Over the past year I’ve explored ways to create a classroom environment absent of reading levels. My students were unaware of their levels yet acutely tuned in to their reading goals and strategies to support those goals. I communicated their strengths and areas for growth with parents, rarely mentioning specific numbers. I used reading assessments regularly to gauge my instruction and continued to track my readers’ progress through monitoring their reading levels without them ever really knowing.
While this process was by no means streamlined or perfect, I shared my learning and experiences on four separate occasions with other educators at state and national conferences and with a group of aspiring principals. The strongest responses I received were often from educators in schools heavily relying on reading levels, some of which expressed great frustration with school libraries using reading levels.
I have never visited a library that uses the leveling system. From my perspective, a school library is a miniature community library curated based on the age and developmental needs of its clientele – students. To this end, no school library should ever induce the need for reading levels for students or teachers.
Which makes the classroom library all the more critical to develop. I have taught in five different classroom in three very different schools – ranging from Title 1 to private schools. Not all classroom libraries are created equally, and this is problematic. I have been in classrooms with prepackaged leveled libraries, rooms with no library at all and rooms with huge ranges of reading materials, sometime organized by levels and sometimes not. In fact, I never gave much thought to my classroom library until I realized that to develop independent readers I must first teach them how to independently select the right books to read. The classroom library makes all the difference.
One concrete step we can take to close the opportunity gap for students is to create individual classroom libraries that are created equally.
If you don’t already have a library, start with a high quality classroom library set. Booksource is a great website for finding a variety of text sets depending on the needs of your library. They offer a wide range of levels, topics and prices. In my experience, their books are high quality, diverse and true to their descriptions. But don’t stop there.
A classroom library should reflect the needs of the readers in the room. I like to have a wide range of levels available, but not much wider than the levels of the students in the room. The easier books for my age group are available the first half of the year. At some point, I put those away and take out the more challenging texts. The middle of the road books are available all year long. This way students have a narrower range of texts, based on their individual and group needs.
Buy books for specific students. Each year I set aside a small budget to visit bookstores, used book sales and Amazon.com to select books that individual kids need or might want. This not only helps to connect kids to books in a personal way (what reader doesn’t like when someone intentionally buys them a book?) but it also diversifies my reading library based on kids interests.
Don’t be afraid to eliminate books that don’t fit. Each year I discard books that are damaged, irrelevant, outdated, too hard or any other reason don’t think they fit with the classroom community of readers. Someone, somewhere else will enjoy it more.
Once your classroom library is healthy and relevant to your readers, push yourself one step further. This year I am intentionally selecting new texts to provide windows and mirrors for my students. Books are opportunities for students to develop their own identities and experience others’ perspectives. Having diverse books that represent your class community and beyond provides rich, authentic experiences for young readers. Author Grace Lin portrays this clearly in a TED talk with anecdotes from her childhood reading experiences and how that shaped her as a writer. We Need Diverse Books is a great website resource for inspiration and ideas.
Maybe some schools rely so heavily on leveling their school-wide library because their classroom libraries are lacking. Maybe the classroom library is often thought of as a static fixture in the classroom. Maybe there is more to these collections than books.
A classroom library is the intimate safe place a reader goes to find the enjoyment and purpose in reading. It has more specific patrons and purpose than the school library and should directly reflect the needs of the readers in the classroom. It is our duty as educators to ensure every student has high quality access to books in their everyday classroom habitat.