March 2013 Archive
I’m Bored!
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[All images Copyright © Debbie Ridpath Ohi, unless otherwise noted]

How many times have your students said this?  How many times have YOU said this?  There were certainly times in the classroom when I was bored with something I had to teach (and 100% of the time it came from a teachers manual), but this lesson is not one of those lessons!  The book I’m Bored was written by comedian Michael Ian Black (The State) and illustrated by Debbie Ridpath Ohi.  Here’s an except from the NY times review of the book by David Small:

“As the story begins, the girl tells us she is bored. A potato is the only thing in sight. But, as she says while throwing the potato up in the air, “what can you do with a potato?”  The potato falls, strikes her on the head, then declares, “I’m bored!” The talking spud claims it’s bored because it only has a little kid to play with. (It would rather have a flamingo.) Offended, the girl begins explaining to the potato why children are fun: they can play games, walk on their hands, pretend and so on. To each suggestion the potato replies with one word: “Boring.” (Once, its response ­varies: “Snoring.”) Unable to convince the potato of her own worth, the girl walks off in a huff.  Enter a flamingo, static and probably plastic, minus a lawn, just as the potato is minus its couch. The potato is excited to meet it, only to be told by the stiff pink bird: “I’m bored.””

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Some very fabulous teachers, Sarah and Laura did a great lesson with this book for K and 1st grade students.  After reading this story with their students as a readers theater, they passed out potatoes and had them brainstorm all of the things they could do with it!  The kids came up with some pretty creative answers (see below).  They offered an incentive to those students who were the best behaved by letting them take the potato home with them and do something creative with it.  One student made it into a mummy!  You can read more on Laura’s blog here.

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Other Lesson Ideas

The illustrator of this book, Debbie Ridpath Ohi, has some great resources on her blog.  I especially enjoy the section for young writers and illustrators.  In my class, after sending all of them home with potatoes, I think I’d have them write their own “I’m Bored” stories, BUT not just any old stories… comic books!  My students always loved graphic novels and I had some great ones for young readers in my classroom library.  Debbie has an entire section on budding cartoonists on her blog and even provides some great templates for your students to use as well (click below to check it out).

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There are also some great technology resources for students to use in bringing their comics to life.  I’d love to have students illustrate on a storyboard using pencil and paper then have some older students help them bring the comics to life using the laptops or school computer lab.  This is such a different way to approach writing workshop and not all students are “writers”.  This is a way to put the emphasis on the art and the illustrations and try to reach your learners in a different way.  Below are just some examples of a few student-friendly comic sites:

Graphix by Scholastic – I like this one because of the connections to other graphic novels such as “Bone” and “Bird & Squirrel on the Run”

Comic Master

Make Beliefs Comix

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And here are some comic book apps for the iPad too:

Comic Book! ($1.99)

Superhero Comic Book Maker ($1.99) – One of my favorites!

Rosie Comics Maker ($1.99) – I like this one too!

The Fridge Comics Maker ($1.99)

Have a wonderful (hoppy) weekend!  I’ll be back on Tuesday with a week full of new posts.

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Create boundaries.
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[Lara Casey wrote this amazing post about creating boundaries and inspired this post about my former boundary-less self.  If you aren’t a teacher, you can read on and I’d click on her post to read about how boundaries are needed in your life too!]

When I saw this above graphic on Lara Casey’s website, I immediately replaced the word “client” with the phrase “parent of a student” but you may use “colleague” or “boss” or whatever stresses you out.  Because how many of you are afraid of your teacher email?  I was.  Every time I opened it up, I feared another meeting to add to the schedule, a “disgruntled” parent email, or something else that would cause me anxiety.  Don’t get me wrong, not all of it was bad!  Most of it was good, but would add to my “to-do’s” and that stressed me out.  I formed some fabulous and amazingly supportive relationships with my colleagues and the parents of my students.  But I created a “cycle” from day one that I couldn’t break.  Read on…

My first year of teaching, I made myself available 24/7 to my colleagues and the parents of my students.  I was answering emails around the clock and I even gave out my cell phone number!!! (what was I thinking?!?!)  So imagine my surprise when I had a parent call me on that cell phone at 9 pm on a Friday night to gossip about another parent or 5 am on a Tuesday morning to let me know their child was sick.  It was terrible.  So I quickly learned my lesson and stopped giving my cell phone out after the first year of teaching.

But what replaced that immediate cell phone communication?  Email.  Parents would contact me via email and expect, sometimes demand, an immediate response.  I was answering emails at all hours of the day and night.  Because I was always so available, parents would come to expect a response from me, usually within the hour of the initial communication.  I felt that if I didn’t answer them right away, they’d be “mad” or they would speak ill about me at the next birthday party (gasp!) and it was tough.  Now I’m not saying every parent was demanding… sometimes the emails were as simple as “can we bring cupcakes tomorrow?” but I felt pressure to answer right away.  And every time I opened my inbox, my heart would pound.  So many times, the parents (or I) didn’t realize that by answering their in-depth emails, I was spending time away from their children.  I wasn’t being the best teacher I could be when they were expecting me to respond during the day.  So after year two of teaching, I started to say “I wouldn’t be answering email during school hours, except during planning”.

Well, that kind of backfired in my face.  Again, most parents were cool with this because their emails didn’t need an immediate response.  But when do you think the parents that wanted immediate communication expected me to email them back?  Yep.  After school and on weekends.  I’ll never forget a particularly challenging parent relationship that I had one year.  This parent was very demanding of my time and constantly questioned my experience, training, and all decisions I made in the classroom (we all have at least one of these relationships in the classroom every year).  This parent would “request an electronic receipt” of when I read my email so that she could see the exact time that I opened it up.  If I didn’t respond within the half hour, she would email me again in a very disrespectful tone.  If I still didn’t respond, she’d call the school in order to speak with me.  Typically her emails were very detailed and they took a lot of time and the proper PC wording to compose and respond to.  She was a school administrator in a neighboring county and used this “authority” to intimidate me… and it worked.  As a non-tenured teacher, I was quite fearful of losing my job because of a parent complaint, so I was always trying to please her.  One particular night, I heard my phone buzz with a new email at 3:30 am (email being linked to my phone was another mistake).  It was from her and I opened it, thus sending her a receipt that I read it at 3:32 am.  She was emailing about something trivial, but I had opened it!!!  Ugh!  My heart started to pound and I woke up, drug myself half asleep to the computer, to reply.  My husband had had it.  When he woke up for work at 6 am, I was still awake, worrying about whether or not my response was satisfactory to her.  He explained to me that this had to stop and I had to do something about it.  He was right.  I was exhausted and a crying mess.  But I had let her do this to me.  I had essentially given her the permission to email me at all hours of the night because I had proved that I’d be at her beck and call, by ACTUALLY RESPONDING AT 3 AM.  So, that same morning, I sent out an email to all the parents in my class letting them know that I would no longer be answering my emails before 7:30 am and after 4:30 pm, period.  If they had an emergency, they needed to contact the office.  Then I took my work email off of my phone and started to leave my school laptop at school.  I removed my school email bookmark from my computer and absolutely stopped looking at my email after 4:30 pm.  To my surprise, everyone was fine with it (well almost everyone).  They respected these new boundaries I set and respected that my school-time was for their children, not email.  I realized I should have done this way sooner!  [Oh and what happened to that difficult parent?  Well, she did come storming into my principals office, having a fit over my new email policy.  She shouted to my boss that I be available to her “at all times” because if I wasn’t then obviously I didn’t have the children’s best interest at heart.  Luckily I worked for the most amazing principal who backed my decision 100% and politely told her that she supported me.  I was not reprimanded by my administrators for my decision whatsoever.  That parent never discussed anything with me again and in the summer, she pulled her child out of our school system all together.]

So, what’s the point here?  My email inbox was affecting my teaching and my marriage because I didn’t know how to set boundaries (and I didn’t even have children yet – imagine what I would’ve been missing out on in their lives if I did).  I let other adults and their emails run my life both in and out of the classroom.  Although it took a pretty big wake up call, my policy never changed from there on out.  And each year, parents were more accepting of this policy and actually appreciated that once I left school, my mind was on my family and not on my inbox.  I was a better teacher for it.  My heart didn’t pound any more when I opened my inbox and I didn’t feel the need to respond right away or even at all to some emails.  So what do I suggest you do if you’re in this constant heart-pounding, anxiety producing cycle?  Read on.

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I’ve heard Lara say this to me twice now.  Every time you open your inbox, you have to make decisions.  Will you respond?  Delete?  File it away?  Or let it sit there and bother you every time you open your email?  Let me offer some inbox tips here.

1. Make a Snap Decision.

Don’t treat your mailbox like a to-do list.  When an email is read, make a decision about it immediately – respond to it, delete it, archive it, snooze it – just do something (see “Mailbox App” below for more information on this).  And only check your email when you have time to make these decisions.  If you don’t have ample time to respond, then don’t check it.  Do I still get emails that leave me feeling anxious or nervous?  Sure.  But now I have a plan.  Once I get an email, I immediately do something with it so that if it is a difficult email, I take care of it and move on.  Make that your policy from here on out.

2. Schedule Your Emails.

Sometimes you may have to get to your email after school.  But you don’t want to establish that habit of sending emails at all hours of the night, right?  That’s when you need to use an email scheduling system.  I like Boomerang or Follow Up Then.  Both of them provide a scheduling system for you, so that you can write an email at night and schedule it to send in the morning.  That way you’re able to work outside of your boundaries on your own time, without tipping off the recipient of your email.  Both systems can also remind you of an email that you may not to deal with at the minute, by taking it out of your inbox and re-delivering it at a scheduled time.  For example, get an email about the school book fair in a month?  Feel too overwhelmed to deal with it now but don’t want it crowding your inbox space?  Then schedule it to show back up in your inbox in 4 weeks.  Done.  The same thing can be said for the Mailbox app on your iPhone.  I do NOT advocate putting your school email on your phone, however, if you feel you must, this app will help you manage it and get it down to zero.  Just beware… there’s a waiting list to gain access to the app and it only works with Gmail.  But hey, maybe it’s better suited for your personal inbox, right?  That’s what I use it for.  (Another tip for email on your phone is also to turn off “auto-load”, that way the little red notification circle isn’t calling you to click on it at all hours of the day.  This feature is turned off on my phone and I really forget my mail is on there half the time.)

3. Streamline Your Emails

Create folders to hold all of your email correspondence.  It’s always smart for teachers to leave a paper-trail.  Every time I had a disgruntled parent to deal with, I usually had a he said/she said battle that ensued as well.  When I was able to pull up an actual documented email to show them or my administrators, the debate ended immediately.  For example, I had a parent who claimed not to be receiving my newsletters that were delivered by email, thus not getting important class information.  As it turns out, she had replied to one of my newsletter emails and I had saved it.  That gave me a direct paper trail to her inbox and even showed that she had to open the newsletter email to respond to me.  Slam dunk for the teacher!  But in order to recall these paper trails, you need a place to put all of those emails.  That’s where you need to create folders.  Organizing your inbox is as important as organizing your classroom.  Here is just a sampling of the folders I have for my C. Jayne Teach email:

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My teacher inbox had folders for each child so that I could quickly recall an email that was in regards to a particular student.  You can even color code your email in some platforms.  By creating folders, you’ll be able to recall information quickly and gather emails up if they need to present themselves.

4. Respect The Boundaries You Set

If you don’t live within your boundaries, no one will.   As I said before, change is hard but so worth it.  It may feel uncomfortable to only make yourself available from 7:30-4:30, especially if you are an involved teacher, but respect the boundaries you set.  Don’t make email access easy for you.  Fill your free time with the people you love and the things that fire you up.  If you’re feeling burnt out during this school year, examine where the root of it is coming from… it may be your inbox!  So decide what you’re boundaries are, stick to them, and don’t look back.  Because once you send the message that “I’m sending emails at 9 pm again”, the cycle will start all over.  So try it out.  You’ll feel more energized, restful, and more dedicated if your mental space isn’t filled with anxiety and fear of what’s lurking in your inbox.

You can do it.  Ready, set, go!

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What Presidents Are Made Of: Presidential Study
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Hanoch Piven is an Israeli illustrator whose collage technique makes for some interesting and beloved children’s books.  My students always enjoyed seeing his illustrations and the every day items he used to make them.  My Dog is As Smelly As Dirty Socks is a fantastic book I used to teach my first graders about similes.  His website is full of author interviews, illustrations, and even some fun apps to have the kids use during indoor recess or when there is some downtime.  Another one of Piven’s books is What Presidents Are Made Of (he also authored What Athletes Are Made Of).  Here’s a book summary from Kay Weisman of the American Library Association:

“In this picture book for older children, Piven presents the characters and interests of 17 U.S. presidents in text and collage portraits that make use of small toys and objects. Hot-tempered Andrew Jackson has bullets for eyes, a boxing glove nose, and a mouth represented by a miniature rifle; overweight William Howard Taft holds a rubber duck as he sits, clothed, in the White House bathtub; Ronald Regan, pictured with Bonzo, has facial features made from jellybeans. The multimedia illustrations, paint on plaster-covered wood with three-dimensional objects affixed, emphasize humor (Richard Nixon’s face is a tape recorder), and brief captions explain details in the art; George W. Bush, for example, is portrayed with a hotdog nose and baseball mouth because he once owned the Texas Rangers. With the exception of the depictions of Grant and Lincoln, the portraits appear in chronological order; an appended time line shows all the presidents, noting life spans and years in office.”

My friend Charlotte shared this lesson from her classroom and also the second grade classroom of her teammate, Jenny Nordhoff.  Instead of studying the presidents and presenting a report in a typical way, they used Piven’s text to put a spin on a presidential study.  Piven’s text introduced the project and allows for the students to see how he used everyday objects to represent characteristics about each president.  Then, each student was assigned a president to study.  During their research, they were able to brainstorm items to use to describe their president.  Then they created their own Piven inspired illustration that would portray some of the personality traits, characteristics, and quirks of each man.   They also had a written component to their illustrations (as you can see below).  The students displayed their projects in the cafeteria to present to their parents and peers.

Here are some examples of the student work that Mrs. Young submitted to me:

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I personally know these students and their hard work is evident in each illustration.  I especially enjoyed this project because it tied in literature and social studies and was a creative way to educate the students on the Presidents of the United States.  And I heard personally from a few parents of these second graders and they all told me how much their children enjoyed the project.  Not to mention, this project hits a number of Common Core ELA standards specific to various grade levels.  Below are a few of the anchor standards that this lesson covers:

Common Core ELA Anchor Standard – Research to Build and Present Knowledge

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.7 Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.8 Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.9 Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

Grade 2 – Production and Distribution of Writing

Research to Build and Present Knowledge

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.2.7 Participate in shared research and writing projects (e.g., read a number of books on a single topic to produce a report; record science observations).

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.2.8 Recall information from experiences or gather information from provided sources to answer a question.

I’ll be posting from Ohio this week as I visit with my family for Easter, so I plan on only blogging a few times this week.  But as always, email me with questions or submissions and don’t forget to visit my TpT page for some previous post ideas.  Also if you haven’t signed up for our newsletter, please do so.  I’m in the process of creating lots of pretty things for the C. Jayne Teach shop all set to launch this summer.  Sign up for the newsletter to be the first to know of a launch date, special offers, and coupon codes.  Hooray!

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Change.
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I know how you’re feeling around this time of year.  You are either counting the days until spring break, or you’ve just returned from break and are counting the days left until the end of the year.  This time of year is so stressful.  Standardized state tests are approaching and there’s a lot left to teach.  Uncertainty and gossip usually fill the school more this time of year with whispers of grade level changes, moves, and retirees.  You’re tired, you have spring fever, and you are feeling that negativity creep in.  You spend all your free time at school complaining, then you spend time after school complaining, then you go home and complain to your spouse or get easily irritated with your kids.  And you are spent.  Done.  You wake up and do it all over again.  Sound familiar?  I was there too.  I used to feel the most exhausted and grouchy around this time of year, even more so after break.

I recently read this quote above outside of a church here in Nashville.  It resonated with me so well because it is so true.  I would get stuck in my bad attitude and honestly my performance in the classroom suffered.  I needed to change to move forward.  I had to accept things that I couldn’t do anything about and move on.  Here are some things though, that you can’t control or change:

The State Tests

It’s easy to be anxious about getting those standardized tests over and coasting to the end of the year.  But don’t.  Those tests are not going away – ever.  As much as it is the thorn in every teachers side, you can’t do anything about it.  And if you have done an amazing job in your classroom all year – your students will do fine.  Nothing you teach them from here to the time of the test will make a difference, trust me.  So making them sit inside all day on a pretty spring afternoon, cramming, is not helping.  It’s making them irritated and you irritated.  I’m not saying a little review isn’t helpful, but having them sit and work on practice questions from 8:00-3:00 is so unproductive.  You know what I used to do with those practice booklets?  I sent them home and told my first graders to use them to “play school” or teach their siblings something.  My dear friend, Karen, did the greatest thing with her TCAP test booklets.  She sent them home with her third graders and challenged them to make something creative from them – origami, shred it and weave it into a basket, whatever.  One of her students even made a paper mache model of the Earth.  And honestly, that assignment that encouraged them to think outside the box and use that creative energy probably prepared some of them more than sitting there reviewing 150 test questions.  (Note: I know that some of you have jobs that rely on your students test scores.  That’s so unfair, but it’s something else we can’t change.  My advice to you is to rock out every single lesson from the start of the year.  Put the manual down, get creative, and find a way to teach the CSS to reach all levels of Blooms Taxonomy.  That’s when your students learn the best.  Not sure how to do that?  Keep reading this blog or email me with places that you’re stuck and I’ll help.)

Other People

In the beginning of every year I would stay away from those “Negative Nancys” that I worked with (you know the ones).  But come winter, when the weather is getting us down, that negative talk would suck me right back in.  Then by March, I was joining right in on all the petty gossip and complaining.  You can’t change other people.  You won’t be able to ever work somewhere where those Nancy’s don’t work.  So don’t engage.  I know it’s hard, but you can do it.  Think of how much better you feel when you have a positive conversation with someone.  And “those teachers” will always bring you down because misery loves company.  Since you can’t change them, change what you do when you’re around them.  When you start to hear the conversation turn negative, politely slip out (“Oh I forgot I had some copies to make!”) or if it’s happening at lunch, take a focused lunch break.  Eat in your room, search Pinterest or some inspirational teacher blogs, and focus on what makes you happy (don’t do school work or check your school email though).  I even have a visual Pinterest board that is nothing but images that make me smile, inspirational quotes and things that fire me up.  After looking at that for a few minutes, I’m instantly more relaxed and happy.  Make one for times when you need a lift (and you can even make it a secret board if you’d like).

How Many Days of School Are Left

You are going to be there until the last day.  I know you want these days to move faster, but hold on!  This is the most fun time of year.  Once those tests are over, you can do so many lessons without the added pressure!  It always irked me a little to hear teachers say “Well, the tests are over, we’re going to do nothing for the next month!”  Um, what?  Think of all of those lessons you wanted to try out but felt like they didn’t exactly fit a standard or you were afraid to move away from the manual (next year though you will move away from the manual) – now’s your chance!  I would always ask the kids what they wanted to learn about at the end of year.  We’d make a big list and then I’d try to cover as much of it as we could.  It was so great!  We studied dinosaurs, ocean life, the human body, mysteries, the laws of motion, and cicadas (yes, when the cicadas took over middle Tennessee in the spring of 2011, I did an entire weeks worth of lessons on those creepy little red eyed bugs.  We even spent time outside digging them out of the ground and picking them off of trees!)  You can’t change how much time you have left with these sweet students of yours so why not make the best of it and get outside for some extra time too!

Now that we’ve established a few things that are out of our control, let’s use this time to focus on changing ourselves or our attitude.  No one loves change.  It’s uncomfortable and hard.  I know it is and I don’t expect you to do a major overhaul all at once, but maybe just a little more smiling and less complaining.  You have to start somewhere in order to move forward.  Change is hard but it is so so worth it.  You wouldn’t leave a flat tire on your car would you?  Don’t leave your bad attitude in the lives of your students, friends, and family.  You owe it them (and yourself) to be the best you you can be.  By having a better day at school, you can have a better evening with your families.  Resist the urge to stay the same, because it may not be working.  And as I’ve said before, if you’re having a particularly tough day in the classroom – just stop what you’re doing and go outside.  I promise, you’ll thank me later.

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Classroom Library Organization 101
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[If you have trouble seeing the text or images in this post, click on them to enlarge.  You can also change your monitor settings to zoom in.  Just press command/control and the plus sign to increase the size or use the “view” window of your browser bar.]

I realize that we’re almost to the home stretch of the end of the school year, but with spring break still approaching for so many of you, I thought that your classroom library may need a little revamp.  I proudly owned the fact that I’m a bit OCD when it comes to organization.  My classroom library was scanned, organized, and leveled and all of my students knew how to use it.  They were able to independently select books they were interested in from a wide array of fiction, non-fiction, chapter books, and leveled readers.  As I mentioned in my all about page, I had an upwards of 2,000 books in my classroom library last year.  That’s a lot to organize.  So let me offer you a few tips and tricks that helped me.  Some of it you will be able to tackle over spring break if you wish, but most of it can be done in the summer as you prepare for back to school.  DISCLAIMER:  Your spring break should be spent with your friends and family, particularly somewhere in the sunshine.  I don’t want you spending your break at school (that’s why it’s called a break) but I know that the Sunday before the kids come back can be a popular time for teachers to go in.  So if you’re there, let me help you organize.

Before you begin…

You will need lots of clear plastic bins in various sizes.  I like these for my fiction and non-fiction books [order in sets so you can save money], I like these for my chapter books, and these for my leveled readers.  Also I know it’s tempting to buy the colored bins because they are so cute, but stick with the clear.  Also make sure you have good bookshelf space all in one area.  Your students don’t want to travel to each corner of the room to find a book, so make it easy and put them all in one place.  Enlist a good teacher re-decorator friend to help you rearrange your classroom and ask teachers if they have any bookshelves they aren’t using.  I found some old ones that a teacher was planning on throwing out and re-painted them.

You also need a way to catalog your books.  There are some fantastic websites, apps, and scanners out there to help you do this.  Here are a few that I highly recommend:

Classroom Organizer: This is a free website that allows you to import all your titles for easy student check out (if that’s your main end goal). It comes with a free companion app that allows you to scan the ISBN number on the back of your books for easy information recall and cataloging.  Plus you can log on in the app or at your computer.  I find it the most classroom-friendly of the bunch.

Book Retriever App: I have this one on my phone.  I think it’s just as good as Classroom Organizer but doesn’t have a desktop piece – it’s only available on a mobile device.  When you scan the bar code with the app, information about the book shows up including title, author, cover photo, grade level, and the current price to purchase a replacement.  And if your book doesn’t have a barcode, you can make one and print it yourself.  Cost $0.99.

Delicious Library: I only like this site because you can use your computer camera as a scanner, in case you don’t have an Android, iPhone, or independent scanner.  But it does cost $35 (which is way cheaper than an independent Bluetooth scanner but not as cheap as “free“).  I’d only recommend this if you don’t have a way to get an app on a device you own.

Step 1 – Dump all your books on the floor.

Yes, you read that correctly.  You have to start from scratch when it comes to re-organizing.  I’m guessing since you’re starting this process, what you’re doing is not working.  So let’s build a functional library from the ground up.  I promise, if you do the work on the front end, the students help do the work on the back end.  Okay, so make four piles of books – one non-fiction and one fiction.  Then make a pile of leveled readers and another pile of chapter books.

Step 2 – Start with your chapter books.

These are the easiest to organize because there are fewer categories.  I would sort out all the series I had (Cam Jansen, Magic Tree House, A-Z Mysteries, Junie B, Judy Moody, etc) and make a bin for each series.  Then whatever was left, I’d just make a few general “chapter books” bin.  If you have multiple titles by an author, such as Kate DiCamillo, you could also create an author bin.  I’d do that more with the older students so that they could find books by the same author.  As you put your books into a bin, make sure you are scanning each one to catalog it.

Step 3 – Organize your fiction.

I think it’s best to organize fiction alphabetically.  I know there are some wonderful sites out there that recommend organizing by genre or theme, but for fiction, I find this is too difficult to do.  So many fiction titles encompass multiple themes and I this can get confusing when you or your students are searching for a title.  The only exception for me was Fairy Tales and Poetry.  I thought those two categories could get their own self-explanatory bins.  I bought a set of colorful letters from an office supply store and set them in front of each bin.  I set out one bin for each letter at first.  Then I began organizing the books by title.  For example, “A Bad Case of Stripes” went in the “A” bin, “Bad Kitty” in the “B” bin and so on.  Once I had finished, I began consolidating books.  I moved all the W, X, Y, and Z books into one bin because there were so few of them.  But at the same time, I split the “M” bin into two bins because of the amount of “M” titles I had.  Just make sure no one bin is too heavy for little hands to pick up.  A heavy bin could turn into a broken bin that produces some sharp jagged plastic – yikes!  (see photo below for a visual example)  Once you have each bin with an appropriate amount of books, attach your letters to the front so that the students are able to see them easily.  And don’t forget to scan them into your catalog system.

Step 4 – Organize you non-fiction and informational text.

This is where you want to organize by theme.  Most students will choose non-fiction based on a topic they enjoy, like reptiles or the Solar System, so it’s best to have them sorted in this way.  I created an entire separate area for my “Non-Fiction Nook”.  All the bins were the same clear bins, but I printed the labels on yellow paper instead of white.  This was a helpful visual for the students to see that this area was different than the fiction section.  So sort all of your NF books into as many themes as you want.  I would use post-it notes to label my stacks so that I could condense them later if I needed to.  I did end up combining some themes into one bin because they had similar characteristics (like reptiles, amphibians, and dinosaurs for example) but you can have as many categories as you’d like.  Again, just make sure no bin is too heavy or too light.  (photo below allows you to see the way I separated my NF)  Once you’ve designated each bin with a theme, type up labels and place them on the front of the bin.  Make sure the type is large enough for your students to see.

Step 5 – Organize your leveled readers.

I saved this for last because it is the most time consuming.  Our school used the Guided Reading leveling system.  If your school doesn’t have one, I find this to be the easiest to understand.  I only leveled my readers so that students were able to put them in their book boxes to read during independent silent reading time.  I did level a few chapter books for my high readers, but not all.  Also I do not level my books by a letter, but by color.  Each book has a circular colored sticker in the corner and each bin represents a color (see photo below).  Back at my desk, I have a “key” that allows me to see the corresponding guided reading level to each color.  This is a key I made up myself using colors that were easy for me to remember a corresponding level (for example I only leveled letters A-O on the guided reading scale.  I put the circle stickers in rainbow order with the reds and pinks being the lower levels of A-D and the blues and purples being the higher levels of M-O.  But you can do whatever works best for you).  I created this color system so that students don’t know their actual level.  DO NOT TELL STUDENTS THEIR LETTERED LEVEL.  Read that again.  DO NOT TELL STUDENTS (OR THEIR PARENTS FOR THAT MATTER) THEIR LETTERED LEVEL.  Kids are smart and parents talk.  If you think they don’t understand that a level E is lower than a level J, you’re mistaken.  Never, ever, in all my years of teaching did I tell a child what letter level they were on.  Very rarely did I tell parents and every time I went against my judgement and told them their child’s level, I regretted it.  So just don’t.  You can tell parents that they’re reading above or below grade level, but don’t assign them a letter.

Ok, back to the books… once you’ve created a key for yourself, then you have to research each title to assign a level to it.  Scholastic Book Wizard is amazing because you can type in a title, choose your leveling system (Guided Reading, DRA, etc) and it will give you the level.  There are other resources that your schools literacy teacher may have available, including a subscription to the Fountas and Pinnell leveled books website.  If you can’t find a level from one of these resources, you may just have to level it yourself.  You will get better with this over time, but you just have to look at the text, words on each page, and comprehension level.  Compare it to other books that you have a confirmed level on and use your best judgment.  If you’re a level off, it’s okay.  But hopefully you won’t have to do this too often.  Once you have your titles leveled, put them in your bins and label the bin with the color on the front.  I used the exact sticker on the front so that students are not confused by different sticker shades (“blue” could be light blue vs. dark blue).  Also you’ll see in the photo below, that some bins have more than one color in them.  Due to space issues, I had to consolidate.  I would only combine titles that were within one level of each other so students sometimes could choose from the entire “bin” not just a color.  (It’s an exciting day when you say, “Okay instead of choosing only orange books, you can now choose anything you want from the orange and black bin!”)

Step 6 – Make your library space feel like home.

My classroom library was the coziest place in my room.  It was always placed in a corner and I used the bookshelves to define the space.  I made sure to have comfy chairs, bean bags, and mini-papasan type seating for the kids to read on (I always wanted to put up a hammock or hang a bubble chair from the ceiling in my library… wouldn’t that be so fun?!?)  I used colorful frames to frame photos of past classes and I’d place them on the shelves in between the book bins.  I’d also frame funny pictures that I’d taken, like a monkey with a speech bubble saying “Don’t monkey around, choose the right book!”  I’d have a few indoor plants scattered throughout the space to give it a breath of fresh air and some soft lighting from lamps and garden lights that I’d string above the shelves.  I had the students book boxes right inside the library so that they were able to conveniently choose books to read and put them inside.  I’d also have a shelf designated for books that went with a theme or unit we were working on or an author we were studying.  I was able to use book stands to entice students to grab a specific title.  And I’d put colorful rugs down for students to lay on and read.

Below you’ll find some images of my classroom library during my third year of teaching.  In my fourth and fifth years, I added another shelf and flip flopped the fiction and non-fiction sections (to keep all the non-fiction with the yellow theme).  Due to a computer crash, I lost all the photos of those libraries.  🙁  But I think the ones below represent what I’m talking about in this post.  If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to email me or leave a comment below.  I hope these tips help you and your students have a more efficient and cozy space for reading.  By designing a comforting space where students can enjoy a good book, you are creating a foundation to instill a lifelong love of reading that I hope will continue on throughout their lives.

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