Creating and Maintaining a Classroom Library by Savannah Campbell
I’ll never forget Carson. Carson was in a library organized according to AR level. As the time for checkout dwindled down, he starting sobbing. There was a book he wanted to read, but it wasn’t his “color dot.” He felt he was unable to check out the Spiderwick Chronicles because it was different from the colors he was told he could read. In that moment, not only did Carson learn that the books he wanted were out of his reach, I also learned that we had somehow failed him. He left the library that day without a book, and I left it determined to do better for my children.
There’s an ongoing debate about how to organize a classroom library—whether we arrange it by level or some other way. I’m not going to solve the debate today, but I do want to add my stance. I understand the desire to ensure students have access to texts that they can actually read. Organizing your library by level and then allowing students to choose from particular boxes is an easy way to give students that access. But when I think about my ultimate goal as a teacher, organizing a library by level won’t work. At the end of their time with me, I hope a child can go into a library anywhere and find a book they want to read. Public libraries don’t organize by Fountas and Pinnell or AR level. How will my library by level help students when they go into the school library or public library? Honestly, it won’t.
So what are my options? I’m not going to organize alphabetically, like a library. That’s too cumbersome for elementary students to help maintain. But I need to do something to get my students closer to functioning independently in a library. In my classroom, I organize by author, genre, and interests. You will see book boxes with labels like “Nonfiction Animal Books,” “Roald Dahl,” “Magic Tree House,” and others. Each of those boxes is labeled, and then there is a number underneath the label. Every book that goes in that box has a sticker that matches the number. If a child pulls a book out of “Graphic Novels 24,” their book will have a corresponding sticker that says “24.” By organizing my library this way, a child can go into a card catalog at any library and type the same search terms—nonfiction animals, Roald Dahl—and immediately have access to the kinds of books they want.
So how do you keep up with your library without having the Mo Willem books in with the Magic Tree House books? I’ve tried many different ways, and have found that keeping it simple worked best. As mentioned before, all of my baskets have numbers, and then stickers on the books with a corresponding number. I have a basket for students to return all their books to. Then, a classroom job is for someone to put them away. Because they all have numbers, it is pretty simple for the student to put them back in the correct box. If for some reason a book has lost its sticker or is falling apart, they put it on my desk. It’s simple, but it works. I’ve used it with first graders and third graders, and the simplicity of it ensured that even in May my library was well maintained.
Let me tell you how I make sure all of my books come back. I don’t. There are worse things in life than a child losing my Dog Man or intentionally holding onto a Magic Tree House because they love it so much. For some kids, the books that they manage to snag from my library may be the only books they have in their house. I don’t keep inventory of my books. In two years, that Black Panther graphic novel that I bought probably won’t be relevant anyway. I try to think of Richard Allington when he said, “We need to stop being so concerned about losing our books to children and be more concerned with losing our children to illiteracy.” I know how much teachers spend on their own classroom, but I can’t bring myself to worry about whether or not all the Magic Tree House books are sitting on my shelf at the end of the year. There are just bigger issues.
I’m going to leave this post with one final plea. Teachers, I am begging you: get rid of the old, stinky books. The ripped books. The books with yellow pages. The books that have a price on the back for $0.99 because it was sold in 1978. Think about what you like to read. Are you more likely to read the latest David Baldacci book straight off the shelves from Barnes and Noble, or the old Danielle Steele paperback from 1994 that smells older than you and has food stains on the pages? As adults, we will almost always lean towards the brand-new book that still has that publisher smell. If that is what we chose for ourselves, we need to think about the implications that has for our children. Our libraries don’t have to be full of just the newest and best, but we should make an effort to weed out the books that just aren’t working for our kids anymore. I’m looking at you, Hannah Montana novelization.
As I leave you, I want to bring this back to what really matters—our children. Carson taught me a lesson that day. I will never again have a Carson in my life who cries because he feels so defined by a dot. My library will never be perfect, but every day I will keep working to give children the authentic reading life that they so deserve.
Savannah Campbell is lucky enough to have worked for the past 9 years in the school she went to as a child. She has taught fourth grade, first grade, third grade, and is starting a new challenge this year as a Title 1 Reading Specialist. Reading has been the heart and soul of what she does both in and out of school. Savannah has a B.A. from The College of William and Mary, where she double-majored in History and Religious Studies. She also holds two Master’s Degrees from William and Mary—one in Elementary Education and the other in Literacy Leadership. She lives in Gloucester, Virginia, where her days are filled with holding her first baby that graced this world in July.