9 Guiding Ideas for School Libraries

9 Guiding Ideas for School Libraries

The Role of the Library

At a school using a balanced, comprehensive literacy program the library is the heart of everything. I would like to argue that the library should always be the heart of a school regardless of curriculum. 

These are some truths I believe about school libraries. I would like to say that I am not a trained librarian but a classroom teacher. If you are a school librarian, please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below. Learning from one another is extremely important.

Readers Should Have Free Choice

The only time in my classroom that students don’t have choice is when I choose guided reading books and a few rare other times when I select texts for students. I often recommend texts to readers but they can always turn down my choices. Not all classrooms offer students choice and power over the books they read. Libraries need to be the safe haven that always allows choice. 

Students should be allowed to explore their own interests. They should be allowed to check out books that are far too difficult and far too easy for them. They need a space where they are allowed to be a reader. No one prevents me from checking out certain books at the library. Students should have the same privilege. 

Just Say No to Levels

I don’t believe that levels are for students and I do not believe levels have a place in libraries. If kids are allowed free choice, their reading abilities shouldn’t limit them. 

When I was in elementary school there was a picture book and chapter book section of our library. We had to check out from the picture book section in grades K, 1, 2 and then were no longer allowed to check books out from there in grades 3, 4, 5. In second grade the top three readers were allowed to check out books from the chapter book section. I was so excited to hear the names announced Allison, Grace, and Daniel. It wasn’t me. My teacher later told me that I was reader number four. I was so upset and I spent the entire year checking out books (because we had to) and returning them without reading them. That year I also spent a lot of time at the public library checking out Boxcar Children and Amber Brown. Don’t limit kids because of their reading level. Let them love books!

Checkout Limits Need To Go

If the goal of school libraries is to create book lovers and readers then why do we limit how many stories a child can take out? Don’t we want more books in the hands of readers? Checkout limits are counterintuitive. Of course, some students will need guidance but I’ve found that even without checkout limits kids figure out how many books is right for them. Teaching kids how to self-regulate is an important skill and book check outs are the perfect place for it. 

EveryDay Is Library Day

My class visits the library once a week for class. During that class our library media specialist reads a story and reinforces a concept we’re teaching in reading or writing. Then students are allowed to browse the library and check out books. But everyday is library day. So if students go home and read all of their books they can always check out books during the first and last half-hour of the day. I have students who visit the library daily and check out what I’m sure is a ridiculously large number of books a year. Every child has the opportunity to visit the library every day. That is what matters when creating readers.

The library also shouldn’t shut down for large periods of time where it is inaccessible to students. Libraries that close the last month of school aren’t helping create more readers. I know that inventory is an important process but kids having access to books is even more important. Think about the policies of your school library. Do they support growing readers or do the polices stand in their way? 

Students Should Be Allowed A Clean Slate

My favorite librarian Barb always had a clean slate club. Each and every school year she welcomed students back into the library and declared that they each had a clean slate. That meant that all of their past library activity was wiped clean. If you had late fees- gone! If you lost a book and never returned it- don’t worry! Every child was guaranteed a clean slate. Clean slate announcements happened throughout the school year as well.

When books were lost and fines weren’t paid Barb didn’t shame children and she didn’t restrict their access to books. She said they were simply building their home libraries. Books are consumable resources. We know that they become well loved and pages fall out or they become lost at home and get added to a home library collection. Not returning books and not being able to pay late fines shouldn’t hinder children. If we don’t allow those kids to check out books we are often limiting our most vulnerable readers. That is against our goal of creating more readers! 

The Library Should Be Filled With Book Lovers

You can tell a successful library and a successful literacy program by the whispers and sometimes shouts you hear at the library. Kids should be talking about their interests. They should share recommendations with other students. They should jump up and down when they see the new texts being added to the library. The feeling in the library should be one of loving books. Do these kids love books? Are they given opportunities to share their reading life with other readers?

Books Should Mirror the Diversity of the World

Kids need windows and mirrors. This isn’t a new concept but it still doesn’t happen in all classrooms. Students need mirrors to see themselves and their own cultures reflected back at them. They also need windows to look out and learn about lives that are different than their own. We grow stronger by reading books that are both mirrors and windows. 

When I taught grade 3 my class wanted to do a classroom library audit. We dumped all of our books out onto the floor and started sorting by type of characters- animals, white people, Black people, First Americans, etc. One of my First American students was so upset to only find one book that represented First Americans in our library and even more upset when she realized it didn’t represent the Ojibwe tribe. Representation matters. She couldn’t read stories about her own culture in our classroom library and no other students could read about her culture. That isn’t ok. Kids need to see representation across the genres as well. I should see myself represented in historical fiction, poetry, realistic fiction, narrative nonfiction, biographies, fantasies, thrillers, mysteries. You name it and I should be able to find a mirror book and several window books. As a white woman I don’t have too hard of a time finding mirrors but finding windows can be tricky. 

Our school consciously purchased more books about Black Americans for our biography unit but then we realized they bought stories about slavery or stories about civil rights. Want to know which biography was the most popular? Gabby Douglas. Kids wanted more biographies of Black Americans of today. By only showing times of struggle the window and mirror view of the Black experience was warped. 

Support Reading in All Forms

Magazines, eBooks, audiobooks, printed books, whatever kind. All books are created equal. Earlier this year I was told I shouldn’t put the book I was reading on my door for literacy week because I was “only listening to it.” Sometimes the only way I get to read is by listening to stories as I walk around the city. Each morning on my way to the taxi I listen to an audiobook. I also read book on my iPad and I have paper books as well. Libraries should celebrate all readers and all types of readers! 

There Should Be No Censorship

We shouldn’t exclude books from our collections just because it might be controversial. In fact we need to include controversial books. We can’t exclude texts about LGBTQ people. Their lives aren’t inappropriate. We can’t exclude texts on police violence. We need an inclusive library without censorship.

When I was in middle school I went through a phase where I only read really depression books about drug addicts, violence, and teen pregnancy. I read Smack and Go Ask Alice, Speak and Cut. These books were deemed inappropriate for me and I didn’t care. I loved reading those book so much. They were the windows I must have needed at that time in my life. My sister had a teacher call home to tell my mom the Gossip Girl books she was reading weren’t appropriate. Thankfully, my mom does not mess around when it comes to reading. She didn’t care what we were reading as long as we were reading. After going through my dark books phase I started reading the Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging series. Readers go through phases- its ok. Let kids explore and figure out their identity and place in the world through books. 

Changing Our Thinking: Stop Waiting For All The Kids

Changing Our Thinking: Stop Waiting For All The Kids


There are many practices from long ago that we need to rethink as teachers. This series looks to bring up those practices and offer alternate ideas that are more relevant in today’s classroom. Today we’re discussing waiting for all kids to be finished.

Why we wait

As teachers, we spend a lot of time waiting. We wait for our whole class to line up before taking them to specials. We wait for the whole class to sit on the carpet before beginning a lesson. We wait for all kids to finish eating snack before we move on. We wait patiently for all partners to finish before we bring the class back together. We wait for so many things and we wait for many reasons. One reason is so that all students feel like they had enough time to finish what they were doing or saying. We also wait so that we don’t have to repeat directions over and over again. We wait so that all kids are ready. But when we wait it starts to cause issues even if we don’t notice them right away.

What happens when we wait

When we always wait for kids we create a culture of waiting in the classroom. Kids know that we are going to wait for all kids to get to the carpet so they take their time. When they know that we are going to wait there is less of a sense of urgency. Kids losing their sense of urgency is one the worst things that can happen in your classroom. It happened in mine last year and I thought I was going to lose my mind.

Another teacher would take my students to specials every day. Every day I would leave my classroom at this time to avoid being in the classroom for the chaos that was created by waiting. Natasha, why didn’t you stay and help? I will admit that I tried but this teacher was so convinced that we needed to wait for all students to be ready before leaving that I could do nothing. Within a few days, I found kids slowly dragging themselves to the carpet. They came slow as can be to reading groups. They moved at a snail’s pace because their time was never respected. Their on-time behavior was never rewarded. They saw no reason to do things quickly and on time because they would always have to wait for someone else.

This teacher once waited for 16 minutes before leaving. SIXTEEN! Kids can’t lose 16 minutes of instruction time! Ain’t nobody got time for that! Repeating yourself over and over doesn’t help the kids. You might think the longer you wait the more kids will be ready. WRONG! I can tell you from experience, the longer you wait the fewer kids are ready! Threatening with empty threats also does nothing. Do you know what does do something? What motivates those friends to get a move on? Leaving them behind and making them catch up. Creating a sense of urgency deep inside their little hearts.

Urgency in the Classroom

Teachers would all pretty much agree that there aren’t enough hours in the school day to accomplish the job we have been tasked to do. Every moment my students are with me is a precious moment for teaching. We don’t have any minutes to lose! If you visit my classroom you’ll find that I frequently send kids off using the phrase “Hurry! We have no time to lose!” Soon kids start using this phrase to others and our class has a sense of urgency. My kids know (because I tell them over and over) that we don’t waste time on things that aren’t important. If we are doing something it is one of the most important things in the world. Kids know that they will be left behind if they don’t hop in line for library. Kids know that when I say turn and talk they have to start talking immediately or they won’t get their chance. They know that snack is over we go to specials and we leave kids behind.

Waiting is your frienemy

Waiting might seem tempting. It might seem like you want to wait for the class to be ready. Guess what? Waiting is your frenemy. It isn’t your friend. It doesn’t have your best interests at heart. It is going to suck you in and tear you down. In the past, we’ve rationalized waiting with things like:
Kids will feel left out if we leave them behind.
Kids need to finish what they’re saying in a turn and talk.
We don’t want them to feel rushed.

While each of these statements does carry some truth, kids don’t feel these things when we teach with a sense of urgency. Maybe kids feel left out the first time they get left behind as the class walks to PE. The next time the class leaves that child will be right in line with everyone. Kids who have too much time for a turn and talk lose focus and get bored. If they know they only have a small moment they have to share quickly and there is no time for being off task. We don’t want to create anxiety in kids by teaching with urgency but instead show them that we have no precious moments of learning to waste. None.

Students in my class understand that their time won’t be wasted. Due to this, we are able to follow directions immediately. We have a collective understanding that every moment we are together is a good moment for learning. What we’re doing in the classroom matters and we won’t waste time for kids who aren’t with us.

Changing Our Thinking

I hope this small shift in thinking is helpful in your classroom tomorrow. Try it out. Don’t wait for all of your kids. Of course, you will be met with some complaints but soon your kids will be following your directions right away instead of in a few minutes.

Leave a comment below about your shift in thinking, any questions you might have, and how this is working for you within the classroom.