students’ desks before they got to class. Between what I already had, and what was new, I had more than enough copies for every student to have at least one to learn about!

Instead of a book talk from me, I asked my students to get to know the book that was in front of them. After a few minutes with the book, they would pass it to the next person, and repeat the process a couple of times.

Anticipation had already been built for the new books before they even arrived, so when my students walked in to see new books on the desks, they were eager to get started.

I reminded my students what I include when I share our daily book talk:

  • I take a look at the cover and look for title, author, medals, and endorsements.
  • I read the inside flap or the back of the book.
  • I read the first sentence, paragraph, or page.
  • I check the publication date.
  • I read “about the author” if the option is there.
  • I look to see what the original language is, and if the book has been translated.

They jumped in, eager to look for the items we usually include in a book talk, but finding these items on their own, quietly. After a minute or two, they rotated books, and then repeated the process a couple of times.

After they had gotten to know three or four books, they partnered up with someone in the room who hadn’t had any of their same titles. That meant that with each partnership, there were six to eight titles they could discuss. I directed them to choose a partner A and a partner B, and that they would continue with a knee to knee conversation about the new titles in our classroom library.

By the time they were done with their conversations, they had each added a title or two to their Next Reads Lists, and some had even picked up a new book to start reading immediately.

While I love sharing nontraditional books with my seventh-grade students, I also think it’s important to share some of the classics and soon-to-be classics with them. This was a fun, quick, method for sharing several new, high-quality titles in an efficient way.

How do you ensure that you present a variety of titles to your students? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

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

Popular Titles for Middle School Students

Lately I’ve seen several twitter and facebook posts asking for “must-purchase” titles for classroom libraries and book clubs. It’s that time of year – the time when we order for next year and cross our fingers that it all arrives by the first day of school.

Ordering titles for our classroom libraries is no joke, so I love seeing how thoughtful people are about it.

I thought I’d check in with my students to find out how they might answer that question, so I asked them what their best books of the year have been so far. They wrote about it and talked about it, and then I had them publicly post their titles so that other students could get inspired to read new titles, add to their next reads lists, or think about new titles for summer reading.

Here’s what we came up with:

Block A Best Books
Bad Kitty, Norse Mythology, Pugs of the Frozen North, A Wrinkle in Time, Hitler Youth, The Martian Chronicles, To the Field of Stars, All Fall Down, Echo, Auggie and Me, Our Surprising Love Story, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Long Way Down, The House of the Scorpion

All Fall Down by Ally Carter has been a big hit with several of my seventh grade girls. All Fall Down Cover

It’s the first in a mystery series, and three of my seventh-grade girls have read all three of the books in the series since I added it to my classroom library in January. It’s led one of them to read some of Ally Carter’s other books, and they have had some fun and authentic discussions about these books, which is always fun to witness.

Block C Best Books
The Fault in our Stars, Twilight, Long Way Down, Memoirs of a Geisha, Turtles All the Way Down, Sarah’s Key, Everything Everything, Big Foot, Looking for Alaska, American Sniper, Smile, Booked, Guinness Book of World Records, Anne of Green Gables, Perfect, Out of My Mind, Insurgent, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe moved one of my readers to tears.

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This student literally hugged her copy when she was done with it, and while she is a prolific reader, this one made it to her “top book” award. If this student recommends it, then I’m sold.

Block E Best Books
Eleanor and Park, Everything Everything, The DaVinci Code, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, To all the Boys I’ve Loved Before, 3:59, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, The Crossover, The Maze Runner, Out of My Mind, The Hunger Games, The Perfectionist, Taste Test, Love that Dog, The Alchemist, Slappy New Year, Between Shades of Gray, Star Wars, The Popularity Papers

Out of My Mind seems to be a game changer for a few of my seventh grade readers.

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Somehow, this sweet story of an eleven-year-old girl who is drastically underestimated has reached some students who I never would have pegged as liking “this kind of book.” One boy in particular has said it’s the best book he’s ever read, and if I could translate the look on his face into words, you wouldn’t doubt it.

Hopefully these titles my students shared will help with some of your purchasing choices this spring.

One thing to notice is that these titles aren’t the latest or newest publications, but they are fairly recently published, for the most part.

I think the important piece is not that we have the newest and hottest titles (not that it doesn’t help!), but that we realize that variety and availability are what matter. To illustrate this point, I’ll share an example: I purchased about 150 “new” books for my classroom library over the winter break, brought them back to Nicaragua in my suitcases, book talked them daily, and made them available to all of my students.

Variety and availability have made a significant difference in the reading habits and attitudes of many of my students. I didn’t spend a lot of money – some of the books I purchased second or third hand for fifty-cents apiece. I’ve reinforced the paperback covers with packing tape, and it helps. The point is that the books are readily available, and I know what I have in my library, I know my readers, and I can do my best to play matchmaker between book and reader.

How do you choose books for your classroom library? What are some of your must-haves?

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.

Three Non traditional Titles for our Middle School Readers

I share new titles with my students every day in the form of book talks. Often, at least a couple of my students will put those titles on their next reads lists, and on great days a student will grab one of these titles and immediately begin reading it. However, there are still reluctant readers who aren’t yet sure what they love to read, and are nervous about taking risks with long or traditional books.

In the never-ending quest to find fun and high-interest titles for my reluctant middle school readers, I’m always on the lookout for something different yet relevant for them. Today I book talked three nontraditional titles, and they were well-received by my two groups of seventh graders.

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The first one is The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. It’s a beautiful book of black and white illustrations that are whimsical and fantastic. It inspires imagination and internal story telling. I’m sure it will be fantastic for inspiring quick-writes and other longer narrative writing, and today, a couple of my students enjoyed it during silent reading time.

 

I book talked Postcards From Camp next. It’s a heartwarming story told through correspondence between a boy who goes to summer camp, and his father, who is always encouraging. It was a huge hit in both of today’s middle school classes.

I’m fairly certain it is the first epistolary story many of my seventh grade students have read, so I’m happy to introduce this new form to them. It’s accessible and fun, as it has removable ghost stories and lists, and the story is told primarily through these postcards between father and son.

 

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Here there be Dragons is the last title I shared with my middle school students today. It’s a collection of stories and verse, and it has beautiful illustrations sprinkled throughout. It’s the kind of book that doesn’t have to be read in its entirety, so students can feel a sense of enjoyment and accomplishment even when they read only a couple of the sections out of the book.

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As far as I can tell, getting students to feel comfortable and confident with books in their hands is the first step in developing strong and healthy reading lives in our students. It’s okay with me if they start with small, or fun, or non traditional titles and work their way to other genres and authors.

Yes, it’s all about the books. But it’s also all about the students. After all, we don’t teach books, we teach kids. I think it’s important for teachers to meet students where they are instead of insisting that they reach up to intimidating expectations. After enjoying some non traditional titles, students will build confidence and enthusiasm they need for trying out new titles. And I think that’s the whole point.

How do you reach your dormant readers? I’d love to hear other strategies!

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