12 tips for building a beautiful classroom library

“How do you get all of these beautiful books?”

AA Lit Library

Before answering that question, I wanted to share a quick story that will give you a better idea of how my classroom philosophy and library has grown over time…

In 2015-16, I decided to make the “loop” from a middle school to a high school in the same cluster, which meant that I had the honor of teaching many of my eighth graders again as ninth graders.

There was only one problem: time, or the lack thereof. Our high school runs on a block schedule, which means that I see my students for 80ish minutes every other day. When you factor in two weeks for semester exams, another two weeks for end-of-year state exams, and another day or two each quarter for mandated district assessments, we’re down to like 150 days. Cut that in half and we’re talking 75 days. (Not to mention teacher and student absences, field trips, assemblies, fire drills, snow days, etc.) 75 days. That’s it!

Early on that year, I tried planning a Lord of the Flies unit. It went about as well as you’d expect. I quickly realized that the traditional (and generally accepted) way of doing the high school English block wasn’t going to work, and began to develop a different approach (you can read more about that here).

I knew that I had 75 days to help my students fall in love with reading, again or for the first time. Therefore, every minute, every text, every assignment had to be intentional, especially if I wanted students to consider reading during the other 290 days of the year (and the following year, and for the rest of their lives).

And so, as I started to prioritize choice and time and access and relevance and volume…it worked! Not right away. Not perfectly. Not for all students at the same time. But, it worked.

And guess what else happened as I gave students consistent time to read? I started to read more, too. It became easier to make recommendations and to build relationships. My students and I began to bond over books. (It’s amazing how many students become “behavior problems” when you make them read crappy texts).

“Wait, how is class over already?”

“Before this year, I hated to read.”

“Can you teach us again next year?”

By May, I wasn’t ready to say good bye to my ninth graders. We were just getting started. And so, with the support of our school’s administrative team, I was able to “loop” again.

The next fall, the start of the 2016-17 school year, Project LIT Community was born. At the time, we did not have any of the beautiful books that you see on our shelves today.

“So, how do you get all of these beautiful books?”

Here’s my advice…

1. Work with your students to develop a list of recommend reads. You know, the books that fly off your shelves and tend to make their way into backpacks and homes (that’s a good thing, by the way!). Then, create a visual like this one that you can share with friends and family.

2017 Reads Amato

I know we want to fill our libraries immediately, but focus on quality more than quantity.  If the book’s not going to be read, why bother? There’s a reason it only costs a quarter. (With that said, if you know how to find great books on the cheap, let me know!

2. Make it easy for people to donate! There are two options I’d suggest:

A. Encourage people to “drop off books at your school Monday-Friday between ____ and ____” (especially if you’re hosting a larger book drive)

B. Create an Amazon Wishlist. Be sure to follow my friend and Project LIT chapter leader Mrs. G (@mrsg_mchs) on Twitter to see how this looks in action!

3. Empower your students in this process! Have them design graphics. Write persuasive letters to community members. Star in videos. Pose for pictures. Run social media accounts. Create commercials. You name it! The goal is to make sure that…

4. Supporters see and hear from our students! Remember that the kind folks out there are not buying these books for us (the boring adults). They’re buying them for our amazing young people! It’s important to show our community that our students WANT to read these books, NEED to read these books, LOVE to read these books.


5. Remember to say thank you! It takes 30 seconds to snap a picture of your students and share it with your crazy aunt on Facebook who just purchased 10 books from your Amazon Wishlist. It takes five minutes to grab a bunch of notecards and have your students write thank you notes to everyone who contributed to your Donors Choose project. It matters.

6. Be passionate! Be persistent! I know that in a perfect world, teachers would not have to spend their time hustling for books on social media. Believe me, I get that. And it breaks my heart that there always seems to be money for test-prep programs and scripted curriculum and central office staff members and turnaround specialists and the latest technology. Books, though? Nah, you’re on your own there, teach.

However, in order to change that, on both an individual and systemic level, we’ve got to be passionate. We’ve got to be persistent. We’ve got to keep on posting, and preaching, and persuading. We’ve got to keep on sharing, and shouting, and celebrating the small successes.

Does it take time? Absolutely. Is it worth it? Absolutely.

7. Tell everybody. When you’re passionate, people notice. Students will say, “Mr. Amato, that dude’s a reader. He loves books.” My friends and family know it, too. Reading has a way of coming up in conversations. And every once in a while, someone will even ask, “How can I help?” I’m always ready with my answer!

8. Be sure to keep your principal in the loop, too. Share the great things that are happening in your classroom. Share your vision for literacy instruction. Share how your students are growing as readers and writers. Need data? Share student work and student reflections and student surveys. Share parent feedback.

All parents (and I assume all administrators) love seeing students who are engaged and excited to come to English class. They love hearing that their students are reading more than they have in years. They love knowing that their students’ identities and cultures are affirmed through the texts they’re reading. They love watching their students gain confidence and a sense of belonging.

Once parents and principals are on board, they’ll become some of your biggest advocates and supporters.

9. Apply for grants. Look, I hear you. I can picture the meme. “Ain’t nobody got time for that.” And it’s true. We barely have enough time to eat our lunch most days.

But, keep your eyes open. I usually discover grants while scrolling through my Twitter feed, and not all of the applications require you to write a thesis.

Oh yeah, I get rejection letters all the time. And they all sting. I spend three or four hours (at least) pouring my heart out, trying to explain to a stranger why my amazing students deserve access to Long Way Down and Dear Martin and The Hate U Give,  out only to get back some scripted “Thanks for…Unfortunately…maybe next year…” email?! It hurts.

But, as Michael Jordan likes to say (at least I think it’s MJ), “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” (Never mind, I just Googled it — shout out to Wayne Gretzky!)

Besides, it only takes one or two to say yes, and then you can take that grant money and…

10. Order from First Book! I cannot speak more highly of First Book, its team and its mission. The marketplace is a game-changer for teachers and schools who care about getting great books into the hands of kids!

11. Join Project LIT Community. We’re a growing group of passionate teachers and students who are committed to flooding our schools and communities with diverse books. While we come from elementary and high schools, urban and rural districts, we’re unified in our belief that this is THE work that matters.

As soon as you complete our chapter leader application, we’ll send you a bunch of checklists and resources to help you get started. From there, we have an amazing community of educators across the country ready to offer support and inspiration, whether it’s sharing/swapping books, boosting your Donors Choose Project, or providing words of encouragement in our Facebook group and Twitter chats (#ProjectLITchat).

Over the past year, teachers and students have launched Project LIT chapters in more than 150 schools in 35 states, and we’re just getting started! Don’t hesitate to reach out if you’d like to learn more about our grassroots movement.

12. Start small, but start somewhere. Change happens one book at a time, and in a couple of years, you and your students will be able to look back at the journey and be proud of what you have accomplished together!

That’s all I’ve got for now. Thanks so much for reading! Please reach out via email (jarred.amato@gmail.com) or Twitter (@jarredamato) with any questions or comments!

Best-Selling Author Jason Reynolds, Parnassus Books and Project LIT promote reading at Lipscomb University

8Lipscomb University’s College of Education, in partnership with Parnassus Books, hosted award-winning, bestselling author Jason Reynolds as part of the Lipscomb Literacy: Building Equity & Engagement series on April 10.

The visit saw widespread support and participation from area schools with around 600 middle school and high school students in attendance to hear Reynolds talk about the importance of reading and telling your story.


Students had an opportunity to share and discuss their thoughts about Reynolds work prior to the main event through a book club session with the Project LIT Community in Beaman Library. The session included small group discussion of Reynolds’ “Long Way Down.” Project LIT Community began in 2016 when founder Jarred Amato, inspired by an article he read in The Atlantic about “book deserts,” worked with his Maplewood High School students to start a movement to quench the lack of books.

“The initial goal was to increase book access in Nashville. It has evolved from that to providing access to more diverse books, more culturally relevant books and great books in particular, and to promote a love of reading in our communities,” explained Amato.

“Simply increasing book access without focusing on the quality of the books or increasing excitement about reading isn’t going to solve the problem. The goal is to create a community of lifelong readers at all levels and bring people together for conversations about books,” said Amato.

You can read the entire article here. You can also check out last week’s blog post, “How do you measure the impact of an author visit?”

Thanks so much for reading, and be sure to check out our #ProjectLITchat tonight. 7 ET/6 CT! ALL are welcome!

How do you measure the impact of an author visit?

In urban school districts, money is always tight. Teachers across the country, from Nashville to the Bronx, Denver to D.C., are repeatedly told that there’s no room in the budget for new books or field trips. Author visits? Forget about it.

(It’s funny, though, that there always seems to be room for test-prep programs and “turnaround” consultants who are ready to a) take credit for any student growth, even if they had no role in that success and b) place blame on schools and teachers for failing to “implement with fidelity” when test scores remain flat. But that’s a topic for another day…)

If, by chance, teachers are encouraged to submit a proposal for an opportunity their students unequivocally need and deserve, there’s almost always a catch: “That sounds great, but…how will you measure its impact?”

Last week, thanks to the leadership and generosity of Lipscomb University and Parnassus Books, 635 Nashville students spent 75 minutes listening to Jason Reynolds (yes, THAT Jason Reynolds) share one story after another. Stories about his childhood and family, about his relationship with reading and writing, about his obstacles and challenges, about his hopes and dreams. Stories that our students could relate to and identify with, stories that made us laugh and cry, stories that inspired us to do better and be more.

No one in that auditorium wanted it to end. No one in that auditorium questioned its significance. Hundreds of readers and writers were born that morning. Hundreds of children were seen that morning. And heard. And loved. And affirmed. And inspired.

And yet, I can still hear the critics…

“That sounds great, but…how will you measure its impact?”

Here’s the answer I’d like to give those critics: You can’t! And if you’re the kind of person who needs to justify giving our students these life-changing experiences by connecting it to some test score or reading level, then we probably don’t need to be friends.

However, I recognize that people deserve to know that their money is being spent wisely, that if they’re going to reach out to Jason Reynolds or Kwame Alexander or Nic Stone, it’s going to be worth it.

And that’s the reason I wanted to write this post – to show, through a series of photos and student responses, the impact of an author visit. The impact of Jason Reynolds.

From he left to right, top to bottom: Rodrea, Jakaylia, Angel, Demontre, Jay, David, Calvin, and Selena.

(If, by the end, after reading everything our students have to say about the experience, you’re still not convinced, go back and read it again …)

TUESDAY, APRIL 10: 7:15 am

Our new t-shirts and hoodies arrived in just in time! We met in the cafeteria at 7:15 and boarded the bus to Lipscomb University by 7:30. Shout to Coach Broome for driving us!

8:00-9:15 am

We received a warm welcome upon our arrival at Lipscomb University! Prior to the author event, we coordinated a Project LIT Book Club with pre-service teachers that included a get-to-know you icebreaker (quiz-quiz-trade), small-group discussion of Long Way Down, anagram competition, and, of course, trivia!

Lipscomb also provided breakfast and Bison swag bags for our students, and their students and faculty went above and beyond to make us feel welcomed!

Thanks to Lipscomb for making our students feel like VIP!
Discuss Long Way Down and learn more about college life? Win-win!






Can we talk about that ending?!

9:15-10:00 am

Walk across campus to prepare for the main event…JASON REYNOLDS.

Did you know that you can order Project LIT t-shirts and hoodies online?! And that they were designed by De’Sean, who’s featured in the middle of this photo?


10:00-11:15 am

The event started with an announcement from Lipscomb’s Julie Simone: Every student in the audience was going home with their own copy of Ghost!

If you haven’t read Ghost yet, what are you waiting for?!

For the next 75 minutes, 1,300 eyes were glued to Jason Reynolds, hanging on his every word…

The faces in the crowd say it all!

11:15-11:30 am

Time for photos, autographs, and some heart-to-heart conversations.

Real men read.
When Jason Reynolds speaks, we listen!

11:30 am-12:30 pm

Lunch on campus!

1:00 pm

Back to school, where we reflected on the day and began writing our thank you letters.


There are dozens more, just like this one!




I had students complete a reflection via Google Forms. Here’s what they had to say:

QUESTION #1: What did you think of Jason Reynolds’ talk? How did it inspire or encourage you?


  • I loved how he wasn’t afraid to be his self, how he wasn’t a snobby author. He inspired me to write my own Jason Reynolds poems.
  • I think Jason’s words touched a lot of people and it most definitely shocked me. I didn’t think the books he wrote were actual stories he had been through or seen firsthand.
  • I related to him a whole lot. It inspired me to actually take my time and read.
  • It gave me another view on life, and it inspired me to do what I love.
  • I really enjoyed his story about his childhood and how he grew up. It inspired me to keep going in my life even when bad things happen.
  • I think it was a great message for me to hear because it reminds me of the city I live in now.
  • I think it was awesome to meet him, and it words were very inspirational to me. Everything he said was true and funny. It encouraged me to get myself prepared early. His message really touched a lot of people and he spoke about things most people don’t want to.
  • It don’t matter where you’re from you, you can make it.
  • We kind of had a similar mindset. That there weren’t books set out for me to read that showcased how I lived or how I grew up. It was always the same character description. For example, blue eyes, brown or blonde straight hair, things like that. I’d look at the book and just say to myself, “I know I won’t be able to relate to these characters,” so I stopped reading those books. Then, through Project LIT, I found books that I could relate to. Most are Jason’s books (yeah they are usually written from a boy’s POV, but I can still relate). That’s some of how he has inspired me.
  • I liked it because it was real, and he was being completely honest.
  • I loved how real and open he was with us. It really opened my eyes.

QUESTION #2: Overall, what has it been like to meet and interact with Nic Stone and Jason Reynolds? How did they change your perspective on reading and writing? On life?

Angel Nic Jason
Angel with Nic Stone and Jason Reynolds!
  • They have made me want to become a writer. To write more than I already do. I didn’t know it was possible until I met people who have made it.
  • Overall, after meeting Jason and Nic, I feel that reading is more than just reading about a story. Books have deeper meanings and like Jason does with his books, he wants you to use your imagination and create your own ending.
  • It felt like a dream! My whole life I wanted to meet an author because I love to write.
  • I never thought that I would actually meet real-life authors and it was cool to have conversations with them as if we were their friends.
  • Jason makes me want to read more because of the struggle he had without reading (until the age of 17).
  • Jason started off reading late in life. He gave up, but he started back. Like his success story isn’t perfect.
  • They were both awesome and meeting them was cool. They make we want to read more.
  • Well, I’ve always loved reading but I didn’t care too much about writing. Once I heard them, I was a bit encouraged to try writing to see how I would do.
  • They inspired me to write more and be great at doing it
  • THEY ARE BOTH MY FAVORITES! I love them both equally. They put a lot of things in perspective for me and I am going to continue to write regardless. It won’t matter if others don’t understand it or don’t like it. I won’t stop.
  • They were just like us. They weren’t already handed this stuff. They had to work.
  • It encouraged me to write more and made me feel that my feelings and ideas do matter.

QUESTION #3: What does Project LIT Community mean to you?

  • Project LIT has become a big part of my life. I love representing Project LIT and doing everything I can to help.
  • Project LIT means I’m making a difference in other people’s lives by being able to help others come together through the power of literature.
  • Project LIT means a lot to me. It’s a place where someone who feels alone can fit right in.
  • Project LIT to me means raising awareness to reading and literacy. Showing that reading can be fun along with the benefits that come with it.
  • Project LIT means a lot to me, because we are really making a huge difference little by little. I like how we got different schools to create their own chapters. I believe we could make a change if we keep going.
  • A worldwide book club to help kids in need receive and love books.
  • It means a lot to me because just where we have gone. We have made it so far from where we were at the beginning. We are making a change and it is special to know I’m helping do that.
  • Project LIT gives us a chance to give back and I’ve always wanted to get into the community to see what I could do for them. I know I’m very fortunate to have things, so I would like for others to have the same opportunities I’ve had. This project is one of my proudest accomplishments and I’m grateful I got to be a part of this.
  • It’s a way for me to help people access books.
  • Project LIT is everything to me. I am always bringing up the project and activities that we have coming up, because it’s a really great program that is 100% student led and planned. Of course I love Amato and many others that have helped it take off. It’s not just about reading, either. We have athletes to who read to children proudly and deliver books to centers without hesitation. The stereotype is that athletes are dumb and can’t read and that all they can do is hold a ball or run when that isn’t the case. We have a mother in the program. She might be young, but she’s super bright and intelligent and once again not the typical stereotype. Young, dumb, and someone who doesn’t want anything for herself. In this program, you have the quietest students you know bouncing around, laughing and smiling and being themselves because they are in an environment where NOBODY JUDGES ANYBODY! That’s why Project LIT is everything to me and more. I could honestly go on forever.
  • It’s a way to give back to others, and help us expand our reading and others.
  • Everything.

CLOSING THOUGHTS: Thanks to everyone, especially Jason, for an experience we’ll never forget. Teachers, hopefully this blog helps you and your students as you continue to fight the good fight.

Additionally, you can learn more about Project LIT Community and our inaugural Project LIT Summit here. Finally, don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions via email (jarred.amato@gmail.com) or Twitter (@jarredamato). Have a wonderful week, and as always, happy reading!