Saturday, July 20, 2013

Deciding What Fits

How do you decide which books to put in your classroom library?

Empty classroom library, circa 2011?

Each year, I begin with a fairly empty classroom library. There is no pedagogical reason for this; I simply stuff all my books into lockers or onto covered shelves to keep them as dust-free as possible and to save our building staff from having to move them when they wax the floors.

Another truth, however, is that each year I rebuild my classroom library because no group of students is ever exactly alike. There are years when the sports bin is always empty, and years when the sports books are covered in dust. Vampires are huge, vampires are out. Everyone is afraid of zombies, but a few kids love them. They want romance, they flee from the kissing books. And each year I have to decide which books belong in my classroom, and which ones don't.

I teach in a parochial school. We are not technically independent, but we don't get guidelines from downtown regarding books in our classroom libraries. I buy a lot of the books, but the school buys a lot too. (I'm lucky, I know.) Many of the rules that restrict teachers in public school classrooms don't apply to me, but at the same time, I have to at least be aware of the church's teachings when I pick books. And I teach 8th graders, students who will be in high school soon, in a building that also houses 3-year-olds.

Each year, I spend most of my time thinking about where the low and high end of my classroom library will be. Some years it's easy: If all the kids are watching Jersey Shore, I won't spend much time worrying that a book is too edgy. On the other hand, if students won't break a Tim Green-reading rut, then I'll give my Tim Green bin to the 7th grade teacher to force them into something new. As the year goes on, more and more older YA titles will find their way into students' hands. For the past few years, Christmas break seems to have been the transition point; it might be different this year.

What makes a book too mature, of course, is utterly nebulous. What is too much for one reader is old hat to another. Here are three practices in my classroom that help me navigate this terrain:

  1. The reserve shelf. It is, of course, not really called the reserve shelf. It doesn't even have a name, and since I'm moving classrooms this year, I'm not even sure of the location. It is a section of the classroom library that literally cannot be accessed without my permission. (I mean literally literally; it's not physically accessible.) Perhaps the most ironclad rule in my classroom is that no students are ever allowed behind my desk, or to touch anything on it. (The other ironclad rule is no whistling. I hate whistling.) I could write an entire post on why, but for now I will simply say that it works, and it means that any books on shelves behind my desk require a student to ask me for them. My school is small enough that I know almost every parent, so a brief conversation is enough to determine if a book is okay for a student to try.
  2. Award bins. I have been reading my way through the Printz winners and honor books over the last eighteen months. I've read 36 out of 67 so far, and almost all of them are terrific. Many of them are exactly the challenging, rewarding, important works of literature for young people that students should read, and many of them contain mature content, as they should. Last year I made Printz bins for my classroom. They were in a separate location from the rest of my library, and I had read every book in them but one, and that one is always on the HS summer reading list. I explained what those bins signified, and identified books as Printz books when I talked about them. They were some of the most popular bins in the classroom last year, but since the books weren't easy, it was rarely for prurient reasons.
  3. Books to read in high school. As a teacher of 8th graders, I sometimes come across a book that makes me wish I still taught high school, or even better, that I taught high school in an extremely progressive community. Alas, I don't. There are also books that I really want my students to read but know they aren't ready for now. I want to send them an email that arrives when they turn 17 and says "Now it's time to read . . . " So this year I had them start a list in their notebooks called "Books to Read in High School". When I finished a book or came across an author that I loved but just couldn't give to my students, I would booktalk it for their high school list. I explained why I loved it and thought it was important, and also why I thought they should read it in high school. It was a little bit these are the books I'm not allowed to give you and a little bit seriously, you're not ready for The Marbury Lens. I was barely ready for The Marbury Lens. An example: Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers is one of the most powerful, raw, and real books about high school that I have ever read. Everyone who works with teenagers should read it. It would also absolutely terrify many of my 8th graders, as in please-homeschool-me-mommy terrify. Without the experience and context of a real high school, it might be too much. On the other hand, if they find themselves with a girl like Anna Morrison in their life, then Some Girls Are will be exactly the book they need.

So I ask again: How do you decide which books to include in your classroom library?

Currently Reading: Undecided. I think I'm going to work on some of my in-progress books.
Why: Total book hangover from Andrew Smith's Grasshopper Jungle. What book can follow that?

[Book cover to come. Indiebound isn't working.]


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