Creating a Classroom Library Together - ASCD
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July 25, 2019

Creating a Classroom Library Together

Independent, choice reading happens in our classroom every day, starting on the first day of school. It is a non-negotiable. For this to work, students must have access to an extensive and diverse classroom library, know the books in the library, and be able to find the ones that interest them. That's why our classroom library does not exist until the students create it.

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During the first week of school, a small selection of popular, engaging books is available for student use. The rest of the classroom library is packed away in boxes wrapped to look like gifts. In those first days, my students and I have lots of conversations with partners, in groups, and as a whole class about our reading lives. We chart lists of our favorite titles, authors, series, and topics. These charts are displayed in the classroom and augmented as our discussion grows.

We talk about where we like to read, if we prefer to find new titles or reread favorites, and how we find books to read. We explore the ways to find new books, such as getting recommendations from friends, librarians, or teachers and looking through favorite genres or authors. From these ideas, we begin to discuss and chart how a library could be organized to help us find new books to read.

After a week of this process, we're ready to begin building our library. The students unwrap our first "gift" box of books, to many gasps of excitement, and lay them out to peruse. Students begin connecting books in very natural ways: noticing books by the same author, in the same series, or that remind them of their favorite book because the books both have dragons or the main characters have with friend problems. We start putting books in piles based on these ideas. Referring back to our charts can help us place books together according to, say, topic (e.g., outer space, vehicles) or genre (e.g., biographies, fantasies).

When we create a group of books, we place it in a basket and label it. The basket categories may change, so this is a temporary label. We continue this process for several days: unwrapping a new box, oohing and aahing over its contents, and placing books in established groups or creating new ones. Inevitably, a few books don't immediately have a home; they are placed in a temporary pile while a permanent basket is determined.

After a week, students are ready for more independence. Each day as we unpack more boxes, students will work with a partner or in a small group to explore the books and decide where they should go in our emerging library. Students must talk about their decisions. This process helps students become more familiar with a broader sample of class books. It also builds the norm that we talk about books in our classroom.

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Our Library Emerges

Near the end, we often find some baskets with only two or three books and abandon those baskets to determine a new home for those titles. Similarly, we find some baskets are just too big and need to be reconsidered and subdivided. We have had an "animals" basket. When it overflows, it often becomes portioned into an "insects" basket, a "birds" basket, a "mammals" basket, and so on.

Once we have finalized our baskets, we decide how best to arrange the baskets in our library space. The goal, as it has been from the beginning, is to create a classroom library that helps us find books we want to read. We often end up separating fiction and nonfiction. All the series book baskets might end up gathered in one area. The most popular baskets might be placed in prominent locations. Similar topics (the various animals baskets, for example) may be placed together.

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Often a book can logically be placed in more than one basket. So, what happens when students are ready to return a book? They may not recall where they found it, or it may have been passed on from a friend. I encourage them to be adaptable and place the book where they think it best fits based on their experience with it. We have class conversations throughout the year about ensuring that our library is designed to help us find books we want to read.

In our conversations, we discuss how a person may place and find a book in one of various categories (baskets) based on its attributes. For example, Kate DiCamillo's The Tale of Despereaux could be in a basket of books by her, in a fantasy basket, in a basket of fiction books with animals, or in a basket of books about problems.

Student-Tested and Invested

The process of working together to create our classroom library is a long one and requires patience on the part of students and teachers. I found inspiration and support from the book It's All About the Books: How to Create Bookrooms and Classroom Libraries That Inspire Readers by Tammy Mulligan and Clare Landrigan.

The time and effort you and your students put into creating your classroom library pays off throughout the year. My students know which books are in our classroom library far better than they would if the baskets had been set when they arrived on the first day. Students know how to talk about books because it is part of establishing our library. Talking about books becomes the norm: students recommend books to each other, ask each other about books, and pass books around. Students show significant stamina during independent reading time; they look forward to it and want it to last as long as possible. Finally, the library belongs to the students. They own it because they created it, and as a result, they invest in and care for it.

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