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Building a Vibrant Classroom Library without Breaking the Bank

This post is written by member Haley Moehlis.

The research is clear: if we want students to read, we must provide time, choice, access, and support.  Kelly Gallagher, Penny Kittle, Donalyn Miller, Teri Lesesne, and Pernille Ripp all provide valuable insight on how to foster thriving independent reading practices, and each expresses the importance of both a diverse classroom library and a teacher who can put the right book in a kid’s hand. But how do we build those libraries without draining our own pocketbooks?

Before we even begin to collect books for our libraries, we must first decide what we want the library to look like and why we want to have one.  For me, my library needs to be a living, breathing, evolving collection that reflects the readers in my room.  It’s my responsibility to stock the shelves with books that meet the needs and interests of my students. Knowing what my students want and need helps me ask for and acquire books to better serve them.

I’ve built my library through a combination of my personal contributions, donations, and grants. The key for me has been two-fold: a clear and consistent rationale for a diverse classroom library and student testimonials about how access to that library has helped them grow as learners and readers. Each time I ask for donations, I clearly communicate those two touchstones.  I hope these practical ideas can help you build a vibrant library in your classroom.

Personal Contributions

Budget no more than $25 a month to spend on books for students.  That might be one hard cover new release or it might be as many as 10 books if you’re more intentional.  Used book stores are excellent sources for gently used high-interest titles at a fraction of the price.  Discount book sellers also help stretch the dollar.  Book Depot and Thrift Books offer books at deeply discounted rates, sometimes as low as 50 cents!  Thrift stores are another gem for inexpensive books.

Invitation to Parents

Write a letter to parents explaining what they can expect from the class’s independent reading component. Invite them to help curate a library reflective of our young people.  I include a link to my book wish list on Amazon and encourage parents to donate a book in their child’s name. When they do, I place a shiny little sticker inside the book jacket indicating it was donated in their student’s name. In that way, the library isn’t mine, but ours. Most parents don’t donate, but those who do are invaluable.

My city has two huge used book sales each year: The Planned Parenthood Book Sale and the Right to Life Book Sale.  They happen in tandem. A week in advance of the sales, I send parents an email with a list of topics and titles we’d like to add to our library and encourage them to pick up a few books to donate, if they feel inclined.  Many do.

Share your wish list at parent-teacher conferences, too.

Friends and Family

Ask friends and family to donate.  This has provided valuable diversity to my shelves.  I don’t have any knowledge or interest in sports.  However, my friend Cody knows a great deal about them and is an avid reader.  He eagerly hands over books when he’s finished.  Again, a simple sticker inside the cover reinforces that the community believes reading is valuable.  Sometimes people scrawl a little inscription about what the book meant to them.  In that way, books aren’t dead things, they’re transactional and connective.

Use the holidays to draw on the kindness of friends and family.  Again, I share my book wish list.  I can generally add between 10 and 15 books a year that way.

Another fruitful source has been my book club.  Most members buy the book.  Not every title will be a good fit for my students, but many are.  My book club readily passes on books after we’ve discussed them, making it possible for several students to read a book simultaneously and form organic book clubs of their own.

The Generosity of Strangers

One locally owned bookstore allows me to put out a flyer near the register twice a year—August and December. It’s amazing how many people choose to contribute. Ask your local bookstore if they’d be willing to do the same.

I make a point to stop at any garage sale that has books. If there are titles my students would like, I ask the seller if he/she would be willing to donate to my classroom library.  No one has ever said no.

Social media makes the world small. Put out a call for books and why you need them.  Ask friends to share the post.  Books will pour in!

School Funds and Grants

Asking for money isn’t easy, but when it benefits our students, it’s necessary. It’s hard to say no to a teacher who puts her students first and leads with passion and research.  Building principals often have access to slush funds.  Does your school have a foundation that might sign off on a proposal for your library? Are there district grants available? Ask. The worst that can happen is that someone will say no.

Student Donation

The classroom library belongs to students, not to the teacher. When students see it as theirs, they donate. I have several voracious readers who purchase and devour the most popular paperbacks. Many happily add the book to the library once they’re finished.

Building a vibrant classroom library is challenging, but not impossible, and it doesn’t have to break the bank. A clear vision, a willingness to ask for help, and patience are all it takes. Building a community of readers is everyone’s business. Open your door. Share your message. Talk about your library and what it means for students every chance you get. The books will come.

Haley Moehlis is a high school English teacher and serves on the executive board of the Iowa Council of Teachers of English as the outreach coordinator. She is an avid reader, writer, and fervent defender of the Oxford comma. She lives in Des Moines, Iowa, with her husband and their three boys.