A question I often get asked is how my books are organized in our classroom. The system is really simple and one that many people use, so I thought I would share here to help others. I have used this system in 4th, 5th and 7th grade but have seen younger grades use this as well. I do not level my classroom library.
I have more than 1,000 books in my library. I am not sure how many exactly but it keeps growing. And so my library is an ever growing work in progress. Book shelves are a mix of what my school graciously purchased for me and ones that I could secrue from family.
Most of my books are organized in bins, I have found this to be the easiest way for students to find books, as well as it being appealing to them. Bins are grouped into several categories, some by genres, some by theme, some by author. Students will suggest new bins as they see fit, for example this year we added a “War” bin and a “Cassandra Clare” bin. I use clear bins like these because they fit all books and provide students with covers that may entice them. For larger books, I use this type of bin since they fit my large books and picture books as well. I also use this size bin as my “Return books here” bin. The bins have stickers on them (address stickers) with the bin name and the abbreviation below it. So a bin might say “Realistic Fiction (RF)” on its sticker. RF is then also the designation that is put inside of the book underneath my stamp.
Most of my picture books are simply shelved on one bookcase. Students know that the entire bookcase is dedicated to picture books and put them back as needed. I have decided not to organize by author as it took too much time to keep up with it. As long as they have their own separate bookshelf, I have no problem. All non-fiction texts are also housed on a separate bookshelf and I have slowly started to group those texts together as well. These are mostly grouped by theme and are a work in progress because I need more bookshelf space.
Finally, one of the best things I have ever purchased for my library was a stamp! I purchased this type of stamp 2 years ago and it has been amazing. No more having to write out labels, no more mess. Books are stamped on the inside upper right corner as well as on the closed pages of the books (vertically when the book is closed I stamp it for parents to see my name). I then add then genre or bin abbreviation under the stamp so students know where the book belongs. This stamp has meant many more books have been returned to me and one of the best $6 I ever spent, plus when the ink runs out you just buy a new inkpad, wahoo.
There you have it, a quick peek into the organization of my library, I hope it was helpful.
Anyone who enters our classroom immediately notices all of the books we have. It’s hard not to, they seem to be everywhere. While I have always believed in having as many books as possible in the classroom, I was not always sure on how to best organize it for optimal student access and interest. Now, seven years into having a library, there are a few things that have made my life easier.
No check out system
I have tried so many different check out systems, from a catalog system, to student librarians, to an electronic version, and all of them turned out the same; a ton of work for me and I still lost a lot of books. So a few years ago I abandoned the check out system. Now students know they can grab any book as long as they promise to return it. It is amazing to see the look on a students’ face when they hear that. Yet, I am not sure this is still the best way, I do lose a lot of books but for now replacing books is easier than spending all of that time checking them out.
“Return Your Books Here” Bin
I used to have students shelve the returned books but I always ended up having to remind them and then re-teach them how to get them in the right bin even though everything was marked. I now have a plastic tub with a “Return your books here” sign taped to it right by all of our bookshelves. Once a day I take the time myself to shelve all of the returned books because it gives me a way to see what is popular, look for books other students are wanting, and check on the conditions of some of our most beloved books. It takes me less than five minutes and all the books are in the right bin.
Bins for every genre and then some
I have loved having book bins for many years. While they cost money and give you less shelf space, it has proven to be the easiest way for us to categorize books. Bins are grouped by genre and some by popular authors. Students suggest bins as well as they see a certain collection grow. Two such examples are our newly formed Cassandra Clare bins and military history bins when students pointed out that we had a collection now.
This Book Belongs to Mrs. Ripp Stamp
This inexpensive stamp purchased from Amazon several years ago has saved me so much time. All new books get stamped with “This book belongs to Mrs. Ripp. Please return when finished” on the inside cover and then the genre abbreviation (or author if they are in an author bin) is handwritten below it in black sharpie. I cannot tell you how many books are left behind in other classrooms around our school and this little inexpensive stamp means they all come back to me.
The Hardcover Post-It
The only exception I have to my no book check out system is that if a student is borrowing a hardcover book, I ask them to give me the book jacket and put their name on it with a post-it. I then save them all in a bin and ask students for them periodically. This has saved many hardcover books from disappearing as students see their name and then remember that they probably left in that one place. It also gives me a way to track a book down if someone else is looking for it.
The Gutter Picture Book Organizer
Someone long ago hung gutters all around my room under the white boards and I could not be more happy. Gutters make a perfect display rail for any amazing picture books we may have and ensure that all of the new ones get read right away as well. A very inexpensive way to get more display space indeed.
Printed and Laminated Bookmarks
We use Kylene Beers’ book Notice and Note throughout the year to give us a shared reading language, so it was natural for me to make some printed bookmarks reminding students of the strategies as they read. Bookmarks are i the same place next to post-its, which some kids prefer to use. They don’t have to ask for one, they take them as needed, and return them when they don’t if they feel like it.
“Our Favorite Books” Spinning Wire Rack
For a long time I had a wire rack where I placed all of my favorite books on for students to browse. Yet, it was not being used very much even though it was in a prime location. After inspiration by Nancie Atwell, I hung a sign above it declaring it a rack for the students to share their favorite books and then took all of my books off. I told the students its new purpose and have since watched it fill up with their favorite reads. This spinning rack has now become the first stop whenever they need a new book.
A Separate Book Case (Or Two) For Picture Books
While we have many of our favorite picture books out on display in the classroom (it’s amazing how many time students gravitate toward them in a day when they have a few minutes), I also have an entire book case just designated to picture books. I used to organize them and group them together and then realized it didn’t make the slightest difference to the students. They looked through a lot of books anyway whether they were organized or not. Since I don’t have these in bins, I gave up on organizing them and haven’t looked back since.
The Readers’ Notebook That Doesn’t Leave
I used to ask students to carry their readers’ notebook back and forth for some reason, which meant many days they left it in their locker, or at home, or didn’t know where it was. I also had to ask them to specifically leave them behind whenever I needed to assess them which meant the pressure was on to get them assessed so I could hand them back. Now I ask the students to leave all of their readers notebooks in the classroom. I have a bin for each class, I don’t care what name order they are in and at the start of each class all I have to do is grab the right bin off of my shelf and put it out for the students to grab. This is also how I do attendance these days, by seeing whose notebook has not been picked up.
Pre-printed Standard Comments Sheets
I assess my students readers notebooks every two weeks and while I often take the time to write in specific comments to them, I have also learned to pre-print address labels stickers with certain broad comments such as “Remember to use text evidence to support your thinking” or “Why do you think the author did this?.” Not only has it saved me a lot of time when I need to assess 120 readers notebooks, but it also allows me to focus on the comments they really need while covering all bases. The students do not mind (I have asked them) since they know it allows me to support them more often with my thoughts.
Learning to Let Go
This has been my biggest take away in having a classroom filled with books and readers. Sometimes you don’t have to have a perfect system for it to feel perfectly fine. The students make our book loving classroom their own so they change the organization of books, the shelving of them, and even how we read them. I don’t mind, I just have to let go sometimes and trust the students.
I have never posted pictures intentionally to show off my classroom before, but since I am in a new room at a new school in a new district, I thought I would. You see, my classroom isn’t highly decorated or super inspiring, it is functional, bare, and waiting for the students to make their mark. So pictures from it don’t wow people in general, but I don’t mind. This classroom is a shell waiting for students to fill it. Bulletin boards will be made once they are here, things will be moved around, kids will enter and bring the room to life.
This sign greeted my students last year too. It hangs on our door and represents my feelings about teaching. Thank you Neil Gaiman for being so eloquent.
Supplies are accessible to students, I would rather have them grab what they need then leave the room to go to their lockers. There is more to the left of this picture.
Every day, we make a choice.
From the door this is what the room looks like. Desks in pods, ready to be moved as needed, with awesome natural light spilling in. Our library is my favorite corner.
As always I am showcasing covers of what I read (students will be doing the same inside the room later in the year) but this year I am also showing what I am writing and why.
Books read this week counts too for the year, I really need to finish Stargirl.
International Dot Day is September 15th. My 130 students will be making their mark on our bulletin board that day and the rest of the year.
Global connections and bringing the world in is what we do. This year my map will have strings attached to the pins leading to explanations of what we did with the place marked.
Our library awaits. Two students have already borrowed books during locker drop in, that makes me so happy. New books are below the green arrow for students to read and review. There is no check out system to the library right now, that may change depending on how the year goes.
Slightly messy desk area. I got rid of the traditional teacher desk 3 years ago and have not missed it. This table holds my computer and the stuff I need to teach with. I need to get a lamp but otherwise it is pretty simple. Letters from my former students hang next to the desk for me to share with my new students.
The view from my table and out into the team area. The round table is for conferencing or when students want to use it. Most classes have more desks than students so they can work wherever they want. We also have carpet for laying or sitting on which I love. Above the door it says “Represent” a message I have used with my students for years. The rainbow chart is voice level reminders since we are a PBIS school.
More new books greet students as they leave the room. Right now the book tree has some of my favorite new and old reads on it. I love how students who have come into our room immediately start to look at what is on here; mission accomplished. Also a quote about reading is my final message to them as they leave, this will be changed every few weeks.
We are the sharks so we each have a shark rug outside of our doors, but more importantly the whole team of students see the message “You matter” above my door. We cannot say this enough to the people we surround ourselves with.
There you have it; where I will be every day for the next 180 days – is it September 2nd yet? I think I need some students to make this place come alive.
All summer my mind has been in high gear trying to wrap itself around what my classroom experience will be like next year. I know I will be teaching an incredible age group of students at an amazing school with a stellar team. I know I will be an English teacher and what our curriculum is. But that still left me with the big question; what will this look like in my room? 5th grade I knew what it looked like. 5th grade I had 90 leisurely minutes to get through reading and then another 75 for writing. What luxury! But 45 minutes every day for both reading and writing what does that even look like?
So I did what I always do; reach out both locally here to my awesome colleague Wendy, but also globally to amazing people who have been answering my questions. So I think I have an idea of what it will look like, a more tangible plan has been forming in my head, so now I do what I always do; share. Because I cannot be the only 7th grade English teacher wondering how to do this!
My crazy ideas include independent reading EVERY DAY. This is not a typical thing I have heard in 7th grade due to the limited time for teaching, but Jillian Heise, who I admire, gave me the perfect idea; to use it as the very first thing when students enter. That way every child has a purpose and routine as they enter the room. I am free to check in with students, gather what needs to be gathered and otherwise just observe/assess/and ask questions.
Up next will be the mini-lesson, I will be alternating days between a reading and writing focus, however, there will be both every day. This is where my skills of not blabbering will be tested. The mini-lesson needs to be short! This is where picture books come in handy, as well as using the same text for both. That way students are familiar with the text on the second day but we can change our lens with which we view it. Also, the Global Read Aloud text “One For the Murphy’s” will be used as our mentor text for the 6 weeks of the project, ensuring that we participate in the read aloud. And yes, I set up my rocking chair and easel in a corner just for this purpose, students can choose to sit on the carpet or in chairs as we listen, discuss, and reflect.
Then on to conferring and independent work time. I will be meeting with small groups and one-on-one with students for the next 15/20 minutes. During this time students will be writing or reading, whatever the focus is for the day. That does mean that some kids will get more independent reading time, and I am thankful for that. I fully believe that if we want kids to be great readers they need to read as much as possible. I am hoping to meet with 2 small groups at least every day. This may be totally unrealistic, but it will keep the pressure on me. I will also spend time popping down next to students as they read for informal check ins, cutting out time wasted of students coming to me.
We will end the 45 minutes with grammar, blogging, random mini-teaching points as well as show-and-tell. Yup how-and-tell. Thank you John T. Spencer for the idea. If we are to live a life of readers and writers, we need to build a community and show off what we hold dear. Show and tell allows us to share a slice of us, plus it can lead to deeper reflection for the audience of the reaction they have to something. This won’t be every day, probably on Friday’s, but it will happen.
This is all tentative and should really be entitled “Pernille’s crazy ideas for modified workshop.” But it is a start, a tangible start, that gives me something to work with and work on from the very first day of school. There will also be days of Mystery Skype, Skyping with authors, longer assignments, speeches, and presentations. But those will come as needed. And with my independent reading class I will get to implement 20% time every Friday! So yeah, I may not know what I am doing yet, but I have an idea, and it is making me so excited to get started!
The night before I met my first group of students, I was at school in a panic. Not because I was about to actually be a teacher. Not because I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. All true, however, my panic was from the feeling that my classroom didn’t look cute. It didn’t look lived in. It didn’t look inviting. So at 9 PM, the night before school started, I was in the hallway ripping down my welcome bulletin board, furiously folding party hats to create a new 3-d one that would live up to what I thought everybody was expecting. By 11 PM I went home, exhausted (did I mention I was pregnant with my first child) and still feeling completely inadequate. My room would never live up to all the other cute rooms I saw around my school. And I felt like I was doomed to fail as a teacher from the beginning.
It turns out my experience was not unique, nor dated. 7 years later, I get contacted a lot asking what to do with these feelings of inadequacy. What to do when we feel our room does not live up to what the supposed expectation of elementary classrooms is. But it is not the pressure from seeing our colleagues rooms anymore that drives us into panic. It is Pinterest, the internet, blogs that shows decorated classrooms that I will never be able to replicate. And so these new teachers ask for validation, ask whether their rooms are enough. They fear posting pictures of their room because they don’t feel they are ready. They wonder if they can be effective teachers without a “pretty” room. Our fear of inadequacy spurred on by an internet movement of cute.
I advocate for giving the room back to students. This does not work well with having a completed room on the first day of school. My walls are not very decorated. There are no chevron stripes (I do love chevron though), no fancy displays, no motivational posters. The walls are bare, the chairs and tables in pods, the room is functional but probably not super inviting. I do the inviting on the first day by placing myself in the hallway, big smile on my face, and then I ask students to become a part of the room. To move the tables. To create displays. To set the rules, to tell me what works and what doesn’t. And so then it becomes our room, but I cannot achieve that before the first day of school.
Why is this so important to me? Because for too long we have invited students into our rooms. We have let them visit. And yes, I know that our rooms are our home away from home. That we need to feel comfortable in them as well. That our personality should show through. But I feel like it sometimes goes too far, That we overdecorate, we overdo, and it leaves no rooms for students to be a part of it. They continue on as visitors in our beautiful rooms and their engagement shows it.
Now, this is not to say that having a nice looking room is a bad thing. I think there is a balance between decorating your classroom and focusing too much on it. I see some pictures and I cringe because although they look beautiful, there is no room to make a mess. There is no room to be creative because all decisions have already been made. And as the mother of a boy, I wonder how welcome he would feel in a room full of polka dots and pinks?
So I am here to say to all you new teachers, or old ones like me that need to hear it too; your classroom does not have to be Pinterest worthy to be effective. It does not have to have everything figured out, everything in its permanent place. It does not have to have all of those things we see in other classrooms, because we are not other people. We do not have the same stuff they do, we do not have the same personalities. Make your classroom work for you, allow yourself to not get hung up on how cute it is, how inviting it is. Focus on creating a community that invites all children to be stakeholders. Don’t feel you need to spend so much money decorating, find a balance, allow yourself to stop. If we really want to build a community with our students, nothing says “I trust you” in the beginning than giving the room back to them. And you can’t do that if every decorating decision has already been made. You cannot say “this is your room too” if you are clearly in charge of everything.
January comes at us like a lion it seems bringing students who were just getting used to being on break, miserably cold winter days where no sledding is allowed at school, and more assessments. Every year January always reminds me of the beginning of the year and last year I started to treat it as such. Goodbye January humdrum, welcome January excitement. So what will we be doing to battle the January blues?
Reassess our classroom rules. Students get a little tired and a little more restless so it is the perfect opportunity for them to set new rules for the classroom. They also know each other a lot better, particularly each others’ quirks, and so I find the conversation tends to go much deeper then it did in September.
Set up the classroom. While I think our work space works really well, I am not the one constantly using it. Time to ask the students if things need to be moved around and then do it. Also time for me to re-evaluate the room.
A heart to heart on work habits. While I ask the students to self-assess constantly throughout the year, we need to have some honest reflection on how they have been working independently. I like to think of it as new year’s resolutions set with an eye on middle school.
Take stock of projects. How have they been doing on projects, are they pushing themselves into new venues or are they sticking to much of the same old same old? What are new ideas they can’t wait to try and how will they try them?
Re-introduce genius hour. We took a break from genius hour in the last month or so because we have been too busy, but January is the perfect time to refocus on it, this time in science rather than social studies. Students have been busy at work learning about landforms, now is the time for them to take charge of what they want to learn.
Have a classroom reading challenge. The students have been excited about reading but January is typically the time they start to feel overwhelmed or bogged down. Last year we did the classroom reading challenge and it really brought in a lot of excitement. It is quite simple: Every child sets a secret goal (they only share it with me) for how many books they will read in the month of January, the goal can include picture books, graphic novels, or chapter books. We then reveal the total number of books we pledge to read on a bulletin board. They then read as much as they can and report to me whenever they finish a book (paper on my desk), I print out a picture of the cover and add it to our huge bulletin board. Nobody knows who read what or how many books they have each read but everybody is reading and if we meet our goal, we have a huge read-in party as a celebration with an author Skype call. I cannot wait!
Re-do routines. We have great routines but now is the time to re-assess, what do we still need to work on, what is no longer needed, what should we streamline? Again, this discussion is student-led with input from me.
Throw some surprise challenges their way. They have been working hard on our team challenges throughout the year and now is the time to give them even more. I am thinking the boat building challenge, as well as marshmallow catapults. Oh, and I do believe we have to build some vinegar rockets as well.
Re-assess my own opinions. Have I labeled students unknowingly, do I really know the child in front of me? What are the priorities we need to have for their learning journey and what will I do to help them accomplish their goals? Now is the time to reflect about each child.
What will you be doing to re-energize the classroom?