Building and Maintaining a High-Interest Classroom Library

Building & Maintaining a High-Interest Classroom Library
by Tracee Orman

As English teachers, we all know the benefits of reading. Yet, not every school has a well-stocked library (or a library at all), and not every student is given time to just read for pleasure. Therefore, the burden often falls on us to provide both. The benefits of giving up this class time and furnishing high-interest reading materials have definitely been worth it in my experience.

DAILY READING: I have tried allowing free time in class each day for 10 to 15 minutes. That was fine, but with 46 to 50-minute class periods, it was hard to transition to or from reading to or from whatever we were doing in class and I usually ended up losing more instruction time. If you have longer class periods, I think daily reading can really work well. I worked for one year on a block schedule and silent reading for 20 minutes per day worked very well in the 90-minute class period.

ONCE PER WEEK READING PERIOD: Free-Read Fridays (or any designated day) is a great option if you can’t find time to read daily in class. I would often use early-out or late-start days as free-reading days, as well. It gives students a longer block of time to really get into what they are reading. It’s important to let students know ahead of time, though, so they are prepared. Of course, if they aren’t prepared, that’s when providing reading material is even more important.

My goal for free reading time is for students to READ. I did not care what they were reading, I just really wanted them to read for pleasure. With that in mind, I provided many sources of reading material for a variety of interests and reading levels. Yes, even children’s books. 

Building a high-interest and diverse classroom library

DIVERSITY: It’s also important to provide as much diversity of authors as possible ESPECIALLY if you have white students. White students learn to empathize with characters of color, so the more texts you can provide that feature Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) as protagonists and main characters, the better. It’s also important to provide books featuring LGBTQ+ characters for the same reason.

NOVELS, POETRY, GRAPHIC NOVELS & NONFICTION: Providing a variety of types of books will appeal to more readers. Some students may be intimidated by a novel, but will happily read the Guinness Book of World Records. It’s okay to provide books with pictures. The goal is to get ALL your students to read, so consider image-heavy books the gateway to more text-heavy books. Novels in verse, short stories, and poetry are great for in-class free reading days.

ALTERNATIVES TO BOOKS: Magazines and newspapers are great for shorter reading periods. A student can read an entire article or two in the designated time. Plus, there’s always a variety of topics to choose from. The comic section and sports page were always favorites of my students. You don’t have to go out and subscribe to multiple periodicals. I also asked our librarian for discarded issues of magazines about cars, hunting, entertainment, and fashion. You can ask the local doctor or dentists’ offices if they would be willing to donate any magazines to your classroom. For newspapers, many publishers will donate free copies to schools just by asking.

It’s important to note that you do not have to have a large classroom library. In fact, if students aren’t reading and checking out half your books, why have them? Focus on trying to provide 15-25 high-interest books at first and see how they go over with your students. I’ve provided this free list of titles in case you need help choosing which texts you want to acquire. It also includes a checkout form because you definitely want to try to keep track of them! Please note that some titles may be more appropriate for older students; use your own discretion for your students and school.

Click to download the free form and list of titles.

There are several ways you can build your library: create a Wish List on Amazon, create a Donors Choose project, shop Scholastic Books and use points to purchase new books, ask students/parents if they have any they would donate, shop garage sales, secondhand stores, and Facebook Market, and/or ask your social media followers for donations. It never hurts to ask your administration for budget money for your classroom library. The worst they can say is “No.”

Along with using a checkout form, you will want to add to your collection each year and weed out older copies that aren’t being checked out. 

You can check out my amazing colleagues' resources and blog posts to help you with your classroom library:

How to Use Purposeful Decor to Decorate a Secondary Classroom

Hi again!
It's Brittany from The SuperHERO Teacher here and I'm going to talk about the one thing I feel I have TRULY mastered in the classroom and that's creating an engaging environment using purposeful classroom decor! It can be a challenge to decorate a middle or high school classroom without it appearing childish or bland. I've had the awesome opportunity to complete classroom makeovers and renovations for several secondary teachers. Below, you'll find my top seven tips for creating a space that is sophisticated and aesthetically appealing to secondary students.

It's super important that all of the decor in the classroom serves a purpose! So many learning opportunities can come from the displays in your classroom and I'm going to highlight some of them now.

1. Create an element of surprise.
A classroom library is essential, right? But how can we further motivate students to read independently and enjoy a book without judging it by its cover first? The element of surprise, of course! Try wrapping a few of your favorite books with colorful wrapping paper, attaching a brief description of the book and displaying it as decor in the classroom. When a student is ready for a new book, they can visit the display, read the descriptions and pick the one that appeals to them! I have a template here if you're interested, but creating this element of surprise is a visually appealing way that is also purposeful.

2. Print and frame motivational quotes.
There are so many incredible sites that provide motivational posters that are simultaneously GORGEOUS and can totally transform a space! For example, Amplifier Art provides FREE social justice posters for teachers. You can either have them delivered to you or print them yourself. These posters are not just beautiful, though. They have messages that will stick with your students for a long time! The motivational posters in the photo below are in my store here. 

PRO TEACHER TIP: Pair each piece of art with a QR code that links to an inspirational speech or poem that relates to the message! Students can scan the QR code with their phones and you've instantly created an interactive art gallery.

3. Display student work.
This is probably the easiest way to create classroom decor in a middle or high school classroom-- simply display your students' creative work! In one of my classroom makeovers, I used clothes hangers and coat racks to create this display. Here's the FREE "Rad Work" sign that you can download and use in your own classroom.

4. Design interactive bulletin boards. 
I am such a huge fan of interactive bulletin boards because students can actually work WITH the content on the bulletin board to build and strengthen skills. For example, I use this interactive reading literature bulletin board to inspire independent reading! Students can check out one of the 12 challenges, like reading a book that was published on their birthday, in exchange for extra credit (or whatever you prefer). Interactive bulletin boards allow you to create beautiful displays that simultaneously serve a purpose. Check out some of my other interactive bulletin boards here!

5. Use paint or removable wallpaper to transform the space. 
If you're allowed, use paint to completely transform your space. You'd be surprised at how big of a difference a fresh coat of white paint can make! Create a statement wall with a bold color or use removable wallpaper to catch your students' attention.

PRO TEACHER TIP: Use color psychology to ensure you're using colors that match the vibe you're trying to create in your classroom.

6. Include the cultures of your students. 
This tip is so important! Include the cultures of your students to create a space that is safe and inviting for every student that enters your classroom. During my classroom makeover in Monument Valley, Utah on the Navajo Reservation, I supported local small businesses to include their culture in the classroom.

7. Create sections in your classroom floor plan. 
Whether it's a classroom library or a zen zone, you can create a floor plan that is designed with purposeful classroom decor in mind! At the Monument Valley classroom renovation, I wanted to create an area in the room that allowed students to escape school work and practice mindfulness and meditation, so I created a Zen Zone. You can do the same thing with mindfulness books, magazines, yoga mats, etc. Purposeful and comfortable!

Thanks for reading and I hope you can implement some of these tips in your own classroom! Don't forget to download the Rad Work freebie here.

Brittany Jeltema

Preparing for the possibility of distance learning in the fall

distance learning
We might just do it all again. I’ve been struggling with this concept while I wander through my remote teaching journey - and as much as I hope that it doesn’t happen, I am actively preparing for the possibility of some distance learning in the fall.

I’m not just talking about creating digital lesson plans. Those are important, but what I really need to work on are the skills students will need to be successful if they are learning from home again.

So stay with me as I share some ideas and free lessons that you may be able to adapt for your situation:

Creating a Climate for Distance Learning

During the first days and weeks of my classes, I always put a lot of time and energy into building relationships with my students. I also work hard on creating a classroom climate where they feel safe, accepted and ready to learn. For me, this is the foundation on which everything else we do will be built. Without it, it’s much harder to make the learning magic happen.

However, classroom community is the hardest thing to maintain when your kids aren't in front of you. Creating it if we don't start in the classroom will be even harder.

Scenario One: starting in school
Let’s start with scenario one: we assemble face-to-face in September. If this happens, even in a modified version, I will do what I always do - just more of it - so we can quickly get to know each other well. Then, if we are sent home again, we will have that foundation to build on.

Back to school getting to know you stations
How do I do this? Well, I have my usual teacher tricks of standing at my door and dropping by desks to chat with my new students so I can start building my relationship with them. And, during the first day or two, I use my Getting to Know You Stations (which I will covert for Google Drive over the summer, just in case). These stations offer students the opportunity to get to know me and my expectations, while they introduce themselves to me and collaborate with their new classmates.

I also have a Getting to Know You Freebie that you can grab here. It takes less time than the stations but is a great first day activity that gets students moving and talking to each other.

Scenario Two: starting the year online 
This scenario is not very appealing. But it may happen, and I don’t want to be scrambling in August to figure out how to digitize the process of creating a classroom climate. I'm going to need that time on the beach after this year...

So in case we aren't together in September, I've created a Getting-to-Know-You exercise that my students can use at home.

For this activity, students will create a slide that they will use to introduce themselves to the class. Then, after they have all been submitted, I'll share them with everyone, and they will do a getting-to-know-you scavenger hunt so they can learn about the classmates they haven't met face-to-face yet. Students will have the option of using a photo of themselves or an object or quote that represents them. They can also record their introduction if they prefer.

Back to school getting to know you activity

This activity will not be the same as our face-to-face ones, but I think it's an alternative that the kids will enjoy. You can grab a free template here. If you would like a more detailed one with more options for students, click here.

Teaching Students to Be Independent Learners:
If we start school in the building, I will be front loading all of the skills my students will need to be successful in the course if we get sent home again. I always begin the year by scaffolding skills, but in September, I will know that I can’t spread this out like I normally do. I need to get them ready as quickly as I can.

We have used Google Classroom for some time, so our kids know the ins and outs of how to use it. However, there are other skills that they will need so they can work independently:

1. Learning to ask good questions
the importance of good questions

Knowing what questions to ask is usually more important than knowing the right answer, so when school starts, I will be spending a lot of time on the art of good questioning. I find that the best way to do this is through modelling my own process, and during the first days and weeks of school I will be focusing on building in opportunities to do this.

For example, on one of the first days of class, I give my kids a copy of Matthew Foley's What You Will Need in Class Today. It's a spoken word poem that urges students to be present in class with a "fire in [their] belly." I want my kids to get that message, but I also use the poem to show them how I use questioning as I close read to to figure out the author's message.

You can grab my lesson here(Be sure to check out the presentation notes for each slide if you want to use this).

Teaching students to close read

2. Focusing on the process of learning:
This goes hand in hand with teaching my kids to question - I need to show them how to find the answers to those questions. Learning is a process and takes some work - answers don't just fall from the sky. So, we focus a lot on processes in Room 213, and we will spend a lot of time on that in September if we meet face-to-face. That way, if we move to distance learning again, the students will have those skills. 

This will begin with an emphasis on how to figure things out for themselves. If a kid asks how to do something that I know they have a handout for, instead of answering them, I'll ask them if they've looked in their binder yet. If they ask what a word means, I'll tell them they can use their phone to look it up. I want them to know that they have the skills to find things out themselves.

I will also model and practice the skills for the following because they are ones that will be necessary for learning at home. You can click on the  links to read posts about how I teach these skills in class. My hope is that I can get as many of these lessons in before flu season sends us home again.

If we start school from home, I will still teach my students these processes, but the activities will have to be adapted for at home learning. My summer will be filled with converting my lessons, just in case. If you'd like to see the ones that already are, click here.

Plan Assignments That Are Best for Distance Learning
One thing we've all learned this spring is that it's not always easy to engage and teach kids from our couches. So, I'm thinking it'd be wise to plan for assignments that are not only engaging, but also easy to do from home. 

The worst case scenario is that we are teaching remotely for a semester or the year...If that happens, I’m just going to have to suck it up, embrace it, and roll out the whole course digitally. However, I am hopeful that this may only happen for some months of the year (or not at all!). For that reason, I am “setting aside” some assignments that I know will be best to keep kids engaged.

Engaging Informational Texts:
My students tend to find short nonfiction a little more interesting than short stories and poetry, especially when it's an interesting or controversial topic. Nonfiction is also pretty accessible to them online, so I have a pile of lessons ready to go should I need them.

Choice Boards:
I have had a lot of success with these during this round of distance learning. They are designed so kids can easily do them on their own, and they can choose topics that they find interesting. You can grab two different free ones, or get the whole bundle here.

Choice Boards for Distance Learning

Multi-genre projects
The Multi-genre project is a staple in my classroom, and you can read all about my love for it here. Of course, I hope to conclude next semester with the MGP; however, I plan to have my students practice the process if we have a Covid-induced hiatus in the fall. This is because the multi-genre project is perfect for them to explore things that they are interested in, while practicing important ELA skills. Wow. There's just so much swirling in my head as I try to process this. I really hope I was able to present it in a way that made sense. You can be sure that I will be blogging about my plans and sharing ideas on my Instagram account during the summer - so stay tuned! We'd love to hear about your preparations for the fall as well, so feel free to leave a comment.UPDATE: I've got a new post that gives you more tips on teaching kids to be more independent.> If you would like some help learning to use Google Forms, The Daring English Teacher has some tips for you here. She also has a great resource for teaching kids email etiquette - another skill they will need for remote learning.> Secondary Sara also has a new blog post with distance learning tips for those who teach public speaking!Take care!

10 Ways to Celebrate Students Online

10 ways to celebrate students online

With the end of the school year just around the corner, you’re probably looking for ways to connect with your students and show them that you are thinking about them. It’s not a stretch to say that rounding out the school year in this unique time is uncharted territory. These are challenging times, but that doesn’t mean you can’t serve up a little slice of normalcy. In fact, finding a way to come together and end the year on a high note is likely something students need now more than ever before. If you were in your classrooms, you would soon be immersed in end of the year celebrations, award ceremonies, and the general buzz and excitement that typically coincide with having another school year in the books. Unfortunately, that can’t happen this year, so teachers will do what they always do - Get creative. Below are 10 ways that you can celebrate your students digitally and have some fun at the end of the year.

1. Share Awards Digitally or Host a Virtual Awards Ceremony

Sharing awards digitally is not complicated, nor do you need to be tech savvy to make this work. In fact, I wrote a blog post that outlines the exact process for sharing awards digitally with a quick instructional video. You can keep it simple by assigning awards to students yourself, or kick it up a few notches by having students vote for which award they think each student should receive. There is no right or wrong way; do what is right for your students.

I have a MEGA-BUNDLE of all my awards sets if you never want to search for an award again, but I also offer each of the sets individually.  You can see all the awards I offer by clicking the links below:

The method you choose to share the awards depends on how you’ve been approaching things thus far, and what you envision working best for your class. If you have been meeting with students regularly, you may want to host an awards ceremony via Zoom or Google Meet. You can talk about each student before giving them the award and then email them their award when the ceremony is over. If you want to take it a step further and make it especially memorable, you might send out invitations and even get all of the students to dress up for the call and add a fun background to your video. Students could even give an acceptance speech!

2. Share a Fun Challenge or Mystery

Celebrate students by challenging them with a fun, digital end of the year escape room or by having them solve a mystery that they can work together on with their classmates.   You can try this FREE digital inference mystery where students must problem-solve to infer who kidnapped the principal! This is a part of my Digital Inference Bundle 

You could also share this FREE digital figurative language escape challenge with students where they must use their knowledge of figurative language to escape Mr. Booker's secret chamber.  If you are looking for more like this one, I have a bundle of figurative language escape rooms and grammar escape rooms in this similar format.

3. Host a Virtual End of the Year Party 

If you have been meeting regularly with students via Zoom or Google Meet, you might want to consider hosting a virtual end of the year party. You could implement a theme and have students dress up accordingly.  You could play virtual games, recognize student achievement, or simply just chat with your students and have fun. If you do host an end of the year party, don’t forget to take a screenshot photo of your class to share with them later. 

4. Host a Virtual End of the Year Talent Show 

Much like an end of the year party, a virtual talent show is something you might consider hosting if you have been meeting with your students regularly via Zoom or Google Meet. You could have students volunteer and share their talents on screen. People love to share their talents, but sometimes need an invitation, a little extra encouragement, or even the lure of prizes to coax them out of their comfort zone. If you aren’t meeting regularly online, one option might be to have students submit a video of their talent to be posted within the platform you are using to share materials. This method will be less intimidating for some students, as it offers the opportunity to share their talents without the pressure of doing it “live”. Please note it’s important that you make sure to have parent permission for this. 

5. Make Positive Contact With Parents 

One way to celebrate students is to make positive contact with their parents.  If you notice a student is showing growth, excelling in a specific area or working harder, reach out to the parents to let them know! Everyone loves to receive praise, and parents will beam with pride knowing that their child stood out, and the student will appreciate being recognized. 

6. End of the Year Photo Booth 

Have each student in your class submit a photo and create a virtual collage of your class to share with everyone. Consider this a virtual class photo or slideshow.  You might even want to add music and create an end of the year slideshow with everyone’s photo submissions!   Here are a few steps you can use within PowerPoint to make this happen:

1.   Open up a blank PowerPoint 
2.   Drag or insert each of the photos to fit the slide (each picture on their own slide or a few photos per slide)
3.   Resize them to fit.
4.   Add in animations/transitions between slides
5.   Share with students

If you have taken any fun photos throughout the year, you can insert them into your virtual collage or slideshow. This is a great way to take a trip down memory lane with your class and end the year on a high note together.

7. Create a Virtual Memory Box

Have students reflect on the school year and how they have adapted. These are some questions you might have your students consider:

  • How have you grown? 
  • What have you learned?
  • What do you want to remember about this experience? 
  • What have you gained a renewed appreciation for? 
  • What have you rediscovered? 
  • How has your perspective changed? 

Have them share their thoughts in a letter which they will submit to you. Hold onto these letters and email them back to students a year later. 

If you wanted to take this one a step further, with the students’ permission, you could create a digital class book with each of the students’ reflections within it. 

8. Host a Virtual Trivia Contest 

Host a trivia challenge with students. You could ask questions about memories from the year, content from your class, or just general trivia. You can use Quizlet or Kahoot to play this virtually with your students, or simply send the questions to your students and have them submit answers to you. You might even consider sending a prize in the mail to the winning student.  One thing you could try is having each student submit specific memories of the year in advance. Use these submissions to reverse engineer some fun trivia questions. You might be surprised at what they remember! 

9. Create an Class Digital Scrapbook

Have everybody in the class create one PowerPoint or Google slide which includes a picture they want to share, a funny memory, or a reflection on the year.  Compile all those slides into one document and export it to share with the whole class. This will serve as a digital scrapbook for the year that students will love.

10. Bring in a Guest Speaker, Author or Expert for a Virtual Field Trip 

Welcome a guest speaker, expert, or author via Google Meet or Zoom.  If you are stumped trying to find the right person, you may want to turn to your social media.  Start with your personal contacts to see if there is anyone who might be able to share their talent or expertise with your students.  For example, I know a few artists who do Facebook Lives teaching kids to paint. Someone like that might be more than willing to make a guest appearance. You could also reach out to authors, speakers, or experts on Instagram by sending them a direct message to see if they would be interested in speaking to your class.

Looking for other ways to celebrate your students? Check out these resources: 
Awards for ELA Bundle by Secondary Sara

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