K.M. Burrows

K.M. Burrows

K.M. Burrows

Educator, Learner, Creator

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16 Easy, Low-Key Activities for End-of-the-Year ELA that Aren’t Movies

May 23, 2019

The end of the year is upon us, and it can be a slow, slow crawl to the finish line. Grades are due and kids are checked out and admin has sent out yet another ‘friendly reminder’ about keeping kids learning until the last day. Fortunately, there are plenty of engaging, low-key, low-prep activities to do with your ELA students in the last days of the school year. Not only will they keep your kids productive, you’ll even get a head start for next year! Great, right?

You can do some of these activities as stations, create a hyperdoc for students to move at their own pace, or just have the whole class work through one at a time.

1. Tech Transfer

Take some time to have students transfer files that they may wish to keep from the school year to a personal email with cloud storage, such as Gmail. This is especially important if your students are in 8th or 12th grade, or if they won’t be returning the following school year. If you use EduBlogs, you can follow their handy directions to transfer ownership of your class’ blogs to students or their parents, and some other platforms you use might offer similar transfer options.

Save those files! Image Source

2. Book Reviews

Hopefully, by this point in the year each of your students has read at least one book. Hopefully. Turn that reading experience into motivation for next year’s readers by asking each of your students to review their favorite book of the year. You can use bookmark book reviews and have students leave them sticking out of the reviewed book, or do half-sheet or quarter-sheet reviews an use them to create a bulletin board display for next year. Here are some ready-to-go templates!

3. Author Advice

In a similar vain to book reviews, create a ready-to-go bulletin board display for next year by having your students fill out an index card or one of the templates below with their best piece of writing advice. Remind your students that they’ve learned a lot this year, and this is a chance for them to share some of the ideas that were most helpful to them with future students. Get a ready-to-go kit over at my co-store, Two Bs in a Pod! (And, check out our end-of-the-year writing activity bundle!)

4. Portfolio & Reflection

Have students put together a writing portfolio or general ELA portfolio with their top three or four pieces of work from the whole school year. Then, use Flipgrid or video recording software to have students reflect on why each of these pieces represent their best work, or why they are most proud of these pieces. Encourage students to consider picking pieces that show their growth over time. Students can put together their portfolios digitally using Google Slides, Google Sites, EduBlogs, or any presentation or website software. Ask students to share their portfolios with parents or family members at home! This activity is great because students can put as much or as little work as they want into their portfolios and reflections depending on the time available and your expectations. Below are tons of great options listed with grade level, price, and paper or digital format (as of this post).

5. Author Share

Don’t have the time (or energy!) for students to put together a whole portfolio? Ask students to pick their very best piece of writing from the year (or an excerpt, if it’s a long piece), and do an author share celebration. Each student shares their piece orally with the class (or in small groups), and you could bring in some cheap cookies and juice pouches to make it feel like a real party. Between students selecting, polishing, and rehearsing pieces before they present, this could easily take you 2-3 class periods.

6. Year in Review

Doing some year-in-review activities can be a great way to get students reflecting on all the positive and interesting things that happened during the school year. Here are some ready-to-go templates for one-page reflections and memory books.

7. Summer Bucket List

Have students make a summer bucket list of all the things they want to do over the break. They can create their lists either digitally (consider Canva or another graphic design software) or paper-pencil. Either way, encourage students to get creative and use color! You can get 3 free summer bucket list templates included with Two Bs’ end-of-the-year writing activity bundle (link below)! Here’s some inspiration and some additional templates.

8. End-of-the-Year Survey

Give your students an anonymous end-of-the-year survey about their experience in your class. It can be nerve-wrackingly vulnerable to open yourself up to this sort of feedback from students, but as teachers we know that feedback is essential to improvement for us as well as our students. Here is a copy of my end-of-year Google Forms survey to get feedback from my 8th-graders about their ELA experience, and some other pre-made surveys for elementary, middle, and high school.

9. Thank-You Cards

Have students spend some time writing thank you cards to teachers, staff, and parents who have had a positive impact on them this school year. It may be useful to do a quick mini-lesson with a mentor text or two on how to write a great thank-you card, which is an important life skill students of any age can take with them when they leave your class. After the mini-lesson, set out some construction paper or cardstock, markers and coloring utensils, any other crafty materials you’re itching to get rid of at the end of the year, and set students loose. Here are links to some ideas and mentor texts for an easy lesson, as well as some printable thank-you cards if your students aren’t feeling particularly artsy.

10. Buddy Reading

Find some picture books (you can check a bunch out from your local library for a few days!), poetry books, or high-interest non-fiction expository texts such as fact or world record books. Have students find a partner and a comfy place to sit and enjoy some buddy reading. Students can take turns reading aloud to each other and discussing the text. You might think older secondary students would find this a bit childish, but it’s so rare that they get the opportunity to enjoy picture books or read with a friend. Pick some high-interest titles (suggestions below!) and your kids will have a blast. For added fun, encourage students to try doing character voices as they read!

11. Summer Reading Lists

Speaking of books, have your students make some summer reading lists! Students over 13 can use Goodreads to create a Want-to-Read list of interesting books they might like to enjoy over the summer, or you can have students use any of the neat reading list templates below to record titles of interest. Where will they find these possible beach reads, you ask? Have students chat as they work and recommend books to each other, but give your students access to some lists of great books for their age group by perusing some book blogs. Below are links to book blog posts about great summer reads for every age group! Bonus points- spend a few minutes making sure students know how to access and use their local library, including how to sign up for a library card.

12. Listening Station

Because sometimes, we just need a break from hearing our students talk, consider giving a listening station a try. This works best as a center rotation and definitely isn’t something I’d recommend trying for a whole class period, but if you pick some shorter, high-interest listening materials and include a short graphic organizer or doodle activity, students can learn that podcasts and videos can be fun and engaging! Below are listening options for every grade level and sheets for students to doodle or color as they listen.


Listening Sheets

13. Six-Word Stories, Memoirs, Summaries

Have your students play around with flash-fiction and write some six-word pieces. Students who are over 13 and okay to view potentially YA material can publish six-word memoirs at SixWordMemoirs.com, or you can create a gallery walk of students’ work. You can have students give six-word stories a try as well; I like to prompt students by giving them a genre to write in (fantasy) or a word they have to include (balloon). You can also have students do six-word summaries of popular books or movies; students love to write these and then have peers guess what the book or movie is. No matter which option you choose, flash pieces are a great way to get students thinking about (and having fun with) word choice and tone. You’ll want to make sure students have access to a thesaurus, and my best piece of writing advice is to write long and then revise short, and remember the power of punctuation. Students who finish early can illustrate their pieces and rewrite their work in larger letters with their best handwriting.

14. Virtual Magnetic Poetry or Picture Books with Beautiful Artwork

Have your students create some virtual magnetic poetry on Storybird! With thousands of gorgeous pieces of artwork to serve as inspiration, Storybird is accessible for every student from about second grade onward. If your students have not used Storybird before, you will want to build in an extra 10-15 minutes for them to explore and get familiar with the site, but it is not a hard one to pick up. Choose the “Poetry” option to create magnetic poetry. You can also have students turn their short fiction into picture books using the “Picture Books” option. There are also various writing challenges your students can participate in. If your students are burnt out on writing, they can read other students’ work both in the class and the larger community. Storybird is super school-friendly and protects students’ privacy, only publishing work with first names.

15. Bring Your Own Book Game

This game is super fun and I never get tired of playing with students. Bring Your Own Book is a free print-and-play game that requires players to, as the title says, bring a book to play with. Best described as Apples to Apples or Cards Against Humanity for readers, the way it works is students in small groups take turns being the judge and reading a prompt to the rest of the group such as “The title of a murder mystery novel” or “Famous last words,” and the rest of the group has two minutes (or less, or as much time as they want- your choice!) to find a line in their book that fits the prompt. When time is up, readers share the lines they found, and the judge awards the best or funniest answer the winner. You can keep score or just play for fun- it’s engaging enough that students are fine either way. The game is best for 6th-12th grade students, and you’ll want to give a friendly reminder beforehand about school-appropriate responses. You do need to provide an email to access the printable game and instructions, but you’ll get access to four additional game sets that are a little more nerdy in nature if you have students who might appreciate that sort of thing! You can easily take up most of a class period with this game!

16. Kahoot, Gimkit, or Quizlet Live!

Finally, review some ELA terms (and maybe even some fun trivia) with Kahoot, Gimkit, or Quizlet Live. There are tons of pre-made questions or study sets- all you have to do is sign up for a free teacher account and search for the topic you want. All three are free for teachers and students, and if you have a candy or prize box you’re trying to get rid of before the last day, this will definitely help! Some possible suggestions to search for include Disney movies/ characters, general trivia, summer trivia, sports, clean popular music (Kahoot will have music quizzes with actual video), American history trivia, etc. You can also look for more academic topics such as figurative language reviews, vocabulary quizzes, parts of speech or other grammar topics, quizzes on specific novels your class has read this year, etc. Plenty of options to choose from, easy to set up and run!

Happy almost-summer! Hang in there, everyone!

How to Get Students Reading on Day One of Class

May 22, 2019

The last few days I’ve talked a lot about building a classroom library from scratch. If you don’t have a classroom library, get one! The benefit to your students as readers is simply unparalleled. But how can you start the year off right to maximize student use and enjoyment of your library and get all of your kids reading? Let’s talk about a variety of ways to hook students on reading right off the bat.

It starts on Day One.

Back-to-School is always a whirlwind of get-to-know-yous, sharing expectations, and creating classroom culture. Getting kids reading and using your library should be included on your very first day of class to make reading a clear part of your classroom culture! On Day One of class…

Get a book in every kid’s hands.

Image Source

If not on day one, then definitely by day two, every student in your room should have a reading book from your library. Getting books in kids’ hands right away immediately builds a culture and expectation of reading in your classroom. Reading is important, and it’s what we do here, so we’re diving into it right away. No need to wait for your class’ first checkout in the school library- you’ve got books all ready to go, because reading is just that important.

Bonus points if you give students 10 or 15 minutes of class to read it- this doubles as casual observation time for you to start identifying kids who might be struggling readers or “fake” readers.

But how do you hook kids right away with books they’ll love? Let’s explore how you get each of your new students connected with right-fit books from your classroom library.

Interest Inventories: Learn your students’ interests.

Donalynn Miller talks in The Book Whisperer about giving a reading interest inventory on the first day of school to every student. She then uses the inventory to stay after on that first day and individually select a book that each and every student might like, based on their inventory. Not only is each student immediately connected with a book they might click with, it shows right away that she cares about her students and their reading lives enough to take the time for each of them. Powerful stuff!

If Miller’s method isn’t a viable option for you, it is still more than worthwhile to give your students an interest inventory, for several reasons. One, it gets kids thinking about themselves as readers, what interests they have, and what they know about their own reading preferences. Two, you can use the data you collect to shore up areas of your class library that students may be more into this year. (For my group of kids this year, it was horror and thrillers- not something last year’s group read a ton of.) Three, an inventory gets students talking to each other about their preferences and reading lives- circulate and eavesdrop while they’re working, and you can learn a lot about your students right off the bat. I would have students complete the inventory before you introduce them to your classroom library so they’ve already activated their thinking about reading preferences.

There are hundreds of pre-made reading interest inventories out there for all grade levels, so this is one less first-day activity you’ll need to sweat. Here are a few great (free!) options for every grade:

Pass the (Book) Basket.

Once students have started thinking through their reading preferences, introduce them to some high-interest options from your classroom library with a basket pass. Even if you don’t use book baskets in your library, if you can get your hands on enough book-holding containers to have one for each group, you’re all set for this activity! Students can start their “Books I Want to Read” list for the year with some high-interest titles straight from your library shelves.

You need:

  • Enough baskets to have at least one per group
  • High interest books from a variety of genres in your classroom library (6-7 per basket, at least)
  • A timer (if you want; you can also just play it by ear)

Students need:

  • A place to record their “Books I Want to Read” list (using a reader’s notebook? Put it there!)
  • A writing utensil


  1. Distribute the books so that there’s a handful in each basket. Give one basket to each group.
  2. Give students about 5-8 minutes to peruse the books in the basket; enough time to read the back and maybe skim the first page of each book in the basket and record titles of interest on their “Books to Read” list.
  3. After students finish perusing or time runs out, have students pass the book baskets in a circular direction and repeat step 2. Do this until all the groups have viewed each basket.

Or, speed date with a book!

A similar activity to the basket pass is book “speed-dating,” where you start with one book per student and the students (or the books!) rotate once every two minutes or so! You can set this up all sorts of ways and get fun and creative with it; an idea is to require students to read each book for the whole two minutes, which forces them to really try it out and see if it’s a good fit! Again, students should record titles of interest on a “Books I Want to Read” list.

Make browsing a game with Bring Your Own Book!

I’ll go more into detail about this super-fun bookish game in the future, but you can easily get setup with the free game kit from the makers of Bring Your Own Book to play with students on the first few days of class (Note: An email is required to access). Best described as “Apples to Apples” or “Cards Against Humanity” meets reading, students are given a prompt (“Find a line that could be straight from a teenager’s diary”) and have to find a line in the book they’re holding that fits that description. There’s a rotating judge for each round just like CoH and A-to-A who picks the best or funniest answer as the winner. You can keep points if you like, but this one is fun enough that students don’t tend to get too concerned with winning or losing. I like to combine this with the Basket Pass activity- they get a few minutes to peruse the basket, play a round or two of BYOB, then pass the basket and repeat. A super engaging way to get middle and high school students skimming possible reads- be sure to remind students to keep their answers school-appropriate, though!

Advertise your wares with a great display!

Use bulletin board or wall space near your library to advertise some of the high-interest texts on offer to students. Pinterest is full of fantastic ideas here, and you can even include students from the year before by having them leave their recommendations behind for future students. Early in the year I like to advertise first books of series, books with Netflix adaptations they may have watched over the summer, and books from a variety of genres. You can even make the books part of the display with specialty-crafted bookmarks that advertise your favorites or popular titles.

Check out this neat bookmark option from Miss West Best on TPT! Print on colored paper for extra pop, and have students fill these out for books they loved!

Set library expectations, then allow time to browse.

Image Source

Once you’ve done some work in getting students thinking about their reading interest and maybe perusing some selections from your collection, it’s almost time to set them loose in your library. First, though, it is key to clearly state your expectations for library use, including procedures for check out and check in of books, when students can browse, how to re-shelve books, whether books can be taken home, and how books are to be treated. I am upfront with my students about the fact that I bought all of these books with my own money. They are always stunned, given the size of my library, but this creates another great opportunity to explain to students how much I value reading and their lives as readers, and how much I love books myself. To that end, I also make clear that I made this investment because I want every student to have a rich reading life, and that means I need their help in making sure that books stay present and accounted for and in good shape so we can all benefit from this library.

Then, once my spiel about rules and procedures is done, I let small groups of students browse a few at a time, with the expectation that everyone is required to check out something. This is the first day of class, so it could be anywhere from 3-5 more days until we’ll hit the school library for the first time. Some students could have finished a whole book in that time! Start early, read often! I make myself available to recommend books to students and record initial book checkouts on my checkout log.

The stronger you start, the easier you can maintain.

Setting your expectations and creating a culture of reading from Day One of the school year can go a long way in keeping your students reading for the whole school year. The sooner you put books in your kids’ hands, the more you communicate the message that reading is what we do here, and the more you’ll get students to buy into reading. Next week I’ll explore some ways to keep students hooked on reading all year long, to make sure students are challenging themselves, and to avoid fake reading and book burnout. Stay tuned!

#TechTuesday: Engage Students with e-Chat on Backchannel

May 21, 2019

Don’t you just love it when your students really get engaged in a discussion? The ideas are bouncing off each other, students are respectfully disagreeing or asking follow-up questions, and the collaborative learning is just lighting up all over the place! If whole-class discussions are your jam, this Backchannel Chat #TechTuesday feature is for you!

What is Backchannel Chat?

Backchannel is an online chat room platform designed specifically for classroom use. The site delights in its simplicity and user-friendly design, and is easy enough to use that students of any age who can type their thoughts are good candidates for a Backchannel discussion. Students do not need to create an account to use Backchannel Chat- teachers simply post a link to the chat for students to access or give them the class code, then students enter their name and join the discussion. Adding a comment is as simple as typing into the box and hitting “Enter,” no more complicated than sending a text message or Snapchat. You can also download the Backchannel Chat mobile app for discussion on-the-go, perfect if your school uses tablets!

Backchannel Chat doesn’t require student accounts, meaning no pesky data issues! Just type in your name and go!

The teacher features, also easy to use and intuitive, are everything a teacher could ask for in facilitating discussion with students. Teachers have complete control over posts and can delete student comments with the click of a button, in case the built-in profanity filter still doesn’t catch an inappropriate student comment. Teachers can use the Chat Stats option to view the number of times individual students have participated in the discussion. The option to download a full transcript of the discussion makes it easy to search for key words or student names to evaluate student participation, and to keep a permanent record of the chat. Further exciting features for the $15 purchase price include the ability to embed Tweets, add student polls, have a private one-on-one chat with students, and add files to the chat for student viewing/ usage.

Why use Backchannel Chat?

Everyone can participate…

Backchannel is perfect for flipped or blended classroom instruction, but any teacher can find great advantage to using Backchannel with their students. Backchannel adds an element to student discussions that just can’t be matched with whole-class discussion in a face-to-face environment. For starters, every student is participating, either adding their own thoughts or responding to peers. Additionally, students can formulate responses at their own pace- there’s no time pressure and no being put on the spot. And speaking of being put on the spot, your quiet, introverted students will shine when they get to add their thinking to the discussion without the fear of having to speak up in front of peers.

Students can participate in the chat at any time & see who else is logged on.

…at their own pace.

Another great benefit to Backchannel is that it’s an on-demand chat space. This means that your students can participate at their leisure, and don’t all have to be present in the chat at once in order for good discussion to take place. This can make Backchannel a great option for homework- students login and participate in a discussion with peers whenever it’s convenient for them. I usually start Backchannel chats on Mondays, and ask students to participate between 5-7 times by Friday. Part of my rubric is that students cannot post all five comments at once, and that three of their five posts should be responses to peers. This ensures not only that students are actually discussing rather than responding, but it also ensures that they read the posts of their classmates and evaluate whether they agree or disagree with the points that were raised. The post-when-you-want format also really benefits learners with diverse needs, because they can take as long as they need to review texts or materials before contributing to a discussion. And students who are sick or absent? They can read back through the transcript to see what they missed while they were out. No more missed experiences!

Mobile app = discussion on the go!

Work on written responses and practice citing text evidence collaboratively.

Backchannel discussions also really encourage students to practice citing text evidence, as students simply need to copy and paste quotes from a text into their discussion posts. I’ve found the depth of discussion I get from my students on Backchannel actually vastly exceeded the quality of their verbal discussions in the past. Students were so much more engaged in responding to articles than they would have been if I had asked them to write a written response, even though they were practicing the exact same skills in addition to practicing good discussion.

Try out digital book clubs, writing circles, and multi-grade collaboration!

You can create small groups of students with a different Backchannel chat room for each group, which would be perfect for book club discussions or writer’s workshop! You would still be able to see and moderate student posts, but students would be responsible for running the show, creating a collaborative and student-centered learning environment. Backchannel could also serve as a collaborative workspace for students working on group projects, especially if you wanted to create groups of students from different class periods or grade levels- a 6th- and 8th-grade class could work together on a Project-Based Learning unit and collaborate via Backchannel even if their classes don’t meet at the same time!

Try it out!

Backchannel Chat is free to use for teachers with the basic features intact, but the features available to premium users (multiple chat rooms at the same time, for instance) make it well worth the $15 one-time price if you regularly have students collaborate and discuss in your classroom. My students and I have loved the Backchannel Chat experience, and it has really elevated the level of discussion in my classroom!

Definitive Guide to Classroom Libraries for the New Teacher, Part 4: Maintaining Your Library

May 19, 2019

Now that you’ve got stacks of books (Part 1 & Part 2) and something to put them on (Part 3), let’s talk maintaining a library in a classroom of anywhere from 18 to 150 students! (High school teachers, mad respect for all that grading. Yikes.)

Alright. Before we jump into maintaining this library you just built with your own two hands (and wallet), first, I need to share a hard truth with you. It sucks a lot, but I’m just going to come right out and say it. Students are going to lose your books.


I’m sorry. It’s out there now. The big, ugly truth about classroom libraries is that you’ve invested money in creating reading experiences for your students, and some of those reading experiences are going to grow legs and walk away and never be seen again. It’s the hard reality of teaching, in much the same way that all the pencils have miraculously disappeared by November, except with a larger price tag.

Despite your very best efforts, some of your books will simply fly away.
Source: Giphy for iPhone

I wanted to put the depressing bit of this post up front, because I need you to know that the loss of books is simply an inevitable part of starting and maintaining a classroom library. In spite of that inevitable loss, a classroom library is still worth it, and is still one of the single most powerful things you can implement to turn students into readers. And, depending on the level of effort you’re willing to put in, there are things you can do to prevent some of those book losses and help ensure that your library stays strong.

Before I jump into some anti-loss measures, I’ll start off by tying up some loose ends of library setup and upkeep so that you’re not tearing your hair out every week with a library that looks like this one.

Library setup for optimal maintenance

Let’s talk about how to finish setting up your library to make maintenance easy from Day 1 to Day 180.

Label your system.

If you decided to use a specific organization system (read more about those in Part 3), you may need to label your books based on that system. This is especially true if you’re doing topic or genre baskets or shelves, or sorting your book by a reading level system. Library websites like Demco sell pre-made genre stickers you can buy for relatively cheap, or you can purchase mailing labels of various sizes and make your own. I have found that mailing labels tend to pop off a bit easily with time, so I bought these sticker covers from Demco to keep my labels locked down long-term.

Labelling your books will make it far easier for students to re-shelve them, and thus you can enforce an expectation and make a clean, organized library the students’ responsibility.

Some of the genre labels offered by Demco. Source

Consider labelling books for content.

One of the joys of teaching middle school is that students are in the middle in almost every sense of the word, and this includes acceptable reading content. Some of my students are mature enough and ready for Young Adult content in their fiction, and some are still firmly residing in the land of Middle Grades. There is nothing wrong with either of these camps, and I leave it entirely up to my students (and their parents) to decide what content is appropriate for them. However, to help make that decision easier, I tag all of my YA books with YA stickers on the spine (I made some to print on mailing labels with a picture of a Pac-Man ghost to help it stand out).

The sticker I use to designate books as having Young Adult content.

Designating books as having YA content helps my readers make more informed decisions about their book choices, but it also protects me. While I take reasonable precautions to ensure that books are not too inappropriate for 14-year-old students (my hard line is usually explicitly-described sex or drug usage; anything that goes beyond casual, passing mention), there is content in some YA books that parents might find objectionable. I have parents sign a letter at the beginning of the school year that places responsibility for content of students’ reading firmly in the hands of parents and students. It is independent, choice reading, and I do not feel it is my job to censor what students read. I mark books with this content so students can be aware of it, and I move on.

Decide on a check-out system.

How will your students check out books from your library? When are they able to check books out? May books from your library go home with them? How long can students keep books for? These are all decisions you will need to make for yourself before students begin using your library. I will detail two of the most common book checkout options later in this post, but some teachers choose not to have any kind of checkout system at all- students grab books and return them as they please. Like me, some teachers allow checkout any day during reading time, while others limit students to certain days of the week on a rotating basis to prevent the library from becoming a social space. I allow my students to take books home, as I want them to be reading as often as possible, but I also understand the decision of those who ask that their books remain in the classroom to help minimize loss and damage of books. I generally let my students keep their books as long as they need to finish them, but if I haven’t seen a title in a couple months I’ll start inquiring with the student about where it’s at and when I can expect it back. Making all of these decisions in advance, while perhaps difficult, is essential to a smooth-running classroom library.

Deciding on & being clear about expectations sets students up for success all year long. Source

Post your rules.

Once you decide what the rules and procedures are for using your library, you should be sure to share them with students in a place where they can be easily seen year-round. I hang sheets by my non-fiction and fiction sections that explains the organization of each section and the checkout process for books.

Consider having 2 or 3 class librarians.

If you do jobs with your students, consider having some class librarians. These students can be in charge of checking out books to classmates if you’re comfortable with that, and they can also be responsible for general library upkeep and making sure books are in the right places. This invests students in keeping the library orderly and takes the task out of your hands.

Share the rules with students on day 1, and day 2, and day 3…

Invest a lot of time early in the year in explaining and reminding students of your library rules and procedures. It will begin to feel repetitive, but if you ingrain the behaviors early it will mean less work and frustration for you later on in the year. Make students practice if needed, and hold students accountable for care and upkeep from the beginning.

Rotate your books.

No matter what system you use, try to rotate your books a few times a year on the shelves so that new ones are at students’ eye-level. This is part of the reason I keep my books in baskets. Around winter break I reverse the alphabet of my fiction baskets so that my Z basket is first on the top shelf and my A basket is last.

Clean out your baskets & wipe off your shelves 1-2 times a year.

I opt to clean mine in early August before school starts, as I’m usually so burnt out by the end of the school year that I couldn’t possibly care less what state my book baskets are in. If you have particularly messy students or just want to minimize dust and germs, you might also want to clean them out over winter break. Enlist people to help you with this task- find some local high schoolers who need community service hours, or a friends with younger kids who want to make a few bucks.

Decide how much protection you want to give your books, and how much you’re willing to pay for that protection.

Nope, not that kind of protection. Source

I put library-grade dust-jacket covers on all of my hardback books. This ran me between $60-90 for my pretty sizeable library, including the jacket covers, the special tape to attach them, and the special tool you need to smooth out the edges as you’re installing the covers. I went back and forth about this additional cost for awhile, but the thing is that most of my hardback covers are new books, often brand new releases. (Note: If a book is available in paperback, always, always, always buy in paperback. It’s cheaper, it takes up less space, it’ll last longer, and I read somewhere once that students subconsciously prefer them because they’re easier to carry.)

Covering your hardbacks is a bit pricey and a lot time-consuming, but may be worth it to protect your investment. Source

The other factor is that once the dust jacket of a hardback is lost, that hardback is useless to you. Students simply won’t checkout hardbacks that don’t have a dust jacket. There’s no image on the cover to entice them in, and there’s no summary blurb for them to read to know what the book is about. The book will look too old and uninteresting for them to give it a second thought. Thus, dust jacket covers protect both the shelf-life and readability of my hardback books. I also view my library as a long-term investment, and $60-90 is a cost I’m willing to pay to protect that investment when the sum total value of my hardback books is probably 3-4 times that cost, easily.

How to prevent the loss of (most of) your books

Again, just to reiterate, you will never be able to prevent the loss of all of your books. But there are a few key steps you can take to minimize a lot of potential book losses.

Label your books with your name!

Labelling books with your name is crucial to recovering potentially lost copies. Source

How you choose to do this is up to you. I’ve seen handwritten names in permanent marker, specially-made “This Book Belongs to” stamps, stickers and labels, etc. I personally prefer labels, as I can print pages out at once. Avery makes nice handy ones that are easy to pull off the sheet, so it’s fast and easy to label whole stacks of books at once. Whatever method you choose, do not skip this step! When my students leave their books laying around the school, they always find their way back into my mailbox in the staff room because the inside cover is labeled with my name. I’ve also heard stories of parents returning books to a teacher years later, when the books were discovered while cleaning out a child’s bedroom. Putting your name on those books is important.

Consider using a library-type inventory system to catalogue your books and have students check them out.

There are several popular free online library management systems out there right now; Booksource is my personal favorite and the one I’m most familiar with. The idea is that you can catalogue your entire classroom library either through manually entering or scanning in each of your titles. Then, once that’s done, you can use that online system to check your books out to students just like a real library does. It’s easy to see at-a-glance where all your books are, and how long students have had them for. You can start leaning pretty heavily on students to return your books after they’ve had them for 3-4 months. Another benefit to this system is that when you’re at the thrift store trying to remember if you already have a copy of that book you’re holding, you can look it up on your phone and know for sure!

But I will be really honest with you and say that this process is incredibly, seriously time-consuming. I catalogued all of my books two years ago with the intention of using Booksource as my checkout system, and it had lots of great features I’ll talk more about in a future post. But then I ended up purging a ton of titles from my library at the end of the school year and acquiring even more new ones, and it was just too much to deal with scanning all the new titles in and then trying to figure out which titles were no longer in my library as I’d donated them before thinking to delete them from my inventory. If protecting the investment of your books is worth it enough to you to devote the time to implementing and up-keeping this system, then it will likely help reduce a lot of your book losses. I ultimately decided the time tradeoff just wasn’t worth it for me.

Go old-school and keep a paper/ pencil log.

There are tons of free templates around the web for printable book checkout logs! Source

If an online library management system sounds too complex or time-consuming, consider doing a paper/ pencil checkout system. All you need to do is write down the date, student’s name, and book title, and you’ve got all the information you need to keep a record of where your books are at. When the book comes back, you just cross out the student’s name and write the date they returned it. Pretty simple stuff. I used a spiral-bound notebook for this, and I actually made a page for each student so I could visually see how often the student had checked out books from me or whether they’d returned everything they borrowed. It served most of the purpose I needed in terms of helping me keep track of titles and reducing the number of lost books.

When all else fails, you can always try to ply your students with memes.
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While the options mentioned above won’t save all your books, it will protect the majority of them from loss by students. Remember that sometimes losing books is an inevitable part of the library experience, but when it happens, I always like to hope that either the kid loved the book so much they couldn’t bear to bring it back, or that the kid will stumble upon the book at some future point after they’ve left me and have fond memories about their time in 8th grade. Would I rather have the book back? Sure. But I’m a realist, so I’ll take what I can get.

Now that we’ve covered pretty much everything you need to know and do to start a classroom library from scratch, I’ll talk in the next post on Wednesday about tons of different strategies and activities to get kids using your library and reading books.

Definitive Guide to Classroom Libraries for the New Teacher, Part 3: Organizing Books

May 18, 2019 2 Comments

Welcome to Part 3 of my series on starting a classroom library from scratch as a new teacher! In Part 1, I discussed how to begin searching for titles your students will love, no matter what grade you teach. In Part 2, I listed 17 different low-cost ways to start collecting books for your library. In this third installation, I’ll talk book storage and different approaches to organizing your library, so you can answer the question of where the heck to put all those wonderful books!

Book Storage Options


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Your best book storage options will depend on the size of your library and your classroom. Some teachers prefer one or two floor-to-ceiling shelves to maximize floor space; I use shorter shelves that run along a wall underneath the windows of my classroom. Both are valid options. If you’re clever and craftsy, you can get shelves such as the popular IKEA Kallax or Expedit models that can double as seating for your young readers with just an afternoon’s effort and a few add-ons. Plastic milk crates can be spray-painted and attached together with zip ties or strong adhesive to create all sorts of modular shelving options to fill your needs. The more creative and outside the box you can think here, the more you’ll save and the more inviting your library can be!

Seating AND book storage! Source
Spray-paint milk crates to match your classroom decor and create modular storage in any shape you want! Perfect for odd classroom layouts to maximize available space! Source

Two of my shelves were hand-me-downs from the teacher I took over for, and I scrounged up the others at Aldi for cheap. IKEA, garage sales (both digital and traditional), Craigslist, thrift stores and the side of the road before trash night can be places to find shelving. Another great tip is to drive to your local college town the weekend of graduation- many graduating seniors will leave used furniture behind to be dumped, and you can find some pieces that are in pretty good condition. (Incidentally, this is how I found my favorite desk chair!)

One man’s trash, etc. Source

If you are someone who likes everything to be matchy-matchy (believe me, I get it!), snag some spray paint and sand paper from the local hardware or craft store, or use contact paper to cover shelves. Within the last decade or so the amount of available designs for contact paper has exploded, so you’re sure to find a design you love that will match the rest of your classroom decor!

These days, contact paper can make anything pretty! Source
Spray paint is a great option for open wire shelves! Source

To basket, or not to basket?

Or, both! Source

I keep my books in nice, sturdy Sterilite baskets. This makes it easier to shift them around on the shelves (and refresh what’s at students’ eye-level periodically), and to pull out whole baskets of books for activities with students. I also have to use baskets for my Aldi shelves, because they’re made of that open wire that things could potentially fall through. The Sterilite baskets are a bit pricey compared to what you can find at the dollar store, but those suckers will last. My mom has used them in her own third-grade classroom library for over a decade and rarely has to replace any. Before the start of each school year, you’ll want to go around and wipe out the baskets (a task my younger sister and I were often assigned in our earlier years), to remove dust, debris, and random writing utensils that always somehow seem to find their way in.

A clear benefit to not using baskets is cost. It’s definitely cheaper to get standard bookshelves and just place the books right on them. But, if you have a non-standard room space or are having to get creative with where your library goes, baskets can help you use all available space by placing them around the classroom in different locations, on top of counters, etc. Baskets might also not be the way to go if you’re primarily stocking picture books- at least, not the Sterilite baskets. The larger ones you’d need to fit picture book sizes are more expensive, and a full basket would likely be too heavy for little hands.

If you go the basket route, you can label your baskets with laminated index cards, or the Target Dollar Spot sometimes has peel-and-stick clear label pockets for book baskets during their back-to-school sale.

Find a friend or relative who builds things.

If you are not a crafty woodworker, maybe you have a friend or relative who might be able to build you some shelving or book storage for the cost of materials and dinner. This could be a way to get some of those neat book display furniture pieces without spending the hundreds (or thousands!) of dollars they often cost from school supply companies. Here’s a basic set of plans for building a front-facing wooden book display. If your library is mainly picture books and you are able to mount shelving to the wall, here’s a set of super easy plans for wall-mounted book ledges. And here’s a post on a whole variety of DIY classroom furniture including multiple shelving options and more!

Organizing books on shelves

Now that you’ve got some shelving, let’s explore some common ways to organize the books in your library, and pros/ cons of each.

Method 0: Just don’t.


If you’re in the “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” school of organization, choosing not to organize your books at at all might be your option- just stick them all up on the shelves and let students have at it!


  • Literally the easiest setup ever. Step 1: Put books on shelves. Step 2: You’re done.
  • You don’t have to feel rage when you notice for the 7th time that week that your students have mis-shelved titles again.
  • There’s no need to label baskets or books with any sort of system. You don’t have to think about it.
  • It’s the equivalent of shopping at a thrift store; students never know what they’re going to find, but that makes great discoveries all the more exciting.


  • You will never be able to find that one specific book you want right now.
  • It’s hard for students to find books that fit specific interests or preferences.
  • It’s harder to observe whether you have a good balance between different genres and topics in your library.

Method 1: Author’s last name

An oldie but a goodie, organizing books by author’s last name is still a logical choice, whether you’re using traditional shelving or book baskets.


  • It’s much easier for you to find specific books when you’re recommending titles to kids.
  • It’s easy to setup initially, and doesn’t require any labelling of books.
  • It’s easy upkeep organization for you and students.
  • For young students, organizing your library the same as most school and public libraries keeps things simple and relatable.


  • If you’re doing baskets, they can end up a bit uneven this way- if you only have two books by a ‘Q’ author for example, a basket would be a waste of space. I got around this by combining letters (an ‘L/M’ basket).
  • This setup makes it difficult for students to find books on topics or genres that relate to each other. If a student just finished a really great mystery book, they can’t easily find a similar book to start on.
  • If you’re a compulsive organizer, you might end up spending too much time trying to keep books organized in this system.
  • If you’ve got a series by the same author (Harry Potter, etc.) or by a different author (the Dear America diaries), you have to decide whether to make these separate baskets or a separate shelf section.

Method 2: Sort by genre

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Sorting your fiction (and non-fiction!) books by genre (mystery, realistic fiction, etc.) is fast becoming a much more popular way to organize both classroom and school libraries.


  • This sorting system makes it easier than ever for students to find books they’ll like once they understand elements of genre and know their own preferences.
  • It’s easy to make sure you have a balanced library with this system, because you can quickly see which genres might be lacking in terms of titles.
  • It’s an easy sorting system for you and students to upkeep once it’s set up


  • It’s a more intensive system to set up, especially if you want to make upkeep easy for students by labeling the genre of each book.
  • Some books are extremely difficult to peg into just one genre, and this makes it time-consuming to sort them initially as well as possibly difficult for students to find. Historical dystopian, anyone?
  • It can be more difficult to find specific titles quickly, as compared to the ‘author’s last name’ system.

Method 3: Sort by topic

A third library organization option is to sort books by topic (animals, winter, family, etc.).


  • A great system for younger students who don’t have any conception of genre yet, but might be able to choose their interests by topic.
  • Even older students might have an easier time finding interests in this system.
  • This organization somewhat mirrors the Dewey Decimal system of organization, meaning it could be a great option for non-fiction books.
  • While setting this system up will still take some thought from you, it’s likely still less-intensive than sorting by genre, especially for books you maybe haven’t read.


  • Still more time-intensive than sorting by author’s last name.
  • You have to decide what topics or categories to include, which can be time-consuming if you don’t know the main topics of every title in your library.
  • There’s the possibility that you end up with a handful of miscellaneous titles that don’t fit any of your topic baskets. #awkward
  • As with genre, when you get into chapter books and middle grades/ YA, you have to decide which of the many topics in a text is the primary one when you sort. That coming-of-age story ripe with family tensions with an athletic main character set during the Civil Rights Movement is going to go… where, exactly?

Method 4: Sort by reading level

Sort your books by reading level, no matter what leveling system you use- Fountas & Pinnell, Accelerated Reader, Lexile, “I Can Read” or other pre-leveled text series, etc.


  • Great for primary readers especially to help find books they will be able to read independently.
  • An easy system to help your students find books within their level if that’s a priority in your classroom.
  • Easy to maintain once you’ve set it up; your baskets or shelves can be labelled by level, and if you sticker your books then kids just have to match the level to the basket.


  • This system can be limiting for students in terms of keeping them away from books they might fall in love with.
  • You have to individually look up the level of each book, and books that are too new (or too old) may not be pre-leveled.
  • Leveling systems may not always provide the most accurate picture of whether a book is truly appropriate for a particular student. Complex themes, etc. may not be reflected in the level assigned to a book based on the criteria a leveling system uses.

Method 5: Mix it up!

I’ve outlined the four most common methods of classroom library organization above, but you may find that one system is not the key for you. In my library, I organize my fiction by author’s last name and my non-fiction by topic. I have series in their own separate section in chronological order, and I keep separate baskets for poetry, short story anthologies, and dramas/ plays. I will also occasionally do separate topical baskets for my fiction; for example, I recently acquired a set of books containing collections of short folktales from different ethnic backgrounds. These weren’t technically a series, but I decided to highlight them by giving them their own basket. Be flexible with your setup, and feel free to choose whatever works for you and your students.

Other library setup considerations

Picking a library organization system requires some thought from you about what experience you want your students to have and how much effort you’re willing to invest to maintain a system. However, this is just one (albeit important) piece of the puzzle, as is deciding upon a shelving system and whether to use baskets. You will also need to make decisions about whether to label your books to fit your shelving system, whether you want to tag books with certain types of content, what to do if you run out of space for books in your library, etc. In the next post of this series (coming tomorrow!) I will talk about maintaining your library- some of these additional decisions you’ll need to make before opening your books up to your students to ensure that your investment is protected, your books are cared for, and your students have a great reading experience.