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Organizing a Classroom Nonfiction Library with Students

Andrea Smith

I will be honest with you. I am not a shopper. I do not like strolling through malls, hunting for bargains at outlet shops, or spending extended time under the fluorescent lights of department stores or chain boutiques. Yet I can hold my own at the supermarket, the pet store, or my local garden center. Why? I enjoy cooking, so the organized layout of the grocery store helps me quickly find what I need for weekly meals with room for seasonal extras. I am checking out with groceries in less than 30 minutes. When I visit the garden center, I know just where to look to find the right plants for my home's sunny outdoor gardens or indoor houseplants that can thrive in my classroom or home. I visit the pet store at least once a week because I have more pets than I care to name. I have a mental store map that I follow so I can swoop in, gather feeding supplies for the critters, and get out before my daughter discovers one more animal that needs a home with us.

What have I learned from my retail reflections? I discovered why certain stores appeal to me, and certain stores make me want to rush to the nearest exit and go home. The elements of personal interests, my shopping needs and purposes, and the organization of certain stores help me locate what I want and what I really need. I need shopping to be easy, fun, and fast on my terms. These same three design principles used in such crafty ways by retailers can also be applied to classroom libraries. My shopping attitude has helped me design a user-friendly classroom library that supports developing readers.

The design elements of organization, purpose, and interest help children as they search for books. More specifically, these design elements can organize the nonfiction section of a classroom library, supporting students' book selections, while sustaining their interests as they explore new areas of informational reading. Reflecting on my shopping life showed me how my classroom library can make a tremendous difference in how students select books, especially when they are exploring new nonfiction options.

Inequities in Classroom Libraries

I have been lucky enough to tour many classrooms during my 20+ years of teaching. I often quietly notice the design inequities of many classroom libraries. Teachers spend a great deal of time organizing and labeling the fiction and poetry sections of their classroom libraries, creating areas of interest with clear organizational elements in place.

However, when you look at the nonfiction offerings in the same classrooms, it is as if the teachers ran out of time and energy and placed all of the nonfiction books on a shelf or shelves without any organization or interest factors in mind. Searching for a particular book on these nonfiction shelves is like sifting through a one-acre site while hunting for fossils. Paleontologists have reasons to scrape away bits of dirt looking for fossils and other prehistoric treasures. They know what they hope to find and they have a reason to persevere.

Can we ask kids to be as patient as a paleontologist? For many children, they are just beginning to consider nonfiction resources as possible choices in their reading lives. They may not have experienced many informational reading opportunities in the primary grades. Intermediate children often have strong areas of interests such as soccer heroes, horses, or extreme weather events. Young nonfiction shoppers are often looking for "just the right resource." Sifting and sorting through a bookshelf, as if they are visiting a flea market, can lead to frustration.

I know how kids feel when faced with a packed shelf of nonfiction books lacking organization and areas of interest. When I stand at the entrance of a trendy boutique with loud club music and a perfume overload drifting over shoppers, peering inside the fashion cavern of darkness mixed with black lights and strobe lights, lots of glitter and a tornado design of clothing racks, the overload makes me stop . . . and walk away. I just do not know where to begin my shopping experience in a store like that. Kids viewing a disorganized nonfiction library face the same challenges, and retreating to the familiar side of the classroom's fiction library is a viable option for kids.

Yet retreat is not an option. Teachers want to support students' informational reading lives, so paying attention to organization, purpose, and interests is critical. Nonfiction deserves the same design time as fiction and poetry. Teachers can also capitalize on these elements of classroom design to simplify and expedite setting up and maintaining an organized, appealing, and inspiring classroom library.

Getting Organized with an Assist from Students

Visiting teachers and new students often ask me why and how I created my nonfiction library's format. They notice the four distinct areas of our nonfiction library, and I emphasize how the library's organization helps me as I efficiently plan units of study. The clearly labeled book tubs are evident, and I note how the labels focus my work with students as we search for special books during reading workshop and research projects. I point out that sturdy book tubs, library signs and book tub labels are helpful tools my students use as they independently find their favorite topics. I finally confess that I cannot take credit for the library's format. The highly specific book labels were happily created during an unexpected, unplanned teaching discovery as students helped me react to a teacher-nightmare moment. Here's what happened.

The year that I changed jobs and moved from my former school to my current school was hectic. I moved from a primary to an intermediate classroom. I moved from an urban to a suburban school. In addition to the job changes, my family and I moved into a new house. It was the summer of boxes.

Materials were moved for me by custodial staff between the schools. In the process, all of my nonfiction books were lost for a few weeks during the move, and finally showed up in the district warehouse. When they were located at last, I had only one day to organize the 40 boxes of books. I made a few quick calls to my new students that I'd met during our "Meet the Teacher" event earlier in the week. I was able to recruit five available kids, and they arrived the next day at 9 a.m. willing to help me get the nonfiction library arranged with the promise of pizza at lunch and the power to control the music on the radio. With pop music bouncing through the room, we got to work.

The kids studied the mountain of 40 boxes and we formed a plan. Two of us would unpack boxes, and another two would sort them into major science categories. The fifth student would work with me to divide books into smaller categories, such as placing the pile of life science books into subcategories. Within the four major categories of Life Science, Physical Science, Earth Science, and Our World, we would figure out a way to sort and label books into book tubs complete with helpful topic labels.

The boxes were jumbled in the middle of the room, and we sorted them into four different corners of the room, one for each category. Once the mass of books were broken into four groups, kids worked in teams to sort the categories into waiting book tubs and the kids wrote labels on post-it notes, marking each bin with temporary labels. We made tremendous progress by noon.

As we ate lunch, chatting about life, books, and our summers, the kids started flipping through the piles, calling out ideas for book tub categories. The major sorting was over, and now it was time to get picky. With renewed energy, the kids and I rifled through the four categories and developed book tubs and labels.

Here are some snippets of conversations we had that afternoon. As we looked at a pile of biographies, I chatted with a serious boy. "I don't like an alphabetized shelf of biographies," said Ryan. "I like to know how these people are important to us. The names don't always mean that much to me until after I read a book. I would read more biographies if I could easily find books about famous scientists." I agreed with Ryan and he got to work, sorting biographies into categories such as Famous Athletes, Famous Scientists, Famous Artists and Important Leaders.

Faced with a monstrous pile of animal and habitat books, two girls developed a plan. "I love animals, but especially farm animals," commented Heather as she sorted through animal books with Danielle. "Really? I like rainforest animals better . . . hey Mrs. Smith, why don't we put rainforest and rainforest animals together in one tub? This big tub would hold the pile of books perfectly," explained Danielle. "Why don't we sort all of the animal books by habitats and animals . . . it sure would make it easier to find what we like to read," added Heather as she counted out the number of tubs they would need.

"Don't you think Seymour Simon is the coolest writer? He should get his own tub," said Owen, flipping through a beautifully photographed book about wolves. I gave him a stack of my favorite Steve Jenkins books and watched Owen's eyes light up. "Cool Science Writers!" exclaimed Owen. We happily sorted piles of favorite nonfiction writers into an Outstanding Science Writers tub.

And so went our book conversations that afternoon. What started as an emergency unpacking session with a few kids turned into a teaching moment, and I was the learner. Designing the library with students gave me a priceless opportunity to listen to children. Our conversations resulted in a new, powerful, and productive view of our nonfiction library. I started with four major nonfiction categories and we refined the sorting process together, creating a system that meant something to children. Often our adult point of view is limited, and we need kids' ideas to ground us in the fact that a classroom library is for children who are shopping for books. I now had a library that matches the way kids would go about looking for books. I wanted an enticing library that would be noticed, and made sense to children and the way they viewed books. The kids' library ideas were the bridge connecting my goals to a functioning library that would encourage kids to read nonfiction.

I keep this experience with me each year as I plan, organize, and introduce our classroom library to students. I remember the thrill of discovering favorite topics, writers, and ways of sorting books on that emergency library day. I take that same energy with me as I explore our library on the very first day of school.

Sample Classroom Library Signs and Book Tub Labels

Life Science

The Life Science section of our library is broken into major categories. The biggest section of our Life Science library is organized by different habitats and animal categories. Here are the major sections:

• North America: Habitats on Land

• North America: Fresh Water Habitats

• North American Animals: Two bookshelves are dedicated to the kinds of animals kids would encounter in their local or North American lives.

• Local Animals in our Backyards

• Domestic Animals: Pets and Farm Animals

• Classroom Pets

• North American Mammals

• Bears and Wolves

• Insects

• Arachnids

• Turtles

• Birds: General Information

• Birds: Local Birds of Interest

• Birds: Birds of Prey

• Animal Babies

• Big Cats

• Animal Homes

• Endangered Animals

• Animal Adaptations: Camouflage, Body Design, and Senses

• Animal Adaptations: Behaviors, Migration, and Hibernation

• Body Parts, Camouflage, Special Features

• Animal Tracks and Signs

• The Animals of Oceania (Australia, New Zealand, and Neighbors): Marsupials

• Africa: African Habitats and African Animals

• South America: Rainforest Habitats and Rainforest Animals

• Deserts: Desert Habitats and Desert Animals

• Arctic Habitats

• Arctic Animals

• The Ocean: Habitats on the Shore and In The Sea

• Ocean Life: Fish and Sharks

• Ocean Life: Other Ocean Creatures

• Ocean Life: Ocean Mammals


• Trees

• Plants and Seeds

• Flowers

• Gardening

The Human Body:

• Body Systems And How They Work

• The Five Senses And How They Help Us

• Germs and Illness

• Wonder Questions About The Human Body

Physical Science

• Energy

• Forces

• Inventions

• Experiments


• Vehicles Around Town (cars, trucks and motorcycles)

• Trains

• Airplanes

• Boats

Earth Sciences

• Our Earth: Rocks and Minerals

• Our Living Earth: Land Forms and Geologic Events

• The Solar System

• Stars

• Earth and Its Moon

• Space Travel and Astronauts

• Weather: Weather Forecasting and Extreme Weather

• Seasons

• Water: The Water Cycle and Water Changes The Earth

• Dinosaurs

Our World

The section of our library marked "Our World" is filled with books about people, where they live, and what we might discover about their daily lives. The purpose of this library section is to study our own lives, and learn about the lives of our global neighbors.

• Maps

• Ohio History

• United States History

• Cultures From Around The World

• Food From Around the World

• Languages and Translating Dictionaries

• Folk Tales From Around the World

• Immigration

• Special Buildings and Special Places

• Biographies: Leaders Who Changed Our Lives

• Biographies: Scientists

• Biographies: Artists, Writers, and Musicians

• Biographies: Athletes

• Important Issues and Challenges (Oil Spills, Pollution, Recycling)

Nonfiction Series

Even though many titles could be integrated into our topic tubs, I like to store some books as a series whenever it is possible. These series create familiar structures for developing readers, and they like to find nonfiction books with predictable elements. These are some of our favorite series.

Life Cycles series by David Schwartz

How and Why series

Look Once - Look Again series by David Schwartz

• Exploring Habitats

• Exploring Animals and Plants

Magic School Bus series

Magic Tree House series

Adventures of Riley series 

One Small Square series

Nonfiction Author Tubs

I group these talented authors together so students and I can explore the craft of these writers, or use their books for research and pleasure reading. Here are some of our favorite nonfiction authors and illustrators.

• Seymour Simon

• April Pulley-Sayre

• Steve Jenkins

• Anthony Fredericks

• Christopher Canyon

• Jeanette Canyon

• Lynne Cherry

• Chad Wallace


Andrea Smith

For the past 30 years, Andrea Smith has learned with children in Texas, Colorado, and Indiana before finally landing in Ohio. Her third and fourth graders spark a new energy for teaching, and she is grateful to spend each school day with so many fascinating learners.