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NYC Helpline: How To: Teaching Upper Grade Literacy

Developing Your Classroom Library by Lisa Peterson

In New York City middle schools, you will find a variety of English programs and curricula, all of which include an independent reading component. However, if you don’t have a solid classroom library, full of books that kids really want to read, your independent reading program will flounder from the start. (Click here for a list of recommended books for middle schoolers.)

Assembling the books
As a first year teacher, one of your biggest challenges will probably be assembling a decent classroom library. Most teachers receive some sort of library from their school, but the quality can vary wildly. You might inherit the star teacher’s beautifully organized and lovingly maintained library. On the other hand, you might inherit a few boxes of raggedy books, picked over and rejected by everyone else.

If you find yourself with a less-than-ideal library, you will have to find ways to supply yourself with books. Obviously, your first step should be to alert your literacy coach and administrators to the problem; they will often be able to help. You can also try scheduling trips to the school library or the public library.

In addition, I liked to order from book clubs, such as Scholastic, Trumpet, or Troll. My students don’t usually buy a lot, but I wind up buying bought some books, and the bonus points help me to stretch my dollars further. The nice thing about book clubs is that they have current books, such as books from recent shows and movies, that can motivate reluctant readers. To make the paperwork easier I tried to stick to one company and I would give my students fliers designed for a variety of age groups (such as the 4th-6th grade flier and the 7th-9th grade flier) to accommodate the variety of interests and reading levels in my classroom.

Another source of books is websites with low-cost or donated books. Although I haven’t personally used these sites, some of my colleagues tell me they have found them helpful:

  1. www.bookcloseouts.com
  2. www.smart.readers.org
  3. www.DoverPublications.com
  4. www.donorschoose.org

The process of accumulating books never ends. Even as an experienced teacher I try to add to my library constantly, based on my students’ interests and my colleagues’ recommendations. I found that while some books appealed to my students year after year, others were wildly popular with one group, only to fall out of favor forever after. As new books were published, I tried to add them to my library. Not only is it important to add recently published books to your library, but it is also important to find a way to replace worn out and dog-eared books; unfortunately, students do judge books by their covers.

Creating a space for your library
Once you have assembled a classroom library, your next challenge is to set it up. You will need to find a space that is accessible, but also somewhat removed from student desks. You want students to be able to visit the library easily, without having to come into contact with (and inevitably distract!) the other students.

Currently, most teachers keep their books in baskets on bookshelves. The baskets help to organize the books, and they hold the books so that the covers face outward, which makes it easier for students to browse through the library. Hopefully, your school will supply you with both shelves and baskets. If not, the baskets are often available at dollar stores. Shelves are trickier to obtain, but some teachers have made their own from crates or simple boards. Other teachers have bought shelves at second-hand stores or yard sales.

Not only do you want your library to be functional, but you also want it to be inviting. Many teachers like to create a comfortable reading area with a carpet, sofa, beanbags or pillows. Although space constraints make it impractical for every student to read in this area, I used to have a schedule so that students could read on the rug once a week. If you do have such an area, you might want to keep it separate from the library itself so that students can read without the distraction of other students pushing past them to look for books.

You should also decorate the space around the library or reading area in a meaningful way. Some of my colleagues posted their procedures for independent reading (such as choosing a book, abandoning a book, etc.) above the classroom library. I liked to decorate areas for each genre with pictures and phrases relating to the genre. It’s also helpful to have an area with featured books (related to teacher read-alouds, favorite authors, or current topics) and an area for student recommendations.

Organizing the books
In the past teachers have organized their books in different ways, but recently most schools have adopted formats that they require teachers to follow. The current trend, which developed in elementary schools, is to keep the books in baskets organized according to reading level, and it’s true that leveled baskets can be useful in helping students choose books of appropriate difficulty. However, developmentally, middle school students are beginning to focus on their identities as individuals, and as their teachers I think it’s important to tap into that focus by developing their self-awareness as readers. As readers we tend to have distinct genre, topic, and author preferences. I also think it’s important to begin transitioning older students to real world situations--when they (hopefully) go to a bookstore, they won’t see leveled baskets, they will see sections organized by genre. Because of this, I also liked to include some genre baskets, author baskets, and series baskets in my classroom library.

Checkout systems
Once you have gone to all the trouble of accumulating and organizing a set of library books, the last thing you want to witness is their slow disappearance. You will definitely want a system for keeping track of your books. On the other hand, you don’t want to make yourself crazy with elaborate systems and procedures that you can’t maintain. The best checkout systems are usually the simplest. Here are some potential systems:

  1. Student cards:  Each student has a card with his or her name. The cards can be kept in a pocket chart or a box. When the student takes out a book, he or she writes the title on the card. When the student returns a book, he or she crosses out the old title. The teacher or a student monitor can periodically check the cards to see if they match the books the students are actually reading. The nice thing about this system is that it’s easy to check on an individual student.
  2. Notebook:  Each time a student takes out a book, he or she writes the title and his or her name in a notebook. When the book is returned, the student crosses out the title. Again, the teacher or a student monitor can check the book periodically to see if students have kept their information current. The nice thing about this system is its simplicity. The drawback is you might have to look over pages and pages to find the information you need.
  3. Book cards:  The teacher creates book cards for each book in the library. He or she glues pockets or envelopes (cut in half) on the inside cover of each book to hold the cards. The student checking out the book writes his or her name on the card and places it in a box. When the student returns the book, he or she crosses out the name and places the card back in the book. Obviously this system requires a lot of work up front, but some teachers love it.

You can add accountability to any of these systems by requiring students to place returned books in a central check-in basket. Then the teacher or a student monitor is in charge of recording the return information, rather than each individual student.

Once your library is set up and organized, you can begin independent reading with your students. Of course, now you’ll have to decide how to structure and manage your independent reading time (basically, lots more work to do!), but you will have a solid foundation on which to build.

Recommended Books for Middle School

(*Books marked with an asterisk are part of a series involving the same characters.)

1.  The Agony of Alice* (and the entire series) by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
This series takes Alice from sixth grade all the way up through high school.  She and her two best friends deal with a myriad of growing-up issues (especially boys!) in a funny, honest, and realistic way. 

2.  The Burning Questions of Bingo Brown* by Betsy Byars
Bingo begins the school year by falling in love with three girls in one period.  He soon focuses on Melissa, and this book shows him dealing with his many questions about “mixed-sex conversations” and other relationship issues.

3.  Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes
When Mr. Ward’s high school English class starts open-mike poetry sessions, the result is this collection of vignettes and poems from the points of view of the different students.

4.  Captain Underpants* by Dav Pilkey
Kids love this cartoon-filled story about the chubby, scantily-clad superhero.

5.  Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul*
This book is filled with inspirational stories, essays and poems about growing up.  It works well for a variety of readers because you can read the whole book or just pick and choose a few sections.  (Students also like many of the Chicken Soup books written for adults.)

6.   Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Step into Classics, Bullseye Chillers)
Written in an easy-to-read version that still retains a mysterious tone, this classic tells the story of a man who tries to separate his good and evil sides--with disastrous results. 

7.  Dorling Kindersley Readers / Eyewitness Readers*
These informative and eye-catching books cover subjects ranging from sports to science to history.  They are very popular with boys who read below grade-level because the pictures are terrific, the text is accessible, and they deal with a variety of interesting topics. 

8.  Forever by Judy Blume
Students still love this story of teenagers in their first sexual relationship.   

9.  Go Ask Alice* edited by Beatrice Sparks, Ph.D.
This diary tells the story of Alice’s descent into drug abuse.  The editor has also published the diaries of a pregnant teenager (Annie’s Baby) and a girl who gets AIDS as a result of a date rape (What Happened to Nancy.) 

10.  The Last Vampire* (and series) by Christopher Pike
This dramatic series brings together elements of vampire mythology from around the world to chronicle the battles of Alisa, a five thousand year old vampire in the modern world.

11.  The Zack Files*
In these zany books that appeal to all sorts of readers, Zack finds himself in a variety of strange situations –Queen Victoria co-inhabits his body, his crazed orthodontist administers a secret potion in the mouthwash, he turns into an ant victimized by an evil queen -- and many, many more.

12.  Miracle’s Boys by Jacqueline Woodson
Ty’ree, Charlie, and Lafayette are brothers, the sons of Milagro (Miracle).  This story tells of their struggles as they deal with their mother’s death and Charlie’s hopelessness after his release from prison.

13. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
Told from the point of view of a sensitive kid from the wrong side of town, this story tells about the fighting between rich and poor kids at a high school, and the senseless loss of life that occurs as a result.

14.  The Rose that Grew from Concrete by Tupac Shakur
This collection of Tupac’s poetry includes his actual handwritten drafts as well as the typewritten poems.

15.  Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark*
Although the stories are uneven in quality, students love the spooky tales and poems in this book (and its two sequels).

16.  Scorpions by Walter Dean Myers
When Randy goes to jail, his gang members look to his younger brother, Jamal, for leadership.  When Jamal ends up with a gun, he and his best friend, Tito, find themselves in situations that they aren’t ready to handle.

17.  Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
After Melinda calls the cops on an end-of-summer party, she finds herself ostracized by her high school classmates.  But as the book unfolds, we find that she actually called the police to avoid speaking the truth – about the fact that she was raped that night.

18.  Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing* by Judy Blume
Younger middle-schoolers like this story about Peter and the typical toddler antics of his younger brother, Fudge.  The book is easy to read, but still looks like a typical middle school chapter book.

19.  Tears of a Tiger* by Sharon Draper
When a popular basketball player is killed in an alcohol-related car accident, his best friend (and the car’s driver) struggles unsuccessfully to deal with the emotional aftermath.

20.  The Watsons go to Birmingham, 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
This hilarious story tells about a black family’s trip from Michigan to visit their grandma in Birmingham, Alabama, during one of the most dramatic moments in its history.

Questions or comments? E-mail Lisa.

See also:
Creating a Balanced Literacy Library by Bonnie Glasgold

The Classroom Library by Julia Millin



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