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I’ve always loved the sense of newness and wonder brought about by a new school year. The fresh start it promises. August and September are a time for trying out new things. Setting in place new systems. Reordering and reorganizing.
One area I dedicated many hours to reordering and reorganizing was my classroom library, or book nook as I often referred to it. A cozy area filled with carefully curated and displayed texts.
In my classroom the library was more than a simple home for books. It functioned as a main component of my literacy program. As such, the library needed to be efficient and aligned to my work with children. It deserved my careful attention.
One system that has garnered popularity these past few decades, involves organizing classroom books by lexical difficulty / reading level.
This system works well in some classrooms. As it is well-aligned with certain teaching methods (such as guided reading) and is easy for students to learn and keep orderly.
However, the leveling of classroom libraries has received strong push back in recent years.
Leveling is often criticized for its reliance on lexical difficulty (based on sentence structure and vocabulary level), and its lack of attention to how students’ prior knowledge of subject and genre mediate reading comprehension.
Leveling has also receive criticism for its tendency to exclude nonfiction and non-narrative texts for readers placed at lower levels. Moreover, concerns with leveling’s possible detrimental effects on reading motivation and reader identity also exist.
For more on the debate surrounding the use of leveled libraries and leveling readers, see:
Now, I’ll admit it. When I moved to an organizational system that went beyond ‘throw all the books on a shelf,’ leveling was the first one I used.
But, over time, and especially as my ELA practice grew and evolved into something more authentic, I didn’t feel that this system facilitated the inquiry methods of Christine Leland, Mitzi Lewison, Katie Wood Ray, Jeff Anderson, and Ralph Fletcher that I had begun to favor. Nor did it allow me to quickly pull touchtone and mentor texts for my mini-lessons and one-on-one work with readers and writers.
So, I began to search for other ways to organize my library shelves. Ways that would help me plan more efficiently and allow my students more opportunity to explore and learn.
Through my search (and a bit of trial and error), I found four systems for organizing my classroom library that aligned well with my focus on inquiry. These include:
Below, I explain each of these systems for how to organize a classroom library to support inquiry. I also provide examples to help teachers get started organizing their own classroom libraries using one or more of these systems. (Yes, they can and should be combined for maximum potential!)
4 Systems for Organizing Your Classroom Library that Support Inquiry: Topic, Genre, Author, Craft
How to Organize a Classroom Library for Topic-Based Inquiries
When thinking about inquiry in classrooms, topic-based inquiries are most common and likely come to mind first. In topic-based inquiries texts function as vehicles for learning content.
Here, the focus of study is on information. Therefore, books are generally categorized by topic or theme. Organizing in this way allows students to easily find books that match their area of interest. Moreover, it encourages the reading of multiple texts containing multiple perspectives on the same subject to build expertise and better facilitate critical reflection.
Organizing a classroom library by topic is fairly easy to do, and could include overarching categories like animals, nature, dinosaurs, community, U.S. history. Depending on the quantity of books in a particular category, it is also possible to refine some categories further. For instance, animals could be broken down into classifications such as mammals, reptiles, sea life. Or more specific labeling might be used; bears, raccoons, snakes.
Organizing by theme takes a bit more work, but can be highly useful as well. For example, classification by theme might include books about friendship, loss, overcoming hardship, etc.
Books can also be organized based on the insights they provide about a particular question or angle the class wants to explore. For example, say a fifth-grade class was reading about early exploration in their history text, and wanted to build a more nuanced understanding of Christopher Columbus and his “discovery” of the new world, including indigenous perspectives.
A teacher could put together a topical bin of texts for the class that included some of the following:
- Encounter by Jane Yolen
- Morning Girl by Michael Dorris
- Where Do You Think You’re Going, Christopher Columbus? by Jean Fritz
- Who Was Christopher Columbus by Bonnie Bader
- Excerpts fromThe Four Voyages by Christopher Columbus (translated by J. M. Cohen)
Notice that suggestions for this bin contain a variety of books. This includes primary source documents from Christopher Columbus’s own journals, nonfiction informational texts, and historical fiction picture books and short novels. Including a variety of texts and text types allows for the building of deeper understanding.
Furthermore, while many believe that only non-fiction books should be included in topic-based inquiries, I find that the inclusion of well-written realistic and historical fiction (especially those that include child or adolescent characters) helps personalize topics for students. It allows them to experience the events or phenomenon alongside fictional characters. To build emotional connections and understanding through story.
HOW TO ORGANIZE A CLASSROOM LIBRARY FOR Genre-BASED INQUIRIES
Unlike topic-based inquiries, genre-based inquiries move away from a focus on subject matter, and instead highlight text structure and purpose.
Study of genre helps readers build understanding of why and how particular texts can and should be read. For instance, while a narrative is often read cover-to-cover, readers can use headings in informational text to skim and scan for the kinds of information they are interested in.
Furthermore, genre-based inquires help novice writers by providing text structures and devices they can draw on in their own writing. For example, a writer might use a narrative arc to plan their story for maximum impact. They might also learn to use a compare – contrast format to structure an essay. Or a problem – solution format to construct a persuasive piece.
Moreover, study of genres helps young readers and writers internalize what is canonical to (or always present in) a particular type of writing, and what is sometimes or never included.
When organizing a classroom library by genre, some of the genres I like to include are:
- Realistic Fiction
- Historical Fiction
- Fantasy (high fantasy, low fantasy, animal fantasy)
- Science Fiction
- Traditional Literature (myths, legends, tall tales, folk tales, fairy tales)
- Personal Narrative / Slice-of-Life Stories
- Biography / Autobiography
- Literary Nonfiction
- Informational Text (‘all about’ books, compare – contrast books, feature articles, procedural texts)
- Persuasive Text (commentary, reviews, persuasive letters)
What does this look like in practice? A genre bin on Animal Fantasy might include, for example, some of the following:
HOW TO ORGANIZE A CLASSROOM LIBRARY FOR Author-BASED INQUIRIES
As the name suggests, author-based inquiries involve sorting books by their author. This system can also include the use of text series as a means for classification, for most books belonging to the same series were written by the same author.
Therefore, a teacher might place all books written by J. K. Rowling into the same bin, and label that bin with the author’s name. In contrast, she may, instead, chose to create a bin for books within the Harry Potter series; labeling that bin with both the series and the author’s name.
Classifying books by author does offer several unique affordances.
First, it allows for an examination of an author’s full body of work. Such examination encourages students to notice similarities in style that can be named and later taken up in their own writing.
Second, sorting books by author highlights the fact that books are written by real people with real lives and real process for writing that can that be studied.
When creating author bins for my classroom library, I include not only books written by each author, but also information on the author and, when possible, insight into their own writing processes.
What does this look like in practice? An author bin on Kate Messner might include, for instance, some of the following:
- Over and Under the Pond by Kate Messner
- The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z by Kate Messner
- Ranger in Time: Rescue on the Oregon Trail by Kate Messner
- Marty Mcguire by Kate Messner
- The Seventh Wish by Kate Messner
- A printed copy of Kate Messner’s picture and a link to her website
- A link to the video podcast Virtual Author Visit: Kate Messner Talks About the Writing Process
HOW TO ORGANIZE A CLASSROOM LIBRARY FOR Craft-BASED INQUIRIES
Similar to author-based inquiries, craft-based inquires highlight author’s craft moves for study and eventual use in children’s own writing. However, in the case of craft-based inquires, study is not limited to a single author’s enactment. Instead, a multitude of texts by various authors are often drawn on for each craft study.
Of the four systems for organizing shared here, classification by craft is probably the most time-consuming to enact. Great books tend to make use of many craft moves that could be studied. As such, narrowing and labeling take time.
Classifying books in this way, however, allows for quick and easy identification of strong mentor texts that showcase particular craft moves. This saves teachers a tremendous amount of time down the road.
When organizing the classroom library by craft, some of the craft moves I like to showcase include:
- Use of Dialogue (external and internal)
- Unique Dialogue Tagging
- Great Leads / Intriguing Beginnings
- Strong Setting of the Scene (world building, tone / mood)
- A Playfulness with Time (flashbacks, flash forwards)
- Strong Character Development
- Great Description (show, don’t tell)
- Use of Sensory Detail
- Humor / Sarcasm
- Circular Endings
- Lingering / Satisfying Endings
- Use of Strong Emotion / Feelings
- Use of Quotes
- Use of Facts, Supporting Data
- Images, Diagrams, Charts, Graphs
- Inclusion of Headings and Subheadings
- Powerful and Detailed Climatic Moments
- Solid use of Rising or Falling Action
- Poetic Language (simile, metaphor, alliteration, onomatopoeia, repetition, hyperbole)
- Beautiful Language / Concrete Word Choice
- Point of View (first, second, third)
- Use of sentence structure variation
- Interesting use of Punctuation
What does this look like in practice? A craft bin exploring Intriguing Beginnings might include, for example, some of the following:
Putting it All Together
For those starting out, I suggest focusing initially on only one system for organizing a classroom library to support inquiry. Topic, genre, author, or craft. However, as each system offers its own unique opportunities for inquiry, I suggest eventually moving towards implementing a combination of systems.
What does this look like in practice?
I start with a set of printable labels. I print or hand-write the categories I wish to use for each of the four systems onto individual labels.
So, for genre, I might start by printing 10 labels for Historical Fiction. Then I might print 10 for Realistic Fiction. Then 10 more for Fairy Tale. And so on, and so forth.
Once I have labels printed for each category within each system, I add the appropriate labels to the back cover of my books. When I’m finished, each book has multiple labels, and can be easily classified in multiple ways.
In terms of my classroom library display, I generally have one system in use on my book shelves at a time. Usually author or genre, although topic sometimes takes center-stage. Bins with interchangeable labels work best here.
I then keep extra bins aside that I label and fill with texts based on my current curriculum foci. For example, if we are studying a particular genre or set of craft moves, my extra bins are labeled and filled to reflect this. Or if we are studying a particular social studies or science topic, bins appear for these areas.
Because my books are already labeled with categories for each of my four organizational systems, I am able to remain flexible and easily move between them. This helps me meet the needs of my students and my curriculum at any given moment.
NEED BINS & LABELS TO HELP YOU ORGANIZE? Here are some suggestions:
VOICE YOUR THOUGHTS
We love hearing stories from the field. What systems have you put into place to organize your classroom library? What tips for success do you have? Share your thoughts below.
Additional Resources FOR how to organize a classroom library
Looking for more information and tips to help with organizing your classroom library? Check out these additional sources on the subject: