Building a Classroom Library. Together.

Unpacking our classroom library books every year overwhelms me a bit. It feels like it should eventually get easier, but so far that hasn’t happened. I want to unpack them and have them ready for the kids in meaningful ways.

Last year my students set up our classroom library. It was an investment in time and energy for all of us but it was worth it. They knew our books and our library exceptionally well and, as a result, our library was well used and loved. So we’re doing it again.

This year I decided that I wanted to wrap some boxes of books for kids to unwrap during the first week of school. I know teachers who do this, who wrap boxes of books and school supplies and things for kids to unwrap together to build excitement and joy. I’ve never done it. This year is the time. But I wanted each of those boxes to be strategically packed, not just to wrap them up as they were packed for the summer. As my 11 year old daughter said to her sister, “Did you hear what mom wants to do? She wants to put books in boxes randomly, but organized. She wants random organization in this!” She was clearly skeptical of the plan.

My goal is to have five boxes packed carefully and wrapped so that groups of four kids (or so, I don’t know how many students will be in my class this year) can each open one in the first five days. Each box has a mix of books, but not too wide a mix. There are fiction and nonfiction in every box. For example, one box might have lots of books about insects and outer space as well as Elephant and Piggie books, books by Kate Messner, and Star Wars books. A range, especially because within those groups (other than Elephant and Piggie) there is a range, but with enough similarities for students to begin noticing them a bit to prepare us for organizing the library.

I enlisted my 11 year old to do the decorating. Life is rough when you are a teacher’s kid.

She decided each box needed a theme and would be numbered in the order we should open them. This one’s theme is ‘thinking’.

This one’s theme is nature. I am a little in love with the tree made from a two.

This one’s theme is mythology as that’s a love of hers. She decorated three sides, included three realms: heaven, earth, and the underworld, as well as three gods and three goddesses.

She picked the original three gods and goddesses, even though those aren’t her favorites.

More Classroom Thoughts

Back in June and early July I started getting my classroom ready for the fall and I wrote about my thoughts. A couple of posts were about flexible seating (a passion of mine) and there were posts about our classroom library and about my space in the classroom. At the most basic level these posts were all about furniture placement in our room. I think there is a lot more there, but that’s the basic gist of what I was doing at that point.

A month later, I’m back in that space beginning to unpack a lot and planning how to make the space work for me and for the kids. Both matter. I spend more time in that space than anyone else so it needs to work for me. The kids need it to be a place they are comfortable and safe and can learn. The space matters to all of us.

Some things I do because it makes me feel at home in the space, to bring me joy.

One wall of our classroom is windows. The only space that isn’t windows on that side is this small column. These branches and birds make me smile there, surrounded by windows in which we’ll see real live birds.

Near our whole-group gathering area is this corner. It’s somewhat hidden behind our easel and the stool on which I’ll sit for whole-group lessons (and kids will sit at other times). So this is clearly more for me than for anyone else in the room.

The basket on the shelf above has these hearts in it. I bought them at a cute little shop in Fredericksburg, Virginia a few years ago when I was there on a ‘writing day’ with a friend. (Recognize them, Michelle? They still make me smile!)

Another friend gave me this Hamilton picture for my birthday a couple of years ago. I love it. Seriously love it.

This table is designed for kids who want to stand while they work. It’s also a great place to store all of the science materials my district provides (a wonderful gift but also a serious amount of space). The table skirt hides the boxes under there and keeps me from being annoyed by them all the time. If you look closely you’ll also see a strip of Lego tape. It’ll be fun during indoor recess when we get out Legos but will also serve as a little kinetic tool for kids who need something to touch while they work.

Finally, these are a few plaques I like to have on display. Third graders don’t care at all that I am National Board Certified, that I was nominated for Teacher of the Year, or that I won the Kay L. Bitter Award from ISTE. Those have no meaning to them. Most of the families I serve don’t care either. But I like seeing them sometimes. Especially on a tough day. It’s a nice reminder that I have done some things right and I’ll be able to do them right in the future.

If I can walk into this space every morning, smile, and feel good, that’s important. If the students can do the same, we have created the space we need.

Powerful Readings from July

We traveled for most of the month of July (one of the greatest joys in my life and I feel so lucky to be able to do so for so many reasons) so it is possible I missed lots of great pieces. As I suffer from serious FOMO this is hard for me to accept but I’m working on the idea that I can’t do everything and be everywhere.

The kind of reading we did a lot of in July…

I have pointed to the work Science Goddess is doing around data visualization before. Not only does she present (and help others present) data in intriguing and highly informative ways, but she also pushes the boundaries on which data to share. Schools and systems often look at the same basic data. Science Goddess helps us see how much more is out there and all it can help us learn. In this post she’s thinking about how to grow that in ways I find super exciting.

I love attending CMK (Constructing Modern Knowledge) but when I can’t, I love reading about the experiences of those attending. Bud Hunt has long been one of my favorite folks to read and his series about CMK this summer is well worth the time. I’ve focused on just one of the pieces, but they are all fabulous. If you’re familiar with Bud you’ll find the piece is so him, the language, the ideas, the positivity, the reflection – it’s all so clearly him. If you don’t know him this is a great chance to get to know him. He worked on a Muse at CMK, creating ways to help people get going writing poetry.

Everyone was successful. 100% of the folks who sat down to write a poem wrote one. And they spent less than ten minutes doing so between the prompting and the writing.

Read to the end because the final story is the icing on an already fabulous cake.

I’m putting these next two pieces together because they both resulted from reading Carla Shalaby’s Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom from Young Children at School. I am currently halfway through the book and it is life-changing. Jess has taken her thoughts on the book and already begun planning how it will shift the start of her school year. She is one of those thinkers and writers I always save when I see a new post because I know I will need time and space to read what she is written. I can’t just do a quick read of it. I need to ponder it, take it in slowly. This piece is no different.

One of the things that I loved most about the book is that Shalaby shows us what is possible when we stop simply looking at a child’s behavior as a problem to be solved with the right punishment or reward, but instead look at what we can learn about the toxicity of our own schools from the problems that it is causing in our children. In the chapter that describes one of the students, Sean, we see a problem of questioning authority that has become extreme and often times disruptive and even harmful to other students.

Many attempts are made to correct this behavior, but what Shalaby helps us to envision instead is a way for us to learn about the changes that WE can make in our classrooms instead. She writes, “Knowing when and how to challenge authority is a skill worth teaching and learning. Understanding the power of organized, collective dispute — as an alternative to vulnerable, individual dispute — is also a lesson worth teaching and learning. Questioning is a habit we should cultivate in young people not because of its value to any particular individual, but because it makes for an undoubtedly healthier and more robust democracy. Democracy requires dispute.”

Franki also wrote after reading this book. These two women are both classroom teachers and educational leaders on a national scale. Their thinking and models are ones I turn to often. I am grateful to them both for sharing their thoughts and helping me grow through this book even more. Franki’s thoughts push me to look at the book more deeply and to notice things I might have missed.

For me, reading this book was an exercise of hope, of study and of reflection. It pushed me to think in ways I hadn’t thought before and it helped me to realize new ways to think about the children in our schools.   I learned different things from each of the four children in this book.  Each child helped me reflect about some piece of my relationship with children that I hadn’t explored. Carla Shalaby pushes a bit beyond the case studies during the last third of the book and I have to admit that this part of the book was a little painful to read–it required true and honest reflection.  The reflection required in her conclusion meant I had to acknowledge things that were hard to admit, even to myself. I thought of children who I failed and what I could have done differently-what part I played in the “troublemaker” narrative.  But with that reflection, the author offers us hope. Not only hope–she reminded me of the power that we, as teachers have to make change, to make things right for our children, to move beyond the mandates and the constraints and to be change makers.

Having just returned from the most complicated, longest family vacation we’ve ever taken, I was struck by Sherri’s thoughts on traveling. The way she notices things, things the rest of us might miss, helps me see in a new light. Her thoughts on distance and detail and on out and in fascinated me, especially as I considered them from our travel.

To travel necessitates spending time with ourselves. Spending time with our vulnerabilities, fears, deeper desires (i.e. for rest, privacy, silence, or action). Patience will be tested. Sooner or later. Definitely at one point. There will be surprises.

Sherri helps me put into words the value of travel, what I believe it offers us and why I think it matters.

More thoughts based on travel come from Doyle. He and his wife took a trip to France and he has written a bit about his reflections from it. This post is lovely but the final footnote at the bottom is the kicker. One little sentence and it hits it right on.

One last piece ties this up nicely as it’s about travel as well and it’s another one from Bud Hunt. He writes about visiting Mesa Verde National Park with his family and learning from a park ranger. I won’t try to get at it here, just go and read the piece because it is beautiful – both the writing and the thinking.

I love July as an educator because I believe it gives many of us a little time and space to think and reflect deeply without the chaos and rush of the school year.

Pigeons & Doves

Our family has made it to Spain – a trip we’ve been planning for five years. I spent two summers in Spain in high school, living with my aunt’s family. I returned for ten days to stay with family when I left the cruise ship after college and my husband and I came here on our honeymoon twenty years ago. Bringing our girls was a dream of ours.

One city in which I spent a summer is Cordoba and we are here now. The AirBnB in which we are staying is across the street from La Mezquita and a block up from the river. When we arrived, our host asked that we not leave the doors to the patio open without the screen down as the pigeons would happily come in. There are many pigeons! I’ve been listening to them as I sit here reading this morning.

Yesterday we visited the Alcazar and read about the Tower of Doves. Again, there were many birds all around. The four of us debated if the birds were doves or pigeons. Not one of us had any significant knowledge about this question so the debate was not terribly productive. Upon return to our flat I decided to do a little research on the question. I was quite surprised to learn that there is no real distinction between them. They are both members of the columbidae family of birds. There are many ways people have distinguished between them, but they are not consistent. I was shocked (and my family felt the same when I shared this with them).

Pigeon or dove? Nestled in the wall of the Alcazar in Cordoba, Spain.

Our daughters and I started thinking of instances in which doves or pigeons are well-known and changing which one is mentioned. “New York is overrun with doves!” “One of Aphrodite’s symbols is a pigeon!” “A pigeon of peace!”

It was fascinating how much that one change shifted our thinking. How different does it feel to think of NYC as having many doves than as having many pigeons? Doesn’t it feel odd to think of Aphrodite as having pigeons?

Those words are filled with images and feelings in us as we hear them. That is true of labels. It’s one of the reasons we use them. We label things so that we understand what they are. Labels carry weight for us.

This is true whether those labels are on birds or on children.

We label children with official labels:  English Language Learner, Special Education, etc.

We label children with unofficial labels: well-behaved, challenging, defiant, sweet, rambunctious, etc.

We share those labels with others, both in official ways and in the teachers’ lounge or on the playground. We use the labels with genuine affection and in frustration. Those labels impact how others see that child.

We keep those labels to ourselves. This impacts how we see that child.

I won’t argue that we should stop labeling children (or birds, for that matter). I don’t believe that’s possible. I do think we need to be aware of the labels we use and how we use them. Calling a child a pigeon implies many things. We need to remember that.

More Thoughts on Flexible Seating

I’ve likely written about this before (but I’m too lazy to go back through my posts) but I’ll do it again because it’s the thinking it through that helps me.

In my first decade of teaching there was a gradual evolution in my thinking around my students and my role in the classroom. I began my career a fairly traditional teacher, doing things the way I had known them as a student. Not everything, but more than I like to consider now as I look back. My students has assigned seats. That’s where they spent the majority of their time.

Slowly, I relaxed and allowed students to work on the floor or elsewhere around our room. By the beginning of my second decade I had let go of a lot of the control I had previously felt I needed. In the past ten years I have accumulated a variety of furniture and broadened the options available in our room.

An early goal in this process was to offer students tables at different levels (thanks to another teacher in my district who talked about doing this). We have two tables that sit low to the floor, three tables that are pretty standard height, and one table that is called our ‘tall table’. One result of making this change was that I ended up with tables of different sizes as well as different heights. Suddenly, instead of having tables that all sat four or six students, I had tables that only sat two.

This will be our ‘tall table’ this year. My plan is to have it against the wall, but it’s quite possible the students will move it to fit more kids if they want. No chairs or stools or anything at this table. It’s for those who want to stand while they work.

These are our standard height tables. The one that is made of two, typical school tables will have typical school chairs. Last year that table was often completely empty or completely full. There wasn’t a lot of in between. The table in the next picture has white folding chairs from Ikea. The table at the bottom has Ikea stools as well as the office chair. Lots of seating options.

These are our two small tables. One is in the classroom library area and the other sits right beside the carpet at the front of the room. We also have a half-dozen throw pillows students can use when they sit on the floor.

We also have beanbags and these round little chairs. We have five beanbags, all of which are showing their age. We have eight to ten of the little round chairs.

Image result for bilibo chair

We also have a ton of clipboards to use when sitting on the floor or the couch or, really, anytime they want.

Right now the clipboards are all together, but when we are unpacked they’ll be in two different containers in separate places in the room to make them easier to access.

When things are working the way they should I can focus on students’ learning, thinking, and emotional well-being rather than where they are working. We have conversations at the beginning of the year about the options and how to decide what will work best for you at any given moment.

We definitely hit snags throughout the year but I feel confident that I spend less time addressing seating and behavior now than I did when I assigned seats.

Our Classroom – My Space

The only aspect of moving to flexible seating that has frustrated me (and it is pretty minor) is that my students believe the whole room is theirs. On the whole this is a really good thing. I believe it means they feel more comfortable in the classroom than my students did back when I assigned their seats. I believe it makes for an atmosphere that encourages risk taking and community. It is our space. All of ours.

The reason this is a frustration, at times, is that my space, the area that I see as mine, is not seen as any different by my students. I don’t actually have a desk, which I think is part of why they don’t see my area as any different from any other part of the room. At some point every year we have to have a discussion about respecting each others’ space and belongings. I tell them I would not go into their backpacks or cubbies without their permission and I would like them to do the same with my space and belongings. It usually works pretty well.

This mess is my area. The crates full of books are on the table I use to meet with students. When I’m not meeting with kids, in small groups or individually, kiddos do use the table just like any other. I don’t have any problem with that. Behind the table is a large bookcase (where all those books in the crates will eventually go). That’s where I keep the books that I reserve for read alouds, separate from the books in our classroom library.

Next to the bookcase is a two-drawer filing cabinet. That houses much of my office supplies and snacks (the kinds of things that used to go in a desk drawers, back when I had a desk). I can also use magnets to hang things on it. On the front I hang things I need to remember to deal with and on the side I hang things the students write or draw for me.

The only piece that is missing will sit in front of the bookcase. It looks like this.

Image result for 12 drawer rolling cart

It can sit in front of the bookcase because I can roll it away when I need to get to shelves it is blocking and that minimizes the space I’m claiming. This keeps other supplies and paperwork and things.

My computer will sit on top of the little filing cabinet when I’m not using it. Piles of things will likely end up on top of the drawer cart. Not having a place to really pile things is the number one reason I got rid of my teacher desk years ago. I realized its main purpose was as a place for me to dump things. I will admit that things often get dumped into drawers in this cart but that’s a more finite space. Not only did I gain space by getting rid of the desk but it has forced me to be better organized.

My goal is for the space I consider mine in our classroom to be as small a footprint as possible. Given how much stuff I have that’s no small challenge!

Our Classroom Library Space

Yesterday I wrote about our whole group gathering space, which is an important place in our classroom and one of the first to get planned. Another critical space and one that I carve out early is our classroom library. Helping my students find books they love and keeping them reading all year (and hopefully beyond) is one of my greatest goals and requires that I make sure we have spaces that support it.

This is the biggest area of our classroom library. Back in the corner, behind the stacks of chairs (many of which will leave our classroom as we don’t have a need for all those!) is an odd little corner. Two years ago I went on Craigs List and found a small ottoman like stool thing that fits perfectly there. It’s a great little reading nook for a kid. The table on the rug here is a place kids can work sitting on the floor. The shelves stretch from a small bookshelf (that can’t be seen behind the piles of chairs) nestled in the reading nook corner through these shelves under the window to the shelf coming out into the room. On the other side of that shelf is another one, sitting back to back with it.

On the far left side you can just see the two bookshelves, back to back, next to the desk. (The desk is there because sometimes students want a place where they can sit all by themselves to work so I try to ensure I have at least one desk by itself.) The shelves then stretch along under the window on this side as well, up to the couch. Between the bookshelf and the couch, where there are so many boxes right now, will be a rug.

Last year, that many bookshelves held almost all of our classroom library. These are pictures from last year (but you can see the little black stool thing and small bookshelf in the corner as last year’s room had that same little nook).

I loved our classroom library last year and, based on how engaged my kiddos were as readers, so did they. There are some things I’d like to do better with it this year, however.

  • Highlight books and authors better. Last year I did a special, monthly display of a different author’s books but I never really did much beyond set it up. I’d like to continue it but really sell those books to the kids. I’d also like to find ways to bring attention to individual books or series at different points.
  • The kids set up the library last year which was awesome. This year I’d like to take that a bit farther and have them really plan where different baskets belong. They did a pretty good job of keeping our library organized and looking good but being thoughtful about where baskets go can add to the usability of the library. We had all of fiction together and then nonfiction (mostly) together. I’m thinking now of similar authors having baskets beside one another or genres that might engage similar kids near one another. We had baskets last year of books about characters facing challenges, books about families, books about friends, books about monsters. We could think about how to organize these to make finding the books we’re interested in reading easier
  • I want our library to develop throughout the year more. Last year we put out as many books as we could, organized them as we wished, and then went on. This year I’d like to put out some of the books, organize them, and enjoy them. Then, as the year continues, bring out more books to add. We can add new baskets, add them to already established baskets, whatever we want. I think it will allow us to get to know what we have better if it isn’t all thrown at us at once and it will keep our library feeling fresh all year.

Readings Worth Some Time


As we are leaving town (and leaving the country – hello, Spain!) I am trying to clear out some tabs. Leaving things as nice and neat as possible for when we return is one of my goals and, apparently, it extends to my browser.

I met Paul at the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards’ conference, Teaching and Learning, several years ago and have been reading his blog ever since. This piece struck me not only for the challenges about which he writes but also because I just happened to read it right before the next piece I’ll share. They made such an interesting pair to me that I had to stop and reread them. Paul writes about teaching an LGBTQ inclusive lesson and being penalized professionally for doing so. It hurt to read.

Then I happened to read this Nerdy Book Club post next. It is written by Rachel Scupp and is about having 8th graders in a human rights, social justice, LGBTQ book club. The post shares things these students believe about the importance of the books they read. I know many schools would not allow this and that pains me. But seeing it happening gives me hope.

Pernille Ripp has written a number of pieces lately that have really struck me hard. This one, about the messages we send students about what it means to be a reader and what books are worth reading, hit me personally. My youngest just finished fifth grade. Her teacher would not allow them to read graphic novels at school. My kid survived that just fine but I wonder about others in her class. Others who have less solid reading identities. Others whose parents reinforced that rule rather than ignoring it (because many parents trust the teacher to make the right decisions).

I just checked out a good number of books for my kindle for our trip. The diversity of the authors was something I thought about, often with frustration. I got a couple of Roxane Gay’s books, which I want to read, even though I know they will be difficult to read. I also checked out one from Maya Angelou that I have never read. The majority of the books I checked out are by women. But the other seven books are all by white folks. Some of that is on me and some is that the library didn’t currently have any by N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, or Chimimanda Ngozi Adichi available at the moment. Anyway, long way to say that this piece from Sherri Spelic, reflecting on tweets from Tricia Ebarvia, gave me a lot to think about. I’d seen the tweet thread and it was definitely thought provoking. Sherri pushed me to think even more deeply about it as she reflected.

I love every time Fawn Nguyen writes something. It doesn’t matter what it is, I am happy when I see something new from her show up in my RSS reader. This time she’s writing about her arrival as an immigrant in the United States. It is just as beautiful as I would have expected. Enjoy. I’m jealous of you getting to read it for the first time.

I have donated to try and help reunite families who have been separated at the border. And I know that matters. But sometimes doing something active, rather than just giving money, feels necessary but it can be so hard to know how to begin. Glennon Doyle has collected an amazing list of ways various folks can volunteer and help.

Looking back over this list I am thrilled. There is a pretty good range of diversity here. It suggests I may be doing a better job reading widely than I was before.

New Classroom, New Thoughts

Disclaimer: The room is not unpacked. That won’t happen until late July/early August. There are extra bookcases (sitting on top of things) that I may or may not decide to keep and use (most likely not). So it is still a mess but this is a chance for me to think through why I have chosen to place things where I have placed them.

This new year will be my fifth at my current school and my fourth classroom space. I spent sixteen years at my previous school and was only in four different classroom spaces. It was lovely to have the opportunity to tweak each year to make our space work better for us rather than having to completely rethink. (That said, the reasons I’ve changed classrooms here have all made sense to me, even as it has challenged my thinking about our space.)


Our smartboard is mounted on the wall so it determined where our carpet would go. For the first time ever I have a projector that is mounted on the ceiling (thanks to the teacher who was previously in this room) so I don’t have to make space for that. I do have a space planned for our document camera (the most common reason I use the projector) on the bookshelf to the right of the smartboard. We’ll see how that set up works for us this year. The shelves will also serve as a great place to store our small whiteboards, markers, and erasers to keep them easily accessible for use when we’re working together. Storing them in a way that makes them quick and easy for us to grab has been a challenge for me.


Those colorful book displays have never been so carefully placed before. Usually I’m searching for a place to put them once everything else is ready. I’m excited to have them right by our group gathering space. I use these to display books we’ve already read.

Here you can see one of the shelves from last year (it is nestled in the corner in the photos above). This one displayed the ongoing read alouds from our year, the books that took multiple days and weeks to read together.

These others display picture books, fiction and nonfiction, that we’ve read together. Having all of these book displays right where we gather for focus lessons, read alouds, discussions, etc. will be wonderful. Any one of us can grab a book if we are referencing it, something that happens often and that I am happy to do what I can to encourage.

More later on other parts of the room!

Truly Flexible Seating

Yesterday and today I dragged my daughters in to our classroom to begin moving furniture around. We’ve only been out of school two weeks, but our summer seems to involve far more travel than normal and I am in a new classroom this year. Between those two things I wanted to get in there and make sure I had a sense of where things will go so that I don’t stress over it as we’re off gallivanting around.

The office chair in this picture is one we used to have at home. When we decided to get rid of it I took it to school so that interns or other teachers working in my classroom could have a better option than student chairs (as we’re a tad taller). However, anything that comes into our room gets used by kids and this is no different.

As I pushed this chair into place this morning my youngest (heading into 6th grade) asked me, “How do you decide who sits in that chair?”

“I don’t. Whoever wants to sit there, sits there.”

“But that doesn’t seem fair. What about the kids who aren’t the quickest or who need more time to be sure they understood the directions? They won’t ever get to sit there.”

I was surprised by this conversation. My students don’t have assigned seats (I haven’t done that in a decade) and it hasn’t been a problem. This has been true for us as I’ve taught kindergartners, first graders, and third graders. Kids sit where they want to sit. Sometimes the spot they want is taken at that time, but they have lots of other options, both in seating and in times to sit in that exact spot.

My own daughters have spent lots of time in my classroom on teacher workdays and in the summer helping me pack up and unpack. They sit on our couch all the time. I assumed they had a sense of how this works in our room.

Those boxes are all piled between the couch and a bookcase. When they are unpacked there will be a rug on the floor there.

My daughter’s questions made me realize how unusual our classroom still is. She has had flexible seating in at least one grade but kids had to choose their spot each day and that was their spot for the day. My students move around all the time. Occasionally I’ll suggest someone move if they don’t seem to be able to do their best where they are sitting. Even more rarely I’ll tell someone to move when their spot seems to be a problem for them or classmates.

I’m both saddened and reassured by my daughter’s questions. Saddened because I’d like to think students have this flexibility, responsibility, and freedom far more often than they do. Reassured because it made me stop and think about the choices I’m making as a teacher and I got to feel good about them.

I want students to do for themselves anything and everything they can. Choosing their seating seems like an easy one. They don’t need me to control them. And I’ve got better things to do with my time!