A Classroom Library: If You Build It, They Will Read by Jim Bailey
I had just finished sharing the latest research about classroom libraries with my teachers at a staff meeting. The research didn’t surprise anyone. Students who are able to utilize a well-stocked, diverse classroom library spend 60% more time reading compared to those that don’t. These same students are also more likely to talk about the books they are reading and make recommendations to other students. Classroom libraries are essential in order to provide students with access to books and motivation to read. There is a direct link between classroom libraries and reading motivation, reading achievement, and reading engagement.
None of this research was a huge shock to the teachers in the room. What happened next, however, was a huge shock. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a stack of $100 gift cards to Barnes and Noble. “We are spending the rest of the PD day at Barnes and Noble, and I have $100 for each of you to spend on your classroom library.” They didn’t react at first, but just looked around the room at one another. I could tell they were excited but were waiting for the catch. I heard one teacher whisper to another, “Is he serious?” Another teacher replied, “No, he’s kidding.” I assured them I wasn’t kidding. In fact, it wasn’t optional, we were leaving now. I wanted to show them that I valued classroom libraries and was going to support them as they built their own. We put money and time behind the things we value. As the building principal, I greatly value classroom libraries and what better way to show it than by taking a field trip to the bookstore. I handed the teachers their $100 gift cards (and another $5 gift card because you need a coffee while you browse) and we all headed to the bookstore.
I can already hear principals saying to themselves, “That’s great Jim, but I don’t have an extra $2000 in my budget to just give to teachers to buy books.” As if books are an afterthought and something you only buy when you have money to throw away. Believe me, I understand how underfunded schools in America are. This is a systemic problem that needs a solution and we should be advocating to address that. However, we can’t use it as an excuse. We put money and time behind the things we value. Principals, we need to scrutinize our budget and take a good, long look at where our money is spent. We need to stop throwing money at every single shiny object a vendor pitches us. Do we really need to spend money on another standardized assessment that is actually just a ridiculous “teacher evaluation” tool in disguise? 🙄 No one involved benefits from these types of purchases. I went through every line of my budget, asking myself, “Is this program or resource better at raising student achievement than putting a book in a student’s hand?” If the answer was no, then I had just found money to support classroom libraries. It turned out I was able to find thousands of dollars in my budget.
We started by kicking Accelerated Reader to the curb. This program was costing our school over $2000 EVERY. SINGLE. YEAR. Goodbye low level comprehension tests. Goodbye trinkets and prize incentives to read. Goodbye reading books “only on AR.” Goodbye punishing kids for not reaching their stupid goal. Hello classroom libraries. The funds I saved from AR covered the price of the gift cards to Barnes and Noble. It also ensured that I was able to do it EVERY. SINGLE. YEAR. Actually, it turns out that I was able to do it several times a year because I found I could save a whole lot more when I looked at my budget through a classroom library lens.
One of the biggest budget saving decisions I made as principal was to stop buying workbooks to a basal series our district had purchased. They were absolute garbage! 500 pages of nothing but mind-numbing, busy work junk! Junk that was costing my building $5000 a year! This decision completely changed the reading culture in our building. Not only does this decision allow us to spend additional money on classroom libraries, it also allows us to purchase books to support #classroombookaday, March Book Madness, and Global Read Aloud. Furthermore, it frees up funds to give additional money to new teachers for their classroom libraries. It has been a long-standing tradition of mine to give every new teacher in my building a copy of The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller. I am now able to include an additional $300 gift card to get them started on their classroom library. New teachers need this additional support. We shouldn’t expect teachers to use their own money to purchase books for their classroom library. As Donalyn Miller says, “We don’t expect the basketball coach to buy their own basketballs, we shouldn’t expect teachers to have to buy their own classroom books.” I couldn’t agree more but also realize that many educators do it anyway because they love sharing books with students. No one has been more generous with this than Donalyn who gives away books every single day. Unfortunately, our newest teachers can’t afford to do this. They have student loans, more debt, and smaller salaries. I challenge every principal to follow my lead and pledge to give each new teacher hired a copy of The Book Whisperer and $300 to start their classroom library. This is how we welcome new teachers. This is how we build a culture of reading in our school. This is how we raise an army of students that will grow up to be lifelong readers.
When it comes to building a classroom library, Stephanie Harvey and Annie Ward share some great advice in their book, From Striving to Thriving: How to Grow Confident, Capable Readers. I especially love the following quote from the book, “Build a library for the readers you expect; customize it for the readers you meet.” They suggest at least 1,500 thoughtfully selected books with a variety of genres, formats, topics, and levels. Principals, our commitment to classroom libraries needs to be robust and on-going. Every school year brings new readers which means we need to be ready to support new titles in classroom libraries. When we scrutinize our budgets, we can find money. We can also be smart about how we build classroom libraries.
One of the places we started at Hemmeter was Scholastic. Scholastic offers teachers huge bonus point incentives at the beginning of the year. This is a chance to get thousands of dollars in books for a couple hundred dollars. With bonus points, you can continually add the hottest titles throughout the year. Penny Kittle’s Book Love Foundation is another great resource for building classroom libraries. Penny’s Foundation gives away money to be used for classroom libraries. Books4School, Scholastic Warehouse sales, and discount stores are some other great ways to find high quality children’s literature at a discounted price. All of these ideas stretch our book buying budget just a bit further.
The main focus of this blog post has been about the need for principals to step up and support teachers with building classroom libraries. However, I want to be clear this is not at the expense of your building library. Principals should not be taking funds away from the school library for classroom libraries. We are not choosing between funding school libraries and classroom libraries. You need to do BOTH! In fact, your school librarian is your best resource when it comes to building classroom libraries. We need to build time into our librarian’s schedule to collaborate with teachers to help pick books for the classroom libraries. Librarians are our experts in matching students with books. The research is clear that both types of libraries play a vital role in growing lifelong readers.
The staff meeting where I first gave the teachers their $100 gift cards to purchase books is one of my favorite memories as principal of Hemmeter. I remember my heart racing as I was getting ready to tell them because I was so excited. Several teachers cried; they were so excited. They sent me text messages with pictures of all the books they were buying. They were so grateful for the time and money. Even more than that though, they were excited that we were finally committed to a culture of reading. Real reading! Not comprehension quizzes. Not endless worksheets. Not scripted basal lessons. We were showing what we truly valued with our time and money: Our students!
Jim Bailey is the principal at Hemmeter Elementary in Saginaw, Michigan. He has a passion for helping all students become lifelong readers. Jim spends his time reading, cheering on the Detroit Tigers, and enjoying time with his family (wife, Laura, and two sons, Evan and Griffin). He is an all-around nerd who probably spends too much time obsessing over Game of Thrones, Star Wars, Clash of Clans, and comic books. You can follow him on Twitter @jcbailey3. He writes for the Classroom Communities blog (www.classroomcommunities.com) as well as the Nerdy Book Club.
Fountas, I., & Pinnell, G.S. (1996). Guided Reading. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann
Harvey, S., & Ward, A. (2017). From Striving to Thriving. New York, NY: Scholastic
Neuman, S.B. (1999). “Books make a difference: A study of access to literacy.” Reading Research Quarterly