A Classroom Library in High School
My transition from being a middle school teacher to being a high school teacher was bumpy. I took a job in a brand new high school to teach a reading intervention class and 9th grade English at the very last minute (a week before school started) two years ago. I was thrilled and terrified at the same time - what did I know about teaching HIGH SCHOOL kids? Would I be too babyish for this job?
So I marched in ready to be a REAL high school teacher. I would follow my colleagues and learn the ropes. Armed with Lord of the Flies, I began my first literature unit.
It was a dismal, flat-out, fall-on-your-face failure.
Most kids did not read the book. Most could not read the book. And most were not thinking at all. They were waiting for me to tell them, lead them, to "discuss" the book.
Year one was SO educating and enlightening. And oh so wrong. My students did not read until we got independent reading going for real. The problem was that I had left most of my books back in my middle school. And rightly so, the books were too young. So we read library books, I scrounged all the books I could, and I tried to get kids to read.
Year two I immediately applied for a local grant for books and was awarded a special grant for readers- $800 for books. I was on my way. The kids and I poured through amazon.com, Scholastic Book orders and teen reviews. They filled out surveys and lists. We ordered as many as we could and waited. Finally, box after box, our library began to arrive.
Armed with books in our room, my students started to read for real. Independent reading time began to take shape as kids connected with characters, got sucked into plots, and were transported to worlds far from our classroom.
Then in the spring I took a leap. We hadn't gone full-on with independent reading - we still read some books together, but I noticed that my students were mentally checking out when I assigned a book. They weren't readers quite yet, and were still hiding when it got challenging. I had just finished Book Love by Penny Kittle and decided to apply for a grant. At the same time, I committed to no assigned books in my reading intervention class. Not one. Yes, we would read articles, short stories, poems, and other short text together, but books would be choice all year long. Grant or no grant, I was plunging into this.
In June of 2015, siting at my kitchen table making dinner plans, my phone rang, and my world changed. Penny Kittle was on the other end. PENNY KITTLE. I barely registered her words, "I'm calling to let you know you're one of our Book Love grant winners!" I cannot describe what this meant to me, to my students. Books of our own.
This year, after spending several months pouring over The Book Source website and catalogue, I have a real high school classroom library with over 500 new books. My kids read every class period for 25 minutes. It is not negotiable; it is our foundation. And, it is the best part of our class. I get asked for just a few more minutes; I get ignored as kids finish just one last paragraph; I have to restate directions because "I was so close and I just had to finish that chapter." My students have become readers. Real readers, invested in their books. They're thinking, and they're attached to their characters, so absorbed they argue for more time. They are shaping their lives in those books.
For the first year since I started teaching high school, I feel that my students are growing into independent thinkers and readers. That first year with whole class books, I thought I was measuring growth, but I wasn't. I was measuring compliance. I was measuring my students ability to follow my lead. Getting assignments in on time. Actually reading the book. Thoroughly completing my assigned task. Getting the messages from the book that I wanted them to get. That is not measuring a student's learning or a student's growth. It is measuring their ability to meet my demands.
This year we do not answer questions about our books; we respond to them in our Writer's Notebooks. We do not take quizzes on our books, we talk about them in book groups; we do not have end of the book tests or projects; we have heart-felt talks with someone - sometimes me, sometimes another student; and we record the titles on ever-growing lists of Books I've Finished. The reward of finishing the book is finishing the book; it's sitting with tears rolling down our cheeks, sometimes in happiness and sometimes in deep sadness. The reward of finishing is finding closure - the romance that finally bloomed; the mystery that was finally solved. At this point in the school year, no project could capture that. No projects needs to.
A classroom library is not an elementary concept that students in upper grades outgrow. It is a necessary part of a student's continued growth as a reader. High school students need to choose books that speak to their hearts, that challenge their minds. They need books that allow them to continue growing from right where they are. A classroom library can make that happen. It is the place real readers are born.