Photo: A selection of books from Irene Farmer's classroom library.
As a teacher, one of the most important things you can do is encourage your students to love reading. I still remember the excitement I felt when I saw the comfortable reading couch in my sixth-grade English teacher’s classroom, and that was more than 40 years ago! That lumpy couch signified that reading was a special activity, one to be cherished. My classmates and I would do whatever it took to earn “free reading” time.
Whether you’re a new teacher or nearing retirement, seeing a child learn how to find and enjoy a book can be magical. Since we’ve already tackled the best ways to build your collection, we thought it was time to offer advice on organizing and setting up your classroom library.
One caveat: There is no perfect classroom library. What works well one year might not be ideal the next, depending on your classroom makeup. Many teachers redo their libraries every few years, whether it’s because of an inspirational Pinterest post or finally getting that grant money. Shaped reached out to educators Andrew Wallace and Irene Farmer to pick their brains on how to make your library a go-to spot.
Best Ways to Organize a Classroom Library
1. Customize your collection
You know your students better than anyone and have insight on the individuals in your room. Be sure to include books that represent diversity in subject matter, authors, and illustrators.
“Make sure your students can see themselves in your book choices,” says Andrew Wallace, director of technology for South Portland Schools in Maine. “If you have newcomers to the country, find books that address that.”
2. Develop lifelong readers
The best libraries have a mixture of “reach” books that are challenging for the majority of your students, “just right” books that are mid-level, and “relax” books that kids have all-but-memorized, says Wallace. He encourages teachers to seek books at each level.
3. Find new funding sources
If you’ve used up the traditional methods, Wallace recommends checking out DonorsChoose, a site that lets teachers post classroom project requests and has been used by 86% of public schools.
“Most of the requests are for technology,” says Wallace, “so asking for books or shelves will make you stand out.”
4. Make it easy for students to navigate your library
Libraries with too many books can be difficult to navigate, especially for younger readers who might not know how to find what they like. Try spreading out books to different parts of the classroom. You’ll cut down on bottlenecks and make finding the right book a little easier.
5. Prune your collection regularly
You know that book with the peeling tape that keeps coming unglued? Let it go. Those books that were all the rage a few years ago but nobody reads now? Send ‘em to the archives! Get your students involved and ask for their help.
6. Arrange purposefully
“I have a display in my room filled with the books I’ve already read aloud,” says Irene Farmer, a first-grade teacher at Francis Wyman Elementary School in Burlington, Massachusetts. “Kids often want to read these later on their own. They love reading books that have already been read to them.” Farmer changes this display throughout the year, usually when she finishes a theme. The books reflect what the class is learning.
7. Try using browsing boxes to sort and organize books
Farmer has a small bin for each student that she fills with books they’ve read in small-group sessions with her. When she started teaching 25 years ago, she bought dishwashing bins at the dollar store, but over the years she’s replaced them with nicer bins.
“Once I get to know a student’s interests, I give them books to add to their browsing box,” she says.
8. Keep some books hidden
Especially in first-grade classrooms like Farmer’s, too many books stuffed onto the shelves can be overwhelming and messy. She puts books for future units in spots that students can’t access and pulls them out when she begins those units.
9. Keep updating your library
Interestingly, a book may suit your room one year and not the next, depending on what’s happening in the world or in your community. During the last year-and-a-half, Farmer added books with better racial diversity in response to what was happening around the country. “I’m constantly doing book gymnastics—shifting things around and mixing it up,” she says. Know that your library is fluid and you can rework it as needed.
10. Put a stamp on it
To make sure your books all come back to you, many teachers suggest writing or stamping your name inside. If you want to get fancy, you can put books into categories (fiction, chapter books, series, etc.) and use different colors or shapes for each category.
In the end, it comes down to developing a space that draws students in and makes them feel inspired to read.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.
Ignite the love of reading with HMH Reads, a solution that introduces students to a wide variety of high-quality fiction and nonfiction books.
For more information on organizing your classroom library, learn how to build a diverse classroom library.
Education Research Director, Core Literacy & Early Learning