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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Importance of a Classroom Library

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Middle School teacher by day, Tweenteacher by night

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?

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Middle School teacher by day, Tweenteacher by night
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Concerned_library_user's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The value of reading is immeasurable, and having a ready selection of books for children can be a great stimulus for readers.

Sadly, though, is my fear of the demise of the school library. With a decentralization of books, replacement of library research with the ease of internet access,students reading books from the classroom, and shrinking school budgets, school libraries services are finding their use declining. Libraries have to justify their existence and that's done through circulation statistics. Those statistics are dwindling and budgets are being cut.

In Ohio, and probably in other states, public libraries have responded to state funding cuts by shaving personnel, new book purchases, and library hours.

Are we training our youth to not use libraries by building of classroom libraries? Have libraries actually outlived their usefulness? Or is it a "me" generation that looks for convenience rather than consequences?

I couldn't think of a better place to take my kids when they were young than a public library where they could sift through what seemed an unlimited supply of reading material, and with it, a window to new ideas, cultures, and experiences. To be without a library, even with internet access at home, could develop a deprivation of a social and learning environment that we may not recover from.

Instead of buying and stocking a classroom library (which, by the way, most people can't afford to build libraries at home), why not borrow books from the school library for your room, publicize these books to your students, and let them know that they can walk over to the media center, find the book themselves, sign them out, and help develop a new generation of library users.

Some may ask, "Hey, this is just a small classroom library, what's the big deal?"

Can small classroom libraries effect circulation statistics? Are we witnessing the death of libraries? Do we really believe that libraries have seen their day?

All I ask is that you think about it. If you care about libraries, are you doing what you can to support them? Do you send your students to the school library? Do you help students to learn the value of libraries especially in these tough, economic times?

I'm a techie type person myself. I like convenience and see the value of being able search the internet or to reach behind me when a student raises a question and know there's a book behind me that can help that child.

But, more important than having that book at my fingertips, is having that child learn about a unique environment of knowledge, ideas, and dreams at their fingertips; a place they can go to find all types of books rather than just a few books I got for them.

Intentions are good but, please, just think about the impact of classroom libraries could have on the present and future of libraries.

Concerned_library_user's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The value of reading is immeasurable, and having a ready selection of books for children can be a great stimulus for readers.

Sadly, though, is my fear of the demise of the school library. With a decentralization of books, replacement of library research with the ease of internet access,students reading books from the classroom, and shrinking school budgets, school libraries services are finding their use declining. Libraries have to justify their existence and that's done through circulation statistics.

In Ohio, and probably in other states, public libraries have responded to state funding cuts by shaving personnel, new book purchases, and library hours.

Are we training our youth to not use libraries by building of classroom libraries? Have libraries actually outlived their usefulness? Or is it a "me" generation that looks for convenience rather than consequences?

I couldn't think of a better place to take my kids when they were young than a public library where they could sift through what seemed an unlimited supply of reading material, and with it, a window to new ideas, cultures, and experiences. To be without a library, even with internet access at home, could develop a deprivation of a social and learning environment that we may not recover from.

Instead of buying and stocking a classroom library (which, by the way, most people can't afford to build libraries at home), why not borrow books from the school library for your room, publicize these books to your students, and let them know that they can walk over to the media center, find the book themselves, sign them out, and help develop a new generation of library users.

Some may ask, "Hey, this is just a small classroom library, what's the big deal?"

Can small classroom libraries effect circulation statistics? Are we witnessing the death of libraries? Do we really believe that libraries have seen their day?

All I ask is that you think about it. If you care about libraries, are you doing what you can to support them? Do you send your students to the school library? Do you help students to learn the value of libraries especially in these tough, economic times?

I'm a techie type person myself. I like convenience and see the value of being able search the internet or to reach behind me when a student raises a question and know there's a book behind me that can help that child.

But, more important than having that book at my fingertips, is having that child learn about a unique environment of knowledge, ideas, and dreams at their fingertips; a place they can go to find all types of books rather than just a few books I got for them.

Intentions are good but, please, just think about the impact of classroom libraries could have on the present and future of libraries.

Lou Lou's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I loved your article. The library is an amazing environment to which my children have learned so much information. With each child of mine, I long to see them learn to read. Even though young children can learn much without the use of reading and, it has been amazing as a parent to watch the floodgates of information open before their eyes when they can read and comprehend what they are reading. Libraries are vital for this success to happen because they offer information on all topics that children are interested in. It is so much easier for a child to hold a non-fiction book on something they are interested in than read it on the internet. Something magical happens when they are able to touch that book. I love libraries and regardless of my financial status, I can instill in my child a love of learning just by taking them to a library and allowing them to find books on an interest that they have.

Cherie Bergeron's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My name is Cherie Bergeron, and I teach at an elementary school in southern Vermont. I remember being in elementary school myself and finishing my work in a hurry so that I could retreat to the small classroom library and find a comfortable spot with a good book. Wonderful memories! Now, having my own classroom library is very important to me. I try to have a wide variety of books, with different genres and reading levels, picture books and novels. I also like to have a selection of books kept easily accessible that are based on whatever theme(s) my class is currently studying. That way, even if a student is not a self-proclaimed "reader," he or she might be inspired to pick up a book about what we are learning in science, social studies, or math.

Additionally, I try to make the reading area as inviting as possible, with bean bag chairs, pillows, and even stuffed animals that can be used as reading buddies (sometimes children will read aloud to them). I also offer variety in how reading can be done. Sometimes students read independently, while at other times, they can read with a partner, or I will have a student choose a book, and I will read it out loud to the class. Another thing that slightly older students have liked is making bookmarks about books after they finish reading them. It is a fun and creative alternative to traditional book reports.

I have never thought about doing a library scavenger hunt or including non-book items in the library that relate to books and characters (such as the figures, lunch box, etc. mentioned above), but these are great ideas! Boy, I could have whole classroom displays for Harry Potter and Kay Thompson's Eloise!

To end, I want to comment on the statement that the classroom library "reflects the importance of literacy in the classroom." I agree wholeheartedly! Students must see evidence all around them of the importance of literacy, and a print-rich classroom can help accomplish this. We must never forget that we are role models for our students. If we want them to be readers, they need to see us as readers.

yolette p's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you Maryellen! You have just given me a great idea. I like the sticker on the bin and the book. I continued to wonder how can I get my students to put the book back in the correct bin. I would designate certain bins for use on a weekly basis. I think I deprived them from a so many books simply because the books would become so unorganized in the bins so I thank you for the great idea.

yolette p's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you Heather! The checkout system is one I will use this year. I think its a great way to keep students interested and responsible for the books they love. I struggle with keeping my library organized so thank you for the sticker idea. The library is the heartbeat of the room and it provides an escape for the students.

Sue Eason's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I loved the article about classroom libraries. I teach Kindergarten and I started Reading Workshop in my classroom several years ago. Since that time I have worked hard to build up my classroom library. It has been challenging to find "just right" books for Kindergarteners to read. In the beginning of the year I pull out bins of wordless picture books, ABC books, songbooks, etc., but, these can be very expensive to collect. I encourage my parents to buy books through book clubs, such as Scholastic, and try to use bonus points to get more books. It takes a long time to build a classroom library.

Kindergarteners love independent reading time. I will often read a book to get them excited and then put the book out for choice during reading time. I love the idea of the scavenger hunt. You could use that as a way to reinforce book handling skills, concepts of print, etc. Great ideas!

Heather WolpertGawron's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I've actually discovered a new way to lend out books. I use my iPhone and have purchased the LendMe app. It's sensational. I reviewed it on my website, but if you just look at it, it's pretty straightforward. If you have an iPhone, I would really recommend it. In fact, it's become yet another way to encourage kids to pull books out of your library. Thanks for the comments and good luck building up that library!
-Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Heather WolpertGawron's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I share your concerns about the demise of the school library, but there is a different purpose to a classroom library and I see it as supporting each other. As teachers, we must recognize that there are kids who aren't going to be comfortable in a school library but will be in the safety of their classroom. They will have established a connection with their teacher, and that is worth a lot. I always pull books out of the school library is a different display. I always hope that students who finally get up the courage to dive into my library will one day take that next step towards the school library. I see my job as supporting the school library, not competing with it. Remember, the goal is student literacy. What's happening to libraries is tragic, but the only way to save them is to get kids to read, read, read, so voraciously that they can't keep up with what I have and must seek their books elsewhere. Thanks for the new point of view and the reminder.
-Heather Wolpert-Gawron

PM's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My name is PM and I am a fourth grade teacher in Bealeton, VA. As a newer teacher, I must say that I found this article to be very interesting and filled with a plethora of fascinating ways of analyzing my students' attitudes about reading. I have just finished my second year of teaching and have been searching for various ways to use my classroom library. After using my classroom library very minimally during my first year of teaching, I made a goal to incorporate it a bit during my second year. Although the main incorporation of this library into the classroom did not emerge until later into the school year, I was satisfied with the outcome.

Our classroom library encompasses a variety of genres and reading levels, in hopes of capturing all readers' interests. The students were given the task to complete an independent reading contract that accompanied their genre, present a paper bag report, as well as rate the book for their classmates. This ended up being a neat way for students to get exposed to the books in our library and get an idea of ones that may or may not pique their personal interests for future reading. However, because this did not take place until the end of the year, students were not as aware of the books available in their very own classroom.

After reading this article and considering the "four categories of students who pursue books", it was brought to my attention that there are students who only feel comfortable searching for books in their own classroom. Because I did not expose students to the contents of our classroom library until the end of the year, I was placing the readers that fall under the category, "Reluctant Phobe", at a disadvantage without even realizing it.

Thanks to this article, I am more aware of various students' feelings about libraries and reading. I will be sure to not only clearly incorporate our classroom library into my teaching, but also to do so early in the year to make sure all readers feel comfortable searching for books. Another hope I have for our classroom library next year is to make sure all books that have accompanying Accelerate Reader quizzes are labeled. This way, when my students are searching for books to complete their required Accelerated Reader quizzes for the month, those who do not feel comfortable in most libraries, can freely search in the comfort of their own classroom library.

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