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Letting Students Sort It Out

by Lyssa Sahadevan
 | Dec 16, 2014
photo credit: BarbaraLN via photopin cc

I have a slight addiction to books and my first graders take advantage of this on a regular basis. They bat their little eyelashes and say things like, “Man, I wish we had more cowgirl books” or “I noticed on the back of this book that there are more in the series.” This kind of talk and book love leads to a wish list that never ends!

When new books arrive, we gather on the carpet and I hold up each book, sharing why it was chosen for our classroom collection. Reasons include special requests, a popular topic amongst our readers, a book I just knew someone would love because they loved a similar book, amazing illustrations, a missing book from a series, etc. We then discuss where the books should live so we can easily find them.  This is where things become interesting.

When we received a biography about President Obama, I posed the question, “Where should this book about our President live?” One student said, “I think it should go in the famous people tub because he is famous.” Someone else chimed in, “It should go in the biography basket because that is where the other president books are.” The first student agreed and they placed it in the biography tub.

Things do not always settle that easily, though!

Bella and Rosie are two of our favorite dogs, but when we received two of their books about the holidays, a heated discussion ensued. The class was almost completely divided between placing the books in the Bella and Rosie tub or the holidays tub. “If I’m wanting a Halloween story, it would be nice to know there is a Bella and Rosie one.”—Team Holiday Tub “All Bella and Rosie books should go together. Bottom line.”—Team Bella and Rosie. “Maybe we can just get two copies.”—Team Middle. The books ended up being placed in the Bella and Rosie tub because “that is what we do with like characters.” My readers took care of it!

My students have ownership of our library because they helped create it. We start the year deciding which books go together. I have quite a few baskets that I have developed, but I devote time during our readers workshop block early in the year to allow students to dive in, make decisions, and set up our library for the year. We gather on the carpet and sort informational books into piles. These piles will eventually become baskets so readers can easily find books of interest. I always have a few ideas in mind (and only a certain number of baskets,) but as usual, there are surprises. The animal book pile was huge this year. They started dividing the pile into National Geographic Kids, sea life, pets, etc. I praised their efforts (and prepared to purchase additional baskets) and we then moved on to other nonfiction treasures. “Some of these books just don’t fit anywhere.”  I agreed and asked them what we could do with those misfit books. It was determined we needed a spot for “nonfiction books about anything” and so that is what we have. Every time I see this basket, I smile.

Devoting this time to our library hones organizational skills, builds our sense of classroom community, sets the tone that our environment is a safe place to disagree and compromise. It encourages both speaking and listening, as well as decision making. All of this happens while readers are exploring new books that will one day be their perfect read!

Our library has books sorted by genre, topic, author, level, and size—yes, we have one basket just for oversized books. It works for my class and it works every year. It also changes every year and that’s OK. While many will debate how books should be sorted or what percentage should be labeled or not, I think the most valuable piece of a classroom library is student involvement. All of the rest just sorts itself out!

Lyssa Sahadevan is a 13-year teaching veteran and is now teaching the first grade at East Side Elementary School in Marietta, GA. She graduated from the University of South Alabama with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and earned a master’s degree as a reading specialist. She also holds an education specialist certification in curriculum and instruction.

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  1. A greatful parent | Jul 23, 2016
    Best thing to happen to both of my kids, for totally different reasons, was to have Lyssa Sahadevan as their first grade teacher.  The foundation in reading, life skills and being themselves that she provided continues to be built upon, even as they enter middle school.  This exercise is a perfect example of how she builds skills while validating their ability to think for themselves. 

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