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Tools of the Trade: Using the Classroom Library as a Tool to Move Students Forward as Independent Readers

By Kelly Virgin

My first year teaching I half filled a little book shelf in the back corner of my classroom with all the YA novels I’d collected throughout college.  A part of me was excited to share these books with my students, but most of me was just happy to clear the totes out of my closet at home.  However, as the year progressed, I soon realized the books were getting about as much use on the shelves as they had received the previous year living under my winter coats. I attributed this to the unimpressive size and slightly outdated contents and vowed to do better.

As years passed, my library grew to include the latest hits and began to take over a larger part of my classroom. I naturally expected my students interactions with it to increase accordingly.  I thought I was doing everything right.  I added bookshelf after bookshelf.  I organized by genre into colorful bins. I tagged the spines of books with color-coded labels.  I created display shelves and rotated best sellers in and out of position.  I dedicated an entire bulletin board to the library and I posted book news, and reviews, and suggestions. I added a magazine section and a children’s book section. I moved in an old comfortable papasan.

Besides increased bickering over who got to sit in the “comfy chair,” I noticed only a little increased interest in my classroom library. Year after year, I amped up my efforts but continued to lament over what I was doing wrong. Then it hit me.  

I was doing it all.  It was my library, not their library.  I was the one who pulled books off shelves for book talks, and book suggestions, and book displays – not the students.  I was the one who added to it, organized it, restocked it – not the students.  As long as I was the only one regularly interacting with the library, I would continue to be the only one with any real vested interest in it. So I started to build in regular, authentic interactions with the library for my students.

Beginning of the School Year


I start every school year off with a classroom scavenger hunt designed to get students interacting with the classroom environment.  The activity is simple – I create a map of the classroom with blank numbered boxes that coordinate with numbered note cards taped around the room.  The students have to silently search the room for the corresponding notes and return to their desk to jot down the description.  Originally, I only had them visit the classroom library for one box and take one note – “you can sign books out whenever you want.”  However, since I realized I wanted them interacting with the library more throughout the year, I decided to turn this portion of the scavenger hunt into an information gathering mission.  Now, I have students find the audiobook section of the library and note one book they’d like to listen to.  They have to notice the different genres available and note one they’d like to read.  They have to search through the magazine bin and find a cover story they’re interested in learning more about.  They have to find an author they’re familiar with and the title of a book they’ve seen in the movies.  Before, when the library was just one stop on the scavenger hunt, students merely breezed by and checked it off their task list.  Now, I have students leaving this activity with a better sense of what’s available to them and several even walk away with a book in hand.


Another way I like to get students familiar with the books available to them in our classroom library is by doing a quick one-minute book talk activity.  During the first or second week of school, I start class by asking students what they do when they are choosing a book.  I encourage them to imagine walking through the stacks in a library or the aisles in a bookstore in search of a new book and list out all the things they quickly do to ensure a good selection.  After several quiet brainstorming minutes, we make a big class list that usually fills a large chart paper with suggestions that range from look at the cover, read the back summary or first page to smell the book, feel the paper and notice the font size.

Kelly Virgin 3In the past, I would then distribute books from our classroom library and give students time to do these things with a partner in preparation for a quick book talk.  However, I realized I was cutting out the most important step – the self selection.  So now I take the time to allow students to go into the library and select books for themselves.  I encourage them to take their time and select wisely because their selections will be displayed for book recommendations to all my classes.  After students have made their choices, they work with a partner to fill a notecard with recommendations for the book and then give a brief book talk. While the extra step of self-selection does add about five to ten minutes to the activity, I now have more students walking out of the class with books in their hands and everyone is more familiar with the books available to them on the shelves.

Throughout the School Year


My ninth grade course is a survey of literature course that is designed to introduce students to the characteristics of a variety of literary genres.  Accordingly, one of the few restrictions I place on their independent reading is that they read across a variety of categories.  I usually introduce this requirement after the first marking period, when they have already read a few books from their preferred genres.  In an effort to introduce students to the various literary types, we spend a class period discussing and noticing them.  We start by brainstorming a list of literary genres on the board and then pare them down to five or six general categories.  The list usually ends up looking something like this: realistic fiction (sometimes romance, problem, or even sports fiction make the final cut), historical fiction, science fiction and fantasy (usually grouped together), mystery or thriller, nonfiction, and poetry.  Occasionally, students include formatting categories such as novels in verse or graphic novels.  

Once we have a manageable list, I group students, assign them a category, and give them time to notice and list the characteristics of books in that category.  In the past, I typically plopped a pile of books down for each group.  Now, however, I have them go to the classroom library to find books for themselves.  While this can get messy and takes a little longer, it allows students to realize how the library is organized and gives them an opportunity to use that organization system to help them make their selections.  If I notice students choosing books that don’t fit their category, I just provide guidance. Class ends with students taking a gallery walk to note the listed characteristics and plan books they’d like to read from genres they do not typically self-select.  I post the student generated observations on the library shelves so students have the reminders visible all year long. These reminders and the time to look through books from various genres help students venture outside their reading comfort zone.


Kelly Virgin 4As the year progresses and my students start to accumulate titles, I begin to turn to them for suggestions for the classroom library.  I always have a suggestion box stationed near the library and I invite students to fill out a simple form that asks for the title of the book and a one to two sentence reason why they think it should be included in the library.  However, without prompting, this box does not get much traffic.  So, I have started to build in class research time for students to look up the latest releases, top sellers, and newest authors.  They are tasked with reading book summaries and reviews in order to make educated decisions about which books I should purchase for our library. They are also in charge of deciding where the books should be shelved in the library and asked to create new categories if necessary. Once they realize I am actually going to spend part of my budget on the books they suggest, most take this task very seriously. Furthermore, the excitement is genuine when the new books finally arrive. I barely have time to get them stamped and cataloged before students are clamboring to sign them out.

Over the past several years as I’ve increased student interactions, I’ve noticed an increase in student sign-outs.  Last year alone, over 500 books were signed out of the library and this year I’ve had many of my former students return to continue borrowing. By involving students in the display, organization, and content of the classroom library, I’ve been able to change it from merely a classroom aesthetic to a staple of our learning and reading environment.

Kelly VirginKelly Virgin is in her eleventh year teaching English for the Kennett Consolidated School District and has been a PAWLP fellow since 2010.  She is a proud bookworm and loves sharing her passion for reading and writing with her students. This spring she will facilitate the Strategies for Teaching Literature course on Tuesday evenings.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thank you so much for sharing this post. As an aspiring teacher, I am always interested in ways of creating the best learning environment for my future students. I always think about how I am going to spark my students’ interest in reading as well as encourage them to continue reading on their own.
    I enjoyed being part of Writing Zones and observing/learning in your classroom. You are a wonderful teacher and I admire your passion and dedication to teaching. Thank you for a wonderful experience and I hope to work with you again in the future.


    December 20, 2015
  2. janiceewing #

    I love these ideas, and the way you organized this post into beginning of school year and ongoing ideas. As you showed through your examples and your results, making the library a shared center of learning is a long term effort, and well worth the effort!


    December 19, 2015
  3. Rita Sorrentino #

    Kelly, thanks for sharing these creative and comprehensive ways of breathing life into classroom libraries. Students will certainly benefit from understanding and being involved in the content, curation, and choices.


    December 18, 2015

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