By Katherine Sokolowski, Guest Blogger
I made the announcement last spring to my fifth grade classes, I would be moving on to our middle school in the fall to teach seventh grade. Amidst the cheers one boy suddenly shouted, “What about our books?” The cheering stopped as kids began to scan our rooms, worry lining their faces, as they looked at the 3000 books that lined our room. I reassured, promising that I would be taking as many books with me as I felt we needed.
A classroom library is vital for building readers. Dr. Richard Allington says if we are to expect students to read during the school day, they need access to a variety of text at their level. His recommendation for the amount of books in a classroom library numbers around 1000-2000. The elephant in the room, however, is where all of these books come from – the teacher. This creates an imbalance amongst classrooms. Donalyn Miller has said that the existence of a well curated library in every classroom should not be a matter of a roll of a dice, or which teacher you were assigned that year. A vibrant classroom library should be a resource that all children have access to. I am fortunate that I can buy the books to stock my classroom, but others cannot.
Each year I add to my classroom library. I realize that by having a large library, it could appear that I’m “done” and don’t need to spend the money on more books. However, I believe a healthy classroom library depends on a regular influx of books. I am constantly analyzing our collection – looking for gaps, overlaps, or well-worn favorites that need to be repurchased because they have been well loved. My books come from everywhere. Early in my career I purchased many from garage sales. I regularly sent letters home asking for books when parents weeded through their children’s collections. My Facebook status was often a plea for books from friends and family. My students became regular buyers from the Scholastic Book Order so that I could use the bonus points to purchase more. I even handed out flyers to specialists in my building and my principal. They often wanted books, but didn’t have a class of their own to purchase from, and they became some of my best customers. Finally, I began getting gift cards to bookstores as gifts from everyone I knew. This all came together to build an incredible library.
The one part of our library curation that took others by surprise came every spring. I would weed through, looking for books that weren’t checked out, were outdated, or just didn’t fit with our room anymore. My goal each year was to remove 200 books. This allowed every student I taught to take home 2-3 books if they’d like. It also ensured that our library not only had a healthy inflow, but an outflow as well. It kept our library current and ensured it met the needs of my students. Funnily enough, it seemed that the more I gave away, the more donations of books and gift cards I was given. Our library grew.
This past May my students sat with me in our fifth grade classroom. By then our library collection numbered around 3,500 books that I had amassed over the past sixteen years. I explained our goal – to leave at least 1,000 books for the teacher that would take my place. They were to comb through the library and think, what books were perfect for fifth grade, but really didn’t fit seventh grade? They went about this task with absolute seriousness.
For three days they worked whenever we had time. I looked in the boxes of the books we were taking, pulled a few more to leave behind, but my students were excellent librarians. By the time we were done, our books were packed and 1,500 books lined the shelves for the teacher and students that would inhabit our classroom the following year. I was thrilled and ready to head off on my next adventure.
On the first day of summer vacation, I headed into my new classroom. When I walked into the blank white room, I sank to the floor and my heart dropped. The fifteen-year-old building felt so different from the old building I had just left. Its 122 years had comforted me, you could sense its history. In this new room, I felt alone. The room was sterile; there was no heart, nothing that made me feel like home. I texted my oldest son, Luke, and asked if he could come help me move the books into the room, thinking that maybe that would make a difference. The two of us worked for hours and finally books filled the shelves, spilling over tables, on to couches. I looked at him and smiled, it was going to be ok. Luke looked around at his own seventh grade language arts classroom from the previous year, and exhaled. “Now this feels right.”
My summer was spent devouring books for middle school. Seventh grade is an interesting convergence for readers, they are the upper end of middle grade, the bottom end of young adult. My own sons are in sixth and eighth grades this year. I know that to be in middle school means playing with Lego bricks one minute, trying to be an adult the next. My boys vacillate between YA and MG books as easily as breathing. Some days they want the maturity, the reach, that comes from a young adult book. Other days they might want the comfort and security to be found in middle grade. I knew my library needed to be the same.
In August the first day of school rolled around and I held my breath. I’d had so many of these kids two years ago as fifth graders and I was uncertain as to what they would think of their former teacher in their middle school classroom. Would they feel at home the moment they walked in, knowing they were in our safe cocoon that they knew well, or would they walk in with the disdain of school that I knew so many middle school children wore as a mask. I needn’t have worried. My homeroom kids spilled through the door on the first day with shouts of joy, excitement at seeing friends they haven’t seen for an entire summer, hugs for their former teacher, kind comments at being back in my class, and squeals that couldn’t be held back upon feasting their eyes upon the shelves of books. One student, Olivia, exhaled when she walked in and quietly said to me, “This feels nice.” Ben rummaged the shelves, looking for a favorite book from fifth grade. And Tyler came right up and said, “So, can you find me a book?”
I was home.
Katherine Sokolowski has taught for 20 years—from kindergarten through seventh grade—and currently teaches seventh grade in Monticello, Illinois. Her thoughts about the power of relationships to engage readers and writers have appeared on NPR and Choice Literacy. She co-facilitates The Nerdy Book Club blog and blogs at Read Write Reflect. You can find her on Twitter at @katsok.