Engaging Readers with Books in Your Classroom or School Library

 Three years ago, when I began my journey as an elementary school librarian, I had the challenge of transforming not only a physical space that had been neglected for many years – blinds closed on a wall of windows, no signage directing students where to find stories or information, and a collection that hadn’t been weeded nor updated to represent and meet the needs of patrons – but I also had the challenge of transforming the library’s reputation for students and staff. Underutilized and unwelcoming, the library was not the hub of the school.  Luckily, I was bringing nearly two decades of experience in education as a teacher of grades three, four, five and six to my new role as the school librarian. Perhaps you can take some of the ways I transformed my school library and use them in your own school or classroom library to engage students and build a stronger community of readers. Whether you teach students in high school, middle school or elementary school, these engagement strategies can be tweaked to suit any grade level.

On the Shelf

Shelves of rows and rows of books can be overwhelming for students. I found so many kids wandering aimlessly not knowing where to begin their search for their next read. There were three main sections – picture book fiction, chapter book fiction, and nonfiction. Picture book and chapter book fiction were organized alphabetically by author’s last name, while nonfiction was organized using the traditional Dewey decimal system. If a student didn’t know precisely what book they were looking for, this led them on their first of many laps walking along the shelves running their fingers along the spines. I also paid attention to how kids asked for books. Where are the books about unicorns? Where are stories about football? I want to read more about World War II. Kids were requesting books by topics and categories not by author’s last name or even specific titles. It made sense to organize the library that way; so, we did. With chapter book fiction we rearranged books by genre – fantasy, realistic fiction, animal fiction, sports fiction, science fiction, historical fiction, humorous fiction, adventure/thriller/mystery, and horror. With these color-coded genres, kids now had a starting point. Once they found a book they liked within that genre, they knew they could return to that section to find similar stories. The success of this new system triggered a trickle-down effect as we reorganized picture book fiction similarly, and most recently nonfiction as well. Create systems that allow the students in your classroom to find books, not just walk past them.

Then, utilize the real estate on those shelves by situating as many books as you can so that the cover is facing forward. Every square inch of top shelf in our library has books standing on it. Featured books throughout each genre section are placed facing forward to break up the monotony of rows of spines, and they have to be replaced often as these front-facing featured books are the first to be snatched by students. Books will sell themselves if the kids can see the covers, and when the cover art alone doesn’t attract readers, use recommendation and review cards like you see in bookstores. These advertisements can sit on shelves and engage readers who are curious to see what their classmates and teachers are recommending. Similarly, I created these Read Them in Order signs for books with multiple books in a series, because inevitably, once you have them hooked on a series, they’re going to come asking which one comes next. These signs not only eliminate the question, but they are permanent advertisers showing off the covers of each book in a series when perhaps the shelf space doesn’t allow for all books to face forward. Whether you’re thinking about the organization of your school library or your classroom library, remember to give full consideration to not only what’s on the shelf but how it’s arranged and advertised too.

On the Wall

Just as valuable as the real estate on your shelves, is the space available on your walls. A blank wall is a canvas waiting to engage readers. Introduce students to storytellers by designing a space for a portrait gallery of authors. Not only will these faces decorate blank walls, they can act as conversation starters and a place for you to turn to when offering recommendations. Also, don’t you feel it’s high time these authors get the celebrity treatment they deserve? This is an opportunity for students to connect a face with their favorite – or soon to be favorite – book; the person behind the pages of our beloved books should be both recognized and celebrated. Additionally, this space can be where students see themselves in the faces of the authors. Looking back at them from the wall, these faces can subtly let students know everyone has a story to tell; all of them important; all of them necessary; and perhaps, their story may be the next one to sit on these shelves.

Similarly, you can create a space for a story squad. I’ve done this with a variety of popular characters from kid lit, and it not only makes the library welcoming, but it gets kids talking. Yes, talking in the library. Remember, building that community of readers? I love listening to them chatter about favorite characters or reminiscing about a favorite chapter or series as they browse the framed art waiting in line at checkout. The same conversations that happen in my school library, can be conversations in your classroom.

The space I inherited had a large wall with a map of the world. That map wasn’t going anywhere, so I had to find a way to make it relevant. Sure, it could just be a map on the wall of the library, but I can’t resist an opportunity to make everything about books. So, I did. Print out miniature book covers and place them on the map wherever the story is set. The War that Saved My Life in England, Out of the Dust in Oklahoma, Shadow of a Bull in Spain, Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes in Japan, Amal Unbound in Pakistan. The map became a geography lesson in literature; and again, I had a place to refer students when they were looking for their next great read. Challenge students to read across America or travel around the world by reading one book from each continent. So, if you’ve got an unused map in your classroom, use it to open your students to a world of reading possibilities.

In nonfiction, I wanted to generate curiosity. Since a huge chunk of nonfiction is devoted to animals – at least in elementary school libraries – and they are perhaps the most frequently checked out books in nonfiction, I created a space where students could see how they measured up to the other animals in the kingdom. Pictures of some favorites – gorilla, emperor penguin, ostrich, flamingo – were posted at their various markers (in feet) so students could compare themselves to the heights of the animals. This interactive display gained popularity quickly. Whether it was a fifth-grader or a first-grader, kids wanted to see which animal their equal was when it came to height. And then, when they saw a mature male ostrich could grow as tall as nine feet with almost half its height all in its neck, kids wanted to know more; to learn more; to read more. And if you guessed I located this display near animal books packed with fun facts – think anything by Steve Jenkins – you’re right.  And that led to more book investigation and increased checkout. Animal books were leaving in the hands of kids. Goal achieved. Whether its animal height or something else, interactive displays can provoke curious minds and lead them to books.


What Should I Read Next?

“What should I read next?” Time and time again, this question was being asked of me in my first months as librarian. Now, I like to read. I’ve read a ton of kid lit, but I haven’t read everything, and my favorites aren’t going to be everyone’s favorites. I was being overwhelmed with a flood of recommendation requests, and it called for a solution. The result was the creation of book menus. Based on the way Amazon suggests titles after you make a purchase, or the way Netflix makes recommendations based on your previous viewing history, I created menus that would give students suggestions based on books they liked (If You Liked Wonder by R.J. Palacio) , series they loved (If You Liked Harry Potter), or topics of interest (If You Like Books About Sports). I have created four sets now – all available free here. Printed and stored in three-ring binders, these have been a lifesaver, and kids turn to them time and time again when they’re on the hunt for what to read next. I’ve also recently made them digital, and they can be flipped through online as well. Although the menus I’ve created are specific to what’s available in my elementary school library’s collection, these are easy – although a bit time consuming – to make. Grab book cover images from Amazon and tailor the menu to the books you have available in your classroom library. There’s nothing worse than finding a book on a suggested list only to be disappointed when you discover it’s not even available in the library’s collection.

Stepping out of the library temporarily, let’s head to the restrooms just down the hall where – believe it or not – you can engage kids in a little reading. This next suggestion is by no means my invention. I had seen PD on the Potty where professional development bites were posted in the stalls of teacher restrooms, and I thought something similar could be done for students. Catch their attention wherever you can – even if it’s in the can. What resulted were Toilet Papers. Short reviews of kid lit posted in bathroom stalls, near urinals (ick), above sinks, and near hand dryers. Kids are always asking to go to the bathroom, so why not wallpaper the place with something to read? And you know what? It worked. Kids were coming in the library describing a book they wanted ending their request with, “You know. It’s one of the books posted in the bathroom!” Extend your reach beyond your classroom or library walls. Students may discover their next great read in the most unlikely places.

Creating a YouTube channel has been particularly helpful with teaching and learning happening remotely, and your channel can serve as an answer to the question, “What should I read next?” I’ve created two playlists that I direct students to – whether in person or during distance learning – when they are seeking recommendations. The first is a playlist of over 100 book trailers – think of movie previews except for books. They’re bite-sized, and they offer just enough of a taste to leave kids wanting more.  If you are short on time and want to create a playlist quickly, I recommend using trailers created directly by publishers. These are going to be of high quality and will require little, if any, vetting. Although there are many great teacher or student created trailers, you may find yourself needing to view them before adding them to your playlist to make sure they’re appropriate and worth watching.

A second playlist I created for my channel consists of First Chapter Friday videos. I’ve made one each week since this school year began. I post them in the library’s Google classroom, but teachers have also shared that they use some class time to watch them together. Again, First Chapter Friday is something that’s been around for a while, and by no means my creation. The idea is to share books with really great first chapters that make it nearly impossible for kids not to beg you to keep reading more. Obviously, you can do this in person without creating a YouTube channel, but I really like having the playlist so I can refer students to it throughout the year as the need arises for recommendations. It’s nice to be able to say, “Oh I have the perfect book for you. Or at least I think I do. Why don’t you listen to me read the first chapter, and if you like it, you can check it out.” Creating the videos is made easy with the Loom extension for Chrome. I can record myself reading where both myself and the book are visible on screen. Even if you don’t have access to eBooks through Overdrive, Hoopla, Epic, or Kindle, you can usually read the first chapter or two of books on Amazon (for free). Simply find books with the Look Inside option to access those first chapters, and let the magic unfold.

And the Winner Is…

Hopefully the books are what keep kids returning to your bookshelves, but I found that having weekly challenges or contests was another way to guarantee the return of students to the library week after week. Two weekly challenges I used throughout the school year include the Emoji Story Title of the Week Challenge and The Dewey of the Week Challenge. Each week I present students with a book title written in emoji code. By cracking the code, a title of a children’s book – picture book or chapter book – will be revealed. I’ve even made these digital during our online days to provide some sense of normalcy and routine to the virtual school experience. Each week I post them in Google Classroom and students can submit their answer using Google Forms. Those who submit correct answers are entered into the Wheel of Names which selects a random winner. I usually send the winner a five-dollar gift card to Amazon along with some book recommendations and a few bookmarks. Nothing like a bit of snail mail to brighten one’s day.  You can check out all of my Emoji Story Title of the Week challenges here.

The other challenge – Dewey of the Week – became about a consistent way to keep kids practicing location of books in nonfiction using the Dewey decimal system. After a whole group lesson about Dewey and his book classification system, there isn’t enough class time to keep practicing week after week, so this resulted as a way to sneak in practice during kids’ independent visits to the library. I post a random Dewey call number on a white board in the library. Students can choose to hunt for the title of the book and submit their answers for the chance at being drawn for a prize. No, not everyone participates, but many do because it’s a choice. They start to get the hang of the system quickly. One lesson I learned early is that some students would remove the book or even check it out (parent volunteers or self-checkout allowed them to). So, I created a slip (which I printed four to a page and laminated) that I attach to the cover of the chosen book to prevent students from removing or checking out the book during the week it is being featured as the Dewey of the Week. Week after week, I had visitors showing up just to search for that book. The more opportunities students had to come to the library, the greater the chances they would be leaving with a book in hand.

Create challenge and contest opportunities in your own classroom. I promise you, there will be kids who are excited to come to class each day simply because of those chances to win. And, you’ll be exposing them to new books. Every time you reveal the answer and the winner of the Emoji Story Title of the Week Challenge, do a book talk to get kids excited about reading it. Maybe the winner wins a copy or gets first dibs on reading the book.

Whether you invest in kid-friendly systems for locating books, reconsider the use of wall and shelf space, have book recommendations at the ready, or challenge students with contests that promote books, I hope you’ll find some small nugget of gold from my experience as an elementary school librarian to revitalize the energy in your own classroom library and energize your community of readers. 

Thanks to our guest blogger, Michael Rawls, for the insightful blog post! 

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