Looking back on my elementary school years, I realize that I took the presence of classroom libraries for granted. During reading time and on days where the weather did not allow for having recess outside, I was free to wander over to the bookshelves and peruse the stacks. However, these reminiscences bring about the adult understanding that these collections were woefully lacking. Not only were the books limited in number, but they were also limited in subject and genre.
That is not to say that some teachers did not try, but I now see that many did not try nearly as hard as they could if they were trying at all. Each time a book fair came through, my teachers would gaze wistfully at the titles on offer before herding the students back to the classroom. Rarely did they purchase books, and if they did it was often at the expense of other things needed such as tissues and dry erase markers. There was also the lack of space to take into consideration as teachers were being assigned classes of 20-25 students in rooms that were maxed out at about 15.
There were some teachers who asked for donations from parents and students, but one teacher in particular made people leery about the practice in my school. If a student wanted to bring in a book just to share with others before taking it back home at the end of the day, this teacher would talk circles around the poor child until somehow the text was placed on her shelves and the kid left school in tears sans book.
Finally, there were teachers who often sighed about how they wished they could just buy the books themselves. You may be thinking, why didn’t they? Well, that’s because they were worried that students would damage the books or not return them, and they didn’t want to “waste” money if their students were just going to be ungrateful like that. To be honest, I don’t place all of the fault on them since we live in a society that fetishizes material things and commodifies people.
With that being said, these experiences, and reading Penny Kittle’s views on the matter, I have come to my own conclusions about classroom libraries.
First of all, there are ways to have extensive classroom libraries even with space constraints. Solutions such as floating shelves and corner shelves are a must, and with the increased prevalence of iPads and Kindles in schools there has to be a way to formulate an electronic collection as well.
Secondly, underhanded means of book accrual will turn your students, parents, and colleagues against you. Therefore, everything must be above board if I am to receive any help from them. Additionally, I must also be prepared to defend the variety I wish to have gracing my shelves. As such, I must make sure that I have read, or at least know enough if I haven’t done so yet, to answer any questions my students might ask. This is tied into Kittle’s premise that “interest in reading comes from engagement”. This, as I understood it, means not only engagement with the text but also engagement with the what the text is trying to convey and engagement with the teacher as a facilitator of understanding and feedback.
Lastly, the second I start valuing money, an inanimate object that value has arbitrarily been assigned to and has no real use outside of what it has come to represent in our society, over the education and opportunities my students so desperately crave is the second I have failed as a teacher. Respect is a mutual thing as is trust and learning, so I must honor my students by believing that books are replaceable, whether their replacement be necessitated by damage or loss, while that chance to read, learn, and grow as a person is not. As Kittle says, “The most important condition in my classroom is my relationship with my students.”