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How I Increased Student Interest in my Classroom Library

I love reading! Each year, it is my goal to pass my love of reading on to my students. I stock my classroom library with tons of books and have reached a collection of over 1,000. I am extremely proud of my library and love to see my students checkout books and discover the journey of reading! 

However, after years of teaching, I noticed that some really good books never leave the shelf. I realize there are classics that I love that may no longer interest students, but those are a small portion of the books I'm referring to. I have hundreds of books that students aren't even considering, books that I know at least one student would fall in love with if they'd be willing to give it a try. 

I've been thinking a lot about ways to convince my students to at least give these books a try. At the end of last year, I sat down and evaluated the books that had been checked out the most. I use Booksource Classroom Organizer, so I was able to print out reports which allowed me to see the books that were checked out during the course of the year. As expected, there were some series that really stood out (I'm looking at you, Diary of a Wimpy Kid), but something else caught my attention - the books I'd labeled easy and challenging weren't being touched. Students who were capable of reading more challenging text weren't. Those "striving readers" (thank you for this perfect term, Stephanie Harvey) were choosing grade level books that were too hard for them and leaving my easy section untouched. The majority of the books that were checked out were labeled on grade level. That's when I realized that my leveling was actually getting in the way of students enjoying a wonderful book. 


That realization told me it was time to make a BIG change. I let go of levels. No AR, no Lexile, no F&P, no nothing. It's something I'd been thinking about a lot, especially after reading The Book Whisperer and a number of other professional books and blogs which discouraged the idea. (On a side note, F&P was apparently never meant to become a leveling system for classroom libraries. Click here to read more about this.)

This summer, I had some student helpers come in for a few days. We spent the first day taking all of the stickers off of every single one of my books. We made a gigantic pile of books on the floor. I'll admit, about half way through the unleveling process, I had a bit of a panic, but I held strong to my gut feeling that this was the change I needed. The next two days were spent sorting my books by genre, and I definitely couldn't have done this without helpers. By the time we finished, we had sorted all of the books into specific genres without consideration of level. I used mini dot stickers to organize the genres (one green for realistic fiction, one red for mystery, etc.) and put the books back on the shelf in a way that I'd never done in 13 years. I was excited to try something new and see if this change would make a difference.

Here's an additional link if you are thinking about saying goodbye to levels: Leveled Libraries are Outdated


Of course, the true test would be to see what happened when the students arrived and began to checkout books. I wanted to grab their attention from the moment they walked in on the first day of school, so I did a repeat of a bulletin board from the year before, one titled "First Words", an idea I got from Literacy for Big Kids. On this board, I used 40 different first lines from 40 different books in my library, many of which were those amazing books that were going untouched. Under each quote, I placed a picture of the cover and it's location in our library, by genre, of course! It's a huge board and students were chatting about it from the minute they walked in the door. Once I told them that they could actually come up and lift the quote to see what book it was from, they were eager to begin to checkout books from our library. 
A quick tour of my board.


I made one more change that has been a total game changer. I decided to add a daily book recommendation on my morning slide and to "preview" a new book each day for the first 40 days. In another attempt to increase student interest in books that may otherwise be ignored, I read a chapter or two from the daily recommended book. In the three weeks that I have been doing this, the response has been AMAZING! I wish I had done book previews years ago. Students are actually begging to checkout books and sometimes we have to draw sticks for a fair decision on who can check it out first. If students already have a great book, they are adding it to their "to-read" list in their 40 Book Challenge binders. And of course, I'm not even mentioning levels during these previews. Book previews are going so well that I may continue it well beyond the first 40 days!

Please don't judge me too harshly for the AR test option - it's an option (and only an option) because we have it and students have been using it for years, but book reviews are encouraged in my classroom.


Now, all of this doesn't mean that I've stopped thinking about levels entirely. I'm a teacher, it's my job to consider level when planning instruction. I've just taken a new approach to my classroom library. I spend a considerable amount of time discussing and modeling the right time to abandon a book and students are getting really good at recognizing when a book isn't right for them. Students are now exploring books that went untouched for years. They are no longer disqualifying a book because it's not on their level. Instead, they are thinking about the genres they enjoy, the book previews that interest them, the reviews of their peers, my additional recommendations, and their own enjoyment of the book once they check it out and begin their journey. 

A colleague stopped in when I was doing a book preview during the first week of school. Afterwards, I mentioned the changes I'd made. She said, "If it works for one, it was worth it." Of course, I said, "No, it has to work for all!" That may be incredibly optimistic of me, but the following conversations have taken place since I made these changes:

One morning during our second week of school: 
Future Bookworm: "Mrs. Ostrander, I spent three hours reading that book last night. It was so emotional and amazing. Did you know it's a series? Do you have any more?" 
(I didn't, but I surely went on Amazon to order the rest, and she is already on the last book of the three-book series. We started school on August 14th.)

At back to school night:
Parent: "My daughter has read more books in one week than she read all summer."

After a preview of Refugee:
Future Bookworm 1: "I don't think I can do historical fiction, it's just too real."
Future Bookworm 2: "Well, good, because I want that book first!"
Future Bookworm 3: "Are you kidding? I was hoping I'd get it. There's so much action, I just can't wait to read more!"

One very quiet student who has fallen in love with a graphic novel series:
Me: "I've noticed that you really love that series. Did you know that there are more? Would you be interested in reading them?"
Future Bookworm: "Mrs. Ostrander, I'd read every single one if we had it."
(She's now read 5 in the series. I've just placed a second order for the rest.)

They're falling in love with reading, one book at a time. I'm sticking to my optimistic hope that I'll have 25 bookworms by June! 


Jigsaw Puzzle: A Fun and Easy Cooperative Activity

As you know, teamwork is vital to success, both in and out of the classroom. If you do a lot of cooperative groupings in your classroom, (and I hope you do),  it is important to plan lessons focused on teamwork throughout the school year. This will encourage students to work successfully as a group and teach them to communicate and cooperate with one another to be successful in their assigned tasks. For some students, this comes naturally. Others are very independent and it is for these students that these lessons are most important.

This activity is called Jigsaw Puzzle. I've seen it used in teacher trainings and corporate trainings. Recently, as I was grabbing items I needed from The Dollar Tree, I happened to be near the jigsaw puzzles. Seeing them reminded me of this activity and I decided that it was time to try it in my classroom and share it with you.

Jigsaw Puzzle will reinforce the importance of cooperation and teamwork. It will encourage students to acknowledge that they will often need work and communicate with others to complete a task.

There are many different versions of this game out there. I made my version workable for a short time frame and 10 year olds in mind. Here's what you need:

  • jigsaw puzzles with no more than 100 pieces - I actually did 25 because I do not wish for this to be a lengthy activity. Purchase one box for every 3 or 4 students. 
  • baggies
  • index cards/small slip of paper for each student (for the debrief)
  •  a piece of butcher paper (also for the debrief)

That's it! I bought 8 puzzles. Now, I will tell you that these aren't the highest quality puzzles on Earth, but they will work for the activity. It just might take a few pieces placed together for them to stay put. Cheap puzzle pieces don't seem to click into place as well as more expensive ones. I personally think they are fine for an activity I will only do once a year. 

As a note, you could purchase puzzles that all make the same exact picture - though, good luck finding 8 of them at The Dollar Tree. Since that might be a challenge, just make sure that some of your puzzles have similar colors. You will understand why as you read further. 

Prep Directions
  1. Take all of the pieces out of each box and place them in a bag. I wrote a letter on the side of each box and a matching letter on the baggie so I knew which puzzle was in in each bag.  
  2. Take two pieces out of each bag. To decide which two, look at the other puzzles and try to take out pieces that are similar to other puzzles. For example, I might take out two blue pieces if a lot of the other puzzles have blue in them. I try to grab middle pieces when I can, but use the color as the guide.
  3. Take the two pieces you pulled from each puzzle and place each one in a different bag. The intention is for each bag to have two pieces in it that belong to two other puzzles. Again, if the colors are the same this won't be obvious right away, which is the goal.

Activity Directions
  1. Give each group of 3-4 students a bag with the jigsaw puzzle pieces. They should not see the picture what they are making. They will have to rely on the colors and shapes to build their picture. Do not tell them that two of the pieces don't go with their puzzle. 
  2. Tell students to split up the pieces equally (which works well with a 24 piece puzzle in groups of 2, 3, or 4. 
  3. Direct students to work together to place their pieces successfully. Encourage them to talk to one another as they fit their pieces together. 
  4. Give students time to put their puzzles together, depending on how many pieces you've decided to use. Tell students that the goal is for all puzzles to be completed. Make it clear that this is not a competition, but is instead focused on completion. This will make it more likely that all groups will persevere with this task. 
  5. As students begin to realize that two pieces do not fit, do not tell them why. Prompt them with questions such as: Where could your pieces be? How could you get them to complete your puzzle? Let them figure out the solution, which will be to communicate with and swap with the groups that have their pieces. Allow students to go around to different groups and talk to them about the pieces they have. 
  6. Let all students complete their puzzles. You can give them a moment to do a quick gallery walk and see the pictures if time allows.
  7. Debrief with a discussion. Ask the following questions: 
    • How did you work together as a team in the beginning of the activity?
    • What challenges did you face?
    • Why weren't you able to complete your puzzle at first?
    • What was the solution to that problem?
    • How did communicating with the other groups help you to achieve your goal of completing your puzzle?
  8. As an alternative to a standard exit ticket where students write down what they learned,  give each student an index card and have them write down the names of all of the students that made their team successful, both in their assigned group and outside of it.  Take a giant piece of butcher paper, and have every student add the names they wrote on their card on the poster. Repeats are welcome! When all students are finished, all names will be on the poster, some several times. It's a great representation of how they all worked as a team to achieve the goal of completing all of the puzzles. 
Printable directions are available below. Please let me know how this goes if you try it. This one isn't a tried and true in my classroom (yet), so I'll be testing it out along with you. I'd love to hear about your experience! 


Toothpaste Words: The Most Important Back to School Lesson You Can Do

It's no secret that I love fun and engaging back to school activities. I've never been known as the quiet teacher because I love a noisy room - not one that is out of control loud and chaotic, but one where lively discussion is taking place alongside hands-on learning. However, no matter how fun my lessons might be, there is always a meaning behind what we are doing, something to be learned from the experience. 

Enter the Toothpaste Activity. This activity has been floating around for all of my teaching years (that's 13 going on 14 for those that are wondering) I couldn't begin to tell you who thought of this first, but it certainly wasn't me. Whoever it was, thank you! This is the time of year where teachers are looking for ideas to use for the first few days of school, so I thought I'd share it. I mentioned this activity as a one liner in a post many years ago 

The first part the Toothpaste Activity is a blast! Students work in groups. They receive a paper plate and a tube of toothpaste (get blue and use grab them from your local Dollar Store). Students are then asked to squeeze out an entire tube of toothpaste, getting every last drop out. 

For the second part of the activity, give students a toothpick. Tell them they need to put all of the toothpaste back in the tube using only the toothpick. Make it a race. Give them about 10 minutes to get as much back in as they can. They will start to realize they can't possibly get it all (which is why you don't want white toothpaste). 

Students then clean up. This is where the important part of the lesson comes in. When students come back to their seats, you begin a discussion about words. Ask students to share words that are hurtful to them and write them on the board as they share. I immediately tell them that we will agree that any "swear" words are hurtful, but I won't be writing any of those on the board. It will take your kids a bit to open up, so feel free to add a few of your own to get them going. You will get some uncomfortable words. I write most of them down, but if you don't feel comfortable writing it, tell students that you will treat that one like a swear because everyone feels that one is hurtful. I once did this lesson with my principal in the room, and she actually told me she was glad I wrote down all of the words because it made the lesson more powerful, but stick with your comfort level.

Next, take a step back and look at the board. This is where you connect the activity. You explain to students that the words on the board are toothpaste words. Explain that when they squeezed the toothpaste, it was like the words coming out. Ask students to tell you what happened when they tried to put every last drop of the toothpaste back in. Explain that just as the toothpaste couldn't all be placed back in the tube, their words cannot be taken back once they've been said. I always talk to students about the fact that a friend may forgive them, but they will never forget what they said. 

This will lead you to a discussion about the power of words and how we should think before we speak because all of the words listed on the board have hurt someone at one time or another. Talk to students about choosing words that are kind, supportive, and positive. Ask them to agree that they will not use the words listed on the board towards their classmates or anyone else because they now know they are hurtful. Tell them that today, you can erase the words from the board, but if they are said, there isn't an eraser in the world that is strong enough to erase the pain their words will cause. 

Teacher friends, these discussions have been amazing throughout the year. I get the chills, tear up, sometimes just outright cry right along with them as they share their words and stories. You will realize quickly that some of the words they share have probably come from adults in their lives and it will break your heart, but it will also give you a window into their life, which will help you to give them the love and respect they need during the school day. My students refer to toothpaste words from that day forward and it really has an impact on them. I hope you will take the time to do this important lesson. You can download the directions and a reflection response page by clicking the image below. 


Stretch the "Truth" on the First Day of School

Icebreakers are a great way to help students to get to know each other during the first days of the school year. One of my favorite icebreakers is called Two Truths and a Lie. I first did this activity at a back to school staff meeting several years ago. I knew immediately that I wanted to use it in my classroom.

If you've never played Two Truths and a Lie, it's about as simple as it gets. You write down three statements about yourself, but one of them isn't actually true. You then share your three statements with a partner or group and they determine which one is a lie. It's a fun and engaging way to get to know others.

The object, of course, is to write down statements that are convincing. When I do this activity, I tell students that they should think about activities they've done that are out of the ordinary, while also thinking about ordinary things that they didn't actually do. We discuss the fact that no one rode a rainbow on a magical unicorn and how writing something unrealistic like that would give their lie away.

This year, I'm going to kick this activity off with a read-aloud of the story The Truth About My Unbelievable Summer, a fun, exaggerated story of a child's summer vacation with fantastic illustrations. After I read this story, I plan to ask students to share the events in the story that made it unbelievable.

This will be my segue into Two Truths and a Lie. I will introduce the activity with some examples. Here's some I've used in the past:
  • I rode the Superman roller coaster at Six Flags five times in a row.
  • I ate a hot dog on the lawn of The White House.
  • I swam with the dolphins in Hawaii. 
  • I ate frog legs at a French restaurant.
  • I went horseback riding at the beach. 
  • I caught a 24 pound rainbow trout in Lake Tahoe.
  • I coached cheerleading for five years. 

I'll write my examples on the board (or add a slide with them for my back to school presentation) and ask students to think about each one. I'll call on a few students to share whether they think each of my statements is a truth or a lie and why. Students are usually surprised to find out that I'm not a strong swimmer (no swimming with the dolphins for this girl) and wouldn't catch a fish if you paid me. They are even more surprised to find out that I did spend a 4th of July at The White House. We will discuss why my statements were harder to determine than the events that were shared in our read-aloud. I will remind them that the book provided us a good example of the unbelievable, while my examples were more difficult to determine because they were all possible, even if some seemed less likely to be true than others.

After our discussion, students will work on their own statements. They will have about 10 minutes to work on this, and this work time will be at a level zero (no talking) since they will be sharing their statements with a partner or group when they are finished. Be prepared to help some students to generate ideas. As with all activities, this will come easier to some than others. You might want to prepare a list of additional examples in case anyone gets stuck for ideas. 

Students will fold a paper in half the long way (hot dog style) and cut three flaps. They will write their three "truths" on the front and then under the flap of each one, they can check a box to show if it is a truth or lie (have them do this lightly or it will show right through the paper). When their work time is up, students can share their statements with a partner or group (depending on time constraints). Students can flip the flaps up to check their guesses after they've read them all. This activity will lead to great discussions and help to calm those first day jitters!

If you'd like to grab a copy of the reproducible that I use for Two Truths and a Lie, click the image below! Whether it's a couple of weeks, a month, or more, I hope your first week is fabulous! 


I Didn't Do My Homework... A Fun Book & Activity for the First Week of School

Last year, I purchased I Didn't Do My Homework Because... (not an affiliate link) because the illustrations appealed to me and it looked like a fun book to share with my students during the first week of school. I like to have fun, short books to introduce important rules and procedures to my students. This book was a great introduction to our discussion about homework, which is actually pretty minimal in my class, but exists, nonetheless. I brought my students to the carpet and previewed the cover, asking them what their honest thoughts were on homework. We discussed the types of assignments they liked and the types they didn't like. Then, I asked students if any of them had ever forgotten to do their homework. Of course, many hands went up and they all did a little nervous giggle together. I asked them to turn and talk to a partner (this was a great time to squeeze in my expectations for turn and talks on the carpet) about a reason that they didn't do their homework. After they had a couple of minutes to share, I told them we'd be reading a story with a number of excuses inside. It would be up to them to determine if any of the excuses were actually believable.

I read the book, sharing the pictures, and we all laughed about the reasons the main character didn't complete his homework. I gave students time to share their favorite excuse from the story and we also discussed which ones were possible and which were impossible. Since I had their full attention and engagement, I used this as a springboard for my rules and expectations for homework. We had a serious discussion about what would be expected of them throughout the year. I made my expectations clear, allowed them to ask questions, and then shifted the focus to a fun activity. I created a reproducible that asks students to become both author and illustrator of their own creative excuse for not doing their homework. They were excited to get to work. Before they worked on their illustrations, I had them decide what their excuse would be and write it down under the picture, not telling or showing anyone at first so that all of their ideas would be their own. Once everyone had written down their excuse, I allowed students to talk at a whisper (level 1) as they began to work on their illustrations. The whole activity took about an hour. I put all of their pictures on the wall as soon as they completed them! We had some really creative excuses, as you'll see below!
This creative student wrote, "A magician came and turned me into a french fry. I did not have any hands to pick up my pencil or flip a page. Then a giant dipped me into ketchup and bit my head off! 

Another wonderful student wrote, "A evil unicorn on a storm cloud took my house with my homework."

This fantastic student wrote, "A shark-faced dog took me to get ice cream. When I came home, I asked where my homework was and my sister said her frog ate it."

If you don't have a copy of this book, I encourage you to borrow one or invest in one for your classroom. I will be doing this every year from now on. It was a great way to engage students, read an enjoyable book, address an important topic, and give students time to have fun and be creative. You can click the image below to grab a copy of the reproducible for the activity. Enjoy!


Watercolor Book Labels Freebie

Me at the end of every year: "I'm going to keep my decor the same next year. It will be nice to not change everything for once."

Me in July: "Ooooh! This design is so cute! I must change everything!"

This year, it's watercolors that are making their way into my classroom. If you follow me on Instagram or Facebook, you already know that I've been working on watercolor book labels ALL WEEK. I'm so thankful for social media because my followers helped me to choose a font, a watercolor clip art style, and an overall label style. To show my appreciation for all of this assistance, I've decided to share all three styles with you! All you have to do is click the image below to download the file and then use the one you love best! Enjoy!


Easy Classroom Library Checkout with Booksource Classroom Organizer

Books, books, and more books! That pretty much sums up my life in and out of the classroom. I love to read and each year, it's my goal to help my students to gain a love of reading. After 13 years of teaching and a lot of shopping at Scholastic, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon, I have a MASSIVE classroom library. I add new books at the beginning of each year, as well as new books throughout the year. My classroom library currently contains over 1,000 books, and that number will keep on growing.

For 12 years, I used a basic sign-in/sign-out sheet to hold students responsible for checking books in and out of our classroom library. There were several problems with this:
  • Unless I checked daily, I didn't know which students were actually being responsible and signing out their books before taking them to their seats and ultimately taking them home.
  • Students often forgot to sign their book back in before checking out another. I allow one book to be checked out at a time (2 over breaks). Keeping track of this meant that at least once a week, I had to take out the sign-in sheet and read off each book that was checked out. Very often, students would say, "No, I already returned that," and then it became a search for the book that they returned so that I could be sure they actually did return it. A lot of valuable teaching time was wasted.
  • It was easy for students to go beyond their limit. I always had 3-4 students who would have a stockpile of books inside their desk. Now, I'm all for reading more than one book at the same time, but my students are also allowed to borrow 2 books from our regular library each week. It is rare that my students are reading more than 2 books at a time.
  • The conditions of my books were rarely reported to me. I wouldn't know about ripped covers or pages until another student found it on the shelf. My students know that I never get upset about this happening to a book, but I do love to know when it happens. Then I can take out my clear packing tape and try to perform book surgery to save the book. When I can't fix it, knowing the condition lets me know what books need to be replaced, which is helpful when we do our monthly Scholastic book order. 
  • Books went missing or were lost and never reported to me. A student would go to borrow a favorite book and it would be missing. Then I had to go through every single sign-out page to try to figure out who was ultimately responsible for the book, which was rarely a success. I don't mind if a book goes missing here and there, but over time, this can result in a lot of popular books not being returned and when it isn't reported to me, I don't even know I need to replace them. 
  • It took a long time for some students to write the title with their name and date on the sign-out sheet. 
  • There is no way to keep track of your inventory. With over 1,000 books, I have reached the point where I can barely remember which book I bought. That made it hard to order or buy new books without having my classroom library right in front of me.
At the end of the 2016-2017 school year, I was determined to spend my summer finding a solution to these problems. I began to inquire about possible solutions through social media networks. I received a lot of suggestions and tried quite a few, but each one seemed to be lacking the library management ease I was hoping for. Then, in one Facebook group, another teacher mentioned success with Booksource Classroom Organizer. I checked it out and it turned out to be exactly what I needed. I began using it last August and it has exceeded my expectations!

Booksource Classroom Organizer makes classroom library organization a breeze! It's a FREE web-based program that solves every single problem I listed above. You can add your books to create an inventory of your library and organize your library by genre or levels, depending on what you use. Most importantly, it makes the whole checkout process a breeze!

To get started, I created a free account and began to add my inventory. Because of my library size, this took me several sessions. At first, I was entering each ISBN by hand and that was pretty time-consuming. Another teacher mentioned that she purchased a scanner similar to the one that is often used in school libraries. I went on Amazon and found the reasonably-priced TaoTronics USB Barcode Scanner (not an affiliate link). Once I received that, entering my books was quick and easy!

After I'd scanned my entire library, I was ready for students to begin check out. From the very first day, this program was a breeze and I found myself grateful for it throughout the year. Here are several reasons why I love this program:
  • Checking books in and out is quick and easy. Students either check books out in the morning before announcements or during the day when they've finished an assignment early. I know they are being responsible because I can see them at the desktop computer that I've set up with the scanner and I hear the scanner beep when they check their book in or out. Scanning the book to check it out is a whole lot faster than writing down the title, their name, and the date of check out on a piece of paper.

  • Students are asked to review their books when they return it. We already do book reviews in my class, so this is a great chance for students to write a snippet review that peers can see when checking out their books.
  • My Dashboard gives me a great overview of student checkouts, overdue books, reviews to approve, and a nice breakdown of my inventory by genre. I definitely need more nonfiction! 
  • In the My Account section under Preferences, I can set exactly how many books each student can borrow at a time. If they haven't returned one at are at their max borrow limit, the system won't let them borrow a new one. I had zero problems with missing books this year - zero! I didn't think that was possible! 
  • Also in preferences, I can select how long students can borrow books before they are considered overdue. This is helpful because if I see that a student has had a book for over two weeks, I can have a conversation with them about it. We might determine that the book isn't interesting or isn't the right level for that student.
  • When students check in a book, they are asked to select the condition that it is in. I can add my own condition options for this in the preferences page I use to set checkout limits. 
  • I can print both classroom and student reports. For the classroom, this includes book checkout history, current books that are checked out, and overdue books. I print the current books list at the end of every week and use it as a 2-minute check-in to be sure that students still have the books on the list. I can also look at individual student checkout history and detail.
  • As long as I have access to the web, I have access to my inventory. I went on an Amazon spending spree last week, stocking up on lots of new books. I had a few on a wishlist that I thought I might have already purchased during the last school year. All I had to do was log on to my Booksource Classroom Organizer account and search for the books in my library. I had one title already, so I didn't end up making an unnecessary purchase. What a breeze! 

Those are my favorite features about this free program, but there's a lot of other great features, too. If you are looking for an effective way to manage your classroom library and make book checkout a breeze, I encourage you to explore this program. You won't be disappointed!

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