How I Keep My Classroom Library THRIVING

There were many years in a row when, come November, my classroom library was dried up. Dusty. A a real live dead ghost town.

Tumbleweeds and all.

Learn seven keys to a thriving classroom library as well as a slew of practical ideas to keep your library a vibrant, organized, favorite place in your classroom ALL YEAR. (The Thinker Builder)I had worked so hard to set up the library, and explain all of the procedures and the system to keep it organized, and I felt like students would run with it. Interacting with the library would become so natural, so routine that I could "set it and forget it."

Uh, wrong.

One little word in that string of thoughts was causing friction, and I wasn't recognizing its significance. What was it? Ah, yes: routine.

Routines have their place, for sure. But more often than not, "routine" butts heads pretty hard with "excitement." And that's really what was dwindling out of our classroom library: excitement. Once the excitement walked out, "care" followed close behind. Students didn't really care about being in our library or what was in it. And without care, the organization dropped. And the less organized the library became, the less students cared about it, and before I knew it... ghost town.

Tumbleweeds, rollin' in.

How did it happen? Where did the luster go? More importantly, how the heck do I hang onto it?

How can I keep the initial excitement about our library from fizzling out after the first month of school? What can I do to continue breathing life into our classroom library, so it can THRIVE all year long?

In the fifth and final part of my Classroom Library Series, I'll share with you everything I've learned about the rest of the year as it relates to my library. If you'd like to see how I arrange, organize, stock, or introduce my classroom library, you can click HERE to go to the introduction to the series.

I'd like to start with seven "keys" that I've discovered about keeping my library engaging all the way through May. Then I'll share a slew of carefully thought-out, usable ideas that have helped make my classroom library thrive. So we'll start with the theoretical side, then we'll hit the practical side.

KEY #1: Don't beat yourself up over the burnout.
I want to get real with you right away: I get sick of thinking about my classroom library. I do. It happens every year, right after the second or third week of school. I oversaturate myself with it, and I need a break. I've learned to expect the burnout, and to not beat myself up over it. Because I've also learned that the feeling passes. I just have to be ready to get back on the horse, as they say, and not get sucked into complacency.

KEY #2: Resist the temptation to do too much, too soon.
Even if I've done a good job of introducing the classroom library a bit at a time, I still need to fight the urge to come at students with guns-a-blazin' with my ideas on keeping them interested in it. Right after my burnout period, I tend to go overboard in the other direction. It's hard, but I try to remember that a little better spacing, like the slow drip of an IV bag full of excitement, will pay off come February.

KEY #3: Play the "something's-up-my-sleeve" card often.
You don't need to be the International Man of Mystery, but I've learned that keeping a sense of intrigue about the classroom library helps it stay an interesting place to visit.  I want students to think that I always have something else up my sleeve when it comes to our library, what's in it, and what might be in its future. So even if I'm bluffing, I'm keeping my cards close to the vest.

KEY #4: Listen for the signs.
The signs of a fading library have to be recognized. And they will come. The three signs that have stood out in my room are: (1) when students begin telling me, "I can't find anything to read." This tells me students either don't realize all the choices they have, or they have become too bored to look. (2) When I see books carelessly put back into containers, that's a bad sign, or (3) when our "Books to File" basket is consistently overflowing, we've got problems with the "care" factor. And remember who walked out the door right in front of Mr. Care? Yep, Mr. Excitement.

KEY #5: Whenever possible, pass the buck.
You'll notice that for many of the ideas I'll share soon, I give the responsibility to students. It makes my job easier, and it adds even more excitement and interest to students because they take ownership.

KEY #6: A library's organization runs parallel with a library's excitement.
I think you're probably catching on to how much I think your students' excitement towards the classroom library trickles straight down into its organization and upkeep. And because of this, when our library becomes a mess, instead of reprimands, I reteach a procedure. I try to introduce something new, and connect it to the need to be able to find it easily.

KEY#7: Foster two types of excitement: what's now and what's next.
My aim is for students to be excited about what they are currently reading AND have a sense of excitement about what's next in their reading life. For this to happen, I need to (1) prove to my students that our library has worthwhile reading material, and (2) instill a culture of a changing library. I don't want them to ever feel that what will be in the library next month is exactly the same as what they know to be in the library right now. (Note the wording there: it's not necessarily about always adding new books, although that helps. I just need students to realize that the books they currently know are in the library are only a fraction of what is actually there.)

While you have those seven keys knocking around in your head, I'm going to move into sharing practical ways to keep that library thriving. For each one, you'll see a set of adjustable sliders, meant to be a quick reference to some of the idea's features. The sliders describe: the complexity of the idea (simple to involved), the prep work required (no prep to heavy prep), how often to use the idea (sparingly to often), and the need for students to know about it ahead of time (from random to scheduled). I've set the sliders at the points that show how I use the idea. Now let's get on with it:

The "On Hold" System
If you've read Part Four of my classroom library series, you are familiar with the system I use to keep some book categories "on hold." At the beginning of the year, I have over half of the containers turned around, showing an "on hold" label, meaning those books are off limits. Slowly, over the course of the next several months, I will open up these containers for student use. Some may think I'm torturing students by displaying all these books that they cannot get their hands on, but the desire and anticipation it builds is worth it.

I usually open up a handful of book boxes a week for the first month or two, then open up one or two per week until everything is available. When I open up a category, I like to to pull out a book from the container and preview it with the class, or share a personal connection to the category.  The "on-hold" system is the single biggest difference-maker in keeping my library fresh.

Built-In Time to Return and Find
You know how it is: the day is already so packed full of lessons and learning that we tend to gloss over the fact that students need time to be in the classroom library, returning books and finding new ones. Then we, or at least I, get frustrated with students when their book baskets look barren, or worse, just sit on the shelf day after day.

As part of our Daily 5 procedures, when students are doing Read-to-Self (independent reading) or Read-to-Someone (partner reading), I do not allow students to get up and visit our library, since that takes away actual reading time. Instead, I've built time into students' morning routine to "get their book basket ready for the whole day." Putting this responsibility at the start of our day has kept it a priority.

Category Spotlights
Pulling one of the categories from the classroom library and featuring it in some way can help get students into the deepest corners of what's really in there. Often, my students get stuck in a rut, choosing books from the categories they are most familiar with, and may not even be aware of some of the great texts that are at their fingertips. So I like to highlight some that may not be students' obvious choice. It might be as simple as setting the category's container on a table and mentioning it to the class. Or if you have a spot to display some of the books from the category, it gives the category some "curb appeal." Every so often, it can be fun to have a student choose the category to be spotlighted.

Shop a Partner's Basket
Every few weeks I like to allow students to peruse each others' book baskets, looking for interesting things they might like to read next. Before we start, we talk about the ground rules: you can't just take a book out of someone else's book basket, but you also can't "hide" a book from your own book basket so no one else will see it. They also may not promise to give a book to anyone later, but are more than welcome to give a book to someone right then and there, like books they have finished but haven't returned yet.

When students shop each other, they mill about, checking out what their classmates are reading, have just finished reading, or are about to read. It really gives the class a shot of rejuvenation. I encourage a bit of friendly negotiation... "Oh, you're finished with that? I'd love to have it. Thanks!" or "When do you think you'll be finished with that book?" or "When you start this book, how about we read it as partners?" Some students even make a note about which books they want to get from the library at later time.

My "Current Favorites" Shelf
So this idea is a trickle-down effect, but bear with me. I keep a shelf in my classroom (a rain gutter screwed into the wall, actually, but any bookshelf or whiteboard tray would work) that holds my personal favorite children's books. An important part of the idea is that the books change. So really, the books I put on that shelf are my favorites at that moment.

I think the concept directly contributes to a healthy, growing "reading atmosphere." It shows that you (1) read, (2) have read enough books to distinguish some of them as your favorites, and (3) continue to read and read some more, because your favorites change. And when you are an authentic model, the mood of your room follows, and subsequently, trickles down into students' interactions with the classroom library.

The 10-Sec-Rec
A lot of students crave the opportunity to tell the class about a book they should read, but I rarely can devote enough time for it to happen. Enter, the 10-Sec-Rec. The idea is to give each student 10 seconds to recommend a book to the class.

Gather students in a circle, each one with a recently read book that they enjoyed. It helps to give students advance notice of the activity, so they have time to choose the book they'll use. Since each student gets literally only ten seconds to talk, a round of 10-Sec-Recs takes an average-sized class only about five minutes to complete.

With students in a circle holding their books, and you with your eye on the second hand of the clock, the first student begins: he holds the book in front of him for all to see, says the title out loud, where to find it in the library, and a blurb about why he is recommending it... "My book is 10 Greatest Battles. You can find it in the "History" Basket. I like that it tells how many people died in each battle." (I have the rule that you have to give a specific reason; you can't just say, "It's so good," or "It's an awesome book.") Ten seconds run out, I say "time's up," point to the next person, and say, "go." Afterward, you can have students return the books to their correct location for others to find, or I've also just had students put their books on the floor, right in the middle of the circle, and called a few students at a time to grab one they wanted.

Book-Order Bonus Points
If you use Scholastic Book Orders, you know about bonus points. Using bonus points to order free books for the classroom is my main way to add to our library during the school year. Giving students the responsibility to decide how to spend those bonus points is a great way to add even more excitement and anticipation to those new books. My favorite way to manage it is to have one table group be in charge of the bonus points each time we have a book order.

After all the student orders are in, I'll decide how many bonus points I want to let them spend, convert the number to a rough dollar amount, then let the group browse a book order form and choose which new books the classroom library needs.

The "Hidden Gems" Bucket
One of the signs of trouble I listen for is when students start telling me they can't find anything to read. Clearly, there is actually plenty to read. One way to uncover some reading options students might not otherwise find (or not bother to try) is to recruit help from the rest of the class by introducing a "Hidden Gems" bucket.

It's a special category for favorite books that are not part of one of our already popular categories. When I introduce the "Hidden Gems" bucket, I put a few books in it to get started, but then all students are invited to add books and take books from the bucket.

This is a bucket I do not begin the year with. (I did once, and after a week, it just collected dust.) It just works better if it's added only when there is a need for it. Then, when someone complains about not having anything good to read, I tell them to go grab the Hidden Gems bucket and we look through it together. 

Click HERE to get the basket label shown in the pic above.

Personal Recommendations
So simple, but so powerful.

Once I get to know my students as readers, I begin making book recommendations to specific students. It takes awhile before I start doing this because if I get it wrong too often (i.e. if I recommend a book to a student and they hate it), then students will lose faith in me as a book source. But it's a special moment when I show a book to a student, and they have the look that says, "Wow, you care about me enough to specially pick out this book for me, just for me, because you thought I'd like it."

If I earn a bit of reliability in the recommendation department, then I can start guiding certain students in new, exciting directions with their reading.

Event Calendar
Scheduling mini classroom library "events" using a calendar that your whole class can see kills so many birds with so few stones (uh, bad use of an idiom, sorry). A few:
  • The events in themselves help continue to breathe life into your classroom library.
  • Having the events visible on a calendar builds anticipation and excitement.
  • Scheduling the events helps you and your class be proactive about keeping the classroom library, and reading in general, a priority. 

I tried this whole idea towards the end of last year and my kids loved it, so this year, I'm putting two or three "events" on the calendar each month. And when I say "event," I'm not talking about anything huge and fancy. But we can look forward to them and have a little accountability to make them happen. Here are a few suggestions.
  • "Friday Finds": Students share a book they "found" that is worth reading.
  • "Monday Makeovers": Give students a chance to do a complete "makeover" on their book baskets... return old books, find a few fresh ones, clean out the junk, even make a new bookmark to keep inside.
  • "Tuesday Trades": Students get with partners and trade a book from their book baskets.
  • "Wednesday Want That": Get students' input of books and series that they want for the library. Make a list and keep it handy next time you have a chance to grab a few new books.
  • "Throwback Thursday": Have all students get a favorite book from the classroom library that they've read a long time ago, and give them time to read them with partners.
  • "Friday Filers": Devote some time to spruce up and organize the library, filing all of the misplaced books. This sometimes works better with just a group of students in charge (but you might be surprised at how many students love doing it.)
I cut out and laminated the little bookworms you see in the picture above (using clip art from Our Monitos), and I velcro them to the calendar to signify a "classroom library event."  You can snag a copy of my calendar tags by clicking HERE.

Bookmark Favorites
I always set out a little basket in the library, filled with bookmarks. I used to be pretty stingy about how many bookmarks students could take, but then I started just putting a pack of blank index cards in the basket, which work just fine as bookmarks, but sure aren't very charming.

So every now and then, I'll have a few students design bookmarks for the class. I take a piece of paper, cut it into four columns, and give each one to a student to draw a design based on a favorite book, kind of like little advertisements for some of the books we have in our library. When I get the four pieces back, I arrange them back together and make a dozen photocopies. I cut them apart and now have about 50 bookmarks for the class that students love because they are made by "one of their own." it's easy enough to use a sheet of blank paper, here is a fun sheet of bookmark templates for you. Just click the image to the left.

Book Awards
Annual book awards are fun and make a lasting impression on the classroom library for years to come. I do book awards sometime in the spring, after the class has had plenty of time to read books from our library.

First, I show my class the books that won awards from last year's class, labeled with yellow star stickers and the year from which it won. (Note: Usually some students notice these stickers early in the year, by chance, and are curious about what they mean. I tell them what they are, but don't "show all my cards" about how it works until it's time to actually do it.) Then we have a week of nominations, where I'll set out an empty bucket for each award category (I do: favorite chapter book, favorite picture book, and favorite nonfiction book.) Each student can nominate only one book (so we don't have too many to vote on). To nominate a book, they simply put it in a nomination bucket.

The following week is used to give students a chance to read the nominated books. I set the buckets in a central location and students can come read any of them, but they must return them to the nomination buckets by the end of each day. And at the end of the week, we vote! (I keep it simple and just do a raise-your-hand style vote.) The top two or three books in each category get new stickers with the current year and will forever be winners!

You can see in the picture above that I've pre-made a strip of award stickers for several years in a row to save some time. Also, it can be fun to have an award for the favorite series and favorite author too. You can attach the award sticker to the containers of these winners.

Novel Read Alouds
I don't think this idea needs any sliding scales. And it's not my idea, anyway. Reading a novel out loud to your class is less to do with your classroom library, and more to do with developing a culture of reading in your classroom, which may in turn have a positive effect on your classroom library.

Reading to my students is my favorite part of the day. Do I have time for it? Of course not. But I make a little time here and there, so I'm reading a bit of a novel every day. I teach third grade, and I always start with Shiloh. As I write this, my class and I are a good ways into the book, right where Marty is trying to figure out how to buy Shiloh from mean old Judd Travers... oh, I digress. But I can't wait to read them the next page.

So that's it.

I hope something good happens to your classroom library because of reading this. (And if you've read all five parts in the series, I hope something extra good happens.) And if not, I hope I've given you some things to think about, and maybe some confirmations and support for why you already do what you do.

A classroom library has such potential to be one of the strongest supports in students' reading journeys. So go make the most of it.