Building a Reader's Oasis in a Book Desert

By Katie Waters

I've always been a bookworm. It's one reason I became an English teacher. Each year, one of my top goals is to share my love of books with my middle school students, even those who declare that they "hate reading." One of those students I had was Andy, an 8th grader who would put his head down on the desk during our independent reading block every day.

My co-teacher and I didn't blame him. Our school was up against some challenging reading conditions. Due to a lack of space, our students did not have a school library. Moreover, the staff did not have a budget for books. Although we had a small classroom library, most of the books were in poor condition and many of the same titles repeated in the collection.

In The Book in Question, author Carol Jago draws an analogy between teenagers' reading and eating habits. A steady diet of candy bars and soft drinks fails to nourish a growing body; likewise, developing readers require access to nutritious books. Andy's distaste was a reminder that we had no excuses. If our school couldn't provide the resources, we needed to improve our library by acquiring engaging books in other ways.

My co-teacher and I worked over the course of the year to build a better collection and ensure all students had books they could really sink their teeth into. I've since had opportunities to design multiple classroom libraries for grade levels with a range of interests and experiences. So, how did we manage—with very few resources—to turn Andy into a joyful reader who dove into selections as varied as Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me, a graphic novel version of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, and George Orwell's 1984? If you're trying to create a library out of thin air, consider the following strategies.

Use your curriculum as a starting point for building your library. Regardless of what we were studying in class, I always wanted my students to have multiple opportunities to engage with the subject matter during independent reading. I'd comb through the curriculum and determine which topics and subtopics would generate interest from students. For a class of 7th graders learning about the Middle Ages, I picked nonfiction works about castles and knights and well-known novels such as Catherine Called Birdy by Karen Cushman and Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi. The classroom library should give students opportunities to build on their foundation of learning, using what they've learned in vocabulary instruction and class lectures and discussions to carry forth in their independent reading.

Provide both mirrors and windows for your students. The books on your shelves should offer students opportunities to see themselves in the characters, which can deepen engagement. We started with student input and surveys to find out what kinds of books students wanted to read and what would reflect their worldviews and personal experiences. Then, we matched students' requests with outside recommendations. The lists for the Coretta Scott King Award, Children's Africana Book Awards, Pura Belpré Medal, and Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature identify literature from diverse authors. 

For our 7th graders, who would read Animal Farm as a core text and study the power of speech and language, I picked Dear Martin by Nic Stone as a companion text, which explores the power of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s words in a contemporary setting. Another companion novel, You're Welcome Universe by Whitney Gardner, tells the story of a deaf protagonist who uses graffiti to express herself.

Additionally, students need to broaden their worldview for global awareness. For the 7th graders studying the Middle Ages, I picked the books The Kite Fighters by Linda Sue Park and The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay: Life in Medieval Africa by Patricia and Frederick McKissack to build wider knowledge of Asia, Africa, and the medieval world.

Let go of Lexile levels. Using Lexile levels throughout the school year provides students a sense of how they have grown as readers, but that doesn't mean we should use them to limit independent reading choices. For example, if students know a lot about a topic, they're likely able to navigate a text at a higher Lexile level because they've built up the background knowledge and already have an interest. And, like most avid readers, students should have opportunities to read books that are easy to read and understand for pure enjoyment.Once they are aware of their own level, students can decide whether they want a challenge or an easy read.

I also allow students to abandon books. No one should have to read a book all the way through if it turns out to be too challenging or not interesting. That being said, if someone like Andy was observed constantly abandoning books, we'd have a one-on-one to get back on track and find reads worth completing.

When it's time to purchase your classroom library, ask for help. Check in with anyone who might have insight into how to purchase books. Does your principal have a budget for books? Does a district curriculum leader have money for classroom libraries? Does your district have a grant writer?

I used a DonorsChoose campaign to purchase almost $1,000 worth of books. I've also used Scholastic book orders to earn free books. And, like many teachers, I have also spent my own money at garage sales, library sales, used bookstores, and regional distribution warehouse sales. Always let the seller know that you're a teacher—you might be surprised what you can get free or at a discount.

Read books from your classroom library. Once you have amassed a collection you feel good about—which should be an ongoing, ever-changing effort—intimately knowing the books in your collection ensures you know which ones to put in the hands of specific students. Set aside time for silent reading and opportunities for students to read a juicy paragraph aloud in pairs or check out new books. Share favorite books you've read and ask your students to do the same in book discussions in class, in small-group literature circles, or in book clubs after school.

The best way to build a culture that celebrates reading is to do what bookworms do—read and share well-loved books.

Reference

Jago, C. (2018). The book in question: Why and how reading is in crisis. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Katie Waters was a middle school English teacher, curriculum manager, and instructional coach for 12 years. She now works with K–8 literacy teachers as the lead facilitator for humanities professional development at Great Minds, the nonprofit developer of Wit & Wisdom and Eureka Math.

ASCD Express, Vol. 14, No. 32. Copyright 2019 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.