3 Things I've Learned from Having a Classroom Library

School ended two weeks ago for me, and I'm now done with one week of summer school.  This means I have not cleaned up, packed up, or straightened up anything my classroom.  My credit-recovery English students are still working hard - reading books, talking about them, writing and giving presentations.

In the quiet moments, however, the room keeps staring at me.  The books have raised their eye brows and given me the look.  "Remember what happened the last time you decided not to pack us up?" they challenge from their seemingly peaceful shelves.  "Broken shelves and piles of disorganized books everywhere."

Yes, I think, I do need to pack up my classroom library.  It's grown tremendously in the four years since I moved out of my middle school classroom to become a high school teacher.  I had taken as many books as I thought were high school-ish (meaning, I had no idea what to bring) and settled into my new space.

One Book Love Grant, several smaller local grants, too many Amazon packages and trips to the bookstore to count, I am proud of my ever-expanding collection of books that are nicely suited to the readers who share my classroom each year.

But this means packing it up is some serious work.

As I sat staring at my shelves, I realized how grateful I am for this collection and how much it's taught me.  I strongly believe that having all these books has made me a much better teacher.

Books allow you to know students in authentic ways.
1. I  know more about my students I used to think that getting to know my students meant we had to have a lot of downtown in the classroom. We had to sit around and chat, talk about our weekends and bond over the laid back sharing we'd do.  The kids would see me as a good listener, and I'd know all about their lives. This never went very well when I tried the casual,"Hey, anyone want to share?" The most vocal, over-sharer in the class would inevitably dominate the conversation while everyone else sighed, looked down at their phones and tuned out.

During my second year teaching high school, when I rebelled again all those teacher-selected books and began the journey of helping these kids build actual reading lives, I realized that books allowed me to know my kids in far more authentic ways than those artificial conversations ever offered.  As kids spoke passionately about what was happening to characters in their books, or came running in to practically throw a book at me in anger at what had happened, or were so into the book, they shhh-ed me, I have gotten glimpses, sometimes wide-open views, of what my students value, who they care most about, and their biggest fears.  They open their hearts about characters as a way to navigate their own lives, to seek answers, to explore their wonderings safely.

It's so easy to stereotype teens based on their behaviors.  I still get my fair share of eye rolls, incomplete work, and nappers.  But I also get rewarded with seeing something deeper.  The pain of a broken heart shows up in a string of romance novels.  Strained parental relationship litter the pages as a student writes her own connections to a book. A tough boy lays down his book and whispers, "That just got too real.  I gotta stop for a minute."  I see their growth across a school year through the books they've chosen, a path they've created just for themselves.  These moments make all that time boxing up books each year worth it.

2.  I've learned about marketing  My college roommate was a marketing major- she studied business and trends and created presentations.  I was an English major, reading Jane Eyre with glasses perched on my nose, writing essays about Mary Shelley's Frankenstein or arguing about Alexander Pope's satire.  I had nothing to do with sales.  I was in the business of appreciation and intellectual criticism.  We'd all just read and write and debate every glorious minute. Ha!

I learned about marketing the year I did not put my books away properly and returned in August to find that my cheapo book cases filled with my precious books had been broken during the summer furniture removal and cleaning.  I literally (yes, the actual use of literally) was in tears at the chaos. My wonderful assistant principal calmly reassembled (and reinforced) my shelves, and I made a new plan. I bought as many small crates (meant for CDs) as I could find, came up with some categories for the books, and neatly tucked the books inside. This would make summer clean up a breeze! Maybe that's why I'd seen so many teachers of younger kids do this.

But that, I was to learn, was just the initial benefit.  By reorganizing my classroom library by topic, kids could actually find books on their own.  You liked Everything, Everything?  Go check out the Teen Issues section.  You're done with Crank?  Check out the Ellen Hopkins section.  Sports books? Right over there.  And once my students had the lay of the classroom, they didn't need me to find books for them as often.  As they year progressed, they truly become independent.

Unknowingly, I had also stumbled upon a marketing tool grocery stores know well.  They don't line up boxes of cereal alphabetically by production company's name so the spines are facing out (sounds ridiculous, doesn't it?).  No way.  All those cereal boxes are facing forward so you get a good view of them, and they're strategically placed (those of you with little kids who've outgrown the shopping cart know what I'm talking about) so that the best buyers for each product will find them.

So despite my initial anger at the mess that summer, it changed my library for the better.

3.  Kids read far more by invitation than by interrogation I've come to believe that the teenage brain is wired on high alert to detect even the slightest adult command and to reject it.  Developmentally, that frontal lobe, judgement center extraordinaire, is a construction zone with a big flashing light that teens obey:  TO THINE OWN SELF BE TRUE (and if you don't know thine own self, follow only your peers!)  I'm sure my students' parents know this far better than I do.

I am learning, however, that surrounding my kids with a room full of interesting books, setting up displays, having book passes, book tasting, and book talks are all keys to creating actual readers. Assigning a chapter, having a gotcha interrogation, I mean quiz, when they walk in the door, and then berating kids for not doing the reading are keys to creating angry, resistant non-readers.

The invitation to read, plenty of good books, and time to explore, talk and enjoy those books will get the results we're all after.  Kids grow more sophisticated in their own time, and making them read a particular book and asking a particular set of questions does not hurry this growth.  In fact, it often hinders it.  Frustrated by a book they don't understand or because they truly hate the book, many students quit reading all together, or even worse, decide that reading is awful and not for them.

The relaxed, inviting atmosphere of a classroom filled with books lets kids breathe.  It says, I get who teens are, what they like, and I trust them to find something to read that will be perfect  right now. This calms that hyper-alert frontal lobe, making it feel safe from harm (or command), and able to actually function.

So what's stopping you from starting your own classroom library?  The whole summer, full of fabulous garage sales and library book sales, awaits.  Just make sure the shelves you find can hold what is sure to become a fabulous collection.


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