Surviving and Thriving in the Stacks

Spending the Friday after Midterm Exams browsing the stacks of the school library looking for books seems like a dream come true, right?  It sounded pretty good to me.  However, this endeavor met with mixed responses from my students.  It ranged from:

“Wait, you’re telling me we get to spend the entire period looking for books?  This is AWESOME!”


“Wait, you’re telling me that we have to spend the entire period looking for books?  You have got to be kidding.”

True to sterotypical form, my 9th grade honors students spent the entire 40+ minutes deep within the stacks.  They were often seen sprawled on the floor (on their stomachs even), a sampling of books spread around them like a reading rainbow as they carefully chose 10-15 titles that they would like to delve into.  They constantly offered suggestions to their classmates and would call out to me when they had found an interesting title or an old favorite. One girl, giddy with excitement, poked her face through the stacks and loudly whispered, “I’m in my happy place!” It was pure bliss.

And, true to sterotypical form, getting my regular 11th graders to stay in the stacks and actually look for books was like herding cats.  They tried so hard to be anywhere else – literally anywhere else.  They asked to use the bathroom, escaped to nearby tables, pretended to use the digital card catalog, they even tried to take selfies.  Some juniors were not able to come up with five books they wanted to read.  One girl wrote down the titles of the first ten books she came across just to complete the task.  She had no vested interest in actually trying. One boy was done with his list within ten minutes.  When I asked him why he finished so quickly he replied, “I went to the Literature Cirlce display and picked out all the thin ones.” “Well, are you interested in the content of those books at all?” I asked. “Sure.  Yeah,” he mumbled. End of conversation.  Clearly I have my work cut out for me here.

However, what I saw happening in both classes, across grades and across academic levels, was that a lot of students really didn’t know where to start looking for books.  Very few knew what type of books they enjoyed reading.  I think the vast majority of them had not read for pleasure in years.  Honors freshmen remorsefully cited a lack of time, and my juniors were honest in saying that they simply lacked the motivation to read on their own.  Because of this, the books students had read recently (if they had read anything all) were the ones placed into their hands by teachers as part of the curriculum. They were given books that adults had decided upon and because this was all the literature they were passing their eyes over, students honestly didn’t know what interested them. They had not developed a taste for literature like they have developed a taste in music. Ask any teen out there what type of music they like and they can rattle off the names of songs, bands, and genres effortlessly. Ask them the name of their favorite book or authors they enjoy and they stare at you like a deer in headlights.

So, we had to start at the beginning with the basics:

  • Pick up a book that seems interesting (I know, I know, don’t judge a book by its cover but we have to start somewhere)
  • Read the back page to see if the book is about a topic that you might enjoy.
  • Read 1-3 pages to gauge the difficulty and see if you like the author’s style.

I was shocked at how many students were at a loss for where to begin their search, and that there were a handful of them in each of my freshman honors classes. With my 9th graders, I dealt with this on a case by case basis, helping a boy who had moved from Ecuador, a girl who said she didn’t know what she wanted, and a boy who kept gravitating towards books that were well below his reading level. In my junior classes, I grabbed students in groups of five and did impromptu mini-lessons starting with the three bullets above.  I discovered that they could not use the library catalog effectively because they could not perform a key word search.   Then, once they found a book they liked on the screen, they had no idea where to locate it in the library. “What are all of these numbers with dots?” one girl asked. I found myself explaining call numbers and how the fiction and nonfiction stacks were organized. I even had to point out the circulation desk – some of them had managed to go through two and a half years of high school without ever having checked out a book.

However, I consider our trip to the library a grand success. At the end of each period, every student had a book in hand that he or she had checked out of the library.  We are lucky enough to be able to partner with our librarians and have been granted a cart of library books to take to our room that we can check out to our students.  So, once someone had completed their “To Read” list and checked out a book, I asked them to put one or two books from their “To Read” list onto my cart.  By the last class, students had filled up five of the six rows on the library cart with books that they were interested in reading.

So, now the work in class begins.  I need to move my reticent readers from surving to thriving. I want to bring back the joy of reading for them. On the other end of the spectrum, I need to keep my voracious readers hungry and wanting more. I need to find a way to rekindle the love of books from elementary school so that students believe, once again, that books can be “a uniquely portable magic.”



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