My Classroom Library Shelves went from Empty to Full . . . and Yours Can, Too!

My family took a big plunge five years ago, and made the decision to move from our placid, beautiful Central Oregon to Amman, Jordan. So much about Jordan was wonderful, but part of our decision to move away from our home, from Oregon, was about traveling the world. So after four years in Amman, we decided to move away from Jordan, to Managua, Nicaragua.

Between making the decision in January to move to Nicaragua and actually arriving this July, Nicaragua’s travel advisory from the US State Department went from level 2 to level 3 because of civil unrest, crime, and limited healthcare availability. Of course that travel advisory rating, combined with what we were reading in the news and hearing from people who lived in Managua gave us pause, and we carefully considered the choice we were making. Ultimately, we decided to move to Managua, and we are happy with our choice.

I share this background because I want to point out that while private schools often don’t share exactly the same issues and concerns found in public schools, private schools are not always utopian. Our school is wonderful, students are eager, teachers are welcoming and caring, and our facilities are beautiful. But with the current situation in Nicaragua, some families have chosen to leave the country, which ultimately means revenue from student fees is down, and the budget reflects that situation.

Everywhere I have ever taught has had budget concerns, public or private. I’m sure all teachers can relate to budget issues, which is why I bring it up.

Even in a time of budget concerns, my classroom library grew from empty shelves to full shelves in a matter of weeks, and it didn’t cost me an extra dime.

I walked into a nice, big, but empty classroom. The bookshelves were beautiful, but bare.


Within a day or two of being in my new space, at my new job, in my new city of residence, I was having conversations with administrators and coworkers about how to build classroom libraries.

Our first step was to visit the book room. I think most schools have a book room, and in my experience they are full of books that are rarely in the hands of students for any length of time. We decided to gather a copy of each book for each of our five classrooms, and if a teacher needed one of those copies for teaching a whole-class-novel, we would give it to that teacher to use during that particular unit.

There were also books in the book room that were not being taught as whole-class-texts, and that weren’t available in high enough numbers to be used in that way. They might be titles that could be used in future book clubs, but we decided that getting these books in the hands of students sooner rather than later was the right choice, so they were distributed as well.

My classroom library was greatly improved by visiting the book room and reimagining the uses for all of the wonderful reads that could be found there.

I found some small white boards in the closet in my classroom and repurposed them as book displays so that I could highlight titles that might be especially interesting to my students. I think the same thing could be done using repurposed cardboard and printer paper, so I want to encourage others to use what’s available in order to highlight high-interest books. There are many other ways to focus attention on desirable titles, but sometimes simple is easiest.

After raiding the book room, it was time for step two. We checked in with the main library at our school. The shelves in our library were packed tight, full of great titles, and because shelves were so full, we had the ability to pull books out of the library and redistribute them to our classroom libraries.

Our librarian has spent the last several days pulling titles from the shelves and delivering them to our classrooms. Every other day or so, a basket of books arrives, and we never know what we are going to get. What we do know is that we will have more and more books as this process progresses. There will be additional books in our classroom libraries and more room on our school library shelves. Reallocation of resources is working in a very positive way in our school.

Once I received the books from the book room and the library, I implemented step three. I organized the books. I don’t think it matters how the books are organized, just that they are organized.

I categorized my books into the following sections, and used markers and printer paper to make my labels:

  • award winners
  • historical fiction
  • classics
  • mystery
  • fantasy and sci-fi
  • contemporary fiction
  • nonfiction
  • romance and other fun reads
  • “orphan” series books (books that are #2 or later in a series when the others aren’t there)
  • short stories and essays
  • poetry and verse

As you can see, I didn’t spend a dime on any books. I didn’t ask anyone else to spend any money, either. I used what was already in my school and simply helped to redistribute resources.

In some schools or districts, asking students to bring in books, applying for grants, and asking the parent-teacher groups to support classroom libraries will be great options. However, I wanted to share that sometimes, maybe often, classroom libraries can be built with what we already have.

What do you do to help build your classroom library? I’d love to see your ideas in the comments below.

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

Unlearning old pedagogy in order to be a better teacher.

I taught secondary English Language Arts in the same wonderful school district in Oregon for fifteen years before I moved to Amman. For most of those years I used a six trait scoring guide for writing put out by the state education department for scoring student essays.

I wish I had an image of those scoring guides. They included traits like Ideas and Content, Organization, Word Choice, Sentence Fluency, Voice, and Conventions. These are all important elements of a well-written essay, and I didn’t spend much time questioning what the state required. I used the scoring guides without fail and without question, to be honest.

I left the state and left those scoring guides behind. I moved on, borrowed and created new scoring guides and rubrics, and didn’t think about the one from Oregon until last week.

Let me provide some context.

For the last two years I have had the opportunity and privilege to learn from workshop expert Stevi Quate. She will continue to partner with our school next year, and I have learned a ton with her.

I had an aha moment when she led our group to better understanding of the power of conferring as a strategy for teaching students to be great, confident writers.

That’s a goal-post shift right there: in Oregon, it often felt like “passing the writing so the students can graduate” was the main goal instead of supporting the students to be better, confident, and prepared writers. (To be honest, I can’t fault just Oregon for this – it was happening nationwide, and I think it was the trend of the times not too long ago.)

Back to conferring: Stevi reminded our group that it’s okay to not read a student paper in its entirety, or to even simply have a conversation about where a student is feeling stuck, especially proud, and to not read a line at all.

That was a shift from what I had done for the first fifteen years of my career. I had been a copy-editor, dutifully noting where students had singular-plural errors, underlining countless run-on sentences, and reminding students not to refer to themselves or their readers.


Stevi helped us to understand that our job in conferring is to offer a sounding board, to offer feedback, and to remind students that they have original ideas that are worth exploring and writing about.

We didn’t talk about rubrics or mechanical errors. We talked about writer’s craft, and we talked about the writer. The student.

We talked about organizing ideas, using mentor texts every day, and the craft and process of writing words that beg to be read.

We didn’t talk about essays and scoring guides.

That’s when I realized that I was recovering from fifteen years of my own learning that needed to be unlearned.

I had a scoring guide hangover. Continue reading “Unlearning old pedagogy in order to be a better teacher.”