Definitive Guide to Classroom Libraries for the New Teacher, Part 1: Choosing Books
May 16, 2019
— books, classroom library, teaching reading
I can’t emphasize enough the impact of a good classroom library. There is nothing more powerful than instantly greeting a student who has just finished a book with, “Here is another one I think you’ll like,” or “I saw this book and thought of you.” If you work in an environment where your school library is less functional (or nonexistent), a class library is essential to getting kids reading.
I’m only a second-year teacher, but I have one of the largest classroom libraries in my middle school building, because I was lucky enough to grow up understanding and appreciating the value of books. While my library wasn’t cheap, there are a lot of ways to build a low-cost classroom library if you’re willing to invest a little time and cash, and the payoff of putting great books in the hands of students is beyond worth it. In the next few posts I’ll explore some ways to get an awesome classroom library growing in your classroom no matter what grade you teach.
Today I’ll explore how to choose books for your library that your students will love, even if you aren’t sure what’s currently popular with students in your grade level.
Get a Goodreads account.
If you haven’t signed up for Goodreads and you like reading even a little bit, you’re missing out! In addition to book reviews, content summaries, and author information, Goodreads has hundreds of user- and community-created lists of books your kids are sure to love, no matter what grade you teach. You can find lists based on genre, publication year, themes (diverse/ multicultural lit, divorced parents, latinx main character, etc.), and more. If you are unfamiliar with the latest, hottest lit for your grade level, this is the best place to start. Warning: you will be exposed to so many exciting titles that your wishlist will grow exponentially right before your eyes!
If you know one or two popular titles for your age group, Amazon can send you down a rabbit hole of similar titles and themes. Like Goodreads, Amazon allows you to preview content and reader reviews. You can also use the Amazon bestseller lists to discover what titles are most popular right now for your grade level.
Group by genre – especially non-fiction.
Make sure to include a core selection of titles from different genres. I have found, and have heard from other teachers, that student genre preferences can vary widely from class to class and year to year. Set yourself up for success in connecting students with books by being prepared with high-interest texts from a variety of genres. Also make it a point to hunt down high-interest non-fiction. This will be, perhaps, trickier than finding books for other genres, and you may want to plan to spend more money on these titles, but it is money well-spent to show students that not all non-fiction is dry and boring!
Connect with your content teachers & topics.
If you are a secondary teacher, reach out to other content-area teachers in your building to find out what sorts of topics are covered in the grade that you teach. If you are an elementary or self-contained teacher, you hopefully already have access to this information. You can use content-area topics to direct your book-buying, especially of non-fiction texts. For example, my 8th graders study U.S. history in their humanities class and take the Constitution test at the end of the year. I made sure to stock up on books about various topics in American history including wars, presidents, etc. 8th grade also does life science, so my science basket includes books on cells, genetics, animal life, and other biology topics.
Lean on your librarians.
If you are fortunate enough to have a good school librarian, she or he will be able to tell you what kids are checking out and reading. If you are less fortunate in that department, go talk to the teen or children’s desk librarian at the local public library- not only will they have the same information, but you can learn about programs on offer that may be of interest to your students, and you can find out what students need to do to sign up for a library card to encourage them through that process. It’s been my experience that librarians love to help classroom teachers, especially if it might mean more patronage for them down the road.
Join book-centric websites like Epic Reads or Book Riot.
I signed up for emails from both Epic Reads and Book Riot, and I’m sure there’s other similar large-scale book blogs out there. I get emails every few days with info on new releases, best-of lists, and all kinds of really good recommendations. I have connected with so many great YA reads through these emails that I may not have known about otherwise. I also tend to find out about popular or highly-anticipated new releases months in advance, allowing me to plan which books I want to pre-order and spread out my purchasing.
One of the most powerful statements I’ve ever heard about literature is that it provides students both mirrors and windows: mirrors to access their own identity through a relationship with characters who are similar to them, and windows into other worlds and cultures that will increase their empathy and understanding of people from diverse backgrounds. Any good classroom library should include a variety of diverse stories and characters from a variety of cultural backgrounds, no matter how diverse (or not) the students in your class might be. A massive body of research and many organizations exist as a testament to the importance of diverse classroom libraries, but I think their power is best summed up by a comment from a colleague’s reluctant reader who read Angie Thomas’ stunning The Hate You Give for the first time: “I’ve never read a book where the characters talk like me and my family. I didn’t know books were like that.” You can use Goodreads lists to find age-appropriate books with diverse characters and stories. Initiatives like We Need Diverse Books can also be helpful places to look.
…and own voices, too.
Try to include own-voices authors- diverse authors from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds as well as differently-abled and LGBT+ identities. Apart from encouraging diversity in publishing, inclusion of own-voices authors gives your students a richer reading experience by exposing them to a variety of backgrounds and perspectives. Also, be wary of books with multicultural characters that were written by white authors- they can sometimes contain unfortunate stereotypes and well-intentioned but harmful misconceptions. Again, Goodreads lists can help you out.
Crush content concerns with Common Sense Media.
If you work in a school environment where you need to be extra careful about the content of books in your classroom, Common Sense Media can help you determine whether a book is appropriate for your students or contains any objectionable content. I personally feel that the site sets the bar almost too high for what content is appropriate for a given age, but that can be useful if your district is highly conservative about these things.
Don’t think you have to buy all at once- start with a solid core & build.
It takes time to build a strong library, so don’t feel like you have to rush in and spend hundreds of dollars right away, especially as a first-year teacher with other necessities to snag for your new classroom. I talked above about making sure you have a variety of genres; you may want to start as simple as one basket (or chunk of books) per genre. After perusing Goodreads and Amazon and book blogs, I started a long, long list of books I wanted to purchase, sorted them by genre, and then selected my top few must-have choices for each, keeping the rest of the list for future shopping opportunities.
Then, when you get your first group of students, survey them about their preferences, notice what books they prefer, and build your library around what your students are into. As student interests shift each year, as sales pop up, as books fall into your lap, you can accumulate little-by-little over the years until you build up a really well-stocked library.
Part 2 – Collecting Books
Stay tuned tomorrow for Part 2 of this series where I’ll discuss a boatload of different cost-effective ways to build your classroom library from the ground up.