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.
I love everything about this post. Thanks for the reminder and the validation. Teaching teens to be readers–there’s beauty in that.
You are most welcome, and thank you for reading (in general, and this post in particular).
Well argued and funny too. Kudos.
I don’t think I had one teacher who had a classroom library in high school, including my English teachers. I rarely used my high school library but thankfully had access to the public library. How amazing it would have been to have a teacher with a classroom library right there! Outstanding job and thank you for providing books for students.
Thanks. The importance of a classroom library seems self evident to me, but as Paul mentions in his great comment below, not all see it this way.
William, I totally agree with you. I am always going to tag sales to buy used books for my students. In fact, students from other classes come to my classroom to borrow books. I love books and I want children to have that same sentiment.
Thanks for the comment, and thanks for sharing your book nerdiness with your students.
The curation and the maintenance of a classroom library is something those outside the fishbowl will probably never really understand. I started with a shelf and ten years later ended up with a community. It takes some time. . .and energy. . .and RESOURCES (the late night conversations regarding Amazon bills or charges stemming from the local Indie Bookseller). But more than all of this, it takes connection. Books on shelves are a promise, but books in the hands of readers is where books move from their potential to their kinetic place. Thanks, William, for this post. It’s hard to argue against a classroom library
Thank you, Paul. A decent number of our titles were purchased after you recommended them on Twitter.
I loved this post. I started out with just one shelf of books. Then the reading teacher had students donate books they no longer wanted and she sold them for a nickel to a quarter. My husband gave me fifty dollars and that was the beginning of my library. I still get donations. Our library donates books to my classroom. I constantly review books and put them on my shelves, not to mention the Amazon bills for books. For me it is a necessity not frivolity.
Well said–it is a necessity. Thanks.
A tip of the hat to you, sir.
Thank you. And a doff of my cap (I’m in Dublin right now, so forgive me) to you.
Thanks for a great post. I’ll never feel guilty about buying books for my classroom library again.
Thank you. I am an enabler.
Inspiring. An abundance of Paytons – I know of what you speak.
Thank you for my morning tear and laugh out loud (“Literacy is much like lice . . . “) How right you are that a room full of books belonging to a teacher wanting to share and connect means everything. One reader at a time.
You are welcome–and thank you.
How sad that the library is understaffed and probably underfunded. You are doing a good thing by providing the books in your classroom, but I am sad about the library…
One year after I was hired as the high school’s first reading teacher, the library position was split to save money. So much for the bigger picture…
I’m not a teacher, but I found your post very inspiring. It’s nice to know there are teachers like you around. And, I agree with your thoughts about accessibility. It it is easy for a title to catch a kid’s attention. And, I imagine you have books that aren’t in the library.
I do indeed have titles the library does not. And all teachers have their own interests and experiences, which is why it would be amazing if all teachers had classroom libraries.
None of my high school language arts teachers ever encouraged me to read for pleasure, much less gave me access to new and exciting books. You are to be commended. As for proctoring study halls– my experience last year was having 75 6th graders in the library. I had to close the library to all other students and could only let a few students look for books at a time or they all went bananas. Don’t really wish to repeat that again! Glad it is a bright spot in your day.
Sixth graders? You have my sympathies.
I LOVE this post!! You are what every teacher should want to be!
Awesome post! I LOVE my classroom library for all the reasons you do. Keep up the good work (and great sense of humor)!
William, your post speaks volumes to me. Although I do not yet have a fixed location for my literacy organization, your sentiments are exactly the reason why my living room is filled with boxes of books. Wonderful analogy…”Literacy is much like lice—often acquired through proximity, and the closer the contact the better.”
Feel free to steal the analogy.
Funny, you could be me in a parallel universe. I also have an abundance of Paytons, with one in particular (the student who inspired this post:http://usedbooksinclass.com/?s=catcher+in+the+rye)
To fill my classroom libraries, I have been snatching up used books at public library book sales. As English Dept chair, I have control of the budget, and when I convinced the school’s business manager that $1/book was a great way to replace texts/add texts/supply classroom libraries, he organized an open purchase order that I can use as long as I get receipts for the sales. My libraries are on library carts that I can wheel into classrooms (2 or three at a time). I rotate the subject matter as well.
My inspiration was from Kelly Gallagher who used the phrase “create the book flood”…I think you and I are flooding pretty well.