Hooray for dialogue journals!

This summer, I listened to an episode from the Cult of Pedagogy podcast in which the host, Jennifer Gonzalez, interviewed veteran teacher Liz Galarza on how she uses dialogue journals in her classroom to build teacher-student relationships.  Essentially, Galarza explained how she keeps a running dialogue with each of her students in the form of letters.  She writes a letter to each student at the beginning of the year, and they respond to her with their own letter.  Then she responds to that letter, and then they respond, and so on and so on.  If a student misspelled a word, Galarza would intentionally use that same word, spelled correctly, in her response; if a student struggled with using commas to separate ideas, Galarza would write a sentence in her letter that modeled that sentence structure.  Finally, she said that she always thanked each student for their letter at the end of her responses.

As I am always looking for ways to build and strengthen relationships with my students, I immediately gravitated towards this idea of using dialogue journals in my 6th grade English Language Arts classroom this year.  Galarza and her students handwrite their dialogue journals, but since my school is 1 to 1 with technology and my handwriting becomes increasingly illegible the more I write over an extended period of time, I decided to house our dialogue journals in a running Google document that I created for each kid.

After three months of writing our dialogue journals on a weekly basis, here is an update of the experience thus far:

First, I am learning WAY more about my students’ interests and personalities than I have in my previous six years of teaching. One of my students practices magic in his free time. Another’s favorite movie is “Nacho Libre”. A girl I teach has more than seven pets, including a three-legged turtle. One boy just recently moved to the school at the end of last year, and he still misses all of his friends and family back east. Another girl has expressed to me how tired she is of living in a small town, and that she cannot wait to move to a big city when she gets older.

Every school year, teachers across the country start the first week with some sort of “getting to know you” activity in which they ask the students to tell them a little about themselves, usually in the form of a letter or poster.  The problem with this, however, is that’s really one of the only times that this type of experience occurs, which leaves teachers and students to build relationships through verbal interactions alone.  For many  students, that is not enough. I’ve had plenty of classes where I may say just a few words to some of my students, especially the ones that tend to be more reserved. These dialogue journals are creating windows for both my students and I to peer into each week, and they’ve taken that token first week of school activity and turned it into a living and breathing thing that is ongoing.

In addition to the relationship-building benefits, I’m seeing significant growth in both my students’ grammar and writing stamina.  Last week, I pointed out to numerous students how much their writing had improved from their first letter to me to the most recent. I’ve had multiple students go from not using a single period in their initial letter to me to being able to write a letter to me that doesn’t contain one run-on sentence.  It’s remarkable, and I know it’s the result of the modeling that I am doing for them in my letters to them, which is such a more engaging way to work on grammar as opposed to a mini lesson on run-on sentences.

My students are also writing more in their letters to me each week (for the most part). Like anything, writing improves with practice, and these journals provide students with low-pressure opportunities to work on their writing craft. By writing more on a regular basis with an authentic audience (me), they are becoming more comfortable at expressing themselves through written word.

Another benefit of the dialogue journals is that most of my students truly enjoy this activity. I set aside the first 15 to 20 minutes of class every Monday for dialogue journals, and students rush to get onto their docs so that they can read my latest letter to them and respond. Even though this has become an entrenched routine in our classroom, I still have students stopping me in the hall on Mondays to confirm that we are in fact doing our dialogue journals.

However, there are definitely a handful of students that need some additional prompting.  In my responses to my students, I try to ask two to three questions about things that they mentioned in their last letter to me so that they have somewhere to start when they write to me next.  I also add a fun question at the end of each letter like “What was the last show you watched on Netflix and why?” or “If you could be any animal, which would you be and why?” in an attempt to stimulate conversation.  Some students, though, either don’t have a lot to say, or they just aren’t that into writing out their responses, and I don’t get much in return from them.  With these kids, I continue to push them to write more by asking them follow-up questions that require them to explain their hobbies or trips to me in more detail, and I implore them to ask me questions as well as a way to promote conversation. Hopefully, we will have a breakthrough at some point this school year.

I should mention, too, that this activity does require some additional time and effort on my part.  In general, it takes me roughly 45 minutes to an hour to respond to dialogue journals for one class of twenty-something students.  Fortunately, I’m teaching in blocks this year in which I have the same group for both ELA and Social Studies, so I have far less students than I have in the past, which makes this less of a burden.  However, I know that many ELA teachers have anywhere from 90 to 150 students on their rosters, and writing weekly responses to each and everyone of them is simply not feasible.  If I had more students overall, like I did at my previous school, I’d probably have the students write in their dialogue journals on a bi-weekly basis.

Regardless of how many students I have on my rosters in the future, I will certainly still incorporate this activity into my classes because I’m finding it to be invaluable for both the relationship-building and writing benefits that my students are seeing.


Five things I know for sure about most middle school students

In less than a month, I will complete my sixth year of teaching.  The first two of those years were in a 10th grade World Literature classroom, and the last four I have been teaching 7th grade English Language Arts.  When I told my high school colleagues that I would be moving down to middle school, the most common reaction usually involved the phrase “You’re crazy!”  Over the past four years, whenever I tell someone that I teach 7th grade, I’m either told that I’m “brave”, or that they couldn’t imagine being around that many 13-year-olds all day.

I recently listened to Jennifer Gonzalez’s Cult of Pedagogy podcast titled Eight Things I Know For Sure about (Most) Middle School Kids, and it got me thinking about the little intricacies and idiosyncrasies that I have decoded and come to understand about my students.   I wanted to share these thoughts in an attempt to connect with my fellow middle school teacher brethern, or possibly to provide some insights into this age group for any potential middle school teachers.  Without further adieu, here are some things that I KNOW for sure about middle schoolers:

“I hate your class!”   If you teach in a middle school, then you have invariably heard this phrase either muttered under a student’s breath; or, it’s been hurled right at you with reckless abandon.  As both a teacher and a human, one’s first response is to take offense to such an aggressive statement and jump on the defensive. Let me give you some advice: don’t.  Any kid that has worked up enough moxie to shout out such a brash criticism is clearly dealing with something outside of the class or school that is impacting their emotional stability.  They don’t hate your class; they hate whatever is disrupting their lives at the moment and they don’t know how to confront it, so the easiest way to vent is to target a scapegoat, i.e., your class.  Whenever a student has offered me this review, I typically respond with a quick and semi-genuine “Thank you”, which I have found usually diffuses the situation (diffusing situations is a major part of being a middle school teacher).

“This class is boring.”  If a kid says this to you, then take it as a badge of honor; I know I do.  Any student who tells you that your class is boring is not actually referring to the lessons and content of the class; what they really mean is that in your class they don’t get to talk off topic and joke around with their friends any time they please. Also, they’re not allowed to leave their seat whenever the moment strikes them.  “This class is boring” is code for “You have solid classroom management skills”, and you will usually only hear it from students that historically are more likely to push the boundaries of the classroom expectations.  I have students that are completely wrapped up in the independent reading books that they are reading in my class, so much so that they will take them into the halls with them when we take restroom breaks, and yes, these same students have told me that my class is boring.  Once again, don’t take anything a middle schooler says personally.

They need to move some during class.  My favorite professional learning sessions are always the ones that tend to be more interactive.  I’m not nearly as engaged in an hour long session in which I’m in my seat for the entire 60 minutes, and our students aren’t either.  Middle school students are like overgrown elementary kids with bodies that are growing and surging with hormones.  The boys literally cannot be still for extended periods of time.  Plan for 5 to 8 minutes of  class time that will allow the kids to be free of their chairs so that they can stretch out and move about.  I’ve been known to hold “Rocks, Paper, Scissors” tournaments after our independent reading time as a way to get the kids’ blood pumping again before we move on to our next activity.  These tournaments last for 2 to 3 minutes, and they serve as excellent brain breaks for these kids.  Another strategy I’ve used a lot this year to get my students out of their chairs is at the end of the class, I have everyone stand up with their composition notebooks.  I then play a song on the overhead, and they can walk, dance or slink about the room.  When the music stops, they share one of their responses to something that they read during our work session.  When the music starts again, they move, and when it stops, they share again.  My kids absolutely love closing out class this way, and some of my toughest kids will be dancing their hearts out to Justin Beiber between sharing sessions.

Don’t take anything they say personally.  Remember earlier in this post when I encouraged you not to take things personally?  Yeah, that’s kind of a biggie if you want to survive in a middle school atmosphere.  You see, these students’ brains are not fully formed, so they do not yet have the development that allows them to control some their impulses.  The result: they can say some rather rude things to each other and to you.  I just try to reteach and dialogue with them when they same something offensive.  I’ve had huge success from just asking them to put themselves in my shoes and consider how I felt about whatever they said.  It’s amazing how giving them a little perspective can help them understand the power of their words and actions.  If you’re having a tough day or you don’t have time to explain to a middle schooler why they shouldn’t say how amazed they are by how old YOU ARE, just give them a quick “Thank you” and move on.

Use a lot of self-deprecating humor.  Middle school students are the fragilest of fragile.  They have zero tolerance for commentary on their appearance or intelligence.  This is why they can be so quick to make fun of others at this age.  But you know what will really get them eating out of the palm of your hands?  Make fun of yourself!  I do it all the time.  I routinely act like I’ve never heard of wildly popular rap songs in front of my kids, even though I probably listened to said song 10 minutes earlier on the drive into work.  They love it!  There’s something about being lame while not knowing you’re lame that they find hilarious.  Last year, I pretended in front of a class that I thought when they said something was “lit” that they were commenting on the lighting in the room.  The laughter from my class could be heard from across the hall.  However, my relationships with those kids grew tremendously because they would take any free moment to try to teach me things that they felt I must know regarding slang and pop culture.  I became sort of a project for them, and they entered my class with a positive attitude and ready to learn.

Fellow middle school teachers – what are some things that you know for sure about middle schoolers?


Graphic novels as a gateway to literacy for struggling readers

My principal has fully-supported the choice reading time that I give my students at the beginning of class each day.  In fact, she’s supported it so much that’s she’s asked the 6th and 8th grade English Language Arts (ELA) teachers to begin implementing a similar approach to their classrooms as well.  This week, an 8th grade ELA teacher found me at buses after school after her first day of trying this new strategy; in short, she was frustrated.  She relayed that only half the kids read, and she spent the majority of the 10 minutes fighting the other half to read something.  Apparently, if students weren’t interested in a book in her classroom library, they could read a NewsELA article.  Now, I’m a HUGE NewsELA fan.  I regularly use it in my classroom when I want to level the informational texts that we read.  But I’d never force it upon students during independent reading time. Maybe a few would be interested, but I’m guessing not many.

I then suggested that she could offer graphic novels to the reluctant readers.  She looked surprised and stated that she didn’t want her students reading graphic novels because they “weren’t real books”. Yes, she said this.  I briefly tried to explain to her that they could be a good option for a struggling reader, but she disagreed.  Although I wanted to continue this conversation with her, I had to run to get to a meeting that was a 20-minute drive away, so this blog post will have to suffice.

If I didn’t have the meeting, I would have argued vehemently that graphic novels are most certainly books, as much as any other books are books.  My room is filled with graphic novels like American Born Chinese, Awkward, Drama, Sisters, Smile, Persepolis, March, Cardboard, Roller Girl, Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty, and I Am Alfonso Jones.  These books examine a host of universal themes: friendship, family, acceptance, equity, determination and persistence.  They contain complex characters that develop and grow throughout the story.  They offer unique perspectives that encourage students to explore varying viewpoints that promote empathy, kindness and relationships.  Graphic novels expose students to story arcs: rising action, climax, conflicts, resolutions.

In addition, graphic novels give struggling readers the boost they need to begin to see themselves as readers.  I’ve had countless struggling readers complete a graphic novel in my class and beam as they tell me it’s the first time they’ve read a book from cover to cover.  That is HUGE. Reading feels far less daunting to a kid when they gain the confidence that comes from knowing they can read a book in its entirety.  I have an English Learner in one of my classes that seems determined to read all 26 volumes of the Dragon Ball Z box set, and I’m all for it.  Those books contain thousands of words.  Why wouldn’t I want him to devour them?

Teachers are always going to have a handful of students that enter their classrooms at the start of the year with an indifference to reading.  It may not be many kids, but inevitably, there will be a few.  I try to get a graphic novel into the hands of these students as soon as possible. Once they complete a graphic novel something inside them clicks.  It almost never fails. Then they read another graphic novel.  And then another.  Guess what eventually happens?  These same students start choosing chapter books that they never would have dreamed of attempting to read when we first met in August.  This happens EVERY SINGLE YEAR.  The graphic novels are a gateway to literacy for students who haven’t had a positive relationship with reading in the past.  They offer these kids an opportunity to realize that they are in fact capable of engaging with a book on a deeper level on their own.

I’m constantly adding to my classroom library. Like many teachers, I probably spend too much money on books. But also like many teachers, I will continue to buy more engaging texts that I think will captivate my students, and I will most certainly continue purchasing graphic novels.


A teacher’s reflection on Hurricane Irma

This week in Athens, Georgia was not normal by any measure of standards.  At about 2:30pm on Monday afternoon, Hurricane Irma arrived and wreaked havoc upon the city’s trees and power lines.  Fortunately, my home remained untouched from falling limbs; others were not so lucky.  I did however lose power at about 5pm on Monday, and I did not get it back until nearly 8pm Thursday evening, the same day that we returned to school after three days off due to widespread power outages.

One’s entertainment options become quite limited once electricity is removed from the equation: no television, no wifi, no Netflix.  Especially if that person – in this case me – possesses a cell phone plan that comes with a modest amount of LTE data before exorbitant fees are applied.  For nearly three days, the only choice afforded to me in my home in regards to amusement was reading.

I read Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston for the first time.  Somehow, I wasn’t assigned this text in high school, though in a way I feel blessed in this regard because I don’t think the 17-year-old version of myself would have appreciated this novel nearly as much as the 38-year-old person that I am today did.  Suddenly, the trials of being inconvenienced with using a headlamp to eat breakfast and keeping a cooler stocked with ice to prevent food spoilage paled in comparison with the plight of Janie Crawford in her lifelong quest to find true love.

Once I finished Hurston’s novel, I moved on to something lighter, a book called Blood Salt Water by Alex Morrow.  It’s a crime novel set in Scotland with the story being told through the eyes of a low-level gangster and the police officer that is trying to solve a homicide in which said gangster was involved.  I haven’t finished this book yet, probably due to the fact that my power came back on when I was still in the middle of it.  Instead of reading Thursday night, I spent my time watching Narcos and scanning through my Twitter feed for engaging lesson plan activities.

We live in an incredibly distracting world.  Televisions, computers, tablets and phones can make it nearly impossible to focus on just one task at a time.  I cannot imagine being a student in this era with so many potential diversions at our fingertips: social media, texting, email, games, etc.  When I was the same age that my students are today, I had a television and a Nintendo, both of which my parents could shut down with unbelievable ease.  If I was told to go to my room and read a book or do my homework, the only thing to do in my room was read or do homework.  I didn’t have a laptop or iPhone that I could use to watch just about anything my little heart desired.  Even today, I find myself at times struggling to read for extended period of times without unlocking my phone at least once. How difficult must this be for someone who is just 12 or 13 years old?

As I reflect on my experience from the past week in which reading was my primary activity throughout the day, I feel even more validated as a Language Arts teacher that carves out instruction time each week so that my students have a chance to just read.  The school year is young, and I’m still coaching my students through the process of independent reading from self-selected texts, but they are starting to get it.  The kids are exploring genres and learning that they do possess the reading stamina to get lost in a book for 15 to 20 minutes.  Through their written responses I can see that they are beginning to engage with the various characters and plot lines within their novels.

My students need time to learn to enjoy reading on a personal level, and after this week, I see that more than ever.  They need a chance to read without all the diversions that come along with today’s smartphones.  In addition to technological distractions, many of my students care for younger siblings from the time the bus drops them off at home to when they go to bed.  Most of them do not have access to rich and engaging texts in the house, and a lot of my students are not witnessing adults in their home model reading as something one does for pleasure.

As teachers, it’s our job to give our students these types of opportunities.  We cannot assume that students are getting the chance to read much on their own outside of school, and if you work at a Title I school like mine, you almost have to assume that they are not.      Our classroom should be a place where students can frequently experience the choice of reading something that aligns to their interests.

I’m not saying that we have to remove electricity and technology from the equation altogether, but we should give our students a chance to unplug and focus on just one thing at a time, especially reading.


Why my classes don’t finish whole class novels

“We’re not going to be reading this book together as a class anymore this year,” I told my students after finishing up a chapter somewhere in the middle of Jordan Sonnenblick’s After Ever After.  We had read a little over half of the book together in class over the past 9 weeks, but the unit and quarter were coming to an end, and there just wasn’t time left to finish the rest of the novel.

“Why aren’t we going to finish the book?” a young man in the back asked.

I hadn’t reached this decision easily.  I knew my students would be confused as to why their teacher wasn’t going to finish reading a book to completion with them.  Most likely, this was the first time a teacher had proposed such a move. It felt as weird to me saying it as I imagine it did to my students hearing it.

“Remember I gave you all a poll last week in Google Classroom asking you if you wanted to continue with our regular independent reading times or just read the class novel together?” I said. “And over 87% of you said that you wanted to keep reading books of your own choice several days a week.”

Heads slowly began to nod.

“Well,” I continued. “If you want to read your own books in here, then we don’t have enough class time together to dedicate to reading the class novel to its entirety as well. However, if you would like to finish After Ever After, you can continue reading it during our scheduled independent reading times.”

My students appeared fairly satisfied with this logic.

Before I go on, I need to pause and set a little context in relation to my school.  I have one class set of each novel that we read together.  That means I have 25 copies each of After Ever After, A Long Walk to Water, The Giver and Bronx Masquerade.  I have over 80 students, which means that I cannot send home a copy of each book with each of them and assign reading homework each night.  It just can’t happen; our school doesn’t have the resources, and I cannot ask my students’ parents or guardians to purchase copies these books.  If my students are going to read those aforementioned texts, then the reading must occur in my classroom during school hours.  To be honest, reading our class novels eats up a lot of time – nearly 40% of it to be exact.

As I mentioned earlier, I had mixed feelings about not finishing our first novel of the year together as a class.  I was thrilled at how well the students had bought into the independent reading, but I also felt nervous about breaking course from such a commonplace practice in English classrooms as the class novel.  I feared my fellow Language Arts teachers on the hall would judge me when they learned that I had stopped at page 166 of Sonnenblick’s book instead of page 272 (where it ends), that I had cheated my students out of the experience of completing a book.

However, something interesting happened the next day in class when students went to grab their independent reading books for the work session: half of the students in each of my Language Arts classes grabbed a copy of After Ever After.  Most of these same students finished the book on their own over the course of the next few weeks.  We discussed the complicated and incredibly sad ending of Sonnenblick’s book individually as each student finished. I was flattered that so many students WANTED to finish reading this book that I chose for them.

As excited as I was to see half of my students devour the final 100+ pages of this novel, I was equally pleased by the decision of the other half to abandon it.  In my previous two years at this school, I had taken all my classes through After Ever After, from start to finish.  But these students who chose to read something else revealed to me what a great mistake I had been making.  For two years I had forced a number of my former students to persevere through a book that they were not enjoying.  Seeing this group of students leave our class novel behind so that they could continue reading their own books gave justification to our independent reading program.  I had provided my students with a glimpse into a novel, and then I had given them the choice to carry on with it or not, rather than dragging half of my rosters through a text that they were not engaged in.

I did the same “experiment” near the end of the second quarter with The Giver by Lois Lowry, and the results were even more astonishing: only 5 of my students in all of my classes opted to stay with the novel.  I immediately felt terrible about making prior students read the whole book; but, I again enjoyed a sense of vindication for my decision to prioritize independent reading this year as I watched the majority of my students leave The Giver behind so that they could move forward with their own texts.

While my classes will no longer read entire novels together, I do want to point out that I fully embrace and still plan to utilize them in my classroom.  Whole class novels are a wonderful way to introduce students to new genres.  They can also be used to teach or reinforce a host of complicated literary elements such as point of view, characterization, theme, setting, plot, etc., and if students are using the same text, they can work together to uncover meaning when dealing with these complex subjects.

But as critical as whole class novels can be to a curriculum, giving students choice and time to read books on their own is equally as important.  Next year my students will be exposed to four highly-engaging whole class novels, but the decision as to whether they finish them or not will be totally up to them.



Making independent reading a priority in the classroom

priority“This is your child’s lexile score.  We’d like for them to be at this level by the end of the year.  Make sure your child is reading for 20 to 30 minutes every night because that will help them improve their reading scores.”

I recited the aforementioned phrases to the parents, grandparents and guardians of every student that was in my homeroom during my first year of middle school Parent-Teacher conferences.  As any teacher (or parent for that matter) knows, these biyearly conferences are primarily an opportunity for the school to pass along a plethora of documents regarding district initiatives, state testing and report cards, with a small window of time also set aside to discuss a child’s academic and behavioral progress. My three-sentence platitude about the importance of a child reading on their own each night was a blip on the radar of the overall meeting.

I discovered during that first year that telling my students about the importance of reading on a daily basis at home had about as much effect as if I were encouraging them to eat 4 servings of vegetables.  The school where I work serves a student body in which over 92% of the population qualifies for free and reduced lunch.  In many of my students’ homes, there isn’t extra money lying around to purchase books; a lot of kids do not have access to reliable transportation that could get them to the local library.  I teach in a small college town with a population of about 150,000 people, and yet most of my students have never been to our county’s wonderful public library merely because it is located a little over 5 miles from where they live.

After reading Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer two years ago, I set out to create a culture of independent reading within my classroom.  The first step for me was to develop an extensive and diverse classroom library.  Once the books were in place, I had to figure out how to get my students to buy in to the idea of independent reading being a significant component of our time together.  Here is how I prioritize independent reading in my classroom:

Build time into the week for independent reading

If I’m going to preach the values of reading independently to my students and actually mean it, then as the leader of the classroom I’ve got to walk the walk.  When it comes to classroom expectations, no slogan could be more appropriate than “actions speak louder than words”.  Unless we are engaged in a writer’s workshop or state-mandated standardized testing, my students have two to three days in which they get 20 to 25 minutes of unencumbered independent reading time with books of their own choosing.  They are always focusing on a skill from the mini lesson (characterization, theme, identifying conflicts) and I typically have one-on-one discussions with each student as they read, but during this time they are sprawled out on the floor, under desks or up against the wall getting lost in their novels.  Students are far better at making inferences than we sometimes give them credit.  If you want the kids to read more, make it a priority in your classroom by setting aside dedicated instruction time for them to do so.  Believe me, if you value this time, they will too.

Talk about books

This advice may seem simple, but it’s incredibly important to establishing a reading culture in the classroom.  I give book talks to students at the beginning of the year to make them familiar with some of the more popular titles from a year ago so as to help guide them in their reading selections.  I also read alongside them one day a week in order to model, and I always talk to my students about whatever book I am reading at the time.  And guess what?  They love it!  I personally read The Girl on the Train this year, and several of my students in my 3rd period became so engrossed by the plot line that they were heartbroken to learn that our school library didn’t carry the title (truth: I dissuaded them from pursuing this book until they discussed its appropriateness with their parents).  As students progress throughout the year and they become more confident as readers, these book club-esque discussions will start happening organically outside of class.  I had several students in my homeroom this year that immediately retold to me significant events from what they had read out of their books the night before as soon as they walked into my room in the morning.  Some of my students would discuss what they were reading with classmates at lunch, especially if they had both read the same novel.  As teachers, we must afford students with the time to read on their own; but equally as important, we have to get them talking about what they are reading as well because that’s such an important part of the entire literary experience.

Celebrate their reading achievements

Whenever one of my students finishes a book, I always email our principal and ask her to include a special “shout out” to that student during either the morning or afternoon announcements.  Middle schoolers are fickle young people whose moods can shift on a dime, but they love positive praise, even if they may not openly admit it.  The announcements always include the title of the book along with the page count, just to highlight the weightiness of the achievement.  Kymora, a student in my 1st period this year, beamed with pride as she heard the principal proclaiming how she had read all 336 pages of Copper Sun by Sharon Draper.  Completing a book is a huge accomplishment for a student, and it should be treated as such.  I try to call home and let a parent or guardian know about the feat as well in the hopes that it might spark up a book discussion within the family.  Making a big deal out of students’ independent reading progress reminds them about the value of the endeavor.

Next week I will be discussing the tricky task of creating engaging assessments that can be used to monitor students’ independent reading.

Three tips to creating an engaging classroom library

I cringe whenever I think back on the pitiful shelf and a half of books that I had in my classroom during my first year of teaching middle school.   I couldn’t even fill up both levels of a small two-shelf bookcase.  The books that I had were castaways that I had hastily grabbed during preplanning from the 7th grade book room.  The titles were dated and unappealing.  There was a reason these books had been collecting dust in a large, glorified closet.  This meager hodgepodge of antiquated literature sat tucked away in the far left corner of my room.  I wouldn’t be surprised if half of my students weren’t even aware it existed.  I was a language arts teacher, yet my book collection looked like the dregs of a yard sale that was coming to an end.  What message did this communicate to my students regarding my relationship with books?  The only excuse that I can offer is that I was a novice teacher.  I have improved my classroom library tremendously since then, however, and it is something that I take great pride in.  It’s the hub of my classroom; the most visited place by all of my students.  Below are my tips on how to create such a space in your classroom:

Actually finding the books

Unfortunately, teachers have to go out of pocket for most of the materials in their classrooms, which includes books.  I have acquired a number of titles in my room via a “Striving Readers Grant” that my school received due to our Title I designation, but most of the books on my shelves (yes, I have more than one now) came out of good ole’ Mr. Smith’s paycheck.  I have, though, found ways to acquire books in a way that still leaves money on the table for things like food, rent, bills, etc.  First, find out when your local library has used book sales as this is a great way to obtain a lot of titles for a low cost.  The library where I live – Athens, Georgia – has two such sales per year, and for $10 patrons can fit as many titles into a box as they can carry.  I’ve gotten loads of popular novels like Divergent, The Hunger Games, and Twilight for a fraction of what they might cost new at a Barnes & Noble.  Another great way to get books on the cheap is through AbeBooks and Amazon, though I prefer AbeBooks because it tells you how many copies of the title the seller has in stock, and you can contact the seller to negotiate shipping costs when buying more than one of a book.  I always try to buy more than one copy of each title in case multiple students are interested in it; plus, this can allow student-led book conversations to happen organically both in and out of the classroom.

Choosing books for YOUR students

My school’s student population is just 12% white, yet in my first year at the school 3 of the 4 whole class novels that we read featured white authors and characters.  Nowadays, my students regularly read independently during class, and my library features books by diverse authors such as Jason Reynolds, Sharon Flake, Walter Dean Myers, Nikki Grimes, Pam Munoz Ryan and Ann Jamarillo.  All American Boys was wildly popular amongst many of my African-American boys this year because they said they found both the characters and the dialogue relatable.  The Skin I’m In was passed around by half a dozen African-American girls who told me they shared similar insecurities as the main character, Maleeka, regarding their skin tone.  However, do not assume that just because a student is black or latino that he or she will gravitate to titles featuring characters that resemble themselves.  I had a number of these same students devouring just about any graphic novel by Raina Telgemeier as well as After Ever After by Jordan Sonneblick, a novel that highlights the struggles experienced by two very white 8th grade boys from the suburbs outside of New Jersey.  The best bet is to offer a variety of choices for your students, but make sure that you have books that reflect all the various backgrounds and ethnicities that are present in your classroom.

Helping students choose books

I’m not trying to brag, but I can give a heck of a book talk.  I make dramatic facial expressions and use theatrical body language.  I constantly shift my intonation for effect.   However, no matter how good of a show I put on, it pales in comparison to the feedback that my students receive from their peers.  Each student in my class gets a sticky note that they personalize as their own bookmark.  Nothing, and I mean nothing, sparks a student’s interest in a book more than when they notice that one of their friends is already reading it.  Plus, I can use those bookmarks to help recommend books to students as they finish titles when I know that a friend of his or hers is currently reading it.  Another great way to use peer pressure for the greater good of enhancing student literacy is by having students fill out a quick book review whenever they finish a novel.  I put the reviews in a binder next to the library so that students can use their classmates’ opinions to help guide them through their next book choice.

The summer is a great time for teachers to review and revamp their classroom libraries. Next week, I’ll be discussing how to prioritize independent reading and student choice in the language arts classroom.