If you are new to teaching, whatever classroom library books you inherit with your first room will almost certainly be inadequate. You will start to accumulate them over time (often, unfortunately, through your own purchases!).
So let’s start by talking about obtaining books, then what to do with them once you have them on your bookshelves.
How many books do you need?
Short answer: as many as you can get! Your classroom library will become one of your most-valued teaching resources, and one of the things that students love about your classroom. But let’s refine that a bit. The well-stocked classroom library will have:
Reading levels that bracket your grade level
It is extremely important to meet students where they're at regarding their reading level, even if you are teaching sixth grade and have a student at a second-grade level. Scaffolding the student up through the grade levels of books will be the key to exiting them from their reading IEP.
Don't dispose of any lower-level books that you find in your classroom library, and don't hesitate to seek some out as you build your collection.
Engaging nonfiction on topics that are aligned with your curriculum
When you teach about interesting topics in your social studies and science blocks, it's natural for children to want to know more about them. That is your opening for getting kids to read nonfiction on their own.
Engaging nonfiction on topics of interest to children
Your social studies and science curricula will cover only a handful of interesting topics. But there are an infinite number of topics that are of interest to children. A nice selection of animal books, for example, will be engaging at almost any grade level, whether you are teaching animal lessons or not.
You'll soon learn what topics your kids really want to know more about so you can tailor your book search accordingly.
Engaging fiction that encourages reading
Just as children like to focus on certain nonfiction topics, there is always interest in a wide variety of fiction stories. Yes, unicorns, princesses, action heroes, and cars – they all have a place in your classroom library because engaging books encourage students to become self-starters in reading.
Building your library
So, what should you do if you are a brand-new teacher and the books sitting in your empty classroom can barely constitute a collection, let alone a full library? Don't panic! And don't make a giant list of books to rush out and buy. Your best approach? Start buying any books you can get your hands on and refine as you go.
Here's the simple truth: it is highly unlikely that anybody in your building administration will help you build an adequate classroom library. You're going to have to put out some effort and, yes, some of your own money in order to get your collection of books up to the level where you feel comfortable that most of the needs of your students are being met.
Here are the basic book-hunting strategies.
Check out the school library or book room
Every school is going to have a library, and you need to be fully aware of their procedures for obtaining books. It might be possible that you can check out certain sets of books for your room for a period of time.
Likewise, many schools will have a book room where you can sign out multiple books to use for the entire year. Be warned, however, that a book room might have been somewhat neglected for a few years, and therefore may not be up to the task of supplying engaging reading material for multiple teachers.
Ask other teachers
Teachers are constantly switching grade levels, and, as a result, they sometimes clean out books that are no longer appropriate. Any teacher would be happy to have her old books stay in the school and be used rather than end up in the garbage or a thrift store.
Just mention that your classroom library is a bit skimpy and you're looking for any spare books that are available.
Visit thrift stores or used-book stores
You can often find a lot of titles at thrift stores or other places that collect gently-used books. Hitting several of these locations in one afternoon can yield quite a haul for your classroom library.
Purchase by the lot on eBay
This is the ultimate of all jump-starters for your classroom library. If you are pressed for time and willing to spend a bit more money, then search for books on eBay.
For example, I bought one lot of 125 award-winning titles for only forty dollars – that’s about thirty cents per title, and they were in like-new condition. One purchase like this can have a dramatic positive impact on the adequacy of your classroom book collection.
Other sources of books
Depending upon the socioeconomics of your school, it's quite common for donations to come in that provide funds for teachers to go purchase books. Likewise, if you manage Scholastic or other book orders, you can build up credits that will allow you to purchase books for your room.
Within two or three years, you will find that you own a great set of books to support your classroom learning environment. You will even arrive at the point where you start sorting books out. Please remember to pass those books on to the next new teacher who is struggling to build her own classroom library.
Those are a few ideas for jump-starting your library. You will never be done adding to and curating your collection of books.
Dishpans for book tubs
A classroom library has to be organized in some way so it’s not a jumble. I cover different methods of categorizing books below, but that still leaves us with the problem of how to group them on the shelves.
Since the cover excites kids to read, storing books with only the spine showing is not a good plan (unless they are chapter books – see below). Enter the lowly dishpan.
The dollar store, Wal-Mart, or Target is your source for cheap medium-sized dishpans. Labels on the front identify what’s inside, and kids can then easily flip through the texts. Small containers, such as plastic shoeboxes, may be more manageable for younger students.
Options for larger picture books, such as those found in primary grades, include larger plastic boxes or even milk crates.
Some notes on book tubs
Tubs are great for storing and categorizing books, but from a child's perspective, a tub-full of books often looks like just one or two – meaning that many students are not “deep lookers” when it comes to exploring a tub of reading selections.
Remember, these are the same children who can't find their favorite socks two minutes after their mom puts them on their beds. “Seeking” and “finding” are not always elementary student skills!
To help students discover new books, it's a good idea to rotate the selections within each tub every couple of months. Make it a class project, then sit back and listen to the joyous cries of discovery as kids find books they want to read… books that have been hiding in tubs inches from their fingers for months!
Some teachers have room to set tubs at table groups and then rotate them each week. This is another great way to encourage kids to explore new material.
It is also a good idea to display a few books face-out to emphasize their importance. They can go on top of your bookshelves or on your whiteboard rail. Choose books that you have read aloud (kids love to re-read these) and ones that are associated with your current lessons.
Chapter book options
As noted, I try to have all picture books facing out or in tubs because their covers are so engaging and give students a good idea of what they will find inside. I have organized chapter books this same way, but they take up more space and are harder to sort through, especially if I have several copies of the same title.
Most often, I sort chapter books by level and then alphabetically by author, as would be found in the library. I have students every year who independently choose to be the library manager because they love alphabetizing and organizing!
Video tips: organizing your classroom library
Organizing classroom library books
What system works best for grouping books?
- By author?
- By subject?
- By title?
- By genre?
Well, all of them, of course! It depends on the time of year, what you are studying, and what you are teaching the children about the use and love of books.
- Studying how to choose “just right” books? Group them by level.
- Comparing fiction to nonfiction? Group them by genre.
- Studying biographies? Pull those into their own section.
You get the idea. No need to be static with your library arrangement. I rearrange my library like I rearrange my students’ desks: whenever I think it is needed to meet classroom learning objectives.
I write in books!
Only a little bit, though. It is SO worth the time it takes. It was daunting at first because I had a fairly large classroom library. I took all of my books home one summer to label, sort, clean up, and clean out. This gave me the opportunity to see what my library was lacking.
After my existing books were labeled, it was easy to label any new books I purchased for the classroom. Here’s how to do it.
First, grab a pencil and a book from your library. I’ll grab Enemy Pie by Derek Munson.
Next, go to www.scholastic.com, and, under the “teachers” tab, go to Book Wizard. Type in the title of your book and select the correct one. From there, you can choose to have the level reported back as a Grade Level Equivalent (GLE), Guided Reading Equivalent (GRE), Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA), or Lexile measure.
So, inside the cover of Enemy Pie at the top left corner, I would write:
Genre: Fiction, Personal Narrative
How about a chapter book? The Castle in the Attic by Elizabeth Winthrop is a favorite. The Book Wizard doesn’t have a DRA level available, so I will use the Lexile level and convert to a DRA using a conversion chart found online. Inside its cover I would write:
Genre: Fiction, Fantasy
Topic: Friendship, Middle Ages, Magic
Keep in mind that Scholastic’s Book Wizard is not the perfect system. You should read and know every book in your classroom library. If you are uncertain about the level, genre, or topic, read the book and judge for yourself!
Sometimes the inside of the front cover will be a busy pattern or dark color that won’t work for labeling. I just pop in a blank mailing label (or even a half of one) and label away.
And the bonus? When it’s time to rearrange your library, you can have the kids do it! Explain the new piles you need and set them loose to check inside the covers and put them where they belong. They love it, because in the process they are certain to find some books they had been overlooking. And your super-organized kids (there are always a few) will make sure the piles contain exactly what you want.
All that is left is to update the labels on your book tubs or other containers, and you are set to get reading.
Your teacher books
Be certain to set your own books aside in a special section of your shelves – preferably out of reach of your students. I'm talking about those books that you use for your read-alouds (both fiction and nonfiction) or other special instructional situations. Keeping them up next to your teacher textbooks or program guides is a good option.
If you let these books get into your general classroom circulation, they will inevitably disappear into students’ desks and be unavailable when you really need them.