Ms. Barry’s classroom library sets the pace for CPS

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A few minutes before the final bell, Alberto Garcia stands by a book tree in his 1st-grade classroom, hurriedly riffling through books of all shapes and sizes. His face is solemn, his eyes intent. Suddenly he grabs a book about sharks and breaks into a smile. “Cool, look at this shark book!” he exclaims.

But his satisfaction is short-lived.

“You took that two times,” classmate Amanda Maynez accuses.

“You want it?” Alberto asks earnestly.

“Yeah,” she says, and he gives it to her. Book in hand, she returns happily to her seat, and Alberto goes off in search of another. He has lots of choices.

Stacked in book trees, spread in wicker baskets and plastic crates, standing on tables and easels, more than 1,000 books sprawl across the west wall of his classroom, Room 104 in Jungman Elementary in Pilsen. Facing the door, the enormous classroom library calls to all who enter.

The placement is deliberate. “The library is the focus of my room,” says teacher Anne Barry, who began assembling it a decade ago. “The room is set up to make the books welcoming.”

Barry’s library offers a model for those being set up in kindergarten and primary-grade classrooms across the city under a new Chicago Public School reading initiative. To get kids hooked on books, the School Board has allocated more than $3 million—$500 for each of 6,500 classrooms—for classroom libraries. It has organized mandatory workshops for school librarians on how to select titles and how to put together and manage classroom libraries. Workshop participants, in turn, have held mandatory two-hour training sessions for the teachers receiving the books.

Barry’s personal advice is to include a wide variety of genres and levels of difficulty, to allow students to choose books themselves and to provide time for children to listen to teacher-selected books in “read aloud” sessions. Using these strategies, Barry has woven her library into her reading instruction, making it an integral part of her literacy program.

It is the beginning of December, and Barry has just changed the library’s décor, replacing a fall table arrangement with a Christmas tree poster mounted above books like “Too Many Tamales” and “Kwanza: An African American Holiday.” Varying the library’s look and showcasing seasonal titles are two ways Barry tempts students to read.

She also enlists a wide variety of genres and reading levels, both to respect students’ interests and to challenge them. “You really need a well-rounded school library,” she explains. “It can’t be all narrative.”

“Gimmicky” books, those with flaps, pouches and other interactive novelties, and joke books also are in the mix—and highly popular, she says.

Allowing students to choose for themselves also fosters enthusiasm. “They beg [to choose],” she says.

Barry monitors her students’ choices; if she sees a student consistently borrowing books that are too difficult or too easy, she gently encourages more appropriate choices. But she also allows children the enjoyment of fluidly reading something on the easy side.

Habit ensures that the books get returned. Every afternoon, 15 minutes or so before the final bell, Barry’s 20 students fan out over the library to choose a book to take home. The next morning, each child places his book on his desk as Barry takes attendance; that way, she needs only to glance around the room to see if any child has left a book at home. At first, Barry keeps track of which book goes home with which student, but the need for record keeping soon disappears.

“We’re at the point where I don’t even write the book down, they just put it on their desks,” Barry says. “They’re really good at it because it’s a high expectation. They’re a well-oiled machine.”

Children have so much contact with the library—at least an hour a day—that it doesn’t take long for them to become familiar with its organization, which groups books both by theme and by genre. Each morning, they immediately hone in on where their returning books belong.

Barry cites “read aloud” as her most important tool. “How else can you entice kids to read?” she asks. “It’s one of the biggest ways you can get them to use a library and whet their appetite to read many books [of] different genres.” Students often ignore a book until she reads it out loud, she says.

A CPS teacher for 29 years, Barry first brought in books from the school library, but the students were not allowed to take them home. As grant money came through over the years, she was able to purchase her own books.

The children let her know when her library is working. “I … heard today, ‘I love to read. Boy, I love reading!'” says Barry. “That’s my goal.”