Several years ago, I had a classroom library that was filled to the brim with books. Every shelf crammed. Every space occupied, yet every independent reading time it never failed; a student would ask if they could please go to the library to find a book. I didn’t think twice about it. Of course, they could go to the library, where else would they get books? One day it finally did strike me as odd; why in the world were the students not going to our library first to see all the books there. There were great books on the shelves, there had to be, right. I mean, I am sure there was, they just had to find them first.
And that was exactly it; our library was full. Full of left over books I had picked up when other teachers weeded. Full of books picked up from our local goodwill store and garage sales. A few random selections from Scholastic bonus points that did not really fit my students. Full of books inherited when the teacher before me had left the room. Full of books with torn covers, broken spines, and even a few missing pages. The library was full and not a child was reading.
So I did the unthinkable; I threw out books. I got rid of all of those books that no child had read for years. The ones with the covers falling off, the ones that I wouldn’t even read. I got rid of the old, the broken, and even sometimes the new. The too mature. The unwanteds and the forgotten. And then I stood back and looked at my very empty library, wondering what to do. Because now I had an empty library and my problem was not solved. There still were no books to read.
Research says different things on how many books we need in our classroom libraries. Some say 20 books per child. Others say between 300-600 total. But the number doesn’t matter if the books are not good. So instead of focusing on quantity, I figured that was a lost cause any way since I had not won the lottery, I focused on quality. I focused on getting high interest books in the hands of my students when I could. And slowly but surely our library grew and it continues to do so to this day. So how did I figure out which books to purchase?
I asked the students. Paying attention was not enough so I started by asking them which books they liked to read. Something so simple that had the biggest results. They wrote me lists so I knew what to focus my limited budget on.
I handed them Scholastic catalogs. For all of those books that we had not read yet, I needed to know what looked good to them. So they would hand me catalogs back with books circled. If more than one child circled a book, I knew it would probably be a good buy. I also took better advantage of all of the bonus point deals from Scholastic and I told parents what my plans were. More parents purchased books so we could earn more points, and when we fell short, I funded it because let’s face it, that’s what we do as teachers.
I asked them to weed. While I had done the initial purge without them, I asked them to go through the library once more. However, this time books could be saved by students. So if a child wanted to pull a book, another child could argue to have it kept. This also had the added bonus of familiarizing the students with the books we already had and led students to talk more about books.
I started to read their books. I had been reading books of my own, but adult books, which meant I had nothing to recommend to my students. So I started by asking them what I should read and then I did. When I finished a book, I would book talk and leave it out for the kids to read. Sometimes I would hand it to a specific student that I thought of while I read it. Slowly, we started a community of book talkers that continues to this day.
I used the public library. Those librarians know a thing or two about amazing children’s books so I started to pay attention. What did they have on display? What did they recommend? I would also borrow books and read them before I decided what to buy. I still do this a lot with the picture books I buy. I also used our local book stores more; what did they have on display? What was popular for them. Use the knowledgeable people that surround you.
I became better friends with my own school librarian. I have had the honor of working with some incredible librarians that love books as much as I do. And yet, I hardly ever spoke about books with them. What a wasted opportunity. So find out who the book lovers are in your school and befriend them if you have not already. Talk books whenever you can.
I fell in love with The Nerdy Book Club. There was my tribe of people who loved books, who had to recommend books, who knew just what books to invest in. To this day, the Nerdy Book Club is one of the only blogs that gets delivered straight to my inbox so I don’t miss a single post.
I paid better attention. I started to really notice what my students were reading, what they were abandoning. We started to speak more about the books we loved and why. Then I would go forth and try to find other books like that. Creating a community of book lovers is something that takes time, takes commitment, and will not just happen on its own. The students have so much to share if only we ask them.
I found the best kept secret. I still remember the moment I was told about Books4Schools, a dark warehouse here in Madison, WI that sells brand new overstock books for less than $2. Yup. And not random titles either but books my students want to read by authors like Cassandra Clare, John Green, Rick Riordan and so many others. While their only physical location is here, they also sell online and just as cheaply. Trust me, the deals are worth it and their stock changes all of the time.
4 years ago I realized that while our library was full, it was not great. It was not something the students could use. It was not something they wanted to use. So I embarked on a journey to get better books in the hands of my students. I found a better way to spend the precious money we have to get books for our libraries. And it worked. Slowly, our library has grown to now encompass more than 2,000 books. Books that the students want to read. Books that are worn out from use and not from age. Getting rid of books is one of the best decisions I made for out library, what has been yours?
If you are looking for a great book club to join to re-energize you in January, consider the Passionate Learners book club on Facebook. We kick off January 10th.