Category Archives: Julie Swinehart

Popular Titles for Middle School Students

Lately I’ve seen several twitter and facebook posts asking for “must-purchase” titles for classroom libraries and book clubs. It’s that time of year – the time when we order for next year and cross our fingers that it all arrives by the first day of school.

Ordering titles for our classroom libraries is no joke, so I love seeing how thoughtful people are about it.

I thought I’d check in with my students to find out how they might answer that question, so I asked them what their best books of the year have been so far. They wrote about it and talked about it, and then I had them publicly post their titles so that other students could get inspired to read new titles, add to their next reads lists, or think about new titles for summer reading.

Here’s what we came up with:

Block A Best Books

Bad Kitty, Norse Mythology, Pugs of the Frozen North, A Wrinkle in Time, Hitler Youth, The Martian Chronicles, To the Field of Stars, All Fall Down, Echo, Auggie and Me, Our Surprising Love Story, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Long Way Down, The House of the Scorpion

All Fall Down by Ally Carter has been a big hit with several of my seventh grade girls. All Fall Down Cover

It’s the first in a mystery series, and three of my seventh-grade girls have read all three of the books in the series since I added it to my classroom library in January. It’s led one of them to read some of Ally Carter’s other books, and they have had some fun and authentic discussions about these books, which is always fun to witness.

Block C Best Books

The Fault in our Stars, Twilight, Long Way Down, Memoirs of a Geisha, Turtles All the Way Down, Sarah’s Key, Everything Everything, Big Foot, Looking for Alaska, American Sniper, Smile, Booked, Guinness Book of World Records, Anne of Green Gables, Perfect, Out of My Mind, Insurgent, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe moved one of my readers to tears.

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This student literally hugged her copy when she was done with it, and while she is a prolific reader, this one made it to her “top book” award. If this student recommends it, then I’m sold.

Block E Best Books

Eleanor and Park, Everything Everything, The DaVinci Code, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, To all the Boys I’ve Loved Before, 3:59, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, The Crossover, The Maze Runner, Out of My Mind, The Hunger Games, The Perfectionist, Taste Test, Love that Dog, The Alchemist, Slappy New Year, Between Shades of Gray, Star Wars, The Popularity Papers

Out of My Mind seems to be a game changer for a few of my seventh grade readers.

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Somehow, this sweet story of an eleven-year-old girl who is drastically underestimated has reached some students who I never would have pegged as liking “this kind of book.” One boy in particular has said it’s the best book he’s ever read, and if I could translate the look on his face into words, you wouldn’t doubt it.

Hopefully these titles my students shared will help with some of your purchasing choices this spring.

One thing to notice is that these titles aren’t the latest or newest publications, but they are fairly recently published, for the most part.

I think the important piece is not that we have the newest and hottest titles (not that it doesn’t help!), but that we realize that variety and availability are what matter. To illustrate this point, I’ll share an example: I purchased about 150 “new” books for my classroom library over the winter break, brought them back to Nicaragua in my suitcases, book talked them daily, and made them available to all of my students.

Variety and availability have made a significant difference in the reading habits and attitudes of many of my students. I didn’t spend a lot of money – some of the books I purchased second or third hand for fifty-cents apiece. I’ve reinforced the paperback covers with packing tape, and it helps. The point is that the books are readily available, and I know what I have in my library, I know my readers, and I can do my best to play matchmaker between book and reader.

How do you choose books for your classroom library? What are some of your must-haves?

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family have moved across the world to Managua, Nicaragua this year, where a new adventure has begun.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

Developing Common Language between Disciplines

I work with some great people. We are usually on the same page: we all want what’s best for kids, we respect and support each other, and do our best to communicate with each other. Even with all of theses good intentions and practices, we sometimes are reading different words off of the that same page.

Our school has set us up to meet as small groups every week in the form of PLCs. In my 7th grade PLC, we talk about students and curriculum, about days of service and classroom environment. Through these conversations we realized that we ask students to write similar types of texts in many of our disciplines.

While students are asked to write similar types of text, we were all using different language when describing and teaching it. While none of us felt that we needed to use the exact same language all of the time, we realized should at least make it clear to students that these writing tasks are related, and that they should transfer their new skills from one class to the next.

So today we created anchor charts for each of our classrooms. We gained new understanding from one another through the task, and our students will benefit with new clarity and understanding of vocabulary and writing strategies.

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We brainstormed ideas on the whiteboard before deciding what to put on our anchor charts.

Our group represents four disciplines: electives, science, English, and Spanish. Many of our students speak Spanish as their first language, so between the fact that we have Spanish speakers and students taking Spanish classes, we were sure to include vocabulary not just in English, but also in Spanish.

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Our final product looked like this:

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We feel as though now we teachers, and soon the students, will soon be reading the same words off of the same pages, and we will have common language between our classes. It’s a simple anchor chart to hang in all of our classrooms, but it will be a valuable tool for our young writers.

How do you ensure that your students understand the relationships between writing tasks in different disciplines?

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family have moved across the world to Managua, Nicaragua this year, where a new adventure has begun.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

Helping our Students Develop a Reader’s Identity through Reflection and Goal Setting

It’s the time of year when it’s important for students to reflect on their identities as readers. There is so much growth to celebrate – whether it be in disposition, habits, knowledge, fluency, or attitude.

Even though I see their growth, it’s important for our students to own it themselves, and to develop their own sense of identity instead of relying on my impression of who they are.

So we spent a little class time thinking and reflecting.

I asked them some questions to get them started. Who were we as readers when we started the year? How do we identify as readers now, and where do we want to be as readers at the end of the school year? What might that look like?

Now remember, I live in Nicaragua, the land of lakes and volcanoes.

We have lake and volcano views from our school. It’s stunning, and it’s part of our daily landscape. It’s what we know.

As we discussed what it means to have a reader’s identity, some of my seventh grade students struggled. They weren’t sure how to describe themselves, and they weren’t seeing their growth over the first half of the year.

Somehow (some moments in teaching defy description) we got to the idea of volcanoes. That we can all be a different type of volcano, and that it can describe who we are as readers.

We discussed four types of volcanoes: extinct, dormant, active, and exploding NOW. We soon decided to toss out the extinct volcano as a possibility, because there is no one in the class who never reads.

We described the three remaining possibilities, connecting reading identities to types of volcanoes:

  1. Dormant — Rarely reads, but lots of reading potential. Might remember what it was like to be active and erupt (in other words, be excited and enthusiastic about books and reading), but it might have been a long time ago…

  2. Active — Sometimes/often reads in spare time, enjoys reading, and has preferences about books, authors, genres, topics, forms, etc…

  3. Erupting NOW (we first used the word exploding, but switched to erupting because it’s more of a “volcano word”) — So excited about a topic, series, author, or genre… can’t get enough and won’t stop talking about it! We realized this category isn’t sustainable – we should actually move between the active and the erupting categories often.

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This illustration helped student visualize who they are and where they want to be as readers. They started to reflect and set goals, and realizing that they have identities as readers, and that those identities can improve and evolve.

Some of the initial reflections looked like this:img_2716-2.jpg

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I took our class ideas and created a simple reading volcano infographic that now hangs in our classroom library:

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Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family have moved across the world to Managua, Nicaragua this year, where a new adventure has begun.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

Reading without Words

Too often, the purpose of reading in school is about grammar, vocabulary acquisition, organization, structure, mechanics, conventions, punctuation, figurative language, imagery, etc, etc, etc . . . There’s always a standard, a clear purpose, a takeaway for students when they read . . . but that doesn’t always have to be the case.

There is another important purpose for reading.

Reading is about stories, about discovering and creating our own identities, about realizing that others share in the same struggles as us. Reading is about being human, and being able to touch something on a page that tells our human experience when we are unable to find the words to tell it ourselves.

Reading is about stories, about discovering and creating our own identities, about realizing that others share in the same struggles as us. Reading is about being human, and being able to touch something that can tell our human experience when we are unable to find the words to tell it ourselves. 

Some of our students haven’t discovered this yet, and the reason is often because of the accessibility and relevance of books. We’ve all struggled with finding texts that are age and level appropriate for some of our students — readers who struggle don’t want to read what they deem to be “baby books” for a variety of reasons that are fair and legitimate. They need books that they can read and books that they want to read.

Recently I’ve discovered that there are some beautiful, poignant, relevant illustrated books that are decidedly not perceived as baby books, and which take a lot of thinking and reading in order to understand. But they are wordless, or at least almost wordless.

While I’m not giving up on teaching words and all of their beauty, I also know that wordless stories have a place in my classroom.

The book I’ve recently fallen in love with is The Arrival by Shaun Tan. It’s a wordless graphic novel, and it tells the story of a person who leaves his family behind in order to create a better life for them all. arrival cover

It’s the kind of story all sorts of people can relate to: Character endures separation, loneliness, and heartache because of hope, optimism, and desperation.

It’s beautifully complex and requires some attention to detail, some hard thinking, and some rereading in order to really understand and analyze it.

I’ve book talked it to several of my classes, and I’ve gotten some puzzled looks when students try to understand how a book can be both complex and wordless.

They struggle to understand how they could find fiction signposts, discover characterization, etc, in a wordless book, that is, until they get the book in their hands.

Students who don’t always have easy access to complex texts have found success with finding the Beers/Probst Notice and Note Fiction Signposts in this complex and detailed story.

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For example, this Again and Again signpost is an easy one to spot – the main character carries a picture of his family as he travels from his home country to his new land, and the photo pops up in many of the frames. It’s significant because students realize quickly that this man’s family is the most important thing to him, which is why he carries the photo everywhere.

Both boys and girls have read this book, and I’ve overheard conversations about what it might be about as they wonder and struggle through their thinking. This is the kind of talk I love to hear.

This morning, I discovered four boys reading choice books on a bench: one was reading this wordless graphic novel, another was reading one of the Harry Potter books for the first time, another was reading The Crossover, a novel written in verse, and the last one was reading a humorous graphic novel. All different forms of books, but all legitimate books that “count.”

The point is, all of these students had texts that were accessible to them. They were curious about their own reading, and were enjoying their books. Their brains were engaged, they were talking to each other about what they were reading, and most importantly, they were fostering a community of reading as well as their own healthy reading lives.

Graphic novels, with or without words, can be excellent bridges between teacher, student, and healthy reading habits. Students can learn valuable reading skills and strategies with all kinds of books – even the “extreme” examples that don’t have words. It’s not a place where I want my students to “live” — but I don’t want my students to “live” in any one genre or form anyway. They should build skills, stretch their brains and habits, find familiar and easier books, and then stretch some more. The wordless book have a place in their learning, and will always have a place in my secondary language arts classroom.

A few wordless/nearly wordless books that are complex and relevant to secondary students:

  • The Arrival by Shaun Tan
  • The Marvels by David Selznick
  • Unspoken by Henry Cole

One final idea: It’s a bit like teaching reading strategies with the Pixar short films. My grade sevens practiced finding fiction signposts in the short film Partly Cloudy last week, and they were able to point out signposts even though the movie does not have dialogue.

Studying and reading wordless books and silent films can build confidence and skills in our readers who struggle with more complex texts, and while we can’t ignore their decoding skills, we can also allow them to grapple with the complexities of stories that are developmentally appropriate for their growing identities as readers and human beings.

 

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family have moved across the world to Managua, Nicaragua this year, where a new adventure has begun.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

Incorporating Drawing into the Workshop Model so that Students can Show their Thinking

Teachers are adaptive. We are always ready, even when we feel never ready, and we approach new challenges with willingness and enthusiasm.

Even when the changes come as a surprise!

For the first time in many years, I am teaching middle school. I’ve taught high school exclusively for at least fifteen years, so it was quite a change to approach these students. I have been giving it my best attitude, attention, and effort, but somehow I knew it wasn’t enough. A few weeks ago I realized why: I was trying to teach my seventh grade students the same way as I was teaching my high school students, only changing the content.

While I realized that I have to approach middle school students differently, I wasn’t sure how. They aren’t just little high schoolers. They are in a different developmental stage, and I have to be attentive to that.

One of my classroom mantras has been don’t share your answers; share your thinking, and when it comes to talking to high school students about it, it seems like they “get it.” That’s not to say they always value the thinking and don’t look for the “right answers,” but they do seem to mostly understand what it means. share-your-thinking

With middle school students, I don’t always get that same feeling. I’ve experienced that they aren’t always sure how to show their thinking, but instead sometimes tend to want to parrot back my thinking, or the thinking of others.

When we’ve worked in our readers/writers notebooks, I’ve also seen that middle school students often ask if they can doodle and draw. I love it when my students get creative in their notebooks, no matter what grade they are in. I just noticed that my middle school students seem to especially enjoy this activity.

That led me to realize that middle school students can show their thinking through drawing, sketching, and illustrating, in addition to talking and writing.

I am introducing the Notice and Note fiction signposts this week, and instead of asking students to write about them, I’ve asked them to sketch and illustrate them.

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The buzz in the room while students were drawing, illustrating, and processing the different sign posts was fantastic. While circulating the room, I was able to interact with students in a fun and academic way. I learned that middle school students love to be creative, and I was able to get a window into their thinking. That was before I even saw their finished products.

Students have illustrated a couple of the signposts now, and I feel like I am on to something. Students are able to express their thinking through drawing, and even think about things more deeply than if they were only doing the discussing and writing. The illustrating has increased their processing, and I’ll keep using this strategy alongside the writing, reading, and discussing. Perhaps every other middle school teacher on the planet already understood this, but now I do, too.

I’m going to add more illustrating and drawing components to all of my classes now, no matter what level they are, from grade seven to AP Lang.

I’d love to hear how others have reached students who are in different grades and levels. How do your students show their thinking?

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family have moved across the world to Managua, Nicaragua this year, where a new adventure has begun.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

Utilizing Every Square Meter

We’ve got them in every class… those students who love to sit in the back of the room or in the corner that’s difficult to get into once chairs are out, backpacks are on the floor, and drawers have been opened, etc. The corners and spaces that present challenges to navigate, and without being aware of it, make it so we let things slide. Maybe we don’t check in as often during notebook work, maybe we don’t see what’s on the computer screen as much during our writing work time, maybe we don’t always see what page they are on during independent reading time.

Maybe you all have figured out how to prevent these “dead spaces” from being a thing in your classrooms, but I was still working on it at the beginning of my twentieth year of teaching.

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It was a concept I had first started thinking about when reading Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion a number of years ago (the updated version can be found here).

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I remember having a conversation with colleagues about “owning the room” based on what we had read in the book. I knew then that I had dead spaces, and I’ve worked on eliminating those spaces ever since.

This year I wanted to think about my classroom differently. I didn’t want to “eliminate dead spaces” as much as I decided I wanted to utilize the space to its fullest potential. I wanted each student to have a front row seat for at least part of the class time every day. I feel that this is inclusive; the students who often stay under the radar in the quieter spaces of my classroom can still find the spotlight, and the students whose personalities require constant attention sometimes find that they aren’t in the limelight for a little while. I want to spread my attention evenly and fairly, and I think that utilizing our space deliberately is one of the answers to this issue.

While nothing is every perfect, I think I’ve stumbled upon some good solutions.

I started by figuring out where the traditional problem areas are. I’m sure many teachers can relate: it’s primarily the corners and the walls. So I first focused on the perimeter of my classroom.

I looked at the corners and made sure that each of the four corners has a specific purpose.

  • One corner has the TV screen and rug so that students can come up to participate in mini-lessons.
  • One corner is where students enter and exit, so I used the wall space for student work and my currently reading notice. I also re-purposed my podium — I turned the front of it to the wall and am using it as a place for students to sign in when they leave class or come in tardy. There are also handouts for students on the lower shelf.
  • Another corner has a cupboard in it, which is always accessible. It’s for students — they can find extra supplies as well as their textbooks (we use them more as anthologies, to be honest).
  • The last corner is the most popular. It’s the reading corner. It’s next to the classroom library, has the comfy couch, and also showcases student work as well as our reading agreements.
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This corner has the TV/computer set up for mini-lessons.

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The corner with my door showcases student work, has a spot for handouts and the bathroom/tardy sheets, and has my “currently reading” notice on the door.

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The corner with the closet isn’t off-limits to students. Extra supplies and textbooks (we’re calling them anthologies this year) are accessible to students at any time.

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Student work is displayed in the reading corner. Currently on the walls are some grade eleven one-pagers. These also provide ideas for what other students might want to read next.

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The reading corner is a popular spot; it’s right next to the classroom library and has the comfortable furniture.

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Mrs. Swinehart is currently reading…

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Students come to the rug for mini-lessons in this corner of the room.

After looking at the corners, I examined the purpose of each of the four walls.

  • One wall is our classroom library, which is always a popular place to be. We use it and love it every day, in every class. It’s organized, at eye level, has a rotating display, and most importantly, includes titles that will appeal to my students.
  • Another wall is what would traditionally be the back of the room. It already had bulletin boards on it, so I hung anchor charts that are relevant on a daily basis. I refer to them, I walk to and through the space, and kids actively turn their bodies to look at them.
  • The next wall is what would traditionally be the front of the room. It’s where the white boards are, so it’s naturally where I put our daily agenda, and where I write the things that don’t need to be digital or saved on a chart. Books are displayed on the marker tray, monthly book talk lists are on one of the bulletin boards to the side of the white board, and it’s where we can go for “spur of the moment” lessons that aren’t created digitally in advance and don’t use the document camera.
  • The last wall is a wall of windows, and where a teacher might put a desk. My “desk” is there, but it’s pushed up against the wall and serves as a supply table. Next to it is our conferring space, which is used when I’m not circulating the room, and is even as a space for completing our Running Records. When I’m circulating the room, it’s another space for students to complete the learning in our classroom.

 

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Our classroom library is constantly in use.

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The white board wall is also used for book displays, a daily agenda, and unit goals.

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The “teacher desk” is also a supply table. I’ve reserved a student desk behind it for the “teacher stuff” – including the obligatory year-round-use Christmas coffee mug, stack of loose papers, and Norton Reader. (I’m assuming every teacher has something like this?)

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The conferring space/extra space for student learning

 

Lastly, I had to look to the inside of the room. The perimeter is important, but the students tend to “live” towards the center of the room. I’ve tried to make it so the desks aren’t pointed in one particular direction so that each space feels important. I’ve moved desks so students have partners, I’ve had arcs facing different directions in different parts of the room, and sometimes the desk arrangement feels random or messy. I think that’s okay. The point isn’t to have orderly desks. It’s to have students who are engaged in their learning.

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While I’m sure I’ll still have days when I don’t visit every square foot in each and every class period, I think it’s an improvement on what my classroom set up once was. I don’t think there are any spots for students to “hide” and I feel comfortable walking around in each corner and cranny of the classroom. Because I circulate throughout more of the room, and because my students get up and move more often to the spots where they need to be, I interact with my students on an individual level more often than before. It helps to build relationships, which leads to trust, which leads to learning. This makes for a more inclusive, learning-focused classroom, and that’s our ultimate goal.

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A panoramic view from one of the conferring chairs. On the right side of the photo, behind the fan controls, is the closet. The rest, I think, is self-explanatory.

What do you do that ensures that every corner in your classroom is used for the power of learning?

 

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family have moved across the world to Managua, Nicaragua this year, where a new adventure has begun.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

My Classroom Library Shelves went from Empty to Full . . . and Yours Can, Too!

My family took a big plunge five years ago, and made the decision to move from our placid, beautiful Central Oregon to Amman, Jordan. So much about Jordan was wonderful, but part of our decision to move away from our home, from Oregon, was about traveling the world. So after four years in Amman, we decided to move away from Jordan, to Managua, Nicaragua.

Between making the decision in January to move to Nicaragua and actually arriving this July, Nicaragua’s travel advisory from the US State Department went from level 2 to level 3 because of civil unrest, crime, and limited healthcare availability. Of course that travel advisory rating, combined with what we were reading in the news and hearing from people who lived in Managua gave us pause, and we carefully considered the choice we were making. Ultimately, we decided to move to Managua, and we are happy with our choice.

I share this background because I want to point out that while private schools often don’t share exactly the same issues and concerns found in public schools, private schools are not always utopian. Our school is wonderful, students are eager, teachers are welcoming and caring, and our facilities are beautiful. But with the current situation in Nicaragua, some families have chosen to leave the country, which ultimately means revenue from student fees is down, and the budget reflects that situation.

Everywhere I have ever taught has had budget concerns, public or private. I’m sure all teachers can relate to budget issues, which is why I bring it up.

Even in a time of budget concerns, my classroom library grew from empty shelves to full shelves in a matter of weeks, and it didn’t cost me an extra dime.

I walked into a nice, big, but empty classroom. The bookshelves were beautiful, but bare.

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Within a day or two of being in my new space, at my new job, in my new city of residence, I was having conversations with administrators and coworkers about how to build classroom libraries.

Our first step was to visit the book room. I think most schools have a book room, and in my experience they are full of books that are rarely in the hands of students for any length of time. We decided to gather a copy of each book for each of our five classrooms, and if a teacher needed one of those copies for teaching a whole-class-novel, we would give it to that teacher to use during that particular unit.

There were also books in the book room that were not being taught as whole-class-texts, and that weren’t available in high enough numbers to be used in that way. They might be titles that could be used in future book clubs, but we decided that getting these books in the hands of students sooner rather than later was the right choice, so they were distributed as well.

My classroom library was greatly improved by visiting the book room and reimagining the uses for all of the wonderful reads that could be found there.

I found some small white boards in the closet in my classroom and repurposed them as book displays so that I could highlight titles that might be especially interesting to my students. I think the same thing could be done using repurposed cardboard and printer paper, so I want to encourage others to use what’s available in order to highlight high-interest books. There are many other ways to focus attention on desirable titles, but sometimes simple is easiest.

After raiding the book room, it was time for step two. We checked in with the main library at our school. The shelves in our library were packed tight, full of great titles, and because shelves were so full, we had the ability to pull books out of the library and redistribute them to our classroom libraries.

Our librarian has spent the last several days pulling titles from the shelves and delivering them to our classrooms. Every other day or so, a basket of books arrives, and we never know what we are going to get. What we do know is that we will have more and more books as this process progresses. There will be additional books in our classroom libraries and more room on our school library shelves. Reallocation of resources is working in a very positive way in our school.

Once I received the books from the book room and the library, I implemented step three. I organized the books. I don’t think it matters how the books are organized, just that they are organized.

I categorized my books into the following sections, and used markers and printer paper to make my labels:

  • award winners
  • historical fiction
  • classics
  • mystery
  • fantasy and sci-fi
  • contemporary fiction
  • nonfiction
  • romance and other fun reads
  • “orphan” series books (books that are #2 or later in a series when the others aren’t there)
  • short stories and essays
  • poetry and verse

As you can see, I didn’t spend a dime on any books. I didn’t ask anyone else to spend any money, either. I used what was already in my school and simply helped to redistribute resources.

In some schools or districts, asking students to bring in books, applying for grants, and asking the parent-teacher groups to support classroom libraries will be great options. However, I wanted to share that sometimes, maybe often, classroom libraries can be built with what we already have.

What do you do to help build your classroom library? I’d love to see your ideas in the comments below.

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family have moved across the world to Managua, Nicaragua this year, where a new adventure has begun.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

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