Classroom Libraries: Who Owns the Reading?

Article

“You are welcome to check out books as long as you are reliable.”

I had been looking at the library in the church, a few minutes before mass started. We weren’t at the church in which we belong, one in a neighboring town. The parish librarian noticed what I was doing and offered this comment.

My first thought was, has anyone confided to this person that they are, in fact, unreliable? Thankfully I bit my tongue as the librarian demonstrated how to check out a book.

This parish library was nicely organized by topic and author. Not a title out of place. The process of borrowing a book was clear.

And yet I left without a book. I didn’t feel comfortable checking one out. Why? Because the library belonged primarily to the librarian.

To be fair, they never said this, but they didn’t have to. It was in their actions and language that communicated to me that this nicely organized library was to be appreciated more than used.

Understanding Classroom Libraries

In our school, we are creating language about schoolwide expectations for how students should be involved in designing and organizing classroom libraries. We want our kids to believe that books belong to the reader.

Why classroom libraries? Proximity, for one. In Readicide: How schools are killing reading and what you can do about it, high school teacher Kelly Gallagher describes recommending a book from the school library. Only one student checked it out. He then brought copies to the classroom and made another pitch. They were checked out immediately. A waiting list was needed.

Classroom libraries are not a replacement for the school library. They should complement each other in support of authentic literacy experiences.

Classroom libraries should invite students to read. Kids should feel comfortable perusing books for independent reading and reading at home. Subsequently, the teacher can take advantage of these opportunities for instruction, such as conferring with students as they read books of their choice.

Why Involve Students in Classroom Library Organization?

Regie Routman, a longtime reading teacher and educational consultant, advocates for classroom libraries as “the cornerstone of a literacy classroom” (2003):

Classroom libraries are a literacy necessity; they are integral to successful teaching and learning and must become a top priority if our students are to become thriving, engaged readers.

Not only should classrooms have robust libraries for kids, but Routman also supports students becoming directly involved in the design and organization of them.

When students help create the library, they use it more. Too often, we teachers do all the work. Not only does that take lots of teacher time that could be better spent elsewhere, but also students are less likely to find material they like, which, in turn, affects how much they read. I have watched some teachers work hard to create lovely looking libraries. But they organize these spaces for themselves, and the books are often not easily accessible to students—in terms of the types of reading materials that have been chosen and the way they are displayed and located.

Why don’t more teachers and principals advocate for this involvement? Routman references this - “we teachers do all the work” - which leads one to wonder who truly owns the reading in classrooms.

So, how do we release some of this responsibility? What might happen if we do? Routman notes the engagement benefits we see with students when we include them in this practice.

However, once teachers give up some control and let their students help make the decisions, pleasant surprises await. With demonstrations and guidance, even first graders can take full responsibility for categorizing, sorting, and organizing books and returning them to agreed-on places—and they love doing so.

Recent research supports moving beyond simply putting books into a classroom. Yi and colleagues (2019) discovered that while bringing in texts into a classroom can have benefits, such as students checking more books out and reading outside the school day, access to texts alone was not enough. A few conclusions:

  • No increase in authentic instruction during independent reading time.

  • No expectations for reading independently.

  • No effect on student reading achievement.

In other words, simply putting books in a classroom may not lead to better readers. Students need the support that only an effective teacher can provide. When we use classroom libraries as teaching tools and leverage this literature to advance student reading engagement and achievement, only then does the investment seem to pay off.

But I don’t have time! (Ten Strategies for Involving Students in Organizing the Classroom Library)

Time appears to be the number one factor for why educators do not include students in developing the classroom library. (It’s also the main reason teachers don’t give students time to read independently.) Given this real concern, consider the following ten ideas for involving students in organizing and maintaining the classroom library.

  1. Students select titles from the book order for the classroom library.

  2. Have students bring books from home that they want to share with peers.

  3. Distribute gift cards from local bookstores for families to buy books for the classroom library.

  4. Bring in “mystery readers”, usually family members, to bring in a copy of a favorite book to read aloud to the class and then donate it to the library.

  5. Include student-authored texts as prominent parts of the classroom library.

  6. Students audio record themselves reading aloud books in the library, then attaching a QR code link of the recording to the book.

  7. Write short book reviews (instead of book reports) for titles in the library.

  8. Start the year by completely re-organizing the classroom library, as a community-building activity and for everyone truly own it.

  9. Provide a space for students to post sticky notes that list requested titles.

  10. Include book club bins as part of the classroom library.

What are we doing for our students that they can be doing for themselves?

- Diana Laufenberg

References

Gallagher, K. (2009). Readicide: How schools are killing reading and what you can do about it. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Routman, R. (2003). Reading Essentials: The Specifics You Need to Teach Reading Well. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Yi, H., Mo, D., Wang, H., Gao, Q., Shi, Y., Wu, P., ... & Rozelle, S. (2019). Do Resources Matter? Effects of an In‐Class Library Project on Student Independent Reading Habits in Primary Schools in Rural China. Reading Research Quarterly54(3), 383-411.


Below are images, a crosswalk of our PK-5 school, in which strategies for involving students in the design and organization of classroom libraries are being implemented. Also, click here to view slides from our schoolwide discussion about this journey.

  • A preschool classroom library with student-authored texts

  • Kindergarten students tell their teacher what they want to learn about this year, to inform future purchases for the classroom library

  • 1st graders deciding together how to organize the classroom library texts

  • 2nd graders maintaining the classroom library during the school year

  • 3rd graders creating the labels for the classroom library bins

  • 4th graders maintaining the check out system for their classroom library

  • 5th graders re-organizing the classroom library to suit their needs

  • My “office library” with a variety of literature for kids

Confident Readers, Writers, Leaders

Newsletter

This week we examine confidence within the context of reading, writing, and leading in schools.

  1. These two questions, from writer William Kenower, have been helpful for me in overcoming fear during my writing process.

  2. I am finding the educational resource Reviving the Essay: How to Teach Structure Without Formula by Gretchen Bernabei to be very good so far.

  3. Reviving the Essay was referenced by Thomas Newkirk in his excellent book Minds Made for Stories: How We Really Read and Write Informational and Persuasive Texts.

  4. In this post, I reflected on the importance of who we know vs. what we know.

  5. Colby Sharp, a 5th grade teacher, reflects on five things he learned from his students after reading their response journals in this video.

  6. I appreciate my connection to Allison Zmuda, co-author of Learning Personalized. She reposted a previous article I wrote about what students should know and be able to do.

  7. Any success should be accompanied by a sense of gratitude and humility, something I wrote about in this post.

  8. I heard Regie Routman speak at the Illinois Reading Council this week, always excellent. She stressed the importance of leadership, referencing the article Good Leaders Make Good Schools by David Brooks for The New York Times.

  9. I also enjoyed Jon Scieszka’s session. My son liked his memoir Knucklehead: Tall Tales and Mostly True Stories About Growing Up Scieszka. (His 6th grade teacher read it aloud last year - yay!)

  10. We should never feel guilty about taking a break, according to research summarized in this Quartz article.

Thanks for reading. If you enjoy this newsletter, consider becoming a subscriber. See button below and/or an explanation here. Subscribers will receive additional content on this site; all proceeds go toward supporting this work.

The Power of Positive Leadership

Article

Positive reinforcement is the fuel that keeps the teaching fire going. Genuine appreciation and acknowledgment are critical for maintaining a thriving learning culture and accelerating schoolwide improvement. 

I was reminded of this while hanging with my family at home recently. My kids love watching the Netflix series “Brain Games”. (Okay, I enjoy it too.) The host leads social experiments to show how our minds work in the context of our social environments.

Two Experiments

In one experiment, blindfolded volunteers were either cheered or sympathized with as they shot ten free throws. It didn’t matter whether they made or missed the baskets. The individuals were selected randomly for the applause or “ahhs”. The result: those who were cheered on made more baskets.

In a related experiment, random people were asked if it was possible to accurately count all of the pictures in one magazine in less than ten seconds. They responded with either “possible” or “impossible”. What the people did not know was, in the middle of the magazine, a colorful visual was placed that gave them the answer (48 pictures total). Even though every person quickly glanced through the pages in the magazine, only those who said the task was “possible” got the answer right. The conclusion: because a person thought it was possible, they had a more open mind for the task.

Both experiments highlight what we should know in education yet often fail to put into practice: taking a positive stance toward our students and staff is effective in promoting more innovative and effective practices

Positive Leadership in Action

What should this mean for educational leaders?

• That we assume teachers are capable of making the best decisions for kids.

• That we look for what’s going well before we consider feedback for improvement.

• That we identify past successes as a starting point for future growth.

In other words, schools are not problems to be solved but communities that are waiting to achieve their potential. It’s about celebrating the teachers and students while fostering awareness and open-mindedness about what’s possible for the future.

Positive leadership is simple in thought - we are basically reframing the current reality - yet complex in the implementation. What strategies and tools are necessary for facilitating this change?

Strategies for Success

Next are five ideas for taking a more positive stance toward school improvement.

1. Create clarity around the goal. There are few things that can create more frustration in a school than a lack of clarity. Miscommunication about expectations creates mistrust and decreases the effects of collaboration. It’s hard to reinforce what is going well if we aren’t even sure what we are supposed to be working on. We are spinning our wheels instead of moving forward. By creating clarity around a goal, the positive reinforcement makes sense to faculty; they see the systems working together toward an ideal state. For instance, if reading comprehension is a focus, then time needs to be devoted to professional learning around more promising literacy strategies.

2. Make celebration a part of the learning community. This can happen before staff meetings, at the beginning of student assemblies, and during morning announcements. This is the easiest change to make because we don’t have to wait for permission to do it. Celebrations should be authentic and focused at least partly on the area in which we want to see future growth. For example, if reading scores are low, but teachers are starting to improve their classroom libraries, then be sure to note this publicly. School newsletters and social media work to highlight our current strengths. Leaders can also write personal notes of recognition when they are experiencing success.

3. Ask smart questions. What do questions have to do with being a more positive leader? Everything! When we become curious about our schools and student learning, we leave behind some of our biases about what teaching should be. Instead, we become interested in what teaching is and what it might become. We hold our assumptions at bay and allow instruction to speak for itself. To ensure questions are smart, we should analyze them first to understand if they open or closed, genuine or leading. For example, “What went well today?” focuses the teacher’s attention on the positive aspect of their reading lesson. “Why do you think Tommy refused to read?” might imply a judgment about the teacher’s classroom management. 

4. Keep the focus tight. If everything is important, then nothing is. We cannot attend to all of the work happening in schools. It’s not possible. Instead, we should first start where we were successful and then consider next steps. As an example, if our literacy intervention program is effectively supporting students in reading, what about the interventionists’ practices is making the difference? Consider investigating the same strategies these teachers are using with faculty leaders and discuss how they might apply to the context of the regular classroom. 

5. Track your positive actions. We tend to go where we feel welcomed. Yet every student deserves an excellent education. To help ensure equity in my classroom visits, I use a chart with all of my teachers’ and staff members’ names printed on it. When I leave a positive note in their mailbox, or I take more time to provide affirmation + feedback in a classroom, I note it on the chart. This helps in several ways. First, I am not unconsciously favoring one person or group over another. Second, I have documentation that shows I am making an effort to recognize all staff, in the case that someone might suggest I am not. Third, I hold myself accountable for this work. 

To be clear, we cannot always be positive. Sometimes we are required to follow up on poor performance or behaviors. Yet because I have invested in taking a positive stance toward more interactions with staff, I have built relational capital with them. I’ve earned their trust and subsequently the right to offer feedback or address concerns. The road to schoolwide literacy excellence begins with a positive first step forward.

Enjoyed this post? Feel free to share it; all content is free for October. Starting in November articles like this one will be available for subscribers only. (The newsletter will always be free.) Thank you for being a reader!

Read by Example Newsletter: What's Next

Update

Thank you for signing up to this site. I appreciate the readership and I am glad you find what I have to share beneficial to your work.

It’s been one year since I have started this newsletter. Why? One inquiry was to understand the benefits of curating past posts and sharing relevant, related resources. Another wondering was to find out if there was any value in a companion to the blog.

What have I learned?

  1. Creating a curated list of ten ideas in literacy leadership has been helpful for me and others in understanding the current themes and trends in education.

  2. There is value in what I write here. Stats from this newsletter reveal reader engagement in what is published.

In addition, I have affirmed what I know to be true about myself: I love to write and I value the independence that comes with this type of work.

Where to go from here? After gathering feedback from friends, family, colleagues, and readers, I plan to offer a premium version of this newsletter. In addition to the bi-monthly list of ten ideas, plus the regular posts on the blog, I will be publishing 1-2 additional articles per week on this site for a monthly or annual cost.

Before I explain more, let’s go back to 2016.

The spring of that year, I resigned my position as an elementary principal in another district. I was looking for a more flexible contract that would allow me to consult and speak in addition to my leadership duties. (I had just published one book with ASCD on educational technology with another on the way.) I found that flexibility in Mineral Point, Wisconsin, specifically in a contract that allowed me to flex some of my days.

What I discovered was, while I enjoyed writing and even speaking about the topics of literacy, leadership, and technology, workshopping and consulting was a whole different beast. The prep, networking, and travel are a full-time job in itself. Plus with a family and a new position that I genuinely enjoy, writing and speaking are enough. I’m not saying no to future opportunities, yet I am not actively pursuing them either.

Part of my drive is the joy I find in professional writing. With today’s technologies, I no longer have to rely on a publisher or a journal as the only avenues for finding an audience. I have worked as a freelance writer for other outlets such as Discovery Education, so this shift is not a big one for me. Hence, today’s announcement.

Here is the plan going forward, and always subject to change for the better:

  • Readers will continue to enjoy the blog posts at readingbyexample.com and the bi-monthly newsletter here. They are and will always remain free/public.

  • For those who would like more content or simply want to show their appreciation for this work, they can subscribe for an additional 1-2 posts a week here. Subscriptions will be $5/month or $35 annually. I am also planning on offering an institutional plan for schools or districts.

Next, a few questions you might have along with my responses.

What would be different about the paid version of the blog/newsletter?

Not a whole lot beyond additional, original content that I would normally publish with other outlets. The articles available only to subscribers might go more in-depth on a topic and/or provide a more personal experience. Original resources may also be included such as templates and tools I use in my role as a principal/literacy leader.

In addition (and I don’t want to get ahead of myself), subscribers would have full access to any eBooks and eCourses available for purchase on the blog. I am currently working on the first topic - Instructional Walks. As well, subscribers would have the ability to comment on all articles published and engage in threaded discussions here.

Am I able to access a free trial to see if I would want this subscription?

For the month of October, I will be making all articles and content available for free. So you will see an increase in content published on this site. Some of the articles are already written and waiting to be posted - I’m excited to get started!

During the next month, I will also be asking for feedback on how readers feel about this project. Ideas, topics, and questions will be requested for future content. From time to time, I will also make articles normally planned for subscribers free for everyone as a reminder about what is available to them.

Is there any other way to become a subscriber besides paying for it?

I have wrestled with this issue for a while. Charging for what I create has been a struggle for me, especially when fellow educators are the likely subscribers. Yet I have found that people perceive value in a) things they enjoy and b) whether the creator associates a value in their own work. Free sometimes comes with preconceptions.

This is where the blog comes in. I believe that teachers and leaders of writers should also be writers themselves. With that, anyone willing and interested to write a compelling post for the blog will receive six months free access to the site. Think of the blog then as a potential cooperative, a collaborative site where more voices are heard.

If you are interested now in contributing, or if you have general feedback about this upcoming change, click here to contact me via the provided form.

Again, thank you for being a reader and finding value in what is shared on these sites. Writing and reflecting on my practice online for the past seven years has connected me with so many smart people. My growth as an educator has been directly influenced by the responses and conversations I have experienced with people like you. If you have also been influenced by the ideas shared here, consider becoming a subscriber.

Starting Strong

Newsletter

In this newsletter, we examine the importance of starting strong for success all year long.

  1. “You won’t know unless you try.” A well-worn phrase from parents at the dinner table, and advice I had to heed from my kids when they asked me to try an elevated ropes course, described in this post. (FYI, I don’t like heights.)

  2. Students need both a challenge and support in reaching their goals to be truly engaged in learning. Phillip Schlechty developed a framework for designing for student engagement; check out his resources on his website.

  3. John Spencer created a helpful video tutorial that briefly describes Schlechty’s engagement framework. Useful for staff meetings and professional development.

  4. The first step toward success is being honest with ourselves and others about our current reality. A brief story about a parent signing in their child late provided some clarity for me.

  5. Why do some people stop learning? Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey explain that we have an “immunity to change” in this classic article from Harvard Business Review.

  6. Collecting, curating, and communicating learning artifacts via digital portfolios can support students in facilitating personal growth and renewal. Check out my book on the topic.

  7. Trust is necessary for teaching, learning, and leading in schools. I discovered a key element for professional trust after some reflection in this post.

  8. Jon Saphier provides many specific strategies for leaders to build trust in their schools in this article for The Learning Professional.

  9. In this blog post, Dan Rockwell shares seven practices for bringing out the best in others.

  10. We know we are successful through feedback. So why wait for it? Instead, consider asking for feedback, a recommendation by Susan Fowler for Smart Brief.

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