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.

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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!

Author: Jarred Amato

High school English teacher who is passionate about improving TN education, one book at a time.

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