Teaching reading? ELA teachers are constantly searching for new inspiration. How can we get more students to read? How can we create a warm, inviting literacy culture? How can we utilize librarians to better our instruction? How can we adorn our classrooms with bookish decor?
I just so happen to know someone who is an inspiration in these regards. My good friend, Brooke, whom I taught with in the English department for years and who now has been promoted to Queen Bee of the Library, has a knack for understanding teenagers. She has transformed our school’s library from a desolate place where quiet was always enforced and books were rarely checked out to a safe haven for many students — readers and nonreaders alike.
In today’s post, I’ve asked Brooke four questions about how ELA teachers can apply her ideas in their own classrooms to motivate students and revolutionize their reading culture. Interested? Let’s get started.
COLLABORATING WITH YOUR LIBRARIAN
Librarians are such an underutilized resource in many schools. What are some specific ways ELA teachers can partner with librarians to increase interest and engagement with books?
Something I have done successfully with the ELA department is to create programming to encourage interaction among classes and the library all year long. I borrowed the idea of the Million Pages of Books Project from another school in Illinois and worked with teachers to give students 10 minutes every day to read in class. The goal was to collectively read 1 million pages as a school throughout the year. We met and exceeded this goal before the school year was over. This accomplishment was exciting and encouraged students who traditionally wouldn’t read to actually pick up a book. Dedicated class reading time was the key to this success.
Book talks are another key aspect of increasing readership and engaging students. Simply talking quickly and briefly about a book with students is the most effective way of enticing them. I partner with teachers in all content areas by offering to come into their classrooms and talk about books I’ve read.
I’ve also started making One Minute Book Reviews on my YouTube channel which teachers can use in their classrooms when promoting reading, or students can view if they need a book recommendation when I’m not available.
With some classes, I’ve also been invited to give a lesson on how to read through critical lenses (for instance – feminist, multicultural, and socioeconomic). After introducing the concept of the reading lens, I make book recommendations and talk about which books would be interesting to view through various lenses.
With the Family and Consumer Science department, we do an Editable Books Festival every year. Students read books and then create cakes based on some aspect of said books. Teachers then vote on the best cakes, and the winning students get a prize from the library (usually a donated gift card). One thing we haven’t tried yet is to have students read a book for their English class and make their cake based on that book. Cakes and books…what’s better than that?
This year, we are moving our school’s writing lab, which an English teacher was able to have funded through grants, to the library. Selected writing students will “staff” the lab, and any student will be able to come in and get help with their writing all day, every day. Holding this in the library is another way I can collaborate with both teachers and students.
The more comfortable students are in the library, the more likely they are to hang there, which grants more opportunities for me to introduce them to good books and reading, something I didn’t get until I was in college.
CREATING A READING CULTURE
Twenty-first century learners are surrounded by technology. Sometimes, print books don’t call to them in the same ways as video games, television, and cel phones. Still, we need students to have a desire for reading and an appreciation for good books. Since you have become librarian, students want to be in the library. They want to check out books. It’s infectious. What have you done to improve the culture and atmosphere of the library in ways that ELA teachers could replicate in their classrooms?
The first changes I made to our library were cosmetic. Simple paint and redesign of furniture was enough to make students want to be here. That was the first step.
After making the space more comfortable and similar to book stores, students felt more inclined to simply hang out. After a period of time, I got to know students and felt more comfortable approaching them with book recommendations. This was the second step. Teachers can replicate this in their classrooms by simply getting to know students and making book suggestions based on that knowledge.
Teachers can also demonstrate that they are readers. Students who see teachers reading will be more inclined to read; this is simple modeling. Teachers can talk about the books they like and explain why they like them. Sometimes all a student needs is someone to express excitement over a book.
I also find that students are often tired of staring at a screen. Of course they love their devices, but many of them express that they like actual, physical books because their eyes are strained. Teachers can accommodate like I do in the library by encouraging both digital and actual books.
I borrow many ideas from other schools and libraries, and I got a great idea from the public library in my city, which ELA teachers could try in their own classrooms. We started Blind Date with a Book around Valentine’s Day a few years ago. We wrapped various genres of books in newspaper, threw a quick, enticing blurb on the front, and invited students to “date” a book by reading the blurb and deciding if they wanted to try it. This activity was a great way for avid readers to try a new genre, and for non-readers to try a book period.
Blind Date with a Book started as a simple month-long program during February, but after a while, I started to get donated brand new books from publishing companies (you can do this, too) that I could actually give to students to have as their own. Eventually, this event turned into an annual event consisting of one-minute speed dating sessions. At the end of the sessions, students selected their “date,” which they were able to keep after unwrapping. In a low-income school, this was extremely well-received, and students were shocked that they were able to keep a book.
Another way I have slowly changed the culture of our library to make it more inviting is to hold “Dance Party Fridays.” Students and teachers know that when they visit on these days, they will be welcomed by friendly, upbeat music to usher in the weekend.
Culture changes take time and effort. And they take buy-in from teachers. We don’t have every teacher here ready to encourage books to students, but we started with the ELA department and, progressively, other departments or other teachers have started to demonstrate that they are also readers. Students notice. This takes work, but it’s worth it.
BUILDING A CLASSROOM LIBRARY
Many ELA teachers are trying to grow their classroom libraries to promote choice reading. What advice do you have for them in terms of how they can do this without spending hundreds if not thousands of dollars from their own pockets?
Building a classroom library is great but often difficult to keep track of. When I was an English teacher many years ago, I tried to build my library with only books I already owned. I had many of them because I was a reader, but if teachers give out their own books, they cannot expect to get them back (or have them returned in good condition). This was not a great classroom library, and soon diminished.
I then started keeping track of which students borrowed which books, and that helped to get books returned, though it took time and effort. To add to my collection, I became good friends with used bookstores, Goodwill, and garage sales. I also found using Amazon for used books was great because I could get many of them for between one penny and five dollars.
Also, I’ve become very efficient at writing grants, and I buy many books through grant monies. Grants are time consuming, but completely worthwhile because they are without strings and often give complete spending freedom to the recipient. Many of the books I currently have in our library are fully funded by grants.
I simply Google what I’m looking for and often find my grants through basic searches. There is a surprising amount of money available to teachers who apply. The time investment is worth the money received.
DECORATING WITH BOOKISH DECOR
What are some creative ways ELA teachers can decorate their classrooms with bookish decor? Even big kids find inspiration in creative environments!
Something fun we did here was donate old weeded library books to the art department, and art students made book art out of them. We display this book art throughout the library and have many students (and teachers) who comment on it frequently.
We also built a Christmas tree out of old books, which was festive and required many students to collaborate on designing and creating it.
Pinterest is great for ideas on “bookish” types of decorations for the library or classrooms. A Spanish teacher in our school found a great idea to make a clock out of books that had numbers as tiles, and we are working on replicating this idea in the library.
We also have taken off covers of old books and used them to make a wall for separation purposes.
On a grant, we got a vinyl cutter and a heat press. This tool has allowed us to cut stickers into various designs, and we have used them to write author quotes, among other literary things, and stick them to the walls, windows, and doors.
I am lucky enough to have a great library media assistant who is always thinking of ways to bring teachers and students into the library. One of the ideas she had this last year was to create a “Shelfie” wall. She sent an email to all teachers to take a selfie with their bookshelves in the background. Many teachers did this, and we printed out and posted their pictures to a wall in the library. Students enjoyed seeing these, as one might imagine that many (most) of the Shelfies were their goofy teachers making goofy faces in front of their books. This year, we are going to open it up to students, and we will take their pictures and post them on the wall in the same fashion.
I also ask teachers for their favorite books. I print out book covers and fasten them onto cardstock with the teacher’s name below. I then display the teacher’s favorite books throughout the library as a decoration.
Little activities and displays like these are sometimes incentive enough for students to come into the library, which is a first step in them reading.
Brooke Nelson has worked as an adjunct instructor at a few Illinois Universities, an English teacher at a few Illinois high schools, and is now a happy library media specialist and a Google certified educator. She has degrees in English, C & I, and Library Science. Brooke has 1.5 children and lives in the cornfields of Illinois with her family.