How to Build an Engaging Classroom Library
Teachers can provide meaningful texts for their students that reflect their interests and facilitate deep connections to what they’re reading.
As an educator who has served in higher education, teaching pre-service and in-service teachers, and as someone who is currently working with learners in classrooms every day, I have a growing interest in ensuring that students see themselves as readers. I also know from first-hand experience that book-matching and literacy engagement are much harder to cultivate in practice than in theory.
Exploring new authors and expanding classroom reading choices is a never-ending process in our work with students. Because of that, I advocate for a wide-ranging classroom library for upper elementary and middle-grades readers, including prose, verse novels, poetry, illustrated novels, and graphic novels (as well as hybrid/fusion texts of all kinds).
Highlight Features in Texts and Link Them to Instruction
As an avid reader, I fondly recall teachers who took the time to get to know me and recommend texts based on my interests and hobbies, as well as my field of study. This process is about more than matching text levels or stopping at interests. To engage young readers, it’s important for teachers to strike a careful balance between knowing the reader and having a keen eye for the affordances that a text can offer.
Every text brings features that teachers can link to instruction and, often enough, to one additional text. Reading with a teacher’s lens is all about noting the opportunities for connecting with students and advancing learning moments. Part of this is the practice of engaging readers. The other part of practice is being judicious in the midst of our difficult work as we note whether or not the texts we chose meet the standards and lesson objectives, as well as the demands of curriculum.
While classics can be celebrated, I’m increasingly drawn to contemporary literature that includes potential avenues of classroom reading. Verse novels offer a close focus on characters and perspectives. Graphic novels expand on the use of images to support comprehension, and the juxtaposition of images and words in illustrated novels and illustrated/hybrid texts works effectively to convey meaning.
Although I love all of these forms, I have never found a magic genre or medium that engages all readers equally. This is part of why reading widely is ongoing work. Sometimes, I even run across a text that I’m sure will be a hit, only to find that a student doesn’t immediately engage with it because it doesn’t have the qualities that they’re looking for in their reading lives. If you’re required to teach classics, you could also draw upon parallel texts and authors to build deeper readings.
Some questions that you can ask in text encounters might include: Does the book in question offer a variety of characters? Does it contain additional features, like images and guides, that can help readers engage with the page? Is there a variety of rich language that students can encounter, even if the word count is not excessive? Does this text speak to my students’ lives in a relevant way?
Assess Text Topics and Origins, and Offer Supplements As Needed
With all that reading choices can offer, I acknowledge that some texts, including curricula, don’t easily connect to some areas of content, and students benefit when those works are supplemented or combined with other texts. For example, a short written piece about an experience from an outside viewer can be much more impactful from an author who has lived that experience instead. Recently, when I was teaching Jerry Spinelli’s book Milkweed, my students noted that the author was writing about another person’s experiences. By contrast, an author like Elie Wiesel can speak directly to the Holocaust.
Other examples might include texts where a particular literary feature is especially strong (for example, Zora Neale Hurston’s use of dialect in Their Eyes Were Watching God) if teachers are seeking a text that addresses a specific style. Additionally, sometimes it’s necessary to reach for a contemporary voice on a relevant topic to help students realize the power of literature to speak to the world around us. Jason Reynolds has recently written about the anxiety created by living in a pandemic (see Ain’t Burned All the Bright, coauthored with Jason Griffin.
Again thinking of classic literature, the ways in which characters who exist outside of white maleness are depicted is one consideration. The identity and background of the author is another—are they speaking from an emic/insider perspective, or do we have to account for some assumptions or etic/outsider perspectives?
This acknowledgment helps me make the case for wide readership (for teachers and students) and intentional, active book-matching simply because no text can do all the work that we need. Some texts also have a shelf life; teachers and librarians can continue to explore what is contemporary and meaningful.
One title that stands out as relevant in the age of living through a pandemic is New From Here, by Kelly Yang. As my students talk about the experience of mask breaks and the strange times we’ve been living in, this novel has great affordances for thinking about what has transpired socially and emotionally in the past few years.
Sometimes, the invitation to process a difficult topic can be found in a well-chosen text.
Create Opportunities for Deep Dives
Finally, deep work can be found in both whole-class reading and structured group or individual reading times in the classroom.
Many of my students, even my best readers, don’t enjoy reading out loud. Some do and will perform for the class, but I want my students to be comfortable as we engage with texts. I can take the role of reader, we can read silently, some volunteers can read, and students can read together in small groups. Practices like round-robin reading and popcorn reading have been implemented for some time and continue to mingle literacy experiences with anxiety-creating moments that do little to build comprehension, much less a love for the written word.
Keep Up With Recently Published Texts
To teach reading means reviewing a great deal of what is published, and taking this blend of approaches can open up avenues for both support and conferencing about reading goals with students. There are a variety of places that we can travel online to gain insight into new books being published. While I’m known to spend lots of time linking to lists and sublists on Amazon, I also recommend the following sites: