I just spent the first two days of school with my new group of 5th graders. We are already on our way to growing into a community of readers. Over the past two days, I observed my fifth graders choosing and reading books from browsing boxes set at each table. I also spent a lot of time listening to their conversations to learn more about them.
In a couple days, I’m going to give our first book choice lesson of the year. Years ago when I set students free in the classroom library prior to teaching about choice, I noticed some students didn’t know where to start and seemed a bit overwhelmed by all of the reading options. This caused some of them to just grab a book without previewing it, which in many cases led to unengaged reading or repeated book abandonment. Because of this, I started explicitly teaching students how to choose books.
Two Questions to Consider When Teaching Book CHoice
Interest: Does this book look like it will interest me?
Readability: Do I understand what I’m reading?
Inviting students to ask themselves these two questions (or versions of the questions) when considering whether or not to select and stick with a book has the power to guide them in an authentic, transferrable way each time choice arises.
The way these questions are framed and explained in the lower and upper grades will vary. For example, when thinking about question two, in a first grade class, I might ask students to consider if they can read most of the words on a page yet. If not, this is a book that might be saved and understood for later instead of a book to read right now.* I avoid the terms “just right” and “at your level” because those are fixed, rigid, and often have a negative connotation with young readers. Instead, I opt toward language that emphasizes growth and learning. I’ve found students engage more in this deep thinking about their choices when it’s framed as “books to read now,” and then “books to look forward to reading later.” Those books for later can even be saved on a to-be-read list. Students learn that the more they grow and learn as readers, the more books they will be able to read and enjoy in the future!
In a fourth grade class, it will look and sound a little different. I might invite students to ask themselves if they want to talk about the book with a friend after trying out a few pages. If it is a book they do not want to talk about or a book that just isn’t holding their interest, it’s time to pick a new book. The big idea is that I want to give students tools and strategies so they can successfully choose books on their own. Much more is involved in book choice, but this is a good starting point to think about the language of book choice in the elementary classroom. Pages 49-54 in Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Elementary Reading go much more in depth.
Keep in Mind
Book choice is an art, not a science. It might be messy and mistakes will be made. Embrace these times as learning opportunities for next instructional steps.
One lesson on book choice is never enough for all students. Some students will likely still need your support with choosing books they can read and want to read. Teach toward independence, but don’t expect it immediately.
*While kids must have access to books they can accurately read (decode and understand), they also need to explore books of high interest- even if they can’t yet decode all the words. For example, if a 1st grader wants to read a book about dinosaurs but can’t decode all the words, of course you encourage them to keep that book! They can have that book AND books they can accurately decode. Book choice is nuanced and complex. To learn more about the different types of books (emergent story books, decodables, etc.) that will especially support kindergarten and first grade readers, take a look at pages 96-100 in Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Elementary Reading.
Choice and access to a classroom library full of books is an incredibly joyous, central part of thriving classroom reading community. Getting books into students’ hands from the get-go is key for setting the tone that reading is the central focus of the school year together. However, for students who have not experienced choice before, this access can also be quite overwhelming. Contrary to what some might think, choice is something that actually needs to be taught to support elementary students with making solid book picks for themselves (the fifth post in this series will take a deep dive into teaching choice).
To ease the overwhelm and still provide all students choice in their reading at the start of the school year, give browsing boxes a try. During the first two to three days of school while I am still introducing procedures for the classroom library and tweaking it a bit based on learning more about my students, I place browsing boxes full of books of different topics, genres, and readability at each student group table. Students browse though the books in the boxes while chatting with their table mates. The boxes provide book access, more opportunity for student conversation, and choice in reading without the overwhelm a larger classroom library might bring at first.
Steps to Getting Started with Browsing Boxes
Gather large boxes to fill that will be placed at student tables.
Select a wide variety of books including different genres, topics, and even books from past grade levels that might serve to give some students the comfort and familiarity they need in a new classroom. I like to ask my colleagues in the grade levels below me about some loved books in the prior school years.
Place the books in the boxes.
Places the boxes at student tables for student reading choice. Encourage students to try out some of the books and even settle in to reading one or more. Also be sure to encourage conversation around the books: What looks good to you? Have you read this book before? etc.
Use with flexibility! Remember, browsing boxes are a starting point, not a gatekeeper to other books. If a student sees a book of interest in a different browsing box or somewhere else in the room, offer the book to the child!
Take note of the books students are gravitating toward. This will be valuable information for you moving forward. Swap books out if needed.
Have a plan for removal or an extension of the browsing boxes. They may continue to serve a purpose in other ways throughout the school year, but their purpose is to be a starting point of comfort to get students accustomed to choice. They are not the end point when it comes to choosing books.
Browsing boxes work in every grade level. Many kindergarten and first grade teachers even make use of them well after the first weeks of school. As long as boxes are kept fresh with books being added and swapped out, browsing boxes can serve different purposes all year long in classrooms. They can even be used instructionally. Pages 52-53 and 100 of Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Elementary Reading discuss using browsing boxes along with instructional reading more in-depth.
The key thing to remember for the first days of school is that browsing boxes offer curated choice in a way that is manageable for students before complete open access to the classroom library is given.
Like many of you, I will be heading back to my classroom soon. While still relishing in the final days of summer relaxation (and let’s be honest, recovery from the past two and a half tumultuous school years), I’m beginning to think about the steps I’ll take starting on the first day of school to build a classroom reading community that will enable each of my individual students to become members of a collective, supportive, cohesive community of readers.
A well formed community is celebratory in the good times, supportive in the tough times, and successful due to everyone collectively working together toward common goals that evolve over time as the community grows. Also, being a member of a safe and nurturing reading community makes students more apt to take risks and unabashedly embrace new learning. Building a well formed reading community doesn’t happen by chance. It takes intention with teaching decisions, consistent practices, and predictable procedures. It goes well beyond the pages of any required curriculum.
The upcoming posts in this blog series will be short for end-of-summer reading ease but packed with practical ideas and methods that I have refined over the years in my own fifth grade classroom and the classrooms of my lower grade teaching colleagues (who always graciously try out my ideas, offer feedback, and invite me into their classrooms to work with their students).
This series will run from 8/1/22 to 8/27/22. Follow the blog to receive every post in your email inbox or check back here then. All posts will be linked here after they publish.
This past Friday, teachers, aides, my principal, our secretary, our custodians, a crew of parents, and community members came together to make sure our close to 400 distance learning students in kindergarten through fifth grade have access to physical books to read for the next few weeks. In 5th grade, our students even chose their books! While we did not all physically come together, we were united by one mission- getting books in all of our students’ hands.
Now, I have to say that making this happen took a ton of work and an unwavering determination from many people. There are no hacks, tricks, or gimmicks involved. It took an organized effort from a lot of staff and volunteers and a principal who believes that kids need books. All kids.
You may approach the long list ahead of how we made this happen thinking this is way too much work for one or two people to complete- and you’d be correct. There is no way one or two people could make this happen in a timely manner. This was a school community-wide effort. Everyone chipped in to make it happen.
Our school mascot is the dolphin. I don’t know which staff member came up with this saying, but at the beginning of pandemic teaching in March, one of my colleagues came up with the following: Whatever the weather, dolphins swim together. And, it’s true. We do. We do because we are led by an unwavering and dedicated principal whose motto is we all teach all the children. Indeed, we do. We especially did for this massive effort.
I’m sharing our process with the hope that other teachers and administrators can read this with a lens of possibility. Our kids, all kids, need books. It should be a right. It should be the norm, not the exception. The vision of a few and a village of dedicated staff and volunteers made this happen. It can be done. It’s not easy, but it is possible.
Here’s how we did it…
1.Start with A Vision
My fifth grade team and I are departmentalizing this year. I’m the reading teacher for our entire group of students. I knew I had to somehow get choice books in our students’ hands in order to teach reading workshop. I also knew that the books would need to be safely rotated in and out of the classroom without students and families actually coming to school. We are not a traditional neighborhood school with all families in close proximity, some are, but not all. Our students are spread over a massive geographic area. So, I knew this would require a lot of driving. If you’re familiar with San Francisco Bay Area geography, in my classroom alone, I have students who reside in East Palo Alto, Los Altos Hills, Stanford, Redwood City, and in the southern end of Palo Alto. It’s a huge area to cover by car! Since I’m teaching all day long, I also knew I couldn’t be the one doing most of driving. I realized this would have to be a massive team effort. So, I took this idea to my principal as I knew she would gather all the necessary staff, PTA members, and community volunteers to make it come to life.
2. Enlist Others in the Vision
I told my team that I was going to start photographing all of our classroom library books in order for our students to have choice in what they read. Book choice is one of the tenets of solid reading instruction, so I knew I had to make this happen- even from a distance. My team was in support of my idea, so we got to work with the help of Liz and Carla, two of our amazing aides at school.
We also made intentional delivery plans with my principal. There are so many rules we have to follow, such as not having parents or volunteers on campus, so we knew that a group of staff members would eventually need to get these books to a group volunteer drivers. My principal was determined to make this work- and so were my colleagues. And, together we chatted with other staff members and started putting this vision into place. Our principal also started working with our school PTA in enlisting volunteer drivers for each grade level.
3. Create a Visual of Classroom Library Books
In 5th grade, it was very important to us to offer choice from the start. Not every grade level at school started this way, but everyone has the goal to eventually teach and offer choice over the coming weeks and months so students can have a say in the books that are delivered.
I safely (masked and always at a distance) worked with Liz to photograph our 5th grade libraries. Since photographing an entire classroom library would be a massive task and we were in a time crunch, we decided to just start with realistic fiction only for the photographs. We then put all the photographs on a Google slide show for students to view. More genres and sections of our libraries will be offered for choice later.
4. Teach and Offer Choice
After our book slideshows were created, during one of our reading workshop Zoom sessions, I book talked a few books and authors, talked about book choice a bit (many more book choice lessons will be coming later), shared the realistic fiction library slideshow with our fifth graders, and invited them to make their selections using a Google form. Their choices were due the next day- book choice takes time and thought. It shouldn’t be rushed. We also encouraged the kids to talk with each other about their choices in Zoom breakout rooms and to search for more information about books that piqued their interest. A day later, we had a spreadsheet full of the choices the kids made.
5. Create Book Stacks Based on Student Choices
This was the most time consuming task in the process, but it was also the most fun! Using the Google Form spreadsheet automatically generated from the Google form survey, we were able to gather our students’ choices and preferences into stacks.
As a side note- we were fully masked and gloved during the book gathering process- during this entire process actually. And it is important to state that our rooms are cleaned each day even though there are only one or two staff present at a time in a room (when two are present, we are always at least physically 6 ft apart and masked). All safety precautions are being strictly followed.Additionally, only the staff who feel safe/comfortable coming in to the building come in. Some staff did this work from home by communicating with other staff at school. I’m grateful our school district allows us the choice as professionals whether to work at home or at school during this time.It should be this way everywhere.
Back to the book choices… Not every student received their first or even second choice as we only have so many copies of each title, but everyone did receive books that matched some of their preferences and 3rd, 4th, and 5th choices.
On the form, I inserted another column titled Books Given Out (shaded blue in the image below) so we could track who was being lent which books.
6. Teachers and Our Principal Emailed, Called, or Texted Families
We got in touch with families to let them know that books would be on the way and to enlist more volunteers at the same time. We already had a big crew of volunteers who were enlisted at the beginning of the process, but we needed more. Also, we needed to make sure we had permission from families to share their addresses with our volunteer drivers. Initially we had permission from most, but not all, so this involved some phone calls from teachers to gain permission to share addresses for book delivery. It is important to state that books were delivered with permission from families.
7. Our School Secretary Created Grade-Level Lists of Geographic-Based Student Addresses for Delivery
Since our students and families are spread over a big geographic area, our amazing secretary, Becky, worked to lump close addresses together for our volunteer drivers. This took a lot of work on Becky’s part! Once she did this, she distributed the lists to each grade level to start bagging and boxing our books for our volunteer drivers.
8. Teachers and Aides Bagged and Packed the Books in their Geographic-Based Boxes
9. Staff Members Drove Boxes to Our Volunteers
Since it is not yet determined to be safe to invite volunteers and families onto our school campus, multiple staff members drove and dropped off boxes for our volunteer Book Fairies (I couldn’t resist with the name!). I drove to four different volunteers’ homes and dropped off boxes in a safe way- masked, contactless, and physically distanced the whole time. Other teachers and aides did the same.
After school on Friday, our principal and our custodian even got in on box delivery duties! Our custodian volunteered to use his truck to drive more boxes to more volunteers. They packed the bed of his truck with boxes and drove to safely drop book boxes off for volunteers to deliver. Again, it’s important to mention that everyone was masked and remained physically distant throughout this entire process. This could not have happened unless everyone involved agreed to follow our strict safety guidelines.
10. Our Volunteer Book Fairies, Parents, and Community Members, Delivered Books to 6-10 Students Each
One of the greatest parts of this process was receiving emails from our volunteers and from my students’ families about how much fun it was to deliver and receive books. Now, our kids have books that they chose for the next few weeks!
Honestly, all of our next steps have not been figured out yet. We do know that our students will once again choose books in a few weeks. We also know that we will go through the process again of packing up books and delivering them. When the new books are delivered by volunteers, students will hand back their current bag of books at the same time (following all safety protocols, of course). Once we receive back the current bag of books that students have, they will remain in book quarantine for a couple weeks before the next delivery.
Since we have a record of who has which books, we should easily be able to get most of the books back. However, I do know that we will likely not see some again. That’s what happens when books are lent out- and that’s ok. We knew that before embarking on this journey. We plan to go through this process as long as our students are distance learning. We know that will be at least through mid-October at my school and maybe longer depending on our county’s status as far as our state reopening requirements go. So, we could be doing this for the next month and a half or for the entire school year. We just don’t know.
The one important thing we do know is that kids need books. We took a vision, enlisted our village, and made it happen. We did this one step at a time. This can happen at any school. It takes the willingness of administration, the determination of staff, and the kindness of volunteers to see it through. It takes hours of work. It can be done. It is is worth every ounce of energy and hour of time that it took.
I hope sharing our process can help more kids get books in their hands.