Equality in the Classroom Library

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.

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In the Middle

We existed silently side by side.  He sat on a tall stool.  I stood, shoulders level, working quietly on who knows what trying to appear busy and slyly watching his progress.  He drew with percision, intentionally adding details in what seemed like random order.  As a six year old he crafted a story about knights.  Able to write himself he asked, “Mom, can you write the next sentence for me?”

As a writing teacher I wanted to say no.

As a mom, I responded, “Yes, of course I can.”

I wrote this piece as a three minute quick write during Jennifer Serravallo’s session at the International Literacy Association Conference today.  As I reflect on the day, its symbolism resounds.

Simultaneously we want to protect our children and allow them to participate fully in the world around us. But our purpose must move beyond protection to a world where young learners trust us to lead them to a place of unknowing answers.

I come from a privileged life and work in a privileged school.  I do not take for granted that he wants to write during his spare time.  I marvel at his ownership of being an author.  I am hopeful one day his actions will be precise and authentic enough to lead the world toward a better place.  In my six year old lies our future. But how do we change the motivation to write into agency and action?

After the emotional and raw panel on Disrupting a Destructive Cycle: How Literacy Drives Social Change I am moved by this position of power I was so easily brought up in.

Why do some children have the opportunity and luxury of seeing themselves as real writers at a young age and some do not?  What are the systemic actions that result in beginning first grade identifying with literacy and those that do not?  Where is the breakdown of differences?  And how can teachers and students in a position of privilege partner with other educators and students to…

…to what? 

What are the steps I can take with eight year olds to actually make change?  This is not a rhetorical question but one I am struggling with. 

So I leave you with this. As Ralph Fletcher reminded me, writing is scary and risky. So I will try to do what we ask of our students, to publish a poem of belief that somewhere there is a middle.
There is a place

in between

where randomness occurs.

Some of us have,

Some never have.

But where do we meet?

How do we grasp the randomness

enough

to find a balance

between have

And not?

Somewhere in the middle

particles float

and we teach

to place them

together.