How to Grow a Secondary Classroom Library

I've redone my classroom library from scratch... twice
I've dabbled with book scan apps, tried different sign out clipboards, begged for more books, made ROOM for those books, tried different bins, and experimented with how I could make the secondary classroom library really work for us.

I ultimately found the combination of things that worked for us and have updated this post in an attempt to help teachers who might be just starting out OR looking to affordably expand their shelves. 

Dealing with a classroom library CAN feel like one more project that you don't have time for, especially if you teach a specialized course like British Lit or Speech and aren't so sure if your classroom - or curriculum - needs one. However, we know that the rate of choice reading tends to drop dramatically in the high school years, and English teachers are the last guardians of reading who can help teens realize that they can read well, can read for fun, and can make time for reading after all. A classroom library isn't just a book case; it's symbolic of the life we want our students to lead. 

Fortunately, improving (or starting) yours can happen after one small change rather than a massive overhaul as you might fear.

Here are several tried-and-true ways to give your bookshelves a boost in an English class for teens or tweens. 

FREE: Classroom Library Starter Sheets!
Click here to get several checklists and forms that are referenced in the list below and will help you get started!

1. Rethink your checkout system

My students weren't filling out the checkout clipboard to borrow my books, and if they did, they didn't return to the clipboard when returning the books. It wasn't working. 

So, I partnered with my school library to buy a zillion adhesive book pockets and old school library cards. Each book got a pocket with a card in it; the card just says the title. When students want a book, they walk the title card from the book to the display pocket with their name on it. When students are finished, they put the card back in the book and return it to the shelf (which is color coded by genre and discussed later in this post). 

The bonus? Not only was this faster than the clipboard, but I could easily see who was reading what AND who had which book. 

2. Make your wish list public (and partner with book stores!)
Not all books need to be purchased with your money. During student teaching, my classroom didn't have a class library. Fortunately, the local Half Price Books store was willing to do a book drive for me; I could make a table of requested books and see in a given timeframe if store patrons would buy any for us. Though you might have more luck with smaller stores/chains than bigger ones, you never know who might say yes!

If you decide to make an Amazon wish list, don't be afraid to share it! You never know who in your personal community will have the means and desire to contribute. AND THEN, I strongly recommend checking out ThriftBooks or an independent bookstore to finish shopping for whatever is not purchased by others. 

If you need ideas for books to put on your wish list, you might like some of my book lists here: 

3. Assign a classroom "librarian"
Either assign a student helper, or get weekly volunteers, to keep the library in check (so you don't have to). This person can fix messy shelves, do a book talk, or update whatever routines/displays you have in place. The double bonus is that you have less to do, and the students feel increased ownership of the space.

4. Shuffle the books once per week
Depending on how you're storing/shelving them, "fluff" the books once a week and shuffle them so that new covers are visible in the front, at the ends, or in the displays. Doing this will keep books from getting out of sight and mind, and it will also help the space look like it's seeing activity (and not some outdated zone).

5. Make permanent peer recommendations
No offense to book talks (which I love), but I like to use this FREE template to make peer nominations that will last longer. If they rate books by metrics they care about, students can more independently choose the right books for them.

6. Student AND teacher book talks
I'm decent at giving book talks, so the titles I pitch to students typically see an uptick in momentum, BUT a peer-given book talk can be infinitely more powerful. Make sure you're not the only one recommending books in your room, and you won't be sorry about the time you spent doing it. (PS - why not use that book talk as a public speaking grade? Find out more about that here.)

7. Color code books and shelves
This is single-handedly the most important change I made to my classroom library: using skinny duct tape to color code books by genre. (See photo below.) Now, my students know where to find certain books, where to put them BACK (!), and how to browse more efficiently.

I used to put books in color-coded bins as well but have since abandoned that practice because students browse better when they can see the books and spines rather than have to hunt through a basket or bin. 

8. Give students time to use it
I get it - depending on your curriculum and schedule, you might have less-than-zero time to give students for free reading, book talks, or browsing the library. BUT, you can remind teens during their in-class work time on OTHER tasks that "Now would be a smart time to use the classroom library if you need it!"

9. Elicit student requests and "dibs"
Print the FREE starter sheets above, stick them on clipboards, and start getting student input on what books they think you should buy, which books they want to read next (and want "dibs" on when it's available next), and which student currently has which book. (I've tried more complex check-out systems, but as far as simple paper ones go, this form is my favorite!)

10. Make easy, eye-catching displays
No, we're not in elementary school anymore, BUT you want the library space to be visually appealing "enough" that students are drawn to it like moths to a flame. The more their eyes and bodies linger by books, the better, right? Evaluate the amount of wall or shelf space you have, and then ask if you need a consistent color theme, student-made posters, teacher-bought posters, book recommendations, books on spinning shelves, or other eye candy in your space.

(Want more inspiration? Check out my Pinterest board of classroom library ideas!)

11. Be honest about why "traffic" is low
Not seeing a lot of student traffic by your bookshelves? Be honest about why. Is it because they don't like reading or have motivation issues? Do they not have a choice reading requirement, and thus don't HAVE time or MAKE time to read? Do they dislike the space or the books? Don't have enough given in-class time to peruse it?

If you are honest with each other about the reason(s) why, you can problem-solve more easily and save some frustration about why your hard work isn't seeing student appreciation.

12. Assess a choice novel

Even without a full-blown independent reading program, your standards or curriculum most likely CAN justify assigning a choice novel/text. Whether it's once per month, quarter, semester, or year, requiring a choice novel will help your library see more action (and help your readers try new things).

See a sample list of activities that can go with any novel by checking out some of my activities here


The Bottom Line

Many of us became English teachers to help students close gaps and love the written word for the long term, not just in the 45 minutes or so that we have those students in class. Having a classroom library that works - and doesn't just looks pretty - is a huge asset toward that goal, one that is totally within your reach.

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