Flashlight Fridays

As a teacher, one of my main missions in life is to introduce my students to the joyous world of reading.  I want to find that one book that hooks them and makes them realize how fun reading can be.  I want them to meet characters that they will still love as adults.

We know that they don't all come to us already hooked on books.  So I spend everyday recommending new books that they would enjoy, talking to them about my reading life, and connecting them with other students that love the same books that they do.  Along the way, I want to include as many positive associations with reading as I possibly can.  One very simple way to do that is to institute Flashlight Fridays into your classroom.

The first thing you will need, of course, is flashlights.  The colorful finger lights can work well, and can be found pretty inexpensively these days. However, I prefer true mini flashlights because the white light is more conducive to reading for longer amounts of time.  I started collecting flashlights a few at a time from the Target Dollar Spot, Walmart bins, and Dollar Tree.  I even made a drawer behind my desk labeled "Flashlights" that we can pull out and carry around the room while we are passing them out.

Each Friday, when it is time for silent reading, I walk around and pass out a small flashlight to each student. They know that is their signal to begin moving around the room and getting comfortable for reading.  It is just novel enough that they get even more excited about reading than they usually do.

The first time we use them, we have a little talk about the appropriate use of the flashlights.  I always give them about 5 seconds when we first turn out the lights that first time to shine them on the ceiling (because for some reason that is so much fun for them!) and then they know that their light needs to stay on their book, and never, ever in anyone's face.  It is amazing how intent on reading they become as soon as the overhead light goes out.

The first year I used this idea with my class, I was surprised to see something else happening.  The students that sometimes struggled to stay focused (no matter how hard they tried!) suddenly had an increased level of attentiveness.  With the lights out, the visual stimulation around the room practically disappeared.  With the other students excited about using their flashlights with their books, the incidental noises almost disappeared as well.  I do have several lamps in my classroom that I also turn on, which gives me a slightly better view of each student, and gives the students the option of sitting under a lamp if they prefer not to hold a light while they are reading.

Flashlight Fridays is really a small thing, that requires no extra prep on my part or unnecessary prizes for reading.  The reading is still the motivator, but the flashlights help them to focus, give them something a little extra to look forward to, and create positive memories associated with reading.  

Yes, Graphic Novels are REAL Books

"My mom told me that I should stop reading comic books and start reading real books.  I told my mom what you told us: that graphic novels ARE real books and I explained to her the difference between them."

Little can make a teacher's heart happier than hearing this from a student in your class.  I have made it my mission over the last few years to have an abundant (and always growing) graphic novel collection in my classroom, and to be sure that my students truly understand what they are.  Yes, there are similarities between graphic novels and the comic books that many of us grew up with.  And yes, when you search "graphic novels" on many websites, most of the search results pop up comic books instead.  There is a real misunderstanding about what graphic novels are and why they are beneficial to students.  Let's talk about a few of them.

1.  "Graphic Novels are just comic books."

Comic books come in a variety of forms and I certainly do not want to disparage them.  I am sure that there are many adults out there that discovered reading as a means to read their favorite comic books.  Reading comics IS a form of reading and I would never discourage a child from choosing to read a comic.  However, graphic novels are not the same as comic books.  Graphic novels are full novels, with accompanying graphics.  Oftentimes they are designed as an alternate version of a book.  My students cannot get enough of the graphic versions of some of the books that I grew up with: The Baby-sitter's Club, Goosebumps, The Boxcar Children.  They also love the graphic novel versions of Ransom Riggs' Miss Peregrine novels.  The books themselves are written for students a bit older than my 4th graders, but the graphic novels allow them to access those stories in a way that is appropriate for them.  And that leads us to the next misconception.

2.  "Graphic Novels aren't real books."

As I discussed in the previous point, graphic novels are true novels.  There are many books out there that were written specifically as graphic novels, and have a complete story and just happen to also have illustrations to accompany the text.  My students are obsessed with anything that Raina Telgemeir writes (Smile, Sisters, Drama, Ghosts) and anything that Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm can put on our shelves (Babymouse, Squish, Sunny Side Up).  Even without the illustrations, these stories would still be engaging stories that my students would love.

What the graphics provide (in addition to incredible visual illustrations) are access to a story that may have previously alluded a child.  I cannot think of a teacher I know that has not hooked a child on reading through the use of graphic novels.  Last year I had a student that wasn't internally motivated to read.  He would read if I asked him to, but he rarely picked up a book if I wasn't standing near him.  One day I introduced him to the first Amulet book.  You would have thought that a whole new world opened up in front of him...and it did.  He read all six Amulet books, and when the seventh came in the mail on release day, it was waiting on his desk the next morning.  He read every graphic novel in my classroom and begged me to buy more on a regular basis.  He became our resident expert on graphic novels, and many that are in my classroom library now can be attributed to him.  A child that read one book during the first half of the school year, read more than thirty in the last few months.

Suddenly he was hooked on reading, and he had access to new worlds.  Now, when I have students that have previously not had access to the same books as their classmates due to their independent reading abilities, I immediately direct them to our graphic novel display.  The colors and illustrations catch their eye and hold their attention.  They are able to finish books more quickly than they have previously so they feel like rockstar readers and incredibly proud of themselves.  Suddenly they are able to read the same books as their friends and they are able to join in on book conversations.  Those shared experiences have created friendships in my classroom that were not there before.

3.  "My child/student shouldn't be reading so many graphic novels.  He/she needs to branch out."

While it may sound like graphic novels are a bit of a gateway book, leading the way to other books, that is not always the case.  Oftentimes students fly through the graphic novels in my classroom, feeling successful and accomplished in reading for the first time, and move onto other, longer novels.  I cannot count how many times this has happened in the last few years.  However, graphic novels are not necessarily something that they leave behind and move on from.  Since graphic novels are true novels with engaging, memorable characters, they always remain part of the reading repertoire.

If I had a student that read nothing but graphic novels, I would be thrilled.  That means they are reading, and they are enjoying what they are reading.  How can I ask for anything more?  Eventually they will discover other series and books that they also enjoy and will begin to read them as well.  As they move through the grades and through their life, they will be introduced to many new worlds and characters.  Reading graphic novels now does not mean they will never read the book that you hope someday they will love.  It just means that they are reading.  End of story.

Overhauling My Classroom Library

I have read all of the research and theories about children's literature and classroom library organization that I can get my hands on.  One theory that I came across, years ago, likened books in a classroom library to products in a grocery store or books in a bookstore.  It talked about how companies paid more to have their products facing forward at eye level in a grocery store, or their books facing outward on the end of the aisle in a bookstore.  They covet these positions because buyers are more likely to pick up the product when they can see the cover of it.  

While I couldn't stand the idea of comparing my students to buyers and our books to products, the theory of books being more appealing when you can see the cover makes sense.  I really took it to heart and set out to begin organizing my books into categories by genre, author, and series.  I bought plastic book baskets for all of my books and labels for each basket.  I numbered each basket with a color-coded sticker, and labeled every book with corresponding stickers.  

The first year that I had my books organized this way, it seemed to go very well.  The library looked nice and the stickered system was organized to a T.  The second year, however, I started to find my students making comments about not being able to find any good books.  I was taken aback and pointed out that we had thousands of books in our classroom.  How could they say that?  I didn't immediately understand where the breakdown was.  

After that school year, I continued my library research and I had an epiphany.  Yes I wanted my library books to be easy to find and appealing to my students, but I also wanted it to have a homey, welcoming feel.  I started thinking about the environments where I feel most comfortable and I immediately thought of a living room or a library.  The problem is that I have never walked into someone's living room or a library and seen their books in book baskets.  Why is that?  Because if they were in book baskets, you wouldn't be able to see all of the books!  I was having the same problem in my classroom. I realized that a lot of my books were never being seen or read. I also couldn't immediately tell if books were out of place because they were shoved into the wrong basket, so my students truly couldn't find books when they were looking for them. All you could really see was the top half of the first book in the basket.  I always thought that showing just the book spines wouldn't be enough to catch a student's eye, but I realized that I was wrong.  Book spines are made to be visually appealing, and the look of a bookshelf full of books always catches my eye, so I bet it would catch my students' eyes as well!

I still have my picture books in baskets because they work well for larger books, but I got rid of all of the baskets for chapter books.  I started putting them onto the shelves with the spine out and immediately felt better.  Suddenly my classroom library felt more like a living room and made me want to sit down and start looking through the books.  I knew it was the right decision.  So I looked around for ways to organize my books and found these simple but fantastic labels from Molly at Lessons with Laughter.   

Printed on Avery labels and applied to book spines

While I know that it might sound cliche, I decided to organize my chapter books alphabetically because it allowed me to keep popular authors and series books together.  It also taught my students how to search for books alphabetically like they would at a school or public library.  This system let my students be in charge of adding new books to our library because they could easily apply a sticker to the spine of each new book.  With this, they felt even more involved and attached to our library and really felt that it belongs to THEM.  That's what we want, isn't it?

I have added a variety of book display easels throughout my classroom in order to continue the idea of showing my students the covers of our books, without every book needing to be facing outward.

Now my books are organized by the author's last name.  I don't require that they be perfectly alphabetical, but the C books do need to be with the other C books, and so on.  I have 2 students in charge of walking around each day and checking that all of the books are in their correct place, which is very simple to see because an out-of-place colored sticker really stands out.  I also have 3-4 students that are our "inventory librarians" because they are responsible for adding new books to our library. (I only have this many librarians because the students BEG to be librarians and because I add SO MANY books!)

After implementing this new system, and ditching my library baskets, I have seen an incredible difference in my students' pride in our classroom library.  Former students are now even more likely to come check out books from my library because they are so enticing and easy to find.  I have been more excited to add new books to our library, and my students have discovered more authors and genres than any previous year.

When you are thinking about the organization of your library, think about the type of environment that YOU would like to spend time in.  What makes you want to pull up a chair and spend time somewhere?  I know that book baskets work for many classrooms, and I am certainly not saying that they are to be abandoned entirely.  However, it is important to reevaluate our choices in our classroom on a regular basis, and sometimes that means making a complete overhaul.  If your students are not as connected to the library as you hoped they would be, or there are books on your shelves that are being overlooked and rarely touched, you might consider shaking things up and finding a whole new way of presenting the books to your students.  Make your library a welcoming, comfortable place, and your students will feel right at home.

Where do you get all of those books? Developing a Classroom Library on a Teacher's Budget.

It would be difficult to walk into my classroom without recognizing that there seem to be books everywhere.  What started out as one library corner of the room, has evolved into the entire classroom feeling a bit more like a library.  (No complaints here!)

My students, and fellow teachers, are always asking me where I get all of those books.  As we all know, money is not always plentiful in the teaching profession, so we learn to be master budget shoppers, and I have certainly developed a routine for buying the books that my students love.  I wanted to share some of my favorite places to buy books for my classroom library.

Library Sales - Seriously, fellow teachers, these are the places to go.  I stalk the library sale ads like they were the good Easter candy on sale after the holiday.  I have never found a place that offers so many great books for such unbelievably cheap prices. Of course this will vary wildly depending on where you live, but they are certainly worth checking out. Our library used to only sell old books that they could no longer keep in circulation. A few years ago, however, they started taking donations from people in the community, and suddenly it was a game changer.

I often buy books that look brand-new for 25 or 50 cents.  I buy multiple copies of books for our classroom Book Clubs, and I even buy audiobooks to use during silent reading.  I typically leave with anywhere between 50-100 books, and I usually do the same the next night.  I always hit up the library sales in my town, but I have started looking at the surrounding cities as well, and they have proven to be well worth the drive.  My husband often has to go with me just to help carry my extra boxes to the car.  My students LOVE when I get back from a library sale!

Thrift Stores - You always want to check out your local thrift stores, like Goodwill, Salvation Army, or Savers.  Whatever you happen to have in your town.  I typically find good chapter books from anywhere between 50 cents and $1.50 per book. It can add up quickly if you buy like I do, but just think about how much you would be spending if you were buying at a bookstore!

Half Price Books - If you do not have Half Price Books in your area, I just have a few words for you: I am SO sorry.  If I could live at a HPB, I think that I would.  I would say that the majority of the books in my classroom library have come from here.  When they closed down our local HPB a few years ago, I was truly devastated.  I still get sad when I drive by that building.  Luckily, though, there are 3 other locations within about an hour's drive.  Let's just say, that stretch of the highway is familiar with my car.  

If you are going to travel to a Half Price Books, I want to make one huge suggestion: hit the clearance aisle FIRST.  Every store that I have been to has had a clearance aisle, and there has always been a children's section.  I spend the majority of my time in this section because the books are typically only $1. I can't tell you how many times I have seen the same book, same edition, in the same condition, in another area of the store for considerably more money, so always check the clearance section first. 

Another great thing about HPB is that they offer a 10% teacher discount card, so most of the books that I buy for my classroom cost me 90 cents.  Not too shabby.

Garage Sales - These can be very hit or miss, of course, but I have found some absolute steals at garage sales.  Earlier this year I found 80+ classic Goosebumps books at a garage sale for $20 and I thought my students' eyes were going to pop out of their heads the next morning. Last year I got almost the entire Geronimo Stilton series, all read only one time, for practically nothing. One time I was buying books and when the woman found out that I was a teacher spending my own money, she gave me all the books that I had in my hand for free.  It may not be something that I do every week, but I have been amazed at what I could find when I take the time to hunt for it.

Donors Choose - I have only done one Donors Choose project in my career, but I was able to get the entire collection of Julia Cook social skills books for my classroom, and those have proven to be invaluable to my students.  My next project is going to be for graphic novels.  I cannot wait!

I hope that you will be able to use these ideas to find new books for your classroom without having to spend the money you planned to use on food or electricity this month.  If you have other ideas for finding reasonably priced books on a teacher's budget, I would love to hear about it!

Author Spotlight

An Author Spotlight is a simple and effective way to introduce your students to new authors throughout the year. In addition to reading a variety of books to your students and consistently talking to them about books and authors of course, visually highlighting authors on a regular basis is another way to display the importance of reading widely in your classroom.

Author Spotlight: Gary Paulsen

Each month or so, on top of a bookshelf in my classroom library, I display a new author. I do my best to alternate between authors that my students may have heard of, and those that they most likely have not. At times they may know a book or series by this author, but not be aware of who wrote it. Other times, they may know the author's most popular, or most recent, of books, but this proves to be a wonderful time for me to introduce them to other books by the same author that they would also enjoy.

Author Spotlight: Kate DiCamillo

With a simple construction paper display, a few picture easels, and some velcro to change the names out regularly, I can introduce my students to a new author with only a minute or so of work. When the students arrive the next day, they are always ecstatic to see which author has been chosen this month. I make it very clear that they may check out any of the books on display, as their reading is the utmost priority. I simply place another book by the author in the newly empty space. That way, the students are reading, and a larger number of books can be displayed.

Author Spotlight: Henry Winkler

Another option would be to let the students choose the new author with each rotation. It would give them a great opportunity to scour the books in the library and possibly find a new series or author that they themselves did not previously know. You could even ask them to do simple research about the author before presenting him or her to the class.

Author Spotlight: Roald Dahl

The Author Spotlight can be easily modified to accommodate any grade level, from preschool through high school.  Any student's attention can be drawn to the display with only a simple change of author. For younger students, Dr. Seuss or Eric Carl may present them with a colorful display to draw their eye toward books.  For older students, authors such as James Baldwin or Toni Morrison would help students find new books by the authors that they already love. 

If you create an Author Spotlight display in your classroom, I would love to see it! You can tag me on instagram at @missmartinsclassroom.  

On My Bookshelf: Moon Over Manifest

Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool is one of those books that you want to carry around with you everywhere, on the off chance that you have a brief extra minute to read.  I transferred it from my purse, to my coffee table, to my nightstand, to my desk at school until I had finished it.  I realized that I never wanted it to be too far away from me because I always wanted to be reading it.  It only took 10 pages for me to consciously say to myself "well, I am hooked."

As an upper elementary teacher, I find that I appreciate stories with main characters that are around the age of my students.  I enjoy reading about life experiences from a 9, 10, or 11 year old child.  Abilene Tucker, however, is different than other characters I have read about.  She isn't your average child that goes to school, argues with her best friend, and comes home.  She is a child with a unique view on the world.  She has lived a life that most of our children have not.  She has hopped trains across the country, going to church services and other events just so they could eat.  She lives a transient life with her father, always being the new student at school, and developing her own list of "universals" about the world.  The one thing that has always remained constant, though, in her ever-changing world, is her father, Gideon.  When he sends her to Manifest without him, to stay with someone that she has never met, she spends the summer wondering who her father really is and if he will ever come back for her.

She is a child that students can relate to and who they can learn from.  While seeing the world through her eyes, she creates a world in Manifest that I couldn't wait to pick back up and be a part of.  I wanted to know who The Rattler was and if Gideon would be returning.  I wanted to hear the story that Sadie would tell next.  I wanted to travel back to 1936 and 1918 and be a part of that town.  

While I read, I thought of several students that would immediately take to this story.  They would relate to Abilene and would revel in the history of the town of Manifest and the United States at that time.  Any child that has felt a little lost or abandoned, or has often been the "new kid."  Anyone that has moved frequently and struggles to form connections to others because he or she will most likely be leaving again soon anyway.  Anyone that appreciates historical fiction or even is from a small town like Manifest.  This is a book that I would highly recommend be sitting on the shelf of every classroom grades 3 and up, and the nightstand of every teacher.

Camp Read-a-Lot

The Benefits of Camp Read-a-Lot

One of my favorite traditions in my classroom every year is our Camp Read-a-Lot day.  We work all year to develop reading habits and a love of reading, and this day almost seems like a celebration of that.  We know that we don't need a thematic day to love reading, but why not mix it up sometimes?  Why not create one more positive association with reading that the students will always remember?

Setting Up Camp Read-a-Lot in the Classroom

Each year I tell my students that they may bring a pillow, a blanket or sleeping bag, and one flashlight.  They always look at me slightly wary, as if they cannot believe that I am letting them bring all of these things.  What they don't expect is that I will go all out for our big day.  They don't expect to walk into the classroom and see a large tent, seemingly reaching the ceiling, taking up most of the space of our classroom library.

Our tent for Camp Read-a-Lot: It makes quite an impression!

You certainly do not have to go as far as I do to create a memorable day, but I do believe that the more out-of-the-ordinary touches that you can integrate, the more memorable it will be.  My goal is to create memories...positive memories and the kind that involve reading.  

In addition to the large tent, I also cover our classroom tables with plastic red-and-white checkered tablecloths and set out lanterns and cast iron skillets full of goodies.  If you can, create some type of campfire in the middle of the classroom.  If you can use lights to make it really glow, that is great, but if you cannot, simple construction paper also creates a great campfire look.  

The Structure of Camp Read-a-Lot in the Classroom

When the students first arrive, their mouths drop open and they realize that this is going to be a very different day.  I tell them that we will have a set number of students in the tent at a time (depending on the size of your tent - I typically have 6 at a time in mine) and that we will rotate throughout the day.  Rest assured that the tent flaps are always open and I can see into the tent from any angle so every student is always being supervised. I choose our first set of students to be in the tent, and everyone else finds a place to lay out their pillows and sleeping bags.  They gather the books they would like to read that day and get comfortable next to their friends.  The excitement just radiates through the classroom.

We lay and read for a while with our friends before I start passing out the first snack.  I love to gather a variety of camping-related treats for the day that also don't break the bank for me.  Typically the first snack I pass out is a small baggie of goldfish crackers with a couple of gummy worms thrown in.  Sometimes I staple a cute saying to the top of the baggie about fish and worms and the kids really get a kick out of it.  I typically give them some more time to read and discuss their books with their friends before we start having to leave for specials and lunch.

The first of our day's camping-themed snacks.

When we come back, I like to do campfire story time.  We gather around our fake campfire, turn out the lights, and get out a couple of flashlights.  I start out reading a scary story to the class and then I pass the flashlight over to another student.  We go around until several, or possibly all, of the students have gotten a chance to read.  My favorite books to read from at this time are the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books from when we were kids. The students love them too!  If you can, it is also fun to project a video of a campfire from YouTube to create the sound effects and lighting of a campfire.  Creating this ambiance is certainly something you could have going all day, or just save it for the campfire story time and nighttime reading.

As we finish and get settled back into our sleeping bags and I rotate students that are in the tent, I usually pass out the next snack.  This is often a small baggie of trail mix with a note attached that says something cutsie like "On the Trail."  We read until we have to leave the room again, usually for recess.

Later in the afternoon it is time for our nighttime reading.  The students get out their flashlights and I usually pass out those colorful little "finger lights" that you can buy in packages at dollar stores or other department stores.  The kids LOVE them.  We turn out the lights and the kids read by flashlight, by themselves or to a friend.  For some reason flashlights make everything more exciting!  Around this time I usually start making our last camping treat of the day.  Can you guess what it is?

Nighttime reading with flashlights and "finger lights!"

S'mores, of course!  Since our campfire is actually made out of paper, we simply make them in the microwave. Regardless, the kids still think they are pretty amazing.  Eating s'mores while you lay in a sleeping bag and read by flashlight is the kind of thing that creates memories.  

In Your Classroom

You certainly do not have to structure your day like I do mine.  In fact, you may have fantastic ideas of how to improve the day!  I would love to hear your new ideas.  If you do not have access to a tent (I borrow mine from my sister so it costs me nothing) then you can create your own reading areas in your classroom.  Drape blankets over tables to create tent-like areas or hang decorations on the walls of tents, campfires, and moons.  Anything out of the ordinary will be exciting for the students.

The most important part is to structure the day around reading.  Have the students read independently and with a friend, read aloud a scary story to the class with spooky expression, listen to you read fluently, and discuss books with their friends.  You could have your class write scary poems in the week leading up to Camp Read-a-Lot and share them by the campfire with the class in a modified poetry slam.  You could invite parents or other teachers, or even the principal, in to model fluency by reading scary stories to the students.  Float around to the various "campsites" (groups of students) and talk with them about what they are reading while you recommend new books when they finish theirs.  This year I plan to have computers set out for students to write reviews on our class book blog when they finish a book (more on our book blog in a later post!) 

If you center your day around reading, and you create excitement with sleeping bags, flashlights, tents, and camping snacks, you are sure to create engagement in reading as well.  What more could a teacher want?