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!