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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

I believe a classroom library is the heartbeat of a teacher's environment. It is the window into an educator's own personality, and it reflects the importance of literacy in the classroom. I believe every teacher -- no matter what subject he or she teaches -- should have one.

We should provide access to books in our classes with the same differentiated approach we bring to any other lesson, assessment, or activity because there are, I believe, four categories of students who pursue books.

The Book Hunter: These are students who will seek out the book they want, regardless of locale. They get a mere whiff of a good book in the air, and they pursue it. They understand how to choose books and seek out advice when they need it.

The Library Literate: These are students who won't or can't go to a store, but who are comfortable enough to go to the local library, perhaps seeking advice from the friendly face on the other side of the desk.

The Lunchtime Lurker: These are the students who may be comfortable only at the school library. This may also be the only place where they feel safe. Perhaps they escape lunchtime trauma by diving into the dark corners of the library's stacks, surrounded by countless books and those "READ" posters.

The Reluctant Phobe: And then there are students who are so frightened of books, of literacy, and of choice that they feel comfortable only in their classroom library, reaching for books they know exactly where to find, and trusting you, who understands their fears and reading insecurities.

And it's up to us -- the classroom teachers -- to attract all these students, like moths to a flame. My stacks have every genre and every level: picture books, chapter books, fiction, and nonfiction.

The shelves are also peppered with realia from my own background, giving life and texture to the look of the library. A Shakespeare action figure with a removable quill sits between a full-text edition of A Midsummer Night's Dream and the manga version of As You Like It. My childhood Clash of the Titans lunch box bookends the fantasy section, and a knight rides among the historical-fiction section. A figurehead of Captain Morgan that hung in my room all through high school glares down at a sign that reads, "Any who dare not use the proper means of checking out a book." They're all there. Each little tchotchke has a purpose. Each helps entrap students in the web of literacy that is my classroom library.

I have set up a checkout system in my room wherein a student fills out a slip with the date and the book's title and name and then drops the slip into a file. When the student returns the book, she shows me that she's filing the book on the correct shelf and then, with permission, tears up the slip.

I have stickers on every book with icons representing each genre to help categorize the books correctly. That way, even a struggling student can select and return books correctly. When I inject new books into the stacks, I select volunteers to decide which stickers to place on them, thus turning a chore into a mini-lesson in one fell swoop.

Ripley's Believe It or Not has a sticker stating that this book is for classroom reading only (too many kids want to read it after finishing their work), and Diary of a Wimpy Kid has a seven-day-limit sticker on its spine.

When interest tapers off, I start classroom-library scavenger hunts with questions on the board such as the following:

  • Which book has a map of Guilder inside its front cover? (The Princess Bride)
  • Which author has written books in each of the genres in our library? (Avi)
  • Which book on Mrs. Wolpert's fantasy shelf inspired the book Wendy? (Peter Pan)
  • What is the title of the biography about that fantasy book's author? (J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys)

Weave your library into your lessons. Have the students pull golden lines from the books for a homework assignment. Have them design persuasive ads and write reviews to get other students to read a book that they may have loved.

To hold them accountable for how much they read, have them recreate book covers once they are done reading a book. By the end of the year, these art pieces will overwhelm the room and be proof of your students' literacy.

The classroom library should be an interactive part of your classroom. One day, the books may fall apart with use, but remember, there is no better death for a book than it having been read too much and by too many.

What are some of the creative strategies and lessons you use to motivate students and inspire independent reading?

Comments (89)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Verona Medley Hall's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you that the classroom library is the heart beat of the teacher's environment, and that it reflects the importance of literacy in the classroom. In your blog you discussed so many important aspects of the purpose and use of the classroom library,that applies to all grade levels. You mentioned using the differentiated approach in the library. This is so important not only for the reasons you discussed but also because of the different reading levels within the classroom. When it comes on to reading for pleasure each student wants to find something that is at his level that he/she is interested in reading. For beginning readers this is where students discover that they can read.

I have gained many new insight on how I could better use my classroom library.

Verona Medley Hall's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach first grade and I like the idea of a 'reading buddy'. I know my first grade students would like reading to one of those. I would even encourage them reread their decodable books to the 'reading buddy'. I think all level of readers will benifit from this activity. However,low level readers who are sometimes hesitant to read aloud in the presence of the better readers might feel less threatened reading to the reading buddy. I usually encourage my students to read to a favourite toy at home, but never thought of using it in my classroom.

Verona Medley Hall's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I introduce my first grade students to our classroom library on the first day of school. Most of the students I get can only picture read at that time, so I stock a large number of picture books with and without words, and easy reads in the library at the beginning of the year. I like the way you teach your students those three ways to read by the second day. This is something I will really want to teach my students immediately.

Heather WolpertGawron's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

If any readers would like to see pictures of my classroom library and my use of realia, just cut and paste the following URL into your address bar:

Another post you might like is about starting and financing a classroom library. So, at the bottom of the article, I have also included a letter than I wrote to my friends and family as a "book beg." Feel free to use it as a template for your own Library Donation Letter.


Hope the additional resources help! And thanks so much for all of your comments, sharing, and advice! Blogging isn't just about giving advice, it's about building a collaborative community. Thanks for being a part of it.

Let me know how it all goes!
-Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Diane Sayre's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm a lucky high school language arts teacher of elective courses designed to develop adolescents' power for strategic reading and learning. I'm encouraged to read entries from so many teachers who are promoting "real reading" to their students.

I've had a growing classroom library for 15+ years that now covers two walls, thanks to generous book lovers in my school/family as well as some bargain shopping on my part. People are often happy to donate their books so that they'll be enjoyed by others. I screen the donations and pass on books that aren't age/school appropriate to a local thrift store.

Time to maintain my library is very limited, so I am determined to keep it simple. Kids take ownership for our library by participating in the process of maintaining it. Because stickers kept falling off our books, I use bands of colored electrical tape along the bottom of their spines. White is for biography, red for classics, yellow for fantasy, etc. Books are grouped by genre and alphabetized by authors' last names. A simple poster on the wall reminds my 6 classes of the system.

I use a simple sign-out notebook with columns for date, student name, homeroom, title & author. Students sign out their books (no due date unless the book is in demand) then cross off their entry when they return them. They're expected to be good classroom citizens and properly reshelve the books. Although I've lost some books over the years, I always tell my kids that I'm glad to see them as well as the books anytime they bring them back. Occasionally one of my students will volunteer to help maintain our classroom library, which has lead some to teaching careers and built lasting friendships!

In order to encourage truly "free" reading, I avoid the often dreaded end-of-book project. Instead, we have regular informal book conversations at "teachable" moments to encourage authentic sharing. I set the tone by briefly telling kids about what I'm reading myself, and with a few encouraging comments, we're off & running. I hope to establish a secure blog or forum this year so that students can share their thoughts about their books online. Any suggestions would be appreciated!

Tara's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have my certification in Early Childhood Education. However, I have not had the opportunity to have my own classroom yet, due to budget cuts in the surrounding school districts. I do completely agree that having a classroom library is extremely important for teachers and students. When i completed my internship, I started every lesson with a book from my CT's classroom library. I found this to be a beneficial way to teach. Once I was finished with the book it was put back into the library for the students to review with and reflect on. I also agree that it is important to have a classroom library because some students families can not afford to buy books or they do not have that many. This way even if they do not have access to books at home they will have a daily access to books at school. I strongly believe that reading is one of most important areas of education for students because it builds a foundation for all other subject areas.

Monica's picture

One of the subjects that can struggle to fit literature in the classroom is the math classroom. I know this only through my experience as a reading specialist. However, in having the opportunity to share a classroom with a FABULOUS geometry teacher, I have learned that there a number of fantastic titles that can easily get students talking and even writing across the math curriculum. With the growth of STEM careers, it is imperative that our students learn to read, write, and communicate effectively about the culture of numbers. Math titles often hook struggling math students and capitalize on a subject area (language arts) that they feel comfortable and confident about. If you're a math teacher and you're not sure where to start in building your math classroom library, please contact us. I have not only partnered with this fabulous math teacher to present locally at the Virginia Council of Math Teachers, but we are also slated to present at this year's east coast regional conference for the National Council of Teachers of Math (NCTM). We have also put out our own title centered around math topics from grades 3-6 titled: COncrete Poems About MATHEMATICAL MISCHIEF. You can learn more about this title and order a copy by visiting: www.mathmischief.com
Please write to us at: hhmathematics@gmail.com and we will help you get started on finding some fabulous math titles that are written by some of America's most talented math thinkers & writers!!!

Laurie Kroll's picture

I have been teaching third grade seven years and I do have a classroom library however it honestly is overwhelming for me. Trying to keep it organized is tough. I have many of the books in baskets either by author, genre, or reading level. Often the library seems messy, I don't feel the students respect the books... maybe I am approaching it the wrong way?

Heather Wolpert-Gawron's picture

Hey Laurie!
Perhaps you could assign students as a library crew of sorts? I understand your issue and sometimes a lack of respect for books means certain students can't check them out. Look closely at your organization structure. Is there a procedure in place that students can easily follow? Do they understand the organization of the library? When they check a book into you, do you watch them return it? Can there be a routine of library straightening up that works consistently into the school week?

Hope this helps!
-Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Ryan's picture
Content writer and adjunct professor at Marygrove College in Detroit, MI

Hi, Heather:

I just came across your post yesterday afternoon and wanted to let you know that I enjoyed your post--in fact, I liked it so much that I referred to some of the things you are doing in your classroom in one of my own blogs. If you're interested, you can find it here:



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