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The classroom library: Getting more students to read

If you teach reading or language arts in any capacity in a public school, one of the most dynamic resources you can offer your students is a classroom library.

No, not a bookshelf with copies and class sets of school bought books and ancillary materials from past (and now ancient) textbook adoptions.

But actual individual books. Varied in nature. Spanning multiple genres. Written by people of various backgrounds.

Books that have been read. Dog-eared. Annotated. Crinkled spines.

Books that you are familiar with so when a student asks about them, you can discuss why that book has merit.

Books that you don’t mind go missing for long periods of time because it is possibly being read by someone who may never have had a chance to read it before.

As a veteran teacher, I have always had a small shelf of books that I have read and taught on display for students to peruse. However, one of the wonderful aspects of being a veteran teacher is gleaning new ideas from new young teachers. One of those was creating an authentic reading library in the classroom that possessed a wide variety of texts that students were allowed to borrow from and read.

So, I expanded the small bookshelf into something bigger.

All of those books in my house still in boxes that need to be given away? They came to my classroom.

When the school library started replacing texts with new titles, I took the older books and placed them in my classroom.

When I went to Goodwill, I scanned the books and purchased ones that I had read before or had some sort of link to what students might be interested in.

When I go to a public library, I go to the section sometimes called “Friends of the Library” where they sell donated texts for small amounts of money as a fundraiser and put them in my classroom. Almost 100 titles have come from the Greene County Public Library in Greensboro, GA, my hometown of 4,000 people. It resides on the same block as my childhood home where my grandmother still lives. Ian McEwan, Mark Twain, J. M. Coetzee, Frank McCourt, Michael Chabon, Shel Silverstein, Somerset Maugham, and others have traveled from that small town to my classroom.

Why do this? Because students need to see teachers enmeshed in the very subject they teach and see those same teachers as students still hungry to learn more and willing to follow curiosities. It expands the workable “canon” of the course. It provides opportunity to create assignments based on choices and independent initiative.

Students need to feel safe enough to come to the “library” and pick something that might interest them. And as a teacher, I need to be fine with them taking a book and possibly dog-earing it more, crumpling more of the pages, or even not returning it.

But hopefully, it will get read by that student and maybe others.

More and more teachers I know in my own school and in other places have classroom libraries. Students notice this. It shows them that reading is one of the most authentically cool things to do, and what active independent reading does for students in other academic endeavors cannot be measured by standardized tests.

Besides, it shows students how nerdy I really am.

And I am proud of being a nerd.

Stuart Egan

Stuart Egan is an English teacher at West Forsyth High School in Winston Salem, North Carolina.