The Design of an Elementary Classroom Library and What It Means for Your Book 

Part One of a Two-Part Series (Part Two in December)

Every year, in early September, those precious “First Day of School” photographs pop up on our social media feeds. But weeks before that exciting first day, Elementary teachers are busy setting up their classrooms to create warm, inviting, print-rich, safe spaces for learning. 

A teacher’s goal is to carefully design their classroom to run like a well-oiled machine. In order to do this, teachers have several aspects to consider. For example, how to best arrange the physical space (tables, meeting areas, technology), which educational resources work best on a bulletin board, versus resources that should be within a student’s reach. What classroom routines do I want to establish and what logistics support those routines? For example, where should I store writing notebooks so that they are easily accessible to students, allowing for a seamless transition to writing every day?

Arguably, the most important element of any elementary classroom is its library. Teachers give much consideration to both the functionality and the content of a classroom library. In order to maximize functionality, teachers aim to create a well-organized, user-friendly, inviting display. Most of the teachers I work with have their books organized in clearly labeled baskets, bins, shelves, etc. As seen in the photo of book bin labels, anything goes when it comes to sorting book collections into categories! It really depends on the volume and variety of books they have available. 

Book bin labels help students find stories they’ll enjoy.
Labels ©Heinemann, a division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Although most of the logistics and classroom routines established in September might not change much throughout the school year, it’s recommended that the classroom library does change. In order to keep students engaged with the books available to them within their classroom, it’s important that the library stays fresh and relevant. There are many ways to update a classroom library, and it’s not just about adding an author’s newest picture book to an existing basket, or changing nonfiction books as the class moves through topics. Teachers often re-organize books into different categories, or add a new series – pumping up the class for the “big reveal.” In my experience as a former first grade teacher, the most sought-after books lived in “personalized” class baskets: “Mrs. Demers’ Favorite Books or Favorite Authors,” “This week’s read alouds,” “Table One’s Book Recommendations,” “Our Mentor Texts for Persuasive Writing,” “We’re Authors too! Books by Classmates.”

Libraries are often set up in a little nook of the classroom with amenities like a plush rug, rocking chair, bean bag chair (pre-Covid), individual carpet squares, quiet classical music playing, a device with audio books, a small table with a lamp. Key words: user-friendly and inviting. But even with a hundred colorfully labeled baskets, vending machines, foot massagers, and a trampoline, this adorable reading nook is for naught, if it’s not bursting with culturally responsive, highly-engaging texts in a variety of children’s literature genres. Curating a classroom library as such is essential (and often out of pocket!) It’s also a topic worthy of its own post.

In addition to the abundance of high-interest stories rich with vocabulary and fascinating facts, teachers also have to account for the independent reading levels of each student in their classroom (which can run the gamut!) and have a collection of books that span reading levels.

When it comes to the extremely complicated science of how humans learn to read, researchers and leaders in the field agree that matching kids to texts at their independent reading levels is critical. A text is considered an independent reading level if the student can read it with at least 95% (some say 96%) accuracy, fluency, and comprehension. A common term teachers use with students is “Just Right” books. Researchers agree that “reading periods” during the school day should include (amongst so many other things!) ample time for students to read at their independent level. Butt in chair! 

Lettered reading level designations help students choose “just-right” books for their reading levels.

This doesn’t mean students are at their desks, reading silently by themselves. It means that even when a teacher is next to them, the student is still doing a majority of the reading “work.” The book has to be accessible so that the student can decode the words, reread for meaning and fluency, and retell what happened in the story. The teacher sits alongside, coaching, “Try the first sound” or “Why do you think the character said that?” Similar to a track coach running alongside you, reminding you to pace yourself.

Oh my gosh, where am I going with this and why would a kid lit author care about any of it? This is where readability comes in. Whether you’re writing picture books, early readers, chapter books, or middle grade — readability plays a part in the many ways your book might find it’s home in an elementary classroom library. “But, how?” you ask. You’ll have to check back to find out. The answer is currently tucked away in my “Riveting Topics for December Blog” basket.

Share in the Comments:  “I’d love my book to live in the ________ basket.”

13 comments

  1. Great piece, Keri! Some of this I remember from visiting my son’s classroom, but other things I did not know about. Very interesting!

    Like

  2. I’d like my published book (Lola Shapes the Sky) to live in the Books We Read Again and Again basket because it’s about misunderstandings, bullies, STEM (weather) and being yourself. As author’s we’re told to write books with multiple hooks but the basket logic makes me wonder . . . Hoping to have books in the HA! category

    Like

  3. I’d love my book to live in the, BOOKS WE READ AGAIN & AGAIN basket. As a retired library teacher I remember certain books that students waited to become available. Especially in 1st grade because students told others how much they loved the characters. This post makes me want to go back and categorize the manuscripts I have written. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh my goodness, I love this post! As a former second grade teacher, I am nodding along to ALL of this. My “Book Nook” was the most important part of the room – and I agonized over the design and organization!! 😉 So important.

    Liked by 1 person

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