During my time as a high school teacher, one of the greatest challenges was keeping my classroom library fresh—the process of acquiring the latest books while also replacing lost and worn-out ones. My school supplied only modest funding for this, so if teachers wanted to have the newest high-interest books in our classrooms, we had to accomplish this task mostly on our own—a scenario that, unfortunately, isn’t out of the ordinary.
The urban public school where I worked did manage to keep a steady supply of books, but book deserts are a sad reality at under-resourced public schools where libraries have been closed and funding cuts have reduced the flow of independent-reading books into classrooms.
Jarred Amato, an English teacher at a public high school in Nashville, made it a mission to greatly expand his classroom library several years ago. His quest—which was ultimately successful—was to stock his room with more diverse books, ones that reflected the identities and lives of the students whom he was teaching. “All students deserve access to great books,” Amato says.
Amato offers the following advice for fellow teachers looking to bolster and diversify the book collections in their classrooms.
First, work closely with your students to make a list of “fly off the shelves” books. Dedicate classroom time to researching and discussing the suggestions. You want to identity the most relevant and relatable books for your students.
Meet with your principal or school leadership team and share your vision for bringing more classroom library books to your school. Schools often work to find money in their budget to purchase books. Asking is step one, Amato explains, and you may be pleasantly surprised.
Next, get your book list out to family, friends, and the community. Share it with everyone. You can make an Amazon wish list with all the titles so it will be easy for folks to select a book and send it your way. When I was teaching, I would share my wish list with friends and family and ask them to buy books for my classroom library in lieu of birthday gifts. Amato strongly suggests that teachers searching for budget-friendly books also visit First Book, a nonprofit that works to bring books and other educational materials to children in need.
When funding or book donations come in, Amato says, teachers should be sure to have students write thank you notes and consider taking photos of students reading or posing with the books. This acknowledges the gift, and also works to continue the connection and community building.
Networking With Others—Project LIT
On his journey to provide his students access to more and better books, in 2016 Amato started a grassroots network of teachers and students that he named Project LIT. In his words, Project LIT is “a growing group of passionate teachers and students who are committed to flooding our schools and communities with diverse books.”
Those who join Project LIT and set up a chapter at their school connect with a community of educators across the country who are ready to offer support and inspiration. Currently, there are nearly 1,000 chapters across 47 states. According to Amato, some of the ways the teachers in the network collaborate include recommending books, swapping or sharing books, and boosting one another’s DonorsChoose.org projects. Teachers in the network also seek local grants, Amato says, and share with each other their successes and resources for winning grants.
Beyond bringing more books to classrooms, Project LIT teachers and students collaborate to do the following:
- Inspire and support one another through sharing of lesson plans, resources, strategies, and book recommendations.
- Create opportunities for students to connect with peers around the country in reading groups.
- Advocate for policies and practices that will help students become lifelong readers and leaders.
- Champion and celebrate daily reading.
Through networking with like-minded colleagues, teachers can learn how to better inspire their students to read independently, creating or enhancing a culture of choice reading among those students. As Amato says of the Project LIT community, “While we come from elementary and high schools, urban and rural districts, we’re unified in our belief that this is the work that matters.”