From the Classroom: If You Build It, They Will Come
By Tricia Ebarvia
Last week, I shared how I organize my classroom library. But how did I build my library? How did I know what books to include? And how do I keep it fresh and inviting for students? This week, I share the answers to these questions and more.
START AT HOME
Three years ago, my first attempt at a classroom library was a collection of titles that I’d read during and after college. Well-loved copies of books like A Farewell to Arms, Pride and Prejudice, and Mrs. Dalloway sat along side more contemporary fiction I read for pleasure when I had the time, titles like A Thousand Splendid Suns and The Time Traveler’s Wife. As an English major and general book nerd, it was a lot of books! That was also the year I was teaching AP Lit, so many of those “English major” titles were going to come in handy with the independent reading I was planning on having my seniors do.
But I soon realized that while many of these titles were great for AP Lit students, they weren’t so great for my other classes, especially my ninth graders. I suspected that some, if not several, students were Spark-noting and Schmooping through their independent reading. As one student admitted in a reflection on her middle school reading, “I picked a book I didn’t know anything about, read a little of the first part, and then Sparknoted the rest to do a project.” Here’s another student: “Given a choice between reading and helping my mom clean the house,” another student once said, “I’d rather clean the house.”
The more I thought about it—and the more I read the work of Nancie Atwell, Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, Donalyn Miller, and others—the more I realized how important it was to surround students with titles that would speak to them.
So my challenge was clear: how could I build a classroom library that could inspire an independent reading life?
The first challenge in building a more inviting classroom library was to know what titles to include. So I started close to home. I asked our school librarian about the most popular titles with students, especially the ones that were almost always checked out.
I also Googled every list out there that reviews popular titles for young adults. Specifically, I regularly consult the following resources:
PA Young Reader’s Choice Awards | The Pennsylvania School Library Association publishes its own yearly “readers’ choice awards” with many titles that have been proven hits among students. Students from across the state read and then vote on the titles; previous winners have included The Hunger Games, The Fault in Our Stars, Miss Perrigrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, and this year’s winner, Eleanor and Park.
Goodreads.com | I set my students up with accounts early in the year and then watch as they update. Based on what they’re reading, I can view suggested or related titles. Goodreads also has a nice “Recommendations” feature which provides additional titles based on what users have on their accounts. I also follow other teachers like Donalyn Miller to see what they are reading. I like to think of Goodreads as the Facebook / Amazon for book lovers.
Booksource.com | I love that Booksource groups titles together by theme or interest. Kelly Gallagher also has several text set collections of suggested high-interested titles for students on their website.
After—and in addition to—pouring over lists, I read. I browse the bookstores and libraries and review books, especially ones with which I’m unfamiliar. I think about the students I have in my class and consider whether or not this book would meet their needs. Honestly, my threshold for adding a book to my collection is fairly low (or high, I suppose, depending on how you think about it). If I can think of even one student who may be served by this book, I add it. You never know what book will be the one—that right book at the right time.
HOW TO BUILD IT
I have more than 1000 titles in my classroom library. I estimate that about 20% were books were I already owned, 15% donations, 50% library sales, and the remaining 15% from online used bookstores and online or in-store new purchases.
MY OWN BOOKS | I have always loved reading and collecting books. Every room in my home has bookshelves filled with books. Once I decided to build my classroom library, I grabbed everything that could be even remotely interesting to my students. As I mentioned above, this is where I started.
DONATIONS | I keep an open call for book donations from my students. I’ve found this to be most successful at the end of the year as students often donate many of the books they’ve read over the year as part of their independent reading. I place a “Donated by” sticker with each student’s name on the inside cover of the book, which students really like.
LIBRARY SALES | One of the most valuable lessons I learned from my mom growing up was how to find a deal. My mom is one of the smartest and most frugal people I know (I vividly recall leaving grocery stores with free food after calculating all of her coupons). While I don’t possess quite her level of shopping prowess, I’m proud to say that I’ve had my share of great finds, like the 25 cent hard-cover copies of The Fault in Our Stars and The Perks of Being a Wallflower I’ve found. Or the 50-cent copies of titles like American Sniper and Outliers—all of which I found at local library sales.
After doing some research, I figured out which local libraries had ongoing used book sales as well as the dates for the huge fall and spring sales (check out BookSaleFinder.com for information on sales in your area). I can usually pick up paperbacks for 50-cents and hardcovers for $1. During fall and spring book sales, titles will even go half-price on the last day. On special days, my local library sells books by the foot for $1 per foot, so I can get titles for as little as 10-cents. My local library also happens to be right next to the baseball fields where my sons play, so in the spring, I visit weekly to see what new titles arrived. Honestly, it can be hit or miss, but I’ve found that consistently visiting local library sales has yielded some great titles for my classroom. After visiting nearly a dozen area libraries, I’ve also figured out which ones tend to have the better selection.
I also recommend making friends with your local librarians. I’ve had some very helpful librarians even secretly hold some titles when they knew I’d be coming in. 🙂
ONLINE USED | I’ve found that local library sales are great for finding established books that are at least 2-3 years past their peak reading period. For example, I’ve found many copies of The Kite Runner, Gone Girl, and The Lovely Bones, as well as Divergent, Hunger Games, and Harry Potter. Many contemporary titles are former “book club” titles. And while these titles make excellent additions to my classroom library—and at a great price—there’s a limit to how much you can get at local library sales. After all, sometimes it’s just the luck of the draw (though I do love the thrill of a great book find!).
This is where I supplement by spending a little more by going online. While library sales are yield lucky finds, my online purchases are more specific and intentional. My go-to place online for any used books is Thriftbooks.com. After researching many online options, I have found that Thriftbooks has the best selection and pricing, which includes free shipping on orders over $10.
To get the most bang for my buck, I keep a “wish list” of books on my Thriftbooks account. When a title arrives in stock, I get an email alert to let me know. If it’s a hard-to-find title, I will purchase immediately. If it’s a title that has many in stock, I wait until Thriftbooks has one of their periodic sales—15% to 20% off. Thriftbooks also has a reading rewards program, too, where they email you a $5 coupon for every $50 you spend. I’ve gotten “Like New” hardcover editions for as little as $3 each, though I have spent up to $6 or $7 for an especially hard to find title (which is still, of course, much better than buying new or even used on many other sites).
I also always compare the Thriftbook price with the lowest price on the Amazon used marketplace. There are times that I can do a bit better on the Amazon marketplace.
ONLINE AND IN-STORE NEW | When I know the chances of finding a title in the library or on Thriftbooks are slim, I use my 20% educators discount at Barnes and Noble. I do always compare the price on Amazon, as its regular customer discount on some books can be more than my 20% educator discount on B&N.
The other place I can get new books in-person is the Scholastic Warehouse Sale that’s held at least twice a year in my area. Titles are anywhere from 50% to 80% off the listed price. The selection, while definitely geared toward younger grades, does have some notable YA titles, as well as a handful of adult ones. For example, last month I picked up a new copy of Jennifer Smith’s The Geography of You and Me for $3. When you sign up on Scholastic’s website ahead of time, you can also get a coupon to save even more.
* A word about cost—specifically, who is paying for all of these books? Honestly, my main source of funding is myself, which is why I put a lot of effort into finding the best deals. I am also fortunate enough to get several Barnes and Noble gift cards from students throughout the year, which go right back to replenishing my library, particularly with newer titles that haven’t yet hit the discount circuit. My department reimburses a small amount, and our district has a grant program for teachers. I have also heard of other teachers who set up DonorsChoose programs, though my guess is that you would have to clear a fundraising drive like that with your school first. I have also had colleagues offer extra credit to students when they donate books as well.
KEEPING THINGS FRESH
A classroom library must be a dynamic, living, breathing space. I’m constantly pulling books from the shelves and displaying them on every open surface around my room. My whiteboard ledge is my favorite place to display books. Students stop to see what books are on display, and because of their prime location (a slight shift to the left or right of me, and students are looking at books!), I find that these are the books that are often the first to get checked out.
I also keep the books here that I know I will want to book talk; in fact, their presence on the ledge is my reminder. I also try to rotate the books on the ledge every week or so, just to keep things interesting. This also helps to unearth a book or two that might go unnoticed on the shelves. In the future, I think I’d like to be even more purposeful and perhaps display books by theme, as I did when I pulled out all my graphic novels during our unit on Persepolis.
A word about book talks. One thing I’ve learned is that the more I talk about books and the more exposure students have to high interest titles, the more likely it is that students will read. I try to booktalk titles regularly, which means that I also need to read many books that would be interesting for students versus (sometimes) myself. I am relatively new to YA literature, having only really started reading YA regularly in the last two years. But recently, this reading has become part of my regular professional life. I think of reading high-interest books for my students as part of my job as teacher, just as grading is also part of my job (and isn’t reading a lot more fun than grading?!).
I try to be relentless. When I spot a student dropping a book in the “book return” bin, I follow up immediately to ask him what he will read next. Often times, the student knows exactly which title to pick up next, but when he doesn’t know, having a classroom library allows me to quickly recommend 2-3 potential titles. Without my classroom library, that student would have to wait until the next time he could make it to the library. By keeping a robust collection at my students’ fingertips, I am in a much better position to keep their reading lives active and engaged.
I hope my experience helps you build your own classroom library! Let me know what you think in the comments below, and of course, any tips you can share would also be greatly appreciated!
Tricia Ebarvia currently teaches 9th grade world literature and AP English Language & Composition at Conestoga High School in Berwyn, PA. This year, she continues her quest to inspire a love for reading in her students by integrating more independent reading and free choice. She admits that her heart skips a beat whenever she sees a student with a book in his hand. She can be found on her teacher website at mrsEbarvia.com and on Twitter @triciaebarvia.