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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.