Build It and They Will Come

By Kurt Stroh, guest blogger

“If you build it, they will come…”
What was once whispered to Kevin Costner’s character while standing in the middle of a cornfield in Iowa was, I hoped, going to also be true as I embarked upon my new adventure as a teacher-librarian three years ago. I had been given the task (honor) of creating a library space that would foster a school-wide love of reading. I had the administrative support and was given a blank slate. It was time to draw up plans and start construction.

I needed to start with the foundation—the environment. Tackling, first, the physical environment, I got rid of some rigid, institutional furniture, brought in some comfortable seating options and rearranged the space to be a flexible, inviting, kid-friendly place. Areas were created for students to read, discuss, and collaborate.

Next, and more importantly, I considered the emotional environment. I wanted kids to want to come to the library, to be excited to come to the library.  The library had to be a place that was safe, interesting, enjoyable, and accepting. It could no longer just be a place to come for library class, it needed to be available to kids when THEY needed it. The library became open at recess, special events were held during lunch, and “flex” time was provided on Fridays to meet the specific needs of students.

A school library needs to be for all students, and ours has become a place where ALL readers are valued and where EVERY person has something to offer. There are no levels, no special shelves, no “required” checkouts or no “you can’t have that” books. There are no stigmas. We are ALL readers and we ALL have something valuable to contribute.
With a solid foundation set, next came the important building materials: books, opportunity, conversations, and community.  Students needed to be immersed in a wide range and variety of books and then there needed to be the opportunity for meaningful conversations about those books.

Every library class starts with me asking “What are you reading?” Initially, the first year, students were somewhat reluctant to share, but as time has gone on, they’ve realized that there is no “right answer”, that whatever they are reading will be dignified. Students are now so eager to share that they are usually raising their hands before I even ask the question. This is not only a way for me to engage with students about their reading, but also a way for students to share with each other about their reading lives. There is no better reading recommendation than that of a peer.

Once everyone has a chance to share, I share what I’ve been reading. I’m always so excited to share with my students the great things that I’ve been reading. They are always equally excited to hear what my Voxer group has been sharing, what I’ve received in the mail, or what I picked up on my most recent visit to the bookstore.  It is so important for students to see their teachers and librarians as readers and for those teachers and librarians to have open, honest conversations about the books they are reading and their personal reading lives. Book trailers are also shown and create even more excitement for particular titles. These books I share always disappear immediately from the shelves and often have a waiting list...many before they’ve even been published.

Throughout the year there are a multitude of opportunities for readers to “connect”. We connect with other readers within our school. In addition to our everyday conversations, students connect with their peers through activities like Mock Caldecott, Caldecott Challenge, Book Madness and Battle of the Books.

We also connect with other readers outside of our school. This is done via Skype visits and Google Hangouts. Students connect for Dot Day, World Read Aloud Day, Poem in Your Pocket Day, Mock Caldecott, Mock Newbery and much more. Students are always excited to be able to share the great things that they are reading with readers in other schools nationwide, and are even more excited when the students in those other schools make recommendations to them. (Younger students are even amazed that “THEY have that book in THEIR state too!!!”)

Connecting with authors and illustrators is an amazingly exciting event for students. Author visits (both “in school” visits and Skype visits) provide students with the opportunity to learn more about their favorite books, the art of writing/illustrating and the chance to connect with the people they view as “rockstars”. These authors are always so gracious, and I’ve been so impressed by their kindness and generosity.  
It is so important that students stay connected through the summer months, too. Students blog with me about what they are reading. This allows us to continue to have conversations about the books we are reading and make recommendations for each other, even while on vacation. 

Also, our school district has a mobile library that travels through the area several times each summer. This provides students with the opportunity to always have new books to read. In addition to the mobile library, our elementary libraries have S.A.I.L (Summer Activities in the Library) Nights. These are nights for families to come hear stories, read and discuss books, create things, and eat book-related snacks.
With the foundation in place and the rest of the building materials creating the secure structure needed, our library has become a place where kids want to be. Of course, as with any building project, there are always little repairs, revamps and additions that need to be built...and in an effective library, the construction will never be entirely complete.  The important thing, however, is to start building. Build it and they will come….and then they will stay and READ!


About Kurt:

Kurt Stroh is a K-4 teacher-librarian in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  He is completing his 26th year of teaching. He blogs at Kids Talk Kid Lit  and can be followed on Twitter at @strohreads.