An Abundance of Paytons by William Polking

Study hall. After four years of teaching a full class load, study hall was Brigadoon, a magical land hidden behind the mists. I know some high school teachers dread study hall (I have to corral how many students in the small commons?), but to me the notion of study hall was almost like love. An extra period to respond to composition drafts and meet with students about their reading and writing? What could be better? (Well, I suppose not having study hall seventh period in an eight-period day could be better, as motivational levels for students and teachers alike in seventh period veer dangerously close to (0,0) on the graph. Seriously—not a lot of scatter on this scatter plot.)

That was two years ago. Last year, I again had a study hall, but this time the numbers were low enough that I could have study hall in my classroom, rather than in the small commons. This was better than Brigadoon. This was Narnia. Hogwarts. Elysium.

This also became a lesson in the power of the classroom library.

As the semester progressed, more and more students, upon entering the classroom for study hall, headed to the shelves and grabbed a book. Some plopped down and grazed on multiple books. Some started asking about titles. Some started advising classmates about titles.  And, mirabile dictu, some students began to take the books with them to read outside of school.

One student in particular (I’ll call her Payton, which is helpful to me because her name actually is Payton, but also cloaks her in sufficient anonymity, as our school has an abundance of Paytons) started reading two or three books a week. She rarely did anything in study hall but read. (Yes, she may have been temporarily neglecting assignments, but this is my success story and I’d thank you to banish such thoughts.) And in the spring, though she was not in my class and I did not have a study hall, she kept returning for books.

And now Payton is my answer when I am asked the eternal questions (by students, by parents, by other teachers):

Why do you have so many books?

Full disclosure—our classroom library is now over eight hundred books. Not bad for six years, but not enough. One cannot have too many books in a classroom library (Hello, State Fire Marshal, why no that bookshelf is not blocking a means of egress and did I mention that the egress is my favorite wading bird and have you seen our prominently displayed fire alarm procedures?).  You never know which book will spark which student. An abundance of Paytons necessitates an abundance of books.

Why not just have your students use the school library?  

The title selection in our school library is strong, but because we share a librarian with our middle school  and only have her physical presence in our building three periods a day, our school library is not as present (literally and figuratively) to the Paytons of our school as I wish it were.  See also my above statement about the impossibility of having too many books. Literacy is much like lice—often acquired through proximity, and the closer the contact the better.

How can you afford to buy so many books?

I didn’t buy all of them. Some are publisher copies gained from being a Cybils panelist last year. Others were acquired thanks to a generous targeted donation from a local family in memory of their son (and, yes, there was something in my eye last year when his sister noticed the “Donated in memory of…” sticker in the front of her book and told me how cool she thought that was; and as for right now, well, I frequently chop onions as I write blog posts). But I did purchase many of them. Like many of you, I am independently wealthy—by which I mean that my wealth is at a level where I can still easily do my taxes by myself. So how can I afford to buy so many books? Did you read the paragraph about Payton? How can I afford not to?

Why do you spend so much time, energy, and money on your classroom library?

Because a well-stocked classroom library leads to crimes of opportunity, and crimes of opportunity can lead to crimes of passion.

William Polking teaches college composition to high school seniors (where he limits the parentheticals) and reading to high school freshmen. He also coaches speech and soccer. This post began as a tweet. Follow him @Polking.