Early each school year my primary goal as a teacher was to improve the reading and writing skills of my new students. In addition, I wanted to create a relaxed atmosphere but still have a very well behaved class. A path to these two goals was paved by having an extensive and well-diversified classroom library. The components of this library consisted of books, magazines and when available daily newspapers.
In an austerity move within the school system where I once taught, the superintendent dismissed most school librarians and all but ended the utilization of school libraries. The faculties were instructed to purchase books for their personal classroom libraries. That summer I sought out used bookstores, flea markets and yard sales in an attempt to acquire suitable books for my students to read. In September my classroom library “boasted” fifty-seven books. Within a few weeks I became aware that my collection was average for my school as compared to other teachers. Their numbers ranged from zero to slightly more than 100 books in their classroom libraries. Five years later a new, more enlightened superintendent hired more librarians and restored the schools’ libraries to full use. However, I saw how useful a classroom library could be and continued to increase my little class library. Over the decades that I served as a teacher my little library reached a zenithof 389 books.
The very first task I assigned each year was to have each student select a book from the class library. I informed them that in a month’s time they would submit their first book report. Before any other assignments and distribution of supplies and class rules, the very first experience of my class was spent reading. Every day when daily assignments were completed the students were encouraged to read their books. Everyday upon entering the class my students began their day by reading their individually selected books. Eventually, I included D.E.A.R. (Drop Everything And Read) time, lasting about 10 to 15 minutes in duration. At the conclusion of each afternoon, my students spent the final ten minutes either getting a head start on their homework or reading their book.
I tried to have books in my library that were not only on grade level but two or more years both above and below grade norms. I found that books that had a combination of one page of written text followed by one page with a picture or illustration with a caption were most popular. My weaker readers or bi-lingual students could read literature above their level if they were able to follow storylines with the help of the diagrams. Students who claimed to “hate” reading almost always became avid readers expressing that this school years was their best ever. An unforeseen benefit of my classroom library with students engaged in a robust reading routine was that it all but eliminated any problem maintaining proper decorum. Every year standardized test scores in my class improved well over a year in both reading and language arts skills. Parents often inquired why their child’s language arts skills had improved so dramatically and in many cases why their child was no longer getting in trouble. My simple response was my students took advantage of the class’ library.
At the end of my teaching career I became a guidance counselor. My little office contained many of my books from my classroom. Students frequently sought to borrow my books in spite of having access to an excellent school library run by a wonderful school librarian. These books often served as an icebreaker with my counselees.
Most teachers use their own monies to purchase items for their students. Although most schools have fine libraries and provide access to computers for their young scholars, I strongly encourage teachers to create and build their own classroom libraries. The library’s books, magazines and newspapers created a residual effect on my students and helped me accomplish the
majority of my goals as an educator. The teachers I know that have created and used a classroom library have never regretted this personal investment. •
Gary Cooper has been an educator for more than 45 years and has taught students from nursery school to college. He is also a guidance counselor and has a bachelor’s and master’s degree. Cooper is a recipient of a Teacher of the Year Award and has also been cited twice in Who's Who Among American Teachers.