Classroom Libraries: Shelves versus Bins

I spent three years as the Literacy Coach at my high school. This was during the time when the Teachers College Reading & Writing Workshop was the mandated balanced literacy curriculum in 9th grade and it was trying to push its way up to 10th grade and dreaming of living in 11th grade as well. One of my main jobs the first two years as the Literacy Coach was to support the 9th and 10th grade English teachers who were using this model.

I had serious, serious issues with the exclusive use reading & writing workshop in a high school English classroom. How it manifested itself is that students never, ever read a whole class text. For you laymen out there, a whole class text is exactly as it sounds: it is a singular text that the entire class reads and studies together.  This is forbidden in the reading writing workshop model because all students are different reading levels (I don’t disagree with this) therefore every student should be independently reading his/her “just right” book. The teacher gives a general lesson on something like “conflict” and then each student goes into her/his “just right” book and explores conflict. This didn’t work for many reasons, but the largest reason was that it was truly impossible to keep a well-stocked classroom library of low level/high interest books in a school where 80%+ of the students lived below the poverty level. The books they wanted to read were all gone by November, and I mean gone as in permanently borrowed, lost, missing–ex: “I had to stay at my aunt’s house because we got kicked out and I left it there and then her and my mom got in a fight and now I can’t go get it.”  With all the good books gone early in the year, the students didn’t read anything all year longI am not kidding. Not a good situation.

In fact, coupled with the testing pressures of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) that grew and grew over my decade in the classroom (NCLB was passed in January of 2001, I started teaching in September of 2000), I feel that the Teachers College Reading and Writing Workshop model is one of the largest reasons why inner city kids in New York City cannot read once they reach high school. I’ll elaborate more on this in another post, but here’s an oldie but goodie article on the literacy/reading/writing wars that continue to ripple through the Department of Education here in New York City.

Yes, that’s a harsh accusation, but I feel it’s true. In fact, if I had any guts as an educational researcher, I would make this a study and stage a coup upon the Teachers College Reading Writing Workshop the balanced literacy throne she has sat upon for decade. Maybe I will.

But I digress.

My first few days of summer have been spent organizing the bejesus out of my 750 square foot apartment in which my 6’4″ husband, myself, and my two giant children live. I love our tiny space, and we make it work quite well, but it is only because of my obsessive compulsive organization skills. While I am prone to hyperbole in many cases, in this one I am not. It is only due to my purging, researching, reconfiguring, collecting, and constant thinking about space that this apartment is a good home. My classroom was the same way.

As the Literacy Coach, I didn’t have a classroom and that was hard for me, but I used those energies in other people’s rooms, particularly in the organization of their classroom libraries. Classroom libraries were a tenet of the reading writing workshop model because, as mentioned, the students were all supposed to be independently reading their “just right” books all the time. Those books came from the classroom library. Books were to be organized by genre and put in bins labeled with that genre’s name. This was in high school. All the books in a classroom library were to be put in bins in high school.

Let me declare that I HATED THOSE FREAKIN’ BINS.

I know it’s crazy to wage war over book bins, but I loathed, despised, abhorred those book bins. I did not think that high school students should go walk over to bookshelves of books and flip though bins like they were in elementary school. I felt they needed to learn the skill of looking at the book’s spine, reading sideways, and understanding how all books in bookstores and libraries everywhere are organized. College would not have books in bins in the undergraduate library! Yes, the students were grades behind in their reading levels, but did we have to treat them like children? I felt it was so insulting. And, because I’m a snob, it was aesthetically unsettling. I hated (and continue to hate) book bins.

I fought the bins for two years with the regional literacy consultant and my assistant principal. I lost every time and then I gave up, but in my classroom, I never had bins.

I have two children who are almost five and almost three and their books are on shelves. (In case you inspect my house, there is one bin of board books  for my potty training son–disclaimer!). And while my two kids cannot read AT ALL, they can find any book they want because they have learned to look at the spine of a book and have memorized its color, the letters or lettering, the size of a book–all those inferential reading skills that you pick up when you are in a family of readers and in a house of books.

I continue to believe that high school classroom libraries should toss the books-in-bins idea, but it’s one teaching crusade I might be waging alone, quietly, under my breath. If you ever catch me in the back of a classroom muttering to myself and making the stink eye at a classroom library full of bins, you’ll know what I’m thinking.

(Photo of my kids’ bedroom bookshelf. One bin holds the potty books, the other holds a tea set. Big brown one for toys. Orange box full of cds. I am a fan of bins in general–due to my rabid need to organize–but not for high school classroom libraries.)


2 thoughts on “Classroom Libraries: Shelves versus Bins

  1. I teach first and second grades, where reading and writing workshop models make more sense. I never even thought of them at the high school level!

    The books in my classroom are in bins, but I do have little kids… and so many of our classroom library books are paperback and have no spines! So I think it’s okay. 🙂

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