In this Stenhouse Summer Series blog post, Sarah Valter writes about the ways classroom libraries are central to community building—at the beginning of the school year and all year long.
As we gear up for a new school year, one topic is likely on all of our minds: community.
We establish community by the things we do, the activities we plan, and the relationships we build from the second each student walks in the door. But we also set the tone for this work with the environment we establish and, when it comes to literacy, the classroom library is the heart of that environment.
A strong classroom library is a living part of the classroom, growing and evolving across the year. To maximize the power of our libraries, we must be intentional before the school year begins, involve students right from the start, and nurture this work across the year.
Set the Stage: Before the Year Begins
Establish Clear and Concrete Intentions
The resources in your classroom library will vary greatly depending on where you teach, who you teach, and what you teach. Countless experts have weighed in with recommendations for how many books teachers should have and how they might be best organized. But what really matters in building your classroom is the conscious thought that goes into setting it up to be accessible and inviting for students. Consider:
- When will students have access to the books?
- How will students find books that interest them or by authors they love?
- How might you leave space for students to influence the library’s organization and for the library to grow across the year?
By having a clear set of expectations and vision for how the library will be used, you will be ready to introduce the classroom library as a place of belonging and ownership for all of your students.
Make Books Accessible
When you walk into a bookstore or public library, your brain immediately registers–likely on a subconscious level–how accessible books are. Readers have choice and can find topics that appeal to them. The location of a specific book is predictable and logical. Displays change depending on the time of year and are influenced by the community in which the library is positioned. This same feeling of accessibility can be established in our classroom libraries before school even begins by developing a clear and logical system of organization and thinking ahead to ways in which students will help maintain the library and displays. Accessibility also applies to the inclusivity of the titles on your shelves: How are your students’ identities represented in the books they will find as they browse? How are the books on your shelves representative of the world beyond your school community? Whose stories are being told–and how?
While you hopefully reserve time in the sun to soak up many adult books of your choice, summer is also a great time to pre-read and prepare for the books you will add to your classroom library. Reading even a fraction of the books on your shelf is a lofty goal, so where do you start? Try this:
- Read at least one book your reluctant readers will love (I dare you to read a Wimpy Kid book without laughing).
- Check out a graphic novel (they’ll likely disappear from your shelves as soon as students arrive).
- Consider the science and social studies units you plan to teach and pre-read nonfiction titles that will enhance these topics.
- Read an award winner (or nominee). If your state has annual literature awards, this is the perfect place to start!
- Pre-read your first read-aloud of the year.
- Read something about a character unlike yourself. Consider how this text may be the perfect mirror or window for incoming students.
Open with Invitation: The First Days of School
Welcome Students to the Library
What is the message your library will send the instant students walk in the door? Will it be abundantly clear that children are welcome to explore, preview, and read books? You don’t need a flashy neon sign to encourage children to explore; rather, simply asking students what they love to read and encouraging them to check out the books on the shelves from the moment they walk in will set the tone for a library that is meant to be loved and used across the year.
Immerse Students in Books
We spend the first few days of school focusing on routines and procedures and getting to know each other, but it’s equally important to get to know the books in the classroom and the promises they hold. As your students gather on the first few days, consider ways to center books in your community through Book Tastings and Book Passes.
- Book Passes are a low-prep, efficient way to get many books in your students’ hands in a short amount of time. Gather your class in a circle, make sure each student has a way to record books that spark their interest, and supply each child with a basket of books to browse from the classroom library. After 2-3 minutes of browsing, have students pass each basket to the person sitting next to them and begin browsing a new one. After several passes, invite students to compare their lists and provide feedback on the organization of the classroom library.
- Book Tastings take slightly more preparation, but are worth the investment for building community. Set your classroom up restaurant-style (be as simple or creative as you want!) and arrange books into multiple courses. Make your tasting “progressive” by having groups of kids move from table to table as they preview books. The two key ingredients for success are providing ample time for students to browse and talk and encouraging students to record books that pique their interest.
Build the Language of Book Talks
If we want to build a community around our classroom library, communication is critical–and one of the best ways to communicate about books is through book talks. Begin by modeling before you turn over the reigns to your students to share their recommended reads with one another. (Need some tips for book talks? Check out The Gift of Story by John Schu.)
Maintain the Momentum
The first days of school are critical to building community, but we also need to keep this work at the forefront of our priorities across the year.
Keep the Library Alive and Well
An unattended library can quickly become like an overgrown garden: chaotic, neglected, ignored, and fruitless. Involve students in keeping the library organized and vibrant by providing organizational responsibilities and emphasizing student voice in decision making around book selection and the use of the library. Schedule regular opportunities for your class to reflect on the library, consider what is working, and problem-solve anything that is not going well.
Build Bridges Between the Classroom and Home
A classroom community doesn’t just live within four walls; it also extends to families and the world beyond school. Involve families in the classroom library by publicizing new titles that have been added, sharing book talks digitally in home/school communication, welcoming families into the library during open houses and conferences, and highlighting the role the library plays in the classroom. Invite students to check out books to take home and read with families (trust me, losing a book or two over the course of a year is worth the benefit of sending books out into the world).
A community is about a sense of collective responsibility and ownership. By thinking intentionally about your library over the summer, involving students from the first day of school, and cultivating a living collection of books across the year, you will be well on your way to making the library the living heart of your classroom.
About the Author
Sarah Valter is the Literacy Coordinator for Lindbergh Schools in St. Louis, MO. Sarah has taught elementary students, mentored new teachers, coached, and led professional development in literacy. She is a co-author for the Two Writing Teachers blog. As a wife, mom, educator, and learner, Sarah believes all children must develop the skills to be literate and the motivation to become lifelong readers and writers. You can connect with Sarah on Twitter @LitCoachValter.