In the Classroom
Classroom Library Beginner’s Guide
December 22, 2016
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Natalie Coleman

Cardboard Library


As a brand new teacher, fresh out of college and trying to build a classroom before even receiving my first paycheck, the only library I had to offer my students within my classroom walls was a cardboard box of all the age-appropriate books I owned. My entire collection consisted of a dozen or so books I’d accumulated during my adolescent literature class in college and a small handful of my own books I had read as a middle schooler years ago, many bearing my own juvenile signature—complete with a heart to dot the i—scrawled in the front cover.

For that first year, I lent books out of that cardboard box haphazardly, not even keeping track of who borrowed them, and the next year I started with an even smaller box of books to share. While our students are fortunate to have a hard-working librarian who provides them with access to great books, I still wanted to have books to share with them in our own room. My cardboard “library” just didn’t send the message I wanted to send in my classroom about how important and enjoyable reading is, so each year, I have worked toward the goal of building my library and refining how it’s organized and operated.

I still have a long way to go to have the classroom library I dream of sharing with my students, but I’ve come a long way from that original cardboard box and want to share some of what’s helped me most with other teachers building their own libraries.

Getting More Books

  • McKay’s—As Tennessee teachers, we are so lucky to have McKay’s in Nashville, Chattanooga, and Knoxville. (West Tennesseans, I’m sorry you’re left out. Believe me, this store is worth a road trip to Nashville!) At McKay’s you can buy used books at amazing prices. I’ve snagged multiple books for my classroom for nickels apiece, and $1-3 is a typical range for what I spend on individual books from the large selection of  young adult novels. You can also trade books for credit, and over the years, I’ve turned many old college textbooks and books I’ve finished reading into new-to-us books for our classroom. I’ve also had people occasionally donate books that I appreciated but that weren’t right for my students; taking those books to McKay’s has made those donations into books my students love reading.
  •—I discovered this website just this year, and I’ve already bought dozens of books for our class from the site for not much money at all. This website is a treasure of used books, with many popular young adult titles for under $4. Shipping is free for orders over $10, and you earn rewards as you spend. Hardcover books are often the same price as paperback copies, so I usually order the hardcover so they’ll last longer.
  • Scholastic—When I buy new books, I buy them from Scholastic. I can order them online with my Reading Club account and earn points for free books and can even earn more points when students and parents purchase books through Scholastic using our class code. I also love to go to Scholastic Warehouse sales and stock up on books at huge discounts. My favorite purchase from a warehouse sale is our class set of the entire Harry Potter series for only $35!

Keeping Books

  • Contact Paper—My favorite summer and winter break “school work” (that gives me an excuse to watch movies in my pajamas) is covering any newly purchased paperback books with contact paper. I’ve been doing this for several years now, and the few hours that it takes a couple times a year pays off by keeping the books nice. Many of the books in my original cardboard box library fell apart completely within the first few years, but since I’ve started using contact paper, even books that were a bit worn when I bought them used have lasted for years and are still holding up great.
  • Organization—Right now, my library is still small enough to organize by the basic genres of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, and I have a fourth category of “challenge” fiction books, which includes classics and higher-level books. I use different color stickers to indicate the genres and also write the first letter of the author’s name on the sticker so that I can keep the books in alphabetical order by author on the bookshelf. I learned after a few years that this method works best if I put the sticker on the book before I add the contact paper because the contact paper prevents both the sticker and the written letter from wearing off. Teachers with more extensive libraries than mine have more sophisticated organization systems with more genre categories, but this seems to work well for a smaller collection.
  • Documentation—There are all kinds of brilliant ideas out there for effective and efficient classroom library checkout, and I have tried a few, but I admit, I am horrible at being a classroom librarian. The best strategy for me has been creating a notebook for students to use to sign books in and out themselves. Here are the Classroom Library Info Sheet and Classroom Library Book Check Out Log I use. This system keeps me from having to oversee everything while still keeping documentation of who has each book. Periodically, I check my inventory (or have students help me) by checking off what’s on the shelf compared to the master list of books I keep. Using the letter stickers to keep the books in alphabetical order helps speed up this process. Now, I just use a spreadsheet to keep a master list of books that we have in our library, but I also recommend the Booksource app for teachers who are better at being classroom librarian than I am. Its barcode reader makes adding books to the class inventory as easy as snapping a picture, and it can be used for electronic check-out and check-in too.

An Always Growing Library

It may seem small to more seasoned teachers and book collectors, but I’m proud that our classroom books finally overflowed my two school-issued bookshelves this year and am excited for the challenge of figuring out what to do with all of the new books we get. What seems like a small start or a small addition will make a big difference over time, and the important thing is making our students’ lives more rich with literature, even just a few books at a time.

Natalie has taught seventh grade language arts at Shafer Middle School for six years and was named Shafer Teacher of the Year for 2013-14. She sponsors the school literature and arts magazine, was a TNCore Learning Leader for 2014-15, and has served on district planning committees and as part of the Mid-Cumberland CORE Region Teacher Roundtable Discussion. Natalie graduated from Vanderbilt University in 2009 and was awarded Peabody College’s Kevin Longinetti Award for Outstanding Secondary-Level Teaching. Outside of school, she tutors for Christian Women’s Job Corps of Middle Tennessee, where she has volunteered for seven years. She also serves as a Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellow, engaging her colleagues in providing classroom feedback to the Tennessee Department of Education on public education policy issues.

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